A reader seeks an explanation of the text of Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Be not righteous over much: neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”

A superficial reading of this verse presents the apparent problem. Is the writer seriously suggesting that God’s servants should re­strain their efforts to develop righteousness in their lives? Should they too limit their search for Divine wisdom, as though a real effort to be righteous and wise is just too much of an imposition.

The whole tenor of scripture speaks strongly against such an interpretation. God declares in Deut.6:5-6 “…thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.” These words imply an all-consuming passion, not some tepid, insipid response where real effort is restrained. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled” said Christ to “the multitudes” on the mountainside (Matt.5:6). Our Lord clearly expected that a fulsome pursuit of that righteousness would result in persecution (verse10) but he encouraged his listeners with the hope of salvation; he did not ask them to hold back, but went out in front to show the way.

So if Solomon is not exhorting us to luke­warmness in pursuit of righteousness and wisdom, and we contend that cannot be his meaning, what is the intent of his comment in Eccl.7:16? Our Lord, as he continued his “sermon on the mount”, illustrates the sort of hypocritical “righteousness” which consists merely in appearance, in a desire to present an appearance of piety, but which, under the withering gaze of the son of God is exposed in all its emptiness. In Matthew chapter 6 he speaks of almsgiving, prayer and fasting all done by those who wanted to be not only “seen of men” but to “have glory of men” (v.2,5,16). They were “righteous over much” and “over wise” in the clearly ironic terms of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7. Rotherham picks up this irony: “neither count thyself wise beyond measure.”

Eccl.7:17 highlights the opposite folly. Just as some in hypocrisy tried to present an over righteous persona to the world, others, observing as Solomon had that “there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness” (verse 15) strayed too far into self indulgent wickedness and folly with disastrous results.

Bro L G Sargent in “Ecclesiastes and other studies” sums up: “Both courses then are seen to be destructive; and Koheleth can only be misun­derstood if the irony of the sayings and of their juxtaposition is unperceived. He does not recom­mend a safe and moderate mixture of righteousness and wickedness: there is no such thing. The model he holds up is the man who can steer his course in the world through all the contrary perversions of human nature and come out uncorrupted, and that can only be achieved on one principle: “He that feareth God shall come forth of them all” (verse 18 cf. 5:7). The foundation for spiritual and mental health is that godly awe which is the first principle of wisdom, and the righteousness of which there can be too much is not the righteousness of faith.”