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From Ecclesiastes 7:16,

Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself?

So, why does the Bible say, "don't be too righteous"? Encouraging one to be moderate in their righteousness... Doesn't that seem a bit out of place?

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Luke 18:11-12, perhaps? –  Andrew Leach Mar 14 '12 at 17:45
    
Migrate to Biblical Hermeneutics. –  DJClayworth Mar 14 '12 at 19:39
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"not overrighteous" does not mean "not righteous". Overrighteous does not mean moderately righteous, it's the exact opposite: pretending to be "too righteous", usually for the show. –  vsz Mar 14 '12 at 20:23
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4 Answers

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One possible interpretation is that it is warning against legalism - the type of "over righteousness" that the Pharisees were known for. Not exactly a true righteousness, as seen from God's perspective, but a self perceived righteousness derived from a "holier-than-thou" attitude.

The Werner Bible Commentary puts it like:

One who is overly righteous or righteous to an excess insists on the letter of the law, failing to take into consideration human limitations and the need for compassion and understanding. Such a person is quick to make a major issue about minor matters, insisting on strict adherence to certain procedures, rules, or practices even when doing so would prevent one from being helpful and kind to those in genuine need.

A bit farther down, in verse 20, it goes on to say:

Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20 (NIV)

This is something that the Pharisees did not seem grasp, and righteousness through their own "over righteousness" was something that the Pharisees saw as attainable, or already attained.

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This philosophy is that of the Gospels, but it is not supported by the text of Ecclesiastes, which has a different, more pagan, philosophy (although it is strictly monotheistic in its religious references, of course). Ecclesiastes is not warning against over-legalism, the philosophy is that if you try too hard not to sin, you won't enjoy yourself, and you won't experience all of life, and this is no good. But if you sin, you wear yourself out, and invite God's wrath. So Ecc says be mostly good, but sin a little. Whether this is consistent with the rest of the Bible is up to you to decide. –  Ron Maimon Mar 15 '12 at 3:48
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When I looked this up in my NAB Bible, it states it as:

"Be not just to excess, and be not overwise, lest you be ruined.

In the foot notes for the verse it states:

St. Jerome explains the warning against excessive justice in reference to the self-righteous man who is so stern that he is never willing to forgive sin in others;

This idea can be reflected in Verses 20-22:

...yet there is no man on earth so just as to do good and never sin. Do not give heed to every word that is spoken lest you hear your servant speaking ill of you, for you know in your heart that you have many times spoken ill of others.

Also, my first thought was a warning against scrupulosity: "the spiritual and psychological state of a person who erroneously believes he is guilty of mortal sin and is therefore seldom in a state of grace."

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http://www.oldtestamentstudies.org/my-papers/other-papers/wisdom-literature/be-not-righteous-over-much-ecclesiastes-716/

The righteousness described in this verse is the same kind of righteousness as found in v. 15. The righteousness in v. 16 is excessive (“righteous over much”) only in the sense that an Old Testament believer might simplistically expect God to honor his righteousness with immediate blessing. In v. 15 Solomon describes a situation where a genuinely righteous person receives what the wicked should get; and the wicked person receives what the righteous person should get. The point of v. 16 could be explained like this: “Do not be simplistically righteous with the expectation of immediate reward, neither be naively wise, why cause yourself to be astonished that God did not honor your righteous living with immediate blessing?” How does this fit in with vv. 17-18? When one sees the wicked prospering, he may lose heart and turn to an excessively sinful lifestyle. This should not be followed because God may immediately judge this sinner (v. 17). According to v. 18 the believer should avoid both extremes. In light of other portions of this book (3:17; 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:14), Solomon would argue that we should live righteously because the day of judgment is coming; this is when the Lord will certainly reward His people.

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One must not treat the whole Bible as a homogenous text, which represents a single point of view. There are different texts, which serve different purposes. The earliest parts are more suitable for children, in that they are clear message tales, where the good people win and the bad people get struck down by God. The later texts are more nuanced adult narratives, which try to mirror how life actually is.

The more secular philosophical text of Ecclesiastes (available in my translation on Wikisource ) is very different than the earliest law-giving texts, or the histories and prophecies. It belongs to the third part of the old testament, called "the writings" by Jews, and along with the Book of Job, the proverbs, and some of the Apocrypha, it is considered a book of wisdom, reflecting a philosophy that was considered important enough to canonize.

Ecclesiastes shows a Greek influence. The writing is recursive and flowing, and contains a greater degree of abstraction than the earliest books. It is believed to have been written in Hellenistic times, around the 2nd-3rd century BC, making it perhaps the very latest contribution to be canonized in the old testament.

The text is interesting in that it is easily heretical at points, and this is one of the major arguments used back then against its canonization. There are several points where you hear what sounds like a redactor. The last verses of the book are an infamous summary, which does not summarize:

Vapid mirage, said Koheleth, everything is mirage. And as Koheleth became wiser, so he taught wisdom to the people, and he listened and he investigated, and he set many sayings. Koheleth asked to find things of use, and right writing, truthful words. The words of wise men planted as fasteners and ramparts in the pages of anthologies; they were given by one shepherd. And more than of these, my son, be careful: to making many books there is no end, and too much studying afflicts the flesh. Word's end, everything is heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments, because this is all to man. Because to every deed God will bring judgment, over all that's hidden, whether good, or bad.

The actual content of the book is completely different. This is one of the books of the Bible that is actually worth reading end to end.

Ecclesiastes is a free-thinking catalog of despair, at the meaninglessness of life and the unreality of the world. It is a philosophy of misery, similar to the Hindu concept of Maya, or world-illusion. We are all trapped in Maya, "Havel" in Koheleth's words, or "Vanity" in King James, "mirage" in Wikipedia, "vapor-wisp" in the most literal reading of the Hebrew. This is meaninglessness that is a consequence of the slightness of our world, its ephemerality, and our actions, we are all headed to the grave, the wise along with the foolish, and nothing that we do is particularly meaningful when considered on, say, geological time. Everything repeats in an eternal cycle, nothing is truly new. Wicked people prosper, righteous people are struck down, and there are injustices that cannot be fixed.

This idea, the futility, leads Koheleth to all sorts of despair and searching. He tries out all sorts of things, building, and destroying, study, and partying, piety, and sin. He concludes that life is finite, and of no consequence or meaning, that there is no afterlife, so we should take some pleasure out of our limited time, be mostly virtuous, and a little sinful, and try to enjoy ourselves as long as we are here.

This type of philosophy is completely out of place in the Bible, and this book therefore has many quotes which can be construed as contradicting the rest of the Bible. Koheleth tells you to enjoy life, be happy on Earth, and forget about heavenly rewards (3:20):

All things to one place are going, all came from the dust, and all returns to dust. Who knows whether the spirit of man, if up above it goes, and the spirit of the beast, if down to the ground it goes? And I saw that there is nothing better than that a man will be happy in what he does, because this is his allotment. Because who will bring us to see of what will come after him?

He explicitly denies the afterlife later: (Ecc. 9:10)

All that your hands shall find to do within their power, do: because there is no deed or reckoning or knowledge or wisdom in the underworld, that is where you are going.

He tells you to not be too virtuous (7:16):

Don't be greatly righteous, and don't be too much wise, why become desolate? 17 Don't be greatly wicked, and don't become foolish: why die before your time? 18 Better that you grasp this, and from the other do not release your hand...

He tells you that righteousness is not rewarded (8:14):

There is mirage, done on the Earth, that there are righteous ones whose fate is as if for the work of the wicked, and there are wicked ones whose fate arrives as if for the works of the righteous. I said that this too is mirage.

This text is not representative of Jewish or Christian theology. It is not representative of what we would call modern secular philosophy either. It might have a root in Hindu or Buddhist traditions of Maya or Earthly suffering, but even then, it is delivered in a different ideosyncratic way, as the personal story of a wealthy scholar. The Bible would be a lot more consistent without it.

So why is this text canonized? Perhaps the last verses will make it clear:

Be happy, young man, in your childhood, and your heart will improve in the days of your virility, and go along the paths of your heart, and the sight of your eyes, and know that over all these God will bring you to judgment. And eradicate anger from your heart, and pass evil away from your flesh because childhood and dawning are mirage.

And remember your creator in the days of your virility, just until they will come, the bad days, and there will come years of which you you will say: "I do not have use for these."

So until the sun will darken, and the light and the moon, and the stars, and the clouds return after the rain.

On the day that the guardians of the house will shake, and the the soldiers will distort, and the millers shall be idle because they dwindled in number, and the lights will darken in the windows. And the doors in the marketplace will close, in the fading sound of the mill, and to the sound of the birds it will arise, and all the song-girls will lay low.

Also they will fear the on high, and along the path terrors, and the almond shall blossom and the locust will be burdened, and the caperberry shall fail, because a man is walking to the eternal home, and the mourners surround the marketplace.

Until the silver rope is snapped, and the golden bowl is cracked, and the pitcher breaks on the fountain, and the cover-wheel crumbles into the well. And the dust returns to the Earth, as it was, and the spirit returns to God, who gave it.

If this writing isn't divinely inspired, then nothing is.

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You start with a really good analysis, but I'm having a little bit of trouble swallowing the "not representative of Christian or Jewish theology." The rejection of an afterlife case could also be made of Job, for example, but I don't think that anyone would say that isn't Jewish or Christian. –  Affable Geek Mar 15 '12 at 4:43
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Additionally, as much as I like the commentary on Ecclesiastes (which I think has bearing on the answer), this doesn't actually take a position on what being "not overrighteous" is advocating –  Affable Geek Mar 15 '12 at 5:16
    
@Affable Geek: I thought it was obvious in context--- Ecclesiastes is telling you to not be too much of a goody goody, but to do something (a little) bad once in a while, just to experience life. I agree that both Job and Ecc are Jewish/Christian, I mean, obviously, look at where they are. But the theology they espouse is somewhat outside the mainsteam of thought in Christian religion, and also of Jewish religion (or any religion I know, really, it's unique). I believe that they were both disputed during the canonization debates. The moderation philosophy echoes Aristotles Nichomachean ethics. –  Ron Maimon Mar 16 '12 at 5:50
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