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What the Bible says about Super 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 7:15-17

Ecclesiastes 7:15 presents a Christian with a paradox about Christian living. A paradox is a circumstance, statement, activity, or conduct that is contrary to expectation. It is an inconsistency, a sharp irregularity, that often produces a conundrum, which is a riddle or puzzle. In Solomon's paradox, the righteous person may ask, “Why should such a situation exist? Where are the blessings God has promised? Where is God in this picture? Has He not promised prosperity and long life if we obey Him?” Yes, indeed He has.

There are two problems that may arise from this experience, both of which involve misjudgments made by the righteous. The first is to misjudge God and accuse Him of being unjust, assuming we know a better way than He does. Not much humility is shown in coming to this conclusion! We need to spend no more time on this one.

The second problem arises when one misjudges, not only God, but also the self, the circumstance, and the possible “solution.” This combination can lead to making the paradox truly destructive to one's spiritual health.

In the vivid description in Psalm 73, we see the spiritual and emotional agony of a converted man experiencing a situation similar to what Solomon describes. The author survived it because he responded in the correct way. God intervened to ensure his rescue, or he might have slid “right out of the church,” as we might say today. The author never slid into the “righteous over much” mode, as the King James Version phrases it in Ecclesiastes 7:16, or into “super-righteousness,” as some modern commentators call it. Solomon warns us that this reaction is destructive.

In Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, Solomon gives a warning right on the heels of his mention of the paradox, making a clear connection between the paradox and the possible reaction of a righteous person. He does it with a strong admonition: “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time?” A stern caution indeed. Super-righteousness is a misguided response that seems to arise from our judgment that we are having all this trouble because we are being punished.

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

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

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

Solomon's seemingly simple observation in verse 15 states a potentially serious challenge to the converted. The paradox here describes a “why are these things happening to me?” circumstance. Part of the problem is that, in the context, Solomon gives no specific answers to the dangers posed. He cautions us about the paradox in verses 16-17, but then another question arises: What is the danger or dangers? We dare not misjudge the seriousness of the issues of verse 15.

Psalm 73 provides some explanation, as it presents an event in the life of a godly man that is a near-perfect fit for understanding the paradox. Psalm 73 explores the seriousness of the challenge of discontent combined with envy. If left unresolved, both extreme reactions are dangerous. The issue is not merely a passing trial, for it calls into question God's sense of justice, and the psalmist himself expresses how serious it was—he says his foot almost slipped. As we would say today, he almost left the church.

The psalmist did the right things to receive a solution: He not only endured it, but he actively endured it through prayer. He was not just passively enduring a confounding and confusing thought-pattern. He went into the sanctuary and prayed in faith. God solved the problem.

Even so, Psalm 73 still does not answer why Solomon so sternly cautions us about the paradox's spiritual dangers. He goes so far as to ask, “Why should you die?” indicating that he perceived the paradox as a serious challenge. He does not mean why should one die at this moment, but rather, why should one die spiritually, that is, having lost the opportunity to be in God's Kingdom. Since he does not give much help in the context, we must look for answers elsewhere within the Bible.

The authors of The Preacher's Homiletic Commentary catch the essence of the paradox's seriousness to a righteous person. In a rather long analysis of Ecclesiastes 7:17-18, it states:

This is not a caution against aiming at the highest excellence in goodness or wisdom, for these are the proper objects of a righteous ambition. It is rather a caution against the conduct of those who presume to find fault with the methods of God's dealings with men, as if they could devise and conduct a more satisfactory scheme. This is the most daring form of human arrogance. (p. 109)

This warns against the probability that, after first misjudging God's part in the trial, the righteous person will foolishly act on his misjudgment and begin producing its bad fruit. Thus, his second misjudgment is that he will actively attempt to impress God by means of his works.

Three comments drawn from Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes by Sidney Greidanus, p. 189-191, show the seriousness of turning to super-righteousness to solve the paradox:

  • Choon Leong Seow states: “Becoming overly righteous is the hubris that one must avoid. That attitude is the very opposite of the fear of God.” Becoming over-righteous is a flaunting rebellion against God's will because, in this case, hubris is not merely a normal, carnal pride but excessive, defiant pride. Why? God has willed that He will save men by His grace. Exhibiting hubris through super-righteousness is saying to God, “I will force You to save me by dint of my works.”

  • Another commentator, Michael V. Fox comments: “Straining for perfection is presumptuous, a refusal to accept human limitations.” Note Paul's humility in contrast to this presumptuous hubris: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; I labored more abundantly than they all. Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). Paul humbly accepted his limitations, taking no credit whatever.

  • Commentator William P. Brown remarks: “A life obsessed with righteousness, in fact, blinds a person to his or her own sinfulness.” His blunt comment gives insight to the trap within super-righteousness: The super-righteous person is so blinded by his conceited efforts that he does not see that his focus is completely on himself.

Each of these comments is a caution not to overlook the serious consequences of misjudging God and the trial. They isolate the danger: a possible mistaken judgment of the circumstance followed by an unthinking reaction to the spiritual and emotional suffering the righteous person is experiencing, emphasizing his own works. Any normal Christian would desire to end his suffering; it is only reasonable. To resolve to do better is also good, but Solomon's cautions suggest concern for a reaction that will produce bad fruit that are a threat to a person's salvation.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Twelve): Paradox, Conclusion

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

If one misjudges in the manner of the paradox described here and therefore reacts wrongly, the effect could lead to one of two possible spiritual extremes. Thus, Solomon gives his cautions.

Perhaps these possible alternatives can be illustrated this way: Imagine a horizontal line drawn across a blank sheet of paper. Both the beginning of the line on the left and the end of the line on the right represent extreme reactions as well as the results produced should a person make wrong choices within the trial.

One can react radically to the left, becoming completely liberal, by choosing simply to give up. The result would be spiritual death. The other extreme reaction would be to choose to turn sharply right, becoming righteous over much, and the bad fruit also produces spiritual death.

Why? Because either extreme is rebellion against God's grace. In Psalm 73, Asaph neither gave up nor attempted to become super-righteous so that God would be impressed and owe him the blessing of relieving the pressures of his suffering. He chose a path right down the middle, to trust God.

Turning to the right to become over-righteous is the choice we should be more concerned about. Why? Because most of the truly converted will not simply give up. They may become weary and confused, but they will not walk away from God's mercy.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Twelve): Paradox, Conclusion

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

We need to be as clear as we can be about what Solomon's paradoxical situation has the potential to produce in a person's life if it goes unrecognized and is allowed full freedom to take over and produce its fruits without resistance. The following is a worst-case scenario. Not everybody will end up this badly, but the potential exists, which is why God gives the warnings about its dangers. It tends to focus the individual entirely upon himself.

Paul writes in Acts 26:4-5:

My manner of life from my youth, which was spent from the beginning among my own nation at Jerusalem, all the Jews know. They knew me from the first, if they were willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.

The key phrase for our purposes here is “the strictest sect of our religion.” The history of the Pharisees shows that they had thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that would fit well under the definition of super-righteousness. In fact, they established and built the Pharisees into what they were at the time of Christ.

Super-righteousness is a beginning step into Pharisaism, and we know well the relationship Jesus had with them, those who “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.” Is it wisdom to become like the Pharisees, who, because they thought God was not strict enough, added their traditions to His laws?

The foul fruit of super-righteousness is pride, and that is why Solomon cautions us so strongly in Ecclesiastes 7. Pride destroys relationships, whether with God or man, because the proud person demands attention and submission that can never be satisfied. It is the height of self-centeredness. They are demanding, display various degrees of narcissism, and tend to be standoffish, considering themselves to be better than others.

In the case of the Pharisees, their narcissism drove them to their absolute failure: not to recognize God in the flesh through His teachings. Instead, they, like Satan, actively attacked Him and succeeded in manipulating political and religious pressures to the extent that they, with the help of the Romans and Sadducees, put Him to death.

Jesus' famous castigation of them in Matthew 23 reveals many of their characteristics: They made things hard on others but would not bend to help; they showboated their good works; they expected to be catered to, not to serve; they desired public praise; they loved to receive titles; they looked down on others as inferiors; they taught false doctrines; they heaped greater difficulties on those who already needed help; their sense of judgment was completely skewed; they pursued tiny points of law with great zeal while overlooking truly important things; they were outright hypocrites; they loved to say, “If I were in that position, I would never have done that”; and they were clever deceivers.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Twelve): Paradox, Conclusion

Ecclesiastes 7:15-18

The two most significant concepts presented within this chapter are somewhat related, being two elements of the same subject. The first is accepting and surviving the paradox found in Ecclesiastes 7:15, into which any of us could be drawn as we endure a difficult trial. The chapter also includes a few broad conclusions that help to give us some guidance.

The paradox seems to be the initial motivation for the second of these two concepts, which is Solomon's description of his detailed and diligent search for wisdom that continues for the rest of the chapter. His search was only partly successful, as he admits in verse 23 that a complete answer was far from him. However, he diligently kept at his search, and interestingly, his reflections reach back to creation and the introduction of sin into the world.

The danger within the paradox is for the Christian to misjudge that his circumstance is unfair. This error is initiated when he perceives that a Christian, a servant of God, should be greatly blessed with peace and prosperity, while for the sinner everything should be going badly. However, in the paradox the circumstances are reversed. The Christian's life seems to be in tatters, while everything is coming up roses for the sinner. The Christian, not being as fully aware of this as he needs to be, is feeling pressure to make a choice as to how he will react.

The wrong reaction lies in his becoming motivated to rid himself of the burden by resorting to radical measures to correct what he concludes is the cause of his stress. On the one hand, he may be strongly tempted to resort to super-righteousness, believing it is the solution. Yet, on the other hand, he may, out of frustration and lack of faith, resort to sinning deliberately as a means of relieving the pressure—and perhaps give up his place among the saved. Either of these radical measures can turn the paradox into a failed experience.

The correct solution is provided in Psalm 73, a complete commentary written by a deeply converted man who went through this very trial. The psalm reveals that the correct foundation of the solution is to understand that rarely is this difficult trial a punishment but a test. One must endure its stresses through a great deal of prayer, drawing on one's faith in and fear of God and believing in His promise never to allow us to be tempted above what we are able (I Corinthians 10:13). We must put our trust in God's faithfulness.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fourteen): A Summary


 




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