Hi Ernest. What is the verse in the Bible that talks about not being an extremist? It says something like don’t overdo evil and don’t be too wise. Instead avoid all extremes. What is the reference and what does it mean? How can I avoid the extremes of my spiritual life?
Hello, Beloved. The verse you are looking for is Ecclesiastes 7:16-18. It says:
Do not be over-righteous, 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. (NIV)
When I read that portion of scripture for the first time, I asked myself. “Is it really possible to be over-wicked?” Is there a level of diabolical monstrosity that is off the charts? And what about over-righteousness? Does such a thing exist? I thought righteousness was a good thing. The last line in that scripture gives us the answer. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes. The over-righteousness and over-wickedness being talked about is living life on the extreme. And we can see that either extreme is not on account of reverence and love for God. It is clear that the heart of both extremes is a sinful heart. But how can we know the anatomy of over-righteousness and over-wickedness? In my Bible reading, I find no other example that brings out these two extreme realities as well as the enemies of Jesus. If you study the Gospel, you will notice that Jesus Christ has two main enemy groups. The first group was The Pharisees and the second group was the Herodians. There were also other enemies such as the teachers of the law, the Sadducees, the elders, the chief priests and the Romans. However, we won’t look at them intensely because their belief systems and lifestyles were akin to that of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus enemies were either over-wicked or over-righteous, like Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes. And Jesus knew it. He even warned his disciples against either extreme just like Solomon warns us in Ecclesiastes. This is what Jesus said in Mark 8:15:
“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (NIV)
Yeast is used to make the dough swell while baking. It works slowly and silently but eventually blows up the dough. Jesus is warning that the influence from these two groups of people can get into our hearts and swell us up with pride. Let us look at each group.
THE YEAST OF THE PHARISEES: OVER-RIGHTEOUSNESS
The righteousness of the Pharisees was no righteousness at all. It was self-righteousness. On the outside these were men who had high moral ethic and lived absolutely devout lives. But on the inside, which Jesus could see, their righteousness was not for God but for themselves. Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. Clean on the outside but with rotting corpses on the inside. The Pharisees may have been the religious gold medalists of their time but their hearts were nowhere near godliness. This came about because they replaced God’s law with man’s traditions. Jesus said to them in Mark 7:8-9:
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men…you have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.” (NIV)
This is over-righteousness. The Pharisees introduced 613 new laws. These new laws shifted the people’s devotion from God to men. As a result, their religion was more concerned about external changes than internal changes. It did not matter what immoral things you did on Saturday night as long as the church watched you lead worship on Sunday morning and told you that you are anointed. They upheld ceremonial laws and neglected the moral laws. If you walked past 300 metres or helped a stranded animal on the Sabbath, they declared you to have sinned. As a result they burdened the people with rules and regulations that had no spiritual value. Yet these empty rituals were their measurement of righteousness. But Jesus taught us they were not righteous at all. They were simply burdens to control the people. God’s word clearly states that his word is not burdensome for his children.
“This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” 1 John 5:3 (NIV)
Jesus invited the people in Matt 11:28-30 to come to him and leave the weary and heavy laden life of being a Pharisee and to take up God’s yoke that is easy. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were angry at this liberation because it took away attention from them and put it on Jesus. They were also angry because they saw the freedom of Jesus and their only scapegoat was to call him a devil worshipper (See Mark 3:22).
How can you know you are being over-righteous like the Pharisees? Here is a list of signs of being over-righteous. It is not exhaustive but it’s what I could come up with. It is not a list for you to evaluate others but to evaluate self. The Pharisee’s first reaction to sin’s conviction is to think of anyone else but himself.
#1 You know you are being sinfully over-righteous when you spiritualise what needs no spiritualising.
In Mark 7:5, the Pharisees attacked the 12 disciples because they did not wash their hands before eating. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and corrected the people in Mark 7:15 that there was nothing unspiritual about eating food without washing hands. He then declared that the unspiritual and sinful thing is what comes out of man’s heart (evil thoughts, sexual sin, theft, murder, lies, envy, arrogance, greed etc). Washing hands is a hygiene concern not a heaven-hell concern or a character concern. Do you spiritualise what needs no spiritualising? Solomon warns us in Ecclesiastes 7:16 Do not be over-righteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself?We often destroy ourselves by adding words in God’s mouth. So before you declare that sore-throat as demonic, just try some hot lemon and ginger with honey.
#2 You know you are being sinfully over-righteous when you believe that God owes you his blessing for being good.
In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee and a tax collector who enter the temple to pray. The Pharisee is confident in his own righteousness and thanks God that he is neither a robber nor an evildoer nor an adulterer- nor even like the tax collector next to him. He then lists the good things he has done. He has fasted twice a week and given his tithe. But the tax-collector beats his breast and asks God to have mercy on him. Jesus tells us that the Pharisee left without the blessing and the tax collector left justified by God. The Pharisees believed they were in a contract with God. They believed God to be a candy machine. Be good and God is good to you. Be bad and bad things happen to you. It is the most immature kind of doctrine anyone can have. I have met people who are angry at God because they went to church, prayed and gave offerings but still did not get the job they wanted. And it is not just pain they are blinded by, Beloved. They are blinded by self-righteousness too. Does God owe a man a transaction for his measly good deeds? Jesus taught us that God responds to humility and faith not pride and arrogance. His goodness to us is not returning a favour because we are good to him; his goodness to us is because he sovereignly is good.
#3 You know you are being sinfully over-righteous when you value power over people.
Jesus found a man in Mark 3 whose hand was shrivelled. The Pharisees were observing him like a hawk to see if he would heal the man on the Sabbath. Jesus asked them which was more lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? The Pharisees were silent and Jesus was angry at their hardness of hearts. They stubbornly held onto an external worship that amassed power to themselves and did not extend grace to the people. Jesus healed the man because he loved people. The Pharisees did not love the people. They loved their denomination. They loved their culture. They loved their founders. They loved their history. They loved their customs. They loved their buildings. They did not love people. A faith that glorifies a sect more than edifying the people is not Biblical righteousness. It is over-righteousness and Solomon and Jesus rebuke it rightly.
#4 You know you are being sinfully over-righteous when you presume before God because you are desperate for attention.
The Pharisees were willing to lie just to maintain attention on themselves. In Mark 11:27-33, the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders challenged the authority of Jesus’ words. Jesus answered them by asking them to verify the authority of John the Baptist and then he would tell them his authority. They were afraid of Jesus’ rebuttal question because they knew their own authority would be put in question and they would lose the public sway. The people knew John was from God and if the religious leaders acknowledged it, they’d be questioned why they did not believe John. So they denied knowing the truth. The religious leaders were the kind who presumed hearing from God in order to get their own selfish ways through. Today we hear many unfortunate stories of the same. Friends who approach you with manipulative information by saying “God told me to tell you.” Or “God sent me to let you know.” And often whatever follows is nothing spiritual but mere emotional rhetoric just to get people to do what they want. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were desperate for attention so they presumed to speak on behalf of God. Pastor Voddie Baucham says, “God told me is not a substitute for the Bible says.” When a real voice from God that exposed their sin came to the playing field, the religious leaders panicked. Do you presume to be God’s authoritative voice to further your own agendas? Are you willing to lie “God told me” for your own selfish needs? Solomon warns us that destruction for such people is imminent.
#5 You know you are being sinfully over-righteous when you are concerned about other’s perception of you instead of the reality of your heart.
Jesus warned about the over-righteous in Matthew 6. These people prayed and fasted in public for people to see. Over-righteous people are concerned what people think about them and not mending their ways. If you become their accountability partners, they share nothing about their struggles because they want to appear righteous before you. They get angry when their sin is exposed because their over-righteous make-up starts falling apart. Jesus tells us to be concerned about what God says about our hearts and not what men say about our masks. One of the reasons I was stuck in my struggle with pornography is because I was worried about my reputation. But the Holy Spirit asked me, “Ernest, how can you fight so hard to maintain a reputation you don’t even have?” I was stuck in sin because I worshipped men’s perception of me instead of God’s reality for my life. I got out only by accepting I needed help
THE YEAST OF HEROD: OVER-WICKEDNESS
We have seen the yeast of the Pharisees. Now let us look at the yeast of Herod. Jesus said in Mark 8:15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (NIV).
Rome had conquered Israel during the time of Jesus. The Jews were under colonial rule and they hated the Romans. There were people who had no value for their country. They worked with the Romans against their own brothers and sisters. Some of them were tax-collectors. They collected tax on behalf of the Romans and kept some for themselves. They oppressed their own brothers and sisters for their personal profit. They were wicked, Beloved. Among them was the first king, Herod the Great. He was not a Roman but he was a bootlicker. Because of that he was placed as a vassal King over Israel and granted a lot of power. We can see his wickedness when he slaughters many babies trying to find Jesus. When he died, his son, Herod Antipas took over. He was wicked too. Antipas visited his brother, Philip in Rome and saw Philip’s wife, Herodias. He fell in love with her and he divorced his wife, Phasaelis, to be with her. Herodias consented to the adulterous affair and divorced her husband, Philip. Solomon warns us in Ecclesiastes 7:17 about this kind of evil he called over-wickedness.
“Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time?” (NIV)
How can you know you are being over-wicked like Herod and Herodias? Here is a list of signs of being over-wicked. Like the previous list, it is neither exhaustive nor is it a list for you to evaluate others, but rather to evaluate self.
#1 You know you are being sinfully over-wicked when you are violent towards the truth of God’s word and try to shut it up.
In Mark 6:17-19, we learn that John the Baptist had preached against the adultery of Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife, Herodias. Both Herod and Herodias got angry because their sin was exposed. The Bible says in verse 17 that Herod personally gave orders to arrest John the Baptist and thrown him in prison. John did nothing wrong legally but Herod could not stand the truth being spoken. We are told in verse 19 that his adulterous wife, Herodias, nursed a grudge and wanted to kill John the Baptist. These extreme and violent reactions towards the truth speak the characteristics of the over-wicked. They are constantly on defence-mode when they hear the Bible quoted. They are always saying, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently” because they love their sin. They do not want to deal with it and so they try to shut up the truth like Herod and Herodias.
#2 You know you are being sinfully over-wicked when you prefer the evil of your friends to the good of your enemies.
In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias gets the perfect opportunity to execute John the Baptist. She manipulates her adulterous husband in giving her daughter whatever request she wants on her birthday. She then tells the daughter to request for John to be beheaded. Herod was not willing to do this. Despite his conscience waging war against him, he decided to please the evil of his adulterous wife and friends at the dinner. Do you have a hard time confronting the evil your friends celebrate? Jesus and Solomon warn us that our over-wickedness will swell us up like yeast and brings death to us.
#3 You know you are being sinfully over-wicked when you like to hear the truth but not act on it.
In Mark 6:20 we are told that Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist preaching. Quite astounding! He loved to hear him preach yet all that preaching amounted to naught in his personal life! Jesus warns us about the yeast of Herod. This yeast fools you that hearing the truth means you are safe. When in reality, doing it is what secures you. Herod listened to John preach on Sunday yet had sex outside of his marriage from Monday to Saturday. Perhaps Herod thought to himself, “I normally repent on Sunday so it’s okay.”
#4 You know you are being sinfully over-wicked when entertainment is of more value than spirituality.
In Luke 23:8-9 we see that Jesus is arrested and taken to Herod for trial. Herod is excited to finally meet Jesus. But he does not seek the truth from Jesus. Verse 9 tells us that he was hoping to see Jesus do one of his miracles. The over-wicked person has no concern for changing their life when they meet Jesus. They are interested in theatrics and entertainment. And Jesus is not an entertainer. And once Jesus disappoints them like he disappointed Herod, they mock him and ridicule him like Herod did in verse 11.
#5 You know you are being sinfully over-wicked when you underestimate the holiness of God.
Herod died in Acts 12. We read that the people worshipped him as a god. And Herod in his over-wickedness refused to direct the praise to God and he was struck down by an angel of the Lord, he was eaten by worms and he died. The over-wicked presume themselves to be in league with God. Like Herod, they dare God’s sovereignty. They may not have a populace calling them God but they may say things like, “If God exists let him strike me dead!” And in doing all this they underestimate God’s holiness. Proof of their underestimating God’s holiness is how they use God’s grace through Jesus as a licence to sin. Any teaching that requires them to live holy lives is met with antinomianism. “There is grace” they console themselves and sin even more. They forget that grace is not freedom to sin freely but rather to be free from sin fully. Because they underestimate God’s holiness, Romans 1:30 says that the over-wicked invent new ways of sinning. They are iniquity-preneurs. It also says in Romans 1:30 that they hate God. Well, Beloved, the feeling is mutual because God hates them too. See Psalm 5:4-6:
“You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.”
Many people have a problem with this verse because it says (twice) that God hates the person. It goes against the famous mantra “God loves the sinner but hates the sin”(Which is not a Bible verse by the way). If you read Psalm 5:4-6 in any translation, any language and any interpretation, the meaning is clear and the same. It does not say God hates their sin. It says he hates the person. The second time it says he abhors them. I can see people writing angry words in the comment section right now! How can he say that God hates people? Well, don’t believe me- believe your Bible. Read it for yourself. But isn’t God love, Ernest? Yes he is. But he is also Holy. And until we repent, we fall under his hatred, which is manifest in his wrath and judgment. God is love (1 John 4:8) and Psalm 5:4-6 does not contradict God’s loving characteristic; in fact it amplifies it! A Holy God chooses to extend compassion and affection to people he owes wrath by giving them his only Son to die for them. Isn’t that love? The problem with us is that we do not even know what love is. We think love is that gooey emotion when we like someone. And we think the hate in Psalm 5 is the evil hate in our own hearts. Biblical love is the choice to act compassionately even when you don’t feel like it. How can God then be a God of love if Psalm 5:4-6 is not true that he hates and abhors evildoers? A God of love will hate evil. And evil is not something abstract out there in the world. Evil resides in the hearts of men. If evil was abstract, then Jesus would simply destroy it abstractly instead of dying for us. But because evil is part of us, we had to die. But praise be to God because Christ Jesus did it for us. Does God love the sinner? Yes he does. He died for them! Does he hate sin? Absolutely! Will God judge and give wrath to those who do not repent? The over-wicked don’t like to imagine it. The answer is yes, Beloved.
You must see that Jesus rejects both groups. To prove this, see how the over-righteous and the over-wicked even team up to kill Jesus. The Bible says in Mark 3:6
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”(NIV)
The Pharisees and Herod were on two different spectrums yet we can see why Jesus put them in the same box. The over-wicked use their evil to get their selfish ways through and the over-righteous use their goodness to get their selfish ways through. They may be different from the surface but deep down they are both rejected by Jesus. What’s the solution?
The antidote is the Gospel
The over-wicked and over-righteous must hear the Gospel and embrace it to be the men and women Solomon and Jesus want us to be. Let me illustrate for you the Gospel with a personal story.
I hated Physics in high school. No matter how hard I tried, I did not score well. In one exam in form 2, I scored 20%. My Physics teacher, Mr. Manza, was livid! He was one of Kenya’s best Physics teachers. He had turned loser students into stellar students through his fantastic teaching. But all his teaching could never convert Ernest from 20% to any higher grade. In his heavy Kamba accent, he handed me my paper and bellowed, “Kinjana how can you nget a pound? A pound!” I could not pass physics to save my life. In my defence, even the brightest students in class never scored 100%. They lingered in the 80-90 percentile. The only person who could score 100 was Mr. Manza himself. That high school memory reminds me of the gospel. In the “exam” of life, we cannot pass to save our souls. We can try and try and try but even the best of us can never score 100%, unless the teacher of life himself sits that exam. Isaiah 59:2 says our sins separate us from God. Our sins score us marks that look like a pound! And for that, we deserve punishment. The wages of sin is death, Beloved. Christ Jesus, our Lord decided to sit the exam of life and he passed 100%. But here is the game changer. He took his paper and erased his name and wrote yours instead. He took your pound paper and erased your name and wrote his instead. Now Ernest Wamboye is credited with 100% and Jesus Christ is debited to a measly pound. If Ernest accepts the gift of Jesus, he is rewarded. Jesus, in his grace and voluntary goodness accepts Ernest’s paper and he receives Ernest’s punishment. It isn’t detention. It isn’t a make-up exam. It is the cross, Beloved. It is 39 lashes of the whip. It is a split open back bleeding like a tap. It is a crown of thorns piercing his veins. It is scorn. It is abuse. It is hanging naked in front of his mother and followers. It is being pierced on the side and being mocked to come down and save himself. Yet hanging on that cross is saving us. The wages of sin is death, Beloved and Jesus took the tab. But my exam analogy is hardly perfect because in reality humanity is more sinful than a pound and Jesus is more radiant than 100%. But I beg it shows you that glorious exchange that took place on that cross. You are accepted into God’s Kingdom, not because of anything you’ve done, but simply by believing on him who did it all for you. It will take humility to admit you can’t sit the exam. No more over-righteousness. And it will take more humility to accept the one who did it for you. No more over-wickedness.
Beloved, Jesus Christ took up our greatest failures and accorded us his greatest victory. Because of that, there is no failure between now and the grave that can devastate us and no earthly victory that can make us prouder than what he did for us at Calvary. “For Christ died for sins, once for all, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” 1st Peter 3:18 (NIV). Take a look at your life today. Do you see members of over-wickedness and embers of over-righteousness? Let the Gospel work on you, Beloved.
ECCLESIASTES 7:16-18 Do not be over-righteous, 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. (NIV)