Introduction – Wisdom Brings Joy (8:1)
Has the boss at work ever wound you up? Have you ever felt aggrieved about decisions the government has made? Have you ever disagreed with the preacher or a decision the elders made in the church you attend? God has placed people in positions of authority over us. We should be submissive to these structures as long as they don’t tell us to disobey God.
But what if someone in authority asks us to go where conscience will not let us? Further, what if there are consequences to our challenging them – such as fines, imprisonment, or loss of job? In these situations, which can be stressful, how do we behave? Fortunately the word of God has got this covered too, and gives us guidance that can bring joy in the midst of earthly trouble:
“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.” Ecclesiastes 8:1
Challenge Authority Only When Necessary And In The Correct Manner (8:2 – 9)
By Default, be Loyal to those in authority over you (8:2,3a)
“I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence.” Ecclesiastes 8:2,3a
God has appointed earthly authorities, and as a result when we oppose those whom God has appointed, we oppose God Himself. Or again, the Apostle Paul in the context of government, puts it this way in the book of Romans:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Romans 13:1,2
This principle can be widened to all who have authority over us – whether it is parents, elders in the church or the boss at work. The Biblical basis for submitting to parents is given in Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2, to church leadership is given in Hebrews 13:17, to those in the work place Ephesians 6:5 – 8. By and large our good, and the good of the organisation we are in, is found when we work together, under leadership. Indeed we have an obligation to those God has placed over us to seek their good. This includes our nation, our families and the companies we work for.
Challenge authority carefully, and in a just cause (8:3b,4)
“Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, ‘What are you doing?’“ Ecclesiastes 8:3b,4
If you make your stand for an evil cause, and you receive punishment from the king, then the king is doing what God has appointed him to do:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval” Romans 13:3
But we know that human authority is imperfect – it is human after all. It is God and God alone who is the ultimate authority; we do have to disobey the earthly authority if it contradicts God. As Solomon brings to our attention, there could be real comeback on you when challenge authority. There are possible adverse consequences if you say to a king, “What are you doing?” We have a strong self interest in making sure our cause is just before making a stand. Are you willing to pay the consequences for your cause? Here the practical step of prayerfully taking advice from a few select, trusted and capable people (who will not gossip) helps establish whether your cause is truly “just”.
Challenge authority in the appropriate way (8:5,6)
“Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him.“ Ecclesiastes 8:5,6
There is a way and an appropriate time in which to challenge authority. You may spot 50 things wrong about your employer, church or family life, but (even if they are all genuine) there will be a time and an appropriate manner in which to solve them. Sometimes the problems are clear to all (including the leadership), yet no one has offered to sort things out. Could you come up with a plan to solve the issues? Consider the complaint, that the church you currently attend is not doing enough evangelism. One approach is to bang on the elders door and to remind them of this and to encourage them to do more. However I suspect the elders would love it if even just 2 or 3 people came to them with ideas for evangelistic outreach and church members offered their support in the practical and spiritual support required. After all the elders primary duty is to equip God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:11,12), enabling the congregation to get involved with evangelism.
Solomon also brings to our attention that living under flawed authority can be a heavy burden, or in the language of verse 6, “although a man’s trouble lies heavy on him”. It can be emotionally tiring to live in a flawed system which causes trouble and pain to those in it – but don’t act rashly! The danger is that this pressure leads us to impulsive or rash behaviour. Instead we need to make sure that our stance is just, pray, and if needed, consult about a solution. Furthermore God often refines us through trial, making us lean more on Him, less on the things of this world, and He can display His power in our weakness! So remember God may be working good things in your character through the pressure you are under.
Remember the limitations of the earthly authority (8:7 – 9)
“For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 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. 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.“ Ecclesiastes 8:7- 9
We may be convinced that our cause is just. Having prayerfully considered the options we might see the best means and approach to tackle the situation; however there is a nagging doubt, “What will the king do if I challenge him?” No matter how powerful the authority is, there are limits to their power. They cannot deliver themselves from death or war by their wickedness – it is God who gives the victory in the end. The Bible is full of examples where the victory has gone to the godly rather than to the mighty, e.g. Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt (Exodus 7 – 14), Gideon (Judges 7,8) and King Hezekiah battling the Assyrians (2 Kings 18,19). God is the ultimate power who raises or deposes at will. He alone has the power to eternally torment the soul in Hell for all eternity, while man has power over us in this life only (Luke 12:4 – 7).
The Wicked May Appear To Do Well, But Are Not Doing So In Reality (8:10 – 13)
Do Not Be Surprised If things go well for wicked in the world (8:10)
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 8:10
The godless had power, influence and money, being honoured in church (the holy place) and the city, but then death comes! We cannot stop it. But their days are cut off and are soon forgotten by the masses. They are unable to take their wealth honour and influence with them, ultimately their lives are meaningless, and then they face God. It is possible that Solomon had himself in mind in these verses. He had unprecedented wealth and honour in both in Israel and the surrounding region (1 Kings 4:29 – 34). Yet for part of his reign his heart was far from God (1 Kings 11:1 – 8). For bringing great wealth to Israel, and building the temple of God (which was next to his palace), Solomon would have been honoured both in the city and the temple. Yet his heart was far from God, and in the end he knew that such a lifestyle was meaningless, which evidenced by his writing the book of Ecclesiastes.
People Do Wicked Things Because They Can (8:11)
“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” Ecclesiastes 8:11
We all have sinful natures, we all have a natural bias towards thinking of our own interests and concerns. All too often the interests of others are less important to us than our own. In the extreme this leads to crime as people take what they want and do what they want without any regard for others. Society requires the rule of law to prevent anarchy. God’s word and the Holy Spirit restrains the sinful passions which are present in all of us. In the context of the church Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) lied to the apostles and as a result the Holy Spirit put them to death.
Often in His mercy God gives sinners a chance to repent of their sin, yet people use God’s patience as an opportunity to sin all the more. They think themselves secure – because nothing seem to happen in their unbelief – but in reality they are storing wrath up upon themselves, wrath that will be revealed in the afterlife. Yet if God had killed Saul when he was persecuting the church (Acts 8:1-3), we would never have had the apostle Paul and his writings. Sometimes God’s mercy toward sinners reaps incredible results!
But things do not go truly well for the wicked (8:12,13)
“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.” Ecclesiastes 8:12,13
The Bible is very clear – It will not go well for the wicked in the next life when they stand in judgment before God! Only those who have come in faith and repentance before God, trusting in the completed work of Christ alone, with be with the Lord Jesus Christ for eternity on the new heavens and the new earth.
However I also believe that it does not go well for the wicked in this life. They may have outward prosperity, but their desires (not constrained by the Holy Spirit) for money, status, drugs, alcohol or sexual desire often produce miserable private lives. The Christian has a God who provides for their needs, gives a sense of purpose to life, and they have a relationship with their loving heavenly Father. That godless king, politician, banker, businessman, or celebrity may have the appearance of doing well, but they are abandoned by God!
Don’t Let Your Inability To Understand Life Stop You From Enjoying It (8:14 – 17)
There Is No Discernable Reason Why The Wicked Prosper (8:14)
“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.” Ecclesiastes 8:14
God is very aware of the differences between the righteous and the wicked, yet he does not make this the basis of His dispensing worldly gifts. The righteous at times are deprived of material things, are treated unjustly, are slandered, fined and falsely imprisoned. While in complete contrast, the wicked at times receive wealth honour and status. Humanly speaking we can understand why the wicked may prosper, a sinful world will applaud and honour its own, but why doesn’t God intervene? Solomon can find no meaning in these events, he could not understand them, or in his own words, “I said that this also is vanity.”
Enjoy What God Has Given You – Knowing He is Control (8:15)
“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.” Ecclesiastes 8:15
Solomon tells us to enjoy life, to make time to eat, drink and have fun with those around us. He has stated previously that there are those in authority over us who will cause us grief. We are going to have to use wisdom to know the time and way to deal with this and we run the risk of those in authority oppressing us. The wicked will seem to thrive, perhaps including those who are oppressing us, and we will be unable to understand why all of this is happening. Does eating and drinking and enjoying life seem a strange response?
It is the enjoyment that comes from faith and confidence in God, knowing that He is in control. It is also the knowledge that in the next life good things will be given to those made righteous by Christ, and evil things will be given to the wicked.
Sometimes You Just Have To Trust That God is Control (8:16,17)
“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” Ecclesiastes 8:16,17
Our inability to understand life fully should lead us to have humility before God. We know that He is working all things out according to His wisdom and loving purposes, even if we can’t always understand what He is doing. Again our inability to understand shows our dependence on God. We cannot work out the meaning of life, and we need God to direct us. The importance of knowing God’s Word is brought sharply into focus. Many people work endlessly to understand the meaning and purpose life by examination and research of areas other than scripture – and are tired, frustrated and disappointed!
Lessons From Chapter 8
We should be obedient to God’s appointed earthly authorities
Our good, and the good of the organisation we are in, is found when we work together, under leadership. We have an obligation to those God has placed over us, to the nation, families, church leaders and companies we live and work in, to seek their good.
We can challenge God’s appointed earthly authorities with a just cause, carefully considering the correct time and way of doing so
The earthly authorities are not perfect, and it can be emotionally tiring to live in a flawed system which causes trouble and pain to those in it, but don’t act rashly! When the cause is just there will a time and way to address it.
We are dependent on God to make sense of and to guide us through life – this allows us to enjoy ourselves!
Sometimes the spiritual thing is to go out and enjoy yourself. It is the enjoyment that comes from faith and confidence in God, knowing that He is in control. What is to us the unfathomable nature of life, is in reality, our loving heavenly Father working out His wise purposes.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.