In chapter eight of Ecclesiastes, Solomon reflects on the consequences that can result from the choices we make in life. He evaluates our motives in making wise choices, and also suggests that wise choices are better than foolish ones, even if we do not get what we desire as a reward for those wise choices. We need to learn to trust God even when we do not understand the mystery of how he works.
1 There is nothing like the wise person — someone who knows the interpretation of a thing. A man’s wisdom can make his face shine, and change the hardness in his face. 2 I warn you to obey the king’s command, because you affirmed before God that you would. 3 Do not hurry to get out of his presence. Do not take your stand in partnership with evil, because he will do whatever he pleases.
Recently, I made a mistake in judgment while traveling on the New Zealand motorway. I knew it was a mistake when I was doing it, I am sorry I did it, and I am grateful that there was no damage, and nobody got hurt. A motorist behind me saw my action, called the police, and in a few minutes, a policeman pulled me over. The man with the badge was gracious to me, but he had all the authority he needed if he had felt I needed more than just a talk.
Obeying the law – or, as Solomon calls it, the king’s command – is something we should seek to do because we affirmed before God that we would. It is not just about fearing the badge, or fearing the embarrassment of getting caught. It is a test of integrity. We need the discernment to be obedient to the law at all times because of our relationship to God.
4 Since the word of the king rules, and who is going to ask him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will not know the suffering that disobedience causes, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the appropriate way to act. 6 Because there is a time and a way for everything, even when a man’s trouble is bearing down on him.
We live in a generation that idolizes disobedience and rebellion. We need to know the wisdom that sees rebellion as a cause of suffering. As long as we keep putting rebels – people who insist on doing things their way – on pedestals, we are going to keep creating more suffering. Whether politicians, poets or performers, we need to choose heroes who know how to play by the rules.
7 Because he does not know what is yet to come, who can tell him how it will be? 8 No one rules over his own breath, nor rules over the day of death. There is no discharge from that war, not even wickedness can deliver those whose time is up. 9 All this I realised while thinking about all that is done under the sun, when someone had power over another to his detriment.
Some think of Ecclesiastes as a justification for throwing away all self-control, and just enjoying life regardless of the consequences. That is a misreading of Solomon’s advice. He advocates caution and self-control here. His wants us to enjoy life all you can, but also to remember that there are a number of things not under your control. Our death and destiny are in someone else’s hands. So we should not flirt with death, because wickedness will not save us when our time is up.
10 Then I noticed what happens when the wicked are buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and had been praised in the city where they had done such things. But that kind of praise is also impermanent. 11 Because judgment against an evil deed is not meted out speedily, the heart of the children of Adam tends to keep doing evil. 12 Even if a sinner does evil a hundred times and lives a long life, I still know that it will be well with those who fear God, because he sees their reverence. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he live a life as long as a shadow, because he does not revere God.
Solomon discusses the problem of the wicked person who lives a long life and is praised by others for his apparent godliness. Why is it better to live with integrity and to truly respect God? Solomon looked longer at the problem than we usually do. He watched the hypocrite die. He saw him buried. Then, he noticed that there was nothing left of his riches and reputation. But even for the poor honest person who lives a short life, there is hope that the God who lives will remember.
14 Here’s another example of impermanence reigning in the land: that there are righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and there are wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. I said that this also shows impermanence. 15 And I commend joy, because man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, because this attitude will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. 16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done in the land, how neither day nor night do a person’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot comprehend the work that is done under the sun. However hard a person may work in investigating, he will not figure it out. Even if a wise man claims to know, he cannot comprehend it.
The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible in general (and conventional wisdom) teaches that if you do what is right, you will be rewarded with a better and longer life as a consequence of your obedience. But Solomon points out that things do not always turn out that way. Some people do very wrong things, and deserve judgment, but do not get it in this life. Others do very good things, and deserve blessing, but do not get it in this life. What happens to people is often a mystery that – like so many of God’s other activities – remains unsolved. So, Solomon recommends going through life with a good attitude and experiencing joy anyway. Such is the mark of people who are not putting all their hopes in this life. They are mindful that there is mystery to life, and willing to let you sort it all out.