IN ECCLESIASTES 7, THE BOOK’S FORM changes, taking on the more typical structure of Wisdom Literature: a string of proverbs. But these proverbs do not, by and large, adopt the stance of the person who holds that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prov. 9:10). Rather, Qoheleth maintains his quest, searching out the meaning of things explored “from below.” These “common sense” proverbs are touched with an edge of cynicism that is brutally honest but not leavened with godly faith.
The first six are provocatively gloomy. Nothing in the first line prepares the reader for the rabbit punch of the second: e.g., “the day of death [is] better than the day of birth” (Eccl. 7:1b). This is not the confession of faith as in Philippians 1:21, 23. The most positive thing that could be said about this proverb is that it is bluntly realistic, and all of us would benefit from learning to live in light of the fact that we too must die—as the second part of verse 2 makes explicit: “for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (cf. Ps. 90:12). The line of thought to the end of verse 6 is similarly cheerless, but its brutal frankness has cautionary value.
The proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7:7-22 are harder to categorize. There is a kind of practical attempt to make sense of the world, but it is the attempt of the worldly person. Verses 8 and 9 are doubtless good counsel in the life of the believer, but in this context they have a merely pragmatic tinge. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions” (Eccl. 7:10). This annihilates self-indulgent nostalgia, for the Teacher is unlikely to be impressed by the hazy glow that surrounds the past: he has already shown his hand on this point (see Eccl. 1:9). True, Qoheleth praises wisdom (Eccl. 7:11-12), but with a cool affirmation of its utilitarian value—it has advantages, just as money does. In this mood Qoheleth can fluctuate between pious resignation (Eccl. 7:12) and outrageous cynicism (Eccl. 7:13-18)—what F. Derek Kidner labels “the shabby and self-regarding side of common sense.” So also verse 18 is moral cowardice tarted up with stoicism.
The ultimate failure of such wisdom, which does not begin with the fear of the Lord, is acknowledged in the closing verses of the chapter (Eccl. 7:23-29). The Teacher is determined to be wise, but his brand of wisdom “from below” leaves him unable to glimpse much of the real meaning of life; true wisdom is still beyond him (Eccl. 7:23-25), and his own wisdom is clothed with a cynicism regarding human relationships that says more about him than about the people he describes (Eccl. 7:27-28). Only when he returns to the pattern of Creation and Fall (Eccl. 7:29) does he begin to approach a more stable answer.