Ecclesiastes 8:1-9 Respect God and the Government
Helmuth von Moltke was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi Germany, yet his Christian faith made him a resolute opponent of Adolf Hitler. Although he believed it would be wrong for him to use violent force against the Nazis, von Moltke used his high position to rescue many prisoners from certain death. Not surprisingly, eventually he was accused of treason, put on trial, and sentenced to die.
In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, Helmuth described the dramatic moment at his trial when the judge launched into a tirade against his faith in Christ. “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity,” he shouted: “we demand the whole man.” Then the judge asked the accused to declare his ultimate loyalty: “From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”
Von Moltke knew exactly where his loyalty lay. He had put all his hope and trust in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he stood before his earthly judge as a Christian and nothing else. His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act wisely when he faced his final hour. As a believer in Christ, von Moltke understood the difference between the proper exercise of authority and the abuse of power. He also knew the wise course of action when he was under someone else’s control and in danger for his very life.1
“Who is like the wise person, and who knows the interpretation of a matter? A man’s wisdom brightens his face, and the sternness of his face is changed.” (Ecclesiastes 8:1, HCSB)
Opinion differs over the placement of this verse in its context. Some feel that at least the first half of the verse concludes the previous section. Others believe it introduces the advice that follows concerning behavior before the king. Everyone struggles over the issue, sometimes to the point of believing that it is a gloss. Tremper Longman, noted theologian, understands the verse as a sarcastic exclamation of frustration that stands between two larger units.2
I would agree that this verse stands between two larger units. I would also point out that it is an extension of the advice shared in the previous chapter. Chapter 7 shared advice about how to live life, and this section in Chapter 8 shares advice about how to relate to the government. It is similar to Romans 13:1-7.
When you look at this text, you can’t come at it from 21st century view of an American political system. These rulers were dictators, and for the most part they were tyrants who didn’t let anything stand in their way of of fulfilling their desires3 without the benefit of a check and balance system that we have today. These verses give us practical guidance for dealing with earthly government, whether good or evil, even in matters of life and death.4
These verses share three directives about how to deal with the government. Within these three directives are a set of five proverbs about the government. Let’s go through these verses and see how one can respect the government and God.
HOW TO DEAL WISELY WITH THE GOVERNMENT
1. Obey the government while being loyal to God (Ecclesiastes 8:2)
“Keep the king’s command because of your oath made before God.” (Ecclesiastes 8:2, HCSB)
If I want to deal wisely with the government, then I have to live with the tension of obeying the government while still being loyal to God. This verse sets forth the tension. Obeying God and the government can be in tension, or they can work in tandem.
Jesus shared this same idea in the New Testament.
“Then Jesus told them, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.” (Mark 12:17, HCSB)
Jesus and the writer of Ecclesiastes both recognize that God’s authority and the government’s authority must co-exist. Yet Solomon goes one step farther. He states that one obeys the government because of a loyalty to God.
Every Christian is called to be a law-abiding citizen and to respond to any godly request the government makes for help. This includes everything from paying our full taxes to answering the president’s call to volunteer service.
People often wonder whether this obedience has any limits. Must I always submit to the governing authorities, or are there times when it is my duty as a Christian to disobey? The simple answer is the one that Peter gave when the rulers of Jerusalem told him to stop preaching the gospel: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When it comes to a conflict between God and man, we must obey the higher authority.5
2. Stay loyal to the government (Ecclesiastes 8:3)
“Do not be in a hurry; leave his presence, and don’t persist in a bad cause, since he will do whatever he wants.” (Ecclesiastes 8:3, HCSB)
Dealing with any kind of bureaucracy has its pitfalls. One man’s decision, anywhere along the chain of command, can spell success or failure. The Preacher’s advice on behavior before a monarch is equally applicable to situations we may encounter on any bureaucratic level. We achieve nothing by exasperating those in authority—neither will we get a sympathetic hearing from one to whom we have been discourteous.6
FIVE PROVERBS ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT7
1. The government’s power is authoritative (Ecclesiastes 8:4)
“For the king’s word is authoritative, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”” (Ecclesiastes 8:4, HCSB)
God clearly established the government as a form of earthly authority. Jesus recognized the Romans’ authority during His time. Paul’s instruction in Romans 13 states that the government act as God’s servants. So we need to recognize that God has established the government as an authority over us.
2. A wise citizen stays away from trouble unless it is right to do so (Ecclesiastes 8:5)
“The one who keeps a command will not experience anything harmful, and a wise heart knows the right time and procedure.” (Ecclesiastes 8:5, HCSB)
The government is authorized by God to rule over people. Therefore, a wise citizen will learn to obey the government. Only evil people will get into trouble.
3. Every situation has its right time and place, but worries make it hard for one to wait (Ecclesiastes 8:6)
“For every activity there is a right time and procedure, even though man’s troubles are heavy on him.” (Ecclesiastes 8:6, HCSB)
Dealing with the government can cause us to worry. Yet, one has to learn patience when dealing with the government. One of the reasons to be patient with the government is because they live with the same uncertainty as I do.
4. Governments live with the same uncertainty in life as everyone else (Ecclesiastes 8:7)
“Yet no one knows what will happen because who can tell him what will happen?” (Ecclesiastes 8:7, HCSB)
You and I live with all kinds of uncertainties in life. The governments also deal with uncertainty. Any bureaucracy has its own uncertainties and difficulties. As Christians, we need to show some patience and grace with our government.
5. No one has ultimate power, except God (Ecclesiastes 8:8)
“No one has authority over the wind to restrain it, and there is no authority over the day of death; there is no furlough in battle, and wickedness will not allow those who practice it to escape.” (Ecclesiastes 8:8, HCSB)
No one has ultimate power, except God. The writer of Ecclesiastes uses death as the reference point to explain the power of God. Only God has ultimate authority because no one has power over death – except God. He shares how no one has power over death in four different ways.
NO ONE HAS POWER OVER DEATH
1. No one has the power over the spirit
“No one has authority over the wind to restrain it…” (Ecclesiastes 8:8, HCSB)
“Who knows if the spirit of people rises upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21, HCSB)
No one has the power over one’s spirit. No one can stop the spirit. The reason is because no one can live forever in their mortal bodies.
2. No one has the power over their death
“…and there is no authority over the day of death…” (Ecclesiastes 8:8, HCSB)
No one has the power over their own death. Literally, no one has the authority over death. One can take steps to prolong life. We can take steps to make the coming of our deaths more comfortable. But in the end, one cannot stop death from happening.
As Mark Twain once said: “There are only two certain things in life: death and taxes.”
3. No one has the power to escape death
“…there is no furlough in battle…” (Ecclesiastes 8:8, HCSB)
In Boots, his famous poem on soldiering, Rudyard Kipling pictures the endless line of soldiers stomping out the rhythm of their march, as almost robot-like they trudge toward battle. Each stanza he punctuates with Koheleth’s line:
“There’s no discharge in the war!”
Death has that relentless military discipline to it, when its time has come.8
4. No one has power over the consequences of this life after death
“…and wickedness will not allow those who practice it to escape.” (Ecclesiastes 8:8, HCSB)
Evil people cannot rescue themselves from their evil acts after death.
The point of these mini-proverbs and especially the last one is to show that ultimately, no government has power over death. Death is the great equalizer. Death reminds us that there is ultimately an eternal government that one must eventually submit to.
Warning: Power abuses relationships, so be careful how you use it (Ecclesiastes 8:9)
“All this I have seen, applying my mind to all the work that is done under the sun, at a time when one man has authority over another to his harm.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9, HCSB)
The warning that Solomon leaves us with is the fact that power can abuse relationships. We begin with the tension between the power of the government and God. We see that not every government submits to God’s authority. They can abuse it. Yet, ultimately, God will have the last word.
To quote the famous phrase from Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This is true not just in civil governments, but also any of our relationships where we have responsibility for other people. As Christians, we learn that to when God grants us power, we need to be careful how we use it. Will we use it selfishly and risk the consequences? Or will we use the power God gives us to honor Him?
1 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 181–182.
2 Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 208.
3 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 96.
4 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 182.
5 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 185.
6 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 104–105.
7 David A. Hubbard and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, vol. 16, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1991), 179–180.