Text Ecclesiastes 8:1-5 Time 24/07/05 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
We’re looking at the third section of Ecclesiastes found in 6:1-8:15. We have already looked at Chapters 6 and 7 and today I want us to look at the final part 8:1-15. This whole section considers some of the anomalies of life and seeks to help us get a handle on them. We have said so far, firstly, 1. Prosperity is not always a good thing
1 Wealth and honour don’t guarantee enjoyment
2 Earthly advantages are worthless without enjoyment
3 Man’s unaided effort can’t bring satisfaction
4 God is in control of all things and we must look to him
2. Adversity is not necessarily a bad thing
1 Discerning what’s best isn’t always easy
2 See the great importance of wisdom
3 Look to God in everything and so understand
Then we noted three warnings against
Running to unwise extremes (Don’t think that pretended goodness/wisdom can help you and Don’t think a complete rejection of holiness is the answer either but See that true godliness involves neither of these. See also that wisdom is what you really need)
Thinking too highly of human power (Don’t think too highly of man’s righteousness, of public opinion or even of wisdom itself)
Giving up seeking wisdom while realising how difficult it is (Don’t give up trying to find wisdom but Realise how difficult it is - Recognise The need to beware of the adulteress, How rare uprightness is and The perversity of mankind).
As we come into Chapter 8 the question is raised Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance. Wisdom has its limitations without question but it is still the thing we need in order live holy and satisfying lives here on earth. It brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance, which is a particularly striking way of picturing its practical benefits. Wisdom doesn’t make things more difficult, it brings a smile to the face. It is a real blessing. Besides enlightening us about prosperity and adversity and forearming us against various dangers, wisdom also shows us the importance of submission to the powers that be and how that, though by no means perfect, can contribute to our general happiness in this world as we seek to fear God.
I want to say three things to you then today about obedience to the powers that be, their undoubted weakness and this balance between God’s coming judgement and the unfairness of life now.
1. Consider the importance of obedience to the powers that be and the good it does
In verse 2 Solomon says to the one who is wise Obey the king’s command, I say, or to put it in more modern New Testament parlance – Submit yourselves to the powers that be or the powers ordained by God. He gives a number of reasons why we should do this
1. If you obey the powers that be you will be loyal to your oath
Why should I obey the king? asks Solomon and his answer is because you took an oath before God. Now we may not have taken an actual oath of allegiance to this country, although I think if you become a citizen it is expected. However, it is assumed. If you are a citizen of this country or any other then you are committed before God to obeying its laws and living in a law-abiding way that honours the powers that be. So there is one reason for obedience and allegiance.
2. If you obey the powers that be you will escape punishment
He goes on in verse 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence - to desert him for an enemy. More generally Do not stand up for a bad cause. Why? for he will do whatever he pleases. Indeed (4) Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, What are you doing? If you rebel against the powers that be, then the full weight of the law will come down on you – you will suffer the consequences. See Romans 13:2, 3 He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.
3. If you obey the powers that be you will escape from harm
More generally we can say (5) Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm. The laws that are passed in most cases are there to help people to do them good. It is only when we transgress these laws that we find ourselves coming to harm. Sticking to the speed limit, paying your taxes, not stealing - these are things that are not only according to law but good ideas anyway.
4. If you obey the powers that be you will know what to do in every situation
He concludes and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. As a general rule this is the way forward. There are difficulties when the powers that be pass laws that are not good. So in this country we know, for example, that abortions are allowed and that children cannot be given physical punishment by third parties, shops can open on Sundays and homosexuality is legal. Now we may not like these laws or agree with them but we seek to live within the law and to act wisely. And when they debate bringing in new laws such as the one against inciting religious hatred or may be one banning smacking children altogether we need not fear if we are believers, the Lord will show us what to do. Verse 6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him. If a rebellion is in order (and I don’t think the Bible rules it out absolutely) we will know it is the time. So, I suggest to you, these verses (1-6) are quite positive and remind us that when there is a stable and generally benevolent government of any sort (dictatorship or democracy) then it is a great blessing, something we should be thankful for. Our obedience to the powers that be is an important means of leading a stable and satisfying life on earth, here under the sun.
2. Consider the undoubted weaknesses, nevertheless, of the powers that be
Now that all may seem to be rather mild and not to confront the undoubted problems that there are in this area. But, as ever, Solomon is not closing his eyes to the real situation. He is very much aware of the difficulties and so he goes on to consider the undoubted weakness even of the best ordered society, the limitations of even the best situation as far as human government is concerned.
A number of difficulties are highlighted.
1. Consider the fact of human ignorance, weakness and death
1 Ignorance – Verse 7 Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No matter what a human government may think or say or claim, like the rest of us, it is ignorant of the future. No-one can know what is round the corner. Take the Iraq war for instance. Opinion is divided on that war but undoubtedly given where we are at now many things would have been handled differently with the benefit of hindsight. All the time governments are playing catch up. They do not know what lies ahead. None of us does.
2 Weakness - Verse 8 No man has power over the wind to contain it. There are many weaknesses in us all and that includes the powers that be. Just as we cannot stop the wind blowing so there are many other powers that we do not know how to contain. The most obvious thing at the moment is these suicide bombers. We do not know how such fanatics can be stopped. There are many other forces at work in this world that are beyond the power of a civil government’s control.
3 Death - so no-one has power over the day of his death. Here is another factor that we can never forget. Death means that if we find a good leader he will not last forever. It means that things can dramatically and suddenly change overnight. It means a lot of uncertainty and change for all.
2. Consider the power of wickedness
Solomon goes on As no-one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practise it. If it were simply a matter of passing laws then most of our problems would be over. You could say ‘Right we will make suicide bombing illegal’ and that would be the end of it. But that is nonsense. One of the curious things about passing laws is that you can only pass a law that most people are going to keep. Why don’t they make adultery illegal for example? Or take smoking tobacco as an example. It is generally agreed that smoking is a bad thing. So why don’t they just ban it? Well, you know it would simply drive it underground. Many people would still smoke. You have heard no doubt of Prohibition and how in America in the 1920s they outlawed alcohol. It really didn’t help things at all in the end, for all the good intentions involved. Wickedness is such a powerful thing that when it gets hold of a person it is sometimes extremely difficult to eradicate. It is easy to be critical of governments but we must remember how limited they are in what they can do when wickedness has so gripped people.
3. Consider the prevalence of oppression, hypocrisy and procrastination
Here are three more commonly found phenomena observed by Solomon that serve to underline the fact that stable government won’t solve all our problems
1 Oppression - Verse 9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his (own) hurt. He has mentioned oppression before. Here he reminds us again of the sort of thing that goes on even in the best run democracies. There are inevitably occasions when people turn into Little Hitlers, as the expression is, and start lording it over
2 Hypocrisy - In verse 10 he says Then too, I saw the wicked buried - those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless. Here is something else that adds to the frustration of life. Sometimes wicked people not only die at a good age but in their lives they are held to be paragons of virtue and people look up to them when all the while they deserve no such accolades. It is discouraging, but we must learn to accept it for now. It is always good to remember that those who … come and go from holy places … and receive praise in the city are not always what they seem.
3 Procrastination - Then in verse 11 Solomon raises another common problem - When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong. Sometimes governments drag their feet. They fail to see the need not only for justice but for swift justice. In such circumstances people are tempted to take the law into their own hands. Thankfully we know little of that in this country but it is a real temptation in some parts of the world. We ought to recognise it. Pray not just for justice but for swift justice.
3. Consider both the judgement of God and the unfairness of life now and enjoy life forever
So how do we resolve these tensions? On the one hand we are saying that stable government is a good thing, something to be thankful for, and yet there are these many difficulties. There are three things we can say.
1. Consider the judgement of God
1 God will not forget the one who fears him
Solomon says (12) Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God. Although those who fear God may have to face many troubles from the powers that be because of their ignorance and weakness, although it may seem at times that wickedness is winning and there is much oppression and hypocrisy and even when there is justice it seems very slow in coming - nevertheless, if we fear God, if we reverence him, then we can be sure that it will go well with us in the end. Further
2 God will judge the one who is wicked
Verse 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow. God knows who the oppressors are. He sees through hypocrisy and lies. He knows all things and he has all power. He is just and although his justice may seem to move very slowly to us at times and we are tempted perhaps to try and take matters into our own hands he is in fact not slow at all. He will very soon bring down all the wicked. Even now he is removing tyrants and bringing down oppressors. The wicked cannot stand before him.
2. Yet in this life there will be much that seems unfair
Having made this point, Solomon reminds us that still this world is often rather messy and not the place we would like it to be. (He never lets us get too far from reality). Verse 14 There is something else meaningless (empty) that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless (empty, fallen). Again and again we see it. Some evil tyrant is feted, some godless oppressor is praised to the skies. Hypocrites and false teachers are held up as a wonderful example. Meanwhile true believers are ignored and denigrated and all manner of evil is spoken against them falsely. Such things may annoy us and vex us but they should not surprise us. This is how it is until the Return of Christ. This is how it will be until the Lord comes again.
3. It is the man who looks to God who will enjoy life nevertheless
And so to the concluding verse of the section (15) So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun. It is no good getting frustrated at the powers that be or trying to overthrow them. It is no good either expecting them to get everything right and supposing we can just leave them to get on with things. Rather we must be thankful to God for the protection and freedom they help us to enjoy and where they are against us and against the truths of God’s Word then we must seek God’s wisdom as to how we ought to conduct ourselves. This is the way to enjoy life on earth so that joy will accompany us in our work all the days of the life God has given.