There is a certain injustice in the world that the crummiest guys live long lives and the best are taken from us too soon. And I like that the Bible is honest about this reality. It doesn’t sugar coat things. It doesn’t tell you that if you’re good enough bad things will never happen to you. It doesn’t teach Karma, that if you put good into the world you’ll definitely get good out. We see so often that this isn’t the case, and the Bible is realistic about the world in this way.
In the Bible, we could point to people like Naboth who was killed by Jezebel or Uriah the Hittite who was killed by the man who slept with his wife or John the Baptist killed by Herod. They had done nothing wrong but were the victims of unrighteousness. And of course, Jesus is the greatest example of the righteous dying while the wicked live on.
And Solomon says this because he wants us to know that righteousness and wisdom are not guarantees of anything. A righteous person will die when he or she is hit by a bus just like the unrighteous person. Solomon has witnessed this. (Not the bus part, but the death of the righteous part.) You and I have seen it too.
In light of this fact that righteousness doesn’t guarantee you anything Solomon says you shouldn’t kill yourself to be the most righteous person on God’s green earth. If you buy into this idea that the righteous will live longer than anyone else, then you will be tempted to compete with everyone else to be the most righteous! The most wise!
This is why Solomon says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” Solomon is saying, this will not necessarily extend your life. It might. He just got done saying that in Ecclesiastes 7:12, “For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.” So wisdom, and presumably righteousness, can preserve your life, but Solomon is saying there are no guarantees.
In fact, he says becoming obsessed with some sort of super-righteousness will “destroy” you. “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” He’s saying that this preoccupation with being perfect will destroy your life.
Now I am dedicated to being a righteous and wise follower of Christ. Every Christian ought to be committed to pursuing righteousness. But I have seen people who go beyond the pursuit of righteousness to this unhealthy preoccupation where they scrutinize and agonize over every move they make. Every single decision in life is huge! “I can’t decide what’s a better use of my next hour, should I pray or should I serve soup to the homeless?”
You can only gaze at your own naval for so long before you sink into a long and lasting depression.
This is what it’s like to live under the Law. You become a slave to it. And the Law is a brutal slavemaster in that it’s never satisfied. It always demands more out of you than you can give. When we subject ourselves to the Law, when we choose not to accept God’s grace and forgiveness, then we will either become insufferably proud because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we’ve measured up, or we will destroy ourselves as we constantly live with the miserable feeling that we’re never measuring up.
Also, don’t let yourself become overly wicked. By this, he doesn’t mean that we can be wicked as long as long as we do it in moderation. (“Just be a little wicked.”) However Solomon does understand that we humans are all sinners. We will be wicked at times (v. 20), but Solomon is saying don’t let wickedness run rampant in your life. This also will not lead to happiness and can even lead to an early grave.
Thankfully Solomon says there is a path between self-righteousness and unconstrained wickedness that we must walk. As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between two extremes, where you hold on to one truth, without letting go of another truth. Not getting pulled to one extreme or the other. And the key, then, Solomon says, is not to go to an extreme, but simply to fear God. “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.”
If you truly respect and revere God, you will avoid these extremes of either wickedness or a super-righteousness beyond what God intends. Don’t kill yourself with wickedness or a righteousness that depends on you. The beauty of the gospel is we get to rest in Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, freeing us from both our wickedness and self-righteousness.