(Some rough draft notes for Ecclesiastes 8 lesson – next Sunday. This is only one strand of thought which runs through the passage.)
The chapter begins with the basic proposition: Don’t cross the king, because : 1) one has an obligation toward God; and 2) the king has great power. In short, this is the safe and wise course.
2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases.4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?”5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing,
In the middle of v. 5 comes a pivot.
and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.
The proposition is supported by the argument/axiom:
6 For there is a time and a way for everything,
However, the proposition and support are undercut by a series of three ki statements [the parallel structure is not immediately apparent in English. The word ki carries multiple translations.]
although [ki] man’s trouble lies heavy on him.
7 For [ki]he does not know what is to be,
for [ki] who can tell him how it will be?
There is a time – but such decisions will be made in the midst of trouble & no one actually knows the future. Therefore, who could anyone know the right way. There be a time and a way for everything (v. 6a) — but who would know it?
The limitations on human beings is made even more explicit in v. 8 (this has the implicit effect of limiting one’s concern about the king: be respectful — but the king does not command one’s ultimate allegiance or fear )(Luke 12:13-14).
8 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.
The first three all concerns limitations on human power. The last clause emphasizes there is no way around God’s sovereignty (for wickedness is ultimately an attack upon God as king and law giver). The last phrase is literally, “masters of evil” — those who are experts at evil.
Qoheleth here picks up the question of the wicked (in language which echoes his original quest set forth in Ecclesiastes 1:13):
9 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.
This sentence ties the argument of the entire passage together. First, it points backwards “I observed”. Second, it explains the wicked referenced in v. 8. When Qoheleth seeks to summarize evil, it is a matter of oppression: 4:1-3; 5:8-9. Thus, evil is the precise opposite of love. When the matter is compared to the remainder of the OT, evil in its worst consists of idolatry and oppression of the weak. Indeed, false worship (no matter how precise in performance of the rite) and oppression are inseparably linked: to not fear God flows out in oppression:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 3:5.
Ecclesiastes is aiming precisely at the matter of fearing God. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. He is building the case that fearing God is the only rational solution. But he does not simply state the proposition; he ruthlessly works through facts to make such a conclusion unavoidable.
The power of oppression is the power of wickedness. But really doesn’t help: Since no one has power over death or life, evil can’t deliver anyone.
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.
There is a translation issue: “Praised” in the third clause might be “abandoned” — that is, their corpses were abandoned in the city. The ambiguity of the usage makes for a very poetic turn of thought: they are both praised then abandoned. Wickedness does not really generate any abiding love or loyalty.
Now he explains the “why” of evil behavior (not the existence of evil, or the desire for evil; but rather the pyschological justification for evil): It looks like it works.
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.
12 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.
Verse 12 moves from the first level of knowledge to the second: it appears like evil pays — the evil man can even prolong his life by evil. At the mid-point, Qoheleth moves from sight to faith: Even though evil looks like it works, I do know that it is better to fear God.
This raises the question: Why should I fear God? Is there any support for such a conclusion?
13 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.
There are three ways to understand the movement from v. 12 to 13. The three options explain the radically different readings one may have of this book. First, some people think the book was written by multipl authors. Verse 12a is the work of the original author, a complete cynic. 12b-13 is the work of a second pious author, cleaning up an evil, wicked book. While it is possible, I wonder: Why would anyone take the time to rewrite an evil book? Wouldn’t it be better to just chuck it and condemn it? If the book was “popular”, wouldn’t the original “popular” book have maintained its status anyway? If someone could sufficiently control the book to make only the edited version avialable, wouldn’t it have been simpler just to suppress the original?
Second, some people think Qoheleth was simply cynical and purposefully paradoxical for the sake of spite. But that doesn’t make much sense of things: Why would he be purposefully paradoxical and commend a pious position? It might be fun game playing but it is ultimatley meaningless.
Third, one writer is moving between points of view: He first looks at the world “under the sun” — whcih forces a hope for another world. The world is meaningless if there is no God who will judge in righteousness.
There is at least a hint of eternal life in v. 13: The one who fear God will prolong his days — not under the sun; but, he will prolong his days nonetheless.
This corresponds to a great many Proverbs: 11:6, 8, 9; 12:6, et cetera.
As an honest observer, Qoheleth cannot merely stop at the proposition, It is better to fear God. When we look at this world, we must admit there is a bias to favor the wicked.:
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.
This is a serious and painful aspect of the vanity which takes place under the sun. But it is not the total of life. Since the advantages of evil are only illusory, there is no cause for bitterness. In fact, the comforts and joys of this life should be received: first, becasue they are meant to ease the pain of this world. Second, it will go well for those who fear God. Therefore, our comforts now are promises, previews, stays and grounds for hope.
Richard Sibbes noted that we often make our crosses worse than God designed. While the world hurts, we need not fall to despair.
15 And I commend joy,
for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat
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.
This is a necessary corrective: When we see the evil of this world, we can sometimes think it is wrong or morally insensitive to not go about in a perpetual mourning.
Objection: But didn’t Qoheleth state that the fool was the one who rejoiced here? Isn’t the wiseman the one who keeps his heart at the graveside?
Answer: A joy which is not settled upon this world as an end is to be commended. A joy which anticipates the marriage feast which is coming is a godly joy. A frivolity which sees no further than today is a wicked, foolish pleasure.
12 In that day the Lord GOD of hosts called for weeping and mourning,
for baldness and wearing sackcloth;
13 and behold, joy and gladness,
killing oxen and slaughtering sheep,
eating flesh and drinking wine.
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”
14 The LORD of hosts has revealed himself in my ears: “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die,” says the Lord GOD of hosts. Isaiah 22:12-14
What do I gain if, humanly speaking,
I fought with beasts at Ephesus?
If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”1 Corinthians 15:32
Eating and drinking and “rejoicing” without regard to God, to judgment, to the resurrection is a wicked, foolish thing.
Well, then, what must we think about this world? We should live wisely within the actual structures of our world (such as the king). There is a right way to live — but no one knows what is going to happen. Human power is constrained on all side. The wicked’s strategems provide some temporary advantage — but that advantage can’t take them past the grave.
There is a judgment which is coming — therefore, we can and should enjoy this world. — That brings up another point. It would be a great sorrow to us, if fearing God merely lead one to sorrow in this life. But, the future judgment of God, the reconciliation of all accounts leaves us the freedom to enjoy life. If there were no future judgment, it would be incumbent upon us to settle all accounts else justice would be denied. But Qoheleth hints at such things throughout the book:
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 5:8
He makes this explicit at the end:
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. 12:14.
Putting his thoughts into the context of both the entire book of Ecclesiastes and the rest of the canon makes the paradox more seemly. Note that Qoeheleth will first unwind and contradict that which he stated at the first of the chapter. In v. 5b he said a wise heart will know. Here he will say, wisdom can’t work it out:
16 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,
17 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.
Zophar in Job 11 expresses a similar sentiment:
7 “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
8 It is higher than heaven-what can you do? Deeper than Sheol-what can you know?
9 Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.
10 If he passes through and imprisons and summons the court, who can turn him back?
11 For he knows worthless men; when he sees iniquity, will he not consider it?
12 But a stupid man will get understanding when a wild donkey’s colt is born a man! Job 11:7-12
So what then can we do? This world, viewed from under the sun, cannot be resolved. A paradox and trouble runs through the world which cannot be resolved: It is the damage caused by sin: We know that the world was supposed to have been different — we know, this is not the way it is supposed to be. And yet, at the same time, sinfulness is seemingly the best means of living.
It is as if we live in a “fun house” where mirrors distort our vision at every turn. We “know” the twisted images cannot be right — and yet, the twisted images are all that seem to make sense. We can’t “see” anyway through the confusion.
Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy) uses the image of flying upside down — without realizing our predicament. The call of Christ is to live in a manner utterly at odds with everything we see:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12.
How is that even those who utterly reject the claims of Christ can see such a call as “true”? How can our sight of this as true and beautiful square with our knowledge that it is utterly impossible? How can our need for wisdom reconcile with our lack of wisdom?
It is at that precise cleavage that God makes himself apparent. The Gospel is reversal and resolution of the trouble caused by sin. In the cross, God’s weakness and foolishness became strength and wisdom. There is no wisdom within this world which can work. Sin has made such a resolution impossible (there seems to be a way here to think through matter of Kant, “liberal” Christianity, and the matter response of the “funadmentalist” and Neo-Orthodox; but that is for another time). However, in the cross, God both resolves the trouble of sin and rescues:
27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,
29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,
4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:27-2:5.
There is a way and time — but we cannot reach it ourselves. We can’t even know what will happen — but God will call this world to judgment. It will be resolved. And, there will be a rescue for those who do not rely upon their own wisdom (which cannot save) but rather the wisdom of God:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36.