part 17 – submission to authority (Ecc 8:1-17)
As we move through the text today we are going to see where the Teacher repeats some of the concepts that we have already seen and discussed so we won’t spend a lot of time on those concepts, but focus on the “new” concepts he presents in this chapter.
1 Who is like the wise?
Who knows the explanation of things?
A person’s wisdom brightens their face
and changes its hard appearance.
Wisdom, as Proverbs puts it, is supreme, therefore, get wisdom. This chapter hones in on advice to cultivate wisdom with regard to authority. In verse two, the Teacher says:
2 Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God.
This was written in a different time, to an audience living in a different culture.
First, we live in a democracy in which we have a say in the government, whereas the audience was under a monarchy, in which the sovereignty was bound up in a single individual, the King. And the King’s word was the final word whether the citizens liked it or not.
In the ancient world it was common practice to swear an oath of allegiance to the King.
2 Kings 11:17
2 Chron 36:13
In fact, Scripture seems to link obedience to the King with obedience to God.
Proverbs 24:21-22 Fear the LORD and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious, for those two will send sudden destruction upon them and who knows what calamities they can bring?
This concept leads into the next few verses:
3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?”
There are various interpretations of verses 3-4, but it seems that the most consistent view sees this as saying something to the effect of: stay loyal to the King to whom you promised allegiance. Don’t abandon him in a rebellious cause just because you don’t like his decision. For he is the King, the most powerful man in the land and who can question his decision or his authority. Don’t conspire to overthrow him, but stand by him and his decision.
He gives good reason for obedience and allegiance to the King in the following verses:
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery.
[NET v6 – For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
for the oppression of the king is severe upon his victim.]
He says that whoever obeys the king’s command will come to no harm. When walking in allegiance to the King (and by implication to honor the oathbefore God), honoring the human authority set over you, there is no fear of punishment. To backstab the one in authority, rise up to rebel against him and there may be severe consequences. In ancient times, one might just be put to death.
In fact, this precept is reiterated in the NT. In Rom 13:1-5 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
There are some who limit the application of this text to first century Christians living in Rome. While I believe that is a good place to start, exegetically and hermeneutically speaking, it does honor audience relevance and context, I believe there is a broader precept that is still applicable to us. I don’t believe that when Rom 13:1 says that the authorities that exist have been established by God, that it can be applied strictly to the political powers of that day and that day alone. God clearly had a plan in place with specific political powers as foretold in Daniel, the four kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome came to pass just as predicted. Thus, the authorities that existed prior to Rome had their roots in the plan of God. I have a hard time with the idea that God’s plan ended there in Rome. I could be wrong, but I believe that God’s sovereign hand goes beyond the first century and that there is still (as the text says) no authority except that which God has established and that the authorities that exist today have been established by God. If that is true, then whether we like those in political power today, it is the exhortation of the God-inspired text to submit to their authority and to do so is to honor God.
7 Since no one knows the future,
who can tell someone else what is to come?
8 As no one has power over the wind to contain it,
so no one has power over the time of their death.
As no one is discharged in time of war,
so wickedness will not release those who practice it.
If one follows in rebellion against the authority, there is no guarantee that the rebellion will work. No one knows the future so the guy who is trying to get you to join in the rebellion may say, “It will be great, we will put Jeff over here on the throne and he’s a great guy and he will rule the right way.” Youcan’t know for sure what is to come. Just like you can’t contain the wind you can’t control the time of your death. This thing could flop and your head might roll. Just as no one is discharged in time of war, if you join in on a wicked plot, you will be held captive by your deeds. The consequences may be severe, because who can say to the most powerful man in the land, “What are you doing?” His word is the Law and you are bound to allegiance, to submit to his authority. Whoever obeys him will come to no harm, but disobey, it may not go well for you.
So though we aren’t the original audience and we don’t live under the same circumstances, there is a precept that is applicable to us today and that isChristians should submit to those in positions of authority over them.
This text is about the King. The closest and most related application would be with regard to government. The Scriptures teach this principle with regard to other relationships. Wives should submit to husbands (Eph 5). Children should submit to parents and slaves to masters (Eph 6). Heb 13, Tit 1 & 1 Tim 3 speak of church leaders as having positions of authority. In our own lives, we have people over us in various capacities in different contexts. As students, our teachers or professors have a position of authority in the classroom. As employees, our boss has a position of authority over us at the workplace. As athletes, the coach has a position of authority over us on the field.
The reasons for submitting to those in positions of authority?
- First, it is the right thing to do.
- Second, no harm will come to those who obey.
- Third, it honors God.
Submission to authority is a mark of true wisdom and the related virtue of humility commended in the Scriptures and connected to wisdom, as we saw inJames 3 last week. When you drive the speed limit, you don’t have to worry about speed traps. When you pay your taxes, you aren’t particularly worried about an IRS audit. When you do your work faithfully on the job, it doesn’t concern you that the boss is watching.
Now, the mention of authority and submission does not sit well with our culture, so I am compelled to venture to the other side of the coin before moving forward, into a discussion which hopefully will lead nicely into the next verse.
We have mentioned several relationships as examples of submitting to authority, but when we do that it tends to leave some people wondering about those positions of authority and what the Scripture says about those roles. How should those in authority lead? This is an important question to answer because while you may not be a master, you may be a husband, or a parent, or a manager, or teacher or coach or leader of sorts.
While Ephesians exhorts wives to submit to husbands, it also exhorts husbands to love their wives and give themselves up for her as Christ for the church. While children are exhorted to honor their parents, parents are not to exasperate their children. And how do Titus 1, and 1 Tim 3 direct church leadership to be? not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. How did Jesus, himself tell his disciples to lead? To humbly serve others. Not like the gentiles who lord it over others.
This is where the teacher ventures next:
9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt.
Perfect example of this is in 1 Kings 12 when Rehoboam succeeded Solomon as king and oppressed the people worse than his father did. The result – it was to his own hurt as he lost 10 of the twelve tribes as the kingdom divided. So those in authority, may not always be humble leaders, but may lord it over others. But that isn’t always to their advantage. Sometimes they find that in the end they hurt themselves.
10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is [hebel] futility.
Some interpret this to mean the religious leaders who served in the Temple and yet were wicked. Now, we take the term “buried” for granted. But not everyone was buried back then. The wicked, especially, say, criminals, didn’t receive a proper burial, generally speaking. Rather, their bodies werethrown into Gehenna, which the NT usually translates as “hell” where their bodies would be eaten by maggots and burned along with garbage. So, here in verse 10, the Teacher, I believe, is expressing another one of his observations of the mysteries under the sun. I saw the wicked buried. They should have been cast into Gehenna, but they received a proper burial (and some commentators indicate that this was glorious burial done with pomp and majesty).
So, it seems as if in this verse, the teacher is observing the frustration of people who served as religious leaders and received a glorious burial, but all the while were wicked, stating that this too, is vanity, futility, hebel.
In short, this is seems to be an observation that he will reiterate in verse 14, that sometimes the wicked not only get away with their wickedness, but are rewarded for it. And this seems to happen often with leadership, with those in authority.
As it was stated by the British historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Now if the leadership is corrupt or wicked, what can you expect from the people he or she is leading? If you read the books of kings and Chronicles, you will find that in most cases the kings were wicked and the nation was led astray into idolatry and sin. In a few cases the kings walked in the footsteps of their father David and were upright. The people tore down the altars to other gods and walked in righteousness.
Not only that, but in the next verse, the Teacher makes another observation about human nature and the way wickedness is cultivated and perpetuated.
11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.
In a world of people who tend toward depravity, a world of people who were made upright but have turned away from God and gone after many schemes,law is necessary to keep them in check. And if the law calls something a crime, yet a sentence is not quickly carried out, what happens? The criminal says,look what I got away with. Others say, look what he got away with. People’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.
We live in that world, a world full of people who aren’t governed by the Spirit of God, but by the desires of the flesh and if left unrestrained altogether,with no form of government, no law, what would come of our society? Paul puts it this way in 1 Tim 1 8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9 We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.
So Paul is writing to Timothy as a church leader in the first century, telling him to silence certain men who are trying to promote the Law of Moses. Paul explains that the Law was on its way out because the new age had dawned and that the work of God had to do with faith, love, a pure heart and a good conscience. According to Paul, those in Christ, operating by faith and with love don’t need the law to tell them that murder is wrong, that sexual immorality is wrong, that homosexuality is wrong, that lying is wrong, because they know intuitively that those things don’t conform to the gospel.
I share this passage from 1 Tim for two reasons. One, to further the illustration and reasoning for the Teacher’s words regarding the fact that evil schemes are bred in the people when the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, thus it is necessary to have a law of the land and that those in authority should enforce the laws to keep people from being filled with wicked schemes.
Two, to clarify that if we are in Christ, we really should be exempt from this general statement because by the Spirit of God, with the mind of Christ, we operate under the royal law of love and by such, in maturity, we know better than to do the things the Law condemns. The law is for those who aren’t mature enough to know better – or if they do know better, they aren’t mature or wise enough to live accordingly.
Back to the principle stated earlier, Christians should submit to those in authority. As a believer, our response to the law of the land should be to obeyand that alone is enough to preclude the notion that if a sentence for a crime isn’t carried out we would be filled with schemes to do wicked. So what if they got away with breaking that law, as a follower of Jesus, that isn’t going to entice me to walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
In fact, the Teacher, in the next verse, moves in that direction:
12 Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him.
13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.
I mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again in light of this verse, but in Ecclesiastes, we are ultimately journeying with the Teacher inpursuit of the good life, the life of wisdom. And while we may never attain to the level of wisdom that Solomon possessed, we do know where to begin. Prov 9:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.
Wicked people may commit a hundred crimes and live a long time, but they are far from the good life, they are far from wisdom because they don’t fear God.
14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
We already dealt with this anomaly in part 15, so I won’t re-preach that sermon, but look at what this observation leads to. This whole section culminates in verse 15 with his resounding chorus, the theme, of the book:
15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
To the best of your ability, enjoy life. There may be a King on the throne or a president in the white house who runs things differently than you prefer. Enjoy life. There may be wicked people, whose sentences for their crimes are not quickly carried out. Enjoy life. There may be wicked who get away with a hundred crimes. There may be wicked who get what the righteous deserve and vice versa. Enjoy life.
These things are frustrating, no doubt, but don’t let them consume you and rob you of your joy. You are accountable for your actions, not everyone else’s. As far as it depends on you, submit to those in positions of authority and trust God to render justice as he sees fit, when he sees fit and in the meantime, enjoy your lot in life.
As we saw at the beginning of this passage, wisdom as defined by the Teacher, has a way of brightening one’s face and changing its hard appearance. Along the journey of life, one finds all of these futile, fleeting, frustrations but we will never know all of the reasons for them, nor can we control them. And with wisdom comes with the discovery that we cannot discover ALL and the subsequent rest when we abandon the quest for it is a chasing after the wind.
16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.
Again, a key theme in the wisdom literature, and especially in Ecclesiastes is balance. We must balance the quest for knowledge with the ability to say ah, that part is beyond me. True wisdom is the ability to search out the scheme of things and to grow in understanding and knowledge, but also to recognize the line that represents the limitation of man’s knowledge and the beginning of that which belongs to the realm of the Almighty one.
So the text culminates with our theme of the enjoyment of life and the thrust of everything leading up to that point is obedience to authority, submission to those in position of power. But the question that may be lingering in your mind is, “Well that sounds great in theory, but what happens when the one in authority orders me to do something wrong?” And that is a good question. There may be some gray areas in this discussion, but thebest black and white answer I can give you is in the words of Peter and the other apostles in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men.”
In Acts 5:17ff we read 17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”
21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported,23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.”24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.
25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” 26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.
27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!
The teacher mentioned that the wise will know the proper time and procedure. There is a right way to go about differing from the one in authority, but it takes discernment, it takes being tactful, it takes wisdom. This was displayed marvelously in the wisdom of Daniel and his friends under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and the food they were given to eat.
Good news for us. While we live in America in a democracy, which is already pretty decent news considering some of the alternatives, as believers, we ultimately live in the Kingdom of Heaven under the reign of the King of Kings, a monarchy. The really good news is the identity and character of the King.
While there is the possibility of human governments being corrupt, by a human king lording it over others, making foolish and selfish decisions, not so with Jesus. No corruption. No concern with a foolish or selfish decision, for he is the embodiment of wisdom and selflessness, he who gave his life that we may live. We have no concern about whether his word, which is the law of the Land is in our favor or for our good. We know our king and he is inherently good and all that he has decreed is for our ultimate good.
So for you and I, honoring and submitting to the King is honoring and submitting to God because he is our King; let us, therefore, humbly submit to his authority, walking in the fear of the LORD, because:
- it is the beginning of wisdom
- it is the right thing to do
- because we are motivated not by harm but by love
- and because it honors God.