What powers do you have in this world?
Read Ecclesiastes 8:2-9:6
Ecclesiastes 1-4 investigated the scope of life under the sun. Chapters 5-11 explore the details of these claims. We saw that there are advantages to being wise but it is hard for people to live wisely. Sin is always around to pull us away from wisdom. But knowing the end of things, our mortality and the fear of God is our benchmark for wisdom.
- 8:2-6 You are not the king
- 8:7-13 You are not God
- 8:14-17 Live with humility
- 9:1-6 Without hope?
8:2-6 You are not the king
“Obey the king’s command, I say…” The Teacher speaks to Israel who have a king. It is ironic that the king of Israel is instructing Israel, the assembly, to obey the king of Israel. But the reason for obedience is not conditional on the quality of the king but on the quality of the promise…
“…because you took an oath before God.” This is the structure of leadership and governance in Israel. Likewise, we shall listen to this wisdom in our own setting. The scriptures allow for a variety of government shapes like kingdoms or democracy but it does not support anarchy.
“Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence.” There could be a daily reverence implied here but the context of Verses 1-6 is about mutiny. Be slow to react and be careful how you proceed. You may be wiser than the king but he is the king (or she the queen).
“…a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?” There is always One who is supreme over any earthly king. The King of kings can say, ‘what are you doing?’ See Luke 23:1-12.
“…there is a proper time and procedure for every matter.” Everything can be done in decency and in order with patience and honour. See Romans 13:1-7.
Conclusion: you are not the king, but there is a King who’s word IS supreme – even the kings will need to answer to Him.
8:7-13 You are not God
“Since no one knows the future, who can tell…” The Teacher reveals the limits of his understanding here. He cannot know the future and doesn’t know anyone who can. And yet, God has been sending prophets to Israel since before Moses. Noah most famously was aware of the imminent flood and built the boat and told all what was to come. Daniel was given visions of the future. Isaiah and the other prophets spoke of the day of the Lord. The Teacher wants to highlight the prison of time that is upon us – that we are NOT all knowing and foreseeing creatures – but God is and he has made known the future to us – a future which centres around the Messiah and judgment.
“As no one has power over the wind to contain it so no one has power over the time of their death.” This is a proverb of comparison. Just like you can’t hold wind in your hands, you can’t hold onto the day of your death like it’s under your control. It’s beautiful to know that Jesus sits outside of both of these constraints. He calmed the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and he laid down his own life only to take it up again (John 10:18).
“As no one is discharged in time of war….” The final proverb in Verse 8 compares a soldier compelled to fight with a sinner compelled to sin. Once again, the Teacher does not teach us that one day the Messiah will release us from the captivity of sin (Romans 6:17-23).
“All this I saw…a man lords it over others…” Verses 9-10 cover two situations: a person with power who lords it over others but their end will not go well for them – they will die and presumably face the music. Then there are those who parade around like they are lovely but the Teacher implies they are really wicked and they will go to the grave too. The power and the praise do not get humans anywhere with God.
“When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out…it will not go well with them…” Verses 11-13 describe injustice on this earth. When a crime is not punished quickly, it fuels reason for others to also be lawless. Where is the swift and sure justice? A criminal may do well on this earth but beware the judgment to follow. It will be better for those who fear God and are reverent before him.
Conclusion: We are limited in knowledge, power over death and sin. The wicked may look to be winning but none of us are in God’s position. We are not God.
8:14-17 Live with humility
“…the righteous who get what the wicked deserve…” Life ‘under the sun’ seems unjust. Why is it like this? Is God not watching? The conclusion is not to be wicked but to be careful…
“…then joy will accompany them…” With all that has been said before, our lot is to submit to rulers and to honour God and to enjoy the limits of this life as best we can. Live with humility. This level of joy is incomplete though – how can we enjoy the injustice of this world? We need more than what the Teacher is offering!
“…then I saw all that God has done.” Verses 16-17 salute the difference between mankind and God. We are not God! We are limited but look at all that God has done! We may try to understand and claim to know but we cannot comprehend it. We need God to help us see the future, to find joy that comes with understanding and hope. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9.
Conclusion: we admit our limits of understanding but look to God to show us the way!
9:1-6 Without hope?
“All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad…” The Teacher is giving no credit to the promises of God. There is a prosperity gospel that the Teacher is disproving here. If honouring God comes with blessings and not cursings, then where are those blessings (See Deuteronomy 28-29)? What’s the difference whether you sacrifice or not? What difference does it make if you are good or bad, righteous or wicked? ‘Under the sun’, all we can say is that the wicked may gain wealth and then die – the righteous (God fearing) may live poorly and then die. What gives?
“…afraid to take [oaths]” This is a fun description of people who don’t trust God. They are not brave enough to make a promise and keep it. The ‘good’ will take oaths and work to keep them whether it hurts or not – the sinful will be too afraid to take them in case it backfires and doesn’t work out for them. There is a lack of faith to honour God.
“The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts…” This is a true thing. There is nobody righteous, not even one, says Romans 3:10 (citing Psalm 14 and 53).
“Anyone who is among the living has hope…” Taken out of context, this sounds right, but the words that follow limit this hope. The only hope described here is the hope of today but not tomorrow. This is not Christian hope.
“…the dead know nothing…their name is forgotten…long since vanished…never again will they have a part in anything…” This is not hope – it is hopelessness. The Teacher has told us that if you are alive, then good but when you’re dead, you’re dead. Does this mean that there is no teaching of the resurrection in the Old Testament? No, it means that the Teacher is not teaching it. “The LORD brings to death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.” (1 Samuel 2:6) This could be read as a metaphore for prosperity but the New Testament takes that ambiguity and puts the final nail in the coffin! The dead do rise and there is great hope for those who trust in God! BUT, this is not universal and many will miss God’s grace and their names will not be included in the book of life.
Suggested questions for running this study.
Q1. What is the Teacher’s wisdom about kings in Verses 2-6? How does the New Testament reflect this? See Romans 13:1-7 or Titus 3:1 or 1 Peter 2:13-14. (warning, this could amount to a complete study if some see controversy).
Q2. What are the limitations on humans described in Verses 7 and 8? Do we know of any escape from these ‘prisons’?
Q3. What is the Teacher’s advice in Verses 14-17? Is it sound advice? How is his advice any different to the wisdom of this world?
Q4. What is the best that the Teacher can hope for according to 9:1-6? Notice the destiny he describes. What type of hope does he teach? Do we have the same hope?
Q5. Read 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 to critique the Teacher (and ruler of this age).
We ought to take stock of our position in the universe. We will be subject to rulers, whether they be wise or foolish. But even the kings of this world need to concede that there is a King over them who can hold onto the wind, and directs the future and has laid down his life in order to set the captive free! We have hope that goes beyond the schemes of this world. The Lord is King and He’s going to take care of everything!
Challenge#1 Trusting God by honouring the government
Christians across the ages have lived under governments who are selfish and short-sighted and foolish. The LORD himself demonstrated great restraint and humility as he stood before Pilate and Herod. Honouring governments is not conditional on whether they are righteous or not. We live for the Kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:32) but we live under the authority of earthly powers. Our challenge is to proceed with wisdom in this world, unafraid because we have confidence in the sovereignty of God. You might read Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14. This world is passing by. The justice of this world falls short of what we long for under God. But that doesn’t make our governments unworthy of respect and inconsequential.
Challenge#2 Know the King
Along this study we have read of the limitations we are under and the limited vision of the Teacher. But we have reflected on how amazing God is and how Jesus is the ultimate king. He teaches us about the future which includes us in it. He warns us of the danger of falling away and despairing. He has gone to prepare a room for us and he has freed us from the tyranny of sin. Knowing Jesus fills our life with meaning!
Challenge#3 The future for haters
Verses 5 and 6 describe a bleak future for those who do not know or trust God. Their future is not oblivion but the second death. This is no prize. Life under the sun as we know it enjoys the general mercy and grace of God upon all humans regardless of how they treat him. But beyond this life comes a judgment and the unrighteous will not receive peace with God. The only hope is for people to meet Jesus. ‘Good’ people will go to the grave. But only those who have loved and honoured King Jesus will be saved. That is sobering. The first thing to do about this is to pray for those who we suspect have not met Jesus yet.