“How wonderful to be wise, to analyze and interpret things. Wisdom lights up a person’s face, softening its harshness” (Ecclesiastes 8:1).
A professional athlete was once asked how he handled the pressure of an important game. The player responded by saying that he didn’t feel very much pressure to perform during a game because pressure was something that resulted from being unprepared. Since this athlete had studied his opponent and knew his team’s game plan thoroughly, he felt very little pressure once he stepped on the field. He knew that his team had a good opportunity to win if he simply executed the plays the team had practiced.
Without realizing it, this player effectively illustrated one of the truths behind the passage quoted above. For instance, consider the example of a person who is unprepared to meet a particular circumstance in life. For that person, the chances are probably good that he or she will not feel confident or assured in dealing with that situation. Or how about the person who is facing a difficult problem with few good answers- he or she is likely to feel feel tense, uneasy, or apprehensive in handling that challenge. In situations like this, our facial expressions and body language often reveal the reality of those emotions behind our outward appearance.
Now let’s contrast those examples with the example of a person who is well-prepared for a challenging circumstance or situation. The person who knows that he or she has the right answer is most likely to feel relaxed, confident, and assured. A wise person who is well-prepared also tends to express that wisdom through his or her facial expression and body language as well, for a “…man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed” (ESV).
A truly wise person is someone who is likely to be gracious, gentle, and patient in helping others understand- and the only place to discover real, unchanging wisdom in a constantly changing world is to seek that wisdom through the pages of the Scriptures. When things occur that we can’t easily explain or understand, the Word of God provides a strong anchor in the midst of such uncertainties. The Scriptures provide illumination for all who follow it’s wisdom…
“If you want favor with both God and man, and a reputation for good judgment and common sense, then trust the Lord completely; don’t ever trust yourself. In everything you do, put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success” (Proverbs 3:4-6 TLB).
“Obey the king since you vowed to God that you would. Don’t try to avoid doing your duty, and don’t stand with those who plot evil, for the king can do whatever he wants. His command is backed by great power. No one can resist or question it. Those who obey him will not be punished.
Those who are wise will find a time and a way to do what is right, for there is a time and a way for everything, even when a person is in trouble” (Ecclesiastes 8:2-6).
Ecclesiastes 8:2-6 begins a brief section that discusses citizen-government relationships. Now given the fact that Solomon served as king of Israel, it may seem unusual for him to speak in the manner of an outsider on this subject. However, this approach becomes less unusual if we assume that his intent was to write for the benefit of a wider audience. If this is the case, then his use of “the king” in a generic sense (as seen in the passage quoted above) was meant to include other governmental leaders as well. Since Solomon led the nation of Israel during the most successful period in it’s history, he was someone who was certainly well positioned to offer advice on this subject.
One important aspect of Solomon’s counsel is his view that we are not to follow these governmental edicts out of loyalty to the government but out of loyalty to God. For instance, he says, “… Keep the king’s word, and that, because of the oath of God” (MKJV). The New Testament book of Romans also builds on this idea by saying…
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1 NIV).
Even someone with a limited grasp of history knows that many different types of governmental entities have existed throughout the ages. For instance, governmental forms such as monarchies, dictatorships, and democracies are just a few examples of the different types of governments that have existed over the years. As we see in the New Testament passage quoted above, the Scriptures tell us that no government exists anywhere that God has not put into place. This also suggests that there is an accountability that exists between God and whatever governmental form He has allowed to come into existence. That accountability works like this: every citizen is subject to the governing authorities while the governing authorities are subject to God, the One who has given them that authority.
We’ll talk a little more about this mutual accountability next.
“Keep the king’s command because of your oath made before God. Do not be in a hurry; leave his presence, and don’t persist in a bad cause, since he will do whatever he wants. For the king’s word is authoritative, and who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Ecclesiastes 8:2-4 HSCB).
A look at the Bible’s teaching on our relationship to government tells us that there is a mutual accountability that exists between a government and it’s citizens. Jesus illustrated this concept in a conversation He once had with Pontius Pilate just prior to His crucifixion. John 19:6-11 records this conversation between Jesus and the Roman governor for us:
“As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw (Jesus), they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ But Pilate answered, ‘You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.’ The Jews insisted, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’
Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin'” (NIV emphasis added).
While Pilate may not have realized that he was subject to God’s authority, Jesus reminded him that he was still subject to that authority whether he understood so or not. A look at Romans 13:2-5 also provides us with some further insight on this subject…
“Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:2-5 NIV).
We’ll consider some potential limitations to this responsibility next.
“I say to you, Keep the king’s law, from respect for the oath of God. Be not quick to go from before him. Be not fixed in an evil design, because he does whatever is pleasing to him. The word of a king has authority; and who may say to him, What is this you are doing?” (Ecclesiastes 8:2-4 BBE).
Romans 13:2-5 reminds us that God is ultimately responsible for establishing all governmental authority. This means that those who oppose the authority that God has established indirectly place themselves in opposition to God as well. So as a general rule, Christians are responsible to obey the laws of the nation in which they live. The reasoning behind that principle goes like this: when we obey the law, we are obeying God indirectly for it is God who gives each government the power to make those laws in the first place.
The Apostle Peter provides us with some additional counsel as he discusses this subject in 1 Peter 2:13-17…
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (NIV).
While it’s true that a Christian is responsible for obeying the laws of his or her country, we should also remember that a Christian’s ultimate responsibility lies with the highest authority. That Authority is God Himself. For example, when a government engages in practices that are clearly unbiblical or refuses to allow it’s people to maintain the freedom to acknowledge and follow God, then that government (in whatever form it takes) has effectively forfeited it’s authority to govern.
Our responsibility to obey God ultimately takes priority once a nation’s laws begin to conflict with the Laws of God. If a government chooses to overstep it’s authority and elects to implement laws that conflict with clear Biblical teaching, then that government has wrongfully assumed a position greater than or equal to God- and our responsibility to God must then assume the highest priority.
We’ll take a closer look at a Biblical example of this concept in action next.
“Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’” (Ecclesiastes 8:2-4 NIV).
If a government chooses to overstep it’s authority and implement laws that conflict with clear Biblical teaching, a Christian’s responsibility to obey the laws of God must assume the highest priority. One place to find a good example of this concept in action is within the New Testament book of Acts. But before we get to that part, let’s look at some important background information first.
Acts chapter four records an incident within early church history that involved the Apostles Peter and John. These men had been brought before a group of judges collectively known as the Sanhedrin. The Apostles had been forced to undergo this legal action following their involvement in the healing of a disabled man. The Sanhedrin served as a kind of “supreme court” during that time and after a period of testimony, Acts 4:18 provides us with the following information…
“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'” (NIV).
In the following chapter -Acts chapter 5- we find another important exchange between the Apostles and the Sanhedrin…
“Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men!'” (Acts 5:27-29 NIV).
So while the Teacher of Ecclesiastes counseled his audience to “(o)bey the king’s command…” (much as Paul the Apostle later did in Romans chapter 13), it’s important to consider the entirety of the Scriptures with regard to this statement. Should we be forced to make a choice like Peter and the other apostles in the book of Acts, we are responsible to follow God’s teaching as found within the Scriptures, even if that teaching should conflict with human law.
“Indeed, how can people avoid what they don’t know is going to happen? None of us can hold back our spirit from departing. None of us has the power to prevent the day of our death. There is no escaping that obligation, that dark battle. And in the face of death, wickedness will certainly not rescue the wicked” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8)
Think about the efforts that people make in an attempt to gain control over their lives. For example, we work to coordinate our busy schedules. We set an agenda for the next day, the next week, or the next month and then record it so we won’t forget. Business executives perform time studies to identify inefficiencies while busy parents coordinate multiple sports, music, and youth group activities for their children. We work to pursue long term career and retirement goals that we believe will provide us with a “future” and the expectation of many good years of life ahead.
But as we work to establish these long and short term objectives, how many of us stop to consider an important question: how much time we really have? For instance, how many of us seriously consider the possibility that we may not live past next week or next month or next year? Unless there is some genuine potential for a life threatening event, the answer to that question is probably not very many.
While we may work diligently to control the agenda of our lives, the Teacher reminds us that there is at least one thing that we can’t schedule: “No one has the power to keep their spirit from leaving or to stop their death” (Ecclesiastes 8:8 ERV). A number of other Biblical translations go on to illustrate that challenge in starkly poetic terms…
- “There is no way to avoid the war against death” (GW)
- “That is a battle we cannot escape; we cannot cheat our way out” (GNB)
- “There is no discharge in that war” (KJV)
From his “under the sun” perspective, the Teacher realized that death represented an undefeated opponent. Yet, there is one human being that death has failed to master. That man said, “…I lay down my life — only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…” (John 10:17-18 NIV). That man, of course, was Jesus Christ and “…just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5 NIV).
“I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other” (Ecclesiastes 8:9).
It’s often been remarked that “power corrupts.” Solomon certainly recognized the general truth of that statement when he said, “I saw all of this as I considered all that is done here on earth. Sometimes people harm those they control” (NCV). For instance, a person might misuse his or her leadership responsibility within a family relationship. We might see other examples within business or social relationships. Unfortunately, we might see similar misuses of authority within religious institutions as well. The truth is that any organization inhabited by sinful and imperfect human beings has the potential to experience such abuses to some degree.
The New Testament gospel of John devotes an entire chapter to the account of an attempt by the religious authorities of Jesus’ day to discredit Him in the eyes of the people (see John chapter eight). In that instance, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day misused their authority in response to the perceived threat that Jesus represented to their power structure and system of tradition that helped sustain it. As a result, these leaders eventually convened a meeting in which it was said, “What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe Him and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11:47-48 NKJV).
For these men, the overwhelming desire to maintain their authority led them (to paraphrase the words of the Teacher) to use their “…power over man for his destruction” (BBE). We can see a similar example in Acts 4:1-3…
“The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day” (NIV).
These religious leaders apparently felt that they were the only ones who had the right to communicate the word of God- and it led them to misuse their leadership positions and put the Apostles in jail. The Teacher recognized the potential for such abuses as a characteristic of life under the sun but he also recognized one small glimmer of hope as well. We’ll see that glimmer of hope a little later in this chapter.
“I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.
But even though a person sins a hundred times and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off. The wicked will not prosper, for they do not fear God. Their days will never grow long like the evening shadows” (Ecclesiastes 8:10-12).
Its clear that Solomon was dismayed by the existence of those who abused their authority over others. Yet there were a few other perplexing issues for the Teacher as well. For example, he said, “I also saw great and beautiful funerals for evil people. While the people were going home after the funeral services, they said good things about the evil people who had died. This happened even in the same towns where the evil people had done many bad things. This is senseless” (Ecclesiastes 8:10 ERV).
For Solomon, the issue was two-fold. First, he recognized that there was an outpouring of respect for people who “… frequented the Temple” while pursuing a lifestyle that dishonored God. In other words, there were those who were honored despite the fact that they had pursued a life of religious hypocrisy. The second problem was that such people were actually praised in the very same place where their hypocrisy was known and displayed. It seems that the Teacher was especially bothered by the fact that these people apparently believed that they could get away with such hypocrisy and still receive the praise of others.
But this was not just a spiritual lament- it was a societal issue as well: “Because God does not punish sinners instantly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 TLB). Just as the deceptively religious person did not receive instant judgment for his or her hypocrisy, the failure to administer justice swiftly led to certain other consequences as well. For the religious and irreligious alike, the mindset was the same: “Nothing bad has happened to me. Either God doesn’t see, God doesn’t know, or God doesn’t care. Maybe God doesn’t even exist at all.”
However, the mere fact that God has not acted in a situation doesn’t mean that He can’t or won’t act. Choices have consequences- and the Teacher will remind us of that reality next.
“Although a sinner commits crime a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I also know that it will go well with God-fearing people, for they are reverent before Him. However, it will not go well with the wicked, and they will not lengthen their days like a shadow, for they are not reverent before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).
If you live in an area of the world that experiences seasonal changes then you’re probably familiar with the difference in the sun’s appearance as we move later into the calendar year. As the seasons progress from summer through fall and then into winter, the days become shorter and shadows tend to lengthen as the sun appears closer to the horizon. Yet even as the days grow shorter and colder, there is comfort in the fact that spring will soon return with new life and growth.
The Teacher utilized this analogy of lengthening shadows to illustrate the differences between those who choose to honor God and those who don’t. Even though an ungodly person may reach the autumn of his or her life without any apparent indictment for wrongdoing, the life of the ungodly ultimately amounts to little more than a shadow, an image without any real substance or accomplishment. The unrighteous leave the shadow of their accomplishments and accumulated possessions behind upon their exit from this world, unlike the Godly person who reaches the winter of life and looks forward with anticipation to the “spring” of a new life in heaven.
The ungodly person also must contend with a sense of futility as the sun sets on his or her life. Consider the dilemma of the person who has chosen to suppress the truth of God’s existence. As mentioned earlier, many such people accept the idea that a Creator doesn’t really exist and that our own existence is just a product of random chance. If those beliefs are true, then it means that human beings are really nothing more than cosmic accidents. It also implies that everyone came from nothing and ultimately returns to nothing when he or she passes away. This inevitably leads to a sense of futility in life.
While the Teacher’s “under the sun” perspective clearly impressed this sense of futility upon him, he did maintain one small flicker of hope: “Still, I know with certainty that it will go well for those who fear God, because they fear him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12 GW). But if an unrighteous person casts a long shadow, then the sun is surely going down for that person without the hope of a sunrise.
“And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 8:14).
From Solomon’s earth-bound perspective, he found it difficult to understand the fact that the corrupt and unprincipled were sometimes treated with great honor. At the same time, the Teacher noted that the virtuous and upright were sometimes regarded with the disdain that should have been reserved for the wicked and immoral. Yet this reality should not have come as a surprise to the Teacher for the Scriptures identified this paradox of human existence almost from the beginning.
If you’re familiar with the Scriptural accounts in the book of Genesis then you may be familiar with the story of Cain and Abel that appears in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, we’re told that “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain… Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil” (Genesis 4:1-2). So Cain and Abel took different professions but they also chose different spiritual directions as well…
“When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the LORD. Abel also brought a gift—the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The LORD accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift.
This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected. ‘Why are you so angry?’ the LORD asked Cain. ‘Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master’” (Genesis 4:3-7).
Later on we read that “…Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). So Abel was a righteous person who had been treated as if he had done something wrong. This Biblical account should have alerted Solomon to an important truth: the fact that the unrighteous are sometimes treated righteously (and vice versa) is not as meaningless as it might appear. Can and Abel’s example reminds us that this reality ultimately results from humanity’s decision to abandon it’s Creator and pursue a path independent of Him.
“So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
While it may not appear very significant at first glance, Ecclesiastes 8:15 provides us with an important reminder concerning the importance of context in the application of the Scriptures to everyday life. The word “context” is defined as “the part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (1) In other words, the surrounding chapters and verses of the Scriptures help to determine what each individual Bible verse really means. You see, without a good contextual basis for interpreting the Scriptures, it’s possible to make the Bible say some very unbiblical things.
For example, if we looked at Ecclesiastes 8:15 as an isolated passage, then we might understand it to be an endorsement of the kind of lifestyle that consists exclusively of pleasure, enjoyment, and laughter. But if we approached this verse in context along with the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes, then we would know that Solomon had already tried (and rejected) that idea…
“I said to myself, ‘Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.’ But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, ‘Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?’ After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3).
Solomon experimented with a “party all the time” attitude but he ultimately found that this was something that “…also proved to be meaningless” (NIV). With this in mind, we can say that a better approach to the meaning of this verse would be to say that it counsels us to simply enjoy life while we can. Instead of indulging in a self-indulgent lifestyle to escape the futility of life under the sun, its better to recognize the good things we receive in life as gifts from the Lord that we can be thankful for.
While it is impossible to find true meaning in material possessions, it is possible to enjoy those material things as gifts from God. The main difference is one of perspective: the unrighteous eat, drink, and be merry without regard to God but the righteous do so because of God.
(1) American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language 3rd Edition
“In my search for wisdom and in my observation of people’s burdens here on earth, I discovered that there is ceaseless activity, day and night. I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17).
There was something that set Solomon apart from the average commentator, pundit, or critic that we may be familiar with today. You see, Solomon was not content to observe and describe the human condition under the sun; he wanted to know why that state of affairs existed. Unlike the self-styled philosopher with a fondness for superficial comments and idle observation, Solomon was a man with a deep desire to know and understand- and he expressed that desire through a systematic process of discovery. He not only wanted to know how things were; he wanted to know why things were.
To accomplish this, Solomon “…carefully considered how to study wisdom and how to look at the work that is done on earth (even going without sleep day and night)” (GW). But despite his best efforts, the Teacher ran up against a restraint that his intellect could not overcome: his limitation as a finite human being. The problem facing Solomon is the problem facing every other member of humanity; human beings are finite and limited in our knowledge, ability, and experience. The Teacher came to this reluctant conclusion when he admitted, “I also saw that no one can understand all that God does. People can try and try to understand the things that happen here on earth, but they cannot. There may be wise people who claim to understand the meaning of these things, but they are wrong. No one can understand it all” (ERV).
While the Teacher arrived at this conclusion from his earth-bound perspective, God communicated a similar truth through the pen of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when He said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV). But while it may be true that finite human beings cannot grasp everything regarding an infinite God, it is still possible to know some things about God even if we will never achieve a complete understanding of all that He does.
There is a big difference between knowing some things about God and saying that we can’t know anything about God- and what we can know about God is evident through His creation and through the pages of the Scriptures.