“Balance”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
There are a number of puzzling verses in the Bible, sometimes due to the counterintuitive mysteries of God, sometimes because of difficulty and differences in translation, and sometimes because of cultural assumptions that we don’t share in this day and age. But the one that stands out to me as the most glaringly opaque is Ecclesiastes 7.16: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” That’s right, sandwiched right in the middle of a giant book about how God is righteous and demands that humans be righteous, too, is a cavalier “meh” toward the whole premise. It’s right there, you can take it to the bank, “the Bible says I shouldn’t bee too righteous, so sign me up for a little debauchery…” Obviously, something is amiss, here.
It would be easy, and natural, for someone who wants to hear and believe this message, who’s all about mercy, to take it at face value and turn it into an axiom by which to live—it’s been done many times before with favorite verses, in most cases putting no appreciable burden on the bearer of the holy words, yet conferring immense benefit. Conversely, it’s easy and natural for someone who’s more concerned with justice, to immediately set about gutting the verse in question by pointing out that it’s part of the Old Testament and doesn’t apply to us anymore, that it was written by Solomon, who wasn’t exactly a great role model, or perhaps that consulting my preferred translation will clearly demonstrate that yours is from the devil, placing a burden on each individual that is more than they can carry.
Both these responses are understandable, but neither one is good. They represent extremes—on the one hand a licentious, self-centered hedonist, and on the other a stoic, heartless authoritarian. This example is more overt than most, but it really highlights the same problem that plagues all interpretation of God’s Word, as well as the way we live our lives in general. Why is this one verse taken alone, out of context? You might say that Solomon’s words—and more than that, God’s words!—have been selectively edited to give the wrong impression, and the only way to find the truth is to look at the whole picture.
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. 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? 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. (Ecclesiastes 7.15-18)
The problem Solomon is addressing is the fact of undeserved outcomes. The Law of Moses didn’t entirely account for this, and while Christ actually did, he also made it clear that scores wouldn’t all be settled until the physical is completed, and that God expects us to endure some undeserved outcomes in this life. As Peter says, “what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1Pe 2.20). Of course, it’s easy to take that to an extreme as well, one which neglects, among others things, that Jesus said in Luke 22.36, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one,” and that Jesus himself violently drove intruders out of his Father’s house. That highlights the need for a balance between the extremes, which, is exactly what Solomon was trying to say in the first place.
He didn’t only say, don’t be too righteous; he followed it up a warning against being too wicked. The inference that some amount of wickedness is acceptable isn’t really accurate, but his method of bouncing back and forth between extremes is the real point. That’s why he says, “take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand” (Ec 7.18)—the identities of “this” and “that” are deliberately vague; they don’t mean anything in particular. The focus is balance.
Of course, the broad context of Ecclesiastes, a search for meaning and fulfillment from an entirely earthly perspective, goes a long way to remind us that all of this is not precept from God, but God’s demonstration of this life’s “vanity” in the absence of something greater; but just as it was important that we consider the context, and guard against leaping to one extreme or the other, it’s important that we not abandon the meaning behind the text—when we leap to either extreme, we bring problems on ourselves. When we focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else, it brings harm to us. When we think ourselves righteous and wise, then we are at great risk of falling.
That’s one of the many reasons why Jesus’ sacrifice is so important. Try as we might—and try we should—to behave righteously, we all fail. Not unavoidably, or it wouldn’t be our fault; not innately, or we wouldn’t be accountable. But fail we do, by our own choice. Jesus, by his own choice, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (He 5.8-9). He has been to the extremes for us, suffering the penalty that should be ours, and gaining the reward that is promised to us, if we trust and obey him.