In this fallen world always and everywhere, the political maze is not only difficult, but also dark. Ecclesiastes 8:1-15 paints a bleak portrait of politics and people. The picture of the king in verses 2-4 is dim. “He does whatever he pleases” (v.3), even if his power sustains or promotes evil, and even if his power hurts others (v.9). Nor does he seem to be open to suggestions or corrections (v.4). But the picture of his subjects isn’t’ much brighter. In verse 10 we read that “the wicked.. used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things.” It is bad enough that “the wicked” exist in a society (they are mentioned four times in our text, five times if we include the term “sinner,” v.12), but it is horrendous when the wicked go to church and a society praises their wickedness inside and outside the church. In his book God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, David Wells laments how our culture makes “sin look normal and righteousness seem strange.”[i]
When a suburban neighbor in an affluent, educated, and generally conservative city calls someone a bigot for believing that sodomy is sin, we know not only that the times are a changing’, but also that the devil is as sly as a snake. Up is down and down is up; right is wrong and wrong is right. There is a “face-off between Christian faith and our morally disintegrating culture.”[ii] And the puck has been dropped.
If our government is corrupt, or at least under the control of the curse, and if the culture generally approves of such rule, how are we to navigate our way through the darkness? Wisdom! We need wisdom. This is where Pastor Solomon starts in Eccl. 8:1, “Who is like the wise?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
and the hardness of his face is changed.”
Like Joseph, who trusted God to grant him the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, we must ask God to help us interpret the times we live in. We do so not only because wisdom will light the path we are to walk on, but also because wisdom changes our outlook on life. As coffee in the morning invigorates my body and brain, so wisdom turns a hard face (i.e. frowning face) into a cheerful one (“wisdom makes his face shine”; Prov. 15:13).
Three Counterintuitive Turns
So, then, with the light of wisdom guiding our way for the remainder of our journey, Solomon provides us with three counterintuitive turns to take.
Submit to Authority
The first counterintuitive turn is to submit to authority. This submission shows itself in obedience (“I say: Keep the king’s command,” Eccl. 8:2; v.5), loyalty (“Do not take your stand in an evil cause,” (v.3b—likely referring to rebellion), and basic protocol and prudence (“Be not hasty to go from his presence,” v.3a; v.4). If the government you serve is like the king described here (its unpredictable power is “sometimes used to perpetuate rather than punish injustice”[iii], the temptation would be to take the path of revolution, insurrection, or at least grumbling-between-your-teeth personal rebellion. God’s wisdom counsels us not to. Why? What tempers that temptation?
Three reasons are given. The first reason is God’s oath. We are commanded to “keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him” (Eccl. 8:2). If the king here was an Israelite king, this could refer to god’s promise to King David (2 Sam. 7; Psalm 110:1). In light of that messianic promise of an heir, God’s people were to tread lightly. A high view of providence is in mind here. The God who controls the times (Eccl. 3:1-15) also controls the reign of kings. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1; 16:9; Eccl. 9:1).
We must trust that the world isn’t aimlessly whirled about, but that the Creator of all also “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.”[iv] Everything is directed by “the secret stirring of God’s hand.”[v] So, then, insubordination to those in authority over you—teachers, parents, bosses, presidents, and others—shows an attitude of ingratitude and mistrust in God. Be like Daniel instead. Do not compromise, but be discreet, respectful, loyal, diligent, and willing to suffer through wrongdoing. In other words, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) as you serve your “earthly masters,” knowing that “you are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:22, 24; Eph. 6:7-8).
When the Pharisees attempted to trick Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt. 22:17), our Lord replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). To Jesus, “respect for government is an important form of respect for God.”[vi] This does not mean, of course, that “if Caesar coins a new Gospel,”[vii] he is to be obeyed. If the government outlaws Christian faith and practice, we must revolt against such rules, and pay the price of the revolution. Read the story of Peter and John in Acts 4 (5:29). Read the book of Revelation (see Revelation 13 and 18). Read the lives of the early-church martyrs. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord! We’d better believe that and live that out. And die for it, if necessary. Yet it does mean submission and honor:
“13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor[b] as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 3 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (1 Peter 2:13-14, 17; Titus 3:1-2).
Some of us wrongly think that to freely serve God, we must be free from the yoke of any godless government. Christ was not completely opposed to Caesar. Even Rome would play its part in the Christian drama—in the spread of the gospel to Asia Minor and southern Europe through Roman roads, and through the spread of salvation to the world by that old rugged Roman cross. God is not opposed to government, for even ungodly governments can be used as his servants for the church’s good (Rom. 13:4).
Whatever government God has given us to rule over us, we are to respect it and (as we can) submit to it. In this era of exile (1 Peter 1:1), as we long for the city of God (Heb. 11:10), Christians seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7) as we spread the gospel of God (Mark 1:14; Rom. 1:1).
The second reason for submitting to authority is God’s reward. If God’s providentially rules the world—even over and through bad rulers—then we can trust what he says in Ecclesiastes 8:5, “Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing.” Generally speaking, it is in our own best interest to keep the laws of the land. While we might be tempted to refuse to pay our taxes if some of them to immoral organizations and support evil ideas, the counsel here is to keep the big picture in mind. This is not capitulation but common sense. If we can stay out of harm’s way, we should do so. Moreover, it is evangelistically savvy. In 1 Timothy 2:1-6, Paul puts our political duties under God’s evangelistic agenda:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man[a] Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
The third reason for submitting to authority is God’s rule. We should submit to those in authority because we grasp that wickedness ultimately does not work (Eccl. 8:8; v.10) and that everyone eventually dies (v.8). There is no discharge from death, “No man has power to retain the spirit” (v.8). Even the most powerful king cannot catch the spirit (ruah) as it leaves his body. Death sucks the breath out of every earthly authority! Where is Caligula? Dead! Genghis Khan? Dead! Henry VIII? Dead! Ivan the Terrible? Dead. Hitler? Dead! Stalin? Dead? Pol Pot? Dead! King Jong-il? Dead! While it is true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, know this: even absolute power has absolutely no power over death.
An ancient rabbi once observed that David was ‘called King David’ fifty-two times, but in 1 Kings 2:1, when David’s life is drawing to a close he is simply called ‘David,’ for on that day he has no more authority.”[viii]
Only the everlasting God rules forever.
The first counterintuitive turn is to submit to authority. This turn is reasonable because of God’s oath, reward, and rule. The second counterintuitive turn is to fear God. To fear God is certainly not counterintuitive to Ecclesiastes or to the rest of the wisdom literature of the Bible, but it is counterintuitive to the way we are wired as devolved Adam. If our government is not godly, the temptation is to forget God. Why? We can forget God because, obviously, he is indifferent, impotent, or inactive. Or if he is at all active, he is far too slow! So, then, if change is going to happen, let us mobilize first and pray second, or mobilize first and pray never.
At first this sentiment seems sane as Ecclesiastes 8:11 and 14 attest. Verse 11 reads, “11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” The slower the legal system moves, the quicker the crime rate rises. To this evil, verse 14 adds another, “14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.” If the bad guys seem to be winning (14) and the good guys have little or no power to change things, then what are we to do? We are not told to do anything. Instead, we are told to know something and to trust in someone. Wisdom cautions and promises.
“12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.” (Eccl. 8:12-13)
Empirical observation only gets us so far.. We must trust in God and His Word. We must believe that ultimately it will go well with those who fear God (Eccl. 8:12) and badly for those who don’t (vv.10, 13). We must trust God’s timing and be certain of his coming judgment.
Ecclesiastes and Revelation instruct us to see the larger picture and to wait for the victory of final judgment. Do not trivialize the cosmic conflict at hand. But dismiss the entitlement complex, close your ears to the scoffers, and hasten for the “coming day of God” (2 Peter 3:13).
The just shall live by faith; and the faithful shall fear God.
The final counterintuitive turn is to be joyful. What!? Be joyful? Yes, be joyful! While we live in a crooked world filled with sinners and corrupt governments, the temptation would be to wait it out with as much bitterness and dourness as we can muster. Yet Solomon in Eccl. 8:15 recommends an odd alternative, “15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”
While the wicked scheme against God, His church, and each other, the righteous are to sit down together and praise God from whom all blessings flow. We are to say grace and eat up. We are to celebrate the Lord’s death. We are to gather to rejoice in the death of God’s saints (Psalm 116:150. We are to host a countercultural party after countercultural party. The Christian life is gathering together one day in seven (at the very least) to delight in pre-fall fun in light of resurrection realities. “Count it all joy” (James 1:2) is our wisdom slogan.
Solomon’s odd exhortation to enjoy life seems out of place because “the world is ungrateful,” as Martin Luther puts it, “always looking elsewhere and becoming bored with the things that are present, no matter how good they are.”[ix] Do not underestimate your daily bread and drink. What is more Ecclesiastes 8:15 follows a list of other consolation. In verse 5 we are told how “wisdom can deliver from tragedy”; in verse 8 how “the wicked will not be delivered by their wickedness”; in verse 10 how “the wicked are buried and forgotten”; in verse 12-13 how “justice will come to the wicked” and how “it will be well for those fearing God”; and in verse 14 how “injustice is temporary.”[x] So after all these comforts, is it really strange to be it told in verse 15 to “enjoy life, for God ultimately determines the days? We should have seen it coming! But so often we fail to see it coming because we refuse to let God be God, and because we do not look out, down, around, and up and see all that God gives.
With wisdom as our heavenly light, we are to take the seemingly crazy yet completely correct route through the political maze. We are to submit to authority, fear God, and be joyful.
[i] As summarized in David F. Wells, Losing Our virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 4.
[ii] Ibid, 1
[iii] Richard Schultz, “Ecclesiastes,” in Baker Commentary on the Bible, ed. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 597
[iv] Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.1
[v] Ibid., 1.16.9
[vi] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, 2nd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 399.
[vii] J.C. Ryle, Matthew: Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL, 1993), 207
[viii] Rabbi Levi (Koh. R), in Michael V. Fox Ecclesiastes, JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 56
[ix] Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works, trans. And ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:142).
[x] Daniel C. Fredericks, “Ecclesiastes,” in Daniel C. Fredericks and Daniel J. Estes, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, Apollos Old Testament Commentary 16( Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 198