Concerning many issues, God operates on a strictly need-to-know basis.
A lot of big questions floated around this last year. One of them had to do with where covid-19 came from. Another, more important, was how to fight it. And then finally, the biggest one, generating the most emotion, was (and is), “When will this be over?” That last one generated such a fever pitch, religious folks started coming out of the woodwork, giving answers. One of them said God showed him a vision that Covid would disappear in April, 2020.
That didn’t happen.
Then there were questions about the 2020 national election about who was going to occupy the White House next. Once more, people claiming prophetic insight gave answers, some with frenzied passion, and rock-solid certainty. And again, that didn’t happen. These believers were telling us what they wanted to happen, and not what God told them would happen. When it comes to prophecy, discernment is a big big deal. You have to know the difference between what you want, and what God is actually saying. Apparently, they blurred that distinction, and so a lot of answers were given without accountability, or humility.
In the aftermath of the election, one evangelical said, “Look, if you’ve got a fifty-fifty shot at getting it right, and you still get it wrong, then dude, You’re weren’t hearing from God.”
As a result of the failed answers, another group of people mocked the whole thing, portraying it as a bizarre religious circus, complete with politically compromised evangelicals, and fake prophecies. At some level, such detractors always hope to indict the prophecies of the Bible as well. This line of thinking reinforces them in a lifestyle like the sign seen on the side of a city bus:
“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
That’s their answer. It’s also wrong. If Solomon could see this sign, he would have asked, “Enjoy what? If there’s no God, what do you hope to enjoy? You people have become a bunch of fools!”
Either way, human beings cannot tolerate unanswered questions, and so we supply our own, even if they are wrong.
Then what do we do in the gap where we don’t have all the answers, when we can’t figure out either politics, or pandemics, moral frameworks, or cosmic injustice? Join Solomon as he begins to frame the problem in Ecclesiastes 7:15.
“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 evil doing.”
There is no ready answer to this, and thousands of more issues like it. Therefore, Solomon says in verse 16, “Be not overly righteous” and in verse 17, “Be not overly wicked.”
16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?
At first it sounds like this verse is teaching us moderation—to be moderately righteous, only. But Jesus Christ himself said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” and, “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These are definitely not statements of moderation.
No, in verse 16, you have to pay attention to the phrase “do not make yourself too wise.” That means don’t turn yourself into a religious self improvement project. Don’t go beyond what God has done in you. Don’t pretend you are more than what God has done in you. Otherwise, you will be like the Pharisees, who loved to be admired for their superior sanctity of life. If you play these hypocritical games, it will ultimately become destructive to your spiritual life.
Verse 17 says, “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?”
This warning is to all those who have concluded that there’s a lot of chaos in our world, with very few answers, therefore, there’s probably no God. Just enjoy your life, like the bus sign said. However, when a person feels no accountability to a transcendent authority, “enjoyment” gets ugly, fast. Solomon says whoever takes this route will end up prematurely dead. The enjoyment of at-risk behaviors, statistically speaking, means you’ll die sooner.
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.
Get ahold of Solomon’s advice, and don’t let go, because this is where real God-fearing comes from–the determination not to be a religious hypocrite, or a sinful fool. Truly, this kind of wisdom “gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city” (v. 19).
For those of us tempted to overestimate our spiritual progress, Solomon adds in verse 20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Note that he says, there’s not a righteous man who doesn’t sin. It’s a reminder that no matter how far you progress in the faith, you will never graduate from needing the blood of Jesus Christ to continue your fellowship with God the Father. Even when we’re in eternity with Jesus, we’re going to recognize the marks on his hands, feet, and side—reminders that we are there only because of the washing work of His cross. Meanwhile, on this side of eternity, we will need the power of His blood sacrifice daily.
Solomon then provides a small proof of this fact, in case you’ve begun to believe otherwise. He says, “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you” (v. 21). Before you’re crushed by someone trash talking you, or maybe just making a small “observation” about you, please remember, “your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (v. 22). Check the things you say about even your best friend when you’re upset with them.
You’ll notice that the person trash talking you has the same thing wrong with them as you do with yourself. It is evidence that you are not as advanced in righteousness as you think. Careless speech reveals the fact of universal evil. The sin nature in everyone will always find some suitable outlet, and it’s usually the mouth. That doesn’t make sinful speech okay, only typical. Solomon says this for the benefit of everybody who thinks they’ve got righteousness all figured out.
Then he gives a personal testimony in verses 23-24, when he says, “All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?”
God had already given Solomon unsurpassed wisdom, but strangely, Solomon desired more, even if it led him down blind alleys. He wanted to probe areas not given to him, and found the effort exasperating. He broke down the search into two parts. “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” (v. 25).
His exploration included both the noble, as well as the low. He hoped to find answers in either direction. But in verse 26, he says, “I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters.” Sometimes while you are allegedly seeking, you end up finding out things about yourself.
In this case, Solomon found he was easily trapped by sexual enticement. It was an addiction, as seen in the fact that he had seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines (c.f. 1 Kings 11). Maybe some guys would envy this, but Solomon reminds us that it was bitter. The emptiness of casual relationships, and being wanted for nothing more than his money, power, and prestige, left the king feeling like a cardboard cutout.
He also found in his searching, that “he who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her” (v. 26).
When Solomon’s quest for answers started, and he made that big decision to party, dumpster dive, and bottom-feed, he had no idea what he would be finding out. The big discovery was how easy it is to become addicted, to be taken to the lowest behaviors, and how a man of God could live like an animal. That is what you learn when you take the way of a fool.
But thank God, Solomon also discovered something else while reaching high, and trying to solve every enigma of life. He learned how to escape the traps of temptation, and freedom came through pleasing God. Addictions and escape don’t sound very impressive for a man of Solomon’s ilk. We would expect that he would find answers to mathematical puzzles, great cosmological questions, or solve paradoxes, and grand moral conundrums.
Nope. Just addiction, and deliverance—the things that most affected Solomon’s life as a man of God, and a king of Israel.
“Behold, this is what I found, said the preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things–which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found, this one thing I found: one man among a thousand, but a woman among all these I have not found” (v. 27).
This statement is written in the style of hyperbole, as Solomon points out the scarcity of anyone who has successfully inquired into the questions he tried to sort through. One man in a thousand? Astounding. Not one woman among a thousand? Stunning, given the fact that Solomon himself set up a woman as an example of wisdom in Proverbs 31.
Verse 29 continues, by saying, “this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” Human beings began, as declared by God “very good,” but have proceeded to get involved in knowledge not meant for them, starting from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, onward.
I didn’t know how much Christians involved themselves with intrigue until around 1998. At that time our entire culture was ramping up into what we called Millennial Madness, or Y2K. The secular world was worried that computers might not be able to reset to the new millennium, causing a general meltdown across tech boundaries.
Christians were coming forward with a lot of prophecies that Jesus would come back in the year 2000. In fact, I noticed that the shelves of Christian bookstores were filling up with prophetic titles. I had been doing campus ministry at that time, and walking around Ohio State, hoping to use these concerns as a way of starting faith conversations. I explained that I didn’t know whether Jesus would appear at the turn of the millennium, but that I would like to discuss with them, from the Bible, how to be ready for Him, whenever He did come back.
To borrow Solomon’s wording, I found “one man in a thousand” who was interested. The rest were interested in the topic of the second coming, but not in being ready for it. I began to realize that it’s a great thing when a human being asks, “What does God want me to know right now?” When I hear that question, I get excited, because we have a whole book of answers.
When we approach the subject of living with questions that cannot be answered, here are a few suggestions:
First: Obey the things you do know, and pay attention to answers you have readily available. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:28). This word has been written down in a book you can crack open. Every page represents an answer to some kind of question. About Bigfoot? About whether Bruce Lee or Elvis is still alive somewhere? No. The answers the Bible provides correspond to our being outfitted for eternity. Even the church itself in a gathered community reinforces to us these “answers.”
Some things you don’t get to know. Not now. The disciples asked when God would restore the nation of Israel, and Jesus told them, “It is not for you to know the times and seasons the Father has placed under His authority.” He also said as much concerning His return: “No one knows the day or the hour.”
For the rest of your life, God will allow things to exist around you that cannot be answered. Trust and faith will proliferate. Answers will not.
Second: Don’t cave in to the temptation of living as if you have no answers at all. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called progressive Christians get into this boat, glorifying doubt as a virtue, or some indication of superior intelligence. Dallas Willard said, “We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.”¹
Once we cast shade on the certainty of known truth, such as in Scripture, then boldness, and even hope retreats. Your life will follow that retreat like a magnet. Remember that what you believe about God is the most defining force in your life, even if you don’t believe in Him at all.
Once you notice you are surrounded with things that cannot be answered, however, apply what Peter said: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15).
¹Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.