Live Long and Prosper (Ecclesiastes 7)

NOW LET’S BE HONEST…Ecclesiastes has been pretty depressing so far. We’ve officially passed the halfway point of the book, and the entire way – chapter after chapter, verse after verse – we’ve had but one single message preached to us: Everything is meaningless.

Wealth, pleasure, wisdom, work, power… It’s so easy to fall into a life pursuing these things as a source of meaning, but Solomon – “the Teacher” – has shown us time and time again that, while all these things have meaning in and of themselves, they become futile when he who possesses them pursues them outside of their appointed purpose. In the end, everything “under the sun” is meaningless.

But now, halfway through the book, we will see a shift. All of a sudden, instead of looking only at the things “under the sun,” we will begin to work our way towards the ultimate conclusion that Solomon is guiding us to in the 12th and last chapter, and with that change of theme comes a new dose of optimism.

Let’s get to it.

Ecclesiastes 7

Solomon starts out in the first verse by telling us that what people think of you – a reflection of the type of person you are – is better than “fine perfume” – looking good, smelling good, or giving off an overall appearance of being good. Essentially, he is reminding us that external beauty is nothing compared to what lies inside, a truth that God recognizes as we see in 1 Samuel 16:7. This reflects on the previous chapter, speaking of how it is better to appreciate what you have than to take it for granted (as we so often do). The day of death is better than the day of birth in the fact that, as we discussed in 6:3, your death will give birth to a remembrance of your life whereas birth gives life to an imperfect being who will struggle through the temptations and toils of earthly life. At your death, people will think of you and wonder what was your name (Who were you really, behind closed doors? Did you love people? What impact did you leave on the world? What is your epitaph?). This all reflects on the idea of one’s name being great, an idea much more prevalent and meaningful in the Hebrew culture of Solomon’s day than it is now.

In summary, v. 2-6 argue the point that more is learned from adversity than from pleasure. As John MacArthur states, “True wisdom is developed in the crucible of life’s trials,” a truth very nearly reflecting the theme of these five verses. Even if we wish this weren’t the case, it is, and all we can do is learn from this truth. A house of mourning will help you grow more than will a house of feasting, though the feast may be more enjoyable; it puts your mind in perspective and grounds you in the reality of earthly life and its temporal natural (on the other hand, feasting has the opposite effect since we wish it would last forever and can cause us to take pleasure for granted). Frustration and sadness keep your heart in check and help you grow in appreciation, whereas endless laughter would dilute the joy that comes in humor and happy thoughts. The wise understand these truths and thus open their minds to the sufferings of this world, whereasthose who are foolish try to escape suffering by acting as if it is avoidable, distracting their minds with the pleasures of this world (sex, drugs, friends, relationships). It is better to meditate on the words of a wise person and thus be rebuked for your own actions than to take joy in the lies of the foolish, praising you and themselves and the world for things that have no meaning. “The laughter of the fools” is but a sign that they are ignorant to the truth, lost amidst their own web of lies that tell them that pleasure gives meaning. Yet this too is meaningless.

Verses 7-12 are a series of proverbs directly relating to the topic at hand (which is, to say, the subject of one’s name):

  • Even the wise fall prey to the seduction of money, which corrupts the heart if placed in the wrong light. (v.7)
  • Though we typically think short term, we should look to end goals, for that is where the fruit can be gathered; patience until the end is better than the pride that comes through initiation (a proverb that is especially applicable in the flaky culture we live in nowadays). (v.8)
  • Being quickly angered reflects one’s folly by displaying that they feel threatened by the things of this world, which ultimately cannot harm them. (v.9)
  • It is better to live in the present than to dwell on the past, for in dwelling on the past, we fail to appreciate what is given by envying what we have had in the past. This is folly. To once again quote John MacArthur, “In the midst of trouble and discontent, we often lose touch of reality.” (v.10)
  • Though the benefits of wisdom might not at first be apparent, it helps those who “see the sun.” (v.11)
  •  Wisdom and money are both crutches that we cling to, but wisdom is better because it opens our minds to a fulfilled life; wisdom preserves life even after death. (v.12)

One of the biggest takeaways of these proverbs comes in that second-to-last one, v.11, where we see the phrase “see the sun.” With this verse we see the blatant shift that takes place between chapters 6 and 7, because whereas ch. 1-6 dealt with the meaningless of things “under the sun” (things here on earth), Solomon will now point us, in ch. 7-12, towards finding out ultimate meaning in things in the sun (in the Son, as I like to think). Solomon is telling us that the benefits of wisdom might be unapparent to the unbeliever, but to see who “see(s) the sun”/“sees the Son,” the benefit is loud and clear. Wisdom helps us realize our need for God as we see that the world has nothing lasting to offer us.

To further this point, we reach a juxtaposition of a phrase we heard in the very first chapter of Ecclesiastes. Back in 1:15, we read that “what is crooked cannot be straightened,” yet in 7:13 Solomon takes this comment and rewords it as a question: “Who can straighten what [God] has made crooked?” This reminds us what God has done for us – as is the case with the question posed in 6:12, the answer would come 930 years later through a man named Jesus Christ, who was constantly proving that he could do for us things that we were incapable of doing for ourselves. With this transition, chapter 7 parallels with chapter 1 by taking the depressing and ultimately hopeless topic of seeing things “under the sun” by providing us with the uplifting hope that comes through things in the sun (Son) – Jesus takes those things that at first seemed impossible (1:15) and makes us think, “Hmm…maybe they are possible” (7:13).

After making this clear, Solomon hops right back into the mess of thins. In v.14, he points out that it isn’t hard to be happy when life is easy, but we so easily succumb to sadness when life is bad. Solomon makes the case for optimism here, proving that optimism and realism should perhaps be one and the same: God created both good and bad, so since He loves us and knows what is best for us, should be not accept both the good and bad with thankful hearts? This reflects on ch. 6 as much as it does on the book of Job: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). Be grateful for the struggles in life – the negative things – just as much as the positive.

In v.15-18, Solomon acknowledges that he has made the very mistakes he warns us against – something we have covered previously – calling his very own life meaningless through a particular bluntness surprising even to those who have read the first six chapters. He mentions, essentially, that the “good die young” while it seems that the wicked “live long and prosper.” The righteous die despite their efforts of living right while the wicked go on living with their evil deeds accompanying them. Don’t be over-righteous – for that will lead to self-righteousness – and likewise don’t be over-wise – for that will make you Pharisaical (legalistic and religious, like the Pharisees that Jesus constantly combated with). We should pursue righteousness and wisdom, but not to the point where they take over our lives and turn into pride. As William Law said, “You can have no greater sign of confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough.” Likewise, don’t be over-wicked (as humans we cannot help but be wicked) or foolish, for as Solomon points out, “whoever fears God will avoid all extremes” (v.18). Fear the Lord and let Him direct your path. (In a way, it’s kind of like the big difference between sophists and philosophers.)

One benefit of wisdom is the good outcomes that is brings in this life (it can bring all those things we long for, those pleasures we desire), as we see in v.19-24. Still, Solomon reminds us of the general effects of sin ever since Genesis 3 and reminds us that we have all sinned (a la Rom 3:23). Thus, it is wise to not keep strict accounts of the evil done towards you, for how many evils have you yourself committed? It’s easy to remember those who have wronged you, but the wise will call to mind those whom they themselves have wronged, keeping themselves in check.

Solomon tells us in v.23 that he knows these things from experience, because despite his already profound wisdom, he desired to be wiser still, and it was this pursuit of wisdom that led to his downfall (which would have major repercussions throughout the rest of the Old Testament). Upon further investigation, the limits of wisdom became apparent to him as he realized that some things, for us, are truly unknowable. His enthusiasm is thus dampened as he frustrated over his limited power (see 6:10).

From these realizations, Solomon set out not to become wiser but to understand wisdom in and of itself, and then the same with the way the world works, the wickedness in it, and the pointlessness of folly (v.25-26). He sees a seductive woman as the epitome of all things, for it is through but one woman that a man can so easily abandon all reason and pursue the things of this world (Prov 2:16-19, 5:1-14, 6:24-29, 7:1-27; even the wisest man can become foolish because of a woman). Women in general are not bad, obviously (Ecc 9:9; Prov 5:15-23, 31:10-31), but women of a certain kind – the woman who sets herself in control of the man – most definitely are. (Solomon had over 700 wives and 300 concubines, so it’s safe to say he knew plenty about women and how they can cause you to do stupid things…like making 700 of them wives and 300 of them concubines.)

In the final verses of the chapter, Solomon concludes by saying this: Man seeking knowledge by his own means and through his own schemes will always inevitably fail. Only God can make man upright, yet we are so resistant to our necessary dependence on Him! There is but one upright man among those who pursue wisdom on their own accord (Jesus, who is God and is Wisdom), and no woman is to be found (not a knock towards women at all; it just remains fact that Jesus, the one truly upright person, was a man). Everybody attempts to achieve true success and knowledge in this way despite the fact that since the dawn of age – through thousands of years and through billions of people – success has never been attained by anyone apart from he actually was God. God created us righteous, but out of our own stupidity we hop on our boats to Tarshish and chase after our own schemes.

…and that’s it, folks. Ecclesiastes chapter 7 in a nutshell. As we’ve seen, there’s most definitely a transition here in comparison to the previous six chapters, and it’s very clear that Solomon has laid the foundations for his ultimate point that seeks to answer the ultimate question of our meaning in life.