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‭‭Ecclesiastes‬ ‭7:16‭-‬17‬ ‭NLT‬‬

[16] So don’t be too good or too wise! Why destroy yourself? [17] On the other hand, don’t be too wicked either. Don’t be a fool! Why die before your time.

What really does it mean when it says don't be too good or too wicked. Is wickedness something a Christian believer should exhibit but not too much?

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    – Dottard
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 10:50
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    Nice to see your contribution. You use a modern translation that is not literal, so I'm just commenting to point out that others are clearer. Young's Literal says "Be not over-righteous" which would be the folly of self-righteousness, and a great wrong. So vs. 17 reads, "Do not much wrong, neither be thou a fool..." Self-righteousness is in view in literal translations (likewise in the K.J.V.) Hope this is helpful.
    – Anne
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 17:02
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    I am obliged to point out that most of the answers to this question aren't analyzing the text but rather trying to build up a teaching. They would be very good answers on christianity.stackexchange.com but less good here.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 4:24

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Translators wrestle with these verses, as does the OP, for good reason. Some speak of "excessive" righteousness" or simply change the meaning to such things as "do not be too legalistic" (JUB), while others deal with the words "too wicked" by adding parenthetical phrases such as "although all have sinned" (AMPC). However, the key to the OP's question lies in the context. A few lines earlier (13-14), the text says:

Who can make straight what God has made crooked? On a good day enjoy good things, and on an evil day consider: Both the one and the other God has made...

This reflects the book's general theme that God has created both what it calls the evil and the good, both death and life, and it is "vanity" to think we can avoid pain and death. A few lines after the OP's quote, it says (vs. 20):

there is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin.

Conclusion: Just as 1 John 1:8 warns that "we lie if we say we have not sinned," Ecclesiastes teaches that any attempt to be perfectly good is doomed to failure. But this is not an endorsement of wickedness at all. It is a recognition that all people sin, not that willful acts of sin are OK. For Jews it is an admonition not to obsess over every small point of the Law. In Christian terms, it fits with the idea that people are not saved by works of righteousness but by God's grace. Christians may draw from Ecclesiastes the same thing that Paul taught when he said:

Romans 6:15

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? God forbid!

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Solomon's wisdom, expressed in Ecclesiastes, is primarily wisdom from the standpoint of one who is "under the sun". That is to say, it is earthly wisdom. The phrase occurs quite often throughout the book.

From the standpoint of earthly wisdom, since everyone dies eventually (the righteous and the wicked come to the same end) it makes little sense to strive overmuch toward either extreme. One might exhaust themselves straining for goodness only to die just like everyone else (v. 16) or one may give oneself over to wickedness and cut short what little time they have (v. 17). Vanity, vanity, all is vanity under the sun.

A Christian does not operate "under the sun" but his citizenship is in heaven and the call is to 'be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect'.

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Okay, here's the passage in the original Hebrew:

טז אַל-תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה וְאַל-תִּתְחַכַּם יוֹתֵר לָמָּה תִּשּׁוֹמֵם

יז אַל-תִּרְשַׁע הַרְבֵּה וְאַל-תְּהִי סָכָל לָמָּה תָמוּת בְּלֹא עִתֶּךָ

Let's break it down:

טז אַל-תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה

Do not be overly righteous- The word translated as "righteous" here, can also mean "just" or "lawful," and could possibly have connotations of legalism here. The word "overly" here is the Hebrew word הַרְבֵּה meaning "to increase," so another translation of this part could be "Don't increase in legalism."

וְאַל-תִּתְחַכַּם יוֹתֵר

nor be wise overly- The word overly here, unlike in the previous line, is the Hebrew word יוֹתֵר which means "excess," or "superiority." This could have the connotation of having a sense of superiority of knowledge, so this part could read something like "nor have a sense of superiority about your knowledge."

לָמָּה תִּשּׁוֹמֵם

why should you destroy yourself- this part seems to be pretty straightforward in meaning

יז אַל-תִּרְשַׁע הַרְבֵּה

Do not be wicked overly- Again, the word "overly" here is הַרְבֵּה which means "to increase," so this could be translated as "do not increase in wickedness."

וְאַל-תְּהִי סָכָל

nor be foolish- translation here is pretty straightforward

לָמָּה תָמוּת בְּלֹא עִתֶּךָ

why should you die before your time- The "should" here is implied, but not actually present. The word בְּלֹא doesn't actually mean "before," but is a negation preceding the following word עִתֶּךָ which means "time" or season. This part could also be translated as "why die an untimely death?"

Putting all this together, here's an alternate reading of the full passage:

"Don't increase in legalism, nor have a sense of superiority about your knowledge. Why should you destroy yourself? Do not increase in wickedness, nor be foolish. Why die an untimely death?"

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Let us observe immediately, that Jesus Christ, who was perfectly righteous and more righteous than any other human (Heb 7:26) but had no sin (2 Cor 5:21).

So, what does "Do not be overly righteous" (Eccl 7:16) mean?

Let me offer a practical approach. I suggest that there are several ways we can be "overly righteous" -

  1. Being legalistic, ie, foolishly believing that by being good enough that we can earn God's favor. We all know such punctilious people who are obnoxious. They appear to forget that "all our righteousness is as filthy rags" (Isa 64:6, Zech 3:4) and that by righteous acts no one will be justified (Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16).
  2. It is correctly observed that some are "So heavenly minded they are no earthly good". Some overly righteous souls appear to be incapable of even doing a simple act of charity because they are too busy with some irrelevant pious act or preaching their latest theological theory. This was the effect of the medieval ascetics who cloistered themselves to remain unpolluted by the world. By contrast, true Christianity has "dirt under its fingernails."
  3. Some have not realized that we live in an imperfect world and sometimes we need to choose between the lesser of two evils when presented with an ethical dilemma. this arose numerous times in the Bible stories where people had to break the law in order to do the right thing. See appendix below. Thus, some overly righteous souls refuse to tell a lie despite the fact that in some situations this would result in the death of some people.
  4. Being "righteous" at the expense of being kind, ie, being highly judgmental of others who do not agree with one's opinions or personal piety

Conclusion

Eccl 7:16 represents a practical approach to the Christian life in an imperfect world which can only be navigated by the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit.

APPENDIX 1 - Ethical Dilemma of Lying

Here I want to illustrate what the Bible says about lying when faced with an ethical dilemma. Sometimes it was necessary to lie in order to preserve life.

Lying, or spreading what is untrue, or bearing false witness, are acts forbidden by the ninth commandment (Ex 20:16) and many other places (Lev 19:11, Ps 34:13, 58:3, 101:7, 109:2, Prov 6:16-19, 12:19, 14:5, 19:5, 9, 21:6, 24:28, Matt 15:18-20, 1 Cor 6:9-11, Eph 4:25, Col 3:9, 10, Rev 21:8, etc.) However, there were times when an ethical dilemma arises where lying was the lesser of two evils, especially when life was threatened.

  • Jeremiah – Jer 38:24-27
  • Midwives in Egypt – Ex 1:15-21
  • Jericho spies – Josh 2:1 (spying, by nature, is an enacted lie.)
  • Rahab of Jericho – Josh 2:2-7
  • Samuel – 1 Sam 16:1-3
  • Hushai the Arkite – 2 Sam 15:32-37, 16:15-19
  • Woman at Bahurim – 2 Sam 17:17-20
  • Michal protecting David – 1 Sam 19:11-17
  • David – 1 Sam 21:1-9, 12-15
  • Prophet – 1 Kings 13:18
  • Jehu – 2 Kings 10:10, 19, 30

The fact that some lied in order to protect life clearly says that life had, in some cases, a greater value than truth.

APPENDIX 2 - A Modern Example

In 1996 April 28 a truly ghastly incident unfolded in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. A crazed gunman, Maryin Bryant, walked into the Broad Arrow Cafe and killed 35 people with a semi-automatic gun. He also wounded 23 others.

Now, suppose that a devout Christian Policeman equipped with a loaded hand-gun was there that day (actually none was). Such a person would have two options:

  • shoot the perpetrator to prevent further deaths
  • because he is "overly righteous" and believed that he could not break the commandment to kill, hide under chairs and tables and allow the killing spree to continue

Most would prefer (correctly) not to have an "overly righteous" policeman on duty!

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If you are a teenager, say 17-years old, and your name is Augustine, and your friends ask you to steal together pears, it will be a shame and an un-Ecclesiastesical thing to say to them: "It is written in the decalogue - 'you shall not steal', so, as a good son of a devote Christian mother Monica, I will not go with you, and, rather, inform on you the school authorities if you go" - such an idiot, killjoy pseudo-luminous pseudo-angel will be hated both by heaven and hell simultaneously, and for a good reason for that matter!

Moreover, hadn't Augustine acted properly to his age and situation at that time and not gone with friends on this risky affair of stealing pears (which they did not even taste having thrown them away, for the flair and the cool of the risk was the purpose, not gluttony!), we would be deprived of his brilliant analysis of the real motivation of this daring. Rudyard Kipling also teaches: "Don't look too good, nor speak too wise".

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