Key Notes: Proverbs ancient and modern. A palindrome of seven proverbs. The value of tragedy. Not too righteous? Not too evil? No good women?
We have the wisdom of four millennia at our disposal. How much of it have we grasped? How shall we profit from Qoheleth’s experience, his own and that of a thousand years behind him? His communication, like the Proverbs, is in short sermons, proverbs and comparisons of various kinds, and not always in logical sequence. It is easier for us to grasp wisdom that is given in story form, such as OT history or NT life of Christ and the apostles. In order for this more condensed form of wisdom to stay with us, it has to be imbedded in our memories as we relate it to everyday life. “The sayings of the wise are like goads.” (Eccl. 12:11)
For example, Eccl. 11:6 says: “In the morning, sow your seed and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prospect, either this or that or whether both alike will be good.”
I have worked with this advice for many years and applied it in many ways to diversify my education, hobbies, investments and friendships. It says that I should keep my options open. I should expose my children to all sorts of skills and learning.
Since so much may ride on one idea, we may be frustrated in our attempts to comprehend the large body of OT wisdom literature. We of course have our own home-grown wisdom literature. We make good use of proverbs—
“A stitch in time saves nine.”
“One rotten apple spoils the barrel.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Out of sight is out of mind.”
They have been imbedded in our memories since childhood. OT wisdom literature is sharper, darker and farther away—and inspired of God. We know less about it. We must work to extract its nourishment and ask His help. 7:1–8
In this passage, we are given a set of seven proverbs--"better thans".
1. A good name is better than perfume.
2.The day of death is better than the day of birth.
3. The house of mourning is better than the house of drinking.
4. Sorrow is better than laughter.
5.. The rebuke of the wise is better than the song of fools.
6. The end is better than the beginning.
7. The patient in spirit is better than the proud.
The passage has a structure, with positive statements (1) and (7) framing five negative ones. It is a palindrome, with (2) matching (6), and (3) matching (5). The heart of the message (4) is that sorrow is better than laughter.
Tragedy is better for us than comedy, and obituaries are more important than birth announcements. The day of a person’s death leads us to ponder a life that is now complete. We are happy to see a birth announcement, but we learn from obituaries. The end of the book is more important than the beginning, as is the end of the day’s work. We enjoy comedy, but we learn from tragedy.
Tragedy tells the story of a flawed leader. The story starts out in success and happiness and ends in disaster as the hero’s weakness is unveiled. We expose ourselves to tragedy in order to learn lessons. The tragedies of Shakespeare find us coming away sobered and thoughtful, unlike most comedies.
7:8 Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. As we just saw, the patient in spirit is better than the proud. The proud are foolish. The patient in spirit are slow to anger. “A man of quick temper acts foolishly, but a man of discretion is patient.” (Prov. 14:17)
7:10 Don’t be nostalgic for the “good old days”. In 1940 there was no good treatment for polio or tuberculosis or leukemia and hardly any antibiotics for pneumonia. Long distance telephone rates kept us from calling our relatives. Cars were not dependable and food was easily spoiled.
7:11–12 Wisdom comes from knowledge. Wisdom protects the life of the person and his resources.
What has God made crooked? Futility ( Rom.8:20) was built into creation from the fall of man (Gen. 3:14–19). Our work, like Adam’s, is often wasted in the drought and weeds and will soon be forgotten.
7:14 You will have adversity and, perhaps, prosperity. God made them both. Job said “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21). God has intentionally hidden the future.
7:15–18 Justice in this life is not given equally. Sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. A superficial reading is that therefore we should not be too wicked or too wise, but find the median path of ethics and we will come out all right. It is not quite that easy.
What does “righteous overmuch” mean? Think of self-righteousness and bigotry. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being very careful with details like tithing herbs while neglecting justice, mercy and faith. (Matt. 23:23). Job became righteous in his own eyes from the goading of his friends. We will have difficulty not being self-righteous.
How could we be “wicked overmuch”? Too easily, I fear. He is warning us not to let our fleshly nature run away with us. In the fear of God you will come out right.
7:19 Wisdom gives strength, as it also gives long life and protection of inheritance. 7:11–12
7:20 There is no one righteous, doing good and not sinning.
7:21 Do not listen to gossip. People say bad things about you, too.
7:21–23 There is a wisdom that is beyond, far off, very deep, beyond our reach. 8:1 Wisdom not only gives strength, long life and the protection of inheritance, but it brightens the countenance and relaxes the face.
7:26–29 He warns us against the conniving woman. He did not find one good woman in a thousand, but perhaps one man.
When we read something upsetting, like Qoheleth pointing out women’s sins in contrast to men’s, we must have an explanation. He describes a thousand women he knows as grasping and manipulative. No wonder. . Solomon had a thousand women—700 wives and 300 concubines. They were chosen for their charms, not for their morality, or their godliness—many were idolaters—and they turned away his heart from the Lord. I K. 11:3 He enjoyed many concubines, man’s delight. Eccl. 2:8
On the other hand…
* He tells us to “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love…” (9:9). He advocates good sex in marriage. (Prov. 5:15 -23)
*He extols the virtues of the godly woman at length. (Prov. 31)
The message to us is that women who are sexually immoral and exploitative must be avoided. But also, women who are sexually exploited will be conniving and grasping. If there were a thousand women vying for King Solomon’s attention, trying to get their children recognized and their own place in the harem improved, every maneuver, every trick in the book would be used against him. The Fool at the top is bound to be disillusioned by every woman he knows. In sexual relations, you get what you pay for.
There is another point of disagreement for which we have explanation. He says:
“Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (3:21)
It is a rhetorical question that is intended to make us think of the lowly conditions of human beings, whose material substance is anatomically much like other mammals and decays in the same way.
Later he also says:
“As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” (11:5). This implies that God puts the spirit into the child. “…and the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (12:7)
So the answer is that the spirit of man goes upward, back to God as it came from God before birth.
Wisdom makes the face shine and the hardness of the countenance to relax. 8:1
“May The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:26)