Why does the Bible tell us not to be “overly righteous”?

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.

An 1866 engraving by Gustave Dore of Solomon, who’s identified in the book of Ecclesiastes as its author.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “Why does the Bible tell us not to be “overly righteous”?”

  1. I want to challenge you a little on your understanding of this, as mine is slightly different. I write this in the hope of iron sharpening iron and welcome pushback.

    For one, I have a concern about “spirit of the law” versus “letter of the law” as a teaching, as I do not find it in Scripture. But also if you think about it, it is very fuzzy. It seems to me that this idea can be used as an escape hatch to do almost anything, depending on what one thinks aligns with the “spirit of the law” (whatever that means). So on the “spirit of the law” idea, in summary, I do not see it taught in Scripture and I think it can be misused as it is so fuzzy.

    For two, I think this misunderstands what Jesus is saying. The Pharisees say that Jesus broke Sabbath, therefore the (unstated) implication is that Jesus broke Torah and therefore sinned and therefore Jesus and his teachings can be safely ignored. This false claim about Jesus or his disciples sinning is a continuing theme running throughout the gospels. The way I read it is that Jesus really did break Sabbath, he did a form of work in healing and work is not to be done on the Sabbath. So how did Jesus not sin? This is a puzzle to solve.

    I think he did not sin because of the reason he pointed out, that is, he unbound someone, or more explicitly, he did a good thing for someone who was suffering. To put it even more explicitly, Jesus as a Jew has a commandment to keep Sabbath, but he had an even greater commandment to proclaim the Kingdom breaking into our world by demonstrating his love in a concrete way, as well as showing his opponents that they were being harsh instead of loving. Or in summary, the commandment to love another (in this case by healing) trumps the commandment of keeping Sabbath and therefore Jesus did NOT break Torah, rather, he upheld Torah, even though he did break Sabbath.

    Thoughts?

    1. – I believe that the Bible actually does draw a distinction between the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law.” Paul writes in Second Corinthians that God has made him a minister of “a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” It’s clear that he’s talking about the law because in the immediate context he describes the old covenant as “carved in letters on stone” and talks about what happens within those who do not have the Spirit “whenever Moses is read.”

      – It is true that the spirit/letter distinction could be used as an escape hatch to do whatever one wanted. This was basically the objection leveled against Paul by his opponents when he wanted to free the Gentiles from having to keep the law. Paul’s answer was that those who had died to sin could no longer live in it. Following the spirit rather than the letter of the law only works for those who have died to sin and been raised to new life in Christ, whose transformed inner inclinations will draw them into greater and greater spontaneous obedience to God. It’s definitely a risky, even dangerous proposition, and works only with the grace of God active and present in a person’s life.

      – I actually think that Jesus believed he was keeping the Sabbath, not breaking it, but that he was keeping the Sabbath in its truest sense and fulfilling its essential purpose. Matthew recounts an episode in which the Pharisees ask Jesus explicitly whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t say that healing is work, work is not to be done on the Sabbath, so it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, but the commandment to love trumps the Sabbath command. Instead, using the example of rescuing a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath, Jesus argues, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Healing does not break the Sabbath command, it fulfills its deepest intentions.

      Those are my thoughts. Hope they’re helpful!

      1. On letter of the law, here is a partial snippet from LEB:
        2Co 3:5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God,
        2Co 3:6 who also makes us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
        2Co 3:7 But if the ministry of death in letters carved on stone came with glory, so that the sons of Israel were not able to look intently into the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, which was transitory,
        2Co 3:8 how will the ministry of the Spirit not be even more with glory?

        As I see it, the contrast is between letter and Spirit, not some supposed “spirit of the law/Law”. Yes, the “letter” is pointing to the Mosaic covenants, with their penalty clauses for non-compliance with the stipulations of the covenants. According to Jer 31, the new covenant is written on our hearts by the LORD, but as far as I can tell, it has the same stipulations, except the penalty clauses have been obviated by Jesus and he added a new commandment.

        So I see it as following the Spirit, not some supposed “spirit of the law” as meaning intent.

        On Jesus not keeping Torah, this is a repeated theme in the gospels, of which not keeping Sabbath is a subset of this theme. Some of the passages are less clear about what is going on, as to be expected, but some are more clear. Here is one that I think it clearer.

        Mat 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck off heads of grain and eat them.
        Mat 12:2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Behold, your disciples are doing what it is not permitted to do on the Sabbath!”
        Mat 12:3 So he said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those with him,
        Mat 12:4 how he entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the presentation, which it was not permitted for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests?
        Mat 12:5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple violate the sanctity of the Sabbath and are guiltless?
        Mat 12:6 But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!
        Mat 12:7 And if you had known what it means, ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
        Mat 12:8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

        I think Jesus is using a trumping argument, not a denial argument. Here it is in simplified form, as I see it.
        1) David and his company when hungry ate food set aside for priests.
        2) The priests doing temple service BREAK the Sabbath. (This is a key insight, Jesus does not claim the priests do not do work on the Sabbath, he says that they do work and it is OK, because they are meeting a higher commandment.)
        3) Conclusion: When hungry, one can break the Sabbath rule prohibiting work yet keep Torah. This is because item 1) shows human needs trump temple service rules (and is true) and item 2) shows temple service rules trump Sabbath rules (and is true), therefore item 3) human need trumps Sabbath rules (is true).

        Once one sees that Jesus is using a trumping argument in this case, one can more easily see where he is using it elsewhere, and not some other fuzzy argument.

      2. It could be said just as easily that Jesus is using a “trumping” argument when he observes that anyone would rescue a sheep from a pit even on the Sabbath, because the needs of the sheep (for warmth, shelter, food, perhaps medical care) “trump” the command not to do work on the Sabbath, in the form of lifting heavy objects. And since the sheep in the pit is introduced as an analogy for the man with the shriveled hand, the next step would be to argue that Jesus is using a “trumping” argument in his case as well. His need for relief from disability “trumps” the command not to do work on the Sabbath, in the form of healing. But this is precisely what Jesus does not say. He says instead that it is lawful, not law-breaking though justified, to “do good” on the Sabbath, that is, to meet these kinds of practical needs. I think it is significant that the synoptic tradition places this pericope right after the one you quote, about David eating the showbread and the priests “profaning” the Sabbath (that is, treating it as something secular rather than sacred–I think “violate the sanctity” is a bit strong). The concern may well have been that Jesus would have been regarded as a law-breaker based on the earlier pericope, and so it is clarified in the following pericope that Jesus considers doing good on the Sabbath to be lawful. As you say, it is keeping Torah.

      3. As I see it, Torah is an interacting system of stipulations/rules/laws. Atheists can extract some specific law and claim it is immoral when considered by itself; my take is that they do not see how it interacts with other laws when they make this claim, to be fair, lots of others do not see the interaction either.

        On the subsequent teaching unit on Jesus healing a withered hand, I think “lawful” should be understood as asking whether healing on the Sabbath is allowed considering the entire Torah as an interacting system. The Pharisees taught that healing should not be done on the Sabbath, that there were 6 other days when it could happen, that is, Sabbath rules trump healing. Jesus is using a “qol valhomer” or “light and heavy” argument, where he points out “If X is true, how much more is Y true (since Y is “heavier” than X)”. The key words to see it as a qol valhomer argument are “much more”. In another text, Jesus points out that God heals on the Sabbath, so he can do similar.

        That is, the fundamental discussion is about how to interpret Torah. Followers of Jesus know that Jesus is always correct in his interpretation of Torah. But we need to try our best to figure out his arguments.

      4. So if healing on the Sabbath was lawful considering the entire Torah as an interacting system, then Jesus, according to his own understanding, was not breaking the law, but keeping the law. The Pharisees were wrong to claim that he and his disciples were “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” because they did not interpret the Torah comprehensively enough. Jesus seems to imply as much in his response to their criticism of his disciples plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Jesus calls attention here to one of the deep principles that unify and organize all the various laws in the entire Torah as an interacting system. In this case the principle shows how to reconcile the Sabbath law with the law in Deuteronomy that permits Israelites to pluck in passing, but not harvest, grain and grapes from others’ fields.

      5. Right.

        When God says “I desire mercy (hesed) and not sacrifice.” God is not saying he no longer wants sacrifices, God is saying in a Hebrew way that showing hesed/mercy/lovingkindness trumps making an animal sacrifice. Offering a sacrifice was the way a person (that was not a priest) was able to get as close as possible to the Holy of Holies (that is, the holiness of God). When the temple stood, he did desire sacrifices, but not in preference to showing hesed. (Also, seek reconciliation before making a sacrifice as Jesus points out.)

  2. Your question has crossed my mind. Are you refering to what Solomon says in Ecclesiates, “Do not be wicked and do not be overly righteously, why die before you time?” I believe he was referring to commoner or people who tried to expose corrupt government officials or evildoers, who in turn will try to silent the whistleblowers by murdering them.

    1. I think this is one possible interpretation, but since Ecclesiastes goes on to say right afterwards, “Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes,” I think it’s actually talking about the kind of thing I discuss in my post, taking even our best efforts to serve and follow God a bit too far.

  3. It seems like another way one might be “overly righteous” is (to extend your analogy) that if your friends visiting the U.S. can only meet with you during the time your church gathers for worship, the only acceptable practice is to invite/insist that they worship with your church. This might be “correct” in some instances, but it is hard to imagine that it is “correct” in every instance.

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