Week 9: Rulers and Riddles

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Ecclesiastes 8:1–17
Chapter 15: The Qualities of a Good Boss (8:1–9)
Chapter 16: Mysteries That Defy Explanation (8:10–17)


Solomon continues his exploration of life under the sun tempered by wisdom in chapter 8. He begins by looking at rulers and discusses their power and our duties towards them. He closes the chapter by exploring a riddle many have struggled with throughout the ages, why does evil seem to prosper and good seem to go unrewarded. He has touched on both of these themes already but this chapter will provide greater insights.

Rulers and Rules
Ecclesiastes 8:1-9 ESV

The backdrop for this passage was probably drawn from Solomon’s unique perspective. Not only was he wiser than all the kings who preceded him or would come after, he was also the most powerful king to sit upon the throne in ancient Israel. Solomon’s advice is fairly straight forward, be wise, be loyal, and you will avoid the wrath of the king.

Be Wise
Ecclesiastes 8:1 ESV

(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.

Dealing with those in authority requires wisdom. Solomon has already discussed the superiority of wisdom in earlier chapters. We have learned that "wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness" (Ecc 2:13) and that "wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers that are in a city" (Ecc 7:19). Wisdom is required in our present discussion because without it, we would not be able to act properly before those in authority. Wisdom gives us confidence and strength, as shown by a good countenance (makes his face shine), and helps us obey God’s command to behave with proper respect and courtesy to those in authority and towards all men.

Be Loyal
Ecclesiastes 8:2-4 ESV

(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?"

Solomon gives some very practical advice on why we should be loyal to the king. First, we are duty bound as citizens to obey. In ancient times, people were often required to pledge an oath of loyalty to the king. We may not be required to do that today but we do have a responsibility before God to be law-abiding citizens. Also, we are not to limit our obedience because we don’t like what we have been commanded to do. Consider Peterson’s paraphrases of verse 3 in The Message:

Ecclesiastes 8:3 MSG
(3) Don’t worryingly second-guess your orders or try to back out when the task is unpleasant. You’re serving his pleasure, not yours.

A second reason we should obey is that the king is powerful. Although we may be tempted to question a king’s decisions, chances are, he will win the argument.

A fair question to ask at this point might be, is there ever a time when it is proper to disobey a ruling authority? Scripture does provide one exception. When obeying an earthly authority would cause you to disobey God, you are not required to obey the earthly authority. The midwives disobeyed Pharaoh when he commanded them to kill all the Hebrew male children. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar when he commanded them to bow down and worship an idol. Daniel continued to pray even though he knew a law had been passed that no one could pray to anyone except the king for 30 days. The apostles continued to proclaim the Gospel even though they were commanded to stop. Wiersbe summarizes this issue this way:

When it comes to matters of conscience and the law, devoted believers have pretty much agreed with Peter: "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Christian prisoners and martyrs down through the ages testify to the courage of conscience and the importance of standing up for what is right. This doesn’t mean we can resist the law on every minor matter that disturbs us, but it does mean we have the obligation to obey our conscience. How we express our disagreement with the authorities demands wisdom and grace…

Avoid the Wrath of the King
Ecclesiastes 8:5-9 ESV

Solomon continues his practical advice by reminding us that the best way to avoid the wrath and punishment of a king is to remain obedient. As we see elsewhere in Scripture, God established earthly authority and the power of the sword comes with that authority.

Romans 13:1-5 ESV
1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV

The wise person knows there is a proper time and purpose for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) even if we cannot know what may happen ahead of time. This uncertainty can cause a certain degree of misery (man’s trouble lies heavy on him) and malice. Just like we cannot contain the spirit, stop our own death or decide to desert from the military in the midst of war, we cannot escape the consequences of our own wickedness. This truth applies to rulers as well. We may not be able to ask them "what are you doing?" but God can, and will. Consider James warning to those who use their riches and power to oppress others:

James 5:1-8 ESV

Riddles, Restlessness and Rejoicing
Ecclesiastes 8:10-17 ESV

In this section, Solomon turns his attention to a troubling situation. He begins by examining a case of a wicked man who died and was buried. After his death, it appears as though his wickedness was forgotten and people had nothing but good things to say about him in public. You may have heard the ancient proverb "don’t speak ill of the dead" but this was ridiculous. Also, Solomon observed that evil deeds often appear to go unpunished and that failure to bring swift judgment often encourages the wicked to continue in their wickedness. To make matters worse, he saw that righteous people often endure the hardships that justice would seem to indicate were more appropriate for the wicked and the wicked enjoy benefits that justice would indicate are more appropriate for the righteous. Psalms 73 echoes this riddle:

Psalms 73:1-18 ESV

Asaph, like Solomon, came to the correct conclusion, "it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him." They could not explain, any more than we can, why the wicked sometimes seem to prosper in this life and why the righteous suffer hardship but they could place their trust in God that He would make sure everything would work out right in the end. Solomon struggled with this question day and night before he accepted the fact that only God knows some things.

Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV

(29) "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Romans 11:33 ESV

(33) Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

So what are we to do? Solomon advises us for the fifth time, be joyful and enjoy the simple blessing of food, drink and fellowship. We are not promised and easy life but we can be joyful and thankful. Wiersbe puts it this way:

Having shown that there are enigmatic contradictions in the doctrine of retribution–righteousness is not always rewarded and wickedness is not always punished, and sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous meet with disaster — Solomon again recommended the enjoyment of life. He said that life’s best is to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor (i.e. to eat and drink; cf. 2:24; 3:13; 5:18) and "to rejoice" or be glad (cf. 3:12; 5:19). Also he noted that this joy would enliven one’s labor (i.e., it would accompany him in his work). As is obvious from earlier occurrences of this theme (cf. 2:24-26; 3:12, 3:22; 5:18-20), this is not Epicurean hedonism based on despair but is a note of submission. Man cannot control or predict adversity or prosperity; however, each day’s joys should be received as gifts from God’s hand and be savored as God permits (3:13; 5:19). All this is to be while one is under the sun (twice in 8:15; cf. comments on 1:3).

Paul echoed Solomon’s advice. In a world of rulers and riddles, rejoicing is the path to peace.

Philippians 4:4-8 ESV