The message of Ecclesiastes 7.16-17 seems puzzling to us. It says “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?”
Is it possible to be too righteous? Many God-fearing, sincere Christians might want to answer “no” to that question, yet the author of Ecclesiastes seems to say that there is such a thing as being too righteous. And does v 17 mean that a little wickedness is OK with God, just as long as we do not “overdo” it? Again, most God-fearing, sincere Christians would say that this surely cannot be the meaning of this verse, but it certainly sounds like it is.
Some have suggested that the words “overly righteous” describe the kind of religiosity we find among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Jesus complained that they would “strain out a gnat” (Matt 23.24) to avoid eating something unclean, and that they would “tithe mint and rue and every kind of garden herb” (Luke 11.42) in their meticulous application of the tithe to every form of produce. However, the Pharisees did not exist in Solomon’s time, and there is no indication that there were people like the Pharisees at that time either.
In order to untangle these statements, we have to begin with the overall purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes. In this book the author (probably Solomon) is focusing on a particular question: what brings happiness and meaning to one’s life? Is there a particular way of life that will allow one to avoid hardships, pain, sorrow, and difficulty? Is there a path to happiness in this world?
The book of Ecclesiastes is a systematic experiment, as it were, to see what the answer to this question might be. The author said he tried everything – education, wealth, possessions, pleasure, food, labor, etc. and found that none of these things brought the satisfaction, happiness, or value he was seeking. Along the way he learned a few other things, such as the fact that wisdom is always the better path to follow. Folly only ruins things, but wisdom is a great benefit in life. Even then, however, the author admitted that obtaining wisdom and following it will not keep you from harm, hardship, or difficulty in life. In fact, sometimes life is completely the opposite of what we think it would be: “I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness” (7.15). The point is a simple one: not even wisdom (which comes from God) will make life a “bowl of cherries.”
It is in this context that we find the statements in 7.16-17 about excessive righteousness and excessive wickedness. When understood in the context of the book, the point of these puzzling verses now becomes clear. The point of v 16 is that the practice of righteousness, now matter how much you do it, is no guarantee or shield against pain, sorrow, problems, difficulties, or hardships in life. Someone might then say, “OK, then I will just live how I want to live, and indulge in everything I want to do so that I will maximize my happiness in life.” But in v 17 the author says, in effect, “No, that won’t work either. Indulging in sin will not make you happy. In fact, it will only hasten your demise.”
It should be clear that, in their context, these verses are not about how much righteousness or wickedness is “enough” or “too much.” No, these verses are a warning against putting one’s hopes and trust for worldly joy and contentment in either of these pursuits. If you are looking for a way that will make you happy (on a physical level) every day, that will allow you to avoid the rough times and the hardships of life, neither one of these routes will get you there.
Is that a depressing message? It is only if your physical comfort and your worldly happiness are of primary importance to you, and only if you think that God always rewards a person’s righteousness with material blessings. That brings us to one of the most important messages of Ecclesiastes: there is no magic path in life that will allow you to avoid all pain, hardship, sorrow, or difficulty. Every person will get both good times and bad times in life, and there is no escaping it. While Ecclesiastes does not explicitly say why things have to be this way, it seems that the “logic” is pretty clear. If there was a way to live so as to avoid all pain and hardship, then we would never want to be anywhere else. God, however, has given every life its measure of difficulty to remind us all that our true home is not here, but with God.
Does that mean that there is no use in being righteous and following God’s will? Absolutely not. The conclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes is that we should fear God and keep His commandments. That is indeed the right way to live. But living righteously is no guarantee of constant physical comfort, blessing, or joy in this world.
The idea — and the message preached as if it were gospel — that God will reward sincere believers with material blessing is sometimes called the “Health and Wealth Gospel” or the “Prosperity Gospel.” It is the message of many of the TV evangelists, but as Ecclesiastes has pointed out, it is not the Biblical message. An overview of the Prosperity Gospel is here.