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The main new theme in today’s section is authority, or lack thereof. Qohelet then returns to the theme we looked at yesterday, comparing the wicked with the righteous. There are many ideas in this chapter which are repetitions of motifs already sounded earlier in the book: wisdom, futility, allocated times, and enjoyment of the simple things of life.
8:2-5 deal with the king and how to relate to him. It does not feel in these verses like Qohelet is still identifying as the king, but rather he is now standing alongside us ‘commoners’. Essentially the message is to be obedient and respectful, both because of prior commitments and also future results. There is no point in arguing anyway, because the king will do what he wants. This, Qohelet argues, is wisdom. There is general agreement with this sentiment in scripture (eg 1 Sam 24; Rom 13:1-5), but also occasions on which dispute with the king is acceptable (eg Ex 1:15-22; Acts 4:18-20) or even expected (eg 1 Sam 22). In today’s world, Qohelet’s wisdom still stands, but also with the caveat that sometimes, in some circumstances (cf 8:5), challenging the king or other authorities is the right thing to do.
In 8:6, which flows on directly from the previous verse, we return to the thinking of 3:1ff. Wisdom enables a person to know the right time for every action; wisdom also brightens a person’s perspective on life (8:1), which can otherwise seem so tragic. The problem is, the wisdom which enables us to understand the present and know the future is painfully elusive (8:7-8,17).
Even the king has no authority over his day of death, just as no one can contain the wind or release herself from warfare (8:8). Nor will the wicked person escape from their deeds – or will they? In 8:10, Qohelet notes with apparent sadness – it is hebel also – that wicked people are able to go to the holy place and be praised in the city. There is a great tension in these verses (8:10-14): Qohelet seems undecided whether the wicked will escape judgment (8:11-12,14) or will suffer punishment (8:13). Likewise, he says both that those who fear God, the righteous, will have good lives (8:12), but also that they sometimes get what the wicked deserve (8:14). He cannot grasp these sad realities, they are hebel. This whole discussion harks back to the previous chapter (7:15).
Qohelet cannot unravel this mystery, and so simply resigns himself to it, commending enjoyment of the tangible aspects of life: eating, drinking, joy. The sad reality is that the wisdom needed to understand why life happens the way it does is unattainable. Even though she sees every work of God, and searches out what is happening, even the wisest person is not able to grasp what is really going on ‘under the sun’. There is no human answer to the biblical and all-too-human questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’
This chapter does not hold out any particular hope. Submit to authority, even if you don’t agree with it, and enjoy what you can see, touch, and taste. No one understands why there is so much suffering and injustice. That’s it. I don’t like it, and I am looking for an escape, some solid conclusion, but there is none to be had here, only the repeated announcement that it is all hebel. We can sit with that, sit with Qohelet and our own souls and the souls of others, as we contemplate this darkness.
What did Jesus think of this book? He does not quote from it, and nor does the rest of the New Testament. But some of Paul’s writings reflect ideas from Ecclesiastes. He agrees that life on earth is futile, if there is no future to be looked forward to, but that Christ’s resurrection has changed that perspective (1 Cor 15, especially vv17,32,58) – Christ, the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Cor 1:24,30). With Christ as our wisdom we may be able to find meaning in life.
Prayer: Lord God, there is so much about this life that is difficult to understand, especially when evil men rule and prosper. Let me be one who fears you, and help me to enjoy the good things in this life which you have given to me. Give me wisdom to understand the times.