All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perishes in his righteousness…
This section is one of the most difficult in the whole Book of Ecclesiastes, though there are no various readings in it to perplex us, and no difficulty in translating it. Neither the Authorized Version nor the Revised Version has alternative renderings of any part of it in the margin. The difficulty lies in the uncertainty in which we are as to the writer's standpoint in making out what form of religious life or what phase of thought or conduct he refers to when he says, "Be not righteous overmuch." It is equally humiliating to attempt to explain his words away - to read into them a higher meaning than they evidently bear, or to confess regretfully that we have here a cynical and low-toned depreciation of that which is in itself holy and good. Both courses have been followed by commentators, and both do dishonor to the sacred text.
I. In the first place, the Preacher states in plain terms THE GREAT AND PERPLEXING PROBLEM WHICH SO OFTEN TROUBLED THE HEBREW MIND - that of the adversity of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. In his experience of life, in the days of his vanity, in the course or' his troubled pilgrimage, he had seen this sight: "There is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness" - in spite of his righteousness; "and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness" - in spite of his wickedness (ver. 15). It is the same problem of which varying solutions are attempted in the Book of Job and in the thirty-seventh and seventy-third psalms. The old theory, that the good find their reward and the wicked their punishment in this life, was not borne out by his experience, he had seen it violated so often that he could not hold it as even an approximate statement of the facts of the ease. What, then, is his inference from his own experience? Does he say, "Cleave to righteousness in spite of the misfortunes which often attend it?" or, "Believe that somehow and somewhere the apparent inequalities of the present will ultimately be redressed, and both righteousness and wickedness will meet with the rewards and punishments they merit"? No; whether he might acquiesce in one or other of these inferences or not, we cannot tell. Other thoughts are in his mind. A third inference he draws, which would not naturally have occurred to us, but which is as legitimate as ours.
II. FROM HIS EXPERIENCE HE DEDUCES THE LESSON; "Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?" Neither the righteous nor the wicked being able to count upon reward for goodness or punishment for evil in this life as certain, both are exposed to certain risks - the one is tempted to adopt an exaggerated and feverish form of religious life, the other to enter on a course of unbridled wickedness. That there is a tendency to exaggeration in matters of religion is abundantly proved by the history of asceticism, which has made its appearance in every religion, true or spurious. The ascetic is the man who is "righteous overmuch." He denies himself all pleasures through the fear of sin; he separates himself, not merely from vicious indulgences, but from occupations and amusements which he admits are innocent enough and lawful enough for those who have not, the end in view he has set before himself. He is not content with the good works commanded by the Law of God; he must have his works of supererogation. The Pharisee in the parable (Luke 18:9-14) is a typical person of this class. He claimed merit for going beyond the requirements of the Law. Moses appointed but one fast-day in the year, the great Day of Atonement; he boasted that he fasted twice in the week. The Law commanded only to tithe the fruits of the fiend and increase of the cattle; but he no doubt tithed mint and cummin, all that came into his possession, down to the veriest trifles. And the aim is in all cases the same - the accumulation of a store of merit which will compel a reward if God is not to show himself unjust; an attempt to force from his hand a benediction which others cannot claim who have not adopted the same course. The folly and impiety of such conduct must be apparent to any well-balanced mind. The blessing of Heaven is not to be extorted by any attempt we may make; it may, so far at any rate as outward appearances go, be bestowed capriciously: "The just man may perish in his righteousness, the wicked man may prolong his life in his wickedness." On the other hand, the fact that punishment for sin is not inevitably and invariably visited immediately upon the evil-doer is undoubtedly the source of danger to those who are inclined to vice. The fact that justice is slow and lame tempts the sinner to an unbridled course of evil; it removes one great restraint upon his conduct. He trusts to the lightness of his heels to escape from punishment until he runs into the arms of death. Some have been as shocked at the counsel, "Be not overmuch wicked," as at that "Be not righteous overmuch," as though the writer allowed that a certain moderate degree of wickedness were permissible. They should, if they are logical, be equally horrified at the admonition of St. James, "Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness (James 1:21). It is in both cases a prohibition of a headlong pursuit of sin, without regard to the fearful consequences it entails. The Preacher has in view the consequences in the present life of being righteous overmuch." The result in both instances is pretty much the same. To the one he says, "Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?" - to the other, "Why shouldest thou die before thy time?" Both classes lose the pleasure of living, the bright, innocent joys which spring from a grateful acceptance and temperate use of the blessings which God bestows upon men. The ascetic who makes it his aim to torture himself to the very limit of human endurance, and the debauchee who gives himself up to self-indulgence without restraint, each receive, though in different ways, the penalty due for violating the conditions of life in which God has set us. Another warning is given in the same passage against intellectual errors. "Neither make thyself overwise; neither be thou foolish." Wisdom, too, has limits within which it should be confined. There is a region of the unknowable into which it is presumptuous for it to attempt to intrude. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
III. The Preacher, in conclusion, points out that A MIDDLE COURSE IS THAT OF DUTY AND OF SAFETY. There are dangers on the right hand and on the left, of over-rigorous austerity and of undue laxity. But the God-fearing are able to walk in the narrow path, and emerge at last unscathed from all the temptations with which life is surrounded. "It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from that withdraw not thine hand, for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all." The words "this and. that refer to the two different precepts he has given. Lay thine hand it is good to do so," he says, "on the one precept, 'Be not righteous overmuch; 'but do not lose sight of the other, 'Be not overmuch wicked.' I; is he that feareth God that shall steer his way between both." Without, therefore, distorting the words of the Preacher to give them a more spiritual meaning or higher tone than they actually possess, we find in them teaching which is worthy of him and of the Word of God. It is remarkable indeed, how, even in his most desponding moods, the fear of God bulks largely in his thoughts as incumbent on men, and as opening up the path of duty, however much else remains dark and unknown. "In his coldest, grayest hour this sense of the fear of God still smolders, as it were, within his soul; not, indeed, the quickening love of God, but something that inspires reverence; something that saves him from utter shipwreck amidst the crossing and. eddying currents of the sunless sea of hopeless pessimism" (Bradley). - J.W.
Parallel VersesKJV: All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.