Dealing With Authorities

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King Solomon was trying to make sense of life by studying life itself. He recorded his observations to share them with his son. For at least part of his search, Solomon was away from the Lord. The conclusions he made during this period are a mixed; some times they are spot on, other times they are the cynical observations of an unhappy, dissatisfied man. Here are some of those conclusions about some very profound topics.

Conclusions about injustice, Ecclesiastes 3:16, 17; 4:1—6

Moreover, I notice that throughout the earth justice is giving way to crime, and even the police courts are corrupt. I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everything man does, both good and bad.” (Ecclesiastes 3:16, 17 TLB)

The idea of “justice” was a big deal in the Old Testament. Most of the times, “justice” was linked to God’s judgment, something that modern Christians don’t really grasp. Today, we speak of things undefinable like “social justice,” as opposed to the what the Bible spends a lot of time dealing with: “retributive justice.” This Biblical form of justice is at the root of the Jewish sacrificial system and ultimately finds fulfillment in the work of Christ on the Cross.

Solomon’s initial observation is that of a cynic. Of course, crime and corruption are not rampant everywhere, but those things certainly do exist in societies around the globe, including ours. The average person hears about political corruption or the ineffectiveness of our legal system and he complains about it,  sounding a lot like Solomon does in verse 16. The conclusion is not to be taken as another expression of fatalism; that’s not Solomon’s style. It is, rather, a statement of absolute fact. Nobody “gets away with it” forever. God sees everything a man does—the good and the bad. And God is able to discern whether what a man did in life was good or bad. We have a difficult time with discerning the motives of the heart, but God is expert at that!

There is a New Testament echo of what Solomon wrote here:

Yes, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12 TLB)

Ultimately, no matter how activist we may be; no matter how hard we may work to reform government, the problem of unjust rulers is solved by a just God. Ultimately, those who escape paying for their crime and corruption on earth, will stand before the great Judge of the Universe, and they will have to give account to Him for their conduct on earth.

Conclusions about the abuse of power, Ecclesiastes 4:1—3

Next I observed all the oppression and sadness throughout the earth—the tears of the oppressed, and no one helping them, while on the side of their oppressors were powerful allies. So I felt that the dead were better off than the living. And most fortunate of all are those who have never been born and have never seen all the evil and crime throughout the earth.

Solomon had just concluded that God would eventually redress the harm done by corrupt rulers, and that justice—God’s justice—would prevail. But knowing that Biblical truth in your head doesn’t always translate well to the emotions of your heart. Seeing the corruption and cronyism of American politics, for example, can lead you to a sense of hopelessness and a feeling that “we can’t do anything about it.” When you dwell on the negative for too long, you can get positively depressed! That led Solomon to a very cynical conclusion: it’s better not to bring a child into such a world.

This is not the thinking of a rational man; it’s the thinking of the emotional mood of the moment. It makes for a horrible philosophy of life. In fact, later on in this book, the author comes to the exact opposite conclusion!

There is hope only for the living. “It is better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 TLB)

In the following group of versions, we see another pessimistic conclusion reached by the cynical Solomon:

Then I observed that the basic motive for success is the driving force of envy and jealousy! But this, too, is foolishness, chasing the wind. The fool won’t work and almost starves but feels that it is better to be lazy and barely get by, than to work hard, when in the long run it is all so futile. (Ecclesiastes 4:4—6 TLB)

What the Teacher has written here are barely half truths; anybody who truly believes these three verses needs to “pause and reflect!” There are, indeed, some who are greedy and full of envy who somehow achieve what appears to be success, but looking further, we see that most successful people are that way because, in the beginning, they wanted to feed their families or not be a burden on their families or society at large. These successful people simply reaped what they had sown; they worked hard and were rewarded accordingly.

So, to be envied because of one’s success is bad, but to strive to achieve that success in order to best your neighbor is worse. Yet, in the end, hard work and activity are necessary components of “the good life.”

Now, there is a bit of wisdom hidden in the cynicism. It’s wrong to seek success just to “keep up with the Jones’.” But it is also wrong to be lazy and to just not work. It’s foolish to think it’s better to “barely get by” than it is to work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labors.

A different translation of verse 6 reveals what may be the missing balance; the Living Bible’s paraphrase may be a bit over the top.

Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit. (KJV)

It’s wrong to build a fortune on a foundation of greed and avarice. It’s also wrong to be lazy. It’s good to both work and to take time to relax. Sometimes even the best believer may, in his sincere efforts to get ahead, get all caught up in the stress that comes with the wrong kind of ambition. When that happens, it’s best to find that place of quietness.

Conclusions about the king, Ecclesiastes 8:1—5; 11—13

The Bible has a lot to say about the believer’s relationship to and with authority, and most of it can be annoying. Over in the New Testament, we read things like this:

Obey the government, for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. (Romans 13:1 TLB)

The rest of Romans 13 goes downhill from there!

Pay your taxes too, for these same two reasons. For government workers need to be paid so that they can keep on doing God’s work, serving you. Pay everyone whatever he ought to have: pay your taxes and import duties gladly, obey those over you, and give honor and respect to all those to whom it is due. (Romans 13:6, 7 TLB)

As annoying as Paul’s advice to the Romans sounds, it should be noted that living in obedience to the governing authorities is generally God’s will for all believers. It should also be noted, though, that the overriding principles in obeying the governing authorities as far as Paul was concerned is this:

Never pay back evil for evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honest clear through. Don’t quarrel with anyone. Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible. (Romans 12:17, 18 TLB)

Sometimes, in the case of moral or ethical issues, it may not be possible for a believer to obey a government edict.

Back in Ecclesiastes, we read this little “ode to wisdom”—

How wonderful to be wise, to understand things, to be able to analyze them and interpret them. Wisdom lights up a man’s face, softening its hardness. (Ecclesiastes 8:1 TLB)

This verse is important in light of what follows. Solomon’s advice to his son is the same as Paul’s advice to the Roman church, but the reasons are different.

Obey the king as you have vowed to do. Don’t always be trying to get out of doing your duty, even when it’s unpleasant. For the king punishes those who disobey. (Ecclesiastes 8:2, 3 TLB)

Solomon indicates that obedience to the king is part of your oath to the king—it’s part of your duty. Paul’s advice is slightly different; in Romans, the governing authorities are deserving of your obedience, not because of any oath you may have taken but simply by virtue of their position. In fact, Paul links obeying or respecting governing authorities to complying with God’s will!

Back to Solomon, here is the balance:

The king’s command is backed by great power, and no one can withstand it or question it. Those who obey him will not be punished. The wise man will find a time and a way to do what he says. (Ecclesiastes 8:4, 5 TLB)

In other words, it’s wise to obey the king because he or the state has the power to punish you if you don’t. But, a wise individual will find a way to obey the king. As one scholar noted:

In the face of of impossible circumstances or unbending authority, one does well to compromise when moral issues are not involved.

Conclusions about crime and punishment, Ecclesiastes 8:11—13

Because God does not punish sinners instantly, people feel it is safe to do wrong. But though a man sins a hundred times and still lives, I know very well that those who fear God will be better off…

Verse 11 is one of those verses that most of us think we made up out of our own experiences, yet here Solomon declares it to be a fact. It seems to a lot us that the wicked will never get their just deserts! It’s worse than that; because punishment seems not forthcoming, these same wicked sin even more, emboldened by the belief they’re never going to pay for their wrongdoing. However, in spite of the contradiction of appearances, Solomon knows the truth. And you should too! Nobody, but NOBODY, gets away with sin!

And yet, the wisest man who ever lived reached another cynical conclusion:

There is a strange thing happening here upon the earth: Providence seems to treat some good men as though they were wicked, and some wicked men as though they were good. This is all very vexing and troublesome! (Ecclesiastes 8:14 TLB)

Eventually, Solomon would snap back to his senses; he would figure things out from the correct perspective. Many years later, the prophet Malachi would have problems with his people, who had become disillusioned with the Lord because they had become cynical:

Listen; you have said, ‘It is foolish to worship God and obey him. What good does it do to obey his laws, and to sorrow and mourn for our sins? From now on, as far as we’re concerned, “Blessed are the arrogant.” For those who do evil shall prosper, and those who dare God to punish them shall get off scot-free.’ ” (Malachi 3:13, 14 TLB)

Most of us have probably said things like that, and we, of course, don’t really consider these words to be true. They’re “idle words,” and we assume God understands our frustration. He does understand our frustration, of course. But there is no such thing as an “idle word.” Reading on in Malachi, we understand that the Lord pays attention to our attitudes and our words:

Then those who feared and loved the Lord spoke often of him to each other. And he had a Book of Remembrance drawn up in which he recorded the names of those who feared him and loved to think about him. “They shall be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in that day when I make up my jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares an obedient and dutiful son. Then you will see the difference between God’s treatment of good men and bad, between those who serve him and those who don’t. (Malachi 3:16—18 TLB)

The wisest among us is the one who, though he may not understand all he sees or even experiences, trusts that the Lord has it all under control and that in the end, God’s Word and will shall prevail.

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