T. Pierce Brown
In Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, we have these rather strange words: “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?” Because I am not a Hebrew scholar, nor do I have access to any commentaries that throw any light on those passages, I may be unable to give a proper exegesis of the verses, but it is possible that I can still make some comments that may be helpful.
Verse 16 might seem to imply that a person could be too righteous. One might infer from the prohibition in verse 17 that it might be satisfactory to be a little wicked. In view of the total teaching of the Bible about both subjects, such a view on either verse is inadmissible inasmuch as some other logical and scripturally valid explanation can be found.
It is always proper to look at the larger context in the interpretation of any passage. In such a context, it is clear that he is emphasizing the value of balance in our living. But in what are we to be balanced? Is he teaching that we should have a little righteousness, balanced with a little wickedness? If we have to make a serious effort to convince you that is not the case, this article (and probably this paper) is probably not the kind you read regularly. Jesus said, “Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In no case of which we know in the Bible is little righteousness or wickedness approved.
Some understanding of Hebrew parallelisms and some similar understanding of the nature of English idioms might help. We have probably heard such expressions as, “He is too smart for his own good.” Or, “He stands up so straight, he falls over backwards.” We usually recognize the idiomatic form of such expressions, and know that they are not to be understood in a literal way. We know that when someone speaks of a “smart aleck,” he is using a colloquialism and means “a cheaply clever bumptious fellow”; “one who thinks he is smart, but is merely using what he thinks are clever expressions.” We do not mean “an aleck, who is smart.”
When we speak of a person who stands up so straight he falls over backwards, what do we mean? We mean that he is so concerned about being right that he “goes overboard,” (another colloquialism) and may even impose restrictions that are not God’s. As Jesus put it, “He strains out a gnat and swallows a camel.”
Those who are often classified as “antis,” those who do not believe it scriptural to have Bible classes, those who think it unscriptural for the congregation to have more than one container out of which they take the fruit of vine, those who oppose churches cooperating in any sort of evangelistic endeavor, fall into this category.
They are the kind that Solomon would call “righteous over much,” not in the sense of actually being better than they should be, but in the sense of making standards more restrictive than God’s standards. The Crossroads and Boston Movements do this, when they demand various standards of performance before they classify one as a true disciple of Christ.
The basic meaning of the prohibition is, “Do not add restrictions or requirement to God’s requirements.” The Jews did this in various ways. As Jesus put it, “Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 33:4). If God commanded one to wash his hands, they might require washing to the elbow, or even taking a bath.
If that helps you to get a reasonably good understanding of the first prohibition, it may help to understand the meaning of he second one. We surely do not need to argue the point that he can not mean, “Be a little wicked. Commit some small sin, and it will be satisfactory, but do not do too much wickedness.” If the basic idea of “be not overmuch righteous” suggests “Do not bind where God has not bound,” then “Be not over much wicked” would suggest, “Do not loose where God has not loosed.”
We might see the value of that admonition if we should hear a person reason this way, “Jesus taught that the Son of Man gives us freedom (John8:36), so I am free from the law, and may do as I please.” It is very similar to the idea, “I am saved by grace, so there is absolutely no law which applies to me.” Paul warned against that kind of response. In Galatians 5:13, he says, “Ye were called to liberty. Use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” We are free FROM sin in Christ, but not free TO sin! Paul could even see the paradox that 1 Corinthians 9:19 suggests, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.” He might well have paraphrased Solomon, “Be not over much free.”
Paul gave another example that illustrates this principle. He was free to eat meat that was offered to idols if he wanted, for “we know that an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 4:4). But it was looked upon as a wrong or wicked thing by some that did not have that knowledge (v. 7). Paul was allowed to do this “wicked” thing, but he warns us not to be “over much wicked,” that is, not do that which he had the right to do if by so doing he would cause some weak brother to stumble.
The table from which we take the Lord’s supper is merely a piece of wood, no more holy than a chair or pulpit (which is probably referred to as “the sacred desk” by some). I may therefore be free to sit on it, put my feet up on it, etc., but I do not. Why? Because such would seem irreverent or wicked to some. As Solomon put it, “Neither be thou foolish.” But at the same time, we should not be “over much righteous” and disfellowship one who used it in a way that we considered improper.
I knew of a congregation several years ago that split over the issue of using a tablecloth over the Lord’s supper. In the country churches when I was young and the buildings had no screens over the doors or windows, most of them had a cloth over the table, for obvious reasons. It dismayed me to see the men standing there trying to fold the thing properly, and eventually wad it into a wrinkled mass and pitch it to one side. But when a more modern building was built and some suggested that the cloth be no longer used, the preacher said it was irreverent, denominational, unthinkable and wrong to have no covering, just as it would be improper to have the naked body of Jesus uncovered in front of us. It never occurred to him that the logic (?) of his position would have made it appropriate to have Jesus fully clothed to begin with, but undress him as we proceeded, for we eventually uncovered the table! At any rate, he was, in my judgment, doing what Solomon warned against — being over much righteous.
The principle of these verses is broad and deep. The Prodigal Son had a right to leave home. Adam and Eve had a right to look at the fruit, and even smell of it. David had the right to walk on his roof and look down, and we would be “righteous over much” if we tried to make a law forbidding them from doing what God gave them the right to do.
On the other hand, not only must we not forbid what God allows, we must not allow what God forbids. But the principle that Solomon suggests involves something more than that. We are not to use our liberties “over much” to do things that seem to be wicked or that tend toward wickedness, or would lead a person in that direction.
Suppose a person concludes that smoking tobacco is a sin, and God does not want him to do it. He should quit. But suppose he reasons, “I can see why it is bad for my body, and a sin against my body and a bad influence to actually do it, but I find no prohibition against carrying a pack around in my pocket.” That is true, but the principle of Solomon’s admonition here is practical. Why be foolish? On the other hand, a person would be “overmuch righteous” if he advocated withdrawal of fellowship from every one who did not reason that way.
Although Paul does not say in I Thessalonians 5:22, “Shun the very appearance of evil” as many think he said, it is generally good advice to do that, and is very close to what Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes 7:17.