Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise– why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool– why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
–Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 (NIV)
I have heard of this last sentence being given as a guiding principle for life:
The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
The word “extremes”
I notice that in the NIV, the word extremes has little square brackets around it. From the preface to the NIV,
To achieve clarity the translators supplied words not in the original texts but required by the context. If there was uncertainty about such material, it is enclosed in brackets.
Looking at several other translations of this verse, none of them state it quite like the NIV…
[It is] good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.
It is good that you grasp this, And also not remove your hand from the other; For he who fears God will escape them all.
It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.
It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand; for he who fears God shall come forth from them all.
It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from that withdraw not thy hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth from them all.
There is also an alternate translation in the NIV footnote that would render it The man who fears God will follow them both.
But maybe this is just being picky about words. Maybe a proper interpretation of the verse would yield “…will avoid all extremes.”
Should we take this as a guiding principle then?
Let’s look at Scripture and see what we can learn.
Did Jesus avoid all extremes… when he called the Pharisees and teachers of the Law a brood of vipers, blind guides, men who would go great lengths to proselytize and end up making their convert twice the son of hell they were?
Was he avoiding all extremes when he rebuked the people of Nazareth so sharply for their lack of faith in comparison to the widow in Zarephath in the time of Elijah and in comparison to Naaman the Syrian in the time of Elisha that
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.
–Luke 4:28-29 (NIV)
Was Jesus avoiding all extremes when he engaged in this exchange:
One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.
–Luke 11:45-54 (NIV)
Paul and the Apostles
But you say, “That’s Jesus. He could do things like that, but we shouldn’t.”
Ok then, how about Paul? Was it Paul’s avoiding all extremes which led to these experiences:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.
I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
–2 Corinthians 11:23-27 (NIV)
And didn’t most or all of the other apostles experience martyrdom? Why — were they avoiding extremes like they should have been?
The Hall of Faith
But you say, “That’s the apostles. They had a special anointing. We aren’t called to that the way they were.”
Ok, how about those listed in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, then:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions,
quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
–Hebrews 11:32-40 (NIV)
Were these faithful men and women being careful to avoid all extremes?
A few verses later in Hebrews 12:4, the author of Hebrews reproves by saying:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Does this commend a life avoiding all extremes?
What does it mean, then?
Here are the verses immediately preceding Ecclesiastes 7:18:
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise– why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool– why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
–Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 (NIV)
So don’t be too righteous and don’t be too wicked, right? Isn’t that the message of Scripture? Don’t we see God teaching the children of Israel to grumble a little but not too much, to resist the Holy Spirit but not too much, to pursue holiness to a degree, to be set apart by not getting involved with the Canaanite women too much, to not offer up too much unauthorized incense, to not kill too many prophets…
“Well of course not,” you say. “But this is Scripture — it must mean something!”
I completely agree. But isn’t it a little extreme to wield this verse as an antidote to the teaching of the rest of the Bible?
I honestly don’t know how to take Ecclesiastes, because in places it seems to contradict the rest of Scripture. As another example, Ecclesiastes 1:17-18 says:
Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Yet Proverbs (4:5-7) says:
Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
I don’t know if these places in Ecclesiastes are to be taken ironically or if perhaps they are true if you do not consider our heavenly reward and only consider the perspective of “under the sun” (going along with Paul’s statement that “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:19)).
But one thing I do know. A life guided by the principle of avoiding all extremes is a life of whitewashed disobedience. It is clear from Scripture that God calls us to extreme obedience, even to the point of shedding our blood for the Name.
Don’t we want to join that great cloud of witnesses unashamed?
Brothers and sisters, I do.