New European Commentary

 

About | PDFs | Mobile formats | Word formats | Other languages | Contact Us | What is the Gospel? | Support the work | Carelinks Ministries | | The Real Christ | The Real Devil | "Bible Companion" Daily Bible reading plan


Deeper Commentary

 

Ecc 8:1 Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed-
See on :2. This may be a reflection upon how Solomon as the most famous "wise man" had a face shining with wisdom, and his face was thought to be soft and wise. For Ecclesiastes is Solomon looking back in autobiography. But he several times admits in Ecclesiastes that now as an old man he is a hard oppressor, whipping his people (1 Kings 12:11). Indeed wisdom does make a man's face to shine, for Stephen's face shone because of his wisdom (Acts 6:10,15 clearly allude here). But Solomon's face became hard in his old age; and he realized that. He so well analyzes himself; but refuses to repent and change. 

He proudly insisted: “Who is as the wise man?”, as if the possession of theoretical truth and wisdom was the ultimate possession; and he then goes on to say that this made him beyond criticism (Ecc. 8:2-4). This surely must be a danger for any community or individual who considers they have “the truth” and who considers the possession of it to be of the utmost importance. 

 
Ecc 8:2 I say, Keep the king’s command! because of the oath to God-
Despite having such knowledge and wisdom with which to rule Israel (for this was the primary purpose of the gift of wisdom to him), Solomon oppressed his people (1 Kings 12:11). With evident reference to himself, he commented: “Because the king’s word hath power, who may say unto him, What doest thou?” (Ecc. 8:4 RV). It is only God who cannot be questioned in this way. But Solomon felt that because he possessed God’s wisdom, he could therefore act as God: “I counsel thee, Keep the King’s command, and that in regard of the oath of God” (Ecc. 8:2) could suggest that he thought that his commandments were in fact God’s. So the possession of Truth, which we too have, can lead to an incredible arrogance, a lack of openness to others’ comments upon us, and a certainty that we are right in all that we do and are beyond criticism. The hardness of a man is changed by true wisdom (Ecc. 8:1 RV), but knowing this, Solomon became hard hearted. He had the wisdom- but as he said, it was far from him personally.  


Ecc 8:3 Don’t be hasty to go out of his presence. Don’t persist in an evil thing, for he does whatever pleases him-
Here Solomon demands absolute respect, and speaks of himself as God, doing his will, judging evil and demanding the utmost respect in his presence. This was Solomon's problem, as it is of many today; he considered that his very possession of Divine truth enabled him to play God, and he ended up acting as if he were God. Remember that he wrote all this at a time when he had turned away from Yahweh. One psychological, subconscious reason why he did so was because he was playing God himself.


Ecc 8:4 for the king’s word is supreme. Who can say to him, What are you doing?-
See on :2,3. This is a sad contrast to how his father David had throughout Ps. 119 considered Yahweh's word as supreme. Only Yahweh is beyond question, and cannot be asked "What are you doing?" (Job 9:12). Solomon surely knew that scripture in Job, for the book was in existence by his time, and David often alludes to it. But he willfully appropriates it to himself. He wrote all this at a time when he had turned away from Yahweh. One psychological, subconscious reason why he did so was because he was playing God himself.


Ecc 8:5 Whoever keeps the commandment shall not come to harm, and his wise heart will know the time and procedure-
This appears to refer to the commandment of the king of the previous verses, not of God. GNB: "As long as you obey his commands, you are safe, and a wise person knows how and when to do it". Solomon has himself in view as the king, and he defines wisdom as unquestioning obedience to himself. His Divine wisdom remained with him, but he hijacks it to bolster his own power and authority- as many do today.  


Ecc 8:6 For there is a time and procedure for every purpose-
"Purpose" is "delight". David's "delight" was in God's law (Ps. 1:2 s.w.) and also in the things of the future Kingdom of God (s.w. 2 Sam. 23:5); our "delight" in those things is reflected in our attitudes to God's word. And we shall be finally judged according to our 'delights', our dominant desires (s.w. Ecc. 3:17; 8:6). The Lord Jesus was devoted to sharing Yahweh's "delight" (Is. 53:10). We shall be judged according to what are our dominant desires. But Solomon seems to be playing God here by assuming that coming before him as the judge of Israel was coming before God's judgment. See on :2-4.

Despite the way that Solomon as it were hijacked God's role as judge, what he says about judgment is true enough. There is indeed a present aspect to judgment. "The day of the Lord is coming, but it is even now” (Mic. 7:4 Heb.). God isn’t passive to human behaviour- right now “To every matter there is a time and a judgment (LXX krisis)” (Ecc. 8:6 RVmg.). He perceives our actions right now as critically important. And this should highlight to us the crucial importance of life and right living today.

Each action and thought and word is now judged by God [even though Solomon had tried to hijack that role by playing God]; and the result will be communicated to us on the last day. There is a krisis (judgment) now for every work (Ecc. 8:5,6 LXX). Every action and moment is a crisis. In this thought alone we see the crucial importance of life and living, every moment. As cotton wool clouds drift across the sky, we can lose this sense of urgency and vitality which there ought to be about every moment we live here. But we know His judgments; we know how He judges behaviour; and therefore we should live as men and women under judgment. Each act and thought is our judgment. It has been truly observed by John Robinson: "'To every matter there is a time (kairos) and a judgment (krisis)' (Ecc. 8:6 RV margin). And each particular moment of judgment makes its contribution towards the supreme consummation towards which it is all working- the final kairos which is also the final krisis" In The End God (London: James Clark, 1950), p. 57.. The judgment is the final crisis. That sense of crisis must not be lost on us. And yet we have a tendency to act and speak and think as if judgment day is not going to come: "Although thou sayest thou shalt not see him [in judgment], yet judgment is before him", right now (Job 35:14).

Although the misery of man is heavy on him-
This misery is because Solomon considers that man doesn't know his future, and death appears final (:7).

Ecc 8:7 For he doesn’t know that which will be; for who can tell him how it will be?-
This is a frequent lament by Solomon, that he doesn't know the future. He wrote this at the end of his life, and the future in view was death. And yet the promises to David and Abraham clearly offered the resurrection of the body and future eternal inheritance of the earth. Even throughout Proverbs, Solomon sees wisdom as largely just good for this life. He has no eternal, Kingdom perspective, nor does he strongly factor in the final day of judgment. He considered himself the Messianic king, and his kingdom to be God's promised Kingdom. And now he was himself facing death, he realizes that the future is a fearful unknown.


Ecc 8:8 There is no man who has power over the spirit to contain the spirit; neither does he have power over the day of death. There is no discharge in war; neither shall wickedness deliver those who practice it-
The idea may be as in GNB, that death "is a battle we cannot escape; we cannot cheat our way out". Effectively this is what Solomon had been trying to do by acting as if he was somehow immortal in his playing of God (:2-4). But as he approached death, he realized how wrong he had been, and yet doesn't repent. In the context of :14, "no man" implies that no man, not even the righteous, can retain his spirit when he dies. The implication is as in Ecc. 3:21,22 that the spirit is the life force of creation which returns to God on death. And in Solomon's view, wisdom and righteousness couldn't change that. Clearly Solomon sees this life as all there is. He has no acceptance that the spirit is in fact more than the life force, for the Bible often uses the "spirit" in the sense of the character of a person, which is retained in God's memory and will be the basis of our eternal judgment (e.g. Heb. 12:23). Solomon in this sense was not a spiritual person, he failed to recognize that the spirit in the sense of our personality is of the essence, and determines our hope of eternal life in a bodily form.


Ecc 8:9 All this have I seen, and applied my mind to every work that is done under the sun. There is a time in which one man has power over another to his hurt-
GNB "to suffer under him", LXX "to afflict". But Solomon was the one who afflicted the people under him (1 Kings 12:11). But he sees it as not too significant because there will be no future judgment, and death happens to all (see on :8).

"My mind" is literally "my whole heart". David spoke of seeking and praising God's grace with his "whole heart" (Ps. 9:1; 119:58; 138:1). Solomon uses the phrase, but speaks of being obedient with the "whole heart" (1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chron. 6:14) and applying the "whole heart" to the intellectual search for God (Ecc. 1:13; 8:9). There is a difference. The idea of whole hearted devotion to God was picked up by Solomon, but instead of giving the whole heart to the praise of God's grace, he instead advocated giving the whole heart to ritualistic obedience and intellectual search for God. This has been the trap fallen into by many Protestant groups whose obsession with "truth" has obscured the wonder of God's grace.

That Solomon abused his power to hurt is recognized by him elsewhere in Ecclesiastes. “Surely oppression maketh a wise man foolish” (Ecc. 7:7 RV), he commented at the end of his life- even though right then he was chastising the people with whips, oppressing them (1 Kings 12:11). He knew the true wisdom, he saw his reflection so accurately in the mirror, but resigned from its personal implications. He could even write that “I returned and considered all the oppression that are done under the sun [by himself!]: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power [Solomon was king and had set up the tax system in a clever and biased way]; but they had no comforter” (Ecc. 4:1; 5:8). It was a real case of spiritual schizophrenia- he sorrowed for the people he oppressed. He even seems to say that there is nothing to be surprised at in the poor being oppressed, because the whole hierarchy of officialdom above them do the same, and that chain of control ends in himself (see on Ecc. 5:2). He saw his sin as inevitable, as part of his participation in humanity- he didn’t own up to his own desperate need for grace. Yet he also knew that “man lords it over man [cp. Solomon’s oppression of the people] to his own hurt” (Ecc. 8:9 RSV). He realized that he had only hurt himself by abusing people. And yet he continued, despite his accurate and incisive self analysis. 


Ecc 8:10 So I saw the wicked buried. Indeed they came also from holiness. They went and were forgotten in the city where they did this. This also is vanity-
It was all vanity to Solomon because of his observation in :14 that the righteous also die the same death as the wicked. He therefore considers that the moral teaching of righteousness has no lasting effect, and in :16 laments he had built Yahweh's temple, which he now in his old age wasn't using as instead he worshipped in the idol temples he had built nearby to it (1 Kings 3:4-8).

Solomon uses the same words as his father David in Ps. 37:10: "Yes, though you look for his place, he isn’t there".  Solomon in his collapse of faith considers that not finding the place of the deceased is just an example of life's vanity. David his father saw it is a triumph of good over evil and a foretaste of how things shall be eternally put right at the last day. But Solomon lost the kingdom perspective, using the words of David his father simply in a secular sense.

The reference to "holiness" could mean that even the holy were in due course forgotten in their own town, which is the theme of :14. Solomon concludes that holiness is therefore vanity because no lasting reputation is left. He clearly saw wisdom as only good for this life, and many of his Proverbs see the advantage of wisdom as getting a good name and image for ourselves in this life.

However GNB and LXX give a different slant: "And then I saw the ungodly carried into the tombs, and that out of the holy place: and they departed, and were praised in the city, because they had done thus: this also is vanity" (LXX); "Yes, I have seen the wicked buried and in their graves, but on the way back from the cemetery people praise them in the very city where they did their evil. It is useless" (GNB). Solomon's understanding was that the greatest reward was to have a good name and reputation after death, and he laments that this is attained even by the wicked. So he sees no point in being righteous.


Ecc 8:11 Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil-
I will suggest on :12 that :12-14 are Solomon quoting common wisdom of the time and showing it to be wrong. The GNB sees it this way. But I think the quotation may include :11. Because in :10,14 Solomon is arguing that the wicked and righteous all die the same death, and often in secular life the wicked have a better life and reputation left behind them than the righteous. Therefore, the idea that evil must be judged immediately lest people become evil is wrong and unhelpful. That seems to be Solomon's position. "Sentence" is a Persian word, found elsewhere only in Esther 1:20, which would confirm the idea that this is a quotation from another source which Solomon is disagreeing with. But the sentence against evil may refer to death; for in Ecc. 9:3 Solomon repeats the phrase "the heart of the sons of men is full of evil", blaming this on the fact they are alive and not dead. This is nihilism at its worst. Solomon blames the evil heart of man on the fact he doesn't die from the womb. This is quite wrong reasoning, and reflects how Solomon indeed "hated life".


Ecc 8:12 Though a sinner commits crimes a hundred times, and lives long, yet surely I know that it will be better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him-
This and :13 are not necessarily an appeal to fear God. It would contradict the general tenor of Solomon's position. And as noted on Ecc. 1:1, I suggest this is not part of any dialectical argument, whereby arguments are being given for and against faith. I think GNB is right to read :12-14 as Solomon quoting the generally accepted position that faith in God makes things work out well in the end; after all, Solomon was writing this at the end of his life, when his heart had turned away from God. So it would be surprising if at that time he professed personal faith in God. So the quotation from the accepted position goes something as in GNB: "A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: "If you obey God, everything will be all right,
but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God."
But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes the righteous get the punishment of the wicked, and the wicked get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless". Where Solomon really personally stands is explained in :14; he considers the righteous and wicked have the same end in death, and therefore there is no  great advantage in fearing God.


Ecc 8:13 But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he lengthen days like a shadow; because he doesn’t fear God-
See on :12. I suggest this is a quotation from generally accepted wisdom, which Solomon denied in his old age. The next verse goes on to state that in Solomon's view, the wicked do sometimes have long lives. As discussed on Ecc. 1:1, this is not a dialectical argument, for the definition of "vanity" continues throughout this section with no clear break between the supposedly opposing sides of the argument. These verses are perhaps the strongest case for the idea that Solomon is in fact arguing for faith in God, through using dialectic or contrary arguments. But the argument doesn't hold water, for Solomon is writing this in old age when his heart has already turned away from God. And these verses are best understood as noted on :12, as a quotation of popular views about God, which Solomon is rejecting.


Ecc 8:14 There is a vanity which is done on the earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked. Again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity-
See on :12. This is Solomon's take on the popular ideas he has just quoted in :11-13, whereby righteousness has a reward and wickedness brings punishment. He now considers it nonsense. But this arose from his refusal to see any eternal perspective. The eternal outcomes of this life are not immediate, they are articulated at the last day of judgment, and will be experienced eternally in God's future Kingdom. But Solomon didn't believe this, and so he was left with being the miserable man of 1 Cor. 15:19 who has hope only in this life. See on :15. 


Ecc 8:15 Then I commended mirth, because a man has no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be joyful: for that will accompany him in his labour all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun-
This is quoted in 1 Cor. 15:32 as the position of those why deny faith in the resurrection of the body. And indeed this was exactly Solomon's problem; see on :14; Ecc. 9:7. Solomon earlier taught that going to a funeral and sorrowing is better than the laughter of a wedding feast (Ecc. 7:2,3). Yet despite realizing this on an intellectual level, Solomon personally commended mirth / laughter to himself (Ecc. 8:15), and advises removing sorrow from the heart (Ecc. 11:10). Again we see Solomon's amazing ability, indeed the ability of human nature, to comprehend truth on one level, and yet reason and live exactly and precisely and consciously the opposite.
On one hand Solomon condemns mirth (Ecc. 7:4; Prov. 20:32 LXX "If thou abandon thyself to mirth, and stretch forth thine hand in a quarrel, thou shalt be disgraced"). But this is exactly what Solomon did in Ecc. 2:1,2; 8:15. He refused to accept his own wisdom. It was merely a teaching position, and he felt the need to empirically find its truth. he failed to personalize the wisdom he taught, and therefore turned away in the end.

"Mirth" is the word also translated "pleasure". Don't love "pleasure" (Prov. 21:17) and Prov. 14:13 "even in mirth there is sorrow" are both s.w. "mirth" in Ecc. 2:1,2; 8:15. Solomon had to re-learn this for himself rather than  accept direct Divine teaching about it. He recognized that fools love mirth (Prov. 7:4) but still he  wanted it. He rejected this wisdom and only came to agree with it  through doing just what Prov.14:13 condemns  (Ecc. 2:2).


Ecc 8:16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom-
Solomon was given wisdom by God, he didn't reach it by any personal intellectual process. But now he has rejected that and seeks to know wisdom from his own observations and intellectual process. And that wisdom was associated with his heart turning away from God and to the nihilism of idolatry.

And to see the business that is done on the earth (for also there is that neither day nor night sees sleep with his eyes)-
In Ps. 127, instead of building the temple / house for Yahweh, Solomon is advised to let Yahweh build up his house / family as the seed of David (Ps. 127:3-5). God would give sleep to the beloved, "Jedidiah", Solomon (Ps. 127:2), and he would awake and find his house / seed built for him by God- rather than Solomon frantically building a house for God. The same phrase is only used of Solomon not giving sleep to his eyes in his mad addiction to works (Prov. 6:4; Ecc 8:16). Ps. 127 was "for Solomon" rather than necessarily "by" him. And it seems he refused the offer of having his house / seed built up for him, but rather chose to try to build God a house in his addiction to achieving blessing by works. But now, as in Ecc. 5:1-6, Solomon is lamenting the way he had built the temple; for he now believes that the righteous go to the same end as the wicked (:14), and so what he had once believed and upheld was vain. See on :17.


Ecc 8:17 then I saw all the work of God, that man can’t find out the work that is done under the sun, because however much a man labours to seek it out, yet he won’t find it. Yes even though a wise man thinks he can comprehend it, he won’t be able to find it
-
GNB translates :16,17: "Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don't". As suggested on :16, this continues Solomon's abrogation of the Divine wisdom given him in his youth. Seeing that Solomon has so often called himself "the wise man", he is here effectively denying the personal truth of all the wisdom he has. He also sees that wisdom as not particularly deep, seeing it cannot save from immediate death in this life. He sees the reality of death as the trump card against wisdom. And yet as noted on :14,15, this is because he refuses to accept the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.