Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
American comedian George Burns jokes, ″Sincerity-if you can fake that, you've got it made.″ To our surprise, the Teacher in today's passage partly agrees.
″Who is like the wise? Who knows the explanation of things?″ (Ecclesiastes 8:1). The Teacher continues to explore the theme of wisdom, but he relates what he says specifically to the royal court and politics. The book of Proverbs also addresses these topics. Consider Proverbs 20:2, 26; 25:5, 15; 28:15-16; 29:4, 12. You will see that the key issues in these verses are: is the king just or unjust, and to whom does the king listen?
Today's passage (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9) sketches a situation where the king is unjust, where ″a man lords it over others to their hurt″ (v. 9, following the NIV's alternative translation). What if you are an official in the court of an arbitrary and easily angered ruler? What if you know what advice you should give, but you can see that your king is not going to listen?
Part of the Teacher's answer is: keep smiling (v. 1)! Hide your feelings under a bright countenance! If the king decrees something unwise or unjust, don't express opposition (vv. 2-4): ″Obey the king's command . . . Since a king's word is supreme, who can say to him, 'What are you doing?'″ So you should avoid confrontation and outright disobedience. But perhaps you can carry out the king's orders in ways which limit the damage they may cause (v. 5): ″the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.″ And even rulers are subject to the uncertainties of human existence (v. 7); even for rulers it is true that ″wickedness will not release those who practise it″ (v. 8). Maybe the ruler's ill-conceived plans will come to nothing, as God brings judgment upon him.
This is what wisdom may look like in the political realm: pragmatic, shrewd, tactful, and willing to make compromises. You may conclude that, if this is true, politics is an area Christians should keep well away from! But consider the book of Esther (especially chapters 4-8). Esther and Mordecai do not shrink from engagement with the Persian governing authorities. Instead, they plunge into the thick of Persian politics, acting bravely and skilfully, finding ways to work the system and save their people from destruction. Note in particular how carefully they handle King Xerxes: they never criticise him or express opposition to him-and yet they achieve all their aims.
Finally, whatever our response to today's passage, we should pray for all who govern us, and particularly for Christians whom God has called to serve in politics (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Perhaps you have experienced situations when you found it wise not to say what you truly thought, or when you had to engage in compromise: with the benefit of hindsight, do you think you were right to act as you did?
Consider texts like Isaiah 7 and Jeremiah 22, where prophets confront rulers in God's name. See also Acts 5, especially 5:29. When should we stand firm and confront, and when should we try to achieve our aims by going under the radar, as the Teacher seems to advise?
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