Wisely Enduring Through Man’s Rule
We come now to the last part of the book’s third major section, which began in chapter 6, dealing with explaining and applying the plan of God in light of it seeming to be unfair. We’ve seen that what we might assume to be for the best or worst is not necessarily so (6:1–7:15) and that all bear part in the world’s problems—with no one being innocent and deserving a trouble-free life (Ecclesiastes 7:16-29). Now in chapter 8, Solomon tells us to exercise wisdom and righteousness to help reduce and manage problems in many cases, maintain proper perspective and find joy in life and ultimate reward from God.
Verse 1 extols having wisdom. This certainly ties back to the previous two subsections, where we were told that wisdom is a defense that gives life and that it strengthens those who have it (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, Ecclesiastes 7:19). Some put Ecclesiastes 8:1 with the previous subsection, but it rather seems to be in answer to all the previous dilemma, ending with the bleak, sinful condition of man at the end of the last chapter. The wise man is able to interpret all this in a proper framework, gaining a vital sense of what God is working out despite not being able to grasp the reasons for all the challenging details. And, as the end of verse 1 tells us, this wisdom “can dispel the gloom and brighten man’s otherwise hard looks” (Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 89). The change of face here also reflects a new face on the problems previously discussed. There is a serenity that comes with things starting to make sense—and with trusting that God knows what He’s doing when things still don’t.
The next set of verses concerns following kingly authority—human government—as a matter of life and death (verses 2-9). Dr. Walter Kaiser, whose overall outline we’ve been following, describes the chapter 8 subsection as follows: “The removal of a large proportion of the apparent inequalities in divine providence comes from righteous government.” This summary, however, does not appear to be quite accurate. There is no specific reference to the government being righteous here, and the verses appear to end with the problem of human rule doing harm (verse 9), which we will return to. Moreover, rarely has human government been righteous. Recall that this comes on the heels of Solomon presenting humanity as corrupt in chapter 7. So we should not expect that corrupt people coming together to form a government would result in righteous rule. Furthermore, the verses in chapter 8 do not seem to speak of human government rectifying problems so much as of us taking care to not run afoul of government (we will see similar verses in this regard in chapter 10). Of course, it is true that human government has been established by God as a check against total lawlessness, as the apostle Paul explains in Romans 13. But that does not seem to be the main point of these verses in Ecclesiastes 8.
Solomon in verse 2 says to keep the king’s command, not “My command”—he being the king. This is because the instruction referred to obeying the king in general, whoever he was—or to obeying whatever human authority was in power. (Needing to give such instruction without any self-serving appearance could be part of why Solomon referred to himself as the Preacher throughout the book rather than as king.)
Note that the obedience to the king is “for the sake of your oath to God” (same verse). Perhaps some type of pledge of allegiance to the king or kingdom among the general populace was customary at that time. Or it could be that all the men of Israel took an oath as part of the nation’s military. Or possibly the reference is to a general promise to obey God, with this including the requirement of following Israel’s divinely appointed king—or maybe even any nation’s ruler, since, as Paul later points out in Romans 13, all governing authorities are in power because of God and are to be obeyed—except when there is a conflict with God’s law, which must come first (Acts 5:29).
The mention of an oath to God may bring to mind the need to follow through on vows to God in Ecclesiastes 5. Recall that chapter 5 was the first instance of direct exhortations in the book—telling us to be careful in our approach in coming to worship God, the One in whose hands our lives are and who can help us through the present difficulties. That improves our situation in life and keeps us from ways that would make things worse for ourselves. Chapter 8 is similar. For the time being we are subject to human rule. We should respect and follow that rule, with the benefits of doing so and the avoidance of an approach that will bring more troubles on us than would otherwise ensue. The apostle Peter likewise tells us to be careful regarding both divine and human authority: “Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).
The first part of Ecclesiastes 8:3 tells us not to be quick to leave the ruler. “‘To go from someone’s presence’ elsewhere signifies disaffection or disloyalty . . . Thus the Preacher warns against a capricious desertion of one’s post (cf. Ecclesiastes 10:4) and against persistence in any disloyalty” (Eaton, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, note on Ecclesiastes 8:2-3a). The second part of verse 3 says, “Do not take your stand for an evil thing, for he [the king] does whatever pleases him.” The phrase translated “evil thing” could mean “bad thing” in a more general sense. Some see it as a worthless cause, calamitous outcome or anything the king would not like. If moral evil is in view, perhaps the sense is becoming a civil lawbreaker. Romans 13 speaks of rulers executing wrath on evildoers. This would also seem to tie in to the warning against turning to wickedness at the end of Ecclesiastes 8:8.
The beginning of verse 5 says that the person who keeps the king’s command “will experience nothing harmful.” This does not mean nothing bad will ever happen to the person. Nor does it mean that the person will be afforded protection by the government, though he or she well may, as all do to some extent. Rather, the meaning here is that the prudent, law-abiding citizen will receive no punishment from the government—at least, generally speaking. The message here is: Do your best to stay out of trouble!
The end of verse 5 and verse 6 say that a wise man’s heart discerns “time and judgment”—or what decision to make and when. This is not speaking of understanding that there will be a future judgment from God, though that is mentioned later in chapter 8. The NIV renders the phrase in verses 5 and 6 as “proper time and procedure.” The New American Commentary notes: “The wise man thus waits for the proper moment to make his case or take a stand and does not waste his influence on a lost cause (v. 3b). He maintains his patience, moreover, in spite of the moral burdens he carries that might otherwise cause him to act impetuously (v. 6b; ‘for the trouble of humanity is heavy upon him’ [and he wants to do something about it])” (Garrett, note on verses 2-6). Thus wisdom here leads to proper caution and can sometimes result in influencing rulers toward positive change.
Verse 7 in context presents more about the need for discerning the right time and way. If one does not know what will happen, how can he learn when it will happen? The wise are therefore observant for the opportune circumstance in which to speak or act as it presents itself.
The beginning of verse 8 says that no one can retain the spirit in the day of death. Some translate the word ruach here as “breath” (of life) rather than “spirit,” but that would not change the point here. Others see ruach here as meaning “wind,” and take the statement to mean that just as the wind is beyond our control, so is death. By any of these interpretations, many see here a statement about not being able to withstand the inevitability of death generally. But in context the wording appears to continue the warning about not getting into trouble with the government. “‘Death’ is ultimately in the power of God but is also in the king’s hands” (NAC, note on verses 7-8). The point seems to be that if the king puts you to death for rebellion or crime, life is over. The statement “There is no release from that [or the] war” could refer figuratively to the “march into death” that all face or simply be metaphoric for “There’s no getting out of this.” Then the final line, “…and wickedness will not deliver those who are given to it,” would tie back to the turn to wrongdoing in verse 3. And this is further tied back to the warning in Ecclesiastes 7:17: “Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time?” A turn to lawlessness will not stave off the punishment of death. It will hasten it.
So, again, the problems of human government must be navigated with wisdom and righteousness— to improve life where possible and to avoid making matters worse than they already are.
We then come to Ecclesiastes 8:9. The words “There is” are in italics in the NKJV, showing they’ve been added to the original wording—unnecessarily in this case. And one ruling another to that one’s own hurt here is evidently a mistranslation. The Tyndale commentary notes: “‘To his hurt’ (Heb[rew]) is not to his own hurt (AV [Authorized or KJV]) but to the hurt of the one under the abuser of power” (note on verse 9). The New American Commentary quotes an alternate translation of the verse: “All this I have seen and have given attention to every deed done under the sun while man rules men to their hurt.” This is the terrible human condition of today.
But this is not where things end. Solomon next mentions seeing the wicked buried (verse 10). The “place of holiness” to which they had come and gone is not clear. The dead would not have been taken to the temple, for that would have been ceremonially defiling. Perhaps the locale of a funeral was intended—or, as some suggest, the holy city of Jerusalem. However, some take visiting the holy place here as having occurred repeatedly during the life of the wicked people now being buried. Where the verse says “they were forgotten,” many others render this “they were praised,” reasoning that the positive eulogizing of the wicked after all their evil must be the vanity or frustration mentioned. But this wording requires a text emendation. And the word “forgotten” does work here. Solomon in Proverbs 10:7 wrote, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot.” Perhaps the frustration in Ecclesiastes 8:10 is simply that the wicked were able to die and receive a proper burial after a long life without having to face up to what they’d done—all the while having been permitted in life to be regularly in God’s temple, a sacrilege and mockery of religion. Verse 12 seems to support the past perpetuation of the wicked as the frustration, as it mentions the sinner’s days being prolonged.
Verse 11 explains why evil grows worse and worse—because justice is not swift. Many claim that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent to capital crime today. That is because people end up sitting on death row for decades. But in the passage here we need to understand that God is the One who is not bringing His justice right away. He is instead, in great mercy, giving everyone more time to repent—and He is letting us see how far we will drift without His intervention. Yet His intervention and judgment will ultimately come. It’s just a matter of time—and probably much less time than most imagine.
Verses 12-13 show that beyond the prolonged days of the wicked today, it will be well with those who fear God but not for the wicked who do not. The wicked will not ultimately be prolonged, yet the righteous will. This comes straight from other Scripture, God stating that it would be well for those who feared and obeyed Him, with their days prolonged (Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 6:2, Deuteronomy 6:24). As mentioned previously, the seer and psalmist Asaph, a contemporary of Solomon, wrestled with how the righteous suffered while the wicked prospered, then stating, “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (Psalm 73:16-17; and read all of this psalm). In fact, Solomon himself wrote elsewhere, “The fear of the LORD prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Proverbs 10:27). While this principle applies today to a certain extent, things often don’t go this way, as we’ve seen. But ultimately, it will go only this way— when God sets everything right. Of that Solomon is certain. The Preaching the Word commentary notes: “Usually the Preacher tells us what he ‘saw,’ but this time he chooses a different verb and tells us something that he ‘knows.’ This is not something that he has seen from a distance, but something he has grasped with the rational conviction of his own mind. His reply ‘is not an observation, but the answer of faith.’ He believes what he cannot see—that one day all will be well for everyone who lives in the fear of God” (Ryken, p. 196).
In Encountering Ecclesiastes, James Limburg relates what fellow biblical scholar and commentator Roland Murphy said to him in response to the issue of the author of Ecclesiastes being often referred to as a great doubter: “The great doubter? No! Qoheleth was the great believer! He believed, even when there was no evidence for believing!” (quoted on p. 135).
Of the fear of God, the need for which we have already seen in the book and will see again in its conclusion (Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 7:18; Ecclesiastes 12:13), the Tyndale commentary states: “In the wisdom tradition the ‘fear’ of God is the awe and holy caution that arises from realization of the greatness of God: ‘Splendour…terrible majesty…power…justice…righteousness…. Therefore men fear him’ ([Job] 37:22-24)” (note on Ecclesiastes 8:12). This is not some kind of terror of God, but a profound respect that does include, as with children who love their caring parents, a healthy fear of disappointing and, yes, incurring judgment, recalling that God chastens every son He loves (Hebrews 12:5-11). Jesus made clear that we are to fear not mere human beings who can take only our immediate lives but to fear Him who is able to remove us from existence forever (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5). Yet this is with the realization that God loves us and wants the best for us. He is not out to destroy us but to save us, as He’s said time and again. And He is patient and merciful towards us as we struggle to walk in His ways, even despite our many and ongoing failures. Still, we must not treat God flippantly or carelessly. We must always remember just who we are dealing with—and the awesome gravity of that—realizing that this is for our ultimate good. Keeping this in mind results in a deep and abiding reverence for God—loving and trusting Him while recognizing His supreme power and holiness (see Hebrews 12:28-29).
The Preaching the Word commentary goes on to state that “those who fear God are said to ‘fear before him’ (Ecclesiastes 8:12), meaning that they know they are in his presence. Most people, including many Christians, go through life hardly realizing that they are constantly in the presence of God. But the person who fears God knows that God is always near…. To live a God-fearing life is to live in constant awareness of the presence of God, who is even closer than a prayer away” (pp. 196-197).
This is the perspective that must be maintained—along with understanding what the future will bring. It will help us through the quandary that still remains for this age. Verse 14 repeats the dilemma of Ecclesiastes 7:15—the righteous suffering what wickedness is supposed to result in and the wicked receiving what righteousness is supposed to result in. Yet that is only for now. One day, God will set things right.
Then, besides the perspective we need to have and the righteous life we are to persist in, we are again given the prescription of the book’s refrain in the third major section’s conclusion—the enjoyment of life that God blesses us with: “to eat, drink, and be merry” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). As has been pointed out before, some take a low view of the refrain. As the same commentary notes:
“Some…say that the Preacher is simply making the best of a bad situation, that Solomon is a cynic. If we are all going to die anyway, then why not seize the day [in a wrong sense]?... Eat, drink, and be joyful, for tomorrow we die! [Compare 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul used these words negatively, as in Isaiah 22:13, of those who did not believe in a resurrection and hoped only in this life.] The problem with this view is that it does not do full justice to what the Preacher says…. Notice that the Preacher is giving us a God-centered perspective and that in verse 15 he is talking about the days of our life as a gift from God. Notice as well that he mentions joy twice in this verse and describes it as something we can experience all through life….
“The Preacher is growing more and more confident about this joy…. ‘I commend joy,’ he says (Ecclesiastes 8:15), and the word he uses for ‘commend’ is a Hebrew word for praise (shabach). Yes, there is vanity under the sun. Yes, we see injustice that is hard to accept or understand. Yes, we have a lot of hard work to do. Nevertheless, there is joy for us in the ordinary things of life—eating, drinking, and sharing fellowship with the people of God” (p. 198).
Let us be ever thankful for the days of our lives. And let us truly rejoice.