by the Rev. Martin Emmrich
15In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
19Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.
20Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
21Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.
23All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me. 24That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
Qoheleth is conducting a search for the "scheme of things." The word "scheme" occurs three times (7:25, 27, 29), and it carries the connotation of a thoughtful design. It is particularly concerned with the nature of human life. The author never doubts the reality of thoughtful design behind the way things are under the sun. At the same time, he finds it to be elusive (cf. 7:27-28).
Finding out the scheme of things is so difficult because life is far less predictable than we would like it to be. Nothing, after all, is certain. Qoheleth brings it to a point: "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness" (7:15). Doing what is right will not necessarily precipitate predictable results, and the reverse it true as well. It remains to be seen what hand life will deal to you.
But we need to keep in mind that the writer is not an atheist. He believes in God, and he understands the concept of divine sovereignty all too well. He does not cry out for instruction on this point. He knows that the world with us humans in it has not been abandoned to chaos and disarray. God remains king. But, once again, the author’s inquisitive mind is drawn to the "crooked things," things that—as we say—should not happen in a perfect world.
Finding out the scheme of things has thus also to do with the dynamics of sin in our lives. It is not only that righteousness does not always pay off, or that wickedness will sometimes go unpunished. Even if you watch a "righteous person" by more or less common standards, you will be disappointed. No one acts consistently righteous. "There is no righteous man on earth who does good and does not also sin" (7:20). Thus, the unpredictability of life in general is juxtaposed with the unpredictability of human behavior.
From all that we have heard so far in Ecclesiastes, we would now expect to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of evidence drilling home the unpleasant truth in painstaking manner. Here, however, the book surprises us with quite a different approach. Rather than belaboring the point, he ameliorates the negative notion he raised at the beginning of the text unit. 7:16-18 advocates a delightful realism that has struck a cord with people throughout the centuries. "Don’t be overly righteous and don't make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?"
Can one be too righteous, or too wise? You will be, if you think of yourself as righteous or wise. Pride goes before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction. On the other hand, being overly wicked or playing the fool means consciously abandoning yourself to sin and denying moral accountability before God who nonetheless searches the hearts. Either cases are extremes, but we should not be so naïve to think that they are rare. We must confess that self-righteousness, pride, and an insatiable lust for sin are the bread and butter of human existence. As Qoheleth states in 7:18, only "the one who fears God" can avoid either extreme. This is not an easy task. In fact, it is impossible, unless our righteousness comes from outside of ourselves, namely from Christ. With him you do not boast in your own righteousness, nor do you need to get too upset when people criticize or even curse you—rightfully or wrongfully—for you should know that you yourself have done the same to others. But Christ supplies all we need to stand before God.
The author of these devotionals, the Rev. Martin Emmrich, is an ordained OPC minister (Westminster OPC, Corvallis, Oregon) as well as the author of Pneumatological Concepts in the Epistle to the Hebrews, a book on the teaching of Hebrews on the Holy Spirit. We are happy to make these devotionals on Ecclesiastes and other passages of Scripture available to you.