Ecclesiastes 8 Wisdom in an Unjust World

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Ecclesiastes 8

1 Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed.
 2 Keep the king’s command because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way. 6 For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. 7 Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? 8 No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle, nor does wickedness deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.

 10 Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil. 12 Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, 13 but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.

 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

Life is not fair, justice is often skewed towards a privileged group or individual, and the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. Bad things do happen to good people and one would have to shut one’s eyes tight to the world around them not to perceive the unfairness of the world. No one, not even the greatest president, king or official will be able to by their own wisdom alleviate all the suffering and injustice of the world. Oppression does occur and sometimes is sometimes even praised. Wisdom has to figure out how to live in the world as it is and not in the world as one imagines it should be.

Wisdom making one’s face shine may be a reference to the starting place of all wisdom, to God’s own wisdom. As Ellen Davis can say, “A shining face is, then, a sign of God’s benevolent presence; it shows forth the light of the Holy Spirit.” (Davis, 2000, p. 206) The wisdom in the shining face that reflects God’s benevolent presence is also coming from a softened face. A part of this wisdom that fears God and can place one’s trust in God precisely in the midst of an unfair and unjust world is the ability to find joy and celebration even in the midst of the seasons of the world one cannot control. It is finding peace in the midst of the oppression, joy even in the midst of suffering, and enjoying the food and drink in the moments of prosperity and want for they all come (ultimately in Ecclesiastes view) from God. Wisdom seems to reflect the ability to trust God even when one cannot riddle out the interpretation of a thing. Wisdom is willing to let go of the quest for certainty and is willing to reside in the humility of one’s own knowledge and power. Wisdom fears God and knows that we are at every moment of our life caught up in the movement of things that we have no control over. We cannot control when the time of birth or death is or war or peace or even whom we receive love from and who we might receive hate from. No one, not even the wisest sage can understand all that is going on under the sun.

J.K. Rowling’s character Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series may be an interesting figure to contemplate as one explores Ecclesiastes description of a wise person. In the novels he is a complex character who often has to put people he cares about into situations that may bring about suffering for them or even death and yet he rarely in the novels displays a hard countenance. His face is often light, he seems to enjoy the moments of levity and celebration even when they are brief. He is unafraid to tell the difficult truth that other may want to obscure or hide and he refrains from the certainties that many of the other characters want to cling to. Even for all his wisdom and power there are many things he is unable to prevent and close friends he is unable to protect and yet in his life and death (in the story) he becomes a character who models what wisdom might look like in that fictional world with all its struggles.

As a person who served in the Army I understand the need to follow orders that may be unpopular and the times when unquestioned obedience was called for. In the royal court, in government and in society there are times where we simply have to follow the commands we are given. There are certainly times where one will have to resist and illegal or unjust command or attempt to work with the system (or sometimes oppose it) to work towards a more just system. Yet, most of our lives we live with rules, laws and boundaries that we have to work within.

As a preacher I attempt to invite my congregation into the struggle with the texts and to teach them to wonder what it may speak to them rather than confidently claiming to have all the answers. God’s mysterious ways often elude me and in Ecclesiastes the interpretation of the thing often eludes the author in all their wisdom. In the United States there are a number of preachers and traditions that seem unwilling to allow for this type of wisdom which can reside in the places of uncertainty and instead they fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of the mind of God. “The dangers of overly confident preaching are felt particularly in the homiletic temptation to discern God’s retributive justice in situations of human suffering. In this respect, some preachers seem to have the whole divine road map spread out in front of them and so are in a position to give the rest of us confident progress reports. Qohelet, by contrast, reminds us the wisdom about God’s mysterious ways in the world regularly elude us.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 185) Wisdom could lead us to a homiletical humility, a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and to acknowledge the gaps rather than to explain them away. To help oneself and one’s community to learn the wisdom of finding joy precisely in the midst of an unjust world, and the wisdom of trusting God event when one cannot make sense of the senselessness of life. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 189)

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