One of the keys to interpreting Ecclesiastes is remembering that this is one man’s experience, therefore we should be careful not to universalize his words. That principle is especially helpful when trying to untangle this flowing stream of consciousness that concludes chapter 7. If we can let Qoheleth speak from his experience, then we can see that he is reporting his observations, not issuing dogmatic principles. Having said that, let me unpack what he has written, thought by thought.
I have seen everything in this meaningless life, including the death of good young people and the long life of wicked people. So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself? On the other hand, don’t be too wicked either. Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time? Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes. (7:15-18)
In these verses, the Preacher has observed that sometimes those who are moral die at a young age while those who are immoral live full lives. It’s not always the case, but we know that sometimes this is true by own own observations. He counsels his readers to avoid extremism, because our behaviors do not guarantee outcomes. Our own foolishness may hasten our death, but our piety does not necessarily extend our life either. So find the happy medium and live life on life’s terms. Do the right thing without any expectation of a return.
One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town! (7:19)
In this verse Qoheleth claims that wisdom is more effective and persuasive than the force that is exercised by governmental leaders. Just because a person is placed in leadership does not automatically guarantee that he or she is a person of wisdom.
Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. (7:20)
There are plenty of scriptural references that correspond to verse 20 in both the Old and New Testaments, and I don’t think it needs explanation. I do like M.V. Fox’s translation here, “To be human is to be flawed. Do not expect much righteousness from anyone, including yourself.”
Don’t eavesdrop on others—you may hear your servant curse you. For you know how often you yourself have cursed others. (7:21-22)
In yet another disconnected observation, the Preacher tells us what we already know about gossip and the desire we have to be “in the know.” Our need to know is a double edged sword, in that we are vulnerable to hearing what others truly think about us. He appropriately points out that while we may be quick to take offense at the unguarded words of others, we are usually guilty of the same practice. There is a fascinating correlation between eavesdropping and the propensity to gossip. Always remember that if someone is willing to gossip to you about someone else, they’re probably gossiping about you to someone else.
I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. (7:23-25)
In these verses, Qoheleth appears frustrated that his wisdom is incomplete. He finds it difficult to allow room for mystery and the unknowable. Some things God has reserved for himself. Our pursuit of wisdom is not futile, but we must recognize that we live in the tension between that which is revealed and that which is concealed. Faith allows us to accept things and believe them even though they are beyond explanation.
I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. (7:26)
This is a simple summary statement that echoes much of Proverbs chapters 1-9.
“This is my conclusion,” says the Teacher. “I discovered this after looking at the matter from every possible angle. Though I have searched repeatedly, I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path.” (7:27-29)
Qoheleth summarizes this section by affirming three things. First, he assures the reader that he has left no stone unturned in his quest for wisdom, or at least wisdom that meets his criteria. Second, what ever wisdom is available to men and women has not significantly impacted the human race for good, and third, God’s intent is that we live virtuously, but we can’t get out of our own way.
To this point, scholars simply acknowledge these final verses as an affirmation to human depravity. While this may be true, it is incomplete. The greater issue at work in Ecclesiastes is the author’s desire to be self-sufficient, solving his own problems and answering his own questions. But the mysteries of life will make his desire unattainable and render him frustrated. If modern day readers can take anything from Ecclesiastes thus far, it is the knowledge that our arms are too short to box with God. The pursuit of wisdom is good, but we must remember that we live in the constant tension between the knowable and the unknowable. We don’t have to view life as futile or absurd. We can choose to walk by faith when sight is unavailable.