The Agora
Bible Commentary

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Ecclesiastes 8

Ecc 8:1

WHO IS LIKE THE WISE MAN? WHO KNOWS THE EXPLANATION OF THINGS?: This phrase looks like the conclusion to the preceding section, rather than the beginning of the next one. It is comparable to Hos 14:9, which concludes that whole prophecy: "Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them" (cp Jer 9:12). Wisdom is extolled here, as often in Proverbs: Pro 1:5; 3:35; 15:7,31; etc.

THE EXPLANATION OF THINGS: In Hebrew, "the noun ['pesher'] denotes 'solution; explanation; interpretation; meaning' (HAL, BDB)" (NETn). The Aramaic equivalent ['peshar'] signifies "an interpretation of a dream or prophecy" (Dan 2:5–7; 4:3,15,16; 5:12,15,16; 7:16).

WISDOM BRIGHTENS A MAN'S FACE: As the face of Moses shone after his audiences with God (Exo 34:29; 2Co 3:7-9), and as the face of Christ likewise shone forth at the Transfiguration (Mat 17:2; Mar 9:3-6; Luk 9:29), and his revelation to John (Rev 1:16), and the face of Stephen at his martyrdom (Act 6:15). All such incidents are indicative of receiving favor in the Divine Presence (Num 6:25; cp Psa 19:8).

In a sad contrast, there was Uzziah, who received leprosy in his "countenance", or "forehead" (2Ch 26:20) -- when he intruded, wrongly, into the Presence of God. He sought God's favor, but wrongly, because presumptuously. His face was changed also, but not as he would have desired! It even shone white, but the whiteness was the hideous sight of leprosy in his forehead!

AND CHANGES ITS HARD APPEARANCE: Or, as AV, "the boldness of his face shall be changed." In the presence of the king, the face of the obedient man loses its hardness and stubbornness, and becomes gentle and receptive (ct Pro 7:13; Dan 8:23; Deu 28:50). Or, as Henry puts it, "The sourness and severity of his countenance... shall be changed by it into that which is sweet and obliging. Even those whose natural temper is rough and morose... by wisdom are strangely altered; they become mild and gentle, and learn to look pleasant."

Ecc 8:2

OBEY THE KING'S COMMAND, I SAY, BECAUSE YOU TOOK AN OATH BEFORE GOD: Or, as the AV, "in regard of the oath of God"; it was the king who took an oath before God -- not the listeners! Implicitly, though, the listeners were bound by their promise to obey Yahweh, and thus to obey His appointed representative (Exo 22:11; 1Ki 2:43). "The kings of Israel took office at the appointment of Yahweh. At their coronations they were expected to take the oath of God, and declare their loyalty and fidelity to the Deity. They were required to study the law daily, and to administer justice and judgment to the people (Deu 17:12-19; 1Ch 11:2,3; 2Ch 9:8). The king's office, therefore, carried divine authority to which the people must submit (2Sa 5:13). Failure to obey the king's command brought swift punishment (Pro 19:12; 20:2)" (Krygger).

OBEY THE KING'S COMMAND: Literally, "observe the mouth of the king" -- be attentive to everything he says.

Ecc 8:3

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: To leave the royal presence unbidden is, in effect if not actual fact, to be disobedient to him (Pro 20:2; 24:21; Hos 11:2; cp Ecc 10:4). Thus Cain went out from the LORD's presence (Gen 4:16). And thus the rebellious Sheba called all Israel to return to their own tents (2Sa 20:1).

Do not renounce your service to the king, for rebellion against divine authority is a grievous sin (Psa 2:1-4; 68:21), and will surely be punished (Dan 4:32-35; cp Luk 19:27; Heb 10:26-30; 1Jo 2:18,19).

Another possible reference to the life and times of Uzziah, who hastened to leave the Temple with his leprosy (2Ch 26:20).

Reorganizing the sentence, along with the last phrase of v 2, this might read: "Regarding the oath of God (the Melchizedek kingly priest of Psa 110:1-4), do not be hasty!" That is, don't try to usurp what has not been sworn to YOU!

Ecc 8:4

SINCE A KING'S WORD IS SUPREME, WHO CAN SAY TO HIM, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?": The extent of royal power, including the power to raise taxes and conscript service, is outlined in 1Sa 8:10-18.

Especially is this true of the LORD Himself, the Divine King -- who surely does as He pleases, with none to hinder Him (Jon 1:14; Job 23:13; Psa 115:3; 135:6; Pro 19:21).

Ecc 8:5

WHOEVER OBEYS HIS COMMAND WILL COME TO NO HARM: Obedience to those in authority is a Scriptural command (Rom 13:1-8; Tit 3:1; 1Pe 2:13,14). "The 'law of the land' is to be observed by the Christian community as though it were God's law (Rom 13:3,5; 1Pe 3:13). Only the lawless need fear civil law (1Ti 1:9). The Christian need not get involved in 'civil disobedience' (Rom 12:17-19). The Christian is to go 'the extra mile' in this regard, even as the Nazarene taught (Mat 5:41,42)" (Miller). "A king delights in a wise servant, but a shameful servant incurs his wrath" (Pro 14:35).

AND THE WISE HEART WILL KNOW THE PROPER TIME AND PROCEDURE: A wise man knows when and where to act; he not only does the right thing, but he does it at the right time -- not too hastily and not too tardily.

The foolish virgins waiting for the Bridegroom tried to do the right thing -- just as had the wise virgins (Mat 25:1-13) -- but they were not prepared ahead of time, and then it was too late, and the door was shut upon them. Esther, by contrast, thought carefully as to the appropriate time and place to put her petition to the king (Est 7:2-4), and was successful.

THE PROPER TIME: "The term 'eth' ('time') connotes 'a proper, suitable time for an event; the right moment' (HAL, BDB); eg, 'it was the time for rain' (Ezr 10:13); 'a time of judgment for the nations' (Eze 30:3); 'there is an appropriate time for every occasion' (Ecc 3:1); 'the time when mountain goats are born' (Job 39:1); 'the rain in its season' (Deu 11:14; Jer 5:24); 'the time for the harvest' (Hos 2:11; Psa 1:3); 'food in its season' (Psa 104:27)" (NETn).

Ecc 8:6


THOUGH A MAN'S MISERY WEIGHS HEAVILY UPON HIM: "Misery" is Heb "ra" -- evil. This is Rom 8:19-23 again: the whole "creation" (by which may especially be meant the "new creation") continues to be subject to "vanity" (frustration, futility) in its struggle in this world -- for its only hope rests with God Himself, who only can rescue man from the "bondage to decay".

Ecc 8:7

SINCE NO MAN KNOWS THE FUTURE, WHO CAN TELL HIM WHAT IS TO COME?: An echo of Ecc 6:12: "Who can tell [man] what will happen under the sun after he is gone?" Man's frustration is increased by his recognition that the future is closed and dark to him. But of course his faith in God ought to be increased also -- if and when He recognizes that the Almighty DOES hold the keys to the future! And that the Almighty is prepared to reveal to men who trust in him as much of the future as they need to know (cp 1Th 5:1-5).

Ecc 8:8

NO MAN HAS POWER OVER THE WIND TO CONTAIN IT: The word is "ruach", which might with equal merit be translated "wind" or "spirit". NEB and NASB use "wind", as does the NIV; but the NIV mg, as well as AV, RSV, and LXX, use "spirit". The presence of "death" in the next phrase, which is presumably parallel, points toward "spirit" as the proper rendering. Cp Mat 10:28: there is One who has power of the spirit (breath), the soul (life), and the body -- and it is not man! At death, this "spirit" returns to God who gave it (Ecc 12:7).

NO ONE HAS POWER OVER THE DAY OF HIS DEATH: Or even the death of his brother: Psa 49:7-19; Gen 3:19; Ecc 9:5. A good example of this is the case of Hezekiah, who realized how powerless he was when confronted with the news of his impending death (2Ki 20:1-3). And likewise, David knew that the day of Saul's death was in the hand of God: "As surely as the LORD lives... the LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish" (1Sa 26:10).

There is a time to be born, and a time to die (Ecc 3:2). No one has power over the life force, to retain it one moment longer than it might otherwise last... except the LORD (Deu 32:39,40; 1Sa 2:6-10).

" 'Redeem the time' [Eph 5:16; Col 4:5]. This is the precept, the echo of a past inspiration, which the Holy Spirit of God would still sound in our ears as we look forward to the termination of present life. Spend the life in earnest, and as if the whole future depended upon it. Spend to-day as if there were no certain to-morrow. Be watchful about little things, and especially the brief moments of time. The few pence and the fragments of food have their value" (A. WilIiamson, BI).

NO ONE HAS POWER OVER THE DAY OF HIS DEATH. AS NO ONE IS DISCHARGED IN TIME OF WAR...: KJV has: "Neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in THAT war" (ie, the battle with death): "Death is an enemy that we must all enter the lists with, sooner or later: There is no discharge in that war, no dismissal from it, either of the men of business or of the faint-hearted, as there was among the Jews (Deu 20:5,8). While we live we are struggling with death, and we shall never put off the harness till we put off the body, never obtain a discharge till death has obtained the mastery; the youngest is not released as a fresh-water soldier, nor the oldest as a soldier whose merits have entitled him to a discharge. Death is a battle that must be fought. There is no 'sending' to that war (so some read it), no substituting another to muster for us, no champion admitted to fight for us; we must ourselves engage, and are concerned to provide accordingly, as for a battle" (Henry).

NO ONE IS DISCHARGED IN TIME OF WAR: "Discharge" sig "to cast down" -- ie, there is no casting aside of weapons in this war. It is possible, humanly speaking, for a soldier to obtain a furlough, for a period of time, from warfare (ie Deu 20:1-8), but in man's continual warfare against death, there is no release -- even temporary. From the cradle until the grave, he is a "soldier" in this war! "Man is destined to die once" (Heb 9:27).

SO WICKEDNESS WILL NOT RELEASE THOSE WHO PRACTICE IT: As Paul develops in his extended allegory in Rom 6, "King Sin" rules over all mankind. He is the absolute despot, and the commanding general -- and all men are his subjects, and his soldiers. He releases no man willingly from this service, and he ultimately pays the final wages, and extracts the last measure of service: "the wages which Sin pays is... DEATH!" But Paul's allegory also allows for a greater "King", one who can deliver suffering man from his bondage to "King Sin" -- it is through a different kind of death: those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death, and in a spiritual sense they die with him! This gives them the means to be released from their service to "King Sin", so that they may serve a new and far superior master. Whereas the former Master pays the "wages" of death, the latter Master gives the gift of eternal life!

Ecc 8:9

ALL THIS I SAW, AS I APPLIED MY MIND TO EVERYTHING DONE UNDER THE SUN: Once again, Qoheleth reminds his listeners that this is not theoretical knowledge which he seeks to impart, but rather that he has experienced all this firsthand, by tireless inquiry and investigation.

THERE IS A TIME WHEN A MAN LORDS IT OVER OTHERS TO HIS OWN HURT: Better, as the NIV mg, "to their hurt". This verse is describing wicked rulers, as is plain in v 10. Cp similar expressions in Neh 5:15; Est 9:1.

There is an honest recognition of the fact that there is evil in government. John Kenneth Galbraith put this very aptly when he said, "Under capitalism man exploits man; under communism it is exactly the reverse." The problem may not be with the form of government nearly so much as it is with the form of human nature which all rulers and would-be rulers possess!

Ecc 8:10

V 10 is a very difficult verse; there is some question about the actual Hebrew text; translations differ considerably, and some emendations have been suggested.

I SAW THE WICKED BURIED -- THOSE WHO USED TO COME AND GO FROM THE HOLY PLACE: These were Temple priests and Levites, who had abused their power to rule over others (v 9; cp 1Sa 2:22-25). Or else they were secular rulers, who might have had prominent places for themselves in the Temple (Mic 3:9-12).

AND RECEIVE PRAISE IN THE CITY WHERE THEY DID THIS: The KJV and ASV have "they were forgotten" (Heb "yistak"), but various other versions (eg, NIV, RSV, NEB, and LXX) have "they were praised" (by emending to the Heb "yistab"). This latter rendering makes more sense, given that the context speaks of the great injustice -- which would be to "praise" the wicked, not to forget their wicked works.

Therefore, by this translation, the point would be: yet even when such men die, they are often praised, and buried with great pomp and ceremony, while men lament and mourn their passing.

So often this is the case with modern funerals. The story is told of a woman who was at the funeral of her husband, who had been a notorious wretch and a criminal. On hearing the eloquent eulogy in praise of him, what a wonderful man he was, etc, she finally whispered to her son, "Go up and see if that's your father in that coffin!"

Ecc 8:11

WHEN THE SENTENCE FOR A CRIME IS NOT QUICKLY CARRIED OUT, THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE ARE FILLED WITH SCHEMES TO DO WRONG: In God's plan, it is evident that sometimes retribution is delayed (Rom 2:3-6). He has reasons for doing so -- primary among which is His desire to give the ungodly ample opportunity to repent (2Pe 3:3-10). But often, it seems, the mind of the flesh is only affected by fairly immediate "reward and punishment"; in the absence of such, it will usually conclude that God does not care, or even that God does not exist (cp Psa 14:1; 53:1; Isa 26:10; Psa 10:1-11; Psa 73). This explains the apparent unpunished injustices of vv 9,10.

SENTENCE: Heb "pithgam" -- a rather rare word, which seems to signify a royal decree (eg, Est 1:20; Ezr 4:17).

THE HEARTS OF PEOPLE ARE FILLED WITH SCHEMES TO DO WRONG: "The figure is both vivid and simple, for the verb is literally 'filled up'. The mind is regarded as a vessel in which the agitated thoughts collect and seethe. Each new piece of injustice unavenged adds to the contents and the agitation of the vessel until it refuses to hold the total contents, and so the hot mass spills over the brim. This spilling is the 'doing of evil' " (Leupold). The filling up of a vessel with iniquity, whether thoughts or actions, is suggested in God's description of the Amorites in Gen 15:16: "The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." This thought in turn is developed by Jesus, with regard to Israel: "Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!" (Mat 23:32)... as well as Paul: "In this way they heap up their sins to the limit" (1Th 2:16).

"Criminal punishment is a deterrence to crime (Rom 13:3). In a larger perspective evil men abound because God appears slow in His judgment. It is a truism that human beings tend to lawfulness because they are aware of civil punishment for breaking the law. Anyone who disagrees with this should remember the last time he slowed his car when he saw a policeman" (Miller).

Ecc 8:12

ALTHOUGH A WICKED MAN COMMITS A HUNDRED CRIMES AND STILL LIVES A LONG TIME, I KNOW THAT IT WILL GO BETTER WITH GOD-FEARING MEN, WHO ARE REVERENT BEFORE GOD: How does the writer finally come to this definite conclusion? Is it because he realizes that God, and not man, is truly in charge of time -- and times (Ecc 3:17)? Is it because he is finally coming to understand, therefore, that God is not bound by time? And that, in the words of Paul, "Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2Co 4:17,18). The answer can only be that he knows the righteous have a hope beyond the grave, in and through the resurrection: "Even in death the righteous have a refuge" (Pro 14:32).

Ecc 8:13

YET BECAUSE THE WICKED DO NOT FEAR GOD, IT WILL NOT GO WELL WITH THEM, AND THEIR DAYS WILL NOT LENGTHEN: This may be true on two different counts: (1) Persistent transgression of God's laws leads to all sorts of physical and mental and emotional ills, quite apart from any divine punishment; many sins carry with them their own punishments, naturally speaking (Pro 13:21; 14:30; Psa 55:23; Rom 1:27). And... (2) there WILL be a divine punishment, later if not sooner -- even though it may "appear" to be long delayed, it is inevitable (Psa 37:9,10; 90:1-10). Although, from a human perspective, it appears that the wicked's days are often "lengthened" (v 12), yet from a divine perspective -- seen through the eyes of eternity -- those days are not "lengthened" at all, but are rather "cut off" tragically short! It all depends on one's frame of reference.

THEIR DAYS WILL NOT LENGTHEN LIKE A SHADOW: Or, "Like a shadow, their days will not lengthen." Generally, a shadow is a figure of the insecurity of life (Psa 102:11; 109:23). But more specifically, this is probably another reference to the life and times of Hezekiah, since it was the shadow of the sun-dial that was moved supernaturally by the Spirit of God: 2Ki 20:8-11.

Ecc 8:14

THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE MEANINGLESS THAT OCCURS ON EARTH: RIGHTEOUS MEN WHO GET WHAT THE WICKED DESERVE, AND WICKED MEN WHO GET WHAT THE RIGHTEOUS DESERVE. THIS TOO, I SAY, IS MEANINGLESS: This has been stated before (cp Ecc 3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 7:7). Notice that Qoheleth does not say that this state of affairs is... WRONG! Only that it is "meaningless": "hebel" -- futile, frustrating, when seen from the human or limited perspective. Man, even spiritual, knowledgeable, discerning man, is bound by mortality and time -- and naturally chafes at what can seem to be the apparent indifference of God to the actions of men, both good and evil. "How long, O LORD?" is his cry. And even as he is told, time and time again, to be patient and to wait on the LORD... he cannot help but feel that this life is "vain", unfulfilling, and lacking of something. And of course, it is! But it is so by the design of an Almighty Hand. And it is so... so that the children of God may learn, through bitter hardship if necessary, that their only hope is in their Father and His coming Kingdom (Heb 12:1-11; 2Co 12:7-10).

RIGHTEOUS MEN WHO GET WHAT THE WICKED DESERVE: In the largest sense, this is Christ! "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous" (1Pe 3:18; cp 1Pe 2:21-24; Isa 53:4-6; Rom 5:6-8; 8:3; 2Co 5:21; Gal 1:4; 3:13; Tit 2:14; Heb 9:26,28; Mat 27:22). Of course, this is as far from "meaningless", or "futile", or "frustrating" as anything could conceivably be. But still -- from a purely human perspective -- it may appear so.

Ecc 8:15

SO I COMMEND THE ENJOYMENT OF LIFE, BECAUSE NOTHING IS BETTER FOR A MAN UNDER THE SUN THAN TO EAT AND DRINK AND BE GLAD. THEN JOY WILL ACCOMPANY HIM IN HIS WORK ALL THE DAYS OF THE LIFE GOD HAS GIVEN HIM UNDER THE SUN: Once again, Qoheleth turns to the thoughts expressed earlier in the Book: "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?" (Ecc 2:24,25). "So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" (Ecc 3:22). "Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him -- for this is his lot" (Ecc 5:18).

"Qoheleth is not commending a self-indulgent lifestyle of Epicurean hedonism [the kind of thing Paul describes in 1Co 15:32: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die"]. Nor is he lamenting the absolute futility of life and the lack of eternal retribution. He is submitting to the reality that in a sin-cursed world there is much of human existence marked by relative futility. Since the righteous man cannot assume that he will automatically experience temporal prosperity and blessings on this earth, he should -- at the very least -- enjoy each day to its fullest as a gift from God" (NETn).

But it should be pointed out that such enjoyment in THIS life does not preclude, in his mind, the faithful anticipation of the infinitely greater joy of the Age to Come. In fact, it may enhance the legitimate enjoyment that might be derived from this life, for the wise man will take that joy for what it is -- a gift from God, the best that He can offer now -- but he will not set his whole heart upon it as the only joy to be had!

Ecc 8:16

WHEN I APPLIED MY MIND TO KNOW WISDOM AND TO OBSERVE MAN'S LABOR ON EARTH: Once again, the author (or the compiler?) reminds us that this is no mere theoretical knowledge to him, but rather that he has sought it out, investigating painstakingly all the aspects of life upon which he comments (cp Ecc 1:13; 7:25).

HIS EYES NOT SEEING SLEEP DAY OR NIGHT: Qoheleth observes once again that man's striving for attainments in this life leave him restless and unable to sleep (cp Ecc 2:23).

Ecc 8:17

DESPITE ALL HIS EFFORTS TO SEARCH IT OUT, MAN CANNOT DISCOVER ITS MEANING. EVEN IF A WISE MAN CLAIMS HE KNOWS, HE CANNOT REALLY COMPREHEND IT: This point has been made before: "Yet [men] cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (Ecc 3:11). "This was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound -- who can discover it?" (Ecc 7:23,24).

"We cannot find out the work of God in all its fullness -- not even with the scriptures to guide us. Ecclesiastes teaches us that the world is like this: essentially unfathomable and beyond man -- and hence frustrating and vain to him. One cannot read Ecclesiastes and fail to come away with this impression. God has made the world like this deliberately so that we may realise the gulf between ourselves and Him, and so that we might seek after Him in order to understand and to have direction. We can go so far in understanding the world by our observations of it and by our experience, but we must remember that this is only 'so far' and not all the way. God's ways are ultimately inscrutable to human view. There will always be things that we cannot fully understand. And if we claim any different -- if we 'think to know it' -- we shall only be deceiving ourselves. for the Preacher tells us that we 'shall not be able to find it.' This is because we are man and not God. We must recognise and bow to His supremacy in all things. We must learn to recognise our finiteness and weakness, the dullness of our minds, and learn to place our trust and confidence evermore in Him" (MV).

And so even such a man as the apostle Paul can also write: "Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Rom 11:33). And again, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1Co 13:12).

Previous Index Next