You may have noticed that this sermon is not on the Gospel of Mark. I was invited to be a guest preacher at another church yesterday, and I was given Ecclesiastes 8 to preach. It was joyous to be back in Ecclesiastes again, and I pray that the sermon will be a blessing to you as well.
R. C. Sproul makes a point that Latin contains two words for world, saeculum and mundum. The latter refers to the world spatially and geographically. We meet that word in the church history phrase Athanasius contra mundum, Athanasius against the world, which speaks of the early theologian’s lonely stand against great tide of Arianism. The former word, however, refers to the world temporal, to the world in time. Indeed, a saeculum was often used as a measurement of time to mean one human life. The word secular comes from this Latin root. When the suffix -ism is attached, we have before us an entire worldview that focused squarely, even exclusively, upon this life. Secularism excludes eternity, or at least argues that it is a non-factor. It foregoes the transcendent to fix our attention on the here and now. Long before secularism became the dominant religion of the West, in fact, before the West existed at all, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes grappled with the vanity of a nontranscendent life, a life purely under the sun. Indeed, secularism is nothing new (didn’t he already say something to that effect?). The human heart, ever since Adam first chose the vaporous pleasure of sin, is bent toward casting our full attention on this mundum and saeculum, on the here and now. The Preacher, however, is intent on showing us the utter futility of that way of living and longs to shift our gaze toward the One who spoke the sun into existence.
In chapter 8, the Preacher is going to unpack for us a topic that he has already addressed before when he discussed oppression under the sun. Oppression, of course, is a cold, hard reality of life. When given authority over others, people often use it to harm those under them. Here he will give to us wisdom for how to navigate life under those who have such authority over us. Particularly, in his mind is the king, but this will lead us into a broader discussion of justice in general as well as injustice in the world. How then do we set our gaze above the injustice the world and upon the Judge of all the earth?
WHO IS LIKE THE WISE? // VERSE 1
Verse 1 is a transitional verse between chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7 applies wisdom to many topics, but it ended with the impossibility of anyone achieving true wisdom. Now he asks the question, who is like the wise? Even though our wisdom will always be insufficient, we should still strive to be counted among the wise, to be among those who, as James teaches, see our depths of our foolishness and cry out to God for wisdom. Such is the paradox of walking in the fear of the LORD: although we are fools at heart, God pours His wisdom out to us.
Notice that he then points out how we may recognize the wise: a man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed. There is a visible impact of wisdom upon the individual. There will be an evident change in the person. Of course, since Jesus Himself is the wisdom of God, we can see this clearly whenever we consider the miracle of conversion, whenever we are justified by faith in Christ and we are made new. Like Moses descending from Sinai, we who have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters ought to reflect our redemption.
KEEP THE KING’S COMMAND // VERSES 2-9
Verse 2 begins the Preacher’s brief discourse on how we should wisely conduct ourselves in the presence of the king. Of course, when it comes to applying these verses to ourselves, we should use them to describe our relationship with civil authorities in general. He first instructs us to keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. That last phrase could also be translated as because of your oath to God. Either way, the Preacher is pointing what Paul also affirmed, that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). All authority ultimately comes from God; therefore, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Though it may not always appear to be such, God is in control over all human affairs, even the civil magistrates; thus, our readiness to obey earthly governments should be a reflection of our trust in the ultimate sovereignty of God.
Verses 3-4 continues the parallel between our present passage and Romans 13 by also noting that obedience is prudent since disobedience can be met with punishment. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” Paul likewise wrote “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). God has given to earthly authority the sword of enacting justice upon evil in order to discourage wickedness.
To add a level of nuance that is regular for wisdom literature, we should note that the word for evil in verse 3 does not always bear the meaning of wickedness; it can also be translated as simply bad. Thus, the Preacher is not only warning us against doing evil; he is also telling us to be prudent in ways that we might consciously disobey the king. Verse 5 makes this clear by telling us that whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing. A yes-man to the king is largely going to enjoy safety and prosperity. Yet the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. Although disobedience may lead to punishment, there is a time for rejecting the king’s command, but it should be done with great caution and much wisdom. Indeed, we can look at Ahab’s treatment of the prophet Micaiah and of the false prophets. The wicked king ordered a favorable prophesy, and the other prophets obeyed, receiving royal favor. Micaiah, however, refused to say anything but the Word of God, and he was imprisoned for his faithfulness to the true Sovereign.
The difficulty of such situations requiring great wisdom is compounded by the fact that no one knows what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? Our vision in this life is limited, as is our wisdom. Thankfully, the Preacher reminds us of some absolutes in verse 8: No man has the power to retain the spirit, or power of the day of death. There is no discharge from war; nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. Even the king is limited by these realities that God has woven into creation. For the near limitless power that Sennacherib wielded as king of Assyria, God ultimately judged his wickedness by sending the angel of death to eliminate his army and then his own sons to murder him. No human, however much authority he may possess, can save himself from death, nor from divine judgment upon his wickedness.
The Preacher concludes this section with the reflection: All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt. As he has observed before, oppression is an unpleasant reality of life under the sun.
We have already noted that the Preacher’s references to the king can be applied to the civil authorities today, but how specifically can we in the United States consider these verses under our representative democracy government? Of course, this question has only been heightened by our present political climate. Perhaps we can take three principles to heart. First, we should strive to obey civil law. Indeed, disobedience to the laws without higher biblical mandate is an offense against God. Romans 13:5 states, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” We should be slow to disobey yet ultimately submit to God’s law, ready to face consequences for disobedience.
Second, we should be active and responsible citizens. We should, of course, pay our taxes and respect authority. Yet we have a unique response to the Preacher’s reflection, who may say to the king, “What are you doing?” Under our form of government, the answer is that we can. Our highest earthly authority is purposely called Mr. President, rather than Your Majesty. He is a citizen among citizens. While we must obey, we also live under a constitutional republic where our primary civil authority is not a person but a document, the Constitution.
Third, do not be surprised by injustice. Because people are born in sin, democracies will contain abuses of authority just like monarchies. Having a king with sole authority is not the problem, we are. Interestingly, Augustine once wrote, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” He then tells a story to illustrate it about Alexander the Great capturing a pirate.
The king asked the fellow, “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, “The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.”
Things, brothers and sisters, have not changed. “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). Just as a pirate rebuked the world ruler of his day, so do we look at our politicians and leaders today and see corruption and injustice. What hope, then, do we have in such a world of oppression?
THE END OF THE WICKED // VERSES 10-13
Now the Preacher’s discussion moves beyond how we relate to civil authority and onto justice more generally. In verse 10, he states, Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. He visions the funeral of a wicked person, yet one appears to be religious. He frequented the holy place, and he received the adulations of the people. He says that this is vanity. Given following verses, this appears to be a man who was known to be wicked. How vain indeed it is when an evil man is honored as being righteous and honorable!
The Preacher continues: Because the sentence of against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. The sad reality is that consequences are often the only reins holding back the evil of the world, and when those consequences are slow to come, further evil is invited. A very real-world example of this verse’s truth can be seen in speed limits. How many would actually follow the signs if there were no enforcement? While speed limits are a relatively minor issue, the premise applies to all moral matters. Surely, we will never know how many murders have been avoided only because consequences for murder exist. Law is necessarily to limit sin, but even when law is slowly enforced, evil is more brazen still.
While verses 10-11 both portray circumstances that foster wickedness, verses 12-13 bring hope into the equation: Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow because he does not fear before God. Notice a very significant shift in the Preacher’s wording. Throughout the book, just as in verse 10, the author has been addressing what he has seen. He is reporting and analyzing the observations that he has made about life under the sun. Yet in verse 12, he says yet I know. This statement is not a visual observation. He is pointing to a reality that goes unseen under the sun. The first half of verse 12 is what is often seen, a sinner living a long life in his sin. A great sinner living a long life seems to indicate that justice is not being done. Everything in sight appears to scream that injustice prevails over justice. Yet the Preacher still says, I know that it will be well with those who fear God… but it will not be well with the wicked…
Isn’t this a marvelous display of the Preacher’s faith? Although he cannot see it with his physical eyes, he rests in the hope that God will care for those who fear Him and will judge the wicked. Solomon’s hope is upon the LORD to enact justice. Today, cries for justice are constantly in the headlines, and many are pushing for drastic societal overhauls in answer to injustice, consciously or unconsciously in the vein of Karl Marx. Indeed, the ideas of Marx have so infiltrated our secular age that many simply presume them as truth, like how Freud has left a near-permanent mark on how we think of psychology or Darwin on how we think of origins. As such, we should take great care that our response to oppression and injustice is rooted in God’s Word rather than in the cultural thought-descendants of Marx.
We should note that both Marx and the Preacher lamented over the plight of the oppressed at the hands of the oppressors. Yet the Preacher was not a secularist as Marx was; therefore, their responses to oppression could not be more different. Marx’s answer was revolution, only a violent overthrow could bring about equitable justice, a communist paradise, heaven on earth. The Preacher, however, counsels to reconcile with the unavoidable injustice of life. Yet if the Preacher sounds less hopeful than Marx, that is because the Preacher does not place his hope in this life at all. He trusts that God will make all things right in the end. The utopic visions of Marx are a fool’s hope. More than that, it is a replay of summons at Babel, “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Let us, instead, be bearers of the sure and steadfast hope of Christ.
Of course, the hope that all injustice will one day be made right does not excuse us from acting justly; it rescues us from the crushing belief that we fix the world ourselves. The Scriptures clearly call us as believers to do good and seek justice, but we are not called to be revolutionaries. Ordinary, everyday faithfulness is more than enough to revolutionize the world. The very fact that Western society talks about human rights at all is a testament to the foundational impact of Christianity. Just as the kingdom of God grows steadily like a mustard seed, so too should we expect to impact the culture around us. We should aim to replicate Eden as much as possible around us, forming pockets of bright and shining Goshens in the midst of Egypt.
Yet perhaps the most important word that we can say about justice is how it has been applied to us in Christ. You see, God’s justice presumes to other attributes: His love and His wrath. Without love, justice is unjust, and without wrath, justice is nothing but a fantasy. Solomon’s words are hopeful in principle, until we consider who is righteous and who is wicked. Indeed, can any of us make the claim that we are not wicked? Let us remember 7:20, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” God’s justice will not only be dealt to the Neros and Hitlers of the world; the very fact that it is justice means that God will deal with each and every sin of each and every person. And He will not play favorites. If God were to overlook even one little sin, He would not be just.
How hope then do we have? Since no sin will go unpunished, the only question is whether that punishment is paid upon the cross or the lake of fire. Because God is an eternal, holy God, the punishment for rebelling against Him is an eternal one. Our sin is not an offense toward a ruler, a president, or a king. Our sin is against the Creator of the cosmos, Him who upholds the universe by the word of His power. Eternity in hell is the just consequence for our sin. Yet God Himself has made a provision of eternal weight as payment for our sins: His only begotten Son. The wonder of the crucifixion of Christ is that upon that cross the Eternal One Himself bore the penalty of our sins, satisfying the justice of God. O brothers and sisters, we too know that it will be well with those who fear God, and our proof is the cursed tree two thousand years ago that has become for us the tree of life.
SEEK TO ENJOY LIFE MORE THAN UNDERSTAND IT // VERSES 14-17
Having lifted our gaze momentarily above the sun, the Preacher brings us back to the vanity around us for the final verses.
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
The reality of what will be still does not diminish the vanity of what presently is. Future justice provides proper perspective, but it does not yet wipe away every tear nor sooth every broken heart. But the emphasis is upon the word yet. God will make all things right, but in the meantime, He inspired one-third of the Psalms to be laments for good reason.
And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
This is the fourth of the five times in the book that the Preacher to eat and drink and find enjoyment (2:24, 3:13, 5:18, and 9:7 are the others). Each is a gentle refrain that is meant to punch a pinhole of light into the vanity of this life. Indeed, notice that the phrase under the sun is used twice in this verse. This wisdom is pointedly for this life. Here. Now. And the wisdom is to be joyful. Enjoy life. Don’t wait until tomorrow, thinking that things will be better than they are, to begin delighting in what God has given you. Stop putting off joy. In this life, there will always be sorrow. There will always be new problems to tackle. The next ‘season’ of life will be just as crazy as this one. Don’t let circumstances that cannot be changed keep us from joy, especially the joy that our Savior has given to us. The beauty of Ecclesiastes is that while everything under the sun is vanity by knowing Him who transcends the sun, we can find joy within in the brevities of life. He calls us to eat and drink because they are the most basic physical acts that we do each day. Yet we can find enjoyment in them, and glorify God through them (1 Corinthians 10:31).
When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
Notice the triple use of the phrase find out. What is the point? He is revealing the paradox of wisdom, that the truly wise understand how unwise they are, while fools believe themselves to be wise. In order to be truly wise, we must first be humble enough to admit our limitations, to acknowledge that we do not know best. We do not know what is best for the cosmos, for our city, and even for ourselves. We desperately need the guiding hand of the Almighty.
So, after all has been heard, what is the end of the matter on chapter 8? Until Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, injustice is engrained in life under the sun, especially in places of authority, like the king’s throne. We cannot make all things right. We cannot fix the world. But we can clean our own rooms. We can make our homes into little Jerusalems in the midst of Babylon. We can live with unwavering hope and face-shining joy, while headlines screech of the impending apocalypse. After all, when the apocalypse does come, it will be our day of our realized hope. What then do we have to fear? Brothers and sisters, take this to heart, latch onto to it with the core of your soul: it will be well with those who fear God, so eat and drink and be joyful.
 R. C. Sproul, Making a Difference: Impacting Culture and Society as a Christian, 27.
 Augustine, City of God, 139.