It is written:
“Do not be overly wicked, Nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time?” (Ecclesiastes 7:17)
There is a story told about the danger of picking Bible verses out of context. A person was opening up his Bible with his eyes closed, picking out verses at random to find a message from God to him. The first passage he found said “he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5). Puzzled, he closed his eyes and picked another verse. He was surprised to find it said, “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Needless to say, he learned an important lesson about “context” that day.
As I have studied with people over the years, I have seen time after time why the study of context is so important. When a passage of Scripture is taken out of context, the Word of God is twisted terribly. Unstable people do this to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-17).
One excellent example is this passage from Ecclesiastes.
Is Solomon telling people that they should lead a moderately wicked life? Those who ignore the context of Scripture have at times come to this erroneous conclusion. But when the context and the content are studied, the foolishness of such a position is readily observed.
First, the Book of Ecclesiastes registers the repentance of Solomon, the king of Israel, and was probably written near the end of his life.
“According to a Jewish tradition, Solomon wrote the Song (of Solomon) in his early years, expressing a young man’s love. He wrote Proverbs in his mature years, manifesting a middle-aged man’s wisdom. And reportedly wrote Ecclesiastes in his declining years, revealing an old man’s sorrow (cf. 12: 1). Perhaps Ecclesiastes is the record of Solomon’s regret for and repentance from his grave moral lapses recorded in 1 Kings 11. The Book of Ecclesiastes, then, would have been written just before Solomon’s death and the subsequent division of his kingdom that occurred in 931 B.C. Hence, it should be placed in the 10th century B.C.” (Norman L. Geisler & Paul A. Compton, Having Fun Under The Sun: A Study of Ecclesiastes, 78-83 (Kindle Edition); Matthews, NC; Bastion Books)
Solomon had spent many years living wickedly before the Lord:
1 Kings 11:6-Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not fully follow the LORD, as did his father David.
Indeed, the only time in the Old Testament when we read of the horrid number “six hundred and sixty and six” is in regard to King Solomon, near the time when he first began his descent into wickedness and apostasy (1 Kings 10:14; cf. 2 Chronicles 9:13). Indeed, there is no doubt that the example of Solomon is the Old Testament background for what John writes about the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:18).
One researcher has pointed out:
“The Jews had seen six hundred and sixty-six before. Prior to Solomon’s slide into apostasy, a description of his reign is given. One of the things said about him is that “the weight of gold which came in to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold” (1 Kings 10:14). From the number of shields (300) to the price of a horse imported from Egypt (150 shekels), we ﬁnd round numbers, except when the number of gold talents is mentioned. From the point where 666 talents of gold is mentioned, we read of Solomon’s apostasy. First, Solomon violates the law regarding the accumulation of horses, chariots, wives, and gold (1 Kings 10:26; see Deut. 17:16-17)….Second, Solomon sells himself to foreign interests. It is here that we see a parallel with Revelation 13.” (Gary DeMAR, Last Days Madness, 832-834 (IBooks Edition); Powder Springs, Georgia; American Vision)
Solomon had spent so many years living in wickedness, and Ecclesiastes is his report on what he has learned.
Second, Solomon tried living in several different lifestyles in direct opposition to God’s Word. These pursuits were illustrated by the words “under the sun” and “under heaven” which are repeatedly echoed throughout Ecclesiastes.
“While Qohelet sounds nonorthodox in the light of the rest of the canon, he presents a true assessment of the world apart from the light of God’s redeeming love. His perspective on the world and life is restricted; he describes it as life “under the sun,” that is, apart from heavenly realities, apart from God. In other words, his hopelessness is the result of the curse of the fall without recourse to God’s redemption.136”. (Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 550 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
With this context in mind, Solomon in our passage is explaining the folly of trying to lead a “moderate” life apart from God’s Word. He tried living a lifestyle of just “trying to be a good person.” He thought that since he had seen many people be destroyed by self-righteousness, he shouldn’t be “too good.” And as long as he wasn’t “overly wicked,” that would amount to a good life, right?!
Solomon learned that this is a flawed attempt at life, and it is a lesson that many in our day and age have not yet learned. After all, the belief that man’s good deeds can somehow outweigh his bad deeds is as modern as ever. Let’s face it: don’t a lot of people in our world try to live by this philosophy as well? They believe that they are going to be “okay” as long as they are not “too bad” (overly wicked). It has become a regular event for people to believe that they don’t really need to be forgiven by God, because they haven’t really sinned “too much.” Even our national leaders buy into and advocate this nonsense!
Solomon is teaching us that this type of lifestyle is ultimately fruitless and empty. It will lead to heartache and ruin. He makes this clear just a few verses later:
Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 (ERV)- I used my wisdom and thought about all these things. I wanted to be wise, but I couldn’t do it. 24 I cannot understand why things are as they are. It is too hard for anyone to understand. 25 I studied and I tried very hard to find true wisdom. I tried to find a reason for everything. I did learn that it is foolish to be evil, and it is crazy to act like a fool.
Solomon learned that it is “foolish to be evil, and it is crazy to act like a fool.”
The Book of Ecclesiastes is not advocating living a life of wickedness. Instead, Solomon points out that this whole philosophy is another failed attempt at finding lasting joy and purpose. Trying to base your life on any philosophy separated from God’s Word is folly.
Finally, that Solomon is not advocating living a life of wickedness is made clear from what he has learned about judgment:
Ecclesiastes 11:9-Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, And let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; Walk in the ways of your heart, And in the sight of your eyes; But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.
Ecclesiastes 12:14-For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil.
Remember: the untaught and unstable twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), and one way that they do this is by disregarding the context of God’s Word.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.