Part 15: Do Not Be Too Righteous

By December 20, 2013 Meaningless No Comments

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Part 15 Do Not Be Overly Righteous from New Covenant Fellowship on Vimeo.

 

part 15 – don’t be too righteous (Ecc 7:15-18)

Provocative title.  We have been walking through Ecclesiastes and we are now in chapter 7.  Go ahead and open to Ecc 7.  Last week we worked our way through verse 14 and today we will venture through vv 15-18, but I would like to begin reading in verse 13 to get some momentum and add some context because we will be drawing from vv 13& 14 in our exposition of 15-18.

13 Consider what God has done:

Who can straighten
what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
anything about their future.

15 In this [hebel / fleeting] life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
16 Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes [Or will follow them both].

 

I don’t know a lot of people who welcome adversity, who like when times are bad.  I don’t know a lot of people who pray, “God bring tough times so that I can grow.”  They usually pray, “God, times are tough, get me out of this!”  Generally, people try to avoid adversity, which is why in spite of vowing to be faithfully committed in prosperity and in adversity, people serve divorce papers when marriages sail the stormy seas of adversity.  This is hard and I don’t like hard, so I’m bailing.

We don’t like adversity; we like prosperity.  If only there was a formula by which I could procure prosperity and avoid adversity.

Aha.  Proverbs 10:27 The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.

The general rule, the traditional wisdom axiom says that the righteous live long and prosper and the wicked perish.  Want to avoid adversity and procure prosperity?  The answer is simple: Just be righteous.  And if there is a spectrum, it would make sense that I will be more blessed and more prosperous the more righteous I am.  So, I should devote my life to attaining to the highest level of righteousness possible.  I should cross every religious T and dot every religious I that I possibly can.

If the Law says don’t work on the Sabbath, and I want to be righteous and make sure that I don’t break that rule, let me define work.  How many steps is considered work?  If I take 1000 steps in a day, that is considered work, so I will take less than 700 steps.  You see where this is going.  If my goal is to achieve a blessed life for myself based on the traditional wisdom axiom of blessings for the righteous, adversity for the wicked, I will be the most righteous man in the world so that I can be the most blessed man in the world.  So I will devote my life to a meticulous morality, to super scrupulous religiosity.

If I follow this formula I win.  The Teacher says, NO.

He says in v13 who can straighten what God made crooked?  There are things that God made crooked.  We like straight. Straight is righteous live long and prosper and the wicked are cut off.  Crooked is that which ought not to be.  Crooked is the exception to the rule; sometimes the good die young, good people get what bad people deserve and bad people get what good people deserve.

v14 that God is sovereign over the good days and the bad, prosperity and adversity so you can’t discover anything about your future, much less guarantee it by your righteousness or lack thereof.

When you grasp the sovereignty of God over the day of adversity, it allows you to escape from the trap of thinking that you have power to avoid adversity and procure prosperity through excessive righteousness.

15 In this [hebel / fleeting] life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.

While the general wisdom axiom is the righteous and wise are blessed with long life and prosperity…While that is the general rule of thumb, it is not a hard and fast rule without exceptions.  There are exceptions.  The Teacher has seen the exception.  I’ve seen a righteous guy perish.  I’ve seen a wicked guy live long and prosper.  In case you have never heard of him, Job is his name.  These are crooked things.  And God is the one who did it.

 

 

 

Righteousness does not guarantee long life and prosperity.  Wickedness does not guarantee premature death.  And especially now, in the New Covenant, while there is still a “reap what you sow” principle at work in all things, there isn’t a covenantal stipulation for these outcomes.

So verse 15 observes the exception.  The question becomes: How do we deal with these exceptions to the rule?  How do we react when we see the wicked live long and prosper?  How do we react when we see the righteous suffer and the good die young?  How do we live in light of this crooked thing?

He gives some advice, beginning in verse 16.  Now verse 16 can be troublesome, especially on the surface; it’s enough to make a legalist shudder.  It is certainly open to abuse, at least in isolation and on the surface.

16 Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?

Since God is sovereign over all things including the day of adversity, since he makes some things crooked, since there are exceptions to the rule, since we don’t have the power to procure prosperity & blessings by our excessive righteousness, we should not dedicate our lives to living like we can.

Don’t be excessively righteous or overly wise.  Why destroy yourself?  How could that destroy us?

Some problems arise when we go down that path.  The first problem is connected to our motives.  When our motives are to avoid adversity and attain blessings of prosperity and long life, those are selfish motives.  And if our motives for righteousness are self centered, it sure is hard to avoid self righteousness.  Another problem, a related problem is legalism.  We fall into the same trap that the Pharisees did.

Consider the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who were self centered and thus self righteous and legalistic.  These guys were so righteous that they couldn’t go to the gatherings that Jesus went to because well, there were sinners and tax collectors there and prostitutes.  Do you think that they enjoyed life as the gift of God or were they too busy trying to find the specs of dust in their fellow man’s eyes, tying up heavy burdens to place them on men’s shoulders while not lifting a finger to help them, swallowing a camel while straining a gnat.  They were the kind of guys who, in their wisdom and righteousness dissected the Law of Moses down to the letter so as to avoid the breaking of a Law, the kind of guys that would condemn Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, thinking that man was made for the Sabbath, who don’t see that it is more profitable to give life than to kill.  The one who is overly righteous and overly wise in this sense tends to nitpick at not only his own life, but the lives of others to the degree that it sucks the life right out of life.

That’s not the good life.  That is a stifled and suffocated life and if we live in such a way that we constantly strive for more wisdom and more righteousness and we’re never satisfied, then we never enjoy life as the gift of God, which defeats the whole purpose; and in the end we may just be one of the exceptions to the rule and it may have all been done in vain.

In Star Wars Episode 3 Anakin having lost his mother says I do not want to lose Padme.  If I can just gain enough wisdom of the force, I can harness the power to prevent her death.  So he turns to the dark side carries out the execution of the jedi younglings and does terrible things.  What happens in the end?  Did his full fledged pursuit of this wisdom of the force prevent the death of Padme?  In the end she dies.  It was all done in vain.  And did he enjoy this process?  No, in this pursuit he destroyed himself and it wasn’t even worth it.

In the good life, the balanced life, my righteousness and my wisdom are factors that enhance my enjoyment of life as the gift of God.

Now, verse 16 represents an unhealthy approach in one direction.  Verse 17 represents an unhealthy response in the opposite direction.

When one becomes aware of the exception to the rule, when one sees the wicked prosper, what is the temptation?  The temptation is to say, well shoot, why am I trying to walk in righteousness; it’s not getting me anywhere, but Fred over there, well, he cheats on his taxes, cheats on his wife, cheats in Catan.  He’s the worst sinner there is and everything seems to be going his way!  Might as well join him.

Psalm 73 unveils a possible response to observing this crooked thing, this exception to the rule, seeing the wicked prosper.  It is the wrong response.  The psalmist says beginning in verse 3:

Psalm 73:3-14

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

 

Back to Ecc 7:17.  Here the Teacher warns against this mentality expressed by the psalmist.

17 Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?

Here, he says, don’t let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction.  Don’t say, well, I guess since there are exceptions and the good die young sometimes, I might as well walk in wickedness and foolishness.  Since wisdom has its own shortcomings and I will never know all there is to know, why bother seeking wisdom?  No.  The fact remains that in general, the wicked are not blessed, the fool does not live long and prosper.  Don’t say, since there are exceptions and I can’t avoid adversity altogether I’ll just live in hedonism.  The general rule remains.  Live by the rule, not the exception.  Why die before your time?

Righteousness and wisdom are good.  Those things generally bring blessings.  Seek after them.  But with the right motives.  Don’t seek after them in order to avoid the day of adversity.  God is in control of that and it may come anyway.

The motivation should be, “I fear God and love God, thus, I want to obtain the twin towers of wisdom and righteousness because of their intrinsic value.  These things are good for me and good for others, and they bring God glory.”

A beautiful example of healthy motives in pursuit of wisdom is the attitude in which Solomon asked God for wisdom.  What reason did Solomon give for wanting wisdom?  SO THAT he could govern the people of God for the glory of God.  For the benefit of others and the glory of God.  Not just so he could be awesome and famous.

If my attitude is right, if my heart is right and my motives are right, then I will lead a balanced life in which my wisdom and righteousness undergird the enjoyment of life as a gift of God rather than undermining it.

18 It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes [Or will follow them both].

 

Interesting verse.  Difficult to translate from the Hebrew.  The way that the NIV reads and how many scholars interpret it: it is good to grasp righteousness as well as wickedness.  It is good to grasp wisdom as well as folly.  Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.  Don’t be too righteous or too wicked.  Don’t be too wise or too foolish.  Live somewhere in between.

 

One difficulty with that point of view is that when we survey the Bible and compare Scripture with Scripture.  What does the rest of Scripture have to say about avoiding being too righteous?  Does anywhere in Scripture advocate wickedness, even slightly?  Not at all.

First our text here is a bit ambiguous and we don’t ever want to interpret the clear passages in light of the ambiguous.  We want to interpret the unclear through the lens of the clear.  The rest of the bible is pretty clear about righteousness and wickedness and the unanimous consensus is: be righteous, not wicked.  So, I have a hard time with the idea of this passage teaching don’t be too righteous, throw some sin in there too so that you’re not too righteous.  Don’t be too wicked though.  Avoid the extremes.  Just some righteousness and some wickedness.

The man who fears God will avoid all extremes, again, is one translation/interpretation.  The literal translation is: 18 [It is] good that thou dost lay hold on this, and also, from that withdrawest not thy hand, for whoso is fearing God goeth out with them all.

In the NIV, the footnote expresses it thus: Whoever fears God will follow them both.  Now, you may be saying, how is that different?

The translation doesn’t seem different, but it certainly lends itself to a different interpretation.  Let me explain.  It comes down to how you interpret the word BOTH. If you interpret both to mean that the man who fears God follows both righteousness and wickedness, both wisdom and folly, then you arrive at the same conclusion as before: he is advocating a balanced life as being a middle path where I have some wisdom and righteousness and some folly and wickedness…not too righteous, not too wicked – balanced good and evil.

 

BUT, you could interpret BOTH to mean both righteousness and wisdom.  In other words, the flow of the text could be more like: hey there’s the rule that the righteous live long and prosper, and the wicked are cut off, but there are exceptions to the rule.  Sometimes the good die young and bad things happen to good people and bad people score.  Therefore, in attempt to achieve the blessings of long life and prosperity, don’t chase after wisdom in righteousness in such a way that you miss out on the blessing of enjoying life by being meticulously moral and overly scrupulous with your righteousness and end up legalistic or self-righteousness, destroying yourself.  But before you swing the pendulum in the other direction and think like Psalm 73, before you think: well forget wisdom and righteousness altogether then, don’t forget that the rule of thumb is that wisdom and righteousness generally do bring the blessing of long life and prosperity, so VERSE 18 it is actually good to grasp the one (wisdom) and not let go of the other (righteousness).  Whoever fears God will follow them both. (both righteousness and wisdom)

Since Ecclesiastes is a difficult book and since this verse is difficult to translate and interpret, I’m inclined to go with this interpretation, simply because it seems to square better with the rest of Scripture.  The rest of Scripture teaches that the man who fears God grasps wisdom and does not let go of righteousness. 

But this viewpoint or interpretation doesn’t take away from the fact that the good life is the balanced life.  The overall context still teaches that.  It just doesn’t teach that we balance our righteousness with some wickedness and our wisdom with some folly.  It teaches that we should pursue righteousness and wisdom in a way that promotes the enjoyment of life as the gift of God.

What does this look like today for you and me with regard to the overall message of the book?

This unhealthy excessively righteous, overly wise attitude carries into the ability to enjoy the simple everyday common things in life advocated by the teacher.

The one who pursues an excessive righteousness and wisdom, failing to live the balanced life, can’t enjoy a meal, for is he so concerned with all of the ingredients and portions, to the degree that can’t eat that, won’t eat this, because of this ingredient or that.  The fool on the other hand eats anything and everything, has no regard for what is healthy for his body, practices gluttony and ruins himself.  The balanced life knows how to generally eat healthy and in moderation and enjoy his meals.

The one who pursues an excessive righteousness and wisdom can’t enjoy a good day’s work because there is always more that could be done, a better way that this or that could have been handled.  The fool on the other hand is lazy, folds his hands in laziness and ruins himself.  The balanced life knows how to work hard, enjoy that work, leave work at work, come home and enjoy life with his family.

The excessively righteous can’t find satisfaction in serving because he’s doing so much more than others crossing every T and dotting every I, he’s going the extra mile but all the while there is either the notion of I’m still not doing enough.  Or his satisfaction in the process of serving is eclipsed by the lack of perceived reward.  Or he becomes aware that by way of comparison everybody else seems to be doing nothing, so he is filled with anger, resentment and bitterness.  Either way, he is not living the good life and enjoying the blessing and satisfaction inherent in serving.  On the other hand, the fool, in his laziness, the wicked man does nothing for anyone else because he is only concerned with pleasing himself.  The balanced life, knows how to serve, in love without regard to rewards, without comparing himself to the person next to him, but in the fear of the Lord and in love of the Lord sees his service as a service to the lord and finds satisfaction in the action itself.

The excessively righteous can’t enjoy a glass of wine or a beer because that’s alcohol.  The fool on the other hand, drinks in excess, and in drunkenness ruins himself – either through debauchery, DWI, foolish words that he will later regret, etc.  The balanced life can enjoy an adult beverage, for he knows how to drink in moderation and practice restraint.

CONCLUSION

Recognizing the Sovereignty of God over all things, including the day of adversity, should humble us and strip us bare of any foolish notion that we in our scrupulous striving have the power to procure the blessings of long life and prosperity through the attainment of wisdom and righteousness.  But the text also warns us against allowing the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction as a knee jerk reaction and live based on the exception instead of the rule.  We shouldn’t respond in saying, well let’s just live like heathens.  We should lay hold of both wisdom and righteousness for their intrinsic value, not for our own benefit alone, but for that of others and for the glory of the sovereign God we fear and love.  And in the good life, that wisdom and righteousness will undergird not undermine our ability to enjoy life as the gift of God.