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What the Bible says about Self-Righteousness
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Ecclesiastes 7:15-22

Ecclesiastes 7:16-22 can help to solve the riddle of verse 15. To begin with, “Do not be overly righteousness” does not warn against aiming for excellence in obedience to God. Rather, it is a further caution not to find fault with God for allowing situations like those in verse 15 to exist, for such circumstances hold vital teaching for those directly involved.

Thus, this passage is first an appeal for humility, a caution against arrogant self-righteousness that guides a person to assert that he “knows it all,” that he fully grasps what is going on, and that his judgment is correct. The wisdom Solomon teaches here is that the goodness of the righteous must be accompanied by humility. Without the presence of humility, a person's goodness and righteousness run the risk of producing intellectual and moral pride.

This can be learned from the bad experiences of others whose examples are given in Scripture. The Pharisees became involved in such moral pride hundreds of years later. Jesus charged them with hypocrisy. In their self-righteousness, they were calling God into account because they believed His law was not enough. The Pharisees added their self-righteousness to God's written law by means of the spoken or oral law, a set of rules framed by the minds of men through the centuries. What a lack of humility! Their trashing of the written law was not wisdom, as Mark 7:6-9 shows.

Blinded by their proud self-righteousness, they could not see that, in their blind attempts to make up for what they perceived as God's deficiencies and the people's failures, they were adding despair to people's lives. Their judgment severely lacked a proper sense of proportion about what God requires.

An interesting sidelight is that the Bible shows that most Pharisees appear to have been well off. According to Jesus' judgment, they were far from righteous, so they actually fit the description of prosperous evil people given in Ecclesiastes 7:15.

But what the Pharisees were involved in is not the real lesson for a converted person, as the Pharisees were unconverted.

Psalm 73:1-17 vividly describes the emotional and spiritual involvement of a person caught in a paradoxical situation. This psalm depicts a righteous man for a time severely misjudging the reality of his situation until God reveals the truth. Any of us could be guilty of the same. The wicked appear to prosper only if we, in our judgment, consider only what appears on the surface.

What God reveals to the psalmist is that these people may appear to gain the whole world, but in reality, they are losing something of far greater value. The psalmist grasps this through prayer and meditation, and his emotional and spiritual state return to an even keel through God's revelation.

At one point, through a bad attitude toward God fueled by his envy of the worldly, the psalmist appears to have been rapidly sliding into despair and perhaps “right out of the church.” This presents a grave danger in such a paradoxical situation.

Assuming the psalmist was a converted man, what would have happened to him if he had not done the right thing and appealed to God, or if he appealed, but God did not respond as quickly as he expected? What if the trial had gone on and on without relief? From the psalmist's own testimony, as he went into the sanctuary, he was at the point that his feet had almost slipped. However, an answer on recognizing the issue appears within the psalm. Despite his envious attitude, the psalmist did not stop praying to God for understanding and relief. God has the answers.

When involved in such a scenario, we have in reality only three alternatives: One, we can continue as is, faithfully enduring with much prayer and steadfast submission to God's will. Two, we can give up in despair and leave the church. Three, we can strive all the harder to impress God by becoming super-righteous to attract His attention and receive blessings for our righteousness, relieving the stress. Solomon is addressing the third alternative in these eight verses.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Ten): Paradox

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

Ecclesiastes is written chiefly for the benefit of the converted, for those striving to live an “above the sun” life. The Pharisees were not converted, thus Pharisaical self-righteousness is but a small part of what matters here. Psalm 73 is vital to our understanding of this subject, as it provides us the experience of a converted person.

What God promises about long life and prosperity will help us see the paradox clearly. Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 5:33 adds, “You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.”

“Well with you” points to prosperity. In a relationship with God, it is “normal” to expect these two promises to be fulfilled. Thus, Ecclesiastes 7:15 presents us with a paradox: The obedient neither live long nor are considered prosperous, yet the disobedient live long and are prospered. So, the question arises, why obey God?

The paradox does not always concern wealth. All that is necessary is a situation in which the Christian feels mistreated while the unconverted are being blessed. When this upside-down circumstance continues for some time, the Christian becomes impatient and compares his state with the unconverted.

Christians today are not inoculated against the kind of trial the psalmist endured. We do not always live to a ripe old age; we are not immune to cancer. Sometimes Christians suffer violent accidents. Sometimes their homes are wiped away by a tornado or earthquake, and perhaps they lose a family member. In such times, it is easy to ask, “Where was God?”

One commentator, by using the term “super-righteousness,” helps to clarify Solomon's teaching. To convey the sense of the context as well as the usage of the Hebrew, the King James Version translates the term in verse 16 as “righteous over much.” The New King James Version translates it as “overly righteous.” These translations are vague at best, wherein lies the danger. The commentator, Greidanus, feels that “super-righteousness” conveys Solomon's thought in our modern lingo.

Super-righteousness is a strange and dangerous state because it is a deceptive form of evil. In the next verse, Solomon asks, “Why destroy yourself?” and “Why should you die before your time?” In addition, he states that those who fear God will escape. Each of those phrases indicates some danger exists in the paradox.

How does this super-righteousness arise within a converted person? On the surface, it seems to be a natural effect of the circumstance. Super-righteousness is indeed a form of self-righteousness but not the kind we are familiar with. It is abnormal in that it develops as a misguided response to the paradox. The danger arises in the subtle-but-risky fruit the response often produces.

In such a paradoxical situation, continuing unabated, most would react by assuming that God is punishing them, reasoning that, if they were not sinning, they would not be experiencing this ordeal. Thus, to relieve the stress, they are likely to recall a scripture like Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

At that moment, they stand at a fork in the road. The desire to rid themselves of the sore trial sometimes motivates them to choose the wrong path: trying to become more righteous in order to impress God so that He will alter their circumstances.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Ten): Paradox

Ecclesiastes 7:15-22

A critical element will make Ecclesiastes 7:15 a bit clearer. The Hebrew word translated as “perishes” ('ābad; Strong's #6) creates a misunderstanding. In its strongest sense, if the context calls for it, it can indeed indicate death. Its first definition, though, is simply “to wander.” It can also suggest merely slipping away or declining. Solomon is indeed warning that danger is present, but it is not an emergency situation. Verse 15, then, is saying that the just man is declining in his righteousness, not that he is perishing because he is an evil sinner ignoring a character flaw.

The reality is that he is declining despite being righteous, which makes all the difference in the world. He is not perishing because he is not righteous enough; he simply is not handling a trial well. Punishment from God is not the issue here, just as it was not the issue with the author of Psalm 73, Job, Paul, or for that matter, Christ, in the midst of their deep trials. However, it is a warning because danger is present.

Job, a righteous man, went through a great trial but not because he was a terrible sinner. Job 1:1 clearly states, “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.” He was clearly not an evil man. However, his friends thought he was hypocritically hiding the fact that he was a sinner. Job did not judge himself as such, so he defended himself—vigorously. Job was correct. When he repented, it was of his lack of understanding, and God accepted it.

As he served God and the church, was Paul being punished through his trials (II Corinthians 11:22-33)? Did Jesus go through the horrible torture of the crucifixion and death because He was not righteous enough? He certainly received unjustified and painful punishment, but it was not for His sins but ours. Punishment from God is not the issue in this paradoxical circumstance either. It rarely is the issue with His children, and there are reasons why.

When we are called into God's Family and the church, our lives change radically because God's creative activities intensify. He must prepare us for our change. He has allowed Himself enough time, but He will certainly not waste any of it. Consider that God used Jesus, Job, and Paul, among others, for specific purposes in His great creative program. Their parts included difficult trials that were public enough to witness for God before the world and for us too. This factor will also be active in our lives.

In other words, paradoxical trials like the one described in Psalm 73, are not unusual for us. The stakes are high in our calling. We must be tested.

When a person is involved in such a scenario, in reality only three alternatives exist: First, with much prayer and steadfast submission to God's will, he can continue faithfully enduring. Second, he can give up in despair and leave the church. Third, he can strive all the harder to impress God by becoming super-righteous so that He will take notice and bless him for his righteousness, relieving the stress.

It is the third alternative that Solomon addresses in Ecclesiastes 7:15-22, a “solution” that contains an element of danger. We may have lived through such a trial and been delivered, totally unaware of the peril. Super-righteousness is peculiar and dangerous because it is really a deceptive form of evil.

How does super-righteousness arise within a converted person? On the surface, it actually seems like a natural outcome unless the situation is controlled to prevent it. Though a form of self-righteousness, it is different from the self-righteousness we are more familiar with. It can develop from a resolve to obey God better, but those efforts are allowed to get out of control.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Eleven): Paradox, Continued

James 2:1

Instead of "partiality," the King James Version reads "respect of persons." In many ways, "respect of persons" is a plainer translation of the Greek, since that is exactly what the apostle is fighting: church members respecting some people over others. This problem frequently rears its ugly head, causing trouble among brethren, so it is good to know what it is and how it manifests itself in a congregation.

First, we need to make sure that we understand the full implications of partiality by reviewing some definitions of the term. Webster's Dictionary defines partial as "biased to one party; inclined to favor one party in a cause, or one side of a question, more than the other; not indifferent." A second meaning emphasizes favoring something "without reason," and a third, "affecting a part only; not general or universal; not total," implies dividing or separating things apart from the whole.

Another tool we can use to get a better grasp of a term is to see how other translations of a particular Bible verse use it. Here are several alternate translations of James 2:1:

International Standard Version: My brothers, do not practice your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ by showing partiality.

New International Version: My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.

Good News Translation: My friends, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance.

James Moffatt Translation: My brothers, as you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Glory, pay no servile regard to people.

William Barclay Translation: My brothers, you cannot at one and the same time believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ and be a snob.

The New Testament in Modern English: Don't ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ!

Amplified Bible: My brethren, pay no servile regard to people [show no prejudice, no partiality]. Do not [attempt to] hold [and] practice the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of Glory, [together with snobbery]!

This term, rendered variously as "partiality," "favoritism," "respect of persons," "servile regard," and "snobbery" in James 2:1, means "the fault of one who, when responsible to give judgment, has respect to the position, rank, popularity, or circumstances of men, instead of their intrinsic conditions, preferring the rich and powerful to those who are not so . . ." (Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).

Parents almost always display partiality for their own children over other people's children, which is only natural, but sometimes they favor one of their own children over his or her sibling(s). This is bound to have disastrous results at some point.

Of course, there are racial, social, religious, and political prejudices. Many of these kinds of partialities can get one in trouble with the group in question, the law, the community, or the church, depending on how radically a person displays them. Even in supposedly free and equal societies, prejudices abound, as they are part of human nature.

Further, intellectual snobbery and elitism abound. Those who have advanced degrees too often look down their noses at those whose educational achievements were stymied by a lack of opportunity or funds or plain bad grades in school. Though it is more rare, a reverse intellectual snobbery has been known to exist among poorly educated Americans from time to time.

In the church, we often witness the "holier than thou" individual who wears his spirituality on his sleeve for all to see. He is quick to criticize others for their shortcomings, drawing away from fellowship with them for their "lack of conversion." Such a person is showing a bias toward his idea of righteousness, which, as we know, is called "self-righteousness."

There are many other kinds of partiality, and if one keeps an eye out for them, they are easy to spot. Respect of persons is part of the underside of the human condition, so it is not surprising that the Bible presents so many illustrations of it.

Dan Elmore
The Sin of Partiality

James 4:5-6

Taken together, James 4:5-6, Proverbs 23:6-7, and Romans 12:3 indicate that what a person thinks of himself is clearly important to God. We all have an image of ourselves that we carry about in our heart. We tend to think of ourselves in a certain way, a persona that we want to project to others. This is not wrong of and by itself. Because we love God, we should greatly desire to project to others an image of Him that is pleasing to Him. What is wrong, though, is that too often the image we project has its basis in some area of pride.

Most of us do not really understand exactly what image we project to others. In other words, we often do not succeed in projecting the impression we want others to have of us. For instance, it is easy for a person to think he is projecting an image of one who is serious, quiet, and contemplative, when the reality is that others consider him to be stern and condemning. A wide divergence of conclusions about an individual is actually quite common. While those who know us may see the same person, they take away different impressions, which results in different assessments.

The image that we try to project is what we think we ought to project for someone in our position. As mentioned earlier, the problem in most of this image-projection is that it is driven by pride, and "God resists the proud."

Since so many commentators believe that pride is the father of all sins, it is surprising that "pride" appears only 49 times in Scripture and only three times in the New Testament. The Hebrew term ga'on in a good sense indicates "majesty" or "excellence." However, most of its usages are negative, as the antonym of "humility." It is associated with arrogance, insolence, evil behavior, and perverse speech.

The Greek word translated pride is tuphoo. Its literal meaning is "to envelop in smoke," but metaphorically, it indicates "conceit," "lifted up," and "high-mindedness." The word pictures a person using smoke as a screen to conceal the image he does not want the public to see.

Pride includes a degree of haughtiness, a measure of contempt for others. It is a matter of the heart that is buried under the surface. However, though the one who suffers from it may appear to walk in downcast humility, all the while in his heart he has vast contempt for God and fellow man, which is revealed in his lack of the fear of God and general, overall disobedience.

Why is God so against pride? A person infected by this deadly quality so admires himself that he is unaware of his paucity of vastly more important qualities. A proud person cherishes independence so that he will not be beholden to others. He is so preoccupied with his self-proclaimed goodness that he never realizes that he has any sin from which he needs to be saved, and thus he will not be corrected. He believes that he is above it all.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Job, Self-Righteousness, and Humility


Find more Bible verses about Self-righteousness:
Self-righteousness {Nave's}
Self-righteousness {Torrey's}
 




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