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John Gill: The preacher begins this chapter with the praise of wisdom, from its excellency and usefulness, Ecclesiastes 8:1; and advises men, if they would live quietly and comfortably, to honour and obey the king that rules over them, and not be rebellious against him, since he has great power and authority, Ecclesiastes 8:2; and not be anxious about things to come, since there is a set time for everything, and future things cannot be known nor frustrated; and, particularly, there is no avoiding the hour and stroke of death, Ecclesiastes 8:6; Though there are times wherein wicked men rule over others, it is to their own hurt, and they must die; and though they may be pompously buried, yet are soon forgotten, Ecclesiastes 8:9; and the reason of their insolence is the delay of justice; yet there will come a time when it shall be well with them that fear God, and ill with the wicked, though they may live long in wickedness; and for the present it may befall good then what wicked men deserve, and wicked men may have that which might, be thought more proper for good men, Ecclesiastes 8:11; wherefore this should give no uneasiness; but men should cheerfully and freely enjoy what they have with thankfulness, there being nothing better than that under the sun, Ecclesiastes 8:15; and the chapter is concluded with observing the unsearchableness of divine Providence, Ecclesiastes 5:16.

Albert Mohler: Wisdom helps us navigate the world of politics and power.  The wise may have little influence; but still, they can stand out by their radiant gentleness (v. 1).  It is foolish to provoke or to snub a ruling authority; but there are ways to be wise in such a situation, hard as it is to wait patiently (vv. 2-6).  Human government inevitably disappoints because human knowledge is limited, power fails, sin backfires, and pride abuses (vv. 7-9).

D. Thomas: The Ruler and the Subject

It is possible that some persons, living under a form of government very different from that presumed in the admonitions of this passage – under a limited monarchy or a republic instead of under an absolute monarchy of a special theocratic kind – may fancy that these verses have no special significance for them, no applicability to the practical conduct of their actual life. But reflection may show us that this is not so, that there are valuable principles of interest and import for the civil life of all men.




Douglas Miller: Qohelet concludes with an observation. He saw/observed the work done under the sun (v. 9a), in this case the problem of a time (‘et) when a person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt (NRSV; not NIV, to his own hurt; cf. 4:1-3; 5:8). Yet this section (8:1-9) has some words of encouragement in an otherwise grim situation. Those who are wise will be careful before rulers (8:1b-5a). They know that, even so, a ruler may harm them (8:3b). And yet even though their own limitations are great (8:5b-7), rulers are also accountable to God and have certain significant limitations (8:8). Such is the complexity of the Teacher’s quest for wisdom: some of the bigger answers remain elusive, yet certain valuable things can be understood, and he seeks to pass them along.


R. N. Whybray: He captures well the ambivalence in Qoheleth’s attitude toward political authority: “on the one hand he counsels obedience and submission to it on the grounds of prudence, while on the other he does not hide the fact that he regards it as brutal and tyrannical.”


A.  Paradox of Wisdom

Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter?

Craig Bartholomew: The opening question of v. 1 starts a new section. Although some think v. 1 concludes the previous section, the theme of knowing introduced in v. 1 is picked up again in vv. 5 and 7, and the section is coherent as a whole. . .

Wisdom involves knowing what is fitting in a particular situation, and this will vary. This aspect of interpreting a matter is especially relevant in this context because Qohelet will go on to discuss how to conduct oneself in the presence of the king.

Douglas Miller: It may be, however, that the question Who knows? (though rhetorical and meaning No one really knows) provides an opening frame that anticipates the directly stated conclusion at the end of the larger unit: No one can find out and They will not find it out (v. 17 NRSV).

Regardless of the exact ending of the previous unit (7:23-29), 8:1 serves as a good transition because it ties the theme of wisdom’s elusiveness to that of powerlessness before the monarch, yet also before God. Sages offered counsel on how to relate to the monarch similar to the counsel the Teacher offers in the next several sentences. Here he indicates that the weakness of wisdom means it cannot guarantee a good outcome in this arena either (v. 1; cf. 5:8; 7:15-18).

B.  Positive Effect of Wisdom

A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.

Craig Bartholomew: Hardness of countenance thus symbolizes the opposite of graciousness, namely, harshness and meanness. Wisdom transforms this into a face open to God and one’s neighbor.

Iain Provan: But it is possible to understand verse 1b as the quotation of a proverbial saying, the significance of which is then expounded in the verses that follow.  The first part of verse 1 is then to be understood as an introduction to the saying and translated thus: “Who is like the wise man? Who knows the interpretation of the saying [pešer dabar] . . . ?” . . .

So what can the proverb of 8:1b mean? To what does it truly refer? The material that follows suggests that Qohelet interprets it to refer to behavior at the royal court, where a glowering countenance will do no good and may bring great personal danger. It is wise not to show one’s disapproval of, or disagreement with, a despotic monarch. The proverb now speaks of things as they should be made to appear rather than as they actually are.

Van Parunak: The General Principle: The Benefits of Wisdom

Though wisdom is rare, and polluted by man’s sin, yet it is exceedingly valuable, and worth seeking, for it enables us to confront the inevitable suffering of our world with joy and graciousness.

1. Its definition–not common. Something very rare.

a) The wise man, picked up in 2-9 (5). Begins with the fear of the Lord; comes as a special gift from the Lord (Solomon). Skill in living; applied knowledge of the Scriptures.

b) One who knows the interpretation of a thing, picked up in 10-14 (12). Here is the definition Qohelet wants us to keep in mind. The wise man knows what events really mean.

2.  Its benefit–leads us away from two undesirable reactions that the vanity of life under the sun might otherwise impose on use:

a) Enlightens the face: Joy where the world expects sorrow. Remember, though Qohelet recognizes how rotten the world is, his conclusion is always the same–REJOICE.

b) Changes the boldness/strength of his face: Gentleness where the world expects harshness and antagonism.


A.  (:2-4) Submission to the Ruling Authority

  1. (:2)  Obey the Ruling Authority as Your Responsibility before God

I say, ‘Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God.’

Rom. 13:1-5; 1 Pet. 2:13-17

Iain Provan: As the focus of the passage now shifts more explicitly to the wise man at court, the emphasis falls in the first instance on obedience (8:2). The command of the king is paramount and must be obeyed. The implication of this instruction, however, and the assumption of the verses that follow are that there will be occasions when the wise man will not approve of the king’s command and be tempted to ask: “What are you doing?” (v. 4).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: If the king here was an Israelite king, this [oath] could refer to God’s promise to King David (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 110:1). In light of that messianic promise of an heir, God’s people were to tread lightly. But the oath here could refer to a human pledge of allegiance, as the alternative ESV reading gives, “because of your oath to God.” Either way, a high view of providence is in mind. The God who controls the times (Eccl. 3:1–15) also controls the reign of kings: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1; cf. 16:9; Eccl. 9:1).

We must trust that the world isn’t “aimlessly whirled about,” but that the “Creator of all” also “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.”  Everything is directed by “the secret stirring of God’s hand.”  So, then, insubordination to those in authority over you—teachers, parents, bosses, presidents, and others—shows an attitude of ingratitude and a mistrust in God. Be like Daniel instead. Do not compromise, but be discreet, respectful, loyal, diligent, and willing to suffer through wrongdoing. In other words, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) as you serve your “earthly masters,” knowing that “you are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:22, 24; cf. Eph. 6:7–8). . .

Whatever government God has given us to rule over us, we are to respect it and (as we can) submit to it. In this era of exile (1 Peter 1:1), as we long for the city of God (cf. Heb. 11:10), Christians seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7) as we spread the gospel of God (Mark 1:14; Rom. 1:1).

  1. (:3)  Opposing the Ruling Authority by Abandonment or Rebellion Will Fail

a.  Forbidding Opposition

1)  Abandonment Forbidden

Do not be in a hurry to leave him.

Iain Provan: If verse 2 is thus read as a unit, then verse 3 should be understood either as providing balanced advice to the wise man on how to react to a foolish command (he should not storm out of the king’s presence in a rage, but neither should he tarry in a bad situation), or, syntactically better (given the absence of any adversative particle that might be translated as “but”), as suggesting how a wise person should react and then what he should do (“Do not be dismayed3; leave the king’s presence. Do not tarry in a bad situation . . .”).

The difference between the two interpretations lies in the role of the oath. In both cases, however, it is clear that the wise person is advised to disguise his true feelings while in the king’s presence, for “a king’s word is supreme” (v. 4). The theme of power, especially expressed in Hebrew šlṭ (“supreme” [v. 4]; “power” [2× in v. 8]; “lords it over” [v. 9]), is indeed prominent throughout the passage. It may be true that wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers (Heb. šalliṭim, 7:19), but the truly wise person knows not to flaunt his wisdom when confronted by a foolish ruler, for there is a serious risk of “harm” if he does so (v. 5).

Tremper Longman: Qohelet continues his instruction concerning behavior in the presence of the king. After asserting the necessity of obeying the monarch’s command, Qohelet says that it is prudent not to argue with the king, but just leave his presence and carry out his will. After all, he is the king. He is sovereign and his desires will be accomplished no matter what.

2)  Rebellion Forbidden

Do not join in an evil matter,

Douglas Sean O’Donnell: If the government you serve is like the king described here (e.g., its unpredictable power is “sometimes used to perpetrate rather than punish injustice”),4 the temptation would be to take the path of revolution, insurrection, or at least grumbling-between-your-teeth personal rebellion. God’s wisdom counsels us not to. Why? What tempers that temptation?

b.  Failure Will Result Due to Sovereign Power with No Accountability

for he will do whatever he pleases.”

Craig Bartholomew: Once the king’s power is regarded as absolute, as v. 2 implies, then any difference of opinion with him ironically becomes an “evil matter.” From observation Qohelet knows (v. 4) that the king’s word is absolute, and as far as he can see, the king is accountable to no one; there is no one to interrogate him about what he is doing. At any sign of such opposition from the king, therefore, one should desist and get out of the king’s presence fast. Qohelet envisages the power of the king as absolute: he will do whatever he pleases and no one will call him to task (vv. 3–4).

  1. (:4)  Objections Cannot be Lodged against Supreme Authority

Since the word of the king is authoritative,

who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’

Iain Provan: The command of the king is paramount and must be obeyed. The implication of this instruction, however, and the assumption of the verses that follow are that there will be occasions when the wise man will not approve of the king’s command and be tempted to ask: “What are you doing?” (v. 4).

B.  (:5-6) Shrewd Understanding of the Situation

  1. (:5)  Discretion Is the Better Part of Valor

He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble,

for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.

Allen Ross: The king must be obeyed, and for those who do so, harm from the king can usually be avoided. Of course, as suggested by the following verses, there is always the possibility of a certain arbitrariness or capriciousness to the king’s actions, which, like God’s capriciousness (see comments on 3:15–22; 7:13–14), keeps us guessing and thus instills greater fear of the king.

David Hubbard: The time may come when toppling the throne is the right course of action, but it will be the wise not the rabble who best discern when and how.

  1. (:6)  Discern the Times and Situations

For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight,

when a man’s trouble is heavy upon him.

Allen Ross: Nevertheless, Qohelet does suggest that the wise man should be able by his wisdom to figure out the proper times and procedures with regard to coming and going and behavior in the king’s presence.

Iain Provan: It seems best to interpret 8:5–6 as exhorting the wise man at court, faced with a foolish ruler, to exercise patience rather than to give free rein to his true feelings—to remember that there is a time for everything, including divine judgment on foolishness and wickedness.


A.  (:7) Inability to Know the Future

If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?

David Hubbard: Let arrogance learn the limits placed on all human authority. It does not know the future and, therefore, must make its decisions humbly. It cannot stave off the day of death and, therefore, must build contingencies into its plans. It may trigger responses beyond its control, like a war, which an authority may begin but not be able to end. It may engage in wicked conduct with tragic results from which there is no recovery. Such are the pitfalls of authority when its reins are in haughty hands.

B.  (:8) Inability to Exercise Control – Four Images

Iain Provan: Various images of mortal lack of control are then given in verse 8 to underline the point. No one has power over the wind (cf. 1:6) or over the number of the days of one’s life. Once a war is under way, no one has the ability freely to walk away from the army. Wickedness, finally, will not allow “those who practice it” (i.e., its possessors; Heb. baʿal; lit., “master, owner,” as in 5:11) to escape—a clever line, which is better translated more literally than in the NIV, since it raises the question of whether anyone ever really “possesses” wickedness rather than being enslaved by it. One would expect an owner to try to prevent the slave’s escape rather than vice versa.

These truths are general ones that might apply to anyone, and in particular to the wise person, who may be tempted to think that he can change things by his words and actions that cannot in fact be changed for the moment (at this “time”). The deliberate twofold use of Heb. šlṭ (NIV “power”) in verse 8, however, which reminds us of the “supreme” word of the king in verse 4, already makes us think of the king in particular—the one who appears to be completely in control when in reality he is not. It is the king’s word that has the potential for harm or evil (raʿ ) in verses 3 and 5 and that creates misery (raʿa) in verse 6. Yet verse 8 suggests that wickedness (rešaʿ ) ends up possessing its possessor.

  1. No Control over the Wind

No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind,

  1. No Control over Death

or authority over the day of death;

  1. No Control over Escaping the Dangers of War

and there is no discharge in the time of war,

  1. No Control over Escaping the Bondage of Wickedness

and evil will not deliver those who practice it.

Van Parunak: Four negative statements showing the king’s weakness in the face of death.

1)  No man can retain his own spirit, i.e., postpone death.

2)  No one can be triumphant in the day of death.

3)  Nor can one get a furlough from that war. No such thing as R&R in the struggle with death. You are trapped into the conflict, and cannot escape.

4)  Wickedness, which has served him so well in life, is powerless to aid him in death.

C.  (:9) Inability to Restrain Oppression by Those in Power

All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.