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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes 8

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Verse 1


In this chapter we are confronted again and again with our incapability to arrange and control our own existence. The wise man will see that and will be modest and distance himself from arrogant opinions.

Who Is Wise?

“The wise” whom the Preacher is talking about here, of whom he wonders who is like that, is somebody who knows about the sense of labor of man on earth. Such a wise man “knows the interpretation of a matter”. However, such man is not to be found. Even the Preacher, who is the wisest man on earth, is not that wise, for he could not find any explanation, despite a deep and broad research.

Yet, there is a form of wisdom that can be present and that is the acceptance of the fact that the interpretation of a matter lies outside the understanding of man. This is not resignation, but the recognition of one’s own limitations and powerlessness. As a result, man is released from the burden and he is “illumined”, the sadness disappears. It causes “his stern face” because he has no control over life, to beam. His facial features become soft because he sees that God controls everything and that he can trust that He will fulfill His plan, both with the world and with him personally.

The wise adjusts himself to what comes over him, because he realizes that he cannot and does not have to explain everything. The wise is modest and does not boast that he knows or will be able to find an explanation for everything that can happen in a person’s life. This is why he has a happy face and also light so that he can behave himself in an appropriate manner in those circumstances.

The wise knows what to do because he judges the circumstances according to God’s Word (Hosea 14:9; Psalms 107:43; James 3:13). Only fellowship with God gives wisdom and understanding which makes a person to know “the interpretation of a matter”. Joseph and Daniel could interpret matters, like the dreams of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, the rulers to whom they were submitted. They were wise because of their fellowship with God.

Verses 2-8

Respect For the Authority Given by God

Wisdom is first and foremost seen in the submission to the government that God has appointed (Ecclesiastes 8:2; Romans 13:1-Judges :). The Preacher points to that with emphasis when he speaks out: “I say.” Taking into account the authority established by God is wisdom. We should not influence governments. Even when a government is unrighteous and randomly makes laws, it is wise to submit to it and not to revolt against it. An example of that attitude is seen in Daniel and his friends (Daniel 1:1-Proverbs :).

The Preacher assumes that the king has absolute authority (Proverbs 24:21-Song of Solomon :).Therefore, resistance against the king is folly, for by his authority he is stronger than we are. In addition, it is disobedience to God, for God has given him that power. Only in a case where the king or the government demands something from us that goes against God’s Word, we need “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Therefore the friends of Daniel did not bow to the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, despite his command that everyone had to fall down and worship it. They could not obey that command, whatever the consequences (Daniel 3:14-Job :).

Our obedience to the king as the highest authority in a kingdom lies in the basis of “the oath before God” (cf. 2 Samuel 5:1-Leviticus :; 2 Kings 11:17; 1 Chronicles 29:24). That oath may refer to ourselves. We do not take an oath in the usual sense of the word; however, if we claim to submit to God’s Word, it includes the obligation of submitting ourselves to the king. We therefore do not resist against the king and we will even less rebel against him, but submit to him (1 Peter 2:13-Nehemiah :).

It is wrong to withdraw ourselves from the obligations that we have towards the king and to turn against him on a whim of anger (Ecclesiastes 8:3). If we leave the king in a hurry, we indicate that we do not accept him any longer. We may think that we have reasons for that, for example that he does not meet our wishes and expectations.

It is “an evil matter” to behave in such a way and hold on to it, for the king is an authority given by God. God has given the sword of power to him and he exercises that power as it pleases him. This may be in a good way, but also in a bad way. Therefore, the way he rules should not determine our attitude, but the position that he has received from God should.

This is also important for other areas of our lives. You can be disappointed by your husband is such a way, that you decide to leave him with the thought of getting happier with a new husband. You can be disappointed in the leaders in the church because of a small thing. Some people leave the church because of that, under the presumption that they will not experience such frustrations in other churches. This principle also goes for the job we may have. The ‘grass is greener syndrome’ – the idea that the grass with the neighbors is always greener – is very deceptive. With our attempts to escape our problems we can cause a lot of sorrow and pain to ourselves and also to others.

There is no way to escape the king, for ‘he has many eyes, many ears and many long arms’. The power of the king is unlimited. We see that with a good king as Solomon (1 Kings 2:29-1 Corinthians :) and with a bad king as Herod (Matthew 14:9-2 Samuel :). It is about the power as such, not about the way it is exercised.

The Lord Jesus never called us to overthrow the evil power. He also submitted Himself to the ruling power of the Romans, no matter how corrupt that power was. He says to the ungodly Pilate: “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).The Lord recognizes Pilate’s position. Later, Pilate will have to account for the way he dealt with the power that was given to him. That was not the case then.

The reason why it is wise to do what the king says, is because “the word of the king is authoritative” (Ecclesiastes 8:4). There is power in his words. His word has authority and it must be obeyed. We are obliged to comply what he imposes on us (cf. 1 Samuel 8:10-Job :). He has received power to rule, we have not.

The king is above his people. We cannot call him to account. His power is a reflection of the ruling power of God, Whom we cannot call to account either (Job 9:12; Isaiah 45:9; Romans 9:20).

If we obey the command that the king has enacted, we will not have to fear any trouble from him (Ecclesiastes 8:5). This is the direct reward from God for a good behavior (Romans 13:3-Numbers :). No matter how bad some governments are, without a government there will be anarchy. It is better to have a bad government than no government.

He who knows the will of the king and takes that into consideration, shows that he has a wise heart. A wise man does at the right time and at the right moment or in the right way what the king expects him to do. The highest wisdom for people is to submit to the commandment that the highest authority has enacted. An additional result is that life becomes much easier. In general people will not get into trouble with the king when they do what he said. If you keep up the speed, you do not run the risk of being fined.

Considering the commandment applies in the highest degree for the commandments of God. All the commandments of God are commandments for life. Whoever obeys them will experience the good and not the evil. Commandments are to make us safe and happy on the path of obedience. It is the path of self-sustainability and of harmony within our environment. The great commandment for us is the commandment that we love one another. “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). Love will never lead anyone to violate any commandment of the law, but on the contrary will fulfill every commandment of the law.

The heart of the wise considers the time in which he lives and the opportunity he has to live. He can see through the decisions of the government in the light of the circumstances and knows how to behave. The wise knows the time of God and sees the opportunity or procedure to act. Examples of such wise men are Jonathan towards David (1 Samuel 19:4-Joshua :), Nathan towards David (2 Samuel 12:1-2 Chronicles :) and Esther towards Ahasuerus (Esther 7:2-Numbers :).

When a man violates the commandments, the result is that “a man’s trouble is heavy upon him (Ecclesiastes 8:6). This happens according to the law of sowing and reaping that is related to each act (Galatians 6:7). When the proper time and opportunity are ripe, the harvest comes, in whatever form.

“Every delight” or “every purpose”, also the decision of a government, takes place at a certain point in time which also offers the opportunity for that delight. Because the world lives in sin, everything that happens, also the delightful things, do not benefit man, but causes trouble that is heavy upon him. At the beginning it may look as if it is getting better, because man has more to spend. But the delight of prosperity becomes his death. “Trouble” may also consist of frustration, stress, chaos and disorientation. Those are things that make life very unpleasant instead of delightful.

Everything that man possesses and invents without God, leads him to destruction. Some inventions may lengthen the duration of his life, but not its quality. However, with the duration often sorrow increases. In order to make ‘a way of escape’ from that, people invented ‘voluntary euthanasia’, so that a human being is able (to allow) to put an end to his life. However, who thinks about coming in such trouble from which he will never ever be able to be freed thereafter and that the trouble will be heavy upon him?

The trouble of Ecclesiastes 8:6 is mainly caused by the fact that man has no control over the future, for “no one knows what will happen” (Ecclesiastes 8:7). The man without God does not know anything about the future. No one can tell him, certainly not the fortune tellers. Only God knows the future and knows what will happen (Isaiah 46:10-1 Kings :). He also makes that future known and tells us when certain things happen. In view of the future He warns man.

For the man who does not trust in God, the insecurity of the future becomes an oppressive burden that leads him to madness (Luke 21:25-Ezekiel :). He wants to know how politics will develop and how the world economy will run, so that he can make the right decisions and make a profit. This goes for speculations, but also for an education and purchases.

Four things are mentioned here that place a limit to any authority (Ecclesiastes 8:8). Those are things that prove that man is not able to control circumstances:

1. “No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind.” The word for ‘wind’ is also ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’. Over all these things man has no authority. The breath or spirit of man is in God’s hand (Daniel 5:23), which means that God has power over life and death. God gives spirit or breath and He also restrains it or takes it back.
Another thought is that a man has no power over another man’s spirit, just as he has no power over his own. We see that for example with Nebuchadnezzar who wants his wise men to tell him which dream he has had (Daniel 2:1-2 Kings :). That is of course an impossible and foolish question. It also appears that he too, with all his power, is not able to influence their spirit in such a way that they can tell him his dream.

2. Man also has “no authority over the day of death”. Only God has that authority (Deuteronomy 32:39). Our times are in His hand (Psalms 31:15; Psalms 39:4-Deuteronomy :; Job 14:5). If man puts an end to his life by himself and even determines the day and the means for it, it seems as if he is mocking this word of God. However, he does not realize that he is induced to commit this deed by the murderer of men from the beginning, Satan, the great adversary of God. The life of a human is determined by God or under the permission of God by Satan and not by himself.

3. “There is no discharge in the time of war”, which is the war against death. The word “discharge” alludes to the obligation of military service of all Israelite men over the age of twenty years old (Numbers 1:3). Certain categories of those were discharged (Deuteronomy 20:5-Ruth :). From the war that the Preacher means, the war against death, not one is exempt. For no one there is “discharge of this war”, nobody escapes from this war against death, a war he will always lose. Everyone is a sinner and has to deal with the consequences of his sin: the inevitable death (Romans 6:23).

4. Also “evil will not deliver those who practice it” from death. Whatever tricks the evil man invents to escape from it, it is meaningless. In obituaries you may read that someone has ‘lost the unequal fight’. It is about for example the fight against an incurable disease that a person died from. The famous soccer player Johan Cruyff said at a certain moment that he, in his fight against the cancer in his body, was leading with 2-0 in a match which was not over yet. He added: ‘But I know for sure that I will be the winner of this fight.’ What an arrogant narrow-mindedness. He has lost the fight and did not escape death. His death was announced with the words that he died ‘after a fierce fight against cancer’.

Verses 9-13

The Mystery of God’s Government

The Preacher not only sees, not only observes with his eyes, but he also applied “his mind to every deed that has been done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:9). The words “[another] man to his hurt” refer to those over whom authority is exercised. Power corrupts. A man with power, but without God, always uses his authority wrongly.

The Preacher has seen another thing and that is the treatment that “the wicked” received when they were “buried and going away” (Darby Translation) into the grave and what happened to those who “used to go in and out from the holy place” (Ecclesiastes 8:10). There are few things as appalling as the sight of wicked people that are prosperous. What makes you even sicker is when wicked people die and people honor them with the blessing of religion. They are given a solemn funeral and are buried with splendor. The wonderful words that are spoken about them, come from the mouths of their admirers who are just like them or would like to be like those wicked people.

What really makes you sick, is the destiny of the ones who acted rightly, “those who used to go in and out from the holy place” against the background of the honor that those wicked people are given. They are forced to “go out from the holy place”, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is so called because the temple is there . These troublemakers, those pious men who did not participate in the admiration of the wicked people, must be forgotten. In their behavior and words they remind people of the righteous God. Therefore: Get rid of them! That also means that there is no funeral for them in the holy city, which is a horrible thing for a God fearing Jew.

The corrupt man thinks that there is no judgment at all and that God is absent, because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly (Ecclesiastes 8:11). And if there is any thought of God, then heaven's patience is interpreted as proof of approval. That is an extra stimulus to continue doing evil. The “hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil”, which means that the heart is wicked; the heart is the source and it remains wicked.

Man is not interested in the patience of God Who wants him to repent. Instead man continues to sin and in that way he is “storing up wrath for himself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds” (Romans 2:5-Joshua :).

The first part of Ecclesiastes 8:12 is directly connected to the observation of Ecclesiastes 8:11. On the earth we see that a sinner can sin “a hundred times” without having any obstacle on the way. He experiences – of course unconsciously – the truth of Ecclesiastes 8:11, that the sentence against his evil deed is not quickly executed. That is why he continues tirelessly to sin, a hundred times, without even noticing the slightest hint of a judgment.

Then we see in the second part of Ecclesiastes 8:12 something of the faith of the Preacher. He cannot reconcile with the thought that the wicked can always go on and that they will also prevail. It is not like that either. He knows there is coming a moment that God will judge. The Preacher has knowledge of God.

He knows that God is not with the sinner, but with those who “fear” Him, which is reverence Him and take His will into consideration. He adds a confirmation to it that such men “fear Him openly”, meaning that they live in fellowship with Him, with their hearts and eye focused on Him. It will be well for them.

But for the evil man, who apparently can go his own way undisturbed, it will not be well. He will not lengthen his days, for he does not fear God. He has lived his life outside fellowship with God and end up in eternal death after his life, outside of fellowship with God. His life now is like a shadow: empty and worthless (cf. Ecclesiastes 6:12). It is not real life, the shadow of death lies over it.

In Ecclesiastes 8:13 the Preacher adds what the fate of the wicked man is. When we read it, it seems that there is a contradiction between Ecclesiastes 8:12 and Ecclesiastes 8:13. In Ecclesiastes 8:12 it says that the sinner may lengthen his life and in Ecclesiastes 8:13 it says that the evil man will not lengthen his days. The false contradiction disappears when we see Ecclesiastes 8:12 in the light of life on earth and Ecclesiastes 8:13 in the light of eternity.

To see that the one verse does not conflict with the other, we need to look beyond this earthly life. That is what the Preacher does here, without explicitly mentioning that aspect. His words contain faith in the resurrection. The days of the sinner can be lengthened on earth, but after his death he will rise to the resurrection of the judgment because he has committed evil deeds (John 5:29). It will be well at the resurrection for those who fear God. They will take part in the resurrection of life because they did the good deeds (John 5:29). They will live forever in God’s presence.

Verses 14-17

Which Is Done on the Earth and God’s Work

In Ecclesiastes 8:14 the Preacher is back to his observations under the sun. He makes that clear by speaking about “what is done on the earth”. He has come to the conclusion that things are upside down, that things happen that are contrarian, that fill every sincere human being with disgust. It is about the situation that there are righteous men with whom it goes according to the deeds of the wicked and conversely that there are evil men whom it goes according to the deeds of the righteous.

If things happen like that on earth, it is pointless for one to make effort to make something out of life. When the existence of man would be limited to his life on earth, then it would indeed be “futility”, something like a vapor, which is seen for a short time and then disappeared. Only in the light of eternity the volatile transits into permanency.

The observation of Ecclesiastes 8:14 makes the Preacher lament that man is better off with simple forms of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 8:15). It does not change anything about the labor, but it makes it more bearable (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Everything is better than getting no gratitude or small gratitude or no appreciation because the wicked runs off with the honor you deserve. Pleasure is the most beautiful thing that a man, who is only focused on his earthly career, can achieve. He does not bother one single moment about the unsolvable mysteries of Providence, but he carelessly enjoys the good gifts of the Creator daily, even though it is without thanking Him for it.

The joy of the new testament believer is not related to the things that the earth offers, but to heaven, where he can enjoy the fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:4). That fellowship gives a full joy. Christ is the Source of our joy (John 15:11; John 16:22). We can help one another to know joy and be a support to make others become joyful (2 Corinthians 1:24), so that they can go their way with joy (Acts 8:39).

The research that the Preacher has done wholeheartedly, in order to find out the deeper meaning of life, has only delivered the awareness that all deeds done on earth produce no lasting results, even if someone would do things day and night without a moment’s sleep (Ecclesiastes 8:16). All effort, when seen horizontally, makes no sense.

There is something else that the Preacher has discovered, and that is that God works (Ecclesiastes 8:17). It is not about His creation work, but about His hand in history. In the light of eternity, God’s work takes place in world history and also in our own lives, whereby God goes straight to His goal. There is where the deeper sense of life lies.

The conclusion that God works, does not however, gives the Preacher the answer to the question why God works as He does. To see that God works does not mean that we know how He works and what He is up to. Not a single person can discover that, no matter how hard he labors to discover it (Ecclesiastes 3:11; Job 11:7-1 Samuel :). And if there is a wise man who claims that he knows it, it is arrogance, for no mortal man can discover the depths of God’s work.

Still, the conclusion that God works, can give peace. We do not have to wear ourselves out to search the work of God. We simply cannot. With all the mysteries we can encounter in life, the distortion of good and bad, we can trust that right through everything God does His work and accomplishes His purpose. That we only have questions and no answers, does not have to make us desperate.

Let’s realize that God is God and that He is not obliged to account to us for His actions. He can keep things to Himself because He does not find it useful that we know them. Job has experienced it in his search for the meaning of the suffering that came upon him. With all his why-questions he could only rely on God. God let Job rage till he was finished and then asked him some questions. Those questions make it clear that He directs everything in His creation, that He is at work and that nothing can get out of control. He Himself is the answer to the questions of Job.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 8". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/ecclesiastes-8.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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