Philip Ryken shares this story from World War II which sets up what Solomon has to say about authority and how we interact with authority in Ecclesiastes 8.
Helmuth von Moltke was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi Germany; yet his Christian faith made him a resolute opponent of Adolf Hitler. Although he believed it would be wrong for him to use violent force against the Nazis, von Moltke used his high position to rescue many prisoners from certain death. Not surprisingly, eventually he was accused of treason, put on trial, and sentenced to die.
In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, Helmuth described the dramatic moment at his trial when the judge launched into a tirade against his faith in Christ. “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity,” he shouted: “we demand the whole man.” Then the judge asked the accused to declare his ultimate loyalty: “From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”
Von Moltke knew exactly where his loyalty lay. He had put all his hope and trust in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he stood before his earthly judge as a Christian and nothing else. His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act wisely when he faced his final hour. As a believer in Christ, von Moltke understood the difference between the proper exercise of authority and the abuse of power. He also knew the wise course of action when he was under someone else’s control and in danger for his very life.
In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon instructs us in how to conduct ourselves before the king (8:1-4), then he discusses the interaction between divine authority and human response (8:5-8). Then he reflects upon the abuse of authority in vv. 9-15 before his final reflection that deals with the human inability to know what God is up to (8:16-17).
These verses give us practical guidance for dealing with earthly government, whether good or evil, even in matters of life and death.
So let’s look today at Ecclesiastes 8:1-4.
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?”
In Solomon’s day, the king had far-reaching power over his subjects. They literally had the power of life and death in their hands and no one could hold them accountable. Therefore, it became imperative to avoid his wrath. We must keep this background in view because it lies behind what Solomon says throughout chapter 8.
This chapter begins by lauding wisdom (v. 1), and it ends by showing that it has limitations (v. 17). Once again, Solomon applauds wisdom. It does make his face shine. It can change the hardness of his face.
The wisdom of the gospel can make that difference—exchanging a stony heart for a heart of flesh—and it shows upon our faces when we experience that grace! Like the Psalmist says, people who look to the Lord “are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (Psalm 34:5).
A striking example comes from a 2008 essay by a prominent atheist about a strange phenomenon he had observed in Africa. The journalist Matthew Parris wrote a piece for The Times entitled “Why Africa Needs God.” Although Parris made it clear that he does not believe in God at all, he admitted that Christianity made a tangible difference in the lives of people he knew in his boyhood home of Malawi and in other countries across Africa. Not only did he admire the good work that Christians were doing to care for the poor and sick, but he also liked the way they looked. “The Christians were different,” he wrote. “Their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world. . . . Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes” (“As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” TimesOnline , December 27, 2008; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/arti-cle5400568. ece.
Biblical wisdom brings personal transformation. As we behold the face of Jesus in Scripture, we are transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
This opening verse summarizes what chapter 7 said about wisdom, while preparing us for what chapter 8 says about things that lie outside our control. Wisdom still benefits us even if it does not answer all our questions or solve all our problems.
Chapter 7 ended by revealing how rare wisdom is—only one in a thousand men possess it.
Solomon seems to be describing an officer in the royal court, a man who had to carry out the orders of a despotic ruler. Fortunately, this officer has wisdom. It showed on his face.
The wise advisor, for all his gifts, is confronted by royal power and is totally dependent upon the royal pleasure. It is all very well to praise the wisdom of the wise (v 1), but one must attend to the risks they run at court (vv. 2–4).
Now, suppose the ruler asked this officer to do something that officer didn’t want to do, or something that was immoral to do. What should this officer do?
We see this happened with Daniel. He had to make a decision about eating the king’s cuisine and another time he kept on praying even after that was outlawed.
So what options does wisdom give us when faced with a command that goes against our desires, or more importantly, God’s will?
The first possible approach is disobedience. And there is a case for civil disobedience in some situations. But Solomon first begins by saying, “I say, keep the king’s command.”
Why? After all, there are hints throughout the passage that the ruler in question may or may not exercise his authority in a godly way. In fact, verse 9 indicates that earthly authority is often abused: “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.”
R. N. Whybray captures well the ambivalence in Qoheleth’s attitude toward political authority: “on the one hand he counsels obedience and submission to it on the grounds of prudence, while on the other he does not hide the fact that he regards it as brutal and tyrannical.”
How do we honor God by honoring the king?
Our first duty is obedience. So the Preacher begins by telling us to “keep the king’s command” (Ecclesiastes 8:2). A wise servant will do what the king tells him to do. He will say, “Your wish is my command.”
Reverent obedience to the king is part of the wisdom teaching (Prov. 24:21). One is expected to respond to him with “honest lips” (Prov. 25:6) and “to claim no honor in his presence” (Prov. 25:6). Royal displeasure is frequently mentioned as something you definitely want to guard against (Prov. 14:35; 16:14; 19:12; 20:21). A wise person should pacify the king’s wrath (Prov. 16:14) rather than stir it up.
This, of course, is Paul’s contention in Romans 13. “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Romans 13:1–2).
The first reason we should obey the king is that God made an oath to him. Rightful kings in Israel ruled because of God’s promise, just like the promise God made to David in 2 Samuel 7. The people of God were obliged to obey their earthly king because he was anointed by Almighty God. To obey the king, therefore, was to give honor to God.
A second reason to obey the king is that they possess ultimate control. Verse 4 tells us that the “word of the king is supreme.” You can’t argue with him or accuse him of wrongdoing. There is no law that would find him guilty.
Third, when you go against the king, you will be punished (v. 5).
Some day that ruler will appear before the ultimate judge and they will be held accountable. But that does not always happen in this life.
But suppose the officer simply cannot obey his master? What other possibilities are available?
A second possibility that Solomon poses, then denies, is desertion. This is what is meant by “be not hasty to go from his presence.”
Even leaving the palace would not guarantee one’s safety if the king became angry.
It would not be as precarious to walk out on a company engaged in immoral practices today. It may cost you financially, but you would keep your integrity.
A third option in the face of immoral or abusive leadership is defiance. But Solomon says “Do not take you stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases.” I believe what Solomon is saying here is don’t become involved in an overthrow of the king, even if he is doing evil.
Maybe he is telling us not to use evil to fight evil.
But is there ever a place to stand up for what is right, or to stand against what is wrong? Is there ever a place for “civil disobedience”?
When it comes to matters of conscience and it obviously breaks God’s laws, believers have pretty much agreed with Peter: “We ought to obey God rather than man” (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 that we can resist the law on every minor matter that bothers 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.
That is where vv. 5-6 lead us. The fourth option, rather than disobedience, desertion or defiance, is discernment.
We need discernment, because the word of the king is law (v. 4). The sage has little protection against the authority of his royal master. Therefore, if we are unwise in the way we challenge the king’s authority—or worse—if our resistance is evil—then we may fall under his judgment (see Romans 13:4).
You just have to be careful before an all-powerful ruler. According to Derek Kidner, therefore, there are times when “wisdom has to fold its wings and take the form of discretion, content to keep its possessor out of trouble.”
The discerning person knows there is “a proper time and the just way” (v. 5). It takes discernment to know how to object to authority in the right time and the right way. The impulsive person who overreacts and storms out of the room (v. 3) is probably only making the problem worse.
This is illustrated for us in the lives of several Old Testament believers. Joseph didn’t impulsively reveal to his brothers who he was so that they would have time to deal with their guilt. Once he heard them confess their sins, then he knew it was the right time to reveal himself to them. His handling of this delicate matter was a masterpiece of wisdom (Genesis 43-45).
Nehemiah had a burden to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he was unsure if his king would allow him to go. He waited and watched and prayed for the right moment. When that time came, Nehemiah was able to share his heart’s desire with his king (Nehemiah 1).
We’ve already mentioned Daniel, a refugee in a foreign land, who was required to eat the king’s food. But Daniel realized that some of these foods were unclean. Rather than make a big fuss about it, he proposed a test. This pleased the king (Daniel 1).
Michael Eaton also mentions Jonathan with Saul (1 Samuel 19:4-6), Nathan with David in 2 Samuel 12 and Esther before the king (Esther 7:2-4). They used wisdom and discernment to guide their interactions with authority.
When the king is determined to pursue a policy that appears to be wrong or harmful, it is important to avoid responding in ways that reﬂect a lack of loyalty to the king. It is tempting to react with anger or revulsion or to join in a rebellion against the ruler. Qoheleth’s advice is to be patient, obey the king, and look for opportunities to turn the king away from the ill-conceived course. In such situations it is essential to keep the power and authority of the king clearly in view—he has ultimate authority on the human level, is answerable to no other human being, and does whatever he chooses. Wise people can often identify the right time and the right way to bring about signiﬁcant changes for good. The dangers inherent in such situations are obvious because of many factors that not even the most skilled sage can predict or control.
Verses 6 and 7 remind us that we cannot know or predict everything.
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?
Once again we find ourselves up against the limits of earthly wisdom. The wise person has a sense of God’s timing. This is in keeping with what the Preacher said earlier, that there is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
If the Preacher is still thinking about kings and governments, he is saying that there is a time to obey the king and a time to leave his presence, or even to start a righteous rebellion. We can apply the same principle to other situations that involve authority. There is a time to submit and a time to stand against oppression.
The problem is that knowing that time, and the right way to go against authority, is hardly ever clear. It can be quite complex.
The biggest uncertainty of all is the time of death. No amount of wisdom can define the time that we die. That is beyond our control.
The Preacher says, “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Ecclesiastes 8:8). Under the sun death has no winners, there is no release from that battle.
Life and death are in God’s hands. As David says in Psalm 139:16b, “in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” God has scripted out our lives. We have no control over the date of our birth or our death.
Someday soon we will take our very last breath, and when that day comes, there will be absolutely nothing we can do to extend it. The Scripture says, “It is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27), but that appointment is on God’s agenda, not our own. It also says that there is “a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), but that time is not on our timetable. The last breath we take is the last breath we get, and there will be no way for us to take even one more breath after that.
The remainder of verse 8 provides a specific example of the uncertainty of life and death—being a soldier in wartime. “There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it” (Ecclesiastes 8:8).
Military service is regarded as noble. John the Baptist, when calling for repentance, did not require the soldiers to quit their post, but to honor God in the way they completed their duty (Luke 3:14).
However, military service is dangerous. It is not always possible to stay out of harm’s way.
Of all the things that a government commands people to do, this is the most demanding, namely, to defend their country. It is also the duty that brings the most danger, and with that danger, the most uncertainty about the future. A soldier in wartime deals with the real possibility of death at any moment. He of all people knows that he does not have knowledge of the future or power over the day of death. Nevertheless, a soldier must do what he is commanded to do.
The wise way to live in this situation is to submit ourselves to the sovereignty of God and entrust our lives to Jesus Christ.
In the last days of his life on earth, Helmuth von Moltke experienced the comfort of knowing Christ. Although he was innocent of all charges, once he was convicted by the Nazis, von Moltke knew that he was a dead man. Any day could be his last. Nevertheless, in his last letter home he was filled with joy and confidence in the goodness of God.
We who know Jesus Christ as our Savior can have that same confidence, even as we approach the day of our death.