PART 13 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’
THIS passage begins with one of the most puzzling enigmas of life. In verses 15-18 the Preacher describes some of the injustices that he has observed in this world plagued by human sinfulness.
The righteous, the Preacher observes, perishes in his righteousness while the wicked flourishes and enjoys a long life. This observation is reminiscent of that of the psalmist, who complained that the “wicked and ruthless man flourishes like a green tree” (Ps 37:35). Such injustices often put to the test even those who pro-fess to have faith in God. As the psalmist testifies, when he tries to understand life’s enigmas, he found them to be oppressive (Ps 73:16).
What must surely be puzzling for some readers is the counsel that the Preacher of-fers in verses 16-18, which appears to be nothing more than to aim for the “golden mean”. Do not be over-righteous, and do not be over-wicked, is what the Preacher appears to be saying.
But is he really suggesting that the best solution is to be moderate in our behaviour? Can moderation ever pass as the fundamental principle of true Christian ethics? Is the Preacher saying that it is permissible for believers to be a little wicked, as long as we are careful not to overdo it?
If this is indeed his counsel, if the Preacher is really advocat-ing what one commentator calls “a shabby, self-regarding side of common sense”, then, he is re-ally not saying anything exceptional. I do not mean by this that his counsel is bland (although it is), but that it urges us to be what most of us already are!
Most of us are decent people – people who would not commit murder, but may probably fiddle occasionally with our tax returns; people who would go to church faithfully, but would not go out of our way to help the needy. In other words, people who occupy the middle space between the criminal and the martyr. Ordinary, decent folk who are neither overly righteous nor terribly wicked.
We must, however, recognise that the language the Preacher uses here is ironic. When the Preacher says, “do not be over-righteous”, he does not mean that we should not strive to be holy or wise. Rather he is warning against hypocritical pretension and self-deceit.
Similarly when he counsels “do not be over-wicked”, he is not suggesting that a little wickedness is permissible. Rather he is making the point that there is enough wickedness in all of us without giving ourselves over to it. The Preacher is there-fore not saying that we should be moderate in spiritual matters. By the use of ironic language he is actually counselling the ex-act opposite: we should through wisdom strive for holiness. By mocking the conventional wisdom that counsels moderation, the Preacher is encouraging his readers to seek righteousness instead of wickedness.
The wise man, the Preacher maintains, is he who fears God. With this definition of wisdom the Preacher goes on to describe its power: “wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in the city” (v 19). With the use of figurative language the Preacher hopes to show how the person who possesses true wisdom – the wisdom that is the fear of God – will have the inner resources to cope with life’s harsh tragedies. The wise man will be like a house built on a rock, which will not succumb to the elements.
Some commentators have interpreted verse 20 too theologically! When the Preacher declares that “there is no right-eous man on earth”, he is not anticipating Paul. The Preacher is not expounding the doctrine of the universality of sin in the style of the Apostle. Nor is he alluding to the doctrine of total depravity in anticipa-tion of Augustine or Calvin.
His meaning is more modest: that no one’s perfect. Thus, “there is not a right-eous man on earth who does what is right and never sins”. The Preacher is simply saying that if we are looking for the per-fect human being, we will be disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned. There is simply no such person.
The Preacher’s jaundiced view of women is a subject of debate among scholars. Women, he claims, are “more bitter than death” (7:26). His view of women matches that of some Church Fathers, who in their exposition of Job maintain that after Satan had robbed Job of everything that was precious to him, he left him his wife because Satan thought that she would greatly help him bring about Job’s downfall! If it is of any consolation, the Preacher’s view of man is not much better. Only one in a thousand men seems to meet his standard of moral uprightness.
One thing is quite clear, though. God cannot be blamed for the condition of human be-ings. The Preacher is quick to state in verse 29 that God, who “made man upright”, must not be made responsible for human failure. The responsibility must rest on rebellious human beings, who although were created upright, have “gone in search of many schemes”.
What should we do when confronted with life’s enigma? The Preacher’s answer is simple: trust in God, and seek always to be righteous in your ways. Conduct your lives in the fear of the Lord. For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Dr Roland Chia, Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.
POWER OF WISDOM
The wise man, the Preacher maintains, is he who fears God. With this definition of wisdom the Preacher goes on to describe its power: “wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in the city” (v 19). With the use of figurative language the Preacher hopes to show how the person who possesses true wisdom – the wisdom that is the fear of God – will have the inner resources to cope with life’s harsh tragedies.