Andrews University Seminary Studies, Autumn 1985, Vol. 23, No. 3, 243-257.

                    Copyright © 1985 by Andrews University Press.  Cited with permission.



                       ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18


                                   WAYNE A. BRINDLE

                               B. R. Lakin School of Religion

                                        Liberty University

                                   Lynchburg, Virginia 24506


Good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, virtue

and vice--these are common subjects in the Scriptures. The poetical

books, especial1y, are much concerned with the acts of righteous

and unrighteous persons. Qoheleth, in Ecclesiastes, declares that

"there is nothing better....than to rejoice and to do good in one's

lifetime" (3:12, NASB). In fact, he concludes the book with the

warning that "God will bring every act to judgment, everything

which is hidden, whether it is good or evil" (12:14).

But how righteous should one try to be, and for what purpose?

Qoheleth sets forth what appears to be a strange answer in Eccl


I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is

a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a

wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness. Do not be

excessively righteous, and do not be overly wise. Why should you

ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked, and do not be a fool. 

Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp

one thing, and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears

God comes forth with both of them. (NASB)


1. Common Interpretations of Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

Walter C. Kaiser contends that "few verses in Ecclesiastes are

more susceptible to incorrect interpretations than 7:16-18."1 In

fact, interpreters of Ecclesiastes tend to view the argument of 7:15-

18 in a variety of ways, depending upon whether they are willing

to attribute to the author a sense of relativity and "moderation" in

moral conduct.2


1Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago, 1979), p. 85.

2The Jewish Targum seems to interpret the word "righteous" here in

a technical sense as an admonition to judges not to be too severe in their judgments,



244                                 WAYNE A. BRINDLE


The Golden Mean


Kaiser has also observed that "for many, Solomon's advice

is the so-called golden mean; it is as if he had said: 'Don't

be too holy and don't be too wicked. Sin to a moderate degree!' "3 

Indeed, almost every commentator speaks directly or indirectly of

Qoheleth's "doctrine of the golden mean."4 Those commentators

who understand the author of Ecclesiastes to be advocating the idea

of this sort of "golden mean" between virtue and vice usually date

the book quite late, since the concept of a "mean" by which to

guide one's life is thought to have gained popularity during the

time of Aristotle, or even of the Stoics.5

To many, Qoheleth's apparent failure to exhort his readers to

totally righteous behavior seems to leave him open to the charge of

teaching immorality and misconduct.6 They believe that he was

advocating a "middle way" between righteousness and wickedness,

because, as stated by R. N. Whybray, "(i) his [Qoheleth's] experience

had taught him that neither necessarily has any effect on men's



but this is a minority view and is certainly not consistent with the context; cf. A. D.

Power, Ecclesiastes or The Preacher (London, Eng., 1952), p.94; Christian D.

Ginsburg, Coheleth (1861; reprint, New York, 1970), p. 379.

3Kaiser, p. 85; the arguments and conclusions presented here are valid regardless

of one's view of the authorship of Ecclesiastes, as long as one accepts the unity and

positive perspective of the book; this latter problem is important, but cannot be

discussed in this article.

4R. N. Whybray, "Qoheleth the Immoralist? (Qoh. 7:16-17)," in Israelite

Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, ed. John G.

Gammie (New York, 1978), p. 203, n. 4.

5See n. 2, above; cf. Robert Gordis, Koheleth: The Man and His World, 3d ed.

(New York, 1968), pp. 178, 276. Aristotle said, "Virtue lies in a mean between

opposite extremes" (Nicomachean Ethics, 2.6.7), a golden mean that was constantly

advocated by Greek and Latin writers (see Power, pp.94-95). Confucius also

advocated a type of "common sense" which resembled the Aristotelian mean (see

Harold H. Watts, The Modern Reader's Guide to Religions [New York, 1964],

p.540). Buddha recommended his "Middle Way," which sought to avoid the two

extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification; this "Middle Way" involves an

eightfold path toward detachment from life, the elimination of desire, and thus

the cessation of suffering (see Watts, p.480; and J. N. D. Anderson, The World's

Religions [Chicago, 1950], p. 121).

6Whybray, p. 191.

                    ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                                245


fortunes in terms of divinely imposed reward or punishment"; and

"(ii) it had also taught him that extremes of any kind are in

practice more likely to lead to disaster than is moderation."7

Is this what Qoheleth is urging? Is he suggesting that since

personal righteousness is no guarantee of long life or happiness

(7:15), the reader should become "amoral,"8 steering a middle

course between right and wrong? Or is he warning against

becoming "too goody-goody or too impossibly naughty"?9

G. A. Barton, who concludes that Qoheleth's warning against

"extreme righteousness" is a reproof of the excessive legal obser-

vances of the "Chasidim," states further that "some interpreters…

hesitate to admit that Qoheleth really implies that one may sin

to a moderate degree. That, however, is what he undoubtedly implies."10

Loyal Young takes the meaning of the passage to be that if

"one would avoid premature death, let him be neither too righteous

nor too wicked"; he refers to a number of Hebrew and Christian

martyrs, on the one hand, and to the inhabitants of Sodom and

Gomorrah, on the other hand, and then concludes: "The first class

were too righteous for their own safety--the last class were too

wicked to be spared. This seems to be the only satisfactory explana-

tion of the verses."11 He adds, however, that "every man, judging

for himself, is consoled in his shortcomings by the supposition

that those more godly or more moral than he are too righteous,"

and that the true explanation seems to be that "if there is no future

world, let us make the best we can of this, avoiding the extremes of

too much zeal for God, and too much wickedness."12

Some commentators who recognize the "golden mean" in Eccl

7:15-18 do so because they believe that the author is speaking as a

mere "man under the sun." Samuel Cox, for example, concludes



8Ibid., p. 102, n. 3.

9Power, p. 95.

10George A. Barton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of

Ecclesiastes, ICC (New York, 1908), p. 144.

11Loyal Young, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia,

1865), p. 170.


246                                 WAYNE A. BRINDLE


that the author permits a "temperate indulgence both in virtue and

in vice, carrying neither to excess (ver. 18)--a doctrine still very

dear to the mere man of the world."13

J. N. Coleman suggests that the word "saying" belongs at the

end of 7:15, so that the passage should read: "And there is a wicked

man who prolongs his life through his iniquity (saying), 'Be not

righteous overmuch, neither make yourself overwise; why should

you destroy yourself?' "14 Coleman thus declares that "this worldly

maxim is the counsel of the wicked man, not the maxim or

teaching of Solomon"; and consequently, the inspired reply of

Solomon, then, is at vs. 17: "Do not be overmuch wicked"--that is,

do not add to original sin actual rejection of God and his will.15

R. B. Y. Scott contends that the "mean" of 7:16-17 follows

from the assertion in 7:15 that "men do not receive their just

deserts."  It is therefore ''as unprofitable for men to exhaust them-

selves in struggling for moral perfection as it is to hasten their

demise through folly"; and while wisdom is important, he says, no

one can be perfect.16 On the other hand, Robert Gordis interprets

the passage as a warning that "both extremes of saintliness and

wickedness lead to unhappiness"; what is best is a moderate course

between both extremes.17

According to C. D. Ginsburg, it is impossible to make the

passage conform to orthodoxy.18 The author teaches that one

should be ''as moderate in the indulgence of sin" as he should be

"temperate in the practice of virtue."19 Ginsburg adds, however,

that this viewpoint is not the final opinion of the author; that

opinion comes later, at the end of the book, and it should not be

anticipated in this passage.20


13Samuel Cox, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The Expositors' Bible, ed. W. Robert-

son Nicoll (New York, n.d.), p. 200.

14John N. Coleman, Ecclesiastes (Edinburgh, 1867), p. 37.

15Ibid., p. 38.

16R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, AB (Garden City, N.Y., 1965), p. 237. He

attributes the Greek maxim, "nothing too much," to Solon (ca. 600 B.C.).

            17Gordis, p. 179.

18Ginsburg, p. 379.

19Ibid., p. 380.


ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                            247


Fanaticism and Legalism


Other commentators, while perhaps acknowledging an exhort-

tation to moderation in Eccl 7:15-18, see the author as warning

especially against fanaticism. Edgar Jones, for instance, says that

the passage is “reporting that the fanatical extremist does run into

trouble.”21 And Franz Delitzsch holds a somewhat similar opinion,

declaring that the author teaches that one should not exaggerate

righteousness; for “if it occurs that a righteous man, in spite of his

righteousness, perishes, this happens, at earliest, in the case in

which, in the practice of righteousness, he goes beyond the right

measure and limit."22

Certain other commentators see in all of this a reference to the

legalism of the Pharisees. A. D. Power, for example, suggests that

possibly “religious" would be a better understanding of the word

righteous” here, “for K. might have been thinking of the Pharisees

who paid tithe of mint and anise and cummin, but overlooked

such matters as judgment, mercy and faith (cf. Matt 23:33), so

perhaps the writer here meant religious or ritualistic, like the

Pharisees who strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. ..."23

This view understands the words of Qoheleth to refer to an

excessive concentration on legal observance or pious practices.

H. C. Leupold describes them as referring to “a righteousness that

is beginning to go to seed, a righteousness that will flourish in its

most distorted form in the days of Jesus, in regard to which Jesus

will be moved to say: ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the

righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, etc.' (Matt 5:20)."24

Whybray states that scholars have suggested two possible

reasons for the giving of such advice:


          (i) Such striving after perfection is not a virtue, but rather a sin:

that of pride or blasphemy. (ii) Such excessive behavior is not

required by God, and is to be avoided: for on the one hand its


21Edgar Jones, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Torch Bible Commentaries (New

(York, 1961), pp. 319-320.

22Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (Grand

Rapids, Mich., 1950), p. 324.

23Power p. 95.

24H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Columbus, Ohio, 1952), p. 164.

248                                 WAYNE A. BRINDLE


goal is beyond man's capacity and so it can achieve nothing; and

on the other hand it makes life joyless, leading to narrowness and

bigotry. So, in one way or another, the striving after perfection

produces misery.25


Overreaction to Truth


R. W. DeHaan and Herbert Vander Lugt explain Eccl 7:16-17

as a warning against overreactions to the truth of 7:15:


     First, some conclude that everyone who goes to an early

grave somehow must have fallen short of doing what pleases the Lord.

Therefore they set about to make up this lack in their own lives

by extreme legalism, ascetic practices, or some other form of

works-righteousness. . . .

The second wrong reaction is that of going down the road of

lustful living, giving oneself over to unbridled sensuality…

Many who see apparently good people suffer adversity or die

young go down the pathway of a false and artificial works-

religion while others go down the road of unrestrained wicked-

ness. Both courses will lead to disaster.26


This viewpoint explains the context (both 7:15 and 7:18) and is

in concord with the rest of Scripture. The command not to be

"overly wise" (7:16) would be interpreted similarly, as a possible

overreaction to the failure of wisdom to provide the full answer to

life (do not devote yourself fully to wisdom as if it were the only

solution to life, but do not reject it to become a fool either).




An increasingly common interpretation has been to see in the

word "righteous" a reference to hypocrisy, and to understand the

author to be referring to "self-righteousness" rather than genuine

righteousness.27 As Power puts it: "It may be he [Qoheleth] had in

mind those excessively religious people who spend all their time

seeking out wickedness in others and have no time for real religion


25Whybray, p. 191.

26Richard W. DeHaan and Herbert Vander Lugt, The Art of Staying Off Dead-

end Streets (Wheaton, Ill., 1974), pp. 107-108.

27A. F. Harper, "Ecclesiastes," in the Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City,

Mo., 1967), 3: 575.

ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                            249


themselves; another translation therefore might read as an injunc-

tion not to be self-righteous."28

According to Kaiser, what most commentators miss is that

"verses 16-17 are not cautioning against possessing too much

real righteousness." Rather, the danger is that men might delude

themselves and others through "a multiplicity of pseudoreligious

acts of sanctimoniousness; ostentatious showmanship in the art of

worship; a spirit of hypercriticism against minor deviations from

one's own cultural norms, which are equated with God's righteous-

ness; and a disgusting conceit and supercilious, holier-than-thou

attitude veneered over the whole mess."29 He states, further, that

the real clue to this passage is that the second verb in 7:16 ("to be

wise") must be rendered reflexively, as "to think oneself to be

furnished with wisdom."30

G. R. Castellino, in a careful analysis of the Hebrew forms,

comes to a similar conclusion: namely, that 7:16 refers to "passing

oneself off as righteous" (self-righteousness) and "passing oneself

off as wise” (intellectualization). Vs. 18 then urges the reader to

"grasp true wisdom" and not to let go of "the avoidance of

foolishness," both of which are achieved through the fear of God.31

Whybray argues from the structure, grammar, and meaning

of the passage as a whole that what is in view is "the state of

mind which claims actually to have achieved righteousness or

perfection."32 He advances the following arguments:


1. In 7: 16 the use of the construction haya + adjective

(‘al-t ehi saddiq--"do not be overly righteous") instead of the cognate verb

al-tisdaq is not due to chance or to purely stylistic considerations,

but has a deliberate purpose: in order to give some special meaning

to the word saddiq which could not be conveyed by the use of the

verb. The phrase "refers to the self-righteous man, the would-be

saddiq, the Inan who claims to be, or sees himself as, exceptionally



28Power, p. 95.

29Kaiser, pp. 85-86.

30Ibid., p. 86.

            31George R. Castellino, "Qohelet and His Wisdom," CBQ 30 (1968): 24.

32Whybray" p. 191.

33Ibid., pp. 192-195.

250                                 WAYNE A. BRINDLE


2. The word saddiq ("righteous") has an ethical sense, and

the author recognizes that in the strict sense there is no saddiq

in existence (7:20). He does not distinguish between "righteous"

and "perfect," but uses the same term for both. Whybray concludes,

therefore, that in 7:16 he must be using the term in an ironical sense:

"Do not be a self-styled saddiq."34

3. The word harbeh (7:16) always means "much, many, greatly,

very," etc., and does not express any value-judgment such as "too

great, or too much." The word is best taken as qualifying the whole

preceding phrase. Qoheleth thus "uses the qualifying adverb harbeh

to indicate that he recognizes a tendency in human nature towards

self-righteousness." His meaning is "Do not allow self-righteousness

to become your dominating characteristic." It is "a gentle warning

which takes account of human weakness."35

4. In 7:16b the phrase "be overly wise" is simply the hithpael

of the verb hkm. Whybray contends that of the meanings generally

attributed to the hithpael, only three would make any sense at all here:

"to conduct oneself in a particular way"; "to imagine/set oneself up to

be"; or "to pretend to be." The first possibility would mean "Do not

act with great wisdom," which cannot be what the author is saying.

The last two options have a similar meaning: "Having first warned his

readers against setting themselves up to be, or pretending to be,

absolutely righteous, Qoheleth now warns them against similar

pretensions to wisdom."36

5. Vs. 17 states, "Do not be very wicked." Here again the

word harbeh is a concession to human frailty. Qoheleth adds a

warning not to go to the other extreme and throw off all restraints

and all striving towards these virtues, abandoning oneself to a life

of folly.  But "he knows that one cannot entirely avoid either wickedness

or folly (cf. vs. 20), and so he adds the word harbeh: what is to be

avoided is the carrying of them to extremes." It is not an encouragement

to immorality, but merely a recognition of the frailty and inherent

sinfulness of man.37


34Ibid., p. 195.

35Ibid., p. 196.


37Ibid., p. 197.


ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                            251


Charles Bridges likewise understands Qoheleth' s words as a

warning against self-righteousness: "To whom then, and to what,

does the admonition apply? We have seen that it does not warn

us against true righteousness. But it is a wholesome caution

against the 'vain affectation of it.' Every right principle has its



2. Exegesis of Ecclesiastes 7:15-18


In Eccl 6:8, Qoheleth introduces the question, "What advantage

does the wise man have over the fool?" Throughout the second half

of the book he deals with the futility, benefits, and limitations of

wisdom, focusing especially on the issue, "Who knows what is

good for a man during his lifetime?" (6:12).

In chap. 7, the author points out that no one can really

understand the work or the ways of God, or of the future. "Who is

able to straighten what He has bent?" he asks (7:13b). God has

made adversity as well as prosperity, and both must be accepted

from him (7:14). Human beings cannot really know for certain

what the future holds for them during their lifetime.


What Qoheleth Has Seen-7:15


At this point a question surely enters Qoheleth's mind: "I

have already said that in place of righteousness there is wickedness

[3:16], and that man can expect both prosperity and adversity

from God [7:14]. What, then, of the age-old principle that righ-

teousness brings blessing [prosperity], and wickedness brings

cursing [adversity]? Is that principle invalid?"

This question clearly relates closely to the central problems of

the Book of Job. Qoheleth has neither the problem with God's

justice that Job had, nor the faulty view of reality that Job's friends

demonstrated. He sees clearly (with Job) that the principle of

righteousness®prosperity is only a general principle and has

many exceptions. Qoheleth thus states from his experience: "There

is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a

wicked. man who prolongs [j`rx--"lengthen," "prolong"] his life


38Charles Bridges, An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (London, Eng.,

1960), p. 163.

252                       WAYNE A. BRINDLE


in his wickedness" (7:15). In spite of their righteous character

some men die young. And in spite of their wickedness, some evil

men live long, prosperous lives.

The Law stated time after time that those who obeyed God and

lived righteously would "prolong" (j`rx) their days and receive

blessing (Deut 4:26, 40; 5:16, 33; 6:2; 11:9; 17:20; 25:15; 30:18; 32:47).

Solomon in his wisdom had also made similar promises (cf. Prov

28:16). But the problem of exceptions persisted.

Job recognized the same problem when he asked, "Why do

the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful?"

(Job 21:7). They have many children, safe houses, prosperity,

and many days of rejoicing (21 :8-12). "They spend their days in

prosperity," Job complains (21:13), while many righteous men are

suffering or dying.

The psalmist also "saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Ps 73:3),

and it nearly caused him to stumble (73:2). He complains: "Behold,

these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in

wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my

hands in innocence" (Ps 73:12-13). This was very "troublesome" to

him (73:16), until he went to God's sanctuary and finally under-

stood the end of the wicked (73: 17). God would destroy them,

sooner or later (73:18-20). The psalmist's solution is to focus all his

desires on God: "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides

Thee, I desire nothing on earth. . . . God is the strength of my heart

and my portion forever. . . as for me, the nearness of God is my

good" (Ps 73:25-28; cf. Matt 6:33).

Qoheleth himself explains the problem and its principle more

in detail in the following chapter (Eccl 8). The general principle is

valid, he says, that "it will not be well for the evil man and he will

not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God"

(8:13). And, on the other side, it is still true generally that "it will

be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly" (8:12).

However, judgment for evil does not come quickly; and because

of that, many are inclined to give themselves over to do evil (8:11).

Qoheleth declares further that "there are righteous men to whom it

happens according to the deeds of the wicked," and, on the other

hand, "there are evil men to whom it happens according to the

deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility" (8: 14).


ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                                      253


This is the same problem that he relates in 7:15. Righteousness

does not necessarily bring prosperity, and,wickedness does not

necessarily bring suffering and death.


Qoheleth's Advice-7:16-17


The following two verses must therefore be understood as

Qoheleth's counsel in the light of vs. 15. It is here that the two

major exegetical problems of the passage arise: (1) Do the expres-

sions "excessively righteous" and "overly wise" really refer to self-

righteousness and pretended wisdom, as Kaiser, Whybray, Castel-

lino, and others contend? Or do these expressions imply, instead,

an exaggerated "striving after" righteousness and wisdom? (2) Does

Qoheleth in 7:16-17 intend to warn against a possible overreaction

(on the part of some) to the statement in 7:15 that righteousness

does not guarantee prosperity, nor wickedness death (i.e., deciding

to strive fanatically for perfection or to slide cynically into foolish

immorality)? Or does he instead begin a new, unrelated section,

discussing the nature of true righteousness and true wisdom, in

order that the reader might be able to evaluate inner character?

Before embarking on a detailed consideration of these ques-

tions, the unusual structure of this passage must be noted:


7:16a     hBer;ha qyDica yhiT;-lxa

   do not be excessively righteous

7:16b     rteOy MKaHat;Ti-lxav;

   and do not be wise to excess

7:1         MmeOw.Ti hm.AlA

    why should you cause yourself desolation?

7:17a      hBr;ha fwar;Ti-lxa

               do not be excessively wicked

7:17b     lkAsA yhT;-lxav;

               and do not be a fool

7:17       j~T,fi xloB; tUmtA hm.AlA

               why should you die before your time?


Each verse consists of three parts, each of which begins with

the same word: lxa, lxav;, and hm.AlA, respectively. Each verse begins

with a pair of negative warnings ("do not"), these four warnings

254                       WAYNE A. BRINDLE


generally containing a negative particle (lxa), a verb or verbal

clause, and an adverb (the adverb is lacking in 7:17b). The third

part of each verse consists of an interrogative sentence introduced

by the word hm.AlA followed by a verb. And in each case, the

interrogative sentence implies a positive concept or result.39

At this point, several of the more controversial words in the

passage must be defined. Lexically, the word qyDica in 7:16a means

just" or “righteous" in conduct and character, either toward God

or, ethically, toward others. Nothing more than this can be read

into the statement from the term itself. The form hBer;ha is the hiphil

infinitive absolute of the verb hbArA, (“to be many, much, great"), and

is here used adverbially to mean “greatly," “exceedingly."40  It is

used, for instance, in Neh 2:2: “Then I was very much afraid." In

Eccl 7:16a, this word modifies the adjective “righteous," so that the

sentence should read, “Do not be exceedingly righteous." The

meaning of the statement will depend on the nuance which the

context gives to the expressions “exceedingly" and “righteous." If

righteous" refers to inward character, then an inordinate striving

for perfection may be in view. If, however, “righteous" refers to

outward conduct, then the warning probably has to do with

excessive occupation with some sort of Pharisaic externalism.

In 7:16b, MKaHat;Ti is the hithpael form of the verb MkaHA (“to be

wise"), and, according to Whybray, means “to pretend to be wise"

or “to make great pretensions to wisdom."41  In the Brown-Driver-

Briggs Lexicon, it is rendered as “make or show thyself wise."42

A. B. Davidson states that the hithpael is reflexive of piel43 (in this

case, “to make wise," “to teach wisdom"). Thus, the hithpael

would mean “to make oneself wise" or “to teach oneself wisdom."

But Davidson adds that “it very often implies that one shows

himself as, or gives himself out as, performing the action of the


39Whybray, p. 192. Another interesting aspect of this structure is the fact that

there is a 3:2:2 decrescendo in the meter of vs. 16, followed by a 2:2:4 crescendo in

the meter of vs. 17, indicating, perhaps, the comprehensive, yet parallel, nature of

the passage.

40Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English

Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1906), s.v. hbArA, p. 915. (This title hereinafter

cited as BDB.)

41Whybray, pp. 196-197.

42BDB, s.v. MkaHA, p. 314.

43A. B. Davidson, An Introductory Hebrew Grammar, 25th ed. (Edinburgh,

1962), p. 107.

ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                             255


simple verb."44  In this case, the verb in Eccl 7:16b could mean "to

show oneself to be wise," or perhaps even "to pretend to be wise."

Several factors argue against the latter meaning of the word in

the passage at hand. First, there is absolutely no reason from the

context to understand the verb as a reference to pretense. Second,

grammatically the hithpael form may just as easily mean "to make

oneself wis”' or "to teach oneself wisdom," as noted above. Third,

the only other use of the hithpael of MkaHA is in Exod 1:10, where it

refers to wise conduct--"Let us deal wisely with this people"-and

there is no reason to treat it in any other way in Eccl 7:16. (The

appeal made by some exegetes to Prov 3:7 ["Do not be wise in your

own eyes"] is invalid, since the reference there has the modifying

expression [“in your own eyes"] spelled out; and, moreover, the

verb is not hithpael, but rather "to be" with an adjective.)

The word rteOy (Eccl 7:16b) is common in Ecclesiastes, usually

meaning "superiority," "advantage," or "excess."45  As an adverb it

means "to excess," or perhaps "to a superior degree."  It is used in

Eccl 2:15, where Qoheleth asks himself, "Why then have I been

extremely wise?”  In 7:16b, he is apparently saying that there is no

need for anyone to try to become the wisest person on earth. It is

not worth the trouble.

In 7:16c, the verb MmeOw.Ti is the hithpael form of MmewA, which

means "to be desolated.”  As a reflexive, the word means "to cause

oneself desolation or ruin."46  Qoheleth asks, "Why should you

cause yourself ruin by such extreme reactions?" This cannot refer

primarily to either a divine judgment or societal sanctions, as

Whybray suggests,47 since the reflexive makes the ruin self-caused.

The verb fwar;Ti in 7:17a is simply the Qal imperfect of the verb

fwarA ("to be wicked," "to act wickedly"). It is important to note

that on this negative side of the coin, no process is in view (such as

was the case with "make yourself excessively wise"). The word

simply looks on the actions of wickedness.

It is perhaps obvious by now that Whybray's interpretation of

the passage depends almost entirely upon a highly questionable


44Ibid.; Ginsburg, p. 380, notes, however, that the wisdom under consideration

must be real, since the antithesis speaks of real, not affected, foolishness. He thus

concludes that the piety referred to is also sincere and genuine piety.

45BDB, s.v. rteOy, p. 452.

46BDB, s.v. MmewA, p. 1030.

47Whybray, p. 198.

256                       WAYNE A. BRINDLE


meaning of one word in the passage:  MKaHat;Ti (7:16b). Having con-

cluded that this word refers to "pretensions of wisdom," he reasons

that 7:16a is parallel and that it should therefore read, "Do not

pretend to be righteous" or "Do not be self-righteous." This is an

unwarranted leap.

Whybray's solution fits neither the context nor the details of

the passage. He is forced to conclude that 7:15 is totally dis-

connected from 7:16, and that 7:16-17 in no way provides counsel

for the problem of 7: 15.48  He is also forced to treat the questions of

7:16c and 7:17c as extremely vague references to a possible future

calamity, and in the process he violates his own explanation of the

hithpael/hithpoel form.  In addition, Whybray completely boxes in

7:16-18 as a separate passage almost totally unrelated to the rest of

the chapter,49 since he has divorced himself from any sort of correct

contextual meaning.

What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? (1) The expres-

sions "excessively righteous" and "make yourself overly wise" are

best understood as an exaggerated striving and seeking after perfec-

tion and super-wisdom. Qoheleth's point is that these things are

not really of value; he had discovered that himself-both experien-

tially and through observation. (2) Vss. 16 and 17, therefore, have a

very close relationship to vs. 15.  As DeHaan and Vander Lugt

suggest, if the principle that righteousness brings prosperity does

not always hold (7:14-15), and if wisdom cannot really discover

everything that man needs to know for his life (6:10-7:14), many

people would have one of two types of reaction: (a) They might

decide that if they could reach perfection in character and knowl-

edge, their problems would be solved; or (b) they might decide that

God is unfair and simply devote themselves to immorality and

foolish living as the best they can get out of life. Qoheleth warns

them against both of these options, since both of them lead to

disaster. The best life, he says, depends on the fear of God.


The Spiritual Conclusion-7:18


Following the negative admonitions of 7:16-17, Qoheleth now

describes positively a "good" in life. Though neither righteousness

nor wisdom can guarantee prosperity or unlock the mystery of the

future, they are nevertheless good and necessary. It is good to hold



48Ibid., p. 202.


ECCLESIASTES 7:15-18                            257


on to righteousness, and not to let go of wisdom. Both wickedness

and foolishness lead to disaster.

Both righteousness and wisdom are achieved through the fear

of God.  It is through trust in, and obedience to, God that righteous-

ness and wisdom can actually be balanced and made worthwhile.



3. Conclusion


In Eccl 7:15-18, Qoheleth discusses the problem of the value

and balance of righteousness and wisdom. He has concluded that

human wisdom cannot really explain all of life nor the future

(6:10-7:14), and that even the principle that righteousness brings'

prosperity h;lS many exceptions (7:14-15). Thus, he notes in 7:15

that some righteous people die in spite of their righteousness, and

some wicked people live long lives in spite of their wickedness.

How would a concerned human react to this admission of

reality? Many would tend to overreact either toward striving harder,

or toward ending all efforts and slipping into identity with those

who do not know God. Qoheleth offers some helpful counsel: Do

not strive for exaggerated righteousness or try to make yourself the

wisest person on earth, for these are not really worthwhile goals;

and in the end, such striving will ruin your life. Likewise, do not

turn to immorality or act like a fool, since God's principles do still

operate and you will put yourself in danger of premature death.

God is still in control.

What then of righteousness and wisdom? What good are they?

Qoheleth answers that they are both of great benefit. Grasp them

both. If you learn to fear God (which is the important thing), you

will come out right in both areas.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Andrews University Seminary Studies

SDA Theological Seminary
Berrien Springs
, MI 49104-1500

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: