Ecclesiastes 8 – Wisdom and Mystery
A. More good advice for life “under the sun”
1. (1-4) Wisdom in obeying and honoring the king.
Who is like a wise man?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
And the sternness of his face is changed.
I say, “Keep the king’s commandment for the sake of your oath to God. Do not be hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand for an evil thing, for he does whatever pleases him.”
Where the word of a king is, there is power;
And who may say to him, “What are you doing?”
a. Who is like a wise man: Solomon searched for a wise man, who knew the interpretation of a thing. Solomon knew that wisdom makes a man happier, even in an under the sun premise (makes his face shine… the sternness of his face is changed).
i. “The shining face generally speaks of favour (cf. Numbers 6:25). Here it speaks of the wise man who is visibly gracious in his demeanour, and (as the next phrase says) whose gentleness is obvious in his facial expression.” (Eaton)
b. Keep the king’s commandment for the sake of your oath to God: The Preacher understood what the Apostle Paul would later write in Romans 13 – that we should obey government authority as part of our obedience to God.
i. We do this primarily not to honor the king or government authority (though this is part of our obligation). Primarily, we honor government authority for the sake of our oath to God. In a New Covenant context, we do it as part of our obedience to God.
ii. “You have sworn obedience to him; keep your oath, for the engagement was made in the presence of God. It appears that the Jewish princes and chiefs took an oath of fidelity to their kings. This appears to have been done to David, 2 Samuel 5:1-3; to Joash, 2 Kings 11:17; and to Solomon, 1 Chronicles 29:24.” (Clarke)
iii. We can agree with Solomon’s advice here, from both an Old Testament and New Testament perspective. Yet one must say that it sounds self-serving coming from Solomon, who was a king himself.
iv. We also recognize that we are always to obey God rather than man if the two contradict (Acts 4:19). “Many passages in the Old Testament witness to the limits which loyalty to God must set on courtly tact and submissiveness.” (Kidner)
c. Where the word of a king is, there is power; and who may say to him, “What are you doing”: This is a reason why it is wise to obey a king. Their power – though sometimes held unrighteously – makes it unwise to fail to keep the king’s commandment or show him respect.
i. This also makes us reflect on our obedience to God as the Great King. “If he be a King, then it is a solemn hazard to your soul if you come short of the least of his commandments. Remember that one treason makes a traitor; one leak sinks a ship; one fly spoils the whole box of ointment. He that bought us with his blood deserves to be obeyed in all things with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength.” (Spurgeon)
2. (5-9) Reasons for wise living.
He who keeps his command will experience nothing harmful;
And a wise man’s heart discerns both time and judgment,
Because for every matter there is a time and judgment,
Though the misery of man increases greatly.
For he does not know what will happen;
So who can tell him when it will occur?
No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit,
And no one has power in the day of death.
There is no release from that war,
And wickedness will not deliver those who are given to it.
All this I have seen, and applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun: There is a time in which one man rules over another to his own hurt.
a. He who keeps his command will experience nothing harmful: Good will come to those who obey and honor the king.
b. Because for every matter there is a time and judgment: Wisdom knows what Solomon first poetically explained in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – that there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven.
c. Though the misery of man increases greatly. For he does not know what will happen: The Preacher understood that for every matter there is a time and judgment; but he also knew that we don’t know what those times are. A wise man’s heart may discern both time and judgment, but certainly not perfectly; and not all are wise.
i. “The highest wisdom is submission to things as they are… Yet in doing all this there will abide in the heart the recognition of abounding injustice.” (Morgan)
d. No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit, and no one has power in the day of death: If the lack of wisdom discouraged Solomon in Ecclesiastes 8:6-7, he found the powerlessness of man in the face of death to be yet more despairing. Under the sun, he saw that death allows no winners, and there is no release from that war.
e. All this I have seen… there is a time in which one man rules over another to his own hurt: The Preacher knew that part of man’s misery on this earth was to be ruled by others oppressively.
i. “This may be spoken of rulers generally, who, instead of feeding, fleece the flock; tyrants and oppressors, who come to an untimely end by their mismanagement of the offices of the state. All these things relate to Asiatic despots, and have ever been more applicable to them than to any other sovereigns in the world. They were despotic; they still are so.” (Clarke)
B. Even wisdom doesn’t answer the big questions.
1. (10-13) Why are the deeds of the wicked soon forgotten?
Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked; nor will he prolong his days, which are as a shadow, because he does not fear before God.
a. I saw the wicked buried… they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: Solomon saw that the wicked die, and their evil is soon forgotten instead of being memorialized in infamy. With his under the sun premise, Solomon despaired that the wicked dead are not punished after death.
i. “I have seen wicked men buried and as their friends returned from the cemetery, having forgotten all the dead man’s evil deeds, these men were praised in the very city where they had committed their crimes!” (Living Bible)
b. Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil: If wicked men are often not punished after death, they also are often not punished in this life. All this added to the sense of life’s meaninglessness for Solomon.
i. This also speaks of the hardened response many make to the mercy and forbearance of God toward them. “Man’s godless ingratitude is as deep a mystery as is God’s loving patience. It is strange that, with such constant failure of His love to win, God should still persevere in it.” (Maclaren)
c. I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked: In context, we can suppose that the Preacher said this as a hope or a wish, rather than with real confidence. He wishes this were true but cannot have confidence that it is while clinging to his under the sun premise.
2. (14) Why do the bad have it good and the good have it bad?
There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
a. There are just men to whom it happens according to the wicked: Solomon, speaking from his eternity-excluding viewpoint, felt this made life meaningless (vanity). Why do good men and women suffer?
i. This was the great question of the Book of Job, and almost unanswerable apart from a life that appreciates eternity and our accountability in the world beyond.
b. Again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous: Perhaps even more of a problem to the Preacher was the question, “Why do wicked men seem to be blessed?” The strength of this question also made life seem meaningless (vanity).
i. One might say that this question is even more troublesome, because in a very real sense, there are no just men, and all can be seen as wicked in some way. Why goodness is shown to the undeserving is a question that looks to the remarkable mercy of God.
3. (15-17) Live for the moment – and know there is more than what you can see.
So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.
a. So I commended enjoyment: With the meaninglessness of life so plain to the Preacher, all he could counsel was to make the best of a bad situation and enjoy life the best way possible.
b. Then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: Here Solomon begins to undermine his once-so-certain premise of life lived without an eternal perspective. He recognizes that man cannot find out the work of God in fullness; so what we see does not define what there actually is.
i. The business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night: “The very busyness of life worries us into asking where it is taking us, and what it means, if it does mean anything. We hardly need Qoheleth to point out that this is the very question that defeats us.” (Kidner)
ii. He will not be able to find it: “His conclusion is that we must be content not to know everything. Neither hard work (toil), persistent endeavour (seeking), skill or experience (wisdom) will unravel the mystery. Wise men may make excessive claims; they too will be baffled.” (Eaton)
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