Fear God and Be Carefree (8:1-15)

8:1 Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a matter? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the severity of his countenance is changed. 8:2 I say, Keep the king’s command, because of the oath before God. 8:3 Do not be in a hurry to leave his presence. Do not take a stand in an evil matter, for he could do whatever he pleases. 8:4 For the word of the king is power, and who can say to him, "What are you doing?" 8:5 Whoever keeps a (royal) command will not experience a harmful thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the proper procedure. 8:6 For there is a proper time and a proper procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery is heavy upon him. 8:7 Since no one knows what will come to be, who can tell him what will come to be? 8:8 No man has power over the spirit, to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death; and there is no discharge from war, nor will evil deliver those who are given to it.

Qoheleth has affirmed the value of proverbial wisdom rooted in the fear of God even in the face of righteous suffering. He has also attested that humanity is characterized by wickedness. He now applies all this to the case of a despotic king who is causing his subjects to suffer, especially those who serve in his court. How should a court official respond to such a king? The answer is still to fear God and act wisely. For only then is he in the position to know the “interpretation of a matter,” that is, understand the situation adequately to come up with a solution.

For in this particular case, firstly, the wise official will have the right outward appearance (“wisdom makes his face shine, and the severity of his countenance is changed”). To make “his face shine” is an idiom that means “to be gracious” or “to be pleasant,” or both, as in this context. Thus wisdom enables the wise official “to suppress an angry or defiant look before the king and show, instead, a pleasant countenance” (Seow 1997: 278).

Secondly, he will honor his oath of loyalty to the king made before God, and so continue to “keep the king’s command” as well as not be “in a hurry to leave his presence.” To “leave his presence” here means to desert the king and “take a stand in an evil matter” by joining in a rebellious conspiracy (Whybray 1989: 131). By doing so, in a world in which “the word of the king is power” and thus cannot be questioned so that the king “could do whatever he pleases,” the wise official will escape the harmful consequences of rebellion (cf. Prov 24:21-22). More than that, because of his continued access to the king coupled with his pleasant countenance before him, the official is in the best position to “interpret” the situation.

Qoheleth is certainly not advocating that we do nothing about the injustice perpetrated by people in power. He affirms twice, that “there is a proper time and a proper procedure for every matter.” As in 3:1, the word translated “matter” in this context has the root meaning of “desire” and so refers to a “desired or purposed event.” The question is when and how this purposed course of action should be taken. He does not give a “one size fits all” solution. But the wise official who fears God and so observes sound proverbial wisdom, “though his misery is heavy upon him,” will have the needed composure (7:7-10) to be in the position to discern the right opportunity and the best approach to address the problem (cf. 10:4).

In fact Qoheleth’s reiteration of the sub-theme that “no one knows” and so no one can tell us “what will come to be” reaffirms the value of proverbial wisdom rooted in the fear of God (7:1-14). For since we do not know what our uncertain future holds we had better live by principles that on the whole will deliver us from harm. He reinforces this reminder through a graphic depiction of what it is really like to face an uncertain future in light of the certainty of death. He says we have no power over our spirit, or life-breath, to stop it from leaving us; that is, we have no power to resist death when it happens (cf. 12:7). The imagery of having been drafted to fight in a war evokes the sense that death can happen anytime. And that there is no discharge from the war captures the reality that we have no escape from facing such an uncertain future. Qoheleth spells out that the schemes of those who practice evil will not succeed in delivering them from this reality; they only make things worse (7:11-12).

8:9 All this I have seen while setting my heart on every deed that has been done under the sun, wherein a man exercises authority over (another) man to his hurt. 8:10 Thereupon I saw the wicked brought to the grave, and they proceeded from a holy place; and they were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity.

Verse 9 indicates that the discussion above on how a court official should respond to a despotic king is only a case study of a larger phenomenon. The lessons learned can be applied or adapted to other situations in which someone in power “exercises authority (unjustly) over another man to his hurt.” This is a common cause of righteous suffering. Grammatically the phrase “to his hurt” is ambiguous as to whether it refers to the one in power or his subordinate. In terms of context, the most natural reference is to the subordinate. But in terms of real life experience, when this happens, the one in power is, in the long run at least, also hurting himself. Perhaps Qoheleth deliberately left it ambiguous to alert us to this implication.

As he observed and pondered over the abuse of authority by people in power, he noticed that such people do get an honorable funeral (“brought to the grave ... from a holy place”) and be praised in the very city they had committed their wicked deeds. This is observed even today. But to put it in perspective, it does not mean that they did not suffer for their wickedness at all. At the least, they will not have peace in their heart to the day of their death (Isa 59:8). And there have been wicked dictators who paid for their crimes before, or in, death. But even if not, the honorable funeral and the exuberant eulogy, being undeserved are meaningless. The people know it--it is all a show. This, Qoheleth says, is also vanity.

8:11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 8:12 For a sinner does evil a hundred times and may prolong his life--although I know that it will be well with the God-fearers, because they fear Him. 8:13 But it will not be well with the wicked, and he will not prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

As we saw earlier, Qoheleth has implicitly explained why God cannot always allow the righteous to prosper. But the question arises as to why He does not always cause the wicked to suffer and so deprive them of their undeserved prosperity. His answer is that God does not punish wickedness immediately, at least not always. This implies that He will do so ultimately. Why then does God not always punish wickedness immediately? Qoheleth does not need to spell it out that if He does, we will not be here discussing it (Lev 10:1-3)!

The further explanation given in the New Testament is helpful: God’s forbearance and patience is intended to lead people to repentance (Rom 2:4). But instead, partly out of ignorance and partly out of stubbornness, people like the despotic king set their heart on doing evil. This explains why wickedness may abound even though God is still in control. But Qoheleth warns that it is well with those who fear God but not well with those who do not, especially in the long run. Wicked people may prolong their life; but they will not prolong it indefinitely like a shadow lengthening itself as the sun goes down. Death will catch up with them and so will their wickedness. Here Qoheleth makes no reference to judgment after death. But at the very end of the speech he does (12:14).

8:14 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. 8:15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and drink and have enjoyment, and this will accompany him in his toil all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

Having now explained why God allows the righteous to suffer and the wicked to prosper, Qoheleth rephrases this enigma bluntly: the righteous may get what the wicked deserve and vice-versa. He considers this vanity also. In light of his advice not to become “overly righteous” in order to obtain prosperity and avoid adversity, this “vanity” refers to the times when righteous deeds are, contrary to expectations, not “profitable” in terms of temporal blessings.

In response to this enigma, Qoheleth further commends enjoyment. We are already very familiar with this as an admonition in response to the vanity of temporal things (2:24-26). In this context, though on the surface it is a response to the possible vanity of righteous deeds, it is still a response to the vanity of temporal things. For it counters the temptation to become “overly righteous,” which we just saw wears one out and is rooted in covetousness (after temporal blessings). In fact, since the enjoyment is to be experienced out of a God-fearing and carefree disposition (5:18-20), this commendation amounts to an admonition to fear God, repent from covetousness and cultivate a healthy sense of detachment from temporal things, and thus be carefree.

It is this disposition that enables us to come to terms with the enigma. We noted in our exposition of 1:12-28 that to have a truly meaningful life we must not only have a worthwhile purpose to live for, but we must also be able to see how the different aspects of life, especially the painful ones, contribute to that overall purpose. Then we can see a worthwhile purpose for painful experiences such as righteous suffering. Qoheleth’s teaching that God so works (allows righteous suffering) that we should fear Him (for nothing) points us to God's (worthwhile) purpose for humanity (3:14b; 12:13); it also helps us to make sense of undeserved suffering by showing how it contributes to this overall purpose.

But people who do not accept Qoheleth’s teaching will have to look elsewhere to find meaning in undeserved suffering. Some may even use this apparent lack of meaning to argue for the non-existence of God. The irony is that, according to Qoheleth, the very purpose of painful experiences is to goad them to acknowledge who God is. Unless we submit to God’s purpose--to fear Him and be carefree--we do not have the disposition needed to appreciate and accept undeserved suffering and to experience the meaning of life as envisioned by Qoheleth.


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