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Lowell Brueckner

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Ecclesiastes 8


Chapter 8

Things that we have no power to control

1. Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine and the hardness of his face is changed.
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, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.
6. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him.
7. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?
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.
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.

The apostle Paul was not setting a precedent, when he counselled the Romans to be subject to the civil authorities. The precedent was set in the Old Testament and it was not determined by the word of a powerful king, but it was a divine injunction. It is wisdom to abide by this rule for, as much as possible, there should be order on earth. Roman rule had its flaws and injustices, but in the center of its government, Paul commands the church to be orderly and submissive citizens.

Wisdom is necessary in order to deal in government matters and it will find the correct way to interpret a given situation and have understanding of it. Especially upon receiving wisdom from God, with the answer comes conformity and even a softening of facial expression; even beyond that, it will shine with contentment and satisfaction. This is the beauty of wisdom and its effect upon the whole personality (v.1).

A preacher cannot speak with his own advantage in view, but must advocate God’s case. Therefore Solomon is not promoting his own position as king, who might demand obedience, but as a messenger for God and for the good of the people. We quote again the great principle, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. The person who fears God will wisely respect the one, whom He has appointed. We return to Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resist what God has appointed” (Ro.13:1,2). We note the consistency of Scripture, as Solomon instructs the reader to obey the ruler’s command, because he holds God’s seal upon his appointment (v.2).

 Be careful of your attitude towards the ruling authority, because it is not in your interest to be rebellious. You are not in a position to question his decision. Don’t leave his presence in anger, but take his word into serious consideration, because there is not a higher earthly court to appeal to. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt.22:21). Be willing and ready to admit the possibility of being wrong, always keeping in mind the old adage, “to err is human” (v.3, 4). The heart that trusts God will react properly, leaving the matter in His hands, looking for another time and a better way to handle the matter that he needs to bring before the authority (v.5). It may weigh heavily upon him and he may feel desperate, still timing and manner must be taken into account. Wisdom teaches us to wait upon God, understanding that His ways are not our ways (v.6). Hope in God’s word: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Pr.21:1).

We stand helpless, often fearing the unknown, before the predetermined will of God. “My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and my persecutors” (Ps.31:15). What treasures lie in these books of wisdom, from Job to Song of Solomon! The soul of man is privileged in every way to be able to turn to God’s word. He learns from a history that goes back to creation. He learns of the essence of God, by turning to His law. He has the prophets, major and minor, to see the faithfulness of God in fulfilling His word, as well as giving him insight into the future. Above all, he has the Gospels to give him hope in Christ and the teachings of the apostles, to show him how to walk before God. The book of Revelation takes him to the end times and shows him the Millennium, followed by the eternal state of a new heaven and earth.

Yet God has kept many things from us that lie in the realm of the unknown. It is in these areas, where the only answer is to trust our Lord. Wisdom teaches us not to look elsewhere for answers. Particularly, we must avoid all the supernatural traps of Satan. What God has hidden, who can uncover? (v.7) The Father sent His Son to redeem us and give us new life and sent His Spirit to be in us. He is the Spirit of power and truth, but the power of life and death still lies in God’s hand and we have nothing to say or do to change His sovereign will. We have no more control over the day of our death, than we had over the day of birth (v.8).

We are not volunteers in the struggles of life and death, we are drafted, and there is no discharge. Those who go AWOL, do not escape.  Likewise there is no escape from death; it claims 100% of its victims. It is in this matter that money fails those, who put their trust in it. “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Pr.11:4). The love of money, does not only refer to the miser, but to the lover of security. He looks to money for protection from calamity and old age; this also is the “root of all kinds of evil” (1 Ti.6:10).

Solomon has also observed this avenue of life under the sun and he argues from its perspective. He sees the imperfection of human authorities, as well as the imperfection of the one who is subject to it. There is no guarantee that suffering will be relieved or that a judge’s decision can solve a problem. In fact, it may well add to the pain (v.9).

Fearing consequences or fearing God

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.
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.
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.

Long before the Pharisees existed, there have been religious hypocrites. They date back to Cain, who offered to God that, which he had grown in his garden. God refused it. There have always been hypocrites, but we should not conclude that they are all insincere. There are many who are deceived to the extent that they walk sincerely down the path of religion, hoping that it will lead them to the right destiny. They go in and out of the holy place; they walk in and among the righteous. Whether they are sincere or not, they are all wicked before God, although there standing before men may be praiseworthy. They may accomplish humanitarian goals that are honorable. The history of the church has taught us this lesson of vanity well (v.10). Self-righteousness is the epitome of vanity!

Verse 11 gives us a deep philosophical problem. If judgment were executed immediately, upon the commitment of an evil deed, it would be easy to see that “crime doesn’t pay”. Upon the very small child, it is wise to catch him in the act of wrongdoing, disobedience or rebellion, so that his infant brain can understand the cause of his punishment. During the course of life, the reason for punishment will not be so clear to him. Years go by, before the consequences of his deeds, fall upon the sinner. Because he feels no immediate pain, he continues in his evil practices. Sometimes by the time he falls victim to them, years have passed and he has forgotten the wicked cause. The Bible gives stern warning: “You have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out” (Nu.32:23). Some will not know until the flames of hell torment their souls.

God, in His wisdom, has purposed that it should be so. He has given a conscience, as part of His image in a human being, and it is towards his own well-being that a person be obedient to it. It is for this reason that preaching is needed. Solomon declares that although the consequences of sin are not so easily discerned and the habitually-practicing sinner lives a long life, still it pays to fear God. This knowledge is instilled deep in the heart of the one, who knows God. The wise man is not taught to fear consequences; he is taught to fear God. This is the reason behind the slow turning of the wheels of justice. Hypothetically speaking, if there were no penalty for sin, the righteous, that is, those who fear God, still would not practice sin. Solomon simply states a self-evident truth: They fear God because they fear God! (v.12)

The story of the ones who fear God always has a good ending. It is not the story of the wicked, who has not begun the walk of wisdom through the fear of God. Therefore, though he prolongs his earthly life, he will meet justice after death. Whatever he has experienced in this life is like a deceptive shadow and he has never known the true reality and purpose in living. Always keep the setting of the book in mind: Life under the sun. The sun does not reveal the final destiny of the soul, therefore you cannot trust your eyes or ears. This is what Solomon knows and preaches: You must trust the word of God and fear! (v.13)

Inconclusive evidence under the sun

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.
15. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that has given him under the sun.
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.

When Paul’s ship was destroyed off the isle of Malta, he was busy gathering kindling for a fire to warm the crew, when a viper fastened to his hand. “When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live’” (Ac.28:4). This was the superstitious conclusion of people, who judged according to the inconclusive evidence that they saw under the sun. When they saw he suffered no harm, “They changed their minds and said that he was a god” (Ac.28:6). This also was untrue.

Solomon learned in God’s wisdom that this is vanity. He has said it before, but he repeats it for emphasis, because repetition is a great teacher (2 P.1:12-15; 3:1; Jude 1:5). Under the sun, bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people (v.14).  Many times the righteous are not rewarded in this life, nor do the wicked receive their worthy recompense. We need to see that there is no conclusive evidence for judgment under the sun. Jesus taught, “Do not judge by appearance, but judge with right judgment” (Jn.7:24). Isaiah said concerning the coming Messiah: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear” (Is.11:3).   

Let us briefly follow Matthew Henry’s comments on this verse: “He saw wicked men to whom it happened according to the work of the righteous, who prospered as remarkably as if they had been rewarded for some good deed, and that from themselves, from God, from men. We see the just troubled and perplexed in their own minds, the wicked easy, fearless, and secure… the just crossed and afflicted by the divine Providence, the wicked prosperous, successful, and smiled upon… the just censured, reproached, and run down, by the higher powers, the wicked applauded and preferred. He would have us to take occasion hence, not to charge God with iniquity, but to charge the world with vanity.”

Concerning verse 15, we also need to emphasize the setting under the sun. The preacher is piercing with his two-edged sword into the conscious soul of earth’s inhabitants, and twists it, in order that they feel the deep impression of his claim that all else is vanity. Solomon recommends the only thing this life has to offer, that is the legitimate joy of a merry meal. It will give him some respite from the curse of Adam, the curse of fallen man, which he has inherited: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring for you… By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Ge.3:17-19). He is to enjoy the legitimate pleasures that God has given, during his time on earth. Unless blessings from on high are experienced, this is the maximum that this present life has to give.

In Solomon’s 24/7 quest for wisdom to understand life on earth, he concludes that there is nothing to learn, but that all is vanity. I tried, he said, but I failed, and the philosopher, who claims that he has found out the meaning of earthly existence, is a liar. “He cannot find it out” (v.16, 17). There is nothing to be learned from vanity. That being the case, Solomon has a single message: “All is vanity

The only thing of value here is the work, which God is carrying out, and He has declared, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways…” (Is.55:8, 9). The disciples prove to us that even followers of Christ are only in the process of learning His ways, for they often misunderstood His actions. We spend our entire lives learning those ways, and whereas we make progress, to be sure, even eternity will not give us enough time to fully understand. It is because, He is God and we are but weak humans.

The one way that we learn is through the Holy Spirit, even as Moses: “He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel” (Ps.103:7). His ways warm our hearts, we yearn to know them and He is gracious to teach us, but we must rest in confidence that He is sovereign and is working for eternal good. As the preacher, we find nothing here to satisfy our redeemed souls.


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