Topic: Ecclesiastes Passage: Ecclesiastes 7:15–7:29
July 13th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. "Extreme" to the Extreme
Don't you think usage of the word extreme is becoming...well...extreme?
I know you know what I'm talking about. Extreme sports. Extreme worship. Extreme youth. Extreme celebrity, and about a thousand companies and books and whatever that have extreme in the title, and sometimes spelled without the first "e"; just a big "X". Right?
In fact I saw one Christian publisher who even came out with a book called "Extreme Grandparenting". The subtitle read, "The Ride of Your Life" and showed a close-up of a granddad with his eight or nine year old grandson, both with mountain biking helmets on. But right below that picture there was a shot of an adult on a mountain bike who was catching some serious air, maybe 9 or 10 feet of the ground, going off a cliff.
I think that was supposed to be grandpa. Pretty extreme.
But to muddy the waters even more I'd like to add another term that includes the word "extreme". It's a term inspired by the writer of Ecclesiastes. I don't think we'll ever see it on any skateboards or energy drinks, but it's important we understand what it means.
Here's the phrase: "Extreme righteousness". "Extreme righteousness".
So what is "extreme righteousness"? Well to understand it, we need to return to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 7. Let's pick up where we left off last time.
II. The Passage: "I Have Seen Everything" (7:15-29)
Listen to what the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes 7, verse 15:
A. Breaking with Tradition (7:15)
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.
If we were reading this in Hebrew, we would immediately be reminded of the main theme of Ecclesiastes. When the Teacher talks about his "vain" life, he is using the Hebrew word "hevel", a word that means vapor, or figuratively vain, meaningless, pointless.
In this life that the Teacher is coming to believe is ultimately pointless, or at least its point or purpose is beyond knowing, in this life, the Teacher has seen everything. In saying this I believe the Teacher is saying something like our expression, "I've seen it all!"
And one of the things he had seen was a situation that defied the common logic of his day. He had seen a "righteous man perish in his righteousness, and a wicked man prolong his life in his evil doing".
You seem, the Hebrews believed that the Law of Moses taught that if one kept God's commandments, he or she prolong their days. If the obeyed, they would live. In the same way, if one rejected God's law and chose the way of evil, he or she would perish in their foolishness.
If we were to look back at the book of Job, this is certainly what Job's friends believed. That's why they were certain Job's suffering was a result of some sin, some wrong on his part.
But the Teacher had seen a righteous man who died for no apparent reason, with no apparent wrong committed, a man who was...well...righteous. Maybe he died a young man. Maybe he died a tragic death. For whatever reason, this incident stuck with the Teacher.
What also struck him was another apparent exception to the rule: a man who was plainly wicked, a man who plainly made foolish decisions, a man who associated with dangerous people, this man...in spite of his wickedness...this man continued to live.
Maybe these men were caught in some circumstance together, some tragic event. And when the righteous man died, and the wicked man lived, the Teacher took it to heart.
Whatever the Law of Moses was saying, it didn't mean what so many thought it meant.
But look at where the Teacher concludes in light of this disturbing reality.
B. Hold on to Both Instructions (7:16-18)
Look at verses 16-18:
16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 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.
Now, at first glance, the Teacher seems to making a pretty unorthodox recommendation here. Some understand that the Teacher, based on what he has observed about the righteous and the wicked is suggesting that if you are too righteous, you will die just like the man he observed. So, therefore, don't be too righteous.
And at the same time, don't be too wicked. Don't go to extremes. Avoid, as one writer puts it, "overzealous righteousness and overindulgent sinfulness". If you are little righteous and a little wicked, then maybe, just maybe, you will avoid destruction and dying before your time.
But is this really what the Teacher is saying? I don't think so. And I'll tell you why.
First of all, the person who truly fears God (v. 18) would not aim to be "half and half": just a little righteous and just a little wicked.
But even more, second, if the Teacher was writing in response to his observation in verse 15, and was using that observation to develop some kind of life-strategy, then wouldn't he say, "don't be overly righteous, but be as wicked as you want"? Wasn't it the wicked man who lived?
But he doesn't say that. He knows, as he has already stated in this book, that wickedness, that foolishness will never ultimately benefit you. But what then is he saying about righteousness?
I believe that what he is telling his readers, what he is telling us, is that trusting in our righteousness will ultimately do us no good, because our righteousness is never righteous enough. It will not keep us from death, even an untimely death, as the Teacher had clearly observed.
This is what the Teacher must mean when he talks about being "overly righteous" in verse 16. And this is what I'm calling "extreme righteousness".
"Extreme righteousness" is trusting ultimately in our righteousness when ultimately our righteousness is never righteous enough.
The person who considers themselves "very righteous" and "very wise" is blinded to their own failures. And that the Teacher is addressing this kind of mindset is confirmed the rest of the verses that make up this chapter.
C. But It was Far from Me (7:19-24)
Look with me at verses 19 and 20:
19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.
The Teacher wants to confirm that wisdom is an extremely valuable commodity; it can be a great means of protection. But "extreme wisdom" and "extreme righteousness" is no guarantee of anything. Why?
19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. [And here's where I would read a "But" or an "And yet"...And yet...] 20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.
Even those who are considered righteous by others, even they sin. Everyone does. There's no escaping that fact, even if those who are "overly righteous" and "too wise" are blinded to that truth. It is still true.
And look at how the Teacher goes on to drive this point home. He give his readers an example, and example that should both convict, and call everyone to humility and understanding:
Look at verses 21 and 22:
21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.
Ooooo! Ouch! Could it be that one of the tendencies of those who are overly righteous is their tendency to quickly judge others, for even the smallest failures?
What they are not allowing their hearts to remind them of is the fact that they too have cursed others. That they too have spoken against, they have cursed another person. And because they fail to acknowledge this, they fail to have any understanding for their fellow sinner.
Their "extreme righteousness" makes them extremely proud and extremely unmerciful.
Look at verse 23. The Teacher quickly confirms: 23 All this I have tested by wisdom.
He says, "I have searched the world, as well as my own heart, and know this is true. In fact, he admits as the verse continues, in fact:
I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me...it was far from me. There was something about me that kept me from genuine wisdom. We are what we are, and every generation before us has been trapped in the same condition.
24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
As he has stated before, the Teacher knows that we can figure out this sad monotony to life. We can discover the key to free ourselves from the cycle of human failure. But the answer is not to deny such failure, to say we have no sin.
D. Summing Up (7:25-29)
Look at how the Teacher sums it up in verses 25-29:
25 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. [this is that quest to understand why we are the way we are] 26 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. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things- 28 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. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
As the Teacher has been searching for some ultimate meaning to the merry-go-round that is life, or as he puts it in verse 27, "while I was adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things", he realized that men and women are mutually destructive players in the game of wickedness.
An example of this is the adulterous woman, the harlot who lures men into her bed, and in doing so, lures men into destruction. A righteous man can escape her, but the reality of this kind of foolishness simply confirms the Teacher's conclusion in verse 28.
He is not saying in verse 28 that women or more wicked than men. He is saying that in all of his searching he found only one man, one person who was righteous, all the rest, men and woman, were wicked. In this example, the woman lures, and the man succumbs. You see, all are guilty. That's his conclusion in verse 29.
Notice the word "they" there. God made man [or mankind...humanity] upright, but they have sought out many schemes. God is not the reason for our condition. All of us, men and women alike, all of us are guilty.
III. Acknowledging Our "Schemes"
Yes, we are surrounded today by what it seems is a new craze over "extremes"; extreme this and extreme that. But in the midst of all this, we continue to struggle with something that is a very old "extreme".
Do you recognize your own temptations to "extreme righteousness", to trusting in your own goodness?
There are some of you who grew up in Christian homes or at least, good, morally-centered homes, where you were taught to always do what is right. Many of you have never been in trouble with the law. Many have never gotten in a fight. Many have never cheated on their taxes. And when someone like yourself compares themselves to others in our society, it's hard not to think of yourself as...well...as righteous.
Others of you have come through very difficult circumstances and suffered at the hands of people around you. But in working through the pain of these circumstances, you have been led to believe that everything was always someone else's fault. Even when you chose to take the wrong path, you've been told that choice was determined by the pain you endured earlier in your life. And so eventually, you begin to hold onto what we could call, "the victim's righteousness".
Still others of you have acknowledged your past wickedness and foolishness. And because you know you once lived like hell, you have turned and run toward heaven. You have forgiveness from God, and you have discovered the guidance of God's word. But sometimes, in doing this, the radical change that has taken place in your life, in your lifestyle, can deceive you into believing that now, since you are walking God's path, now, you are basically righteous.
Finally, there are some of you who live everyday in the painful and frustrating recognition that you are not righteous enough. But out of this recognition, you have developed a mindset that beating yourself up and dwelling on your sin is the righteous response to such a reality. And so you live holding onto what is, in a sense, a "righteousness of guilt".
Do you see? Do you see that in various ways all of us struggle with the temptations of "extreme righteousness"? All of us are tempted to trust ultimately in our righteousness when ultimately our righteousness is never righteous enough.
A thousand years after the Teacher, the Apostle Paul confirmed this very thing. He wrote:
9 What then? Are we Jewsï»¿ any better off?ï»¿ No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."
Do you believe that? Or are you still holding onto the belief that if you just have enough time, and if you get yourself in the right situation, with just a little help, you can live a righteous life and make yourself worthy of everything God has to offer?
Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote in another letter: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. (I Timothy 1:15)
Do you think that Paul was really the worst sinner in the entire world? Well, that's not really the point, is it? The point is that Paul knew his own heart like no one else could, and because of that, he knew himself to be the worst.
Don't all of us, if we truly know our own hearts, don't all of us have to come to the same conclusion? Shouldn't all of us say, "of whom I am the worst"?
Remember that the Teacher began this chapter, as we saw last week, by talking about what was better for a person in terms of living out our lives here under the sun. Well, as we see here, clearly the Teacher wants us to acknowledge that all of us have "sought out many schemes" because it is better for us if we do so. It is better that we admit to our condition.
Listen to how another Apostle of Jesus emphasizes this same point. Listen to what John writes about out the importance of acknowledging our sin"
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
John knows that we are deceived when we believe that there is some good in us that is worthy of God's blessing. But he also knows...listen to this...He also knows that if we do not admit our dilemma, we will never truly seek a solution. That's why he goes on to say:
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:8, 9)
And just how will God cleanse us from all unrighteousness, especially if we confess with Paul, "of whom I am the worst"? John tells us two verses earlier: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (I John 1:7)
God gave the life of his own Son for us. At the cross of Jesus, God gave him over to the "schemes" of mankind.
If we don't understand the magnitude of the diagnosis, we won't understand the magnitude of the treatment. If we believe that all we need is a couple of pills that the doctor gives us for free because they were samples from drug rep, then, yes, we will be grateful, but not humbled by the seriousness of our condition and the depth of God's response.
But if we understand that what we need is heart replacement surgery, and that the doctor himself has given his own heart to restore us, then that is different, isn't it? As we talked about last week, that sobers us up, doesn't it, to the reality of the situation.
We have to acknowledge our condition. We simply cannot trust in our righteousness because our righteousness is never righteous enough.
And that's true if, for the first time, you are just recognizing your true need for Jesus, or if you have been a follower of Jesus for years.
You see, all of us will continue to be tempted to "extreme righteousness". As we grow in our obedience to God, we will always be tempted to think we've finally got it figured out. But at the same time, God will reveal more about our condition apart from Christ. As His perfections become clearer, so do our imperfections.
And so, all of us must continue to walk in the humility that comes from knowing that our righteousness, our right standing before God, comes not from our own doing, but from the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Are you growing, not only in your understanding of how good God is, but at the same time, how bad you are apart from the grace of God? Are you realizing, more and more, how desperate your condition is without Jesus?
If we are, we will avoid the path of "extreme righteousness".
In a culture that celebrates the "extreme", in which "extreme" this or that is something to be recommended, brothers and sisters, friends, we need to reject "extreme righteousness".
Instead we need to walk in righteousness and wisdom remembering what the Apostle Paul proclaimed in I Corinthians 1, verses 30 and 31:
He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."