Be Not Righteous?
Question: Ecclesiastes 7:16 tells us that we should "Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?" Does this mean that this is a contradiction in the Bible since the rest of the Scriptures proclaim righteousness?
Answer: There is no contradiction here. This verse tells us not to be self-righteous or righteous in and of ourselves without the righteousness of God.
Explanation: As with the rest of the Scriptures it is always a good idea to check the context of the passage and even the rest of the book in order to come to a proper interpretation of a particular passage before getting a doctrine. And obviously a passage needs to be looked at in light of the entire Scriptures which we have already done to some degree or else the supposed contradiction would not have been realized (i.e. you would have never pointed out this "contradiction" if you didn't know the rest of the Scriptures proclaim righteousness).
The book of Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, as was most of the Proverbs and Canticles. He repeatedly tells us that righteousness and wisdom are to be sought and held close to a person's heart. When reading Ecclesiastes, one must take into account the fact that it is about man's wisdom under the sun. The phrase "under the sun" is used some twenty seven times in the book of Ecclesiastes. If someone were to attack Ecclesiastes 7:16 as being a contradiction in the Bible, he might as well attack the entire book of Ecclesiastes by pointing to one of the primary points the book of Ecclesiastes makes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity" (Ecc. 1:2). Is all vanity? Did God create this world in vain? No, he did not. The answer to this question is found in the next verse: "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" The point is that everything done for man, by man, and unto man is meaningless in the end. Why? Because "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever" (v.3). That is, everything in this world passes away. We brought nothing into this world and it is evident that we can take nothing out of it (1Ti. 6:7). Everything done in this sense has no eternal value.
So how should one look at Ecclesiastes 7:16? Well, read the context:
"In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him. All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all. Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city. For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." Ecc. 7:14-20
Beginning at verse 14, I recommend comparing the first part to Proverbs 30:7-9. The latter part of the verse tells us that "God hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him." This is very important and we will come back to it.
Verse 15 tells us that on one hand there are those who are just and righteous and even die in their righteousness. On the other hand there are those who are wicked and sinful and they die in there wickedness. Thus disproving the notion, that some have, that one who dies "prematurely" was wicked and only those who have a long life on earth live long because of their righteousness. The reason one may live to be young or old could be for a number of reasons and is not necessarily due to one's righteousness. While righteousness may very well increase one's life on the earth, true righteousness delivers from eternal death in hell.
Verse 16, the verse in question, tells us not to be over righteous or wise in and of ourselves because we would destroy ourselves. It is important to realize the distinction between earthly, sensual, devilish wisdom and the wisdom that comes from above (Jas. 3:13-18). First Corinthians 3:18 tells us that if there is anyone who thinks himself to be wise he should become a fool so that he may be wise. True wisdom comes first when one realizes how foolish they are in this world. Someone who thinks himself to be wise already is not likely to seek wisdom from God, but someone who realizes how little he knows and understands is more likely to cry out to God for wisdom (Jas. 1:5). Someone who justifies himself as being righteous and yet does not have the righteousness of God will have destruction in eternity. This extreme is one of legalism and self-righteousness and is often expressed in judgmentalism and a sense of pride, arrogancy, and self-sufficiency.
Verse 17 warns against the other extreme: licentiousness. From a New Covenant perspective, violation of this verse would be using one's liberty for an occasion to the flesh (Gal. 5:13). It is interesting to note that both being righteous over much and being over much wicked ends in destruction. From an eternal perspective, this cannot be the type of righteousness that delivers from death (Prov. 10:2; 11:4). It is also clear from this verse that wickedness and foolishness can cause premature death and thus should be read with verse 15, reinforcing the fact that those who are wicked may very well perish early in life because of their foolishness.
I believe verse 18 holds the key to understanding the entire passage. It says that "for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all." It says that the one who trusts in the Lord's righteousness comes forth of both the wicked and the [self]-righteous. This is true righteousness. To be made righteous not by one's own deeds, but to be delivered from one's own wickedness by the faith of Jesus Christ. This is why I believe verse 14 says, "to the end that man should find nothing after him." It says we should neither become self-sufficient and say "Who is the LORD?" forgetting who he is. Or becoming obsessed with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life and blaspheme the name of the LORD (cp. Proverbs 30:7-9).
Verse 19 commends wisdom. Note that the previous verse (v.18) mentions the fear of God. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). This is true wisdom, not the earthly, sensual, devilish wisdom (Jas. 3:15).
Verse 20 tells us that there is no one who does good and does not sin (just like Jesus and Paul both said) and thus those who would be "righteous over much" are still in their sins and thus this type of righteousness would make that person desolate in the graces of God which are found only through Christ Jesus. I believe this is what the verse means and what it is talking about. There is no contradiction
Conclusion: I trust that what we have seen is enough to show those in doubt that there is no contradiction here. Although I cannot convince a scoffer that there aren't any contradictions in God's word, I will leave text as it stands and trust the Holy Spirit to convince the gainsayers. As for those who love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in sincerety, may grace and peace be with you as you are led into all truth.