Advice With Regard to a Wise Man’s Responsibility in Serving the King (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9).
We must not interpret these verses without regard to what we know about this king. His instruction will surely accord with his own views on authority, and its responsibilities. So our interpretation will depend on our view of who and what the writer is. Some see these instructions as being general advice, given simply in the light of the fact that most kings were despots. Others see them as the instructions of an enlightened king. In fact both interpretations are possible from the wording. It is a question of approach. But it seems to us that the latter is the reasonable position to take.
‘Who is as the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine and the severity (‘strength’) of his face is changed.’
No one can compare with a wise man. No one else can solve problems like he can. His very wisdom makes his face glow, and his face is peaceful and content, demonstrating the genuineness of his wisdom. It does not carry the signs of discontent and worry like the faces of others. Thus he has great responsibility.
‘I say to you, keep the king’s command and that in regard of your sacred oath (‘the oath of God’). Do not be hasty to leave his presence. Do not persist in an evil thing. For he does whatever pleases him. For the king’s word is powerful (‘has power’), and who may say to him, “What are you doing?”. Whoever does what he is commanded will know no evil thing, and a wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’
First the wise man must recognise that if he serves the king he is under authority, so he must prove that he is wise. He must have regard to his sacred oath and not be too hasty about leaving the king’s presence, that is, in order to avoid giving unpleasant advice. The thought is that he should not be in a hurry to avoid unpleasant problems by suggesting he has no knowledge on the matter, or that he is not the best person to ask, thus basically tactfully refusing his assistance. He must stand firm and give his wise advice.
Or it may refer to planned disloyalty. In which case the ‘evil thing’ would be whatever was being planned against the king.
‘Do not persist in an evil thing.’ That is in continuing to advise, or approve of, something that he feels is wrong, (or alternately something that would displease the king. But it is not likely that this writer would expect his wise men to be so subservient). He must give the king honest advice, and if necessary advise a different course. (We must remember that the writer is against oppression - Ecclesiastes 4:1).
‘For he does whatever pleases him. For the king’s word is powerful (‘has power’), and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” ’ This might mean that to refuse to assist the king, or to do something that will displease him, will only put him in trouble, because the king’s word is powerful and he can do whatever he wants. But it is more likely that it is pointing out that the wise man should consider that because the king is all powerful, to give him bad advice will be harmful, in view of the fact that he has absolute authority to carry it through (compare the false advice of Hushai the Archite which resulted in the defeat of Absalom (1 Kings 16:31)). Thus he must ensure that he gives only the best of advice.
‘Whoever does what he is commanded will know no evil thing, and a wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’ If the wise man is obedient to what he is commanded he need have no fear of the consequences. For the reason that he has been chosen as a wise man is because he knows what is the right time to do things, and what is the best way to go about it. So he must speak his mind and give good advice in the light of what is known.
‘A wise man’s heart discerns time and judgment.’ It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that underlying these words are two themes of the book, the passing time-line under the sun (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11) and the fact of final judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:14). The wise man discerns both. He is aware both of time and everlastingness.
Others see it as meaning that he is to understand that obedience is the wise course, because he will then avoid unpleasantness or worse, but this would not be the advice of a benevolent king, and this writer is portrayed as a benevolent king.
‘For to every proposal (purpose) there is a time and judgment, for the misery of man is great upon him. For he does not know what will be, for who can tell him how it will be?’
The wise man’s advice is needed because every proposal needs to be put into effect at the right time and in the right way, in view of the fact of the heavy burden of misery under which most people live. They do not know what is going to happen next, and have no one to give them guidance. It would not be good to add to their misery by giving bad advice.
‘There is no man who has power over the breath to retain the breath, nor has he power over the day of death. And there is no discharge in that war. Nor will wickedness deliver him who is given to it.’
None of the people can prevent themselves from dying, for they do not have control over the breath of life. Nor do they know when the day of their death will be. And none can ask to be discharged from the war of life and death. It is not in their hands. Nor can a wicked man finally avoid it by wicked methods (contrast Ecclesiastes 7:15). He may avoid it for a time, but in the end death will catch up with him. So death is unavoidable for all.
‘All this I have seen, and applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun. There is a time in which one man has power over another to his hurt.’
The writer had paid great attention to all that was being done on the earth. And one thing that he had recognised was that there are times when one person’s action can cause great harm to another. He sees the wise man’s behaviour as an example of this. If he does not give honest advice in some circumstances others may well suffer grievously. Thus he must give his advice honestly. And indeed all who are put in a position where their decisions may affect others, should behave honestly.
This is a reminder to us all that our actions can affect other people. We too must therefore be honest and thoughtful in all we do, considering its effect on others.
Chapter 8 Advice With Regard To Serving The King. The Problem of the Death of the Wicked.
His survey now digresses to consider a wise man’s responsibility when serving the king, followed by a number of expressions of wisdom as befitted the words of a wise man.
The Problem of The Wicked Who Die Unpunished (Ecclesiastes 8:10-16).
The writer now turns to consideration of how and why the wicked die unpunished, and the fact that justice is only carelessly applied, thus encouraging ill-doing. He especially considers cases of some who on burial were treated honourably, and whose wickedness was soon forgotten after their deaths. But in the end he is convinced that in spite of appearances God will surely ensure that justice is finally applied.
‘And so I saw the wicked buried, and they came, and from the holy place they went, and they were forgotten (some suggest a rare form meaning ‘were praised’) in the city where they had so behaved (or ‘where they had done right’). This also is vanity.’
This probably means that they were buried after a funeral service in a holy place which was holy to the gods that they worshipped, for to an Israelite a dead body was unclean and would not be allowed in a holy place. However kings were later rebuked by Ezekiel because they had had themselves buried too close to the temple. So it could be that even men in Israel did seek to be buried in places seen as holy, thinking as men foolishly do that somehow it would benefit them, and that this was actually allowed even though they were wicked.
And then, in spite of what their behaviour had been, they were soon forgotten. Their past was not held against them. Humanly speaking they had got away with it. They were both buried in a holy place, and their evil lives were not remembered by those over whom they had misruled. If God was just it appeared to have been a strange thing to have happened.
But it just may mean that they were praised at their funeral and their ‘righteous’ lives were spoken about before they were buried. If so such funerals were little different from modern funerals. Either way the writer is back to his pessimistic mood and declares it is all empty and meaningless. Nothing has been done about their sin.
‘Because sentence against a crime (‘evil work’) is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’
Then he points out that wickedness is encouraged by slow or careless justice. Crime must be punished, and be seen to be punished quickly, otherwise others will be encouraged to similar crimes. He probably saw those just mentioned as being wicked, partly as a result of having been allowed to get away with it. Thus justice was simply not working properly. And this is probably also to be seen as preparing for the next verse, which speaks of the sinner who does evil a hundred times because he escaped quick punishment.
‘Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and prolong his life, yet surely I know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, nor will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.’
But in the end he convinces himself that though one of these sons of men do evil a hundred times because of the slowness of justice, and the life of this multiple sinner seems still to be prolonged, yet the principle of retribution will eventually apply. It will be well with those who fear God and worship Him, and it will not be well with the wicked man nor will his days be prolonged like a shadow. Long shadows come in the evening when the sun is setting, getting longer and longer. So it may be that he is saying that in the evening of the sinner’s life, because he does not fear God, his days will not be prolonged. In one way or another judgment will come.
Alternately it may be that this hundredfold sinner is seen as the exception, and yet that he maintains that the general principle can still be seen as applying. (Note the use of ‘a hundred’ as meaning simply a large number of times). Either way he has satisfied himself that justice will prevail.
‘There is a vanity which is done on earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens in accordance with the work of the wicked. Again there are wicked men to whom it happens in accordance with the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.’
But the Preacher’s thoughts are flowing to and fro, for he sees that the system of retribution does work sometimes, but that it is not working fully. Sometimes sinners do have their lives cut short, but sometimes they do not.
It had not worked with those who were buried in Ecclesiastes 8:10. It had worked with others (Ecclesiastes 8:12). But there are still others, now mentioned, with whom it does not work. Indeed we have the converse situation. Righteous men who die young as if they were sinners, and sinners who live on to old age. He cannot understand it. It all appears to be meaningless.
‘Then I commended mirth (joy) because a man has no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry (rejoice), for that will accompany him in his labour all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.’
So again he can only fall back on the idea that men may find some kind of true happiness in eating, drinking and rejoicing, together with their labour, all their lives. (The words for mirth and be merry can equally be translated joy and rejoice as earlier. They are the same roots). After seeming to grow in his search for a solution he has now reached his lowest point. Here God is hardly mentioned. He is baffled by the failure of God to exact retribution on the wicked. He recognises that earthly retribution is not the answer, for it often does not happen.
‘When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how that neither by day nor by night do men sleep with their eyes, then I beheld all the work of God, that men cannot find out the work that is done under the sun, because however much a man exert himself to seek it out, yet he will not find it. Yes moreover, though a wise man think to know it, yet he will not be able to find it.’
So he turns for the answer to the fact that even the wise cannot fathom God’s ways and purposes. His search for wisdom continues, and he scans all business done on earth. He notes that there is never a time when all men are asleep. There are those who watch over the sheep, those who stand guard in palaces, those who scan the stars, those who study through the night, those who stay up all night because of their businesses or in order to travel though the night. Thus man is awake day and night. Yet still man cannot fathom all the work of God. It is beyond him. Even the wise man cannot find or know it. He knows this because he himself has tried. It is all a mystery. So it is not that God’s judgment has failed, but that man cannot comprehend His ways (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
This fact that man cannot comprehend God’s ways is at the root of his whole thesis. The godless go on seeking after wind. The godly live in quiet confidence and trust in God. That is why the godly eat, drink and are joyful, because while they do not understand God’s ways their lives are lives of trust and obedience to His will. They do what pleases Him. Thus the Preacher acknowledges that his own ignorance and his concept that all is vanity is also due to a failure to understand God’s ways.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 8". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany