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It would seem at the first glance at this text that Solomon was swinging the danger signal, and warning the saints against being too righteous. Whether the king meant to do this or not, he has not wanted help to keep it swinging on down the ages. In fact, it seems to be the delight of some to stand upon the walls of Zion (?) and keep up the warning, lest people indulge too profusely at the well of salvation. If righteousness be a dangerous element in the soul; if the well of water springing up into everlasting life can be partaken of too freely; if holiness and death, as some seem to think, are inseparable; if an overdose of the elixir of eternal life is possible, and may prove a poison to the patient; if all this be true, then may some conscientiously feel themselves delegated with authority to watch careless par takers of the divine nature, and warn them of the danger of over indulgence. But if righteousness, either in small or large quantities, works no harm; if the more of the divine nature one has the better; if the stream of holiness passing through the soul leaves no deadly poison and is separable from death; then we see no reason for danger signals, or warning voices, or feelings of alarm. We ask, then, the question, “Is it possible to be over much righteous?” Are there any examples of such in the Bible? If so, in what respect were they over righteous? Will the alarm 1st please look up the records and note a few of these examples before he scares any more of the sheep from the water of life?
What about people in these days? Are there now any who are righteous over much? We think we hear the answer, “Yes.” Then in what respect? Do you say, “Some will not ride on the street car, nor black their shoes, nor take milk from the dairy, nor bread from the baker, nor go to the post office on Sunday, and a score of other little things which other Christians do?” Now, to the law and to the testimony. Is there anything in the Word of God that condemns such people in these things, and proves that such conduct is over much righteousness? Do you say, “Some carefully abstain from wearing any gold upon their person, even to a wedding ring upon their finger; birds’ feathers are an unknown quantity upon their hats; their dress is so very plain; they think they must be no careful in their eating; they never drink tea nor coffee, and swine’s flesh never comes into their mouth”? All this indictment must be weighed by the Word of God, and these actions or omission must be properly proved to be wrong, or these clients must not be convicted. In candid thought, is there anything in Scripture, either in the Old or New Testament, which declares that it is wrong to follow a course of action as described? If not, then it is simply prejudice that says it is righteousness in over abundance. But I hear another say, “Some people are all the time talking about their religion, and saying the Lord has sanctified them, and they bother other people about not having what they have, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. They are over much righteous.” Search the Scriptures, and anything that the Word condemns we will judge accordingly; but until then we will have to decide that their righteousness is within bounds.
We have noticed this in the Word, that wherever there is a warning thrown out there are also examples of those who did not heed the signal. Now, as some would claim, here is a warning against too much righteousness; but where are the examples of heedlessness, either in the record of the Word or in modern times? Where is the person that the Lord would pronounce too good? Where is the one that has done too nearly right? Where is the one that has been too faithful and lived too close to the commands of God? Perhaps some one is saying, “It does not mean that one can be too good or too upright, but it means self righteousness.” One has no more right to say that text means self-righteousness than that it means any other abominable thing.
Self-righteousness is an abomination, and is nothing but “filthy rags” Any of it is too much, and the text implies that whatever the thing in question is, some would be well enough, but too much would not be good.
One of the largest religious newspapers in the United States has a page devoted to questions and answers. These questions are submitted to the people for answers; and the parties whose answers are chosen are paid for the same. In a recent issue of this paper appeared the following question, with its answer: “What is the meaning of Ecclesiastes 7:16: ‘Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise; why shouldest thou destroy thyself?’” Answer: “This verse may be taken as a caution against a Pharisaical display of righteousness, which, while wonderfully scrupulous about the letter, too often loses sight of the spirit of God’s command.”
Probably many other answers to this question came in, but this was chosen as the best. It is evident that the writer was not clear in his understanding of the text, at least he was not sure, for be states, “This verse may be taken,” etc., showing that while it may mean something else, yet it “may he taken” in the sense given.
Of course, the Lord does not want anybody to as this answer indicates, but that the text does not mean anything of the kind will appear when a proper study of the context is made. We believe it is right here that so much misunderstanding of the Word comes in. A passage of Scripture, as it stands alone, seems to teach one thing, and when used with its context means quite another. It means something, or it would not be there. God has not allowed meaningless words to conic into His Book. Following the method of studying the context, we can see perhaps what the thought is. In the previous verse Solomon says: “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity.” That is, in the days before he knew the Lord. In his natural, unsaved state, he observed some things. One thing was, he was watching the difference between the righteous and the wicked; the earthly prosperity and adversity of each. And, like the unsaved today, he was looking at things from an entirely wrong standpoint. This evidently is his thought when he refers to seeing things in his vanity. Then he goes on to mention some things which he had observed from that point of vision and at that time. He says: “There is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.” This evidently was a temptation to him, just as it was to his father David, when he saw the wicked spreading themselves like green bay trees. David said: “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.” Psalm 73:3.5.
He further said: “They have more than heart could wish.” But he moved around to another location and looked at them from another standpoint, and said: “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God, then understood I their end.” When he saw things from God’s standpoint he was not tempted by them any more. His temptation was the thought that it hardly paid to be a follower of God. The wicked seemed to get along better than he, and evidently the devil was tempting him to think that salvation did not pay. This was no doubt Solomon’s trouble in the days of his vanity. He saw the righteous perishing in his righteousness, and he saw the wicked prolonging his days in his wickedness. Then the temptation would be that there was no profit in salvation.
These same things obtain today; some righteous people are in poverty and suffering, and in it all they die; while some wicked people live in luxury and worldly prosperity, and in that they die. Looking at things from a purely worldly standpoint one might think that it does not pay to he a Christian; but from the standpoint of heaven the view is entirely changed, as David soon saw. So, Solomon, seeing the state and utter end of both the righteous and the wicked, and judging things from his standpoint of vanity, it would be perfectly natural for him to say that there is no use in putting too much stress on righteousness, for the righteous do not seem to get along any better, not even so well, as the wicked. But his godly training would not permit him to throw away all desire to be right; yet, feeling there would be no special benefit in any great quantity of righteousness, he says, in the language of the text: “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise; why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” And yet, not wanting to cast too much reflection upon the possession of righteousness, he evidently tries to even it up in the next verse by saying: “Be not over much wicked; neither be thou foolish (just the opposite condition to his former statement) ; why shouldest thou die before thy time?” I suppose Solomon thought, in his unregenerate state of vanity, that he was keeping “in the middle of the road.” He did not think it best to get too much religion, or to be too wicked.
If we mistake not, there are many of his order still living.
To take this text to prove the possibility of being too righteous certainly shows ridiculousness in the extreme. Yet it has been done; how much we do not know. In Adam Clarke’s time he cites a case, and says: “It cannot be supposed, except by those who are entirely unacquainted with the nature of true religion, that a man may have too much holiness; too much of the life of God in the soul. And yet a learned Doctor, in three sermons on this text, has endeavored to show, outdoing Solomon’s infidel, ‘the sin, folly and danger of being righteous over much.’ O rare darkness!”