Are we righteous in vain?

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? (Eccl. 7:16-17)

At first glance these statements give one pause. What is the Preacher trying to say? As I have been blogging through my teaching series on Ecclesiastes there have been numerous statements that have been challenging and disconcerting, before I understood what the Preacher was teaching, and these are chief among them.

Is he saying that being a good person, a “goody two shoes”, is not good for you? Does he mean that a little wickedness is OK, just don’t go overboard and be really wicked? Should we just strive for a happy medium between the two?

Notice first of all that the two phrases are parallel, so that whatever is said about being overly righteous and too wise in some sense you also have to say about being overly wicked and too foolish. What I mean by that is that some commentators think he means, don’t pretend to be wise, don’t play the wiseman. That interpretation does not bear itself out in the parallel statement. He is not talking about pretending to be wicked, so he cannot be talking about pretending to be wise.

When one takes verse 15 into account, the meaning becomes clearer. 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. The righteous are trying to make themselves more righteous so as to prolong their lives (Prov. 10:27), and when they see that their own self-effort toward righteousness does not avail, the righteous throw up their hands and say, what’s the difference, I’ll just be wicked since my righteousness does not avail me.

The problem here is our misconception that our own righteousness avails us of anything. Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins (Eccl. 7:20). All our good actions by our own self-effort are filthy rags (Is. 64:6). We need a righteousness that comes from outside of us, because there no goodness that comes from inside of us, without Christ. What we have here is an Old Testament statement of the concept of imputed righteousness, the righteousness of Christ that is given to us, credited to our account, so that when God looks at us he doesn’t see our sin but Christ’s righteousness.

God made us originally upright, but our sin nature has taken over (Eccl. 7:29), and the only way for us to be rescued from this predicament is for God to give us a righteousness that we did not earn and could never deserve. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!


Part of an ongoing series on Ecclesiastes


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