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September 4, 2011
Keeping Your Balance – Part 1
Pastor Philip De Courcy
Ecclesiastes 7: 15-18

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Quest for the Best challenges us to live in fear of the Lord to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment because our Creator alone holds the answers to our most profound questions about life and eternity.

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Let’s take our Bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes Chapter Seven. We’re going to begin to look at a passage here in Ecclesiastes Seven, Verses 15 through 29. If you’re with us for the first time, we’re in an extended series of studies in the book of Ecclesiastes. We hope you’d come back and join us, bring a Bible, bring an appetite for the word of God, and we hope we’ll satisfy your hunger.
But I want to make a start on the second half of Chapter Seven. I want to preach a message entitled Keeping Your Balance. And we’re only going to look at four verses and we’re not even going to look at all of those, but we’ll break in at Verse 15.
“I have seen everything in my days of vanity. There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness. Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked. Do not be foolish. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp this and also not remove your hand from the other for he who fears God will escape them all.”
I trust God will use His word in each of our hearts this morning. From the time we stumbled to our feet as kids, we have all been trying to keep our balance. From the moment we started to ride a bike, we’ve all been trying to keep our balance. But I’d like to remind you this morning that keeping one’s balance is more than an issue of walking or riding a bicycle. It’s a matter of living. You and I have got to learn to live balanced lives, to avoid the edges, to avoid the extremes. There’s always two ways to fall off a tightrope. And I think that’s a way of reminding us that there’s always two extremes in life we’ve got to avoid. We can be all truth and no love. We can be all grace and no law. We can be all work and no rest. We can be all head and no heart.
And one of the tricks that we’ve got to learn, one of the skills we’ve got to master in life is living with tensions, striking a balance, keeping away from the extremes, holding complimentary truths, being more than one thing at a time. That’s an indispensable knack, that’s a skill worth cultivating in life. Old Spurgeon put it like this, “Do not be all sugar or the world will suck you down, but do not be all vinegar or the world will spit you out.” There is a medium in all things. Only blockheads go to extremes. We need not be all rock or all sand or all iron or all wax.
There is a balance to be struck and the Book of Ecclesiastes will help us to that end. And in fact, Chapter Seven, Verses 15 and following are really a call to keep your balance in a topsy-turvy world. This is where the chapter begins. The danger that as you and I react to the seeming irregularities and injustices in life, we can either become overly righteous or we can become overly wicked. And Solomon says, “Neither ought to be the case. It is good,” Verse 18, “that you grasp this and also not remove your hand from the other.” In fact, at the end of the first half of this Chapter, Verses 13 and 14, he also called us to keep our balance, didn’t he? “Consider the work of God for who can make straight what he has made crooked. In the day of prosperity be joyful but in the day of adversity, consider. Surely God has appointed one as well as the other.”
You and I have got to learn to navigate the good times and the bad times. Life is not one even straight road. No, you and I have got to learn to keep our balance and wisdom provides us a path right down the middle of those extremes. Wisdom is a skill for living rooted in the fear of God that can keep us from falling over in a fallen world.
So let’s begin to look at this passage. We’re going to look at the first four verses. We’re going to call this section The Balance of Wisdom. And then when we come back together again, we’re going to look at The Bulwark of Wisdom and The Blessing of Wisdom. But here Solomon again calls us to keep our balance. In the face of life’s irregularities and injustices, we’re not to fall over into being overly righteous or we’re not to fall over into being overly wicked. Neither of those responses as a correct response.
So let’s begin to look at Verse 15. In these verses, King Solomon sets before us one of the aggravating anomalies of life. And it is the prosperity of the wicked. Look what he says in Verse 15. “There is a just man who perishes in spite of his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in spite of his wickedness.” That’s an infuriating fact and it disturbs us and it discourages us. It challenges our faith in God that indeed the wicked prosper while the just suffer. He picks up this theme, doesn’t he, in Chapter Five in Verse Eight where he talks about the oppression of the poor, he talks about the perversion of justice in Chapter Seven in Verse Seven. Again, he’s made note of the fact that oppression can destroy a wise man’s reason.
You can lose your footing as a follower of God when you look out and you see that the world is turned upside down and inside out and that the wrong people are on the top, the wrong people are on the top and the right people are on the bottom. That’s the challenge here, that life at times seems paradoxical, that the scales of justice don’t always balance.
As you look at the Bible, you see that Abel is killed by Cain. You see that Naboth is killed by Ahab. You see that Stephen is stoned by an angry mob of godless people. The righteous don’t always win. Justice isn’t always served. The just parish in spite of their righteousness and the wicked prosper in spite of their rebellion. What are we to do with that? I mean, this is an age old question. You find it in Psalm 37 and you find it in Psalm 73. In Psalm 37, the writer has to say, “Don’t envy the wicked,” because at times that’s exactly the temptation we face. We look at their lives and we see that they’re prospering, that their sins are going unpunished, that their wicked deeds are going unrewarded. And so we begin to become envious and jealous.
And we ask ourselves, “You know what? Here’s me and my wee family and we’re trying to do right by things. We’re trying to follow God. But we just seem to face one hurdle after another hurdle after another hurdle.” And that’s the issue in Psalm 73, so much so that the Psalmist says, “Have I washed my hands in vain?” It’s an allusion to the fact he’s gone through all the ceremonies of purification. He’s keeping the law. He’s visiting the temple. But he looks out on the streets of Israel and he sees that the wrong guys are on top. And he’s asking himself this question. “Where is God and what’s God up to when the just perish and the wicked prosper?”
Doesn’t seem right, especially when you read verses like Exodus 20 Verse 12, that if you’ll honor your mother and father it will be well with you and your days on the land will be long. That’s repeated in Deuteronomy Five, Verse 33. Again, traditional wisdom. And retribution theology seemed to the point to the fact that, “You know what? If you obey God, there’s good things that will come from that. And if you don’t obey God, bad things will come from that.” And that seems to be the issue in Proverbs Chapter 10 in Verse 24, “The fear of the wicked will come upon him and the desire of the righteous will be granted.” That’s what you would expect. Verse 28, “The hope of the righteous will be gladness. The expectation of the wicked will perish.”
But as Solomon looks out on life, he says, “That’s not what I see all the time.” And he says, How do you explain that?” How do you deal with that?” The faith formula seems to break down when it’s confronted with real life. And I’m sure you’ve wrestled with that in some form or another. I did growing up in Northern Ireland and watching the plague of terrorism tear our country to pieces. And as a police officer for some six years in that country, I watched terrorists get away with murder, literally. They get off an technicality or maybe we had got someone who had promised to be a witness, but out of intimidation when we got to the court case, they didn’t show up. And a guy that you know is guilty just walks out the door with a smirk on his face.
Some years ago I came across this poem in a Belfast newspaper during the height of the Troubles when there was bombs and murders and assassinations going on. “Murders, murders, murders, sometimes three a day. A bomb in a car, a shot in the head, they’ll always find a way to leave some children fatherless, a widow half dead with grief. How can they do it? I wonder. It goes beyond belief. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. I’ve prayed and prayed for what? I ask myself again as two more innocent men are shot. Funerals, funerals, funerals, sometimes three a day, winding through the country roads, passing along the way. All the well beloved places, the home, the fields, the stream, where only a few short days ago those young men walked and dreamed., They dreamed of life before them of sport and adventure and love of families and friends around them, oh God in heaven above. Is this the life you planned for them? Why oh why their loved ones cry. Are evil men allowed to live and good men allowed to die?”
It’s exactly the issue in Ecclesiastes Chapter Seven. And Solomon addresses it with what I call a false assumption and a false presumption. He warns against a false assumption, Verse 16, and he warns against a false presumption, Verse 17. We’re just going to look at the first one here in Verse 16. In the light of the fact that the just perish and the wicked persist, Solomon says, “Do not be overly righteous nor overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” And then he’ll go on to say, “Do not be overly wicked nor be foolish. Why should you die before your time?”
These verses are notoriously difficult to interpret. They become the platform for advocates of a moderation. “Don’t be overly righteous. Don’t be overly wicked.” They’re used to support a theology of the golden mean, the thought that God grades on the curve. That we’re not all bad and we’re not all good, and God understands that. But that’s not the meaning of the text. That’s a twisting of its truth. Here’s what we need to do. We need to look at this text in its context. What’s its context? The perplexing irregularities within God’s government and providence. Solomon began that theme in Verse 13. “Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what He has made crooked?” Have you ever come to a point where you can’t piece together God’s plan, where what God allows doesn’t make sense to you? And one of those things might be Verse 15, the just perishing and the wicked prospering.
And it’s in that context, the Solomon says, “But don’t become overly righteous. Don’t become overly wise.” How can God allow the righteous to suffer? It’s a good question. Here’s an answer, but it’s a false answer. It’s a false assumption. Maybe they weren’t righteous enough. Because remember, it seems that in traditional theology and some of the wisdom writings, there seems to be this formula that if you obey God, it results in blessing. And there are many passages that certainly point to that and that’s generally the case, but not in all cases. And so you’ve got to be careful. What God has made crooked, you can make straight. Sometimes God permits and allows things that seems to go against His moral will or against His perfect plan for His people.
And one of the ditches you’ve got to avoid, one of the extremes you’ve got to avoid, is to conclude, You know what? The righteous that perished weren’t righteous enough. Therefore, if I want to avoid what they went through, I need to redouble my efforts to be obedient. I need to be more righteous.” And so you correct and become overly righteous, under the assumption that if you obey nothing bad will happen. And Solomon says, “That’s a false assumption. Don’t do that.” He’s given us a number of wrong reactions, hasn’t he? We identified three of them the last time. He tells us in the face of life’s problems, don’t become impatient, don’t become angry, don’t become nostalgic. And another thing he says here is don’t become overly zealous.
That’s a wrong thought and that’s a wrong theory. Righteousness does not exempt us from suffering. The righteous don’t necessarily suffer because they’re disobedient. That may be the case, and that can be the case, but not necessarily. In fact, often the opposite can be true. And Job’s a great example of this. Sometimes the righteous suffer because they’re righteous. Job becomes the target of Satan’s attacks. And what do we read of Job in Chapter One? He was a blameless man. In terms of righteousness, in terms of love for God and obedience to God, there was basically nobody like Job on planet Earth. And yet God removed the hedge and before a certain day was done, Job’s life was turned upside down, inside out. He lost some of his kids. He lost his wealth, he lost his health. We find him sitting on a rubbish heap, scraping these horrible boils in his body that God had allowed him to be inflicted with.
Now is Job in trouble because he failed to be righteous? No, he’s in trouble because he was righteous. There are a number of reasons why God allows us to suffer. And one of them is he allows us to suffer just to test the genuineness of our faith. That’s what James One Verses Two to Four tells us. And that’s certainly what 1 Peter One Verses Six and Seven teach us. Listen to these verses. “In this you greatly rejoice,” says Peter, “though know for a little while if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold, that perishes, though it be tested by fire, may be found to praise.”
Sometimes we’re in trouble just to prove the genuineness of our faith, and Solomon is reminding us of this fact. He wants us to be careful that faced with the righteous and their trouble we don’t conclude that they’re in trouble because they’re not righteous enough. So what you got to do is become overly righteous and become overly wise and try and work it all out. But that’ll get you nowhere. What God has made crooked, no man can make straight. Being overly wise or overly righteous doesn’t change a thing. And that’s the trap you’ve got to avoid. And it’s something you and I need to remind ourselves of. Neither life nor faith can be reduced to a formula. Life nor faith cannot be reduced to a formula.
This was the mistake of Job’s friends. They interpreted Job’s predicament pretty simplistically and in a kind of a formula. Things are bad, therefore Job is bad. That’s basically it. Things are bad because Job is bad. God has promised if we’re obedient, we’re going to be blessed. If we’re disobedient, we’re going to be cursed. Well, that’s true generally speaking, but there are exceptions to that and there are mysteries to God’s providence in our lives. What He has made crooked no man can make straight. Sometimes He allows prosperity, rejoice. Sometimes He allows adversity, consider.
But they had this formula. If you obey, you’re blessed. If you’re not blessed, you did something, you’re hiding something. And so in Job Chapter Four, Verses Seven through Eight, they charge him with sin. But he already know he was blameless. It wasn’t his unrighteousness that brought about the trouble, it was his righteousness. They failed, and we often fail to grasp, that God allows bad things to happen to righteous people. Just ask Joseph, just ask Job, and just take a look at the Lord Jesus Christ hanging on a cross. Obedience is not a way of forcing God’s hand. Our doing right doesn’t suspend God’s right to be sovereign. And it certainly doesn’t eradicate our fallenness, because while we strive for holiness, while we reach for greater righteousness, at the end of the day, according to Verse 20 of Ecclesiastes Seven, there is not a just man on the earth who does good and does not sin.
So even as we strive for compliance with the character of God and submission to the will of God, we’re not going to ever get to a place where we have eradicated our fallenness. And with our fallenness comes corruption and comes complication. And that’s why becoming overly righteous doesn’t solve everything, let alone anything. And that’s what Solomon says. “Do not be overly righteous nor be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”
There is another rendering of that word destroy. In fact, you’ll find it in Daniel Eight Verse 27 as appalled or astounded and you’ll find it in Psalm 143 in Verse One as appalled. So it could read like this. “Do not be overly righteous nor be overly wise. Why should you disappoint yourself?” Solomon is saying, “Look, if you fall prey to this idea that I’m in trouble because I failed to keep my side of the equation, my side of the formula, therefore I need to step up to the plate here and become more righteous and become more wise.” Solomon says, “You’ll only end up disappointing yourself because what God has made crooked no man can make straight. And sometimes God allows the righteous to die before their time when it should be the case that the wicked die before their time.”
And so we’re being reminded here, and I think this is important. When we’re in trouble, when the lights go out, our faith must be fixed on the righteousness of God, the rightness of His purposes, His holy character, and the attendant actions. Not the results of our righteousness. Let me say that again. Our faith must be fixed on the righteousness of God’s purposes, not the results of our righteousness. Now, while we may be being judged for our sin, could be the case. That certainly seemed to be the case with Joseph’s brothers back in Genesis 42. When Joseph realizes the brothers are dying, those who have betrayed him, he plays a little bit of a cat and mouse game with them. He’s going to keep them until their little brother comes down and in Genesis 42 they say, “You know what? We’re getting visited for our sins. What we did back then with our brother,” even though they didn’t know they were dealing with their brother, “it’s coming back to haunt us. And sometimes that’s true.
But not necessarily. And we have just got to fix our faith on the righteousness of God, the rightness of His actions, that even when we have done right, it doesn’t necessarily equate to peaches and cream and that life never ruffles us or accosts us. It does. Genesis, Verse 25. “God is the judge of all the earth and He will do what is right.” Fix your focus there. I’ve told you this story before of a man called David Ireland who was diagnosed with a crippling neurological disease that would eventually take his life. And he was often asked, “Do you believe God will heal you?” And he often replied, “Do I really need to be healed?” In a book, Letters to an Unborn Child, he explains his thinking. “I’m firmly convinced that God is extremely good.” That’s where you do want to fix your faith. That’s where you really want to have some kind of settled conviction. Then when everything is turned upside down and the lights go out and you can’t kind of feel your way in life and you’re not sure what God’s up to, in fact it doesn’t seem right or just, the wrong people are on the top, you’ve sought to kind of live for God and you’re wondering then, “Why would you reward me and visit me with this?”
Make sure that you’re firmly convinced that God is extremely good. And that he does love and understand all the world and all the people in it. David Ireland goes on. “Does He want to heal me? I can’t even answer that. My faith is in the genuineness of God, not in whether He will do this or that to demonstrate His goodness.” I like that. In fact, let me paraphrase it a little. You and I need to put our faith in the genuineness of God and not whether He will do this or that when we do the other thing. Remember what we said, that our obedience is not a way of forcing God’s hand. Our doing right doesn’t suspend His right to allow bad things to happen to righteous people. And that’s why Solomon says, “Don’t become overly righteous. Don’t become overly wise. Why should you appall yourself, astonish yourself, disappoint yourself?” Sometimes what God has made crooked you and I cannot make straight, but we’ve got to be convinced of His genuine goodness and we’ve got to trust Him and believe in Him during those times.
I could leave it there, but just for a couple of moments, let me just apply this in two practical directions here and then we’ll pick this up next week. One, I believe that what we have just stated and argued for says something to the purveyors of prosperity theology. That’s the theology that says that , “You know what? If you and I obey, if you and I sacrifice, if you and I go that second mile, then it’s our birthright to enjoy health and wealth. If we’ll give God our last dollar, here’s what God will do for us. If we’ll sow some act of obedience, we’re going to reap some harvest that will be a blessing to our body or be a windfall for our business or be a great blessing to our family.” And I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s false. Don’t be overly righteous. Don’t think that your actions bind the will of God or paint God into a corner. It’s not a done deal that the wise will automatically ride the gravy train while the wicked automatically suffer a train wreck.
It’s clearly not the case. The just man parishes in spite of his righteousness and the wicked man prolongs his life in spite of his wickedness. The wrong people sometimes get to enjoy the health and the wealth of this life. You and I need to remind ourselves that following Jesus leads to a crucifixion. That all the disciples were martyred, almost to a man. There’s no slick formula that exists that produces heaven on earth. And if you listen to the health and wealth teachers on television or on the radio, they’ve got a slick formula. God is almost presented as a kind of vending machine where you put your token in and you get your candy bar out. But that’s not true. God owes us nothing and God puts himself in debt to no man. And while He is genuinely good, sometimes His ways are past finding out. And sometimes He allows the righteous to be afflicted, not because they’re unrighteous, but for the very fact that they are righteous and He wants to test their faith and show the world what God can do through a broken person.
Don’t believe the lie of the prosperity gospel. Paul says in Philippines One Verse 29, what? “It’s ours, not only to believe in Him but to suffer for Him.” Philippines Three, Verse Eight. What does Paul say? “I have suffered the loss of all things.” Then what did you do wrong, Paul? “Actually, I did nothing wrong. I deliberately suffered the loss of all things. I was willing to give them up in my radical commitment to Jesus Christ I gave them up. I lost friends. I lost prestige. I lost position within my community, but I gave them up because what I was gaining was Christ. And when you understand who He is, what He gives, and what He will ultimately produce in us throughout all eternity, anything you give up is nothing.’ And said, “I count it all rubbish.” All the stuff that this world counts as important, Paul says, “It’s just a rubbish heap compared to what you get in Christ.”
But there’s no health and wealth gospel in Philippines Three is there? Paul suffers the loss of all things. He tells us in 2 Corinthians that he was shipwrecking naked and hungry and he was at the peril of robbers and false brethren. But again, he suffered it all because that’s what Christians have to do sometimes. They have to suffer for righteousness sake. There’s a second thought, and this is where we nail it down. I think this is also a warning against religious zealotry. We may even have our own form of this. You know what? To win God’s love, to win God’s favor, or to know that I have God in my side, we go the second mile, we do the extra thing, we get involved in our own religious zealotry, we become overly zealous and overly righteous. And that seeps and creeps into our walk with God and we start majoring on the minors. Isn’t that what the Pharisees did in Matthew 23, 23 to 24? And Jesus has to tell them that. “You overlook the weight matters of the law, justice and mercy, and you drill down into the small stuff.”
Paul has to write to the Colossians and tell them about the sufficiency of Christ, the fullness of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ brings to us when we are in Him. All the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Him and when we are in Him, we are complete. But what do we do? Well, then we add our new moons and our sabbaths and we add our diets and what we can eat and what we can touch and what we can’t. Read about it in Colossians Chapter Two. And Paul has to chastise them for their legalism and being overly righteous and fastidious in their faith and scrupulous in their dealings with people. We can pad our spiritual resume as if Jesus isn’t enough, and that’s a danger.
Listen to Derek Tidball as he speaks to this. “Some are so spiritually intense as to be unreal. Have you ever met a Christian like that? They’re so intense that they’re unreal. They’re so introspective that they spend their time hunting, dying, sin within and sin without. And they so distance themselves from the world that they end up on a dangerous course. Fastidious, isolated, petty, judgmental.” He goes on to say this, “So some Christians even refuse to go on holiday believing it’s a waste of time and money, an indulgence of the flesh. Some refuse to turn to a doctor when ill on the grounds that it’s an indication of a lack of belief in God. Some refuse to permit Christmas trees, seeing them as symbols of pagan festivals. Others will not allow their children’s imagination to be stimulated by fiction since it’s not true, or conjuring because it smacks of magic. There is little enjoyment of God’s creation in such an approach. And ultimately,” he says sooner or later, the pressure cooker will blow up and splatter the contents around the kitchen.”
It’s true. I’ve met them, I’ve seen them, and I’ve watched the train wrecks, majoring on the minors, having their own fences and standards of morality that take you away from the sufficiency of Christ, our acceptance at the foot of the cross, the justifying the work of God and the Lord Jesus. You’ve got to avoid extremes. You’ve got to avoid spiritual showmanship. I like the story that’s told of Spurgeon by Spurgeon, that he was once chastised by a Methodist minister who found him smoking. It might shock some of us to realize, but Spurgeon for a time did smoke. There’s a story that tells us later on that he went by a shop in London and saw an advertisement, “This is the tobacco that Spurgeon smokes.” And he decided, well, that’s maybe going too far and leading people into areas that is his own personal choice.
That’s the story. We don’t know if that’s folklore, but we do know he smoked. We think he gave it up at some point, but at one point he smoked. He liked a cigar. And one Methodist holiness preacher got him one day and buttonholed him and said, “Brother, you shouldn’t be doing this. And in fact, I would challenge you to give it up.” Spurgeon said, “I’ve thought about that.” And he says, “I’ve said to myself and I’ve made it a line of demarcation that if I ever smoked to excess I’m going to give it up.” And the Methodist pastor looked at him and said, “Well, what do you mean? What’s smoking to excess?” And Spurgeon said, “When I find myself smoking two cigars at the same time, I’ll give it up. That’s excess.” Well, what is excess? And we’re all in danger becoming overly zealous in areas. And we’re motivated, foolishly, by the idea that, “You know what? God’s going to bless that. God’s going to protect us because of that.” It’s goodness gone amuck.
In fact, I came across a quote by Mark Twain. I thought this was really good. He said this, “Having spent a considerable amount of time with good people, I can understand why Jesus liked to be with sinners and tax collectors.” I wonder if that’s the overly religious, the overly zealous, the overly righteous. Solomon says, “Look, be careful. When you’re at a place where you can’t seem to fit what’s going on in your life with your theology,” or at least for some of us, it’s a partial theology, and that’s what gets us into trouble. “Then what do you do? Well, don’t become impatient and don’t become angry, and don’t become nostalgic and don’t become religiously zealous as if that’s the solution.” God loves us despite the things He puts us through. And sometimes He puts us through those things because He loves us.
And I’m not saying this in all cases, but in some cases it’s our righteousness that actually invites and incites the suffering, as God tests the genuineness of our faith and proves to you and I that we can fix our faith on His genuine goodness towards His people. Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you for this reminder. We realize that we’re always in danger of falling into a ditch. We’re always a danger of overreacting and overcorrecting. And Lord, when we find ourselves in that place where we scratch our heads and we wonder, “Why do the just perish and the wicked prosper?” And we wonder, “Lord, why you all allow this?” And we wonder, Lord, because it tests our faith in your goodness and in the rewards of obedience, help us to step back. Help us to become more patient. Help us to settle down in your presence. Help us not to look back, but look up. And certainly, Lord, help us not to fall into the trap of thinking if we would just do a little bit more God won’t allow this to happen. Lord, help us not to become overly righteous. Help us not become overly wise. Help us not to disappoint ourselves there. Help us to realize our righteousness is found in another and you will reward our righteous actions, but not always in this life and not immediately. But help us to hold all of these truths in tension. Help us to keep our balance for Jesus’ sake. Amen.