As we enter this Ecclesiastes 8 summary article, we remember that chapter 7 ended with considering our need of wisdom in dealing with the unjust. Now, the Preacher talks more about wisdom…
External Marks of a Wise Man
KJV Ecclesiastes 8:1 Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation [solution] of a thing [matter]?
Well, who is a wise man? Would you know one if you saw him? Well, the Preacher gives you one identifying mark of a wise man in the second part of the verse…
a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine [illumines him/brightens his appearance], and the boldness of his face shall be changed [causes his stern (strong) face to beam/softens his harsh countenance].
So, what a man possesses on the inside – wisdom – will affect how he appears on the outside, particularly on his face.
Next, the Preacher counsels us regarding our relating to kings and authorities (vv2-9)…
Relating to a King
2 ¶ I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment, and [do] that in regard of the oath of [that you or he made to] God.
So when a king or someone in authority gives a command, you do well to obey it. Why? Because either you or he swore an oath to God. It’s possible that this was referring to an oath that the citizens of a kingdom would make regarding obeying the king during his coronation. Or maybe it’s saying that the king himself made an oath to God concerning his duties while in office.
The US doesn’t coronate kings, but we do inaugurate our presidents. And each President thus far has put his hand on a Bible and recited an oath that begins “I do solemnly swear…” and ends with “So help me God.”
Again, the idea is that you ought to obey the king because both you and he have a solemn obligation to each other.
The Preacher continues with his counsel regarding how to relate to a king…
3 Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not [don’t join] in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him.
Going out of the king’s sight hastily and joining yourself to an evil thing are probably both referring to abandoning your allegiance to the king to go join a rebellion against him. Maybe the going out hastily is talking about having an angry attitude toward him that eventuates in joining a rebellion.
And why should you not abandon the king and join a rebellion against him? Because he does whatever he pleases. Including, putting down rebelions. So, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that.
Still on the theme of obeying your king or authority…
4 Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?
This goes along with the idea that the king does whatever he wants. Nobody can question what he’s doing. And that’s where our system of government is a little different. We of course don’t have a king. We have a President or Executive Branch. We have Congress or a Legislative Branch. And we have the Supreme Court or the Judicial Branch. And we’re a Democratic Republic. We elect our rulers – well, most of them. And yet, the effect is the same. I mean, you can petition a king. And in the same way you can petition your American government. You can also try to vote people out of office. But ultimately, if the person is in office and the law is the law, then you better obey it because the government does whatever it will and no one can say “what are you doing?” to them because they have power. They have authority. And Romans 13 tells us that this authority actually comes from God. Ultimately, what was true of kings in ancient civilizations is ultimately true in our modern day, with a few adjustments.
And we’ll read the last verse that draws our attention to our duty to obey our authority…
5 Whoso keepeth the [king’s] commandment shall feel [know/experience] no evil thing [trouble]: and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment.
Again, this sounds a lot like Romans 13. Do you want to not fear authority? Then do what they say – so long as it doesn’t go against God’s commands to you. You’ll be prudent about this if you’re wise. That’s how verse 5 ends.
Now, in verses 6 through 8 it seems like the Preacher starts discussing something totally different from what he’s just been saying. But we have two reasons that would lead us to think that verses 2 through 9 are one section. First, the phrase “time and judgement” that just appeared in verse 5 also appears in verse 6. So, there’s some connection between verse 5 and verse 6. Second, look at verse 9. “…There is a time wherein one man–” what? RULETH OVER ANOTHER. Hey, that sounds like something a king does! So, even in verse 9 we’re still talking about kings.
So, I think verses 6 through 8 are related to the broader discussion about kings and how to relate to them. But this section also forms sort of an aside. And a big emphasis in these three verses is helplessness. So let’s read and try to figure this out…
6 Because to every purpose [pleasure] there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.
So, the misery is great upon whom? I think it’s talking about the wise man from the previous verse – the one whose heart can discern time and judgement. The misery that’s common to man is great or heavy upon him. Why? Verse 7…
7 For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?
So, the wise man is miserable. And this seems strange – since he’s discerning enough to be able to deal rightly with a king. And yet, not all is well. For as wise as he is, he still can’t predict the future. And in particular, for all his wisdom, he still cannot predict the day of his death. That’s verse 8…
8 There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death:
In other words, if it’s your appointed time to die, you have no power to change that. You can’t “retain your spirit”. And in the context, I think this is speaking of what happens when you cross a king. If you don’t follow the Preacher’s advice and obey the king, then remember that you don’t have power over the day of your death – which is what you’re going to experience from your enraged king for your disobedience.
And, the Preacher makes it clear in the last part of verse 8 that disobedience to a king is wickedness…
and [just like] there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.
There’s no discharge in a war. There may be discharge before a war – like when Gideon let go all those who were scared and who didn’t drink water in a certain way. There’s discharge after a war. But during a war? That’s called “going AWOL”. It shouldn’t happen. There’s no legitimate way of being released from the military during a time of war if you’re a soldier.
And just like that, there’s no way of being released from anything by wickedness. And I think this relates to the Preacher’s admonition in verse 3 to not leave a king’s presence hastily in order to join in a rebellion against him. That rebellion won’t deliver you from the wrathful king whom you’ve disobeyed.
So, we’ve seen that the Preacher is really advocating that his readers obey their king. But it’s not to say that the king is always going to be right – or even righteous. And that’s where the Preacher ends his consideration of relating to a king in verse 9…
9 All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.
So, this whole time, the Preacher has been urging us to obey the king. And yet, he’s not unrealistic about the character of some kings. Some kings do in fact rule over men in a hurtful way. They’re bad to their subjects. And yet, that doesn’t cancel out anything of what he’s just said. Those under authority still need to obey that authority – even when it results in their hurt.
Now, the Preacher moves on to consider several negative aspects of wickedness. Remember – he already considered that wickedness can’t deliver people who are given to it. And so he wants to explore that thought a little more in verses 10 through 13…
Drawbacks of Wickedness
10 ¶ And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity.
Here’s vanity or emptiness or meaninglessness – a wicked man who comes and goes from the Temple – “the place of the holy” – and then he dies and is buried. And the crowning emptiness to that situation is the fact that this man is forgotten in his city after he dies.
Next, the Preacher speaks of the spreading of evil due to its punishment not being executed swiftly…
11 Because 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.
Which tells you that the common practice in our nation of having inmates on death row for decades is really not the best way to go. Evil needs to be punished swiftly – in order for the general populace to to be discouraged from committing the same evil.
And sometimes sinners do get away with their sin in this life. Sometimes sentences against evil are not executed swiftly – or even at all! And yet, the Preacher isn’t fooled about the sinner’s position in the sight of God…
12 Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: 13 But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God.
So, in this world it might appear that sinners are on top and the righteous are the losers. But it doesn’t matter how it appears. Take it from the Preacher that it will be well with the righteous. It will not be well with the wicked.
And yet, in this world, often that’s not the way it looks or how it goes. Often, we have the situation described in verse 14…
More Contradictions to the Law of Retribution
14 ¶ There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked [they get what the wicked deserve]; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.
So, even though we know that ultimately it will be well for the righteous and not so for the wicked – in this life, it can look like the exact opposite is true. This is vanity and emptiness and frustrating.
So, in light of all of this, the Preacher again comes back to advising us to enjoy life…
15 Then I commended mirth [pleasure/enjoyment of life], because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that [joy] shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.
Enjoy your work – whatever it is you do. Eat, drink, be happy. And recognize that God gives you these things and fear him.
And the Preacher keeps his focus on God in verses 16 and 17, where he considers God’s work and concludes that it is unsearchable…
God’s Work is Unsearchable
16 ¶ When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes: [this is what this kind of quest requires]) 17 Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.
God’s work is unsearchable. You can’t discover every single thing that God has done, is doing, or will do. It’s marvelous. It’s beyond our ability to comprehend – even if you never sleep! Even if you’re wise. You won’t get all of it.
Now, earlier in the book, we were led to consider that one of God’s works is humbling men through death. We just considered God’s works and how they’re ultimately unsearchable. And now, in 9:1-6 we’re reminded of this work of death again. And this time we’re led to think of its inevitability…