Monday, June 10, 2024

Anonymous Asks (306)

“Is it really possible to be overly righteous or too wise?”

New Christians may be inclined to exclaim, “Of course not!” How could one have too much of a good thing? But those who have read the complete works of King Solomon may find the wording of this question familiar. He speaks of both.

The relevant passage is found in Ecclesiastes 7:

“Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”

Righteousness and wisdom are not exactly the same things. There are overlaps, of course, but righteousness is moral in character; wisdom may or may not be, at least in the sense used by Solomon.

Righteousness and Wisdom

Let me give you an example. Samuel was a righteous, wise man. Not perfect, of course, but the combination translated into a personal walk that pleased God and provided sound advice and moral leadership. David’s counselor Ahithophel the Gilonite, on the other hand, was the wisest man of his day, but his wisdom was only “as if one consulted the word of God”. You see the difference: Samuel had the word of God, and Ahithophel had a very good facsimile. When the rubber met the road, Ahithophel lacked the personal integrity to do the right thing no matter what the cost. Samuel grieved at having to do it, but he did it all the same.

Ahithophel was exceedingly intelligent, perceptive and crafty. He had been able to counsel the soundest course of political action for years, and David had come to rely on him because his strategies and tactics always worked out. Even what Ahithophel did when he betrayed David and aligned himself with Absalom in his rebellion was intelligent. He backed the strong horse. He made the best possible decision for himself and for his family. The problem is that what he did was pragmatic and shrewd, but not the least bit moral. He was disloyal, and he left God out of the equation, which led to his downfall. So then, it is possible to be wise but not righteous, like Ahithophel, or to be both, like Samuel.

Overly Righteous

But back to Ecclesiastes. These are difficult verses. “Be not overly righteous,” counsels the Preacher. Hebrews reinforces what often happens to exceptionally righteous men and women in a wicked world that wants nothing to do with them: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated ...”

That’s the all-too-common fate of the overly righteous, and it ain’t pleasant. Scripture nowhere speaks of a right to free speech. It says quite a bit about costly speech. Overly-righteous men literally destroy themselves in the process of doing the right thing. They become the cause of their own undoing — at least in this life — by taking an unflinching stand and living or dying with the consequences. There is one of these fire-breathers for every 7,000 quiet, moderately righteous people who have learned to keep their heads down. It’s a great role in life ... if you don’t mind the occasional decapitation.

Too Wise

“Do not make yourself too wise,” he continues. But why not? Wisdom is a useful thing, so surely more wisdom is even better, right? Well, yes, perhaps, depending on your metric. But as the Preacher has already pointed out, “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

Back to wise Ahithophel, once again, who gave the shrewdest possible strategic advice and was ignored, and so went out and put his affairs in order, then took his own life. Ahithophel’s wisdom would have been most useful to Absalom had he been willing to hear it. It certainly didn’t help Ahithophel. Rhetoric won the day, as it usually does.

Sometimes dumb and happy looks like the way to go.

Counsel for Christians?

Neither of these statements is really counsel for Christians, but they are understandable in context. Remember, the Preacher is looking at the world in the absence of revelation, based only on what he can take in with his senses and work out with his intellect. From that angle, why be overly committed to the truth? There’s a terrible cost to that commitment.

What Solomon could not see is the eternal reward that goes with living righteously and wisely. It wasn’t within his scope. For that we need Hebrews 11, not Ecclesiastes. Factor the pleasure of God in a life lived by faith into the equation, and no righteousness or wisdom is too great.

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