Summary: In today's lesson we are encouraged to use wisdom but know its limitations--particularly with respect to civil authorities.
In his quest to find out how to live a meaningful life the writer of Ecclesiastes addresses the use of wisdom but also being aware of its limitations.
Let us read Ecclesiastes 8:1-17:
1 Who is like the wise?
And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
and the hardness of his face is changed.
2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. 6 For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him. 7 For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 8 No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. 9 All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his 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 the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.
14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (Ecclesiastes 8:1-17)
Helmuth von Moltke was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi German. Yet his Christian faith made him a staunch opponent of Adolf Hitler. Von Moltke believed it was wrong for him to use violent force against the Nazis. Nevertheless, he used his high position to rescue many prisoners from certain death. Not surprisingly, he was eventually accused of treason, put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to die.
In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, Von Moltke described the dramatic moment at his trial when the judge launched into a tirade against his faith in Christ. “Only in one respect does National Socialism resemble Christianity,” he shouted. “We also demand the whole man.”
Then the judge asked Von Moltke to declare his ultimate loyalty: “From whom do you take your orders? From the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”
Von Moltke knew exactly where his loyalty lay. He had put all his hope and trust in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he stood before his earthly judge as a Christian and nothing else. His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act wisely when he faced his final hour. As a believer in Christ, Von Moltke understood the difference between the proper exercise of authority and the abuse of power. He also knew the wise course of action when he was under someone else’s control and in danger of his very life.
The Preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes considered the matter of submission to authority. He was aware that God set up kings and authorities, and he discussed how people are to relate to civil authorities.