We have been considering the ancient words of a man we call the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. His message may be distressing to some, but for others the words recorded in this book are strangely satisfying. We find them to be very helpful, dismantling ungodly pride and man-centered optimism. The book does not just tear down; it also builds up. There is a way of wisdom presented here by the Preacher that is both honest and attractive. It is a way of thinking and living that can make a man’s face shine, taking away the hardness that comes when he becomes pompous, taking himself too seriously.
The words of the Preacher would be meaningful regardless of the identity of the man who wrote them, but they carry even more weight when we realize that they were not written by an underachiever in order to justify his own lack of accomplishment. The Preacher was a man who was in charge of a nation. When he writes about the king’s command, he is not ignorant of what it is to be a successful ruler.
Power structures in any society exist according to the sovereign plan of God. Fools ignore or unduly criticize the powers that be, forgetting that God gives us civil rulers. There is a limit to what civil authorities can achieve. Kings will not be able to establish the kingdom of God on earth. It will not be through the power of their swords, but through the glory of the cross that God will do His most amazing work. Yet for now we live in nations, each of which has an established system of governance. We cannot opt out of our subordinate position under various governing authorities by claiming that we are God’s children who need not listen to anyone else. It is part of Christian duty to honor kings who may not honor God at all. To rebel unnecessarily is a foolish and disrespectful way to die an early death. There will perhaps be a better time and a place to express some concern, even about very serious matters, but there is no sense in taking a dangerous stand when patience and realism would be a better way to honor God. Life, even this mortal life, is a precious gift. We should not throw it away. We do not know what the future holds. Deliverance may come to us much sooner than we expect from a very surprising direction.
How does God work with wicked kings? If we try to understand the justice of God when one nation is exalted and another is destroyed, we will find that it is very much beyond us. That is not only true of God’s providence over countries, it is also the case as we attempt to understand the mysteries of his ways in the lives of individuals. We know that it is truly best for us to live in the fear of Almighty God, but there is no doubt that it often appears that wickedness has won the day. Even when people know a great man to be wicked, he may be treated with uncommon honor at his burial. But what happens to him beyond his memorial service? That is a question we cannot answer.
It can be an infuriating exercise to judge people and to judge God in His dealings with them. We consider what we know about the wickedness and righteousness of an important leader. Then we compare that partial knowledge with what we know about God’s dealings with this person, his life and his death, and the blessings and curses that came to him. When we look at it as fully as we know how, we can’t help but feel that there are times when the wicked have fared far better than the righteous.
Why do we plague ourselves with these thoughts? To dwell on such matters is not commendable. There is a better way of living in a world of futility. The Preacher sums up that better way in one word: “Joy!” Take the gifts that honestly come to you and enjoy them. God has given these to help you through each new day. There is something He will not give to you. He will not grant you full knowledge and understanding of His ways. If a wise man claims to know all the mysteries of life, he is a liar.
Even the greatest Old Testament prophets longed to understand the purpose and plan of God, and found that there were aspects of it that were beyond them. The prophet Daniel was told plainly about the coming resurrection of the dead, and he admitted immediately that there were details which he simply could not understand. Did the prophets understand that a Jewish Messiah would make the way for the fulfillment of God’s promise that Abraham would be a blessing to the world? If they could understand the big picture of the heavenly blessings that God was bringing to the world through Christ, they still could not have possibly understood the marvel of God’s specific working among particular people that seem to us to be wicked or righteous.
Yet God can reveal these facts to an Amos or a Jeremiah so that they are able to deliver an authoritative message about the life and death of enemies and allies. Not only that, when Jesus, the Son of God, the Key to all our blessings, was going to the cross, He went there as one who knew what man could not really know. John writes these words as part of his account of these critical events: “Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him…” When we meet Jesus on the way to cross, we meet a man who knew and who understood. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Here is a Man who is wiser than Solomon. Part of trusting in Him as the God/Man who redeemed us is our own admission that we cannot fathom all the wisdom of God, but that we can enjoy the simple life that He has granted for us to live.
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Father of All Wisdom, teach us how to live submissively according to the powers that You have established in this age. Even the best rulers have evil within them, but it will not go well with the wicked. You are a God of justice. You rule over kings, though we find it hard to understand Your ways. Here is wisdom: that man cannot find out Your secrets. There is much that You have revealed through nature, providence, and Your Word. Yet there is much about who You are and what You have done that we cannot understand. We bow before You.