Ecclesiastes 8:1-17

You have probably heard of Murphyís Law - "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." Here are some corollaries to Murphyís Law:

There is also Petrovís Law - it says that Murphy was an optimist. The point is that there are times when things get out of control. The house of cards crumbles. Our carefully laid plans to control our destiny fall apart and life seems to be careening down a mountainside with no brakes and no steering mechanism. The circumstances of life come crashing down all around us and there is nothing to be done except to ride it out. At a time such as this, there are some principles from the Preacher.



Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter? A manís wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam. (Ecclesiastes 8:1).

The Preacher begins with a rhetorical question. It is a question that expects no answer because none is needed. Who is like the wise man? The answer is given in the second phrase. It is a further description of the "wise man."

Wise man


One who knows the interpretation of a matter

Throughout this section of Ecclesiastes we have been presented with several of the benefits of wisdom.

Wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors (7:12).

Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rules in a city (7:19).

Here we see a third benefit of wisdom. A manís wisdom illumines him - literally, a manís wisdom makes his face shine. At first glance, this seems to refer to the quality of a sunny disposition. There are people who can light up a room just by walking into it. The corollary is that there are some who can light up a room just by leaving. But I donít believe that is what the Preacher is describing. You see, the concept of having oneís "face shine" is one familiar to every Jew. It was a part of the Levitical Blessing.

The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make His face to shine
upon you
And be gracious to you,
The Lord lift up His countenance on you
And give you peace. (Number 6:24-26).

A similar usage is found in Psalm 4:6; 31:16; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 80:7; 80:19; 119:135. In every one of these passages, it is the Lordís face that is said to be shining upon His people. As a result of this shining, they would receive a blessing.

This time, it is not the Lordís face that is said to be shining. This time it is the face of the wise man that is said to shine. It is his wisdom that enlightens his face.

Here is the point. Wisdom does what God does. True wisdom comes from God. And it brings with it the blessing of God. Even in the hard times. Even when everything falls apart. Even when life deals you a short hand.

But that is not all. Wisdom also has a second effect upon the one who possesses it. It causes his stern face to beam - literally, it "changes the strength of his face." Wisdom softens a harsh look. It takes the harsh condition of life that leads to a stormy countenance, and it softens it with an understanding that God is still in control and events are not so random as they seem.



I say, "Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases." 4 Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, "What are you doing?" 5 He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.

For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight, though a manís trouble is heavy upon him. 7 If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen? (Ecclesiastes 8:2-7).

This passage is written by Solomon. He writes it as the King of Israel. He is a King writing about how to get along with the King. But even if you do not live in a country that has kings, there are some principles here which can apply to any who are under authority.

Americans by nature are not inclined to submit to authority. We are a nation who was founded upon rebellion to authority. Our forefathers decided that they no longer wished to abide the taxing authority of England and moved to oust that authority and to declare our independence. I have no wish to try to rewrite history, but we should not automatically assume that all decisions which led to the founding of this country were godly decisions in keeping with Biblical principles.

Solomon begins this section with the injunction to "Keep the command of the king." Why is this so important? There are two reasons given.

1. Obedience is Required because of an Oath of Loyalty.

I say, "Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. (Ecclesiastes 8:2).

Notice that this obedience is not for the sake of the king. It is for the sake of the One who placed the king on the throne. It is because of the oath before God.

What oath is this? It was the practice in the ancient world that when a king came to the throne, the people of his kingdom were required to swear an oath of obedience to that king (2 Kings 11:17; 2 Chronicles 36:13).

Today we do not enter into these kinds of oaths. But we DO make commitments to authority.

We ought to remember that any authority under which we find ourselves is a God-ordained authority and should be obeyed. The only exception to this rule is when such an authority commands us to something that is against the Word of God - only then are we to disobey and then only in that single area.

2. Obedience is Required as a Prudent Procedure.

Not only are you to obey authority because God said to do it, you are also to do so because it makes life a lot easier. A lot of Godís commands are like that. He is the Creator of life and life goes better when you follow the manufacturerís instructions.

He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure. (Ecclesiastes 8:5).

Generally speaking, when you obey the kingís commands, you donít get into any trouble with the king.Paul says essentially the same thing in his epistle to the Romans:

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Romans 13:3-4).

This principles has many modern-day corollaries. When you drive the speed limit, you donít have to worry about speed traps. When you pay your taxes, you arenít particularly worried about an IRS audit. When you do your works faithfully on the job, it doesnít concern you that the boss is watching.


If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen? 8 No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8).

Solomon has just finished speaking about how to deal with kings and monarchs - and we have applied some of these principles to dealing with any authority under which we find ourselves. But now he hastens to add that, no matter how high any such authority might extend, it has certain impassable limits.

In modern days, people are merely fined or imprisoned for draft-dodging (if they do it deftly enough, they are elected to be president). But in ancient times, this could be a capital offence. Indeed, there is an instance where a vassal requested to have his eldest son exempted from military service as Xerxes of Persia was preparing to go to war. Xerxes had the young man drawn and quartered for this offense.



To make matters worse, the authority that man DOES have is often utilized to his own hurt.

All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt. (Ecclesiastes 8:9).

Governments are capable of great evil. This is not speaking of one type of government over another type. It is true of ALL sorts of government. John Kenneth Galbraith put this very aptly when he said, "Under capitalism man exploits man; under communism it is exactly the reverse."

But this does not mean that government is itself a wrong thing. The Preacher is not advocating anarchy. He is simply showing us life as it really is. The reason that governments are capable of evil is because they are led by fallen and sinful men. That is the only kind of men there are.



The problem is that not all such evil leaders are recognized for their evil acts. In many cases their evil deeds are forgotten.

So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility. (Ecclesiastes 8:10).

The NIV translates this verse quite differently.

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 meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 8:10, NIV).

The two different readings are a result of textual differences. Different Hebrew manuscripts show one of two possible readings.

New American Standard Version

New International Version

I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are SOON FORGOTTEN in the city where they did thus

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

Hithpiel imperfect 3mp, "to forget."

Hithpiel imperfect 3mp, "to praise" (translated "commended" in verse 15).

This is the reading of the Massoretic Text.

Septuagint translates, "to praise."

KJV, NKJV with footnote.

Latin Vulgate.

As can be seen above, the difference between the two reading is the difference between and (similar to making a mistake in reading between O and Q).

It is the context that will help us to understand the passage. If we are to take the NAS reading, then we would understand this to mean that after the wicked are dead and buried, their evil deeds are forgotten by those who come after.

The NIV, on the other hand, would indicate that these wicked who are dead and buried are afterward praised. History often whitewashes the scoundrels of the past and praises those who were in reality despicable in their actions.

She was the wife of a notorious wretch and a criminal. On hearing the eloquent eulogy of him, what a wonderful man he was, etc., she said to her son, "Go up and see if that's your father that's in that coffin!"

In Shakespearís Julius Caesar, Mark Antony quips, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones." But Solomon tells us that it is the opposite which is often true.

Consider no less an icon than Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the New World. His magnificent discovery notwithstanding, he was a notorious scoundrel.

And yet, much of history has whitewashed his actions and focused only upon his accomplishments. That is often the case. For this reason, the Preacher concludes with his familiar refrain, "This too is futility."

The good news is that God knows the whole story. And there is coming a day when the rest of the story will be told. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed (Luke 12:2).



There are times, at least from our "under the sun" perspective, when it seems as though God has lost control - when it seems as though the universe is operating only by chance and there is no great plan or purpose.

1. When a Sentence is not Quickly Executed.

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

Here is a hypothetical situation. A man is warned that if he sins, he will suffer the consequences of those sins. But he sins anyway. Time passes. And then passes more. And nothing happens. It appears that he has gotten away with it. The natural reaction is to emulate such sins.

2. When a Sinner Lives a Long Time.

Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. 13 But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).

It also looks as though the way of sin is a better way when you see the sinner living a long time. But the Preacher has already concluded that this is not really the case. In the long run, the life that he leads is not "lengthened like a shadow."

Short View

Long View

Looks at life "under the sun"

Looks at life with eternity in mind

The sinner lengthens his life.

It will not be well for the evil man

3. When the Righteous Suffers and the Sinner is Rewarded.

There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility. (Ecclesiastes 8:14).

The emptiness of life under the sun is that the books do not always balance in this life.

There is futility which is done on the earth

There is a Righteous Man

There are Evil Men whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous.

I say that this too is futility

Generally speaking, it is true that what you sow, that you also reap in this life. But it is not always the case. There are notable exceptions. The cross is such an exception. Where we have sown sin, God brings about righteousness and life. That is the message of grace.



So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), 17 and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, "I know," he cannot discover. (Ecclesiastes 8:15-17).

The Preacherís conclusion is that life is to mysterious for us to figure out all the answers. Even staying awake each night will not help to solve all of lifeís mysteries.

And so, he concludes that we ought to eat and to drink and to be merry. This is true if this is all that there is. It is also true if this is all that you can know.

But we can know more because there is more. It was demonstrated to us in the life of the One who came to earth and died for sins and then rose from the dead to demonstrate to us that there is life after death.

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