Solomon is steering away from the philosophical approach to life and is now fon the practical applications of living under the sun, but it is with the knowledge that there is a God that is above the sun. He has investigated many aspects of life, both good and bad, and has again reiterated that God is “there for us” in both the good and bad times.
That belief, in his pursuit of understanding life, has been solidified. We, too, as New Testament believers, know that “in (the midst of) all things (happenstances of life), God is working for the good (our good), for those who are called according to his purpose.” (A paraphrase of Romans 8:28). All things are not good, but the good and the bad come into the lives of every person. It is from those happenings that God turns things around into being “the good” of His purpose.
The first verse asks the question: “Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things?” At the end of the chapter, his conclusion is (verse 18b) “Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it,” which leaves us with the question—what is he driving at in between these verses? Mankind is saturated with sin and only as one submits to God is one able to comprehend the wisdom of God and the foolishness of sin.
Remember that Ecclesiastes is evaluating life and instructing us as to what kind of life is worthwhile. To say that wisdom is the answer is to greatly oversimplify the questions that emerge in the passages of the book (The Preacher). There are many problems that are detailed in the previous chapters, but here the author is investigating the realities of governmental authority and justice, as well as the injustices of life in general. His ultimate conclusion is that our dependence upon faith in God and the ultimate justice of God is the sole remedy. How we respond to the inequities of life and the seemingly unfair treatment we receive from God presents an enigma. “Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” (7:13)
He deals with it forthwith in verse two with the mandate to “obey the king’s command.” As citizens, we have that same obligation. There are several examples of obedience to the king in the Old Testament such as Joseph in the household of Pharaoh; David before King Saul; Nehemiah who served Artaxerxes; the prophet Daniel who ministered before several dynasties and Queen Esther who was both faithful and obedient to Xerxes. All were people of great faith.
The governments these people served were not what we have today. Nevertheless, the principle of obedience is the same and the authority, in God’s eyes, is the same, but not as severe or authoritarian. We may walk out of the presence of the “king” without punishment. However, in Solomon’s day, to disobey the king or question his authority could have devastating consequences.
Verses 2-8 are somewhat self-explanatory. We know what is means “to take an oath and break it”, or, to be rude to the king in excusing ourselves from his presence before being dismissed. These verses are a presage (foreshadow) to the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1 and I Peter 2:13-18. The verses also reflect the deep depravity of the subjects of the king who may oppose the king and “stand up for a bad cause” (verse 3). The passage also seems to assume that there “is a proper time and procedure for every matter” when appearing before the king.
The purpose of government is to protect its subjects and administer righteous justice. Proverbs 14:34 states, “righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.” However, there are times when governments are not always loyal to their responsibility as noted in verse nine and in chapter 4:1.
And we must not forget the mention in verse one that “wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance” when the proper protocol is followed in the presence of the king. Obedience softens the demeanor of the monarch which, in turn, changes a man’s discontent with his lot. It is never pleasurable to be in a situation where one has to “sweat it out” before a magistrate or a higher court.
Solomon is giving advice so that we may get along in the world with all its entanglements. No one is wise enough to behave properly in every situation of life. The truly wise man looks to the Lord in faith. Furthermore, we cannot always assume that the king is wise or congenial. A righteous government alleviates many of the anxieties we might face when standing before the ruling power. Human ignorance is a hindrance to the knowledge of the future (verse 7) so it behooves the citizen to seek wisdom, and mature in his faith.
Verse eight introduces four examples of human helplessness. There is a limit, even to the king, to control the wind or to prevent death. The New King James Version reads: “No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit and no one has power in the day of death.” The implication, or better inter- predation of the verse, would be a reference to the “breath of life” or to preserve life. We are all impotent in the face of death. The context would teach that no one has “power over the day of his death”, not even the king. Modern medicine is amazing, but it ultimately cannot prevent death. We live precariously when facing death. It would mean that even the king does not have power over his own “spirit” of life. Even he is destined to succumb to death, and is not exempt from doing evil.
This passage is speaking of having “power over” certain aspects of life. We have no power over ‘spirit’ life, no power over death that follows, and no power to quit the king’s army in time of war.
The last factor in the verse is the domination of sin over those who practice it habitually. The Jewish translation is “neither shall wickedness (the sinful act itself) deliver those that are given to it,” or, addicted to it. It is the old sin nature that holds sway over, or has power over, the wicked. The apostle Paul discusses that kind of predicament in Romans chapter six, verse 19 where he writes: “. . . Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
The phrase “no one is discharged in time of war” seems quite out of place in the sentence as it is interpreted by some commentators. In a war, a discharge would place the soldier beyond the reach of danger. In this context, there is no discharge or AWOL. The “war” spoken of here, would involve the struggle of life in the face of death and evil. No one is exempt from this type of conflict. We are not only contending with the king, we are contending with evil and life and death. There is no escape this side of the grave.
A good translation of this verse is by Charles Bridges in his exposition, which reads: “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death; and there is no discharge in that war, neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.”
Several times Solomon says that “he saw”, or observed things done “under the sun”. In verse nine and ten, he mentions more inequities of life. He was a devoted scholar of the full spectrum of activity common to mankind, and now mentions the cruelty of unjust people in authority and their death later. Some, apparently, died in “church” and were carried out. Included were scoundrels who would worship in the “holy place” where they would be praised for their pretended righteousness. He concludes that “this too is meaningless.” In the New Testament, we read of Ananias and Sapphira who were slain by the Lord for their pretense of holiness (Acts chapter five).
It appears that many of them get away with their sins. They are not charged, or tried and it caused others to become bold and “filled with schemes to do wrong”. Evil begets evil. Though they appear to avoid prosecution, God will judge them. We are sometimes left with the idea that God is soft on sin and that there will be no retribution. Solomon, however, is removing, bit by bit, the thought that God is not aware of the, sometimes, gross inequalities between the righteous and the unrighteous. Their death and judgment are sure (11:9 and 12:14).
Further inequities are pointed out by “The Preacher” in verse 11. He states: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong. (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. (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.” (NIV)
God has great forbearance toward those who sin as a habit of life. The warning here, is clear. Because God is gracious and long suffering, the sinner may interpret any delay of judgment to signify that justice will never come. “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Such a delay may embolden the evil-doer to greater corruption. Here he is speaking to wicked rulers but it is true also of sinners universally. If God appears to be complacent, people misunderstand. If life goes along in a normal fashion, He will be considered impotent or appear to show favoritism to the sinner. That is something that Job’s friends could not admit. Job’s suffering was interpreted as coming upon him because he was secretly sinful and God was punishing Job. (Note: it isn’t as if such bad judgment began and ended with Job’s friend)
In Job chapter 8, Bildad asks the question: “Does God pervert justice?” His idea of equity was that God punishes the offender quickly. His friends, Zophar and Eliphaz echoed the same conclusion. The sinner whose justice is delayed, assumes the opposite—that God does not take notice of men’s sins and is sort of a “landlord” God who takes no interest in justice or punishment.
The apostle Paul, in Romans 3:5-8, argues against this attitude in a little different way. Our unrighteousness “brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? . . . Let us do evil that good may result? Their condemnation is deserved.” Our wickedness magnifies the glory of God (by comparison), but we are still condemned as sinners even though we make God “look good”. A sinner may live and die “normally”, having lived a long life and enjoyed the good things of life but that does not exonerate him from ultimate judgment. What human government misses by way of justice, God will accomplish in his own time—either in life, or after death.
Solomon accepts the language of the secularist in many cases just for the sake of discussion. But when he wants to express a divine viewpoint, he will argue from God’s posture, just as he will in chapters 11 and 12 (later in this series of studies) when he discusses God’s standing on judgment. In verses 14-16, he again unveils the presence of God to his people who are “under the sun” and who face some of the apparent inequities of life. Even when God appears to be “not fair”, there is comfort that the sovereign God has made provision for seemingly unfavorable times.
Verses 14-15 “There is something else meaningless 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. (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.” (NOTE: Also see Romans 7:14-25)
God does not always pay on Friday. Neither is the pay always equitable for every man. Here, judgment and reward are reversed as he restates the perplexity of life. God, again, appears arbitrary in his dealings with mankind, seemingly rewarding evil and chastising the good. This enigma, like the preceding riddles, must not be allowed to dishearten the believer. To overcome, Solomon commends the enjoyment of life seeing that there is nothing one can do to avoid these mysteries.
So now what? How does one make the most of pleasure? For the believer, God is high and omnipotent; who can challenge Him with arguments? In Job 38:2, God begins to question Job by asking “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” And 40:8 “Would you (Job) discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” Also in 41:11 God asks “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.”
It was then that Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2. The ultimate answer to the mysteries of God is simply (but not easily) to let God be God. With that mindset, we can have peace in turmoil and confidence in conflict. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to truly know God—who and what He is. He is greater than the sum total of all His attributes and He has condescended to let His creation experience Him in all of life’s struggles. We can be partakers of the bounties of His divinity and have a share in knowing that He is good, and just.
Divine activity is, indeed, a mystery. In verses 16 and 17, he reverts back to his question in verse 1: “Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things?” The questions persists: “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night—(17) Then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.”
Solomon applied continuous effort to his search for ultimate meaning “under the sun”. God’s work is on earth and His creation is also on earth. To claim that one knows what is going on, is the opposite of wisdom—it reveals a man’s folly and arrogance. God’s actions in creation and redemption are crucial in our understanding of what God is doing “under the sun” and decisive in our apprehension of life’s dark questions. Our redemption is critical to understanding life and only as we apply that redemption can we begin to comprehend what God is doing in our lives and understand the problems we encounter in our journey. The works of God cannot be confined to what we know and observe. We need His word to give us insight into some of His workings among men.
Moses says it well in Deut. 29:29 when he writes: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Also in Isaiah 55: 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” And we can say with Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:17: “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.”
These verses will help to summarize what Solomon is saying in chapter eight. It is not an easy passage to understand or truly appreciate until we see and know the God who is above the sun.