Question: "What does it mean to be overrighteous and overwise (Ecclesiastes 7:16)?"
Answer: Ecclesiastes 7:16 says, “Do not be overrighteous, / neither be overwise— / why destroy yourself?” Given the Bible’s standard of righteousness and the premium it sets on wisdom, it seems strange that Solomon would say not to be overly righteous or too wise.
One key to understanding this warning against being overrighteous and overwise is found in Ecclesiastes 7:15: “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.” Solomon had witnessed both situations: those who had died doing righteous deeds and those who had died while sinning—and, what’s worse, sinning for a long time while seeming to get away with it. Solomon here is contemplating the fact that sometimes the good die young while evil men live long, iniquitous lives. This is a mystery to him and one of the things that add to the “vanity” of a life lived “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2–3).
We must also keep Ecclesiastes 7:17 in mind, because Solomon continues the thought begun with the warning against being overrighteous and overwise: “Do not be overwicked, / and do not be a fool— / why die before your time?” And then verse 18 summarizes the lesson: “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”
Putting it all together, Solomon is teaching moderation in the fear of God. Don’t be overly righteous, overly wise, overly wicked, or overly foolish. Chasing after extremes will not prolong one’s life or provide the satisfaction one desires.
Still, what does it mean to be overrighteous and overwise? Solomon obviously means something different from being truly righteous and truly wise. To be “overrighteous” is to strive for a self-made righteousness based on an outward adherence to rules. “Overrighteousness” is an extreme religiosity, perhaps marked by asceticism, excessive strictness, and zealous observance of the minutiae of man-made religion. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were “overrighteous” in this way; in their fanatical self-righteousness, they would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).
To be “overwise” is to think of oneself as self-sufficient in matters of knowledge, especially when it concerns the things of God. “Overwisdom” will call God’s character and wisdom into question, speculate about His actions, and judge them according to one’s own “superior” wisdom. Job, righteous man that he was, was “overwise” when he began to question God, and God had to ask him, “Who is this that obscures my plans / with words without knowledge? / Brace yourself like a man; / I will question you, / and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2–3). Job’s reply showed that he had regained true wisdom: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? / I put my hand over my mouth” (Job 40:4).
Self-righteousness has the potential to lead to much harm. Matthew 23:5 offers an excellent summary of the behavior of the “overrighteous”: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” This type of lifestyle is condemned by God as attempting to be righteous in the wrong way.
In Joel 2:12–13, the Lord calls His people to move beyond external religion and righteousness and to truly return to Him: “Return to me with all your heart, / with fasting and weeping and mourning. / Rend your heart / and not your garments.” The Lord was less concerned with their sacrifices and external adherence to the Law than He was the condition of their hearts.
Solomon knew better than most people the outcome of righteousness that did not arise from a heart that truly loves God. As king, he would have been familiar with the religious leaders of the temple he commissioned to have built in Jerusalem. Thousands of Levites served within its walls. Some certainly did so with a true heart of love for God, while others served with improper motives. Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 7:16 reflect the voice of one calling all of God’s people to live for Him with true righteousness and true wisdom. And the next verses (Ecclesiastes 7:17–18) keep it all in balance.
Though these themes are only mentioned briefly in Ecclesiastes, Solomon and others speak at length regarding true righteousness and wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Its opening words say that proverbs are “for gaining wisdom and instruction; / for understanding words of insight; / for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, / doing what is right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:2–3). Proverbs 1:7 adds, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, / but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”