“While I was still searching but not finding — I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them (Ecclesiastes 7:28, NIV).”
I’ve got to admit that the above verse may be one of the most perplexing in the entire Bible. On the surface it appears that Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, was comparing men with women and that though he could find at least one upright or righteous man among a thousand men, he could not find even one upright woman among that same number of women. I’ve even heard a number of sermons over the years that were consistent with this understanding of the passage; that men are somehow more upright than women, perhaps because it was Eve who was first tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden.
I believe this understanding of the passage is flawed, that it results from a misunderstanding of the context in which it was written, and that taking into consideration Solomon’s background may give us a better understanding of what this verse means.
Solomon’s Thousand Wives
The first thing to note is that Solomon seems to have had at least one woman in his life who he deeply loved and respected. The Song of Songs, probably written by Solomon early in his life, is a vivid and wonderful expression of the longing he felt for this one woman. Although we don’t know who this woman was, she could have been the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). What is apparent is that Solomon had a very high opinion this woman and was totally enamored by her beauty and her charms.
The problem that Solomon may have had with regards to women is that he was not satisfied with having just one in his life. He eventually had a harem that totaled one thousand. 1 Kings 11:1-6 gives some details regarding this and what happened because of it:
King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women beside Pharaoh’s daughter — Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.
1 Kings 11:11 describes God’s response:
So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.”
Who then was Solomon referring to then when he said, “I found one upright man among a thousand?” I believe he was referring to himself. I don’t think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand men,” however. I think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand women.” If this is so, then the women he was referring to were most likely the thousand he’d gathered into his harem. And it appears according to I Kings 11 that none of them, including the daughter of Pharaoh, worshipped God.
An Upright Man who Lost His Focus
What then does upright mean in this context? The mistake I believe many make at this point is bringing a New Testament understanding of uprightness into the passage and equating upright with being righteous. This can lead to concluding that the passage is talking about a righteous man who was unable to find a righteous woman. But I think that in the context of Ecclesiastes that being upright has more to do with where a person decides to look for wisdom regarding how best to live life “under the sun (Eccl. 1:3),” and not the result of that decision. Solomon was an upright man in the sense that he looked upwards to God for wisdom and guidance, at least early in his life. The same could not be said to be true regarding the thousand women he gathered into his harem. It seems that none of them was upright in their spiritual lives, not in the same sense that Solomon was or should have been. All of them worshipped other gods.
1 Kings 11:4 notes the influence that Solomon’s thousand wives had on his own spiritual focus:
As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.
Solomon may have been sharing his feelings about this in Ecclesiastes 7:25-26:
So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.
If this verse is referring to how Solomon felt about his decision to have so many women in his harem, then he found the results to be more bitter than death, used words like stupid, madness, and folly to characterize his choice, and acknowledged that these women became snares, traps, and chains
Solomon may have been an upright man at one point in his life. But because of his decision to have so many wives, he lost his upward focus and his heart turned to other gods.
Solomon concluded this portion of Ecclesiastes with these words:
This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes (Eccl. 7:29).
If Solomon is referring to himself in this verse, what he’s noting is that his life was characterized at one time by an upward or upright focus but that eventually he quit relying on God’s advice and instead followed his own schemes, a decision he came to regret.
A Better Choice
What would Solomon have done differently if he had an opportunity for a do-over in this area of his life? I think he would have stopped at one. A clue to this is may be found in the advice he gave in Ecclesiastes 9:9:
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you live, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun.
He also advised this is Proverbs 5:18-19:
May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, and a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.
The focus of Ecclesiastes 9:9 is what do to when you feel that life is meaningless. The focus of Proverbs 5:18-19 is what to do if you are attracted to the charms of a person other than your own spouse. Both have the same message. They are urging men and women who are married to be satisfied with the spouse they have and to quit looking elsewhere for fulfillment in this area of their lives.
As we grow older and our lives, bodies, and circumstances change, we need to adapt to those changes and reject the notion that “changing models” or “adding to the harem” is somehow better than living in a committed and meaningful way with the spouse we already have.
That’s my understanding of this passage and its implications, at least as I see it today.