Explore: Can I Keep on Going?

• The Explore the Bible lesson for August 11 focuses on Ecclesiastes 7:11-14, 15-18; 8:10-12, 16-17.

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 • The Explore the Bible lesson for August 11 focuses on Ecclesiastes 7:11-14, 15-18; 8:10-12, 16-17.

This passage gives great insight into the ways of wisdom and God’s working in the world. This does not mean, however, these verses give human beings a manner of comprehending God. Ecclesiastes is very clear that this is impossible.

The opening section discusses wisdom by comparing it with an inheritance and a shelter (7:1-12). This should not be taken to mean everyone who is wise has money or vice-versa. It does likely mean, though, Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes) had a great deal of both wisdom and wealth.

For our purposes, however, wisdom as an inheritance and shelter indicates that wisdom makes certain aspects of life easier. We might think, for instance, of those people who were fortunate enough to grow up in a solid stable home environment. They are certainly disposed to live well later in life, although not necessarily destined to do so.

By contrast, people who grow up in less- stable home environments are not destined for foolishness and sin, even though their path to wisdom and righteousness likely will be more difficult.

Circumstances affect behavior

One’s circumstances do affect one’s behavior, even if they are not the sole determining factor. This is Qoheleth’s other major point about wisdom: “It preserves those who have it” (7:12). Wealth is fleeting and can vanish in a surprise catastrophe, such as a market crash. Moreover, increased wealth also can accelerate one’s demise through bad decisions. Wisdom, however, remains and can preserve life.

The next two verses (7:13-14) seem tailor-made to perplex readers. Opening with the phrase, “Consider what God has done,” Qoheleth mentions apparent crooked things in the world as made by God (7:13), thereby critiquing human judgments about what is crooked and what is straight. A common saying, “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” is apt here.

According to Ecclesiastes, because God is in control of all of these situations, human beings should restrain any evaluation of present circumstances. This obviously is frustrating, as Qoheleth voices by stating, “Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future” (7:14).

The nature off wisdom

In the next section, Qoheleth discusses the nature of wisdom and righteousness. At first, because he has observed righteousness leading to the death of the righteous and wickedness prolonging the life of the wicked, he offers a path of moderation between the two: “Do not be overrighteous, / neither be overwise – / why destroy yourself? / Do not be overwicked, / and do not be a fool – / why die before your time?” (7:16-17).

In truth, he thinks that true wisdom lies between the two extremes: “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes” (7:18). In many ways, he, like Thomas Aquinas and much of the moral thinking of the Christian tradition, presents virtuous living as the mean between two excessive positions. For instance, courage is the mean between foolhardiness, on the one hand, and cowardice, on the other. Moderation becomes the key for genuine wise living.

Qoheleth directly addresses concerns about injustice in the following section. These situations should seem familiar to us as well—the righteous (or the innocent) accused, tried and convicted for crimes they did not commit, and the wicked (or the guilty) allowed to go free despite the fact they are guilty, even “receiv(ing) praise in the city where they did this.”

Indeed, we read news stories like this all-too-often, sometimes with destructive consequences. These circumstances can even spur on more bad activity, giving people a sense the legal system is defective or perhaps even a joke. 

Delayed justice

Even delaying the execution of justice can cause societal problems (8:11), since the watching public does not see a crime called what it is. In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is closely related to that for “justice,” and they often appear together in the Old Testament.

Here, we find Qoheleth saying that when one vanishes, the other follows suit. Therefore, despite the apparent benefits of indulging in wickedness, whether personal sin or criminal behavior, Ecclesiastes reiterates that it is better “with those who fear God, who are reverent before him” (8:12).

Qoheleth expresses confidence that everything will work out, although he does not give much immediate assurance to human observers: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (8:17).

As we have seen already, God does not work according to human logic. There is a mystery to divine providence that cannot be fully understood. This should not lead us to despair, but it does leave open many questions about our present circumstances.

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