Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)
"Do not be over-righteous." Ecclesiastes 7:16
Some of our readers may be surprised to discover that there is such a statement as this in Holy Writ, and at first glance consider it an exhortation we do not need. Yet on second thought they should perceive that their hasty conclusion was wrong, for there can be nothing in the imperishable Word of God which is superfluous, and no precept which we can dispense with without suffering loss. Even in this day of abounding lawlessness, of rapidly increasing moral laxity, when there is such an urgent need for pressing the righteous claims of God upon one another, the Christian requires to give careful heed to this word: "Do not be over-righteous."
It is a question of sound interpretation, of rightly understanding the meaning and application of this Divine injunction. First, let us briefly point out what our text does not mean. "Do not be over-righteous." Those words have often been quoted in the past by empty professors against those children of God whose conscientiousness and piety condemned their looseness. They have said, "I do not feel that such carefulness and preciseness are required of us; you are altogether too punctilious over trifles: why make yourself and all whom you come into contact with, miserable? what need is there for so much denying of self, separation from the world, and acting differently from other people?" They argue, "Christ did everything for us which God requires of us." Anything which made real demands upon them, which called for the mortification of the flesh, for the laying aside of "every weight" which would hinder from running the race God has set before His people, they counted as "fanaticism," "puritanic," being "over-righteous." And their tribe is not extinct! But such is obviously a perversion of our text.
We cannot love God too much, nor keep His precepts too diligently. What, then, is the force of these words, "Do not be over-righteous"? First, let it be duly observed that our text occurs in the Old Testament. The Lord God knew the temper of the Jews, their proneness to lean upon their own works and trust in the sufficiency of them to secure their acceptance before Him; therefore did He place this word on record to warn them against indulging in the spirit of self-destruction, against pretending unto a greater righteousness than they actually had. In this very same chapter, only two or three verses later, He tells them plainly, "There is not a just man upon earth that does good and sins not" (v. 20). Thus the righteousness of Another is absolutely indispensable if any sinner is to find acceptance with the thrice Holy God. Beware, then, of thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think, and being proud in your own conceits. The need for such a word, and their utter disregard of it, was plainly evidenced by the self-righteous Pharisees of Christ's day, who trusted in their own performances and despised and rejected Him.
But the truly regenerated soul has been delivered from this fatal tendency of the unrenewed heart. He has been supernaturally enlightened and convicted by the Spirit of Truth. He has been shown how impossible it is for him to meet the high requirements of God, and has been made to feel that his best doings are but "filthy rags" in God's sight. What, then, is the legitimate application of this exhortation unto himself: "Do not be over-righteous"?
Answer: by assuming duties to which God has not called us, by undertaking austerities which God has not enjoined. We read of "the commandments and doctrines of men" with their "touch not, taste not, handle not" (Col. 2:21, 22), and to be brought under bondage to them, is being "righteous over much," for it is going beyond what God Himself has prescribed for us. The Jewish Rabbies and scribes invented a vast number of traditions and ceremonies over and above what God commanded, supposing that by observing the same they were holier than others; and even condemned the Lord Jesus because He declined to observe their rules: see Mark 7:2, 5; and let it be duly observed that Christ and His disciples refused to heed their scruples, though He knew they would be "offended" or hurt!
The same principle is operative among the poor Papists, with their invention of religious works: the "celibacy" of their "priests," their "Lenten fasts" etc. are examples. Nor is the same evil absent among Protestants: many of them have invented laws and rules, demanding that Christians totally abstain from some of the "all things" which God has given us richly "to enjoy" (1 Tim. 6:17), though not to abuse; compliance therewith is being "over-righteous!"
"Do not be over-righteous." This word has a manifold application to Christians today. Be not too rigorous in standing up for your "rights," but "in love serve one another." Refuse not to help the animal out of the pit, simply because he falls into one on the Sabbath day! Let your zeal in "service" be regulated by the rules of Holy Writ. Insist not upon your full "pound of flesh": having received mercy of God, exercise mercy towards others. Beware of paying more attention to the outward forms of religion than to the cultivation of the heart. "There may be overdoing in well doing" (Matthew Henry): some have wrecked their constitutions by over-study, over-fasting, and by refusing lawful means. Nothing is required of us but what God has enjoined in His Word.