Do not be over-righteous,(Eccl. 7:16-18 NIV)
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.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
The Preacher never fails to shock us! He knows the hearts and habits of we his readers. We skim over words, so how will the Preacher get us to pause and really listen. It is not that we can ever hear the Preacher yell, so he has to depend on the next best thing, ‘a shocker’ to get us to stop and think. Sometimes we look at the ‘shocker’ and reason that it is too complicated for us and we leave it. We shouldn’t ever do that, that is not what God intended for us to do. There are so many ‘shockers’ in Ecc. that many commentators come up with an overall grid that they impose upon the book. They say that the preacher is looking at life under the sun without God, and once we bring God back into the picture then all these difficulties get resolved. This might resolve some difficulties for us, but it completely misses the point of what the book is about. In some places they can get away with that rather inadequate approach. However, it can’t possibly be applied to these three verses because the extremes of overrighteousness, being overwise and being overwicked are to be avoided, because whoever fears God will avoid all extremes. God is clearly in the picture here, and with God present we can be overrighteous, overwise or overwicked. So whatever being overrighteous means, the godly person will avoid this extreme. Some commentators provide various views and discuss their weaknesses and strengths but avoid offering their own explanation. It leaves one wondering why they bothered writing a commentary in the first place. I suppose it shows us that these verses are difficult.
The idea of avoiding extremes – on one side overrighteousness and on the other overwickedness – would appear to mean that the advised position is a moderate one with a little bit of righteousness and then a little bit of wickedness. But we know that is contrary to the rest of the teaching of scripture. Verses 16 and 17 are not warning against possessing too much real righteousness or too much real wisdom.
Let us think first about the easier extreme to understand and explain, which is being overwise. The Preacher has been teaching us that wisdom has its limitations. To attempt to be overwise is to fail to come to terms with wisdom’s limitations. To have wisdom is desirable, and to desire more wisdom is a godly aspiration. But the possession of wisdom will never mean that we can understand everything fully, like God understands everything. To be overwise is to have a view of ourselves that is beyond the limits of wisdom and we feel we are so wise that we no longer need to depend on God. So, wisdom is a good and desirable thing but we need to appreciate that we need God to help us make wise choices and we need to accept that we will never know all the answers. That brings us now to the more difficult term ‘overrighteous’. Our initial thought is, how can you be too righteous. We have seen that there is the danger of overstating our wisdom, so depending less on God, and failing to recognise the limitations of wisdom in the world. So, when it comes to righteousness, we can ignore that we live in a sinful world, we can fail to recognise the presence of sin in our lives. We end up striving to be righteous because that might give us long life. The overrighteous are like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, like the Pharisee who prayed alongside the publican and was so full of his own righteousness. I think we all have met those kinds of Christians who are so fastidious about detailed observances. They offer an opinion about the sins and shortcomings of others in order to enhance their own reputation as a pious person. One commentator very graphically describes such people as people that, ‘might delude themselves and others through a multiplicity of pseudo religious acts of sanctimoniousness; ostentatious showmanship in the act of worship; a spirit of hypercriticism against minor deviations from one’s own cultural norm, which are equated with God’s righteousness; and a disgusting conceit and supercilious, holier-than-thou attitude veneered over the whole mess.’ Ouch! That sounds like a rant! Somebody has upset this commentator in the past! Yet there is much truth in what he has written.
The apostle Paul called on us to press on in our faith and to strive to be Christlike. But this overrighteousness that the Preacher is speaking about describes an attitude that ignores the need to humbly accept that we are still only ‘saved sinners’ and if we say we have not sinned then the truth is not in us as John tells us in 1 John. Over the next two weeks, in the Sunday sermons, we will see from Philippians that we possess a righteousness that is not our own. The Preacher is writing about a righteousness, or an attempt at righteousness, that is our own – an overrighteousness that every Christian can be guilty off, that is a cold calculating, lacking love attitude that leads to judgementalism.
Lord God, help us to accept our limitations. We feel we should be able to obtain enough wisdom to understand everything that happens to us. Lord we have overestimated who we are. Lord help us to be satisfied that You know all things and that it is Your Sovereign right to inform us or withhold from us why You permit experiences in our lives. Help us to trust that You know best. Help us to seek to grow in Christ and never to become proud of our righteousness. Help us to humbly accept the weakness of our humanity and that we live with sin. Help us to be quick to come to You to seek forgiveness, for Christ our Saviour’s sake, in whose name we pray. Amen.