It is one thing to say that we believe in the sovereignty of God, but it's another thing to live that out in a world that often seems meaningless. No sooner has the Preacher told us to consider the works of God than he struggles with some of the implications of God's sovereignty.
Remember, the Preacher is totally committed to telling us the truth about life, in all its vanity. Here he tells us that sometimes life seems desperately unfair. "In my vain life I have seen everything," he says. "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (Eccles. 7:15).
This is the exactly the opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God. The righteous people are the ones who ought to rejoice in their prosperity, while the wicked suffer adversity until finally they are forced to admit that God is in control. All too often, what we see instead is what the Preacher saw: righteous people dying before their time, while the ungodly keep on living.
This paradox almost seems to contradict what the Bible says in other places. God told his people that if they did what he said, he would bless them with long life in the land of promise (e.g. Deut. 4:40). He also threatened to punish his enemies with death for their disobedience. But sometimes things are not the way they are supposed to be. Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day. Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers escape or get lenient sentences. It's just not fair!
These injustices are some of the crooked things in life that we wish we could straighten out. But knowing that we cannot do this, the Preacher gives us some practical advice: "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?" (Eccles. 7:16-17).
Some scholars believe that these verses are cynical, and maybe they are. Maybe the Preacher is saying something like this: "Look, if the righteous perish, while the wicked live to prosper, then why be good? Take my advice: don't try to be a goody two-shoes. I'm not telling you to be evil, of course. It would be foolish to tempt fate by living a wicked life. I'm just saying that if only the good die young, then there is nothing to be gained by trying to be good."
On this interpretation, the Preacher is advising "a kind of middle-of-the-road approach to life, not overzealous about wisdom or foolishness, righteousness or wickedness."
This kind of reasoning would have been right at home with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who often advocated a life of moderation. Do not be too good, or too evil, they said. Too much piety or too much iniquity will lead to an early grave. This also happens to be the way that many people think today. They know better than to live a life of total wickedness because deep down they believe that God will judge people for their sins. Yet secretly they suspect that trying to be holy will take all of the fun out of life. Generally speaking, they try to be good, and they hope that they are good enough to get by God on the Day of Judgment. But their consciences are troubled too little by their sins. As long as they are not overly righteous, or overly wicked, they are happy the way they are.
If that is what the Preacher means, then he must be looking at life under the sun again, leaving God out of the picture for the moment and thinking about good and evil the way that only an unbeliever can.
There is an alternative, however. When he tells us not to be "overly righteous," he might be telling us not to be self-righteous. Grammatically speaking, the form of the verb that the Preacher uses in verse 16 may refer to someone who is only pretending to be righteous and playing the wise man.In that case, the person the Preacher has in mind is too righteous by half. He does not have the true holiness that comes by faith, but the hypocritical holiness that comes by works.
After all, if God's standard is perfection—if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—then how could anyone ever be "overly righteous"? No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think that they are good enough for God.
All of this leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a "peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded."
In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, "I don't deserve to be treated like this. Doesn't God know who I am?" It is also a very short step from saying that to saying, "Who does God think he is?" So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, "too righteous." In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that "stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward" us as much as we think we deserve.
That is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17, when he tells us not to be too wicked. His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. "Don't be a fool," the Preacher is saying. "If you live in sin, you will perish."
So there are two dangers. One is a temptation for the religious person: self-righteousness. The other is even more of a temptation for the non-religious person: unrighteousness. Both of these errors will lead to destruction; they may even lead to an untimely death. But there is also a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. The Preacher says: "It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them" (Eccles. 7:18).
This verse is difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to "take hold of this" and not to withhold our hand "from that," he is referring back to the advice that he gave in verses 16 and 17. So he is saying something like this: "The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one's native wickedness to run its own course."When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously.
To say this more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God. Notice in verse 18 that the person who "fears God" will escape the dangers of death and destruction. The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator. When we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccles. 12:13). Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.
R.N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.
H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 163.
Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 114.
Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series, see the list of articles below: