Do not be overly righteous…

man-37977William J. Stewart | Texts to pause & ponder on

All of God’s word is awesome to read and meditate upon, but every so often we come across a text that makes us go wow! Today we begin a series looking at some of these unique statements in God’s word. Some of the texts we will look at are of my own choosing, some have been put forth by others. You are welcome to suggest a text; I won’t guarantee it will appear in the series, but it is a possibility.

While studying in the book of Ecclesiastes recently, an interesting statement of Solomon caught my attention. He wrote:

Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: why should you die before your time? (Ecclesiastes 7:16-17)

This is an odd phrase to find in the Bible, a book which stresses righteousness. Surely it’s not possible to be too righteous, is it? Let’s consider this warning from the wise king of Israel.

Extremes tend to beget extremes, and that is what Solomon addresses in these statements. At either end of the pendulum, whether it be over-the-top righteousness or bottom-of-the-barrel wickedness, the end result is destruction and death. We are familiar with the latter; we read about it regularly in the newspaper or online: drunk drivers, drug related crimes, attempted robberies gone bad, etc.. Plenty of wicked things may result in premature death.

But how could we be too righteous? Have you seen the video from a few years ago of a “Christian” group who went to a Muslim festival in Dearborn, MI? What was the purpose in being there? I don’t know that the video ever states it was an effort at evangelism, but if it was, it was foolhardy. Doubtless they knew the result of their effort would be a riotous mob. In the end, not a single soul was converted to Christ, and they were escorted away by police, after being pelted with bottles, eggs and other projectiles. It is amazing none of them were seriously injured.

I realize the spread of the gospel in the Bible caused riots at times. Paul and his companions were referred to as “those who turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). So, what’s the difference? They did not go out looking to cause riots. They did not seek out pagan festivals to disrupt or disturb. If a riot came from their efforts, they moved on (see Acts 14). Paul sought to convert souls to the Lord and succeeded. The Dearborn group sought to bring attention to themselves (recording it all), and succeeded. However, I suspect not a single soul at the festival was caused to think about the Messiah.

The Pharisees were an example of being overly righteous. The ceremonial washings they enforced, their phylacteries, the title “rabbi,” long prayers on the street corners,  etc.. Jesus revealed a lot of it in Matthew 23. Jesus referred to their efforts at being overly righteous as hypocrisy.

The religious phrase, “Bible-thumper” finds its origin as a reference to a practice of fiery protestant ministers who commonly struck their Bibles on the pulpit or on their hand to emphasize a point. The term became more widely used to refer to anyone, preacher or not, that would be considered “an overzealous advocate of Christian fundamentalism” (m-w.com).

The Bible commands zeal, so let’s be zealous for the cause of Christ. Let us live in a righteous manner, worship God as prescribed in His word, and spread the message of Christ to the masses. But as we do so, be careful to not be “overly righteous.” Don’t go over-the-top. Do not seek to be more righteous, to look more holy, to have more piety than what God demands. We may deceive ourselves into thinking this or that makes us more holy, that we will be viewed as more righteous. The wise king, says it will not end as we hope.

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