Excess.

Christianity, Religion

”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.

Duty.

Christianity, Religion

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13

In the heart of the Old Testament wisdom literature is the book of Ecclesiastes. Traditionally attributed to Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ tone reflects that of an author who has witnessed many things in life and grown disillusioned, even bitter, with how the world is. The speaker in Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher,” reflects back on the folly of everything in this life, and how everything in life is meaningless when one attempts determining its meaning for oneself. With all its focus on the futility and meaninglessness of life, it is quite easy to view Ecclesiastes as a very bleak and cynical book, but this is only half of the author’s message. Sprinkled throughout the book are reminders to remember God and to seek after Him, and this encapsulates the other half of the author’s message: that the life lived for God is the only life with meaning.

This call to follow after God is most explicit in the closing verses of Ecclesiastes, in an epilogue of sorts following all of the book’s more extended passages detailing the Preacher’s experiences in life.  It is as though he has sifted through all of his knowledge and experiences, collected throughout a lifetime, and reduced that down to its purest form. It is a simple scene to imagine: when asked how to live a successful life, the Preacher—Solomon—tells the questioner “Fear God, and keep his commandments, this is the whole duty of man.” The real key to success, as Solomon discovered, was honoring God in everything one did.

This one simple statement contains a lifetime supply of wisdom. Living according to Solomon’s recommendation allows us to have our priorities in the proper order: first and foremost, we fear God. This is not a terror or a phobia, rather a reverence and respect. We recognize that God is superior to us in every conceivable way, and we humbly submit to Him. We honor Him; we give Him precedence over everything in our lives.  We stand in awe of Him. We give God His rightful position of superiority over everything in our lives, and we do not allow anything else to usurp that. It is when these usurpations of God’s sovereignty over our lives take place that we encounter the futility and meaninglessness described in Ecclesiastes.

When we fear God appropriately, we will seek to keep His commandments as we should. This is done from the same respect and reverence with which we fear God, not from a place of attempting to earn His favor or promote our own self-righteousness. Keeping His commandments is our duty, and since we respect God and submit to Him, we honor Him by doing what He has commanded us to do.

Which commandments, then?  Only two, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:37-40).

As Christ explained, these two commandments summarize all of the Law and other commandments. These two commandments are at the heart of all the commandments given by God; they are the foundations upon which all the Law was built. If we love God with all of our beings, then we will seek to honor Him in all we do, we will fear Him, and we will seek to keep His commandments. We love God because we honor Him, and we honor Him because we love Him. Likewise, we will keep His commandments in treating our fellow man: we will love our neighbor because it brings God honor to do so, but also because that neighbor is made in the very image—just as we are—of the God we are seeking to honor.

Solomon’s advice is simple, yet it is profoundly true. Living a life in which one fears God and keeps His commandments is the only way to find meaning and purpose in the world. Though it may not lead to wealth and prosperity, or success in the world’s economy, it will lead to a life of peace and assurance, with eternal rewards to come.

artwork: “The Bible,” Marc Chagall, 1956.