Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? (7:16)
What? Is this in our Bible or is this a verse from the Satanic Bible? Is it possible that a book which advocates holiness and wisdom would also instruct us not to be overly righteous or too wise? Is this a contradiction to Jesus’ teaching about hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Jesus said that we are to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Is Qoheleth advocating that a half-hearted effort in life is preferable to an all-consuming pursuit of righteousness and holiness? Some commentators have suggested that Qoheleth intends “self-righteousness,” but neither the Hebrew word nor the context allows for this interpretation. So what on earth can this mean? How can anyone be overly righteous?
We can detect Qoheleth meaning by looking back to verse 15, where he opens this sermon with a provocative observation that still plagues many Christians today. He says, “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing (7:15).” Qoheleth is struggling with the paradox that while God has promised those who keep His law a prolonged life, some righteous people will die young, while wicked people live a prolonged life. Why is it, for example, that the young deacon, Stephen was martyred? Why did the righteous Abel die young, while his murderer brother Cain, married, had children, and apparently lived a long life? Since people do not understand why such things occur, they may be tempted to either try harder to be more righteous or to give up on the Christian faith completely. That’s the issue that Qoheleth is dealing with in the passage. Often when people see adversity as God’s displeasure, they tend to try harder to earn His favor and prolong their life. Qoheleth responds, “do not be overly righteous … surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (7:16, 20). Straining for perfection is insolent and self-serving, and could actually make you blind to your own sinfulness in other areas.
Qoheleth also understands that living with this paradox of the early death of the righteous can cause others to forsake the faith completely. They may think, “if a righteous life does me no earthly good, why not live a wicked life of pleasurable sin?” Qoheleth answers this by saying in verse 17, “Don’t be overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” While perfection is a goal we cannot achieve, at the same time, we must not choose wickedness. To choose to sin deliberately may very well lead to an early death – just think of all of the criminals and gang members who die at a young age.
Arguably this is the most difficult passage to interpret in the book of Ecclesiastes. Yet at the same time this is a relevant passage as it deals with one of the most perplexing questions of our time: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We will find this passage very helpful in addressing this contemporary question while also encouraging Christians to follow Christ even when bad things happen.