The Vain Search for a Righteous Man

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”

- Ecclesiastes 7:20

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, as today’s passage teaches. 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 an individual many 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 succinct 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 truly 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, today’s passage 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).

Coram Deo

The Old Testament Wisdom Books, including Ecclesiastes, tend to draw conclusions by observing the world around them. Today’s passage shows that the doctrine of total depravity can be arrived at simply by observing the world and its people. Clearly, we can find no person who has never sinned. We can therefore appeal to an individual’s innate knowledge of his own imperfection when we are sharing the gospel. And we should be quick to confess ours as well.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 6:5
Psalm 51:5
Mark 10:18
Romans 3:9–20

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