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June 18, 1997

Righteousness or Self-Righteousness

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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
If it is true that we need to be careful about drawing quick conclusions about what we observe in outward circumstances, it also is true that we should not always believe what we think we see in someone’s inner character.
Outward appearances are deceiving. Some people seem rich when they’re actually deeply mired in debt. Some people look very successful when they’re actually on the verge of bankruptcy. And it goes both ways. The fellow who drives a battered pickup truck may in fact own a retail empire. It’s easy to be fooled by outward circumstances.
In much the same way, we can be fooled by what we think about a person’s inner character. When Solomon writes “do not… be overwise” (Ecclesiastes 7:16), he uses the reflexive form of the Hebrew verb “to be wise,” which means, “Don’t think yourself too wise.” In other words, “Don’t be self-wise and self-righteous.” What looks like righteousness sometimes really is self-righteousness. What looks like wisdom is often self-wisdom. When we are righteous and wise in our own eyes, we destroy ourselves.
For some, personal wisdom and righteousness end up being false advertising. They look really good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface, what you uncover is not very pretty. It turns out they just think they’re wise and righteous. Their egos have convinced them this is the case, but it really isn’t so.
Solomon writes this for two reasons. First, he wants to make sure that we are not self-righteous or self-wise. Second, he wants to make sure that we don’t follow the advice of someone who is self-righteous or self-wise. That kind of advice could well direct us right over the edge of a cliff.
A personal inventory is in order. Are you wise in your own eyes? And do you take advice from people who are wise in their own eyes?

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