Solomon, who had 300 wives and 600 concubines – contrary to the command of God and despite his wisdom and good start as king – might have been expected to know something about women.
In this week's Ecclesiastes passage (7:23-29) he gives us the benefit of his knowledge. At first it appears to be the kind of misogynistic ranting that one would expect from a powerful man who is used to getting his way with women. But it's a good principle in interpreting the Bible not just to go with first impressions. If we examine this in a little more detail we find once again that there is much wisdom for us in today's 'MeToo' culture.
1. We need the humility to recognise that wisdom is hard to find
As I am writing this I am sitting on a train in Sydney listening to the kind of tourist that gives Americans a bad name, filling the whole carriage with his wisdom about everything under the sun – brash, arrogant, annoying (thank the Lord for earphones!), loud and proud doesn't even begin to cover it.
This is the opposite of the person who really knows. Solomon, the wisest man in the world of his day, has the humility to tell us that no one, including him, can find it. The wise know what they don't know. 'Then I said to myself, "The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? I said to myself, this too is meaningless' (Ecclesiastes 2:15).
2. We need the wisdom to grasp the enigma of humanity
Men and women are capable of so much good and so much stupidity. Solomon mentions in these few verses alone: knowing, searching, feeling, seeking, wisdom, reason, wickedness, folly, foolishness and madness.
Then having done that he reflects upon women. There is the huntress, the woman who is more bitter than death and has a heart dominated by the instincts of the hunter. She is determined and her hands are like chains: 'All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life' (Proverbs 7:22-23). Only the one who follows God can escape the predator!
Then he says wisdom is rare in men but rarer in women. Is this a universal truth or just a reflection of his own experience? The trouble is that the word 'upright' is not in the Hebrew, which simply says 'I found one man among a thousand, but not one woman among them all.' He is making his own observation about some women – this is not a divine description of humanity. 'He finds men only one tenth of one per cent better than women in this matter' (Gordis). The early Christian preacher Chrysostom went to town on this verse: 'What is woman, but a punishment that cannot be driven away, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, one beloved for the colour of good?' Most of us I think would prefer the way that Christ treated and spoke of women than either Solomon or Chrysostom!
But it is a mistake to read this through the 21st century filter of misogyny. That may well have been reflected in Solomon's experience and in the patriarchal culture of the time – but the purpose here is not to teach that. This is after all the Preacher who teaches that enjoying life with your wife is one of the few meaningful pleasures in this meaningless life (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Solomon is simply stating that all of humanity, men as well as women, are not wise.
Verse 29 is his summary for the whole human race. Man was created upright – we were not created sinful nor neutral but upright – our natural disposition was towards faithfulness and obedience. But now sin has entered in and our disposition is towards unfaithfulness and disobedience. Man's sin is deep rooted, deliberate and universal. "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3:23, NIV) it is also varied – there are many different ways that humans sin. The bottom line is that when it comes to sin – all of us have to say 'Me too'. Right relationships between men and women will not be established by campaigns, laws or social pressure, because these cannot deal with our sin. We need a wisdom from God that both deals with our sin and guides us into all righteousness – that only comes with Christ.
TV Moore again paraphrases this passage beautifully: 'I added woman after woman, since I thought that this was living (how I wince to even mention it). But it was all in vain. Deep down inside I hungered for much more than merely sex or power, much more than all the foolish things I'd known. What I was seeking was to know before I die what life was all about. And this is it: God made all people so that they would fit into his wise and righteous plan. But we, supposing we knew better than he, set out on our own way in life. Instead of finding what we sought, we end up dead and wonder what went wrong. But who can tell us, as we pass beyond the grave to hell?'