Questions From Readers
● What is meant by Ecclesiastes 7:16, 17, where we are told to “be not righteous over much” and “be not over much wicked”?—C. R., Pennsylvania.
To give a little more of the setting and also clarify the expressions by using modern speech, we quote Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 from An American Translation: “I have seen all sorts of things in my empty life: for example, the righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and the wicked prolonging his life in his wickedness. Do not be over-righteous, and be not excessively wise; why should you ruin yourself? Be not over-wicked, nor play the fool; why should you die before your time? It is well that you lay hold of one thing, and also that your hand let not go of another; for he who fears God will come forth with both.” Moffatt’s rendering of Ec 7 verse 18 is interesting: “The best way is to take the one line, and yet not avoid the other; he who stands in awe of God shall avoid both extremes.”
This admonition to avoid both extremes seems to be the key to unlock the meaning of these verses. Some are extreme in their views concerning righteousness, and look down upon others as being wicked if they do not measure up to the extremists’ conceptions of what is righteous. Of this class were those in Isaiah’s time who said: “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.” But rather than considering them holy Jehovah says of them: “These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.” (Isa. 65:5) Similarly self-righteous were the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who thought themselves so righteous and others so wicked. This is highlighted by an illustration Jesus gave, as follows:
“He spoke this illustration also to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who considered the rest as nothing: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and began to pray these things to himself: “O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.” But the tax collector standing at a distance was not willing even to raise his eyes heavenward, but kept beating his chest, saying: “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” I tell you, This man went down to his home proved more righteous than that man; because everyone that exalts himself will be humiliated, but he that humbles himself will be exalted.’”—Luke 18:9-14, NW.
The Pharisee thought himself so righteous, and adulterers and even the tax collector wicked and far below him; yet it was the apparently wicked tax collector that was more righteous in God’s sight. And Jesus said on another occasion to the self-righteous chief priests and older men of influence: “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and the harlots are going ahead of you into the kingdom of God.” That is, after abandoning their oppressions and immoralities. (Matt. 21:23, 31, NW) The self-exalted Jewish religionists were not righteous and wise according to God’s Word, but according to their traditions of men, which Jesus said went counter to the commandments of God. (Matt. 15:1-9) Their righteousness was all outward show. It was so bogged down in fussiness over ceremony and ritual and minor matters that it never did get around to fulfilling the weightier matters. (Matt. 23:23-32) These Jewish religionists were both righteous and wise, but only in their own eyes and in their own conceit. Certainly they were not so regarded by God and Christ, for they were told that the eternally destructive judgment of Gehenna awaited them. (Matt. 23:33) In righteousness such as theirs they were to perish.
These self-righteous ones, on the other hand, considered the true servants of God wicked. They heaped abuse and beatings upon the faithful, accusing them of being evil seditionists and blasphemers and profaners of the temple. (Acts 17:5-8; 24:5, 6) By the men of Satan’s world Christians are viewed as wicked, as Jesus foretold: “Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every kind of wicked thing against you for my sake.” (Matt. 5:11, NW) But let Satan’s dupes view the service of Christians as wicked if they wish; nonetheless it is by such so-called “wickedness” that Christians prolong their lives. Yet they must be cautious not to become over-righteous, that is, becoming fanatical and extreme on immaterial or minor points, doting on character development to appear righteous in their own eyes, all to the neglect of real service as a witness of Jehovah. Neither should they become wise in their own eyes. That would mean their ruin. Of course, they must not be over-wicked, actually committing wrongs against God and man, and rightly “suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters”. They will not play the fool and deny God, and bring upon themselves untimely death.—Ps. 14:1; 1 Pet. 4:15, NW.
With the foregoing in view, it seems that Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 is telling us not to affect extraordinary righteousness as an outward show and try to appear so righteous in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, for we would perish in that sort of hypocritical righteousness. Nor are we to seek excessive wisdom to shine before others, for that would not be true wisdom but only a wisdom in our own conceited eyes, and would bring us to ruin. We will strive to prolong our lives by serving God, even though this may be viewed as wicked by the world under Satan. We will not, however, sink to real wickedness in God’s sight and bring upon us destruction from him. So we will lay hold of godly righteousness but will shun the extreme of Pharisaical self-righteousness, and we will not let go of the so-called “wickedness” of God’s service but will always shun the extremes of real wickedness. Thus we can serve God acceptably and at the same time not go to extremes, neither trying to appear more righteous than we really are nor becoming actually wicked just to avoid appearing like character developers.
● What does Solomon mean when he says he found a true man in a thousand, but never a true woman?—J. K., New Hampshire.
Ecclesiastes 7:27-29 states (AT): “‘See, this is what I have found,’ says Koheleth, ‘adding one to one to find the total, which I have sought repeatedly, but not found; one man out of a thousand have I found, but not a woman have I found among all these. Only see this which I have found, that God made mankind upright, but they have sought out many contrivances.’” Moffatt renders verse 28 as follows: “Here is what I have found, says the Speaker: one true man in a thousand, but never a true woman!”
This can hardly be taken to mean that men are better than women. It cannot be taken literally to mean that there are no true women, for the Bible speaks of faithful women, and there are more women who are Jehovah’s witnesses today than there are men. Solomon could have been speaking from his personal experience, for he had a thousand wives and concubines all told. There may not have been a single one of these that was devoted to Jehovah God, though he doubtless did know some men who were faithful to God. So he may have had his own unhappy domestic situation in mind when he wrote as he did.
However, there is another possible meaning that seems more sound. One thousand is a multiple of ten, which represents earthly completeness. So the thousand may refer to all the women ever to live on the earth, not one of which was or is a perfect woman. Eve did not remain such, in fact never did pass the test that would have shown her perfect in integrity to God. The virgin mother of Jesus, Mary, was not perfect. As for men, the thousand there would also represent earthly completeness and embrace all the men that ever lived upon the earth. The situation of men is different from that of women. Whereas there has never been a perfect woman that held faultless obedience to Jehovah God, there has been one such man, namely Christ Jesus. He is the one true, perfect man, and the only one that ever lived on the earth. So it is very likely that this great truth is embraced by the words of Solomon at Ecclesiastes 7:27-29. The conclusion announced in verse 29 is a sweeping summation that embraces all mankind, man as a race rather than men as contrasted with women, and thus it supports the view last presented rather than the first possibility that Solomon’s words might be referring to his own personal experience.