The Problem of Righteousness

Passage: Ecclesiastes 2:12-17; 7:11-18; 9:11-12
Guide for Group Discussion or Personal Reflection

Sermon Summary

Ecclesiastes helps us navigate “life under the sun” by describing the way that life works in a broken world. All our attempts to find meaning and value “under the sun” are ultimately hevel (a vapor, elusive). Even our pursuit of wisdom and righteousness doesn’t quite “work” the way we often expect it to.

On the one hand, the Preacher consistently affirms that that there is “gain”, or “advantage” in wisdom and righteousness (7:11). “There is more gain in wisdom than in folly” (2:13-14), he affirms, because walking in wisdom is like walking in the light, whereas refusing to walk in God’s wisdom is like walking in the dark, full of frustration. We should pursue wisdom, then, because living in light of how God created the world to work most often does lead to flourishing in life, and to ignore wisdom is to bring unnecessary harm upon ourselves.

On the other hand, the Preacher also teaches that the gain from wisdom and righteousness is limited. There is not always a clear connection in this life between walking in wisdom and life going well. Sometimes, “in (this) vain life…a righteous man perishes in his righteousness…and a wicked man prolongs his life in his evildoing” (7:15). While it can be deeply frustrating when serving God and others doesn’t seem to “pay off,” this frustration gives us an opportunity to discern the motives behind our love and service: Are we loving God and others for their own sake, or because we’ve been hoping to get something from them?

How, then, should we navigate this complexity—that there is gain in wisdom and righteousness, but it is a limited gain? We are not to be “overly wicked”—jettisoning all wisdom and dying a thousand deaths because of our own foolishness, nor are we to be “overly righteous”—which means that while we live do righteously, we do not “destroy ourselves” with the expectation that being good will always pay off in this life (7:16-17). This wise path looks like the fear of the Lord—walking through life with the conviction that whatever happens to us comes from the hand of God who is wise and kind. Jesus always walked in this fear of the Lord, never swerving from wisdom and righteousness, even while knowing that it would not immediately “pay off” in this life—indeed it led to his sacrificial death. Like Jesus, we can trust the heart of our Father.

Sermon Outline

  • A Truth: There is Gain in Wisdom & Righteousness (2:13-14; 7:11)
  • A Problem: The Gain from Wisdom & Righteousness is Limited (2:14-15; 7:15)
  • How we Navigate the Problem (7:16-18)

Group Discussion & Personal Reflection Guide

Re-read the passage(s): Ecclesiastes 2:12-17; 7:11-18; 9:11-12

A Truth: There is Gain in Wisdom & Righteousness (2:13-14; 7:11)

Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 2:12-14 and 7:11. What does the preacher discern about the value of wisdom? Why is it better than folly? What are some of the advantages of walking in wisdom?

Q) What is the metaphor of “walking in darkness” (2:13) meant to communicate about what life is like without wisdom?

Q) Is there a specific area of your life where you sense you’ve been hesitant to embrace God’s wisdom? What would it look like to walk in wisdom in this particular area?

A Problem: The Gain from Wisdom & Righteousness is Limited (2:14-15; 7:15)

Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 2:14-17, and Ecclesiastes 7:15. How do these verses color what the Preacher said earlier about the value of wisdom?

Q) In Ecclesiastes 7:15, the Preacher observes the truth that “there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing”. Where in your life have you seen examples of hard or even tragic things happening to people who are pursuing God, and/or of “wicked” people experiencing earthly blessing? What do you think we are supposed to learn from this?

Q) This passage shows that the maxim “be good, because it pays” does not always work—and yet we can unintentionally reinforce this message to people, even in the church. What are some ways we unintentionally communicate the message: “Be good, because it pays”? What are some of the negative effects of sending this message?

Q) In his sermon, Pastor Bobby explained how the frustration of unmet expectations may prompt us to evaluate our motives for serving God and others. That is, it can cause us to ask ourselves whether we have been serving God and others for their own sake, or because we were expecting to “get” something from it. Has the frustration of unmet expectations ever been an occasion for you to evaluate your motives? Is there an area of your life where this might be happening right now?

How we Navigate the Problem (7:16-18)

Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 7:16-18, and meditate on these verses together:

• What does it mean to “not be overly wicked”? What does the Preacher say will happen if we are overly wicked?
• What does it mean to “not be overly righteous”? What does it not mean? What does the Preacher say will happen if we are “overly righteous”? (LEADER NOTE: See attachment on “Overly Righteous?” You can read yourself beforehand, and/or share with your whole group).

Q) Which has been a bigger temptation for you in life—to jettison God’s wisdom, and experience the consequences, or to follow God diligently but with the misplaced expectation that it will always “pay off”? Why?

Q) Jesus knew how to navigate a world where pursuing wisdom and righteousness doesn’t always pay off. How is Jesus the perfect example of “not being overly righteous or being overly wicked?” (according to the interpretation Pastor Bobby gave of those verses—see attachment). What did Jesus trust about his Father’s heart and plans that allowed him to live this way?

Additional Application Questions

Q) How else would you like to engage with God this week?

Q) How can you tangibly care for those in your community this week, both inside and outside of the church?


Spend time praying for yourselves, our church community, the North Shore community, and our nation and world—particularly those most vulnerable.