Be Not Righteous Over Much (Ecclesiastes 7:16)
Frontline Pastor’s Insert 9 November/December 1999
A passage that has often been misunderstood is Ecclesiastes 7:16, “Be not righteous over much.” Can this clause really be saying what it seems to be saying? Does God actually want us to tone down our righteousness? In order to correctly determine the meaning of this clause, it must first be placed in its immediate context. The context of v. 16 is found in the paragraph of Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 which reads:
15“All things I have seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. 16Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? 17Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? 18It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.”
There are a number of different interpretations of the expression “Be not righteous over much” in v. 16. We will examine three of these. The first interpretation can be called the golden mean view. When v. 16 is taken in connection with the command to avoid being excessively wicked in v. 17 (“be not over much wicked”), a number of commentators have concluded that this is a call to moderation, a golden mean between virtue and vice. As such, Solomon is encouraging his audience to avoid living an excessively righteous or sinful life. The problem with this understanding is that it misses the point of Solomon’s argument in the immediate context. It should be noted in v. 15 that Solomon was having difficulty in understanding how God works out divine retribution. Solomon had seen a righteous man die while living a righteous life and an ungodly man live a long and prosperous life. This was an apparent inconsistency to what an Israelite living under the Mosaic Covenant expected. The advice to live a life of moderation does not fit the discussion of v. 15, nor any other portion of the Bible.
A second interpretation is the self-righteous interpretation. Some commentators understand the term righteousness as a reference to self-righteousness. Therefore, when the writer says “be not righteous over much,” he means “don’t be self-righteous.” A problem for this view is found when we compare the Hebrew adjective saddiq translated as “righteousness” in v. 16 with its use in v. 15 translated as “just” as well as its corresponding noun sedeq translated as “righteousness.” Let’s translate v. 15 with the idea of self-righteousness in it. “All things I have seen in the days of my vanity: there is a self-righteous man that perisheth in his self-righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.” The problem is that whatever righteousness is, it is the antithesis of wickedness. Therefore, the only type of righteousness that v. 15 can be referring to is a genuine righteousness. The self-righteous view does not fit the context.
A third and preferred interpretation is the genuine righteousness view. This view understands the term righteousness to be a genuine righteousness, as this Hebrew term is always used in the Old Testament. The righteousness described in this verse is the same kind of righteousness as found in v. 15. The righteousness in v. 16 is excessive (“righteous over much”) only in the sense that an Old Testament believer might simplistically expect God to honor his righteousness with immediate blessing. In v. 15 Solomon describes a situation where a genuinely righteous person receives what the wicked should get; and the wicked person receives what the righteous person should get. The point of v. 16 could be explained like this: “Do not be simplistically righteous with the expectation of immediate reward, neither be naively wise, why cause yourself to be astonished that God did not honor your righteous living with immediate blessing?” How does this fit in with vv. 17-18? When one sees the wicked prospering, he may lose heart and turn to an excessively sinful lifestyle. This should not be followed because God may immediately judge this sinner (v. 17). According to v. 18 the believer should avoid both extremes. In light of other portions of this book (3:17; 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:14), Solomon would argue that we should live righteously because the day of judgment is coming; this is when the Lord will certainly reward His people.