Previous article in this series: May 1, 2016, p. 345.
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.
Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?
Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.
Reflecting further on the sober reality of our life, its trials, and God’s government, Solomon returns to that which he has seen. “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness” (). That which he has seen evidently gives him pause. He has said, “Consider the works of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?” ( ). He is not here considering everything he has seen, but all that belongs to the contrast that he now introduces. A just or righteous man perishes, while a wicked man prolongs his life.
How can this be in the light of God’s righteousness? He speaks of this, too, in connection with the character of their walk. The righteous man perishes. He does so even as he walks in righteousness or in the sphere of uprightness. He dies. By contrast the wicked man, in his wickedness, continues. He does evil, works wickedness and yet, from what can be seen under the sun, he prolongs his life. He does not die. Judgment does not come immediately upon him. How can this be?
He puts this sober observation, therefore, in the context of his own life, “in the days of my vanity.” Man is both a creature of the dust and subject to the curse of God through the Fall and returns to the dust. His life is frail, fleeting, and transitory under the judgment of God upon sin. The world was subjected to vanity through the Fall. His own life also is subject to the transitory character of life in a world under the curse of God upon sin. God, in all that He does, is righteous; but the righteousness of His judgments is a matter of faith in the fear of God. God’s ways are higher than our ways. They are both sovereign and transcendent. The divine purpose is unfolded in time and history, and we may observe it, but that does not mean that in the things we see, we can fully understand or find it out. We are to walk by faith in the light of God’s Word.
In that connection, it must be kept in mind that he speaks of what can be seen. Our translators bring this out by rendering the word righteous by the word “just”—“a just man.” He is not speaking of the man as he stands in heart and conscience before God, but as he appears to us, a just man.
In the light of that broader principle of God’s providence, there is one element that can be brought to our attention, and it is to this particularly that he directs us in verses 17 and 18. That is, when what is seen is self-destruction, such that a just or wise man not only perishes, but destroys himself. He is the cause of his own trouble. Likewise, when the wicked walks the way of a fool, he works his own death. Both are rooted in a certain excess. In the light of the conclusion, “For he that feareth God shall come forth of them all” (), this excess is not rooted in the genuine fear of God. It is rooted rather in the flesh in both cases and in the pride of life. He is not, in what follows, advocating a kind of golden mean between virtue and sin. Both are, in fact, sin, and he would guard us from them.
The first speaks of false virtue, “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” (). Righteousness is set forth, here, from the viewpoint of our walk, an upright walk. To such a walk the justified believer is called in the love of God, a walk that is to be rooted in the fear of God, which keeps His commandments by faith. To be ‘over’ righteous, however, is a different thing. It is to multiply righteousness, to make it beyond what is commanded. It is self-righteousness. It is the walk of the Pharisee, with the internal appraisal rooted in a trust in one’s own virtue, righteousness, and works. It is not the gift of righteousness without works in Christ (justification), nor a humble upright walk in the way of sanctification. It is the spiritual problem of Israel under the law: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” ( ). The root is a spiritual problem of having a “zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” ( ). This problem is not limited to the New Testament era or the rise of Phariseeism after the exile. It is the problem of the church under the law in the Old Testament, and is still with us in the New Testament dispensation. It is the temptation to turn from resting in God’s gift of imputed righteousness to trust our own works and our own inventions. It is rooted too in sinful pride that looks down on others.
Similarly, wisdom is a gift of God, which Solomon rightly sought of God. But it could so easily become a seeking after wisdom out of sinful pride for its own sake. One of the things Solomon wrestles with in Ecclesiastes is that wisdom was elusive: “I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me” (). He applied himself to wisdom, “I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness” ( ). The pursuit of such wisdom has certain dangers to it, namely, that it ceases to be seeking wisdom from God and becomes making “thyself over wise;” that is, it becomes an end in itself, a matter of sinful pride, something misdirected and vain.
A holy zeal after God and understanding can become a spiritual problem when it is corrupted by the flesh and sought out of pride of heart apart from God. Then such zeal becomes what is sometimes called “200 percentism,” a false enthusiasm, and a misguided arrogance, which works destruction personally in one’s spiritual life but also in the life of God’s church. It is the way of being wise in one’s own conceit. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who trusted in their own works and regarded themselves as above the publicans and sinners, are only one example of this. This false zeal in a good cause is perhaps a temptation particularly to those who are young. So Solomon’s admonition in what follows applies to this also, “It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand” (). There may also be here a confession of Solomon’s own battle with sin and his weakness, though that is an inference and not the main point.
By contrast the text says, “Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?” (). He is not advocating that we sin a little bit, just not to excess. He is rather pointing out a certain characteristic of sin, that it, as rebellion against God, has a self-destructive impulse in it. Yielding oneself to sin, sin becomes the sinner’s master and holds him in bondage. This he has already shown with the bondage to covetousness in the heaping and gathering of the foolish rich man.
He adds to that warning the parallel thought, “neither be thou foolish.” The folly of sin, the way of yielding oneself to sin, is a self-destructive foolishness that endangers not only the soul, but also the body and life itself in its recklessness. The wickedness that he has in view is truly foolish in its recklessness, so that it leads to death, an early death according to the measure of man’s life. Pride of heart and the seeming fact that one gets away with something for a season or appears to receive no harm leads to the delusion that, ‘I can do this with impunity.’ The present thrill of some sin grows dull, and one seeks it now in a more exciting and risky form. The risk itself becomes part of the thrill. This is the way of the folly of sin and the deceitfulness of sin. Therefore he asks, “why shouldest thou die before thy time?” The end of sin is destruction; one walking in the risky thrill of sin is hastening to his own destruction, even a premature death according to the time of life.
This twofold warning he would press upon our mind, “It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand” (). Take hold of it and having done so, do not let go of it! The calling to appropriate spiritually this warning is needful, for we are inclined by nature to say, “that doesn’t apply to me or this aspect of my life,” and to let go of spiritual instruction. We may have such warnings in mind and carry them spiritually but then in some temptation we open our hand and drop them, forgetting all that we know in the moment of the temptation.
The antidote, and what is true wisdom is, “for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all” (). We are not to be deceived by a false zeal or self-righteousness, neither by the temptations of sin and the folly of excess. For a season they may appear to prosper, but their end is destruction and even death. Hence the emphatic, “take hold and do not let go” of the text. The conclusion here gives a reason for hanging on to this instruction. The text, as it were, pictures a path with dangers on either side. To come forth “of them all,” that is, of all of these dangers of sin, takes the fear of God. Not one who walks in either of these errors, but the one who fears God shall come forth of them all. The fear of God, in meekness, keeps one both from being lifted up in self-righteousness and from the reckless folly of sin. The reason given is also a word of assurance in the battle with sin, he “shall come forth;” his passage is safe. The fear of God is the principle thing, for it gives true wisdom in the pathway of life. Indeed, this is the conclusion he would have us come to at the end of the book: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” ( ).