Nobody’s perfect, the old saying goes, and this truth is confirmed every day in our experience. We might pore over our work for hours, even days, seeking to catch every error, and yet the report we handed to our boss ends up having mistakes here and there. We measure and remeasure a wall so that we can center a picture that will bring some beauty to our living room, but then after hanging it, it is positioned just a hair too much to the right.
This lack of perfection carries over into the moral realm as well. The Preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes says, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). This verse reveals the Preacher’s commitment to the truth at any cost. If he were looking for a way to win friends and influence people, he never would have uttered such a statement. Generally speaking, telling all people that they are inclined to do wrong is not going to earn many individual admirers. Only someone who has looked at the evidence and has determined to find the truth, no matter the consequences, could write such a verse.
We have in Ecclesiastes 7:20 one of the most concise statements on total depravity found anywhere in Scripture. The doctrine of total depravity emphasizes that sin corrupts everything about us, including our hearts, minds, and wills. Consequently, since wickedness has perverted us so thoroughly, not one of us will make it through life without having sinned. We will commit sins of omission (failing to do good) and sins of commission (transgressing what is good), for no one “does good” (omission) and “never sins” (commission).
Only if the Preacher is evaluating things by the standard of absolute perfection could he say such a thing. After all, we can see people all around us doing things that, in some sense, can be called “good.” Pagans love their children, and atheists might give money to help develop a cure for cancer. There is a kind of goodness that we can attribute to such things, but no action is genuinely and fully good if it is not done with the motivation to honor God. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
In the final analysis, however, Ecclesiastes 7:20 must be qualified. Writing before the advent of Christ, the author of Ecclesiastes could not see that there is one righteous man who never sinned. The death of this perfect One, Jesus Christ, alone can atone for our failure to meet the Lord’s perfect standard (1 Peter 2:21–25).
The Old Testament Wisdom Books, including Ecclesiastes, tend to draw conclusions by observing the world around them. Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 shows that the doctrine of total depravity can be arrived at by merely observing the world and its people. We can find no person who has never sinned. We can, therefore, appeal to an individual’s innate knowledge of his imperfection when we are sharing the gospel. And we should be quick to confess ours as well.
Spend just a few minutes listening to kids as they play on the playground or in the park, and there are a couple of phrases you will almost certainly hear spoken. If a younger girl catches her sister doing something that she is not supposed to do, the little sister will soon exclaim, “I’m telling mommy and daddy!” Find a little boy who is being teased by another group of children, and you may hear him say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”
As we well know, however, the words that people speak against us or about us can be incredibly hurtful, leaving deeper scars than physical blows ever could. When others say phrases that wound us, and we know that such people really do mean what they say deep down in their hearts, then the persistence of these emotional scars is entirely reasonable. Sometimes, however, we put too much stock in what others say. We hold on to hurts caused by words spoken in a fit of anger or frustration and not out of a rationally settled opinion about us. Furthermore, we also hold grudges against those who have spoken unkind things against or about us, even when the offenders have apologized and gone the extra mile to show us that they are truly humbled.
Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 points out the foolishness of holding on to such grudges and the silliness of taking words spoken in a fit of anger too seriously. Why? The Preacher gives two reasons. First, we might “hear [our] servant cursing” us (Eccl. 7:21). What may be in view here is the idea that if we pay heed too closely to the vindictiveness of even those who are not likely to hurt us, we will unnecessarily have our emotional life disturbed. It does not make good sense to listen to those who cannot really hurt us. If we do, we will be distracted from the important work that God has given us and caught up trying to make peace with people who never really want to be at peace with us. As Proverbs 26:4 teaches, in many cases we must “answer not a fool according to his folly.”
The second reason why we should not take to heart all the bad things that are said against us has to do with the fact that we have cursed others ourselves (Eccl. 7:22). This seems to be the Preacher’s way of getting us to judge others by the same standard we use for ourselves. We know that we have said or thought things in the heat of the moment that we did not really mean, so we should allow for the possibility that others have done the same.
Harsh words spoken against us are hard to bear, but as we have seen in Ecclesiastes 7:21–22, we have to develop discernment regarding when to take these words seriously and when we should ignore them. We should also keep in mind our own tendency to speak unkind words against others so that we will refrain from gossip. Moreover, may we extend the same grace to those who apologize for what they have said about us that we would want them to extend to us for our sinful speech.