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Ecclesiastes 8:1. The boldness of his face shall be changed.] Folly, in the form of selfishness, imparts a fierce aspect to the features; but wisdom graces them with a superior refinement.
Ecclesiastes 8:2. The King’s Commandment.] The Preacher falls back upon his authority as a king, striving to realise what is the Divine idea of the ruler of men. And that in regard of the oath of God.] An appeal to God as witness to that promise of obedience which every subject virtually makes to the king—the obligation of obedience strengthened by the sanctions of religion.
Ecclesiastes 8:3. Be not hasty to go out of His sight.] A becoming demeanour must be observed in the presence of the King. If he is not favourable to our petition, we must not show our vexation and disappointment by retiring from his presence with indecent haste. Stand not in an evil thing.] Do not excite His anger by the appearance of stubbornness, as if he could be forced into compliance by our stern attitude and bold persistency.
Ecclesiastes 8:5. The Commandment.] “The word of a king.” (Ecclesiastes 8:4.) The expressed will of an earthly authority as representing the Divine. Shall feel no evil thing.] Shall have the protection of the laws. A wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment.] The wise man will modify the common obligation to obedience, by reason and conscience. It may be his duty to resist.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 8:1-5
THE LIFE OF THE RIGHTEOUS MAN IN THE STATE
Ecclesiastes 8:1. He Recognises Duties towards Constituted Authority. The wise man is he who has true spiritual knowledge, and who makes that knowledge the guide of his life. Such will endeavour to discharge all the duties arising from the several relations in which they stand to God and man. All are members of civil society, and therefore subjects under some form of human government. Certain duties are owing to those whom Providence has set over us in the State.
1. The duty of loyal obedience. (Ecclesiastes 8:2.) If it is the will of God that men should exist in civil society, it must also be His will that there should be rulers, for these are necessary to the continuance and perfection of civil society. The actual rulers of mankind are in their places by that Providence which works in history. Properly constituted government affords that protection, and gives that opportunity, by which all the members of the State are able to fulfil their several duties. Our Lord and His Apostles taught that obedience must be rendered to rulers. Their memorable words on this subject must have acted as a powerful check, in the case of the first believers, to any tendency to exaggerate their Christian liberty; to which the temptation would be strong, on account of the corruption of existing governments. We should cultivate,
2. A proper sense of the sacred obligation of obedience. (Ecclesiastes 8:2.) “And that in regard of the oath of God.” Human authorities are called of God, appointed by Him, and fill their places, not on account of their own intrinsic excellencies or merit, but by His permission—by that act of Providence which has placed them where they are. We are under as sacred an obligation to obey them as if we had solemnly ratified the promise of obedience by a formal appeal to heaven. We should cultivate—
3. A delicate refinement of behaviour where duty has special difficulties. (Ecclesiastes 8:3.) In the king’s presence it is proper to maintain a reserved and careful behaviour. If the king grants not our request, it is unseemly to show our vexation by departing from his presence in haste. On the other hand, we should not carry our firmness so far as to appear obstinate. We may have to sacrifice our own private feeling to that veneration which is due to office. The indulgence of improper tempers towards lawful authority might sow the seeds of rebellion far and wide. It is wisdom to study that behaviour which is proper to the occasion, and to avoid all that tends to imperil the safety and good ordering of society. We should cultivate—
4. A proper reverence and awe of authority. (Ecclesiastes 8:4.) Rulers, for certain ends of civil society, stand to us in the place of God. We owe them reverence for the sake of their office, and should maintain a wholesome dread of the power committed to their hands.
II. Wisdom imparts Special Fitness for the Discharge of such Duties. “He who is truly wise, who fears God, and reverences what is God-like in man, does not delude himself by impossible theories of human society. He possesses that practical wisdom which teaches him how to pass through life smoothly, to abstain from infringing the rights of others, and to labour for the promotion of the general good. The wise man is the best servant of the state.
1. He has a better insight into the reasons and the nature of duty. (Ecclesiastes 8:1.) “He knoweth the interpretation of a thing.” Lit., “of the word.” To him the grounds of duty are clear; he is alive to the importance of social order, and brings to the consideration of law a correct moral judgment and the habit of obedience. The great principles of his life are adequate to all the requirements of right conduct between man and man, though they extend beyond it even to the realm of higher duties.
2. He is the subject of a civilising and refining influence. (Ecclesiastes 8:1.) Wisdom is not only a power in the mind and heart, an inward and sacred adornment, but is also a power working outwardly, revealing itself in the style and bearing of a man, and lighting up his countenance with noble expression. It softens all that is repulsive, so that the countenance does not wear that fierce aspect which results from coarse ideas and a selfish heart. This refinement of beauty is an image of that social order and harmony which wisdom tends to produce. It is the pledge of the world’s peace.
3. His obedience to authority is discriminating. (Ecclesiastes 8:5.) He renders not a passive, a blind obedience, as if every command proceeding from merely human authority must be obeyed without questioning. It may be allowed that, in general, it is safe to obey. “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing.” He who renders unquestioning obedience may save himself from many troubles. But if he makes this rule absolute, he may have to compromise conscience. Therefore wisdom must be employed to discriminate when human authority is in conflict with those higher duties which we owe to God. A wise man may have to resist the king’s command, as Daniel did. An unreasoning, blind obedience is not taught in Scripture. Principle is dearer to the righteous man than safety and comfort. Where human and Divine authority are in conflict, his choice is made. He owes his highest allegiance to the “King of Kings.”
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 8:1. None is comparable to the wise man. He alone possesses that real and abiding treasure which cannot be gotten for gold.
The power to investigate the deep reasons of things imparts a majesty and stability to the religious life. The wise man is so fixed upon the solidities of truth that he is not carried about “by every wind of doctrine.” Piety without intelligence is exposed to the dangers of fanaticism.
Wisdom, though an inward power, hangs out her ensign upon the human countenance.
The power of wisdom to elevate and refine its possessor is a kind of renewal of his physical nature, an earnest of the redemption of the body.
The beauty of the “human face divine” lies in its expression. The light of wisdom within beams in the countenance, imparting to it the attractive aspect of intelligence and sensibility. It is a mild and lovely light. It does not dazzle and overpower by the studied brilliance of self-display, but with soft and gentle radiance inspires delight, and wins affection; for of genuine wisdom, self-diffident humility is the invariable associate. Such wisdom gives to the countenance the expression both of dignity and grace [Wardlaw].
“Boldness” may, with greater strictness and accuracy, be rendered by “effrontery,” or “arrogance.” What Solomon seems to say is, that wisdom communicates to the face of its owner an aspect of meekness and gentleness very different from that air of imperious and boastful confidence which it once wore. None is so arrogant as the ignorant or half-instructed; none so unpretending as the man of largest knowledge and deepest thought [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 8:2. Wisdom throws light upon every relation in which man is placed, and makes every duty to appear in clear definition. That book which reveals the highest truths does not disdain to give authoritative commands regarding the every-day work of man in the world.
“The powers that be are ordained of God,” says St. Paul (Romans 13:1). They are ordered and appointed by Him just as much as those who occupy the most sacred offices of the Church. Kings may be imperfect, but so were the Scribes and Pharisees who “sat in Moses’ seat;” yet this does not destroy the obligation to hear and obey their lawful words.
The wise man’s sense of duty to kings rests upon a higher motive than fear, or the love of security. It is with him a sacred obligation.
Since men must life in civil society, they have a right to consider how they shall thus live. The observance of the laws is necessary to secure the common good, and the king is but the living law.
Civil obedience is not a question between man and man merely; but, as we are here emphatically reminded, it is also a question between man and God.… The same “oath of God” expressed or understood, by which the subject is bound to keep the king’s commandment, limits and regulates the very obligation which it imposes. So long as obedience to the king’s command does not involve disobedience to any commandment of God Himself, obedience is imperative. The oath of God exalts loyalty into a religious duty [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 8:3. Our own vexation and disappointment should not destroy our proper reverence for those who represent the law.
A wise man will avoid everything in thought, temper, and action tending to sow the seeds of sedition.
Whilst your first and most sacred regard should be to the “oath of God,” yet your own interest is also involved. You are in the king’s power. He may degrade you from your station, deprive you of your emoluments, and inflict upon you such punishment as shall not be alleviated by the consciousness of its being undeserved. The headstrong passion that persists in evil because it cannot brook submission, is itself inexcusable, it may cost you too dear [Wardlaw].
Beware of rashly casting off allegiance to your lawful sovereign under any temporary influence of wounded pride or passion; or of being led away into sedition or rebellion by the specious plea of reforming the existing order of things. Ahithophel did this in the days of David, and he came, in consequence, to a miserable end.… Or, again, if any man have been seduced by evil counsel, or hurried by resentment or ambition into some unlawful attitude or act, let him not “stand” in the “evil thing.” To persist is only to aggravate the offence, and to make its punishment more inevitable and severe [Buchanan].
Passion, whether in the form of haughty disdain or of stubbornness, is unfriendly to the proper discharge of duty.
Ecclesiastes 8:4. Without power to enforce it, the law would be but mere advice.
The power of law and government is very great. The law never sleeps. It has a retentive memory, and it has long arms. Joab, proud and imperious, and confiding in the impunity which his position at the head of David’s army appeared to give him, trampled on the king’s commandment, but nevertheless he found to his cost, in the end, that where the word of a king is there is power [Buchanan].
There is no appeal from the king’s decree, as he acknowledges no earthly superior. Be it wise or foolish, good or evil, that decree must take effect. The victims of tyranny, suffering for a righteous cause, may indeed appeal to the Heavenly King; but that appeal cannot be heard till the final Judgment.
Authority could never command respect, or be invested with its fitting character of sacredness, if it were compelled to bear upon its very front a proclamation of the conditions upon which it might be set at naught. Hence the unqualified language in which Solomon speaks in this passage [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 8:5. The true liberty for the subject is the liberty of law. Obedience is the condition of safety and protection.
There are times in which obedience to human laws has peculiar difficulty and perplexity for the wise man. But his wisdom disposes him patiently to wait, to watch the time and opportunity, and to judge soberly what conduct is right for him.
Our cause may be righteous and good, but if we lack discretion, our best designs must fall to naught.
Mistaken zeal is ever ready to precipitate events. But “he that believeth shall not make haste.” He can afford calmly to wait.
There are three enquiries which the man of true wisdom is ever proposing to himself:—What should I do? When should I do it? How should it be done? He pays regard not only to the matter or quality of his actions, but to the time and the manner of them. He attends to circumstances in every department of his conduct; in imparting counsel, in administering reproof, in seeking the redress of grievances, in promoting needful improvements and reform;—never forgetting that success very often depends as much on the choice of a right season, and the adoption of a proper way of performing an action, as upon the action itself [Wardlaw].
What is fitting must be studied as well as what is right and good. A wise man observes the proprieties proper to the time, place, and occasion. St. Paul, while adhering firmly to principle, followed no unyielding methods of action; but by “becoming all things to all men,” thus won many to Christ.
Even innocence is but a poor and insufficient protection in a world like this. The wisdom of the serpent is needed as the trusty sentinel of the harmlessness of the dove.
Ecclesiastes 8:6. Therefore.] Best rendered by Although. The meaning is, that notwithstanding the present misery of man, in the ways of Providence towards him, there are appointed times. Deep and wise purposes lie behind all this apparent confusion and disorder. Is great upon him.] The form of the word implying something laid upon him as a heavy burden.
Ecclesiastes 8:7. When it shall be.] The marginal rendering is to be preferred—how it shall be
Ecclesiastes 8:8. Neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.] Lit., its possessors. Opposition, though it may appear for a time to be victorious, will at length prove to be of no avail. This is the principal thought of the verse, and the fit conclusion of the entire section.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 8:6-8
THE STERN DOMINION OF THE SUPREME KING
We now turn from earthly kings and their narrow dominions to consider the Great Ruler over all. There are aspects of His government terrible to man.
I. He Uses an Inflexible Method. (Ecclesiastes 8:6.) In the government of God over nature and man, we observe a stern regularity which is calculated to inspire us with awe of some mysterious and inflexible power. All seems to us as one vast machine which moves on in invariable method, not knowing, not caring, what injuries it may inflict. In some moments of painful thought, it might seem to us that we are abandoned to the terror of some heartless and unsympathetic power. Some of these harsh aspects of God’s government are here indicated.
1. His purposes are already formed. He does not enter upon His work with rudimentary and imperfect ideas, waiting for a wider experience and more certain knowledge. He uses no methods of trial and error; learns not, as we are obliged to do, from failure and success. His purposes are formed once for all.
2. There is an appointed season for their development. The time is determined beforehand when the purposes of God shall be effected. They ripen slowly and await their proper season, nor can any human power force their growth.
3. They appear to be carried on regardless of human woes. Although “the misery of man is great upon him,” this inexorable dominion continues. The wheel within wheel in the system of nature and Providence may raise our admiration, but their terrible regularity of movement and certainty of effect seem to spurn away imploring misery, and threaten to crush hope. Yet the wise man will discern a “reason” behind all these harsh appearances. Therefore he submits and waits. There is a “set time” also to favour him.
II. He Hides from Man Future Destinies. (Ecclesiastes 8:7.) No feeling does more to tame the human breast than our complete ignorance of the future. It is altogether hidden from us.
1. As to what it contains. “He knoweth not that which shall be.” He cannot tell what events shall take place, what new scenes and changes shall be unfolded in the course of time.
2. As to the manner of it. “Who can tell him how it shall be?” He who has studied the past history of mankind with intelligence and calm reflection, can predict the general principles which future events shall illustrate. But in what time and manner those events shall take place, no human sagacity can foresee. This ignorance of future destinies strengthens, in the good man, the feeling of dependence upon God. It makes faith in the love of God a necessity of the religious life. The way may be dark before us, but if we fear the Lord, He will guide us tenderly with more than a father’s care. The oppression of the future becomes light when we are strengthened by a sense of that “loving kindness which is better than life.”
III. He Appoints for Man the Inevitable Hour. (Ecclesiastes 8:8.) However varied the fortunes of men, there is one event awaiting all.
1. When the high summons arrives no power or skill can resist it. Our breath of life is in the hands of God. He decrees the time when we shall breathe the last gasp, and when the heart’s emotion shall be stilled. When He permits the last enemy to grasp us, there is no escape. Death knows no awe of rank, nor yields to bribes. That ruthless power cannot be softened by the voice of distressed affection, or forced to spare his victims by any arguments derived from the usefulness or beauty of their lives. No man has power to retain the spirit beyond its appointed time. Nothing can stay its flight when once it starts on the journey to God.
2. There are no grounds upon which we can procure exemption. On the eve of the battle, or when actually engaged in it, the soldier cannot obtain his discharge. No plea can avail him, no sacred demands of home or kindred. We are all under this inexorable law of war. When the stern command is issued, we must enter into the conflict; we can obtain no substitute, purchase no discharge. When summoned to enter the field in mortal conflict with the last enemy, there is no retreat.
3. Rebellious opposition will not avail us. “Neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.” Wicked men put forth wonderful energy in their evil deeds, but when God’s time of judgment arrives, it is in vain that they resist.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 8:6. If, without the light of a better hope, we survey this scene of man, it would appear as if the Monarch of the world was indifferent to human miseries.
The skill and regularity displayed in God’s works and ways would be of little comfort to us, if we were not assured that behind all there is a loving heart.
God works out His purposes slowly, and (as it appears to us) regardless of the private griefs of men—yea, even of their highest necessities. The world had to wait long ages for the crowning revelation of God’s mercy. Yet all this time men suffered the evils of ignorance, sorrow, and sin.
The degree of mischief, and disappointment, and wretchedness, arising amongst mankind from the want of wise consideration of seasons and circumstances, is beyond calculation. Were men in general more carefully attentive to these, a large proportion of the miseries of which they complain might readily be avoided. But some by their weakness, others by their heedlessness; some by their headstrong obstinacy, others by their excess of pliancy; some by impatient precipitation, others by procrastinating dilatoriness, and thousands in an endless variety of ways, are led to overlook “time and judgment,” and to bring distress upon themselves, or others, or both [Wardlaw].
Ecclesiastes 8:7. Our ignorance of the future should teach us—
1. To be superior to the fear of man. If we have God on our side, how little, after all, can weak and ignorant man do to harm us!
2. That we should not envy the temporary prosperity of others. How soon their fortunes may be wrecked, and the evil time come when riches cannot deliver!
3. That we should seek Divine guidance. God will show us, even through all the miseries of the present, what is the path of life.
It is true that no man can tell “what shall be,” and that neither can any one tell him “when it shall be;” but this is no reason why either the “when” or the “what” that may thus lie hidden in the inscrutable future should be to us a matter of no concern. It is not by being utterly careless and indifferent upon the subject that we can escape the evil that may be impending over us. It is true that we may aggravate that evil, or even create it when it has no actual existence, by tormenting ourselves with excessive or groundless anxieties and fears. As regards those futurities against which no foresight can provide, the part of true wisdom is to follow the counsel of our blessed Lord (Matthew 6:34) [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 8:8. The Royal Preacher had spoken of the power of kings (Ecclesiastes 8:4). Yet how limited is that power? They cannot resist the decree of the King of Terrors.
Death overwhelms the strength of man. It is the great terror of nature. The very thought of it must fill us with horror, unless we are conscious that the inward man is growing stronger day by day.
Man is sown in weakness here—a weakness most sad and manifest in his closing hours; but he is raised in power, which, if blessed by the vision of God, will be “the power of an endless life.”
This is a field in which every man must advance; and every man must advance alone to single combat; and every man in succession must fall. The enemy to be encountered is himself invulnerable; and whether the struggle be short or long, and however successful for a time our efforts may be to parry or to cover ourselves from his deadly thrust, he will, sooner or later, find his way with certain aim and irresistible force to every heart [Wardlaw].
Death can only destroy the body of our humiliation. Our permanent and immortal essence remains unhurt.
Death meets us everywhere, and is procured by every instrument, and in all chances, and enters in at many doors.… And all this is the law and constitution of nature, it is a punishment to our sins, the unalterable event of Providence, and the decree of heaven. The chains that confine us to this condition are strong as destiny, and immutable as the eternal laws of God [Jeremy Taylor].
Ecclesiastes 8:9. There is a time when one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.] This was the definite direction of the Preacher’s observations. He tried to discover what were the prevailing disorders of the time, and he beheld a whole epoch filled with examples of tyranny.
Ecclesiastes 8:10. The place of the holy.] Some understand the place of judgment. Others, the place of honourable burial, where men came and went in funeral procession. But it is more in accordance with the sense of the passage to understand it of the sanctuary, or the community of the righteous. These wicked men concealed their true character beneath the outward forms and proprieties of religion.
Ecclesiastes 8:12. And his days be prolonged]—i.e., in sinning.
Ecclesiastes 8:13. Neither shall he prolong his days.] Vice being unfavourable to long life; though, as in Ecclesiastes 8:12, the time spent in sin, undisturbed by any seeming interference of Providence, may be considerable.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 8:9-13
THE DELAY OF DIVINE JUSTICE
The Royal Preacher often insists upon the truth that God rules over man with an inflexible justice. Yet that justice does not act swiftly, but seems, for a time, to be suspended. We have here three facts regarding this delay of the Divine Justice.
I. That it Continues, though the Worst Forms of Iniquity Prevail. In every age there are prevailing sins whose enormity is so great that they may be said to provoke the Divine Justice. They cry to heaven for vengeance and retribution, yet that cry seems to be unheeded. Some of these sins are mentioned here.
1. Tyranny and oppression. (Ecclesiastes 8:9.) Man is enslaved to man. Those who have the power rule with a rod of iron, oppressing the poor and the defenceless. Cruelty, in some form, exists under every condition of society. The wrongs that men inflict upon one another are amongst the most terrible forms of human suffering. The permission of such evils in the moral government of God is a source of perplexity. It would seem as if heaven heeded not the groanings of the innocent, yet unavenged.
2. Hypocrisy. (Ecclesiastes 8:10.) These tyrants disguised their wickedness under the cloak of religion. They went continually to the “place of the holy”—the Sanctuary of God—the assembly of the righteous. They dared to insult God in His own house. And yet this hypocrisy was suffered to continue, justice not interfering to cast forth these audacious men from the place which they had profaned. And not only during life, but even in death itself, did men attempt to hide these hollow pretences beneath the outward signs of reverence due to real worth. These wicked men were “buried” with all the pomp and circumstance of woe. Yet, with all the advantage of these external appearances, carried on even to the grave, they failed to deceive either God or man. “They were forgotten in the city where they had so done.” Men soon recovered from any infatuation which their outward splendour might have produced. No deeds of love and kindness made them dear to memory, and the world soon consented to let their names die. The wickedness of those men was so manifest that they were hypocrites without deceiving. Posterity covered them with shame and disgrace.
II. That it Continues, though Some thereby are Emboldened to Sin. (Ecclesiastes 8:11.) In the moral government of God, as it is carried on in the present world, punishment does not fall upon the sinner speedily. Even that penalty with which some sins are visited in this life is often long delayed. It would seem as if sin was not interfered with—that there are in the world no sufficient tokens that the Divine Justice is likely to be exact and rigorous. This long-suffering of God, the design of which is to lead men to penitence, is perverted by some into a privilege to sin. The reason of this perversion is not hard to find.
1. There is a feeling that God is indifferent to human conduct. While justice delays, and the course of life seems to run smoothly, the sinner begins to imagine that the moral government of God is, after all, but an empty phrase. The weakness of our moral nature will take advantage of the most slender excuses to continue in a course of sin. Even good men are staggered by the delay of Divine justice to inflict penalty for the crying sins of mankind. In this painful perplexity, they can only find relief in faith, and present comfort in the patience of hope. The long-suffering of God is their salvation (2 Peter 3:15); but with the sinner, it only serves to wear down all moral distinctions, and to blunt the feeling of retribution.
2. There is the excitement of success. The schemes of those “wicked” men had prospered. They gained the object of their ambition. There is a powerful excitement in success. The world worships it, and few men have strength enough to withstand the infatuation. In the intoxication of success, the distinct colours of good and evil fade. Men become the slaves of the unreal. They heed not the solemn and sober facts of human destiny.
III. That it will have an End in Just Retribution. (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13.) The penalty which God’s law attaches to sin is not an empty threat, a vain terror held over the human race. A just retribution will come to all at last.
“The mill of God grinds slowly,
But it grinds exceedingly small.”
There will be just retribution.
1. For the sinner. The most successful course of sin will have an end, when reckoning will have to be made with Divine justice. “It shall not be well with the wicked.” He cannot have any final success. Sin must lead to unhappiness. God will banish it from His sight, and all what is banished from Him is bereft of peace and joy.
2. For the righteous. “It shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before Him.” To “fear God” is the O.T. expression for the state and character of piety. He who is righteous before God does not pervert His kindness, in delaying to inflict the penalties of sin, into license for iniquity. Divine justice may be long delayed; in the meantime, the foulest sins grow rank; and even the good have painful moments of darkness, when faith is difficult; still, in the end, it must be well with the righteous, for God will honour and reward all who have meekly toiled that they might be partakers of the Divine nature.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 8:9. He who studies the moral condition of man in the world will find many stumbling blocks to his faith.
Power is a dangerous possession unless it is regulated by goodness.
Of this fact the system of slavery is still a conspicuous and terrible proof. That system involves, indeed, many and most formidable evils to its unhappy victims; and yet, enormous and intolerable as these evils are, they are exceeded by those which the system entails upon the men by whom it is administered and maintained. They, most emphatically, rule over others to their own hurt. Their moral sense is blunted, and all the better feelings of their nature depraved by the sights which the system compels them to witness, and by the deeds which it requires, or at least tempts them to do [Buchanan].
As the Lord doth for wise ends permit wicked men to come to authority over others in the world, so hath He the time when they shall come to it fixed, and how long they shall have it. For it is clear by the consequence of this ruling, to the person who hath it, that he speaks of wicked men, and the word time signifies a set and fixed season, wherein “one man rules over another” [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 8:10. Death often solves the perplexities of the distressed. The oppressors of mankind are made to yield to the resistless stroke of fate, and so they “cease from troubling.”
There is a form of hypocrisy which springs from ignorance. Men deceive themselves. But there is an hypocrisy which hides great depravity of soul beneath the appearance of goodness.
“I saw the wicked who had come and gone from the place of the holy”—who had attended the sanctuary, joined in the worship of God, and cloaked their unrighteousness and oppression under the garb of external piety—who had “come and gone,” continuing their hypocritical career in safety, no marks of Divine vengeance visiting them for their awful profanation and odious dissembling. I saw them buried,—the victims of mortality equally with others, having no power more than they in the day of death. I saw them buried, carried in affecting humiliation and impotence, to “the house appointed for all living.” … They had sought after, and expected perpetual fame; but men had no pleasure in remembering them; when out of sight, they were out of mind; their name and memory rotted with their carcases in the dust [Wardlaw].
It has often happened that when the grave has closed upon great oppressors, that men have hasted to abolish their laws, and to sweep away all traces of their ambition and pride. In the better state of things which has succeeded, men have been glad to forget the tyrant’s name.
“This also is vanity;” this, to make the inward substance of virtue a shadow of outward beauty. This, to have an opinion of holiness, and to be praised for it, but not to deserve it. This, to be flattered or feared being alive, to be hated being dead. This, being present to be remembered, being absent to be forgotten. This, to be Church Christians, the guests of hell in life and conversation. This, for a while to rule in pride and oppression, and for ever to be slaves to misery and torments [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 8:11. Whatever lies remote from us, in time, fails to affect the mind, or at best affects it but languidly. The delay of the inflictions of Divine justice thus becomes an occasion of indulging in a false security.
That which men wish to be true, they are naturally prone to believe. They are fond of thinking that sin will not expose them to such irremediable vengeance as the Bible threatens. They are willing to be persuaded of this; and they flatter themselves into the persuasion by the wiles of a thousand sophistries. At first, it may be, they commit sin with a timid heart and a trembling hand. They hesitate long. But at length, though with irresolute tremor, it is done. No harm comes to them. No indications of the anger of heaven follow the deed. They feel themselves safe. And having tasted of the sin, it is sweet; and they desire it again [Wardlaw].
It is the proper mark of an unregenerate man, void of saving knowledge and grace, to have his heart fully set in him, without reluctancy or remorse, to do evil. The regenerate have another principle within them, opposing their sinful motions (Galatians 5:17), checking and wounding them, and bringing them to remorse for sin (Romans 7:24) [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 8:12. Sin becomes easier the more it is indulged. Fixed and intensified by the power of habit, it comes at length to be almost as strong as fate.
The sinner, in the long security which is permitted to him, may even seem to have Providence on his side.
The frequent success of the ungodly, and their apparent immunity from evil, may be a sore perplexity to the weak who suffer. Yet, if these look to the end, they will see that the good alone triumph.
There are great fundamental truths—moral axioms, which cannot be set aside by any difficulties of speculation. In the midst of mystery and apparent confusion they shine out clearly.
It is not a bare conjecture, or mere probability, that the godly have of their future happiness, but it is a certainty, and a firm persuasion wrought in their hearts by the Spirit of God, making them to rest confidently upon His faithful word, and helping them to believe by giving them the first-fruits thereof in hand [Nisbet].
Ecclesiastes 8:13. “But it shall not be well with the wicked.” Not while he lives, for even when he prospers it is ill with him: the curse of heaven is upon his tabernacle, and it secretly mingles itself with all his enjoyments. Not when he dies, for he has then nothing before him but “a fearful looking for of judgment.” Not when he appears before the Judgment Seat, for “the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” [Wardlaw].
God’s judgments come suddenly. Men who have not faith see no signs of their approach. The prosperity and security of the wicked are but that strange and unnatural calm before a storm.
The triumphing of the wicked, at best, is but short. Their prosperity has in it no element of solid worth—nothing that will abide through the untried scenes and changes which await them. Their glory passes away as a shadow, completely dispersed by the light of eternity.
When God enters into judgment with the sinner, the vain show of his worldly life disappears.
Ecclesiastes 8:14. There is a vanity which is done upon the earth.] These seeming anomalies in the moral government of God are part of that vanity to which man has been made subject on account of sin.
Ecclesiastes 8:16. And to see the business that is done upon the earth.] Travail, or torment; not business. Compare with Chap. Ecclesiastes 2:26, and Ecclesiastes 3:10. The painful labour of seriously considering human life and destiny. Neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes.] The “travail” is so earnestly carried on as to interfere with proper rest.
Ecclesiastes 8:17. All the work of God.] His universal dominion—the whole sphere of the Divine operation as observed by man. He shall not find it.] He shall not be able to comprehend, or fathom it. Compare with Chap. Ecclesiastes 3:11, and Ecclesiastes 7:24.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Ecclesiastes 8:14-17
OUR DUTY UNDER THE MORAL DISCREPANCIES OF THE PRESENT LIFE
The origin of evil is a profound mystery, but not less so is the permission of evil. These exercise the wisest with painful speculation; they remain a difficulty and a sore trial, even for the best. Still there is a course of duty which is clear, and a light of faith which is sufficient. There are moral discrepancies in the present life (Ecclesiastes 8:14), but they do not set aside great moral duties, and wise efforts to reach after a more satisfactory state of things, which God, in his own good time, shall bring in. Our duty is indicated here.
I. We Should Feel their Temporary Character. “I said that this also is vanity.” We see the wicked prosper as if they were rewarded for their works, and the good afflicted, and abandoned to cruel wrongs and oppressions, as if they were punished for their righteousness. We must survey this seeming confusion of right and wrong not with wild amazement, but calmly. It is our duty to explore our situation in the world, and to discover what course is best for us. The just man beaten down by calamity, while he beholds the wicked apparently enjoying the rewards of virtue, may feel a strange perplexity. But he has to consider that even this is “vanity.” There is little in it to cause him any permanent anxiety or pain. He may reflect—
1. That these discrepancies exist under the rule of a Moral Governor who is both wise and good. Physical and moral evil exist in the world. God is both wise and good. We must admit these two facts as beyond debate. However difficult their reconcilement may be, we are bound to believe that no disorders of this present time can obscure those bright attributes of the Divine Nature. The good man has faith in the character of God, and waits till He shall make all clear.
2. Such a condition of things cannot be final. To a narrow view, it might appear as if Providence was entirely regardless of moral qualities in human character; yea, as if the stamp of approval was affixed to wickedness. Yet God’s meek and patient children know that these disorders cannot be endured for ever. They are but passing shadows, and the full glory of God will yet shine forth. The stern realities of things will appear in the light of eternity. Slowly the ages pass on for us; but to the eye of God they are but as “yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”
3. These moral discrepancies have no practical significance for us. If we are the true and faithful servants of God, these things to us are mere vanity. They amount to nothing. If we have a lively sense of the eternal verities, we can afford to despise them. What do they signify for us, since life is so short, and the scenes of retribution so soon to be unfolded? With such a thought, St. Paul consoles Christians even in slavery; “Art thou called being a servant (i.e., a bond-servant—a slave)? care not for it” (1 Corinthians 7:21). Nothing is of practical significance to the good man but those things that abide.
II. We should Enjoy with Contentment the Blessings that Remain. (Ecclesiastes 8:15.) The disordered condition of things may be puzzling; yea, in some of their aspects, disheartening; but there are present blessings. There are great facts and duties appearing in clear light. There is enough left which we may contentedly and soberly enjoy.
1. This enjoyment is reasonable. “Then I commended mirth because a man hath no better thing under the sun.” This is the best and most reasonable course for us, to cultivate a cheerful spirit which gladly enjoys whatever lies within its reach. In the worst state of things, there are some blessings remaining; and if God is the portion of our inheritance, we cannot be entirely destitute. Anxious care only brings torment, and leads to no good. It is the highest prudence to make the best of what lies before us. Besides, the godly are sustained by the consciousness of the good that is reserved for them.
2. It is the safe course. “For that shall abide with him.” Changes occur in the outward conditions of life, but the habit of cheerful gratitude abides with a man. It is to him an accession of spiritual treasure which the most disastrous reverses of fortune cannot alienate.
3. It is godly. The mirth here commended is not the coarse, thoughtless mirth of the children of this world, but that joy which flows from piety. It is the cheerful acceptance, on the part of the righteous man, of those blessings “which God giveth him under the sun.” Such a man hath faith in God, and is distinguished by that elevation of character which comes of taking a large and comprehensive view.
III. We should Abstain from Fruitless Speculations. (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17.) To enquire into “the business that is done upon the earth” is to investigate the “travail” that is connected with human life, action, and fate. But a wise man will not allow such speculations unduly to distress his mind, or to attract him from the paths of humble duty. We may say of such enquiries, when pushed beyond the bounds of soberness,
1. They are a wearisome effort. They may be carried so far as to interfere with present enjoyment, and even to rob us of the needful rest of sleep. (Ecclesiastes 8:16.)
2. They are a profitless effort. (Ecclesiastes 8:17.) The bottom of the mystery cannot be reached by the greatest labours of the wisest. To know “all the work of God” completely is far beyond our depth. God’s great secrets lie hidden.
3. They lead to no good practical result. That restless curiosity and impatience of mystery, which is the temptation of some minds, does but weaken the capacity for duty and humble trust in God. In the mazes of speculation a man may lose the clear sight of what lies before him. It is best to do what is close at hand, and to await in faith and hope the disclosures of futurity.
4. They interfere with our spiritual life. It is the plan of God to begin with what is comparatively imperfect, and to proceed to greater perfection. Thus chaos was before order, and darkness before light. This life is but the commencement of our existence, and it is marked by imperfection. Yet this imperfection is necessary to the life of faith. The full vision, which the future shall alone disclose, would interfere with that life. If we can see but one step before us, it is enough. Light, in the fulness of it, is a reward “sown for the righteous.” It is an “inheritance” reserved and guarded for us while we are in our minority, but into whose full possession we shall come when we have attained to the full manhood of our existence.Colossians 1:12; Colossians 1:12.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Ecclesiastes 8:14. Look at Joseph in the dungeon. He has been a disciple of heavenly wisdom. He has resisted a strong temptation to sin, and it has happened to him according to the work of the wicked. He is loaded with reproach and shame—he is left to languish in prison, either forgotten or despised. Look at Paul bruised and bleeding, when he has been all but stoned to death at the gates of Lystra, or writhing under the cruel and ignominious scourge at Philippi, or dragged through the streets and beaten by the infuriated populace at Jerusalem. Or, once more, take a far more illustrious example than either of these—look at Him who was the very impersonation and living embodiment of wisdom. Was He not all His life long a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Was He not despised and rejected of men? And did He not terminate His earthly career upon a malefactor’s cross? [Buchanan.]
God rewards His people with better things than the perishing good of this life.
The righteous are often taught by the course of Providence that godliness cannot be turned to outward gain.
It is not certain that even the best men will have prosperity in this life, or any external reward of goodness. How vain then to set our hearts upon that which is not, and to lose sight of a certain and enduring reward!
The seeming confusion of good and evil in the world is part of the vanity of our present state. Faith sees this old order passing away and giving place to the new. The sons of God shall yet be delivered from this vanity.
Ecclesiastes 8:15. The measure of a man’s earthly prosperity, and of the success of his labour, is a matter of complete uncertainty, but a cheerful and contented spirit, disposed to enjoy whatever portion is sent, is a sure and constant blessing. The secret of happiness, as far as it depends on the things of time, is to enjoy prosperity cheerfully, and without the irksome and depressing apprehensions of an anxious mind, as long as it continues; and if it is lessened or withdrawn, still to receive our diminished and stinted supplies with the same cheerful and buoyant gratitude; thus making the best of that which, both in its degree and its continuance, is so proverbially uncertain. Amidst all changes, this happy frame of spirit may be preserved [Wardlaw].
Our labour is often in vain, our works perish; but the habit of cheerfulness, arising from the conviction that our portion of life is from God, abides with us. The possessions of the mind and soul survive all outward changes.
Of our labour, the most valuable remaining product—saved, as it were, from the wreck of it—is the spiritual dispositions which it has served to generate in us.
He who manifests the spirit of a pious and sober joy is imitating one of the qualities of the Divine nature. The reward of heaven consists in the entering into God’s own joy.
The Preacher having spoken of the oppressions of the wicked, and of the troubles of the righteous, here he showeth a good remedy against them, and an excellent carriage in them. “Then I commended mirth;” when he had considered the troubles of man’s life, then he commended cheerfulness as a thing worthy of praise in itself; he commended it unto men as a thing bringing much good unto them. And this it is which the prophet David commended, “Serve the Lord with gladness, come before His presence with singing” [Jermin].
Ecclesiastes 8:16. That wisdom which is possible to man can only be attained by the earnest application of all our powers.
He who engages in the study of the condition and character of man has laid upon himself a difficult and painful task. He has accepted the burden of humanity, thus attracting upon himself the penalty of restless anxiety and the sorrows of a disappointing search after that which must for ever lie beyond his reach.
The unreflecting multitude, whose minds are never exercised on such questions at all, have no conception of the amount both of time and effort which it costs to master them. They do not know, though it is a fact, that there are men who, in handling such profound problems as the mysteries of Divine Providence, in connection with the state and prospects of the human race, present, “neither day nor night see sleep will their eyes [Buchanan].
Ecclesiastes 8:17. There are works of God quite beyond the range of our observation, and which, therefore, we cannot fathom. But even those works of God which concern human affairs, though they lie near and about us, are beyond our capacity fully to explore.
A wise man may be tempted to impatience of mystery, and thus weary himself with fruitless endeavours to rest on the much-desired ground of ultimate truths. But it is the highest wisdom contentedly to accept the fact of our ignorance.
Mere human reason could do nothing to explain the origin or the existence, under the government of an all-wise, almighty, and infinitely righteous God, of a state of things in which it should ever happen to just men to be treated according to the deserts of the wicked, or to wicked men to be treated according to the deserts of the righteous. There is no human philosophy that could ever have thrown one ray of true and satisfying light on an anomaly so great. Even divine revelation itself, though it tells us how it came to pass, does not tell us why this was permitted. That it was permitted for God’s glory, we do indeed confidently infer and unhesitatingly believe, because that is and must be the grand final cause of all things. But still, as regards the principle that is to harmonize the existence of sin and misery in God’s universe with the infinite perfections of His own being, it is altogether hidden from us—it is far above and beyond the grasp, at least in its present feeble condition, of any human mind [Buchanan].
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 8". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29