The Crooked Things in Life

13Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? 14When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.

15In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. 16Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? 17Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? 18It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes].

19Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city. 20There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. 21Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you— 22for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others.

Solomon continues with his proverbs, as he speaks on "what is good for a man in life" (see Eccl. 6:12). Here he advises: "Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what He has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future" (vss. 13–14). Solomon asks us now to stop, and "consider what God has done." Solomon wants us to ponder what we have seen in life, ponder what he has told us about life, and realize that, by golly, we don’t understand everything that’s going on. Moreover, concerning the things that we see in life that don’t make sense, we can’t do anything about them: "Who can straighten what He has made crooked?"

From our point of view, there are many "crooked" things in life, things beyond our understanding. Most of the things we consider "crooked" have to do with adversity of some sort or another (we don’t seem to complain much when good things happen to us that are beyond our understanding…). Who has not thought life "crooked" when "bad things happen to good people"? Who has not thought life "crooked" when "innocent" children suffer? We have all heard questions asked (even possibly asked by ourselves) of the form: How could a loving God let such and such happen? Yes, life, from our point of view, can be "crooked".

But does this mean that God is evil? Because we do not understand everything that happens in life, does this mean that God has failed? Of course not. I find it arrogant that some people think that it should be possible to know and understand everything that God does. How can we, mortal and sinful man, expect to understand everything that God does? Why should God be expected to give account to us for all that He does? Remember this: God is God, and man is man. As Paul said, "Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" (Rom. 9:20). We will never, in our mortal bodies, understand all that God has done, much less "straighten" it.

Because of this uncertainty, because of our lack of understanding about life, "a man cannot discover anything about his future" (vs. 14). Be careful when you plan. Do not set everything in concrete, for "crooked" things happen that can destroy your plans. James warns us against being too presumptuous concerning the future: "Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil" (James 4:13-16). Depend on the "Lord’s will". Always search, minute by minute, for the "Lord’s will".

Solomon advises: "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other" (vs. 14). There is nothing wrong with being happy when God gives us good times. We "should enjoy them—not wantonly, or selfishly, but as opportunities of glorifying Him, and doing good to our fellow-creatures" [Bridges, 156]. "But when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other" (vs. 14). As Job put it: "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10). God has His reasons for allowing us to endure trouble, though we may view trouble as what is "crooked" in life. Look back, and you will realize that the troubles you have experienced have been valuable for your spiritual growth, "not only as our school of discipline, but as the test of our improvement in this school. For if prosperity doth best discover vices, adversity doth best discover virtue" [Bridges, 157]. It is worth remembering that God sends both good times and bad times: both are signs of His love. How, you may ask, are bad times a sign of His love? The writer of Hebrews teaches us: "Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons… Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness" (Heb. 12:7,10). Every loving parent knows that discipline springs from love.

Solomon himself points out something "crooked" in life that he has seen: "In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all [extremes]" (vss. 15–18). This, at first glance, is a very strange passage to find in the Bible. We are not often advised to avoid being "overrighteous" and "overwise". However, we must infer that Solomon is not speaking of godly righteousness or godly wisdom, for he concludes his point by saying, "The man who fears God will avoid" these things. Then also, a few verses later, he points out, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins" (vs. 20).

We must remember that in this book, Solomon is speaking from a worldly point of view. And so, here too, Solomon is speaking of worldly "righteousness" and worldly "wisdom". A tip off that he is speaking in this passage from a worldly point of view is the way he introduces these points: "In this meaningless life of mine…" (vs. 15). Solomon complains here that he sees the worldly "righteous" perish, while the wicked live long. So he gives some worldly advice: "Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?"

In the Bible, we find examples of those who are "overrighteous". For instance, we see the Pharisees denying the hungry disciples food that they gleaned on the Sabbath (see Matt. 12:1–8); we see the Pharisees trying to accuse Jesus for healing on the Sabbath (see Luke 6:7ff; Luke 14:1ff). These are cases of "overrighteousness". The Pharisees, in an attempt to look "religious", rebuke those who are doing what is right in God’s eyes. "There cannot be over much of the righteousness which is by faith. But there is over much of the righteousness that consists in punctiliousness as to external ordinances, when these are substituted for ‘the weightier matters of the law—judgment, mercy, faith, and the love of God’ (see Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42)" [JFB, 530]. Charles Bridges eloquently summarizes what Solomon is saying: "Avoid all affectation or high pretensions to superior wisdom. Guard against that opinionative confidence, which seems to lay down the law, and critically finds fault with every judgment differing from our own" [Bridges, 164].

Solomon continues with some words concerning his favorite subject, wisdom: "Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city. There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others" (vss. 19–22). Solomon here places the value of wisdom as greater than wealth, strength and power, for "wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city." He goes on to point out a couple of cases where he finds a lack of wisdom. First, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." Sin is always a case of failing to put godly wisdom into practice. We sin when we knowingly go against God’s Word. We all sin, and so there is in all of us much room for improvement concerning putting into practice of godly wisdom. In fact, this is the wisdom we most lack, and thus most need: godly wisdom.

Second, Solomon finds a lack of wisdom in people who get upset at what others say. So, Solomon advises: "Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you—for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others." Solomon advises us to show wisdom by turning a deaf ear to what others say about us: "Do not pay attention…" Solomon is essentially saying: "Look. We all say stupid things at unguarded moments. Therefore, show some forgiveness for those who say stupid things about you." And if you cannot turn a deaf ear to what others are saying about you, do not hold it against them. Rather, apply what they say as constructive criticism. "Therefore, instead of cherishing a bitter feeling against the agents who cause our sufferings, we ought to regard them as the instruments in the hands of the loving Father who corrects us; then it becomes, by God’s Spirit, easy for us to love them and pray for them whilst they despitefully use us." [JFB, 531].

The Thread of Life


1.

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand?--
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

2.

Thus am I mine own prison.  Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease;
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking:  Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.

3.

Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time's winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanative;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
He bids me sing:  O death, where is thy sting?
And sing:  O grave, where is thy victory?


                                               
-- Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

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