Mediocrity in Wisdom and Virtue Satirized
There have been various opinions on the advice of the wise man, “Be not righteous over much,” &c. Great numbers have produced it with a view to censure religious zeal, and in favour of a spirit of indifference. Others, who would abhor such an abuse of it, have yet thought it directed against intemperate zeal. Others have thought righteousness and wisdom here to mean a spirit of self-righteousness, and a being wise in our own eyes. Others have thought the verses to be a caution against presumption on the one hand, and despair on the other. And some have considered the whole book as a dialogue between a libertine and a moral philosopher; and that the above passage is the language of the former. It is not my design to find fault with any except the first; though I acknowledge they have none of them afforded me satisfaction. The following paraphrase is submitted to the judgment of the intelligent reader.
Suppose Solomon to be addressing himself to a young man, which he frequently does, under the character of a son, not only in the Proverbs, but in this book also, chap. 11:9; 12:1, 12. And suppose verses 16 and 17 to be an irony, or a cutting sarcasm upon the unrighteous and foolish taste of the world.
Ver. 15, “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.”
I have lived to see many strange things in my lifetime; things that have made me lose all liking to the present state. I have seen uprightness, instead of promoting a man in the esteem of those about him, only serve to bring him to ruin. I have also seen wickedness, instead of exposing a man to the loss of life or estate, often go unpunished, yea, and even be the means of his promotion.
Ver. 16, “Be not righteous over much, neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”
My son, if you wish to go through the world with applause, hearken to me. You must not be very righteous, I assure you! nor yet very wise. A man whose conscience will stick at nothing will get promoted before you; and a vain, confident fool will gain the popular applause, while you, with your sterling but modest wisdom, will be utterly neglected. Be not over much wise nor righteous, my son: why should you ruin yourself?
Ver. 17, “Be not over much wicked; neither be thou foolish; why shouldest thou die before thy time?”
Only take care you be not too much wicked; for, however mankind are averse to tenderness of conscience, they do not like an arrant villain. If you play too much at that game, you may lose your life by it. Neither must you be too much of a fool; for however mankind are not fond of sterling wisdom, yet barefaced folly will not always go down with them: if you would please the world, and get honour among the generality of men, you must be neither a sterling wise man nor a stark fool.
As it is the distinguishing mark of an irony to close seriously, and as such a close gives it its edge and force (see 1 Kings 22:15, 17; Eccles. 11:9); so now it is supposed the irony ends, and the serious style is resumed.
Ver. 18, “It is good that thou shouldest take hold of this; yea, also from this withdraw not thine hand: for he that feareth God shall come forth of them all.”
As if he should say, But hearken, my son; another word before we part. Notice what I say to you, and abide by it. Let the world say what they will, and let things go as they may in the world, righteousness and wisdom shall be found best at last; and he that feareth God will not dare to sacrifice these excellences to obtain a few temporary honours: he will sooner live and die in obscurity.
Ver. 19, “Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten mighty men which are in the city.”
A consciousness of his being in the right, too, will wonderfully sustain his mind; far more than any popular applause could do, or even the rewards and honours of the great.
If the above be the sense of the passage, then, it may be observed, how foreign as well as foolish is that sense which some have put upon it, as if it were intended to recommend a kind of mediocrity of virtue and vice; whereas this is the very thing intended to be satirized! A sensualist might as well plead for his practices from chap. 11:9, “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth,” &c., as a lukewarm professor use this passage to plead for his indifference.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 628–629). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.