It’s probably very familiar: you overhear a co-worker in the break room talking about you, or you peek over a family member’s shoulder and read their text messages, or the church grapevine gets back to you. Through one of these, you learn something negative someone said about us. You are embarrassed, hurt, and angry. The raw materials for destruction to relationships.
The Teacher continues giving us proverbs that can help us make sense of our complex world, and in the next section he begins by talking about how to handle hurtful gossip. Look at Ecclesiastes 7, verses 20-22.
Dorsey’s Translation: “20 Remember, there is no one on earth who is perfectly righteous, who only does what is right, and never sins. 21 So do not take to heart every word that people say; do not listen too carefully when you overhear your servant saying something bad about you. 22 For you know in your heart that you yourself have spoken ill of others many times.”
Verse 20 reminds us of the truth that all humans sin. That is not meant to be discouraging or depressing, but instead a true depiction of reality. Therefore, the reality of our own sinfulness should cause us to view ourselves properly, to have a humble estimation of ourselves. That kind of teachable viewpoint of oneself is exactly what the Teacher is getting at in verses 21-22. He creates a real-life scenario that is so common. In his day, it was a master of a house that overhears his servant saying something negative about himself.
Yet the Teacher’s advice is surprising! Basically he says, “Don’t let it get you upset.” Why? Because you’ve done the same thing to others. There is none righteous, no not one. So don’t get offended at someone talking behind your back, when you know you do it too.
There’s a much better way to handle things. The Teacher doesn’t mention this, but I think it is in line with the heart of his teaching. The better way is Love. When someone gossips about you, and you find out about it. Instead of thinking about how much you can’t stand that person, ask yourself, “What would love do?” Love wouldn’t, by the way, just ignore the gossip. Yes, “love covers over a multitude of sins,” which means that we allow love to guide us, but there is a way to “speak the truth in love.” Too often, though, gossip begets gossip. When we hear that someone has been gossiping about us, we can be so quick, and feel justified, to gossip about that person. Instead we should ask, “Even though they have hurt me, how can I love them?”
And so the Teacher concludes in verses 23-24 that perfectionism is impossible and thus we should abandon our pursuit of it. Dorsey’s Translation: “23 I evaluated all this with wisdom. I realized that even though I wanted to be perfectly wise, it was beyond me; 24 it was beyond my reach and too deep for me to fathom.”
So while the Teacher has spent a lot of space teaching the proverb: avoid perfectionism, he is not done sharing proverbs. Let’s read verses 25-26 to see if we can find more.
Dorsey’s Translation: “25 I had investigated and explored the nature of wisdom and logic to discover why wickedness is foolish, and why folly is irrational. 26 I realized that this woman Folly is more bitter than death. She is a snare, her heart is a trap, and her hands are fetters. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner will be ensnared by her.”
The proverb here? Avoid folly, please God. Dorsey suggests that “this verse might be speaking of the woman who is a seductress.” See that in verse 26. The Teacher might be speaking symbolically about folly, saying that folly is like a seductress, and the wise thing to do, by far, is to steer clear of any folly. It could just as well be a man who is attempting to seduce a woman. The principle is “stay away from that which tempts you to wickedness.” Yes, sexual temptation is mainly in view here. In our culture we know what that looks like in its many forms online or in person. We pursue wisdom when we work hard to flee temptation.
The teacher uses the image of a trap, and he says there are two ways people respond to the trap of folly. The sinner allows themselves to be ensnared, and the man who pleases God escapes. Don’t focus on the labels, “Sinner” vs. “God-pleaser.” Instead, focus on the action. Which is your life more like? Are you allowing yourself to be trapped? Or are you escaping? What I mean by that is, do you indulge in sexual temptation, or are you turning away from it?
Clearly, wisdom is a life that turns from temptation. I’m not saying that it is easy. We live in a sexualized society, and we can be bombarded with sexual images, to the point where they can start to seem normal. Let’s remember that the Teacher is right calling them folly. The sexual ethic of God is very different from the sexual ethic of the world. I will admit that it is very hard to know where to draw the line. What kinds of media can allow into my mind? Into my house? What kind of clothing should I wear?
Over the years I have had people from our church family suggest to me that I should respond to particular clothing styles people are wearing to worship services. My response has been the same, “Do you want the church to have a clothing checker team in the lobby, and if people come to worship service breaking our clothing rules, we will hand them a set of acceptable clothing and tell to go change or leave?” No! We don’t want that.
We entrust that people will make their clothing choices before the Lord and thus their selections will be appropriate, considering their relationships in the church family. That means there will be differences of opinion about what is appropriate for gathered worship. This is one passage of Scripture among many that can help guide us. A principle based on the Teacher’s proverb could be: When you make clothing selections for worship attire, avoid what would be considered seductive. Also consider how this could apply to the people who think the other person is wearing clothing that is potentially inappropriate. Here is a principle for those people: When you are interacting with those who are in attendance in worship, avoid what would be considered inappropriate language about people’s appearance, as well as avoiding looking at them suggestively. Of course, we Christians can abide by this wisdom everywhere we go. Not just in a worship service.
 Dorsey, David. Translation of Ecclesiastes. Unpublished.