Q. I’ve just noticed that there’s an actual warning in the Bible not to be overly righteous. Ecclesiastes says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” Can you give us the reason for this?
I think in this case the term “righteous” doesn’t refer to to our degree of inward Christ-likeness. That’s something we can never get too much of. Rather, it refers to our degree of fastidiousness in following religious observances, such as the spiritual disciplines we adopt to make sure our relationship with God keeps growing. Being “overly righteous” in this sense means missing the “spirit of the law” because we are so concerned about following the “letter of the law.”
This was something Jesus was always trying to warn the Pharisees about, and correct them. For example, when a synagogue leader got upset because on one Sabbath Jesus healed a woman who’d been disabled for many years, and this leader told the people only to come to Jesus for healing on the other six days of the week, he was definitely being “overly righteous”! Jesus rebuked him publicly and “his adversaries were put to shame,” but “all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.”
The statement you’re asking about is in keeping with the general emphasis in the book of Ecclesiastes on being free to enjoy life in the present, as a good gift from God, because we can never count on being able to do things in the future. In other words, it’s saying that we shouldn’t be so “righteous” (in the fastidious sense) that we miss God’s good gifts in this life.
This means that we need to be flexible (though not compromising) in how we understand the way to live out our spiritual disciplines. For example, suppose you’re committed to attending church on Sundays. If some friends you made from another country are back in the U.S. for a visit, and they can only reunite with you at a time that would make you miss that week’s service, should you say, “Too bad, I’m going to church instead”?
I don’t think so. That’s the kind of thing Ecclesiastes is warning us about.