In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
the righteous perishing in their righteousness,
and the wicked living long in their wickedness.
Do not be over righteous,
neither be over wise—
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes
Solomon has noticed two things that might come as a surprise: First, he has seen righteous men die young in their righteousness, and he has seen really wicked men live long lives. From our point of view, this isn’t all that surprising; it happens all the time, and is something that we sometimes wonder about… Why O Lord is this so?
Back in the time of Solomon, this was more shocking, for the righteous were supposed to live long, have many children and prosper in the land, while the wicked were supposed to suffer the calamities they so richly deserved and come to an early termination if they didn’t change their ways. As we now understand, there is a season for everything, and a time for every season under heaven.
Then he goes on to tell his readers that they should neither be overly righteous, nor overly wicked; what does he mean by that? This dear reader is simpler than it might seem at first.
The best Biblical example of being overly righteous that I can think of as I write this is the example of the Pharisees. Those guys were really very righteous; they did everything just exactly right. No, really they did. Think about it, they were so righteous that they not only followed the letter of the Law, they actually made up more laws so that they wouldn’t even come close to breaking a Law. Yet in the end, they became so outwardly righteous that they put form over substance, and lost track of the inward realities of their relationship with God, and they perished in their outward form of righteousness.
As for being overly wicked, you might think that we aren’t supposed to be wicked at all, and in this you would be correct. OK, maybe I should just speak for myself here: As much as I might want to be perfectly righteous in everything I do, say or think, I fall short and can comprehend completely Paul’s observation that the things he would do, he didn’t, and the things he wouldn’t do, he did. Oh wretched man that I am! Yet while all of this is going on, I manage not to go too far, for I have no wish to damage my relationship with our Lord, so I restrain myself, and with His grace I do much better than I used to, by the power of His life in me.
In this, we avoid both extremes, as the Teacher says in the last verse. Notice that he says “whoever fears God.” This is the guy who also said that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus a wise person avoids extremes, and another word for this is “moderation.”
See how simple this text is? Now just because the text is simple, putting it into practice may not be easy, but if we are completely honest with ourselves, it isn’t all that hard either.
I’ll bet you can’t wait for restraint, and that is coming up next!
“Restraint” isn’t everyone’s favorite concept, but it is a quality of the wise. Even outside of relationship with God, a wise person learns self restraint. To be sure, a person doesn’t even need to be all that wise to understand that unrestrained speech can quickly get you into trouble, and that unrestrained action can easily land a person in the penitentiary. A person who is wise in the faith knows much more, for he or she is fully aware that our God is a model of self restraint. A wise person of faith will restrain his or her speech and actions simply out of love for God.
Wisdom makes one wise person more powerful
than ten rulers in a city.
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.
Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Although the word “restraint” is not present in these verses, it is very much in evidence; restraint in deeds is clearly implicit in the first two verses and in speech in the remaining ones.
In the first two verses, notice that one wise person is said to be more powerful than ten rulers, and that this is followed by a statement that no one is without sin. What is it that makes the wise person so strong? The Teacher speaking of sin and righteousness is the clue; the wise person avoids the sins that lead to destructive and limiting behaviors that detract from the rulers’ effectiveness, even though the wise person has their problems sometimes.
Then there is the matter of words; we are advised not to pay attention to what everybody says and that requires restraint. He gives an example: Don’t listen to everything people say, or you might hear your servant curse you; but then you have done your share of cursing. The curse uttered by the servant isn’t worth hearing, and your own cursing isn’t worth saying; a wise person uses more restraint than either reacting to every idiotic utterance they hear, or saying stupid things. In the process, they avoid so much grieving of the Lord, not to mention problems of a more earthly nature.
When I think about it, this is a really simple little lesson. In fact, it’s a lesson my mother and father taught when I was a little kid; “behave yourself and watch your mouth.”
You would have thought I wouldn’t need to hear this all these years later, but there are times when I do need to hear it again; how about you? The real question is this: Does Solomon’s teaching on this apply to what we say on social media?
Maybe that should be a topic for another time…