Ecclesiastes 7:16 - Submitting to God
Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself?Ecclesiastes 7:16
This advice of the Preacher has to be seen against the background of what is outlined in the preceding verses. The theme he has been developing is that we do not know all God's ways with man. We cannot determine the reason for every setback, trial, or hardship. Already in chapter six, we are told that we cannot contend with God who is mightier than we are: "Who knows what is good for man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?" (v. 12).
It is God who sends us riches and poverty, health and sickness, children and barrenness. Everything happens to us according to the will of our heavenly Father. He not only knows what will befall us in this vale of tears, but he also has determined it. Does that give us the right to criticize God? May we question him if he allows a just man to perish in his righteousness? No. God is sovereign and perfectly wise. To debate with him about what he sends upon his people is to overstep our limitation as creature.
"Patience is better than pride," we are told in verse eight. That contrast "patient-proud" suggests that patience is an aspect of humility and impatience is a proud irritation at God's ways with men. Someone who is patient quietly gives the matter over to the Lord and waits for his time. He does not ask, "Why were the old days better than these?" (v. 10). We cannot face the difficulties of the age in which we live by pining for the past. Instead of always talking about and longing for a return of the "good old days," we must look ahead. We believe that God is pressing on toward the restoration of all things, but at the same time we confess that God's path toward the Last Day sometimes goes right through the deepest valleys of affliction, injustice, and misery.
Life remains as God intended it for you. No one can change that. We cannot improve on any of God's dealings with us or with the world. Do not find fault with God when he takes away a righteous man in the prime of his life, but lets a wicked one live beyond eighty. We cannot harmonize everything that God has decreed. The church acknowledges that in Article 13 of the Belgic Confession,
God's power and goodness are so great and beyond understanding that he ordains and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly. And as to his actions surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire farther than our capacity allows us.
No calling God to account if he allows the righteous to perish and the wicked to flourish. No trying to straighten the crooked lines that he has purposely laid. If he sends us prosperity we give him thanks, knowing that he is the Fountain of all good. If he sends us adversity then we do not rebel against him. We humble ourselves before God, confessing his sovereignty, his right to do with us and to us what he desires. In good days we rejoice in God. In bad days we hope in God. Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other. But this Sovereign God is also our covenant God. His promises are trustworthy and true. His steadfast love endures forever.
That is the context in which we have to read the Preacher's advice about not being overly righteous and wise. We may not act as if we know better than God, telling him that brother Joe is so God-fearing that he doesn't deserve the sickness, or the handicap, or the poverty, that he is enduring. Simon Peter thought that about the Lord Jesus. His Master did not deserve to be arrested and killed. He had done nothing wrong; in fact, he had done a world of good. So when Judas and his gang came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Peter tried to prevent that from happening. He attempted to straighten what God had made crooked. He drew his sword and slashed off the ear of the high-priest's servant: "Nobody's going to crucify My Lord and Saviour."
With that act Peter opposed God. Jesus understood that. He lived according to the entire Word of God, also that which is revealed in Ecclesiastes 7. That's why he rebuked Peter, saying, as it were, "It is God's will that I, a just man, should perish in my righteousness. Through my death you and all those who believe in me receive everlasting life. This crooked way, this sin of Judas and the leaders of Israel, is part of God's plan. They intend it for evil; but he will use it for good, to fulfil his plan of salvation. So put away your sword. How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must happen in this way?"
The godly suffer. Do not act wiser than God, opposing the affliction that God has given them to bear. The ungodly prosper. Do not be exceedingly righteous, scolding God for giving them health, long life, and wealth. In short, do not try to climb into the judgment seat of God and dish out what you think the righteous and the wicked ought to have.
The Preacher even warns us what will happen if we attempt to do that. There will be repercussions: "Why destroy yourself?" It can indeed be translated in that way of bringing ruin and destruction upon oneself. It can also be rendered, "Why should you be distressed or bewildered?" You will be totally overwhelmed, confused, and perplexed. You will not be able to alter God's dealings with either the righteous or the wicked. Anyone who tries to grapple with things like this will eventually sink into a pool of bitterness and exasperation. If you let that get the better of you, then eventually you will bring upon yourself ruin. You will not be able to cope with any trial or tribulation that God sends upon you or your loved ones.
Do not be overly righteous or wise. Since we cannot mend God's work, let us attend to the duties to which he has called us. Let us be good students of Jesus Christ and busy ourselves with the things that he revealed. They belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of his law (Deuteronomy 29:29).