Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? (Ecc 7:16, ESV)
Can “be not overly righteous” really be saying what it seems to be saying? Does God actually want us to tone down our righteousness? In order to correctly determine the meaning of this clause, it must first be placed in its immediate context. The context of v. 16 is found in the paragraph of Ecclesiastes 7:15–18, which reads:
(15) 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. (16) Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy [better translated as “astonish”] yourself? (17) Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? (18) 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.
There are a number of different interpretations of the expression “be not overly righteous” in v. 16. We will examine three of these. The first interpretation can be called the golden mean view. When v. 16 is taken in connection with the command to avoid being excessively wicked in v. 17 (“be not overly wicked”), a number of commentators have concluded that this is a call to moderation, a golden mean between virtue and vice. As such, the author of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, is encouraging his audience to avoid living an excessively righteous or sinful life. The problem with this understanding is that it misses the point of the argument in the immediate context. It should be noted in v. 15 that Solomon had difficulty in understanding how God works out divine retribution. Solomon had seen a righteous man die while living a righteous life and an ungodly man live a long and prosperous life. This was an apparent inconsistency to what an Israelite living under the Mosaic Covenant expected. The advice to live a life of moderation does not fit the discussion of v. 15, nor any other portion of the Bible.
A second interpretation is the self-righteous interpretation. Some commentators understand the term righteous as a reference to self-righteousness. Therefore, when the writer says “be not overly righteous,” he means “don’t be self-righteous.” A problem for this view is found when we compare the Hebrew adjective saddiq, translated as “righteous” in v. 16 with its use in v. 15, also translated as “righteous,” as well as its corresponding noun seder, translated as “righteousness.” Let’s translate v. 15 with the idea of self-righteousness in it. “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a self-righteous man who perishes in his self-righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” The problem is that whatever righteousness is, it is the antithesis of wickedness. Therefore, the only type of righteousness that v. 15 can be referring to is a genuine righteousness. The self-righteous view does not fit the context.
A third and preferred interpretation is the genuine righteousness view. This view understands the term righteousness to be a genuine righteousness, as this Hebrew term is always used in the Old Testament. The righteousness described in this verse is the same kind of righteousness as found in v. 15. The righteousness in v. 16 is excessive (“overly righteous”) only in the sense that an Old Testament believer might simplistically expect God to honor his righteousness with immediate blessing. In v. 15 Solomon describes a situation where a genuinely righteous person receives what the wicked should get, and the wicked person receives what the righteous person should get. The point of v. 16 could be interpreted like this: “Do not be simplistically righteous with the expectation of immediate reward, neither be naively wise, why cause yourself to be astonished that God did not honor your righteous living with immediate blessing?” How does this fit in with vv. 17–18? When one sees the wicked prospering, he may lose heart and turn to an excessively sinful lifestyle. This should not be followed because God may immediately judge this sinner (v. 17). According to v. 18 the believer should avoid both extremes. In light of other portions of this book (3:17; 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:14), Solomon would argue that we should live righteously because God will bring every deed into judgment (12:14); this is when the Lord will certainly reward His people. For more detail info, see Wayne A. Brindle, “Righteousness and Wickedness in Ecclesiastes 7:15–18,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 23 (Autumn 1985): 243–57.