“while I was still searching but not finding – I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all” (Ecclesiastes 7:28).
On the surface of it, the author of the biblical book of wisdom called Ecclesiastes seems to give women a pretty bad rap. While this writer – probably the wise King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 1:12) – admits there are few good men to be found (“I found one upright man in a thousand”), he seems to have been unable to find a good woman at all!
But is that what this verse is really saying? There are actually a number of possibilities that the verse is not putting women down at all, and we will look at three of these individually.
First, we should notice that the writer is referring to himself in the first person in saying “While I was searching … I found …” This is important as the book is giving the writer’s personal experience from its introduction almost to its conclusion. He continually stresses his own personal reactions and feelings – as when he writes: “I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me” (Ecclesiastes 9:13). As a result, it is perfectly possible that the writer is simply talking about his own experience rather than making a statement about all women everywhere. The fact that he was a king might make this more likely, as we will see next.
Second, the Hebrew word translated “woman” (ishah) can mean wife as well as woman and the phrase “to find a woman” can mean to look for and find a wife. If that is the meaning in this verse, the king evidently could find an occasional man who made a good friend, but was unable to find a good wife. 1 Kings 11:3 tells us that Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, but it is entirely possible that most of these women were striving to win position or favor for themselves or their families. As someone who admittedly was primarily seeking pleasure in life (Ecclesiastes 2:1, etc.), he may have cut himself off from women who he would have respected more. From this perspective Ecclesiastes 7:28 is simply applying the fact that money (even kingly riches) cannot buy happiness in the realm of marriage.
Yet another possibility can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew word translated man in this verse (adam) can often mean “human.” If that was the intended meaning, the writer could simply have been stressing that his experience was that only one in a thousand people were good individuals – though admitting that his “sample” consisted entirely of men and no women.
There are even other possibilities for the original meaning of this verse, but we can see from the three mentioned here that whatever the writer of Ecclesiastes meant specifically, he need not have been putting down all women. It is more likely that he was complaining of his own sad experience based on his own particular circumstances. Additionally, if the author of Ecclesiastes was indeed Solomon, we should also compare this verse with the many proverbs of Solomon that do show a high regard for women (Proverbs 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10; etc.).