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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Ecclesiastes 8

Verse 1

OBEDIENCE AN ESSENTIAL PART OF WISDOM[1]

Ecclesiastes 8:1-5

"Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the hardness of his face is changed. I counsel thee, Keep the king's command, and that in regard of the oath of God. Be not hasty to go out of his presence; persist not in an evil thing: for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. For the king's word hath power; and who may say unto him, What doest thou? Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing; and a wise man's heart discerneth time and judgment."

A comparison of translations will reveal some uncertainties about what is actually said here. Cook's opinion that obedience to the king is the subject appears to be correct; and we know that this would be exactly what a king like Solomon would advise. As a matter of fact, respect for all legitimate authority is the foundation of all law, civilization and social order. It begins with respect for the authority of parents and teachers and continues as mandatory for all authority, as Paul himself pointed out in Romans 13. Waddey agreed that, "The first five verses here admonish us to be submissive to governmental authority."[2]

"A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine" (Ecclesiastes 8:1). "The claim here is that wisdom gives insight and charm."[3] "A man's wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to shine,"[4] It is not exactly clear why this has anything to do with the paragraph. Cox's comment was that, "Culture lends an air of refinement to the face, and that it improves the carriage, demeanor and personality of the possessor."[5] Delitzsch said, "This verse announces and verifies the incomparable superiority of the wise man."[6]

"Keep the king's command ... in regard to the oath of God." (Ecclesiastes 8:2). "This is a religious duty, corresponding to Romans 13:5."[7]

"Be not hasty to go out of his presence" (Ecclesiastes 8:3). This might mean a number of things: "(1) do not desert the king in time of danger; (2) do not resign your office in haste when things go wrong; (3) don't storm out of his presence in anger when you are not pleased; or, (4) don't seek to flee the country as a defector."[8] The student may take his choice!

"For he doeth whatever pleaseth him" (Ecclesiastes 8:3). Delitzsch translated this: "The king executes anyone he pleases to execute."[9]

"Whoso keepeth the commandment shall know no evil thing" (Ecclesiastes 8:5). This should be understood in the light of many other Old Testament passages which place definite boundaries upon the obedience that any servant of God should give to the evil commandments of earthly rulers. The three Hebrew children refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar's golden image, and Daniel continued to pray to Almighty God, in spite of the specific orders of the mightiest king of antiquity that forbade their actions. The strong suggestion in these verses to the effect that a `wise man' might, through expediency, conform his views to that of some evil ruler cannot negate the truth. "If a man is really wise, he will know that the king's action or commandment is liable to correction, if it is wrong, in God's time and by God's judgment."[10]

Verse 6

REGARDING THE PROBLEM OF ANXIETY

"For to every purpose there is a time and judgment; because the misery of man is great upon him; for he knoweth not that which shall be; for who can tell how it shall be? There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power over the day of death; and there is no discharge in war; neither shall wickedness deliver him that is given to it."

"The misery of man is great ... for he knoweth not that which shall be" (Ecclesiastes 8:6-7). The misery which is mentioned here is of a particular kind, derived from man's ignorance of the future. This ignorance is summarized in Ecclesiastes 8:8, under four uncertainties. The literal Hebrew for the first clause is, "Man's evil is great upon him."[11] However, there is absolutely nothing in man's ignorance of the future that causes him misery, unless he gives himself over to anxiety and worry because of it.

It is the glory of the New Testament revelation that men are relieved of all considerations that should result in their worrying and anxiety. (Matthew 6:25-34; 1 Peter 5:7). "But Solomon did not know God and did not know the hope that Christians have about the future."[12]

The Christian may face the future with confidence and hope. Oh, to be sure, we do not know what a day may bring forth; but we know Him who does know! Furthermore, whatever happens to my loved ones, or my property, or my body, or my country, or anything else, nothing can happen to me! Why? The Christ himself has promised, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"! (Matthew 28:20).

I know not where his islands lift

Their fronded palms in air;

I only know I cannot drift

Beyond his loving care.[13]

Ecclesiastes 8:6b-7 here are rendered thus: "Although man is greatly troubled by ignorance of the future, who can tell him what it will bring"?[14]

"There is no man that hath power, etc." (Ecclesiastes 8:8). Here are given the four uncertainties mentioned above, the verse means that, "Not even great wealth will enable the wealthy to defy these limitations."[15] No discharge in war regards the uncertainty that threatens one who may be drafted into a war by some absolute monarch. Of course, this is only one of a thousand evil things that might happen to any person. The mention of God in Ecclesiastes 8:13, below, supports the view of Eaton that, "Solomon eventually turns to a position of faith as the only remedy for all the uncertainty."[16]

Verse 9

THE ANSWER TO UNCERTAINTY: LET PEOPLE ABIDE IN THE FEAR AND TRUST OF GOD[17]

"All this have I seen and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time when one man hath power over another to his hurt. So I saw the wicked buried, and they came to the grave; and they that had done right went away from the holy place, and were forgotten in the city: this also is vanity. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is full set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and prolong his days, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, that fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God."

"When one man hath power over another to his hurt" (Ecclesiastes 8:9). An alternate reading here from the margin (American Standard Version) reads the last two words here as his own hurt. Hendry, however, disagreed with this, "It means to the hurt of the ruled, not that of the ruler."[18] Loader also agreed that, "The people in power used their power to hurt others."[19] We should ignore the marginal reading.

"So I saw the wicked buried ... etc." (Ecclesiastes 8:10). "The precise meaning of this verse cannot now be recovered."[20] One may find several pages of discussions in C. F. Keil, Keil-Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries regarding the various possible meanings; but the various translations indicate that no certainty exists. Here is an example:

"Then I saw wicked men borne to their tombs, and as men returned from the sacred place, they were praised in the very city where they had acted so. This too is futility."[21] "Any restoration of Ecclesiastes 8:10 remains doubtful."[22]

Fleming's comment on this was, "It is difficult to see any principle of justice operating in the world. The wicked remain unpunished; and even after they are dead and buried people still praise them in the very city where they did their evil."[23] We might add that, "This is par for the course; it goes on all the time."

"Because sentence is not executed against an evil work speedily ... the heart of men ... is set ... to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11). This is an eternal principle of righteous government that wrongdoers should be punished quickly; and this verse indicates that failure to obey this principle has the effect of encouraging evil. In America today, we see how true this is. The average time required to execute sentence upon a vicious murderer runs into many years, sometimes exceeding a whole decade.

We like this translation: "Because the sentence for wrongdoing is not quickly executed, that is why men's minds are filled with thoughts of doing evil."[24]

"It shall be well with them that fear God ... it shall not be well with the wicked" (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13). It is amazing that some scholars try to find a `scandal' in the Word of God. Look at this:

"Here is a clear affirmation of the `scandal' given by the success and prosperity of the wrongdoer: `the sinner does evil a hundred times and survives.' But this is immediately followed by another affirmation that seems to deny it and that seems to side with the traditional optimism of the sages that God will judge the wicked."[25]

We have read a hundred similar exclamations by scholars who seem to think that there is something inconsistent with the occasional success and prosperity of a grossly wicked man and the untimely end of some righteous person, as being in some manner contradictory to the blessed promises in the word of God (not merely the wisdom of the sages) that the Lord blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. Ridiculous! both in the Book of Job, and in the previous chapter here, we have continually pointed out that this is exactly what should be expected in a world rushing headlong in rebellion against God.

What is written here is exactly the way it is. Yes, sinners prolong their days in prosperity; but it is still true that it shall be well with the righteous and it shall not be well with the wicked. But, of course, Roland E. Murphy `fixed' this `scandal' by calling the statements that it should be well with the righteous and not well with the wicked as, "an addition by a later hand."[26]

In this passage, it is clear enough that the author (Solomon), "Knows the general rule that those who fear God will fare well and live long, and that those who do not fear God will not (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13); but he also knows cases that do not conform to the general rule; and for that reason he calls it all vanity."[27] Solomon was dead wrong in this. Any vanity and vexation that derive from such exceptions to God's will should not be directed against God, as it appears that Solomon might have been tempted to do. It should be directed against man's rebellious wickedness against God's rule. In that alone is the true explanation of the exceptions and the cause of them. The rebellion of Adam's race against God is the full and sufficient explanation of our evil world and its wallowing in its own miseries.

Solomon's false view here that "all is vanity," was due solely to his blindness to the reality and consequences of sin. Fleming noted that, "The traditional teaching did not satisfy him, ... that it made `no sense."'[28] This was not due to anything that Solomon ever saw on earth that was any different from that which he should have expected, but solely to his having turned away from God's Word.

Verse 14

SOLOMON'S SOLUTION FOR THE VANITY

"There is a vanity which is done upon the earth, that there are righteous men unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again there are wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said, This also is vanity. Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be joyful: for that which shall abide with him in his labor all the days of his life which God hath given him under the sun."

"There is a vanity done upon the earth" (Ecclesiastes 8:14). "This says that the righteous get what the wicked deserve, and that the wicked get what the righteous deserve."[29]

What strikes us in this is Solomon's apparent ignorance of the Torah, or at least his total indifference to what is written there. The epic truth that righteous men unjustly suffer and are cut down in the prime of life, while the wicked prosper is dramatically illustrated by the Biblical account of the murder of Able and the subsequent prosperity of the man who murdered him. The conceited notion here that Solomon learned all that about such things from what he "had seen under the sun" is ridiculous. As a matter of simple fact, Solomon himself is the classical example of the wicked man being prospered "as it should have happened to a righteous man."

"Eat ... drink be joyful" (Ecclesiastes 8:15). Solomon's recommendation as the solution for all these exceptions to what should have been was his own version of Epicureans: "Eat drink and enjoy life." Again and again this is the recommendation that Solomon repeated over and over again in Ecclesiastes.

Verse 16

THE INCOMPETENCE OF EVERY MAN TO FIND OUT THE UNSEARCHABLE WAYS OF GOD[30]

"When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes), then I beheld all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because however much a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea, moreover, though a wise man seek to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it."

The problem in Ecclesiastes is exactly that which was encountered in the Book of Job, namely, can the eternal righteousness and justice of God be reconciled with the glaring instances cited in Ecclesiastes 8:14, where the righteous received what the wicked deserved and the wicked received what the righteous deserved? Loader, and other scholars, believe that the author of Ecclesiastes believed that this was impossible. "The answer for the Preacher is no."[31] This writer cannot accept that; and even if that interpretation is correct, it would mean that Solomon himself was grossly in error by such an allegation. Job accepted both the anomalies of life and the eternal righteousness and justice of God as absolutely compatible; and we believe, in his conclusion, that Solomon also did this.

Certainly, any fool knows that "All is not right with the world," and that all kinds of injustices and gross wickedness prevail everywhere; but none of this can be intelligently charged as God's fault, in any degree whatever. Man's freedom of the will, his decision to serve Satan rather than God, the fact of God's displeasure with man's rebellious condition (evidenced by his cursing the ground for Adam's sake), the strange fact of the children of darkness being in many instances wiser than the children of light, the impartiality in natural disasters, and the capricious results of chance happening to all men alike .... it is these things that cause startling miscarriages of justice continually throughout the world. Yet back of it all, the justice and mercy of God prevail eternally.

"Though a wise man seek to know it, yet shall he be not able to find it out" (Ecclesiastes 8:17). Solomon here says that, "Even a wise man like himself cannot fathom the ways of God's providence."[32]

Solomon often stressed the idea of "eat, drink, and be joyful"; but he never cited these things as the ultimate happiness, always mentioning along with them the toil, uncertainty, brevity of life, etc. as foils, even of these blessings. Kidner understood Solomon's real intention when he wrote, "He gives us a ray of hope in the words, `all the work of God' (Ecclesiastes 8:17), for it is God's work that battles us; life is not `a tale told by an idiot.'"[33]

Loader also supposed that Solomon here attributes the riddle that he has seen to the action of God.[34] This is true. Adam's expulsion from Eden, the ensuing enmity between Satan and the seed of woman, the curse upon the earth, etc. - these were key elements in man's earthly wretchedness.

The unfathomable mysteries of life and all of the hidden things that belong to God come to mind as we read these verses. "This unsearchable nature of divine things is similarly proclaimed in Job 11:6-9 and in Romans 11:33."[35]

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 8". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/ecclesiastes-8.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.