Search Bible Outlines and commentaries




Albert Mohler: Wise living in this world must take human evil into account with utter realism.  Stupidity and madness, as well as wisdom, call for our alert attention (v. 25).  Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as a guidance for a young man soon to enter adulthood (1:9), so he warns his young reader about the kind of woman who is out to destroy a man (7:26). Solomon is not saying that men are more virtuous than women.  He is explaining that he found any virtuous person rare indeed (vv. 27-28).  And that Solomon found no woman he could admire might have been his own fault (1Ki 11:1-4).  The one thing Solomon had no difficulty finding: the capacity of all human hearts to turn from uprightness toward ever-new forms of evil (Ecc 7:29).  How sadly anticlimactic – one of Solomon’s most solid discoveries in this lifelong quest for truth and reality is that we are sinners!

Walter Kaiser: It is the fear of God that is the best protection against either absurdity. Neither man’s folly nor a conceited and strained righteousness will serve as a guide, or as a guise, to mask the real need of men. They must come to fear God. That is true wisdom. Wisdom, then, is not a self-imposed estimate of one’s own abilities or attainments. Indeed, true wisdom will be a better protection against all these errors and excesses than ten rulers or sultans in a city (v. 19).

We cannot be too careful in our evaluation of the character of men. Too much passes for true piety that is not piety at all. The only thing a pseudo-pious kind of scrupulosity will yield is the judgment of God. Therefore, warns Qoheleth, the Teacher, let us not be too quick to label the providence of God as unjust.

In fact, rather than being too pious, no one is without fault in deed or word (vv. 20-22). Men are universally depraved, and we all fall short of the glory of God. The advantage (v. 20 begins with a “because”) of the recommended wisdom in fearing God (v. 18) is that it does more than open up the pattern of meaning to the eternity of all things here below and above (3:11); this wisdom also gives men and women a self-control that will not resent the ill-advised slander, abuse, and curses of others. It is foolish to be overly concerned about and troubled by what others think and say about us in their unguarded, unkind, and foolish moments (vv. 21-22).

Nevertheless, it still must be said of even the wisest of us that despite the original uprightness of man as he came from the hand of his Maker in the Garden of Eden, we have one and all alike gone after our own schemes (v. 29). This truth could be set forth in a hyperbole: “There is only one in a million (the Hebrew says a “thousand”) who acts as he ought” (v. 28). Sin has worked its corrosive effects on the entire human race. Therefore, those who discover wisdom (for that is the subject of this section [vv. 20-29]), are very few indeed.

Iain Provan: The pursuit of wisdom and righteousness brings no guarantees, moreover, about how the individual life will work out (7:15). The wise person accepts as reality the mixed nature of experience and does not struggle against it (7:13–14, 16–18). He or she accepts the limitations that God has set on mortal life. Thus does Qohelet continue to balance appreciation for wisdom with critique of its potential and, no doubt, of the way that it was sometimes used within his own culture and time.

The crucial thing to be remembered about the universe is that God has created it (vv. 13–15). Wisdom is not a key that can be used in independence of the Creator to unlock the secrets of the universe, to shape existence after mortal desires, and to control life. Although certain ways of being and behaving are wiser than others and in general tend toward life rather than death, yet in the end we must remember that the universe is not a predictable machine but a personally governed and complex space. Wisdom is not magic. God is not an object to be manipulated, nor does God’s world belong to human beings. If God makes something crooked, it is beyond human power to make it straight (v. 13; cf. 1:15).

The wise person accepts the world as he or she finds it, receiving both good and bad from God and acknowledging that either might lie in the future (v. 14). The wise person knows that righteousness does not infallibly produce life in the short term (in spite of the advantage that wisdom has over money), just as wickedness does not inevitably lead on, in the short term, to death (v. 15). The embrace of wisdom does not give one leverage in respect of God, so that the future becomes predictable. As chapter 3 has reminded us, it is God who controls the “times,” and the times are extremely varied.

To those who accept these limitations (i.e., conform themselves to reality), there is clearly “benefit” (yoter, 7:11) in wisdom. To those who do not and think of life not so much as something to be lived as something to be capitalized upon—who are committed to striving with and struggling against reality rather than living in harmony with it—life will ultimately seem to have no benefit worth speaking of (cf. yoter in 2:15, NIV “gain”).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: We can’t always or often explain why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people. It’s a crooked world! It’s a crooked world filled with guilty and scheming sinners.

Douglas Miller: Outline

  1. Choosing Righteousness and Wisdom, 7:15-18
  2. Wisdom and Righteousness of Others, 7:19-22
  3. The Elusiveness of Wisdom and Righteousness, 7:23-29


A.  (:15-17) Two Paths of Futility in Life

  1. (:15)  Thesis Statement – Pervasiveness of Futility

a.  Futility Dominates the Preacher’s Investigation

I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility;

Walter Kaiser: Therefore, although men appear to be treated irrespective of their character in the providence of God (7:15), the just man perishing in his righteousness and the evil man apparently prolonging his life in his wickedness, this is again only “judging a book by its cover,” or using external appearances by which to judge the whole case. Such a verdict is premature and improperly grounded. We must penetrate more deeply beneath the surface if we are to properly evaluate either of these men or the plan and ordinance of God.

David Hubbard: “Days of vanity” (Heb. hebel) speak first of the brevity of life but also of its frustrating character, facing us as it does with puzzle upon puzzle, mystery after mystery.

b.  Futility of Path of Self Righteousness –

Bad Things Happen to “Good” People

there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness,

David Hubbard: “There is” (v. 15), which introduces both unsettling observations, suggests that the instances of injustice are not the norm but are frequent enough to prompt inner distress about the ways of God’s governing. These exceptions to the conclusions of conventional wisdom are too common to be swept under the rug.

c.  Futility of Path of Rebellious Indulgence –

Good Things Happen to Bad People

and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.

Craig Bartholomew: Qohelet has found living examples that clearly contradict Proverbs’ character-consequence teaching that righteousness will lead to blessing and folly to destruction.

Tremper Longman: The two case studies present us with a paradox, and Qohelet surely wanted his listener/reader to be shocked by what he said. He saw the righteous perishing and the wicked living long. This is the polar opposite of what some strands of biblical teaching indicate. For instance, certain legal portions of the Bible teach that observation of the law prolongs life (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 4:40), and the wisdom teachers instructed that righteousness led to life (Prov. 3:1–2), while the wicked suffered and died early (Ps. 1). Although Raymond Van Leeuwen has now shown how the book of Proverbs as a whole does not teach a simple retribution theology, nonetheless, Qohelet’s observation cuts across normative biblical expectations.

  1. (:16-17)  Theology of Moderation

David Thompson: Now, we know from studying Scripture that Solomon cannot mean by this verse that a person may be too holy, too committed or too fervent in his pursuit of righteousness. The Apostle Peter challenged believers to “Be holy as God is holy” (I Pet. 1:16). Paul said believers should forget everything else and put the high calling of God as the ultimate pursuit of life (Phil. 3:13-14). Certainly this text is not designed to get believers to lessen their commitment level to God.

a.  (:16)  Don’t Kill Yourself Pursuing Self Righteousness

Do not be excessively righteous, and do not be overly wise.

Why should you ruin yourself?

e.g. like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – they were all about external acts of self righteousness in trying to earn favor before God

Van Parunak: Don’t be very righteous, since the only kind of righteousness you can put forth is works righteousness, self-righteousness, which merits God’s judgment just as much as wickedness does.

David Thompson: Some suggest it means that one will not be excessively righteous in the sense of a self-righteous, rigid, ritualistic legalism. This is the type of righteousness that becomes stricter than even what God demands.

Philip Graham Ryken: When he tells us not to be “overly righteous,” he might be telling us not to be self-righteous. Grammatically speaking, the form of the verb that the Preacher uses in verse 16 may refer to someone who is only pretending to be righteous and is playing the wise man.  In that case, the person the Preacher has in mind is too righteous by half. He does not have the true holiness that comes by faith, but only the hypocritical holiness that comes by works.

After all, if God’s standard is perfection — if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength — then how could anyone ever be “overly righteous”? No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think they are good enough for God. This leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a “peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded.”

In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, “I don’t deserve to be treated like this. Doesn’t God know who I am?” It is also a very short step from there to saying, “Who does God think he is?” So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, “too righteous.” In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that “stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward” us as much as we think we deserve.

This is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17 when he tells us not to be too wicked. His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. “Don’t be a fool,” the Preacher is saying. “If you live in sin, you will perish.”

So there are two dangers. One is a temptation for the religious person — self-righteousness. The other is even more of a temptation for the non-religious person — unrighteousness. Both of these errors will lead to destruction; they may even lead to an untimely death. But there is a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. Qoholeth says, “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” (Ecclesiastes 7:18). . .

To fear God is to revere God. It is to know that he is God and we are not. It is to hold him in awe for his majestic beauty. It is to have respect for his mighty and awesome power. Having the true and proper fear of God will help us not to be so self-righteous. We will know that God sees us as we really are, and this will teach us not to pretend to be something we are not. The fear of God will also keep us from living a wicked life, because when we understand his holiness, the last thing we will want to do is fall under his judgment.

David Hubbard: Claiming to be better than we are — self-righteousness — and posing as wiser than we are—playing at wisdom—these are the deadly sins against which Ecclesiastes warns us in verse 16 (see v. 20 as comment on the impossibility of perfect righteousness). In a sense they are one sin, since “righteous” and “wise” are virtually synonymous in wisdom literature, especially Proverbs. The same may be said of “wicked” and “foolish” in verse 17. The self-destructive nature of this conduct is made clear in a rhetorical question which serves as the motivation or argument to support the command (v. 16c): pretending is one of the sins that are bound to find us out. We brag on our prowess; then fall fiat on our face in our failure to maintain the pose.

b.  (:17)  Don’t Kill Yourself Pursuing Wickedness

Do not be excessively wicked, and do not be a fool.

Why should you die before your time?

Robert Laurin: Why should you alienate yourself by extreme conduct from the few good things that life can provide.

David Hubbard: The second admonition (v. 17) is a counter-balance to the first. If we are called to lean away from false claims to righteousness and wisdom, an antidote is not to fall off the other side by diving into wickedness (again the root rāshāʿ; see v. 15) and folly. That overcorrection is almost sure to be fatal, as the motivating question (v. 17c) warns us. Some there may be who defy the odds, swim in the pools of wickedness, and avoid drowning (v. 15). There is no assurance that we shall be among them. Most of the time, even in the short run, wickedness and foolishness produce disaster. In the long run, as we know from the New Testament, that result is inevitable.

B.  (:18-22) Key to Life = Pursuing the Path of Wisdom and the Fear of God

David Malick: (7:18-22) The Place of Fear of God:

To be someone who fears God is to be able to be upright and to live with the knowledge that one is good and evil.

(1)  Statement: It is good to hold on to righteousness and to also be aware of one’s evil because this leads to a fear of God 7:18

(2)  Illustration: Although Wisdom and righteousness are helpful, no one is completely pure 7:19-22

  1. (:18)  Fear God

It is good that you grasp one thing, and also not let go of the other;

 for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.

David Hubbard: Balance is the key: no pretense; no impetuousness. “Both” (as “all” should be read; see v. 15) temptations can be avoided (“escape”)by the one who sober-mindedly and humbly seeks to do things God’s way (“fears God”; see 3:14).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: In other words, we should grab hold of God, “for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them,” which is perhaps more clearly translated “will succeed either way” (NLT) or “will win through at all events” (NAB). Put it this way: a saint or a sinner can become a winner only by trusting in God alone. We are to grab hold of God—or, better, we are to allow God to grab hold of us. The one who tremblingly trusts God avoids the temptation of irreligious antinomianism (i.e., lawlessness) on one side and religious arrogance on the other. The one who tremblingly trusts God worships him because he is worthy of our worship regardless of the sweet or bitter providences that he brings into our lives. Fearing God means…

  • Stand in awe of his majesty.
  • Depend on him.
  • Walk in his word.
  • Stand in awe of his forgiveness.

Don’t go the route of irreligious wickedness.

Don’t go the route of religious self-righteousness.

Take the narrow path: Stick to Jesus. Follow him and you’ll avoid these extremes.

An illustration of this verse is the story of two sons in Luke 15

  • One is irreligious – he’s overly wicked and leaves everything before coming home smelling like Cognac and pigs…
  • One is smug self-righteous guy – “I’ve never broken any rules.”
    • He’s a religious score keeper.
    • He can’t rejoice that his brother his home.
    • He’s condescending and smug.
    • He’s angry at his Father’s compassion because Pharisees don’t like grace.
  • Both need salvation.

Alternate View:

Allen Ross: My conclusion here is that Qohelet simply gives bad advice. Motivated by v.15 that the righteous die young and the wicked live long, Qohelet advises against committing oneself totally to either of the two options. The one who is afraid of what God can do, as evidenced by what he has already done in v.15, will go forth in life accompanied by Qohelet’s two axioms. Sometimes he will employ the one, sometimes the other, and maybe both at the same time—whatever it takes to stay on God’s good side. A balanced, mediocre, boring but safe life.

  1. (:19-22)  Pursue Wisdom

Iain Provan: Verses 19–22 further explain the message of verses 15–18.  Although wisdom may be pursued from bad motives and its pursuit may result in bad consequences, yet in itself it is a good thing. It is vastly superior, in fact, to political or military power (v. 19; cf. 9:13–18; Prov. 21:22; 24:5–6), which is dependent on wisdom for its success. One wise person is “more powerful than ten rulers [perhaps better, officials] in a city.” Yet the wise person will still be a flawed person, because he or she is a human being. No one is sinless (Eccl. 7:20; cf. 1 Kings 8:46), no matter how intent a person is in pursuing God. To err is human.

a.  (:19)  Wisdom Supplies Strength

Wisdom strengthens a wise man

more than ten rulers who are in a city.

David Thompson: Most people do not place much value on wisdom and very few place much value on God’s wisdom. Simply listen to people and watch their decisions and we may quickly discover that the wisdom of God and choosing to do what God deems as wise doesn’t make much difference to most people.

Solomon knew the value of wisdom. He taught his son that there was “nothing” that compared to having God’s wisdom (Prov. 3:13-18). Time and time again he taught his own son to get the wisdom of God because it would do many wonderful things for him (Prov. 4:5-13).

In Solomon’s day, a ruler of a city was not just a political figurehead, he was one who ruled. He had power, he had authority and he had honor. Ten rulers of a city represent a complete and massive amount of strength and power. Solomon is saying one wise man with the wisdom of God has more strength, more power, more authority and honor than ten rulers of a city.

The man with wisdom rules himself and has God’s blessings on his life. He has a supernatural strength given to him by God and he has a reputation that doesn’t just matter in a city, but in eternity.

Philip Graham Ryken: In this simple analogy, the Preacher imagines a city governed by a council of ten. Most cities would be fortunate to have even one wise leader to protect the city. But there is strength in numbers, and this particular city has ten good rulers to govern its civic affairs. A wise person has the strength of a well-governed city.

  • Wisdom governs thought; so the wise person knows how to think about things in a God-centered way.
  • Wisdom governs the will; so the wise person knows what choices to make in life.
  • Wisdom governs speech; so the wise person knows what to say and what not to say.
  • Wisdom governs action; so the wise person knows what to do in any and every situation.

Take hold of wisdom, and it will make you strong.

b.  (:20)  Wisdom Recognizes the Universality of Sin

Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth

who continually does good and who never sins.

David Thompson: When one is thinking wisely, one will be quick to admit what the Word of God says time and time again, and that is no human is perfect! Every human being is a sinner and no man, in and of himself, is totally and completely righteous.

Certainly this principle is established time and time again in the Scripture:

1)  I Kings 8:46 says – “When they sin against Thee (for there is no man who does not sin…)”

2)  Psalm 14:3 says – “…There is no one who does good, not even one.”

3)  Prov. 20:9 says – “Who can say, I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?”

4)  II Chron. 6:36 says – “…for there is no man who does not sin…”

5)  Psalm 143:2 says – “And do not enter into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight no man living is righteous.”

6)  Rom. 3:23 says – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

7)  James 3:2 says – “For we all stumble in many ways…”

8)  I John 1:9 says – “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.

No one is perfect and that is a Biblical fact. Now the wise man realizes there will be times in his own life when he will sin, when he will fail. Apparently understanding this is a critical key to living a meaningful life.

If one doesn’t grasp this point, negative things can happen:

1)  A person can become so depressed with himself or herself that life seems useless and worthless. If one does not realize this about himself, one may miss an exciting, meaningful life even though he is a sinner.

2)  A person can become so used to his sin that it becomes excessive. One who doesn’t admit there are times he sins is one who lives in his sin continually. He is not living the truth and any relationship we have with God must always be based on truth.

No one who tries to cover his sin will go anywhere in his relationship with God (Prov. 28:13).

A critical key to living a fulfilled life is knowing and admitting you aren’t perfect. There is a tension of admitting sinfulness and striving for righteousness. When this tension is at the proper level, life is meaningful.

c.  (:21-22)  Wisdom Accepts Personal Perversity

Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken,

lest you hear your servant cursing you.

22 For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.

David Hubbard: In integrity we should face our own propensity to sin by remembering the times, whether by tongue or by thought (“heart”), we have spoken badly of others and heaped harsh wishes on their heads.

Iain Provan: Verse 22 identifies by way of example one such flaw (cursing others in one’s heart), drawing from the reality of universal human sinfulness in this regard the advice that people should not be too attentive to the words of their servants and (presumably) take punitive action against them. One’s attitude to other human beings should be conditioned by the awareness of one’s own flawed humanity. The truly wise person who fears God and remembers who he is (vv. 15–18, 20) will also remember who one’s neighbor is and will behave accordingly.


David Malick: Only Fear of God Satisfies:

Except for fearing God, all attempts at explaining life lead to the trappings of despair because mankind’s tendency is to seek that which is against God’s upright design for him.

1) The Failure of Human Attempts: All of man’s attempts of skillfully explaining life fall short of the mysteries before him 7:23-24

2) The Deliverance of Fear: In examining life Solomon discovered that only the one who fears God can escape the painful trappings of life 7:25-26

3) The Tendency of Mankind: In examining life Solomon found that man’s bent as a race is to seek that which is against God’s upright design for them 7:27-29

A.  (:23-24) Impossibility of Discovering Wisdom Apart from Sovereign Revelation

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: From a recognition of our moral limitations in Ecclesiastes 7:19–22, Solomon moves on to a recognition of our mental limitations in verses 23–24.

Ultimate, or godlike, wisdom is elusive and incomprehensible.  Trying to grasp it is like trying to leap from Boston to Brisbane or like trying to jump into the middle of the Black Sea and touch the bottom. It is too distant and too deep.

These horizontal and vertical challenges, however, are intentional. God alone is God, and God alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. We were never supposed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. His thoughts are too high and too deep for us to comprehend (cf. Isa. 55:9; cf. Rom. 11:33). To admit that we don’t have the answers shows wisdom on our part. Calvin called it “learned ignorance.”  Even the wise are not all wise, and sometimes sin.

  1. (:23)  Failure of All Attempts

I tested all this with wisdom,

and I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me.

  1. (:24)  Futility of Grasping the Mysterious

What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious.

Who can discover it?

B.  (:25-26) Impossibility of Avoiding the Seductiveness of Sin Apart from Sovereign Grace

  1. (:25)  Desiring to Seek Out the Essence of Wisdom and Folly

I directed my mind to know, to investigate,

and to seek wisdom and an explanation,

and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness.

Craig Bartholomew: The rest of this section expands on Qohelet’s failure to find the wisdom he sought. Verse 25 reminds us of the energy involved in his search (to know, to explore, to seek), the extent of his search (wisdom, an explanation, wickedness, stupidity, folly, madness), and its intensely personal nature: he turned his “heart” to know and explore. Qohelet has been fully invested in his journey of exploration, but the result is that wisdom is far from him (v. 23) and so deep that if it exists he cannot find it; indeed, who can (v. 24)? The metaphors of distance (far off) and depth (extraordinarily deep) evoke both the extent of Qohelet’s quest and its dismal failure.

Douglas Miller: Qohelet has sought wisdom but found it elusive. As he explored folly as well as wisdom, he found that Dame Folly is dangerous. . .  He has not discovered the scheme or ultimate solution to life. But he does know that God made people in such a way that they keep trying to make sense of things, and that no person can be so righteous or so wise as to control life to his or her complete advantage.

  1. (:26)  Discovering the Power of the Seductiveness of Sin

a.  Personification of Temptation and Bondage

And I discovered more bitter than death the woman

whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains.

b.  Pleasing God Depends on Sovereign Grace

One who is pleasing to God will escape from her,

but the sinner will be captured by her.

C.  (:27-29) Impossibility of Establishing Righteousness Apart from Sovereign Redemption

  1. (:27-28)  Goodness in Mankind Is Extremely Rare

’Behold, I have discovered this,’ says the Preacher,

‘adding one thing to another to find an explanation,

28 which I am still seeking but have not found.

I have found one man among a thousand,

but I have not found a woman among all these.’

Craig Bartholomew: Clearly these images are intended to evoke the inaccessibility of wisdom. . .

Douglas Miller: In the context of the whole section (7:23-29), either the rarity of good people (like the rarity of wisdom) or the elusiveness of finding them (like the elusiveness of wisdom) is in focus more than gender comparisons.

  1. (:29)  God’s Creation Mortally Marred by the Fall – Requiring Sovereign Redemption

Behold, I have found only this,

that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.

George Hendry: The conclusion, which is the utmost to which human wisdom can attain, is that man has fallen from the state in which God created him, and through his cleverness has brought about his own undoing.  The irresolvable antinomies of life have their focal point in the fact that man is at variance with himself.