What Did the Wise Man Mean?
The Wisdom of Avoiding Extremes
It is very easy for imperfect humans to get off balance, taking an extreme view of matters. King Solomon, therefore, gave this admonition: “Do not become righteous overmuch, nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself? Do not be wicked overmuch, nor become foolish. Why should you die when it is not your time? It is better that you should take hold of the one, but from the other also do not withdraw your hand; for he that fears God will go forth with them all.”—Eccl. 7:16-18.
The person who is righteous overmuch gets overly concerned about minor matters. For example, he makes big issues over things that are strictly human procedures or methods, matters that are not set forth in the Scriptures. When he sees someone doing a kindness, or perhaps acting in a merciful way, he may object on the basis that certain “protocol” has been ignored. He is much like the Pharisees who did not rejoice about the marvelous relief Jesus Christ brought to afflicted ones on the Sabbath but who became enraged, concluding that the Son of God had violated the law by performing cures on that day. (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 14:1-6) Persons who are righteous overmuch often give no thought to what would be the merciful, loving or helpful thing to do. They take rules to the ultimate limit. When, in their estimation, some rule has been violated, they do not take anything else into consideration.—Compare Matthew 12:2-7; 23:23; Romans 14:1-4, 10.
In their own case, those who are righteous overmuch may practice self-denial to the point of harming their health. They act contrary to the sound advice of Colossians 2:20-23: “Why do you, as if living in the world, further subject yourselves to the decrees: ‘Do not handle, nor taste, nor touch,’ respecting things that are all destined to destruction by being used up, in accordance with the commands and teachings of men? Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”
As Solomon said, the person who is righteous overmuch is definitely in danger of causing ‘desolation to himself.’ He may bring physical, mental or emotional ruin to himself by rash zeal or extreme self-denial. Worse, his unloving attitude can cost him God’s favor and blessing.
Then, as Solomon shows, there is the person who ‘shows himself excessively wise,’ trying to impress others with his wisdom. He sets himself up as a critic and gives the impression that he has better insight than anybody else. His exalted opinion of his abilities often causes him to get involved in other people’s affairs, offering them unrequested solutions to their problems. In time he alienates others, and they may do everything possible to avoid him. Also, time may reveal that his advice was not so good, and he may be blamed for causing needless trouble.
Lest a person get off balance and take the wrong view of proper righteousness and wisdom, Solomon went on to warn against ‘becoming wicked overmuch.’ Imperfection, of course, should be accepted by all of us as a reality. The apostle John wrote: “If we make the statement: ‘We have no sin,’ we are misleading ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) We therefore must resign ourselves to falling short in many respects. However, a person must be careful that he does not pass over wrongdoing lightly, excusing himself with the words, ‘Well, after all, I’m a sinner.’ While a person can enjoy life, he should be careful not to cast off all restraints. Calamity is in store for the one who acts the part of a fool, thinking that he is above law and correction. The person who pursues an unbridled course may experience serious problems and even die prematurely.
How can damaging extremes be avoided? The fear of Jehovah, a wholesome regard for the Creator, is essential. This fear serves to restrain wrongdoing and also moves the individual to follow a balanced course of life, avoiding extremes. One who fears God endeavors to be righteous and wise but shuns being overly scrupulous and making a show of wisdom. Because he enjoys life in a wholesome way, extremists may even judge him as a wrongdoer, just as Jesus Christ was wrongly labeled as being a drunkard and a glutton.—Matt. 11:19.
In reality, however, such a conscientious, balanced person is keeping a tight reign on his conduct and does not become a practicer of wickedness. The God-fearing person goes forth unharmed by the problems and difficulties of those who ignore the precepts (1) ‘do not be righteous overmuch nor show yourself excessively wise’ and (2) ‘do not be wicked overmuch.’ As Solomon recommended, he thus ‘takes hold of the one, but from the other also does not withdraw his hand.’ He takes on righteousness without being so exacting as to set impossible standards for himself and others, or withdrawing from the healthful pleasure to be enjoyed in life.