Ecclesiastes 8:1-9, “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.
2 I say:[a] Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.[b] 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.[c] 6 For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble[d] lies heavy on him. 7 For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 8 No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. 9 All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.”
Politics is one of the many mazes we have to walk through. We might be (and should be) thankful for our system of government and even for its governors. In the United States, we are not up against a tyrannical dictator, a military junta, or a bunch of lawless bandits. We are not living in Libya, Egypt, Somalia, or North Korea. We are not dealing with genocide or civil war. We are not plagued by extreme poverty or millions dying of preventable diseases. We do not have to call Caesar “Lord” or the chancellor “Führer” upon penalty of death. And we have a peaceful transfer of power. Praise God! However, like wandering through Fort Custer Maze we are challenged by our own flawed leaders and laws. What Winston Churchill said of Russia in 1939, we might say of American politics today: It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. What are we to make of gay marriage, legalized marijuana, and our taxes going to support abortion? How are we to work our way through the current political maze? Ecclesiastes 8:1–15 helps us through by giving us a higher view.
In this fallen world always and everywhere, the political maze is not only difficult, it is also dark. Imagine navigating through Fort Custer Maze at night. 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.”
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: “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” (v. 1). 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 upon, 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., a frowning face) into a cheerful one (“wisdom makes his face shine,” cf. Prov. 15:13).
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,” v. 2, cf. v. 5), loyalty (“Do not take your stand in an evil cause,” v. 3—likely referring to a rebellion), and basic protocol and prudence (“Be not hasty to go from his presence,” v. 3a, cf. v. 4). If the government you serve is like the king described here (e.g., its unpredictable power is “sometimes used to perpetrate rather than punish injustice”), 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” (v. 2). If the king here was an Israelite king, this may refer to God’s promise to King David (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 110:1). In light of that messianic promise of an heir, God’s people were to tread lightly. However, the oath here could refer to a human pledge of allegiance, as the alternative ESV reading gives, “because of your oath to God.” Either way, a high view of providence is in mind. The God who controls the times (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; cf. 16:9; Eccl. 9:1).
We must trust that the world isn’t “aimlessly whirled about” (Augustine), but that the “Creator of all,” also “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.” Everything is directed by “the secret stirring of God’s hand.” So then, insubordination to those in authority over you—teachers, parents, bosses, presidents, etc.—shows an attitude of ingratitude and a mistrust in God. Be like Daniel instead. Do not compromise, but be discreet, respectful, loyal, diligent, and willing to suffer through wrongdoing. In order 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; cf. Eph. 6:7).
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 (22:21a). To Jesus, “respect for government is an important form of respect for God.” This does not mean, of course, that “if Caesar coins a new Gospel,” he is to be obeyed. If the government outlaws Christian faith and practice, we must revolt against such rules, and pay the price of such revolution. Read the story of James and John in Acts 5 (esp. v. 29). Read the book of Revelation (esp. Rev. 13 and 18). Read the lives of the early church martyrs. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord! We better believe that and live that out. And die for it, if necessary. However, it does mean submission and honor:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–14, 17; cf. 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 through that old rugged Roman cross. God is not opposed to government, for even ungodly governments can be used as his servant 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 (cf. 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 providentially rules the world—even over and through bad rulers—then we can trust what he says in verse 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 go 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 2 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, for kings and all who are in high positions, [why?] that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. [To what end?] This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 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 (v. 8, cf. v. 10) and everyone eventually dies (v. 8). There is no discharge from death: “No man has power to retain the spirit [ruah]” (v. 8). Even the most powerful king cannot catch the spirit (ruah) as it leaves his body. Death sucks the breath (ruah) 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! Kim 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 called simply ‘David,’ for on that day he has no more authority.” At King James I’s funeral, John Donne gave the eulogy. In it, he bemoaned the frailty of the earth’s most powerful king:
That hand that balanced his owne three Kingdomes so equally, . . . and carried the Keyes of all the Christian world, and locked up, and let out Armies in their due season, Dead; how poore, how faint, how pale, how momentary, how transitory, how empty, how frivolous, how Dead things, must you necessarily thinke Titles, and Possessions, and Favours, and all, when you see that Hand, which was the hand of Destinie, of Christian Destinie, of the Almighty God, lie dead?
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 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 way 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 verses 11 and 14 attest. Verse 11 reads “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 crime rate rises. To this evil, verse 14 adds another: “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 [i.e., it makes no sense].” If the bad guys seem to be winning (8:14) 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:
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. 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. (vv. 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 (8:12), and badly for those who don’t (8:10; 8:13). We must trust God’s timing and be certain of his coming judgment.
Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 describes a future America where firemen are commissioned to burn any house that contains books. Bradbury’s novel was an attack on the television culture of the late 1940’s and how it was destroying the interest in books and reading. In the story a secret society forms for the purpose of remembering great works of literature. To join you must have memorized a certain classic. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is accepted into this society because he knows Ecclesiastes and Revelation by heart. After a nuclear bomb destroys his city, the final page records Montag’s musings:
To everything there is a season. Yes. A time to break down, and a time to build up. Yes. A time to keep silence and a time to speak. Yes, all that. But what else. What else? Something, something . . . .
And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Oh, that we would memorize Ecclesiastes and Revelation together, for those two books instruct us to see the larger picture and to wait for the victory of the 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 3:12).
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 that we can muster. However, Pastor Solomon recommends an odd alternative: “And I commend joy, for man has no good thing 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” (v. 15).
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 gather to celebrate the Lord’s death (“For Christ our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival,” 1 Cor. 5:7–8). We are to gather to rejoice in the death of God’s saints (Ps. 116:15). We are to host countercultural party after countercultural party. Hallelujah! You don’t take the Christian life to be like sitting on a block of ice drinking sour milk as you wait for the 5 AM train, do you? I hope not. Certainly not! To me, as it should be to you, 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” (Jas 1:2)—is our wisdom slogan.
Solomon’s odd exhortation to enjoy life seems out of place because “the world is ungrateful,” as Luther put it, “always looking elsewhere and becoming bored with the things that are present, no matter how good they are.” Do not underestimate your daily bread and drink. Do not belittle your weekly work. Thank God for such gifts. What is more, this “shalom consolation,” as Daniel Fredericks calls verse 15, follows a list of other consolations. 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 verses 12–13 how “justice will come to the wicked” and how “it will be well for those fearing God,” and in verse 14 shows how “injustice is temporary.” So, after all those comforts, is it really strange to be 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.
 As summarized in David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 4.
 Richard Schultz, “Ecclesiastes,” in G. M. Burge and A. E. Hill, eds., Baker Commentary on the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 597.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics, 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.16.8, 1. The Augustine quote is in Calvin, from Augustine’s De diversis quaestionibus.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13–28, 2nd and rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 399.
 J. C. Ryle, Matthew: Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), 207.
 Rabbi Levi (Koh. R), in Michael V. Fox, Ecclesiastes, JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 2004), 56.
 John Donne, The Sermons on John Donne, eds. Evelyn R. Simpson and George R. Potter, 10 vols. (Berkeley: University of California, 1953): 6:290.
 Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (repr. 1950; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 158.
 Here I follow Augustine, who saw this verse as an allusion to the partaking of the Lord’s Supper—“to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament Himself, the Priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with His own body and blood” (City of God 17:20, in Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995]).
 Daniel C. Fredericks, “Ecclesiastes,” in Daniel C. Fredericks and Daniel Estes, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 198.
 “Embracing joy frees him to let God be God.” Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: John Knox, 2000), 210.