”Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Ecclesiastes 7:16-17
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes often offers advice that seems baffling, and frankly, contradictory with what is found elsewhere in scripture. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, we are called to seek after righteousness, yet here the Teacher tells us not to be excessively righteous or overly wise. The appeal to avoid wickedness and foolishness makes sense, but how do we make sense of this call to avoid excessive righteousness?
Pursuing righteousness is a good thing. However, as with any noble pursuit, it is the nature of one’s motivations which can undermine their quest. This is what is at the core of the Teacher’s caution to avoid excessive righteousness; he is calling on us to examine the nature of our motivations for our pursuit.
In our pursuit of righteousness, there are two pitfalls to be avoided. First is that of self-righteousness. Are we pursuing righteousness and justice because these are the earnest desires of our heart, or are we pursuing them because we desire for others to see us in this pursuit? Are we seeking the praise of man, or are we seeking to please God? True righteousness is not compatible with self-righteousness. True righteousness is humble and modest and labors out of love. Self-righteousness is loud and bombastic, it draws attention to itself; it desires for all to see just how “righteous” it is. Self-righteousness might have once been true righteousness, but it became misguided and addicted to itself; it chokes the life out of true righteousness. We see this self-righteousness refuted and rebuked numerous times in the New Testament. Time after time, Christ calls out the Pharisees for their hypocritical approach to righteousness. They would go to extreme lengths to appear righteous before others, but it was all because they wanted others to see how righteous they were. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matthew 23:27-28). Self-righteousness might make us appear to look right with God outwardly, but inside–where it matters–the self-righteous is just as lost as the most wayward sinner.
The second pitfall that must be avoided in pursuing righteousness is that of “bargaining,” or “hedging one’s bets.” This is the myth and lie that is sold by the “prosperity gospel.” In scripture, the Old Testament especially, we see where those who are righteous are often blessed, while the wicked are often not, or even worse, are cursed. This is not, however, a standard rule of thumb. There are just as many, if not more, instances where the righteous suffer and the unjust prosper–just read Job or the rest of Ecclesiastes. In spite of this fact, many seek righteousness because they think that it will force God to bless them; that God will “owe” them something. How blasphemous this idea is! The Almighty God Most High, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, does not and will never owe us anything. He does not even owe us the salvation which He offers to us; this is–as is every other blessing He bestows upon us–a gift given freely out of His own good will. “God does not show partiality,” (Acts 10:34); “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45). Seeking righteousness out of a desire to be owed something by God is just as dangerous and sinful as self-righteousness, and the two traps are not necessarily unrelated; one can easily lead to the other. Those who teach others to pursue righteousness because God will bless them for it–the prosperity gospel–make a mockery of the cross. They spit in the face of the self-sacrificing Savior and demean His atonement into nothing more than a suggestion in a self-help book. God blesses those whom He chooses to bless, and He does so because He can. He owes us nothing. We deserve Hell, and He chose to save us.
After considering the significant pitfalls that so frequently trap those who are seeking righteousness, we can now see what the Teacher meant by telling us to avoid excessive righteousness. We cannot allow ourselves to become self-righteous; we must not seek righteousness because we think it will buy us favor with God. These behaviors are just as sinful as wicked and foolish living. These behaviors make us unteachable; they make us become like a fool. Instead, we must seek righteousness with humility and sincerity. We must bow continuously before Christ our King, and we must remember that He gives us gifts and blessings, not because He owes them to us, but because He wants to. We must also remember that we suffer so that we can learn to trust Him more. He blesses whom He blesses—the good and the bad—for His own reasons and in His own time.
Heed the Teacher’s advice: avoid excessive righteousness. Be humble, be meek, and seek righteousness with a sincere heart.
Artwork: “Christ and the Pharisees,” Anthony van Dyck, c. 17th C.