Now, because we do not truly believe in our hearts that the day of adversity is as much from God’s hand as the day of prosperity, we believe that there has to be some way to game the system, and if we somehow play the game of life in just the right way, God will reward us with prosperity and long life. Or we bargain with God - God save me and I’ll be a good person. Or we berate God - God, I’ve been a good person, why are you doing this to me? Spirituality becomes a transaction. If I pray right and live right and present myself in the correct way, God will honour that and bless me with life and success.
This perspective is a bit understandable at first reading through the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses writes:
Deut. 6:1 “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, 2 that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
Isn’t this a transactional promise that if one lives according to God’s rules, that person will experience length of life and prosperity? To that, I think there are three responses:
We must distinguish between our the collective experience of life in the covenant, with our in particular experience of life as an individual. Many of the “transactional” promises are addressed to the nation of Israel as collective promises. Notice the phrase, “Hear, therefore, O Israel”, not “Listen up, Bob.” The blessing and curses referred to first in Deuteronomy and referenced back to in the various prophets were addressed to the nation as a whole and not to individuals. Thus, the nation could experience blessing, but an individual household may still face adversity, and vice-versa.
We can agree that there is a general way in which righteous living leads to prosperity and long-life. Wherever Judaism and Christianity has spread, literacy and education have followed, that the scriptures may be read and understood. The protestant work ethic, in particular, which values industry, responsibility, and frugality, has led to and will obviously lead to greater measures of prosperity. Rejection of vices such as drugs and alcohol and gambling will also lead to longer life and better health. So there is a general sense in which the relationship between virtue and prosperity is established. This is the Book of Proverbs in a nutshell.
However, neither the collective sense and the general sense guarantee that prosperity will come to the individual who lives a virtuous life. There is an entire book of the Bible - the book of Job - written for the specific purpose of demonstrating that a virtuous individual may experience calamity and suffering. Or as we find here in Ecclesiastes 7:15:
In 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.
Solomon observation strikes those of us who think we can bargain with God. It doesn’t matter how good you present yourself to be - God will not be paid off or bargained with. You cannot escape the fleeting quality of the breath of life by pointing to your righteousness.
There Are Three Ways to Live
In verses 16-18 we are introduced to three ways of living, summarized in two statements from which a third way emerges.
The first way is that of the wicked fool who chases folly. He lives for himself, and for pleasure. He despises the hypocrisy of religious people, whom he views as self-righteous and smug. His motto can be found in the first part of verse 16: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”
The second way is that of the self-righteous, wise-in-his-own-eyes, nit-picker. He outwardly looks like he has it all together. His motto can be found in the second part of verse 16: “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?
So who is right? Both are. And neither are. Solomon suggests that there is a third way to live, and only the one who lives according to the third way will truly come out of this breath of life.
18 It 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.
Solomon concede’s that Ned has a point: It is good that you should take hold of this - meaning Ned’s right, wickedness and folly can easily lead to destruction and early death. And so yes, it is wise for us to hold on to his wisdom. However, to our surprise, Solomon also concede’s that Homer’s point is valid to, that our self-righteousness and smugness can destroy us as well. That while it is dangerous to reject the righteous life the scriptures call us toward, it is just as dangerous to think that we have attained the righteous life that the scripture call us toward, and that we have arrived, or do not need a saviour. The person who rejects the medicine the doctor prescribes because he does not want it, is not any worse off than the person who rejects the medicine because he thinks he does not need it. Neither of them trust and listen to the doctor.
Jesus’ greatest frustration was not with the Homers he encountered, but with the Ned’s. The Homer’s at least knew they were sick, but the Ned’s never need a saviour. Jesus says as much in Matthew 9:
Matt. 9:10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
And here is where Solomon introduces the third way of living: the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. Meaning, that’s the one who will emerge out of life.
The rest of the chapter is pointed at the good people, the moral people, the Ned-people, as Solomon seems to need to convince the religious people of their need for a Savior. This is much harder to do. The rebel knows he is flirting with destruction. The “righteous” man often needs to be awaken to his spiritual condition before God and will resist His Spirit’s probing gaze. This is why Solomon turns his attention to those who would trust in their own righteousness to save them.
Though Wisdom Can Strengthen Us, Our Righteousness Cannot Save Us
Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.
Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
This is the meaning of the dual proverb in verses 19-20, that while wisdom exalt a man over the mighty men of a city, the exaltation of that persons wisdom and goodness is only relative to the other men in the city. However, if were are to hold a person against the objective standard of God’s righteousness, we would see that all of us, even the best and wisest of us fall short.
Quick Test #1: Your Words: Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you.Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Check your words. You get offended when people curse you, because you think yourself so wise and holy and exalted - but how do you speak of others? Are your words going to save you or condemn you?
Quick Test #2: Your Understanding: All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
Here Solomon takes on “those who are wise in their own eyes”. Solomon, who had tested everything by wisdom and was understood to be the wisest man who has ever lived, reached the limits of his own understanding. It is often said that the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. The one who fears God understands that their are many things that he doesn’t know, that are beyond his scope, and trusts God with them. That is basically the answer to the book of Job. Job wants to know how God could be causing such bad things to happen to him when he doesn’t think he’s done anything to deserve them, and God’s answer to him is, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and starts by pointing to Job’s ignorance of the physical universe, and the implication is that if Job is so ignorant about the workings of creation, how much more ignorant is he about the workings of the Creator.
Quick Test #3: Your Ability to Resistance Temptation: 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. And 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.
Solomon final reflection here is of the difficulty of resisting temptation. In the wisdom literature, temptation is often personified as crafty, alluring woman - which makes sense given that the allure of foreign women had led to Solomon’s own personal downfall. Solomon’s point is that the sinner is taken in by temptation - how many of us are left standing? Who of us is so righteous that we would cast the first stone condemning others?
You failed didn’t you. The Preacher’s summary:
Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— which 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. See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
Here is Solomon’s conclusion, in verse 29: God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Or in the words of Isaiah: Is. 53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; Or the Apostle Paul: Romans 3:23 for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Put bluntly, the one who fears God, knows the reality of his wandering rebellious heart.
Who is the one upright man?
There is one last part of Solomon’s teaching here that has puzzled interpreters. What does he mean when he says: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” Is Solomon saying that men are more righteous, more God-fearing than women? Some have pointed this to an example of Solomon’s misogeny - what a sexist!
I don’t think that is Solomon’s point. Some interpreters think that Solomon is merely reporting his experience - that he knew a few good men, but hadn’t in his experience come across any good women. While that could be Solomon’s meaning, we have to remember that his conclusion holds true for both men and women - that God made humanity upright and we have sought our many schemes.
The best understanding of this text that I have heard is that the one man is a reference to the Messiah, Jesus Christ himself. As a Jewish believer, Solomon placed his hope in the promise of the Messiah, a son of David who would bring in a kingdom of righteousness. Solomon couldn’t say that no men could be found who pleased God and were righteous, for he very well knew that the Messiah would be found. Commentator John Gill writes:
By this one of a thousand, is meant the, Messiah, the Wisdom of God, he sought for, and now says he found; to whom he looked for peace, pardon, and atonement, under a sense of his sins; who is the messenger, an interpreter, one among a thousand; yea, who is the chiefest among ten thousands; who is superior to angels and men, in the dignity of his person; in the perfection, purity, and holiness of his nature; in the excellency of his names; in his offices and relations; and in his concern in the affairs of grace and salvation; and who is to be found by every truly wise and gracious soul that seeks him early and earnestly, in the word and ordinances, under the illumination and direction of the blessed Spirit.
So what does this mean? In the face of the reality of death - do not point to your goodness to save you. Acknowledge your need for a saviour, confess your sins to the Lord and call upon the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one perfect man, to save you.
There is rest in the breath when one fears God and trusts in Christ alone.