Question: What does it mean “do not be overly righteous”? Shouldn’t we strive for righteousness?
Answer: King Solomon wrote, “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). God gave King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, great wisdom (2 Chronicles 1:11-12, 1 Kings 4:30). During his life, Solomon made many practical observations and wrote them to instruct others in wisdom and righteousness (Proverbs 2:6-9). While it appears that Solomon is making a contradiction in the verse, he is actually giving wisdom that leads to true righteousness.
When a person desires to be wise, they must gain wisdom by listening to counsel from wise teachers, studying the Word of God and observing nature (Proverbs 1:5-6, 30:24-28, 6:6). While we should definitely spend time doing these things, this should not be taken to excess. The key to this verse is the word “over” which means to be excessive. Just like eating healthy food, if we eat too much it can still cause problems. If all we do is read books, listen to sermons and look at nature, we will never be productive and witness to the world. God calls us to occupy and make good use of our talents for His glory (Luke 19:13, Matthew 25:14-30). The wisdom we learn is only helpful as it helps us live out the life God intended for us, which is to being forth much fruit (John 15:5). There is so much wisdom to learn, that we need to use wisdom in how much time we spend learning it, otherwise we run the risk of taking it to an extreme (Ecclesiastes 8:17). Wisdom is meant to be a blessing (Proverbs 3:13), however, if its study taken to excess, it turns the blessing into a burden (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
Righteousness is another important theme that Solomon teaches his listeners to learn (Proverbs 2:9, 8:7-8). The Bible defines righteousness as the commandments of God, “My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172). Righteousness is defined in the dictionary as the “state of being morally right.” While it is important to be righteous, this too can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. A perfect example is that of the Pharisees. They were experts in the law in the Scriptures. They were so obsessed with keeping the commandments that they made even more laws than those found in God’s Word. According to biblical scholars, the Pharisees made an additional 613 laws in trying to support the keeping of the ten commandments. While their original intentions were likely good, they took it to an unhealthy level that caused them to lose sight of God’s character of mercy. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith…” (Matthew 23:23). True righteousness is seen in a character balanced with mercy, “ He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth life, righteousness, and honour” (Proverbs 21:21).
At the end of the verse, Solomon asks a question to get the listener to think about what he just said, “why shouldest thou destroy thyself ?” Could being overly wise and righteous be destructive? According to what has been discussed, the answer is yes. God calls us to use reason (Isaiah 1:18) and while it is good to spend time learning wisdom and righteousness, if that is all we do it will destroy us spiritually. We risk focusing so much on these things that we take our eyes off of the one who gives us these gifts. This is when self can take control and turn good things into something negative. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” (Romans 1:22). Righteousness is another thing that we can corrupt if the focus turns to self (Isaiah 58:2-4, 64:6). Therefore, we have to keep Jesus the focus in everything (John 12:32) and keep even good things in balance (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Just because we know a lot about wisdom or righteousness does not mean we practice it (Titus 1:16).
My personal take on the verse is that when a person is all about being so wise and righteous, it can be to their destruction because no one wants to be around them. If someone is constantly showing off how wise and righteous they are, it is really off putting. Even just having an attitude of being overly wise or righteous does more harm than good because it ruins their witness and can lead themselves and others to lose their salvation. Humility before God plays an important role as we learn to be truly wise and righteous in our lives (1 Peter 5:6).
“Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
In His service,