Why does the Bible tell us not to be overly righteous? That is today’s question. It’s a sharp one from a perplexed Bible reader and pastor named Aaron. “Hello, Pastor John! Can you explain two texts to me? The first is this: ‘Be not overly righteous,’ which we read in Ecclesiastes 7:16. And square that with Peter’s lofty command: ‘As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy”’ (1 Peter 1:15–16). What would it mean to be ‘overly righteous’? Is the ESV translation accurate here? Here’s a little background story: I was laughing at a crude joke. I caught myself, and I turned and said to my Christian friend that I felt guilty for laughing at it. He said to me, ‘Well, doesn’t the Bible say not to be overly righteous? I think a little guilty laughing is fine.’ He was right about the text. But this statement didn’t sit well with me. How do these two texts hold together in your own mind, Pastor John?”
I’m glad it didn’t sit well with him. It doesn’t sit well with me either. My first thought when I heard this question was, “I should not try to answer this question, because I’m not sure what Ecclesiastes 7:15–18 means.” I remember over the years returning to these puzzling verses several times and coming away each time, after all my efforts to read the commentaries and do the work in Hebrew, saying, “Well, maybe I’ve got it, but frankly, I’m still not sure.” So, my second thought was, “Well, at least I should admit that publicly.” And I should make the difficult effort, I think, because there are a lot of verses in Ecclesiastes that I’m not sure about. The whole book is a little bit of a puzzle to me. But I think, in all fairness, I should give it a try so that we all have at least one plausible interpretation, even if we may not be sure it’s the only right one.
So here is Ecclesiastes 7:15–18:
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. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
Now, without any context and without any sense of what this author says elsewhere about righteousness and wickedness, I suppose you could say that these verses mean, “Well, be a little bit unrighteous: tell a few dirty jokes; laugh a little bit at the sinfulness that you see on the screen; be a little bit wicked; be a little bit unwise.” I suppose you could say, “Well, it’s what they say, and it must mean that.”
But that would fly right in the face not only of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, who told us that our righteousness better exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees or we’re not going to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20), and “be holy because your Father in heaven is holy” (see 1 Peter 1:16–17); it also flies in the face of what the writer of Ecclesiastes himself says, because he ends his book like this: “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). And he adds this: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). In other words, he does not encourage just a little bit of disobedience — maybe just one or two commandments, or just a little white lie. That’s not what he says. In fact, he says every deed will be brought into judgment; every secret thing will be found out.
These are not the words of a man who thinks it is prudent to lighten up on our vigilance over the fullness of our obedience to God. The entire Bible, plus the context of Ecclesiastes itself, warns us not to think he is teaching us to be a little bit wicked, a little bit unrighteous, a little bit unwise. So we stand back and we say, “Well, what on earth does it mean, then?” Ecclesiastes 7:16 says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”
Righteousness of the Pharisees
Now, what if I paraphrased it like this? “Do not be greatly righteous, and do not be righteous with the aim of great righteousness, and do not become bloated with wisdom.” What would you hear in that paraphrase? Well, what you can hear in that paraphrase is my sense that what he’s getting at here is not a warning against true righteousness, or not a warning against avoiding wickedness, true wickedness, but a warning against a kind of righteousness that is excessive or great in the sense of being fastidious or lopsided or showy.
And as soon as I say that, I can’t help but hear in my own words the words of Jesus — and maybe that’s why I’m thinking it up, because those words are tucked away at the back of my mind — regarding the kind of distorted righteousness (perhaps he would say excessive righteousness), of the scribes and the Pharisees.
For example, Matthew 23:23–24:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
“We should not become so preoccupied with the minor aspects of righteousness that we neglect the major aspects.”
It’s not a stretch, is it, to call this over-much righteousness or excessive righteousness in an ironic way — righteousness that is super-vigilant over tithing every spice in the spice drawer, but neglectful of justice and mercy and faithfulness.
We all get this. We use language this way. Jesus could have easily said, with Ecclesiastes, “Be not overly righteous.” That is, don’t make yourself too wise because there is a kind of fastidious, lopsided, showy righteousness and wisdom that God abominates. So I don’t think the point of Ecclesiastes is that we should be a little bit unrighteous or a little bit unwise, but rather that we should not become so preoccupied with the minor aspects of righteousness that we neglect the major aspects, nor should we become so caught up in clever casuistry to justify our blind spots, like the Pharisees who had all kinds of ways worked out to do the kind of little bit of unrighteousness that they wanted to do.
And then in verse 17, to parallel verse 16, Ecclesiastes says, “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” I can’t help but think that he provided this audacious parallel to being overly righteous in order to draw out how wrong it would be to interpret the previous verse any other way than ironic. It’s just over the top, I think, to suggest he would be saying something like, “Just be a full, solid, wicked person — not excessive, just full, solid, normal wicked. Just be that.” It’s crazy. I mean, you cannot believe that this writer is saying that. I think he expects us to say, “Don’t you see this as irony in the way I’m saying this?”
Don’t Be a Fool
So instead, I think he’s saying something like, “Look, if you get the idea that the pendulum should swing from over-much righteousness to over-much wickedness, don’t even begin to think that you can lengthen your life by being a standout villain, a villain who isn’t just your average run-of-the-mill villain. Don’t even begin to think that I’m suggesting that you should be an over-much wicked person. It won’t work. You can’t save your life by being that way.”
“Let the things that are clear in Scripture control your thinking rather than the things that are unclear.”
And then at the end of that clause, he simply says, “Don’t be a fool.” And the reason that stands out is because he does not say, “Don’t be an over-much fool,” or “Don’t be an excessive fool.” He said that about righteousness; he said that about wickedness. He doesn’t say it about being a fool. And I think it’s his way of saying, “Hey, do you get what I’ve been saying? Only a fool would miss what I’m saying by thinking I’m commending a little bit of unrighteousness, a little bit of wickedness.”
But just a couple of cautions here at the end about difficult passages of Scripture (because this is one). First, let the things that are clear in Scripture control your thinking rather than the things that are unclear. You have a lifetime to get more clarity on the hard passages, but obedience is called for this afternoon — today. And the second thing I would say is to beware of those people that our friend referred to: beware of people who latch onto unclear texts to justify worldly behavior. This is not the evidence of biblical wisdom or biblical righteousness.