Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise - why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool - why die before your time? Ecclesiastes 7:16-17
Hey, what’s this? Are we reading it right? Have I typed it right?
Is Ecclesiastes really telling us that there’s a danger in being “over-righteous” or too wise? Is it really implying - even worse! - that it’s all right to be, well, just a bit wicked, as long as we don’t go too far?
What’s going on here?
I suspect that this is the kind of passage that most Christian Bible-readers simply gloss over, pretending it isn’t there and not wanting to go to the trouble of trying to work it out.
But it is there. There’s no getting away from it. And there’s not much relief to be found in exploring different Bible translations. I’ve just checked five or six, and while, certainly, there are slightly different wordings, they all come down to pretty much the same thing.
So sorry, folks, but these strange remarks are as much part of God’s word as John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 13!
What kind of sense can we make of them, taking them in the context of the Bible as a whole?
The first statement - about not being “over-righteous” or “over-wise” - is perhaps not too difficult. Quite possibly the writer is talking about the danger of being self-righteous on the one hand, and of fancying that you know it all on the other - being a kind of spiritual smart alec.
Sadly, any kind of sincere religious commitment is exposed to those dangers. You think immediately of the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day. You think of various sects throughout history, Christian and otherwise, which have been so convinced of their own rightness that they have become priggish, sanctimonious and possibly down-right fanatical. (Dare I suggest - you may even see a bit of yourself there.)
Let’s make no mistake: taking the Bible as a whole, you simply can’t have too much righteousness - as long as it’s the right kind of righteousness. And what kind of righteousness is that? - a humble, teachable Christlikeness, that holiness of which the Bible loves to speak. No question - you can’t have too much of that!
But what about the other part? - “Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool”. It certainly seems to suggest that a little bit of wickedness is nothing to worry about.
I can’t think, though, that that’s what the writer means - it would contradict so much else in the Bible. Perhaps what he’s getting at is something like this: “No, don’t let yourself slip into hypocritical self-righteousness - but by the same token don’t allow your liberty from that danger to lead you to become too easy-going, a little slack.”
Putting it another way, perhaps he is suggesting that while it is good to be free of a sterile, stern-faced, rule-keeping religiosity, that freedom must be kept in check. A little “wickedness” (which of course isn’t really wicked at all) is fine - but just keep an eye on yourself!
If this is right, then it is a truth picked up by Paul in his letter to the churches of Galatia: “You, my dear brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But don’t use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:13).
There’s also the example of Jesus himself. He “broke” the sabbath-day by healing people on it. That was work! Wicked! - said the Pharisees. And he encouraged his disciples to pluck ears of corn on the sabbath-day. Same again. In certain respects he was happy to be “wicked”. But it certainly wasn’t what Ecclesiastes call “over-wicked”.
I would love to hear from you if you can explain the Ecclesiastes passage better. I certainly don’t claim to have the last word (that would surely be “over-wise”!).
To finish...there is a wider point to get out of all this.
When we read the Bible, we need to read it with intelligence, with humility, with discernment, and with the help of wiser heads than ours (I trust you have a good Bible commentary?).
And we need to read it as a whole. Start plucking isolated verses out of longer passage - especially difficult passages like this - and you’re in trouble.
Not every word of scripture can be taken with a wooden literalness - you only need to look back to, say, verse 3 of this chapter to see that. Is that grim statement meant to be a universal rule? Nah!
The Bible can be ironic, tongue-in-cheek, even humorous, in pressing home words of wisdom. God help us to develop the ability to take it as the Spirit intends it to be taken.
Lord, I long to be holy - but not over-holy! I long to be free from man-made rules - but not so free as to slip into sin! Please help me by your Spirit day by day and minute by minute. Amen.