This weeks Ecclesiastes article first published on Christian Today
Having reflected on the way that we regard our times and look at life, in Ecclesiastes 7: 15-22 Solomon turns to some other conundrums of both ancient and contemporary life. He warns us of four dangers that really hit home today.
1. The danger of an unrealistic view of life
It seems meaningless that the good die young and the wicked live on. That is sometimes how life is. In the fantasy world inhabited by some Christians and non-Christians alike we have this rather vague notion that there is some kind of karma whereby the good are rewarded in this life and the bad are punished. That’s not the reality, nor is it the Bible’s perspective. The prophet Habakkuk reflected on the injustice in the world and the justice of God.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
You have made people like the fish in the sea,
like the sea creatures that have no ruler.
The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks,
he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet;
and so he rejoices and is glad (1: 13-15).
The fishers of cruelty seem to triumph over the fishers of men.
The New Testament continues the theme. ‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you‘ (1 Peter 4:12).
We need a bigger and more eternal perspective – bearing in mind the ultimate Day of Judgment and the reconciliation of all things, when the books are opened.
2. The danger of over-righteousness.
This is not a call to avoid following God with all your heart. It is a reflexive verb – don’t claim to be more righteous than you are. In other words it’s a warning against self-righteousness – an ironic reflection on the way a person thinks about and presents themselves. It is a kind of play-acting righteousness – a holier-than-thou sanctimony: ‘they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them “Rabbi,”‘ Jesus says (Matthew 23:7).
3. The danger of giving in to evil
‘Do not be overwicked’ in verse 17 means that we are not to give in to evil. We cannot allow our natural wickedness to run riot. Just because ‘there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins’ (verse 20) does not mean that we should just give in and sin gladly. We are here walking the fine line between the path of moral legalism and moral indifference. Only by keeping our eyes on Christ can we keep our balance.
Solomon is suggesting that the wise will avoid these extremes. It’s not that they will be bland, but rather that they will be aware of their own weakness and sin and will avoid both religious self-righteousness and cynical self-absorbed despair.
4. The danger of a loose tongue and a self-righteous ear.
He also warns us not to pay attention to every word people say, because we will hear things that we do not want to hear. Is this not a word for today’s culture? There seems to be a panic every time someone has been caught saying something inappropriate or wrong through old social media posts. There is a horrific sanctimonious self-righteousness that seems to infect our media commentators and ourselves. We are ‘shocked’ when we hear people speaking inappropriately. Yet we know in our hearts that we have done it many times ourselves.
I was once speaking at a conference when I retired to my room to get some rest. Before I could get up I heard two of the other speakers standing outside my door and speaking about me, not realising I was there – it wasn’t exactly flattering. I was pretty hurt and upset until I realised that Solomon’s words here were true – how often had I said something demeaning or derogatory about another person – when they were not present. It is so easy to do. (Apart from the fact that what they said was probably true!)
Perhaps the Christian solution to this is to remember that what Jesus said: ‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken’ (Matthew 12:36).
The follower of Christ will have a realistic view of life (‘sin’ happens); an avoidance of self-righteousness (I’m ‘sin’); a desire to turn away from wickedness rather than indulge it (I won’t indulge ‘sin’); and be quick to listen and slow to speak (I won’t talk about other peoples ‘sin’). These are not bad pointers to having a more meaningful life – a life that can really only be lived if we follow the one who himself became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.