Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise — why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, 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, verses 16 through 18.
So we come to verse I mentioned last time. I think you can see that all three verses here work together; thank you for indulging my expounding on a point during the last proverbial. Let’s tie the three verses together and see where He takes us.
It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Is it just me or does this circular bit of advice seem to be playing both sides (and neither)? I mean, I’m looking for some bit of practical advice that will help me to neither destroy myself nor die. I am looking for ways to stop being over-righteous (or self-righteous), over-wise (and unwise), over-wicked (and try to be not at all) and foolish (as always). I’m playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire with my life and I call Solomon for a lifeline because he was the wisest man who ever lived and what does he do? He responds with a wink and a nod and quips off this little nugget of mystery. I could have figured that one out on my own (except I’m really not that smart).
…And yet, through the mystery, God is counseling you and me to not get too big for our britches no matter what we do. He’s telling us to cling to what is best in life to give us an edge. We are to respect, revere, and honor God by avoiding extremes. Too hot, too cold, too dangerous, too safe, too expensive, too cheap, too fun, too sad, too Republican, too Democrat, too right, too wrong, too humble, too proud, too obsequious, too withdrawn; go all Spice Girls even: too much of something is bad enough…too much of nothing is just as tough. If we fear God we should live in such a way as to avoid extremes. When we get near the edge, we are near danger. With God we need not fear anything, yet neither are we to mock that fear by flaunting, testing, or mocking it.
In living a life of all things in moderation, there are a few things about the extremes that the verse implies. It implies that we should know about them, understand them. My son is in junior year high school chemistry and he detests it. It’s not the experimentation part he detests; they haven’t gotten there yet. No, it’s learning the measuring systems, periodic table, and the basics that he is finding to be tedious. I remember learning these things myself and I found it overwhelming, yet he has to know about them before he can undertake (and understand) complex concepts and experiments. I don’t have to fly to Cairo to understand that there are ongoing protests there spurred on by religious animosity, ancient hatred, and class envy. Living in over-extended America, though, I need to be informed about those things to know how they will impact my life here. I don’t have to vote for the guy who is running on things that I oppose, or whose track record I think is beyond contempt, but I do need to understand why he has done what he’s done and why he says what he says. We don’t need to participate in extremes to understand them. Indeed, I truly think that most people who do participate in extreme behavior don’t understand what they’re doing. I don’t need to do that: I just need to understand.
The verse also implies that we need to know our own limits. Living in the me-first consumption world of North Texas, this one can be tough. It’s a wonderful place of ostentatious spending, over-indulged children, helicopter parents, and California transplants. Beyond those good things, it’s also a place where it isn’t hard to learn a few facts about who you are. To keep up with the Joneses can mean spending more money than you have. To involve your kids in every activity can mean over-extending both your finances and your schedule. To compare yourself against “them” can mean admitting some pretty ugly truths about both of us. If we’re to avoid extremes, we need to understand what our own spiritual, financial, emotional, personal, professional, whatever limits are. Without knowing this, how will you ever know when you’re in danger of getting to close to the fire?
Finally, the verse implies tenacity. Our model for being tenacious in life is God Himself. A holy, just and possibly pissed off God could have long ago cast you and me aside and made a better man. He did it once before; ever hear of the great Flood? Instead, God is tenacious, holding on to you and me with grit and ferocious tenacity. The beauty of baptism isn’t just that there is the symbolic washing away of all wrongs. I think the bigger beauty is that God takes hold of us and grasps us forever and that He wraps himself around us like a pool of warm water, drowning out sin and sorrow, washing away our grime, and warming our cold core. Nothing can take us away from Him; nothing can take Him away from us; nothing can ever make Him give us up. Sure, we can give up our faith; there’s always free will. That’s our doing, not His. Even then, He tenaciously keeps coming back to us, building us up, guiding our lives to always come back to Him, sometimes even shocking us with time in the extremes if only to show us yet again how much He loves us and how much we need Him.
If we read the first two verses alone, there is good and useful meaning in them. But looking at all three as a whole is really when we get the full picture of how God wants us to experience life carefully, in Him, and fully. Sometimes that means getting close to the white lines, and sometimes we even go over them. Isn’t it good to know, then, that when we do there is always a lifeline back?