Situations that become wildly confused often require more wisdom than mastery.
For thirty-seven years, my wife and I have made the trek from Ohio to Louisiana to visit relatives. I’ve become accustomed to the route enough to dispense with road maps or GPS, and just rely on memory.
We’ve also traveled so much to that one destination, we’ve established some traditions. The most important one is that I’m in control of the vehicle. I do all the driving, and navigating.
Okay, so I have some control issues.
But it’s a sixteen hour trip, so on long straightaways like I-40 east in Tennessee, or I-55 south in Mississippi, we pull over and switch seats. I let my wife drive, as long as she observes further rules while I nap: no lane changes, no speeding up, no slowing down, no music, except for nineteenth century chamber stuff.
Still, I sleep lightly. If I feel the car shift, move, or shimmy, I’ll jerk awake, and get irate with her.
This is what we all tend to do when we feel the things around us are out of control—we lose control of ourselves. For instance, in your house, kids fight, and something gets broken. The moment you perceive matters are out of control, you get out of control. It’s an odd thing.
Self-control is a basic part of spirituality—one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5). In fact, the very wisdom of God in Christ teaches us composure when we feel we’ve lost control of everything around us.
Ecclesiastes 8:1 begins by saying, “Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?” This is a word of admiration from Solomon for those who can look at a situation, and rightly understand it, even if they don’t have all the answers. The wise may simply conclude there is nothing that can be done about a matter.
In itself, this can be a great thing. As the verse goes on to say, “a man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed.” That means wisdom can affect a person’s composure—his or her methods, attitudes, or approaches. It changes the hardness of the ignorant, self-willed person who is about to make a bad situation worse, into someone who shines.
Solomon goes on to illustrate one of the most serious out-of-control items that require this kind of shining wisdom—government. Verse 2 reads, “I say, keep the King’s command, because of God’s oath to him.” Government means somebody else is driving the vehicle. Not you. Somebody else is making decisions about things like your money, your freedom, and your security.
In the verse, the government is a King. That’s a monarchy. When only one person is in control, everyone is at risk. The king can’t get voted out. He might be there for decades. He also might not be a good guy. Under those circumstances, most of life will be out of your control. In the U.S., we obviously prefer democracy.
However, even an arrangement where the people supposedly rule, can leave you feeling marginalized. The voters in your neighborhood become the ones making laws, and supporting causes that can contradict yours. At the onset of the Revolutionary War, Mather Byles, a loyalist to the British crown, challenged the pro-democracy crowd with a question: “Would you rather have one tyrant ten thousand miles away, or ten thousand tyrants one mile away?” The barb of that question goes deep when election cycles are not to your liking.
No matter what form of government, you still need wise composure in order to deal with it. Verse 3 begins to talk about what it looks like: “Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases.” Don’t be quickly dismissive of governmental authority. Gratuitous disrespect has become characteristic of American politics, amplified through the loss of all mainstream journalistic integrity. When we imbibe this spirit of the age, it emboldens us to stand in evil.
Beware, because, once you run afoul of government, it will do whatever it pleases. Solomon follows up by adding, “For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing? Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way” (vv. 4a-5). This should remind us of Romans 13, where Paul says that good government penalizes evil. You’re only in danger if you’re somehow involved in some kind of illegal activity.
How then, are we to act when evil comes anyway? And even worse, what if the government itself is compromised? Unlike Romans 13, which simply lays out the broad principle of submission to government, the verses here in Ecclesiastes offer more nuance to the discussion. That is why verse 5 speaks of how “the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way” and verse 6 says, “For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble lies heavy on him.” A wise composure knows what is appropriate, even while circumstances seem out of control.
There was a time when King Saul, representing the government of Israel, unjustly pursued David in order to kill him. Suspicions and jealousy animated Saul, and nothing more. His administration was weak and corrupt. David therefore, was the victim of an ongoing personal vendetta. He fled, and stayed on the run for a long time.
On one occasion, while David hid in a cave, Saul, unaware of David’s presence, entered the same cave, needing to go to the bathroom. It was a vulnerable, compromising moment for Saul. Meanwhile, at the back of the cave, the men on David’s team quietly urged him to go forward and kill the king. “This is your chance! There is a time for everything, and this is it! This is your moment! Strike while he is weak, and vulnerable.”
But where it might have been David’s time, it wasn’t God’s. Out of respect for God, David declined to do the deed. He maintained a wise composure, and it was a good thing. Had he attained the throne through killing Saul, David’s kingship would have sat upon a foundation not of divine appointment and anointing, but of assassination. When Saul finally died, it happened on a battlefield, where David had nothing to do with it.
Daniel also had to deal with an often unfriendly government, living under it his entire life. Babylon had conquered Israel, and led away many of its captives in chains, including a young Daniel. He and the rest of the Jews lived as assimilated captives, often pressured by the ungodly culture, and the passage of evil laws. Daniel had to find the just way to deal with Babylon, while not falling into moral compromise, or running afoul of its governmental authority.
Only through a great deal of prayer was he able to navigate the circumstances. Eventually, God’s time came. One night a Babylonian King named Belshazzar brought out all the cups and saucers that had been looted from the temple of God in Jerusalem. He and his party guests mocked God, as they got drunk, and suddenly a hand appeared in thin air, and wrote on the wall a message: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin. Roughly paraphrased, it meant, “Your time is up.”
That very night, the Medo-Persian army went under the wall of Babylon and overthrew the city. After seventy years, it was over in one night, and Daniel had nothing to do with choreographing the event.
Finally, the Bible predicts the coming of Jesus during the time of the Roman Empire. It says in Isaiah chapter 42,
1 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; 2 I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
The one in whom God delighted brought justice without commotion in the streets. He exercised an exquisite gentleness, not breaking even the stalk of a plant, or putting out a barely burning candle. He would never have said, “Well, this is just collateral damage,” or, “This is an acceptable part of the process.” His approach to justice demonstrated wise composure. Amidst the unfair forces of religion and politics, He had a complete trust in God.
It has always been hard to recommend this way. In times of heat and pressure, we assume conventional human wisdom must prevail, or else nothing will be accomplished. Admonitions such as “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” sound noble during peacetime, but come across as lazy, weak, sentimental claptrap during seasons of oppression.
Ecclesiastes 8:7 further explains man’s difficulty in aligning with divine wisdom as springing from his own shortsightedness: “For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be?” We have a hard time seeing through God’s current discipline, purification, and positioning, to His next great move. God must have friendly governments, and friendly laws, a friendly culture, a non-threatening environment, a godly nation, or He will lose!
Once we perceive these things are out of control, we run the risk of being out of control, as well. Some of us will become angry, others disappointed. And some will end up in jail, or even dead, not for our faith, but because of lawless activities related to special interest positions.
Rest assured that when God decides to do something, no one will be able to resist it. “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.”
Ahab was an unjust, rotten King in the Old Testament. At one point he was planning to wage war against Syrian, so he gathered a whole room of prophets, and asked them what would happen. They were eager to please, and told him he would prevail—basically all the stuff Ahab wanted to hear. But when the “Ra Ra” session was over, they called Micaiah, the one prophet who always preached the unpopular message. He said Israel would be scattered, and the king would not return in peace.
Although Ahab hated Micaiah, he feared that negative prophecy, so he disguised himself for battle, and hid in the middle of the army. Regardless, his time was up. God was done with this man’s government. During the battle, a Syrian soldier drew back his bow and fired an arrow. The Bible says he did this at random, although the Hebrew literally means, “in his innocence.”
That soldier had no idea what he was doing, and may have simply launched his arrow into the air, trusting it would fall on someone. It fell on Ahab, the very man who had taken such pains to escape God’s judgment. His government was removed by what a human onlooker would have called a tragic accident. Solomon says, “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” (v. 9).
“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” (v. 10).
Sometimes evil people are celebrated for managing to look good, and then others eulogize them when they die. Understandably, this angers us, but composure is needed even towards the dead. Otherwise, we will overreact, and engage in the foolishness of a cancel culture that censors history itself.
Furthermore, Verse 11 says,
“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
The Bible freely admits that justice is slow, and does not work on our preferred timetable. This fact leaves evildoers to think they will get away with the things they do. In turn, we are tempted to forget wisdom, and try to speed things up. But this kind of expedited “justice,” a product of human impatience, will create its own injustices.
Basically, Solomon recommends that we settle down:
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. 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” (vv. 12-13).
Even if sinners can live a long time, they never die well. Their prestige and wealth may be growing, but internally, they are spiritually and morally bankrupt. The daughter of Joseph Stalin spoke of her father’s last moments, when he raised his fist to heaven and shook it. That’s how the wicked die.
Granted, “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” (v. 14). What composure does Solomon suggest in response? “I commend joy, for man has nothing better 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” (v. 15).
This advice will sound unappealing if you are already filled with smoldering hatred. And yet a determination to walk in the Spirit and abide in Christ will become a legacy that you bring to your family, and leave to your children. It’s going to bless your workplace and your church.
Besides, we’re not told to control the world situation and right all the wrongs of verse 14. We are told to control ourselves in verse 15.
“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, 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” (vv. 16-17).
At the end of the day, you will not be able to make sense of everything, and you will only hurt yourself and others by lashing out at the unknown.
I don’t wish to teach some kind of radical pacifism here, as though we should never speak up. Even the Apostle Paul, when confronted with injustice, appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen. Rather, when circumstances are out of control, let this larger template guide you:
- Jesus in a desert, tired, and hungry. The devil comes, who is called “the Prince of the Power of the Air” and hits Him with three temptations no other human being has overcome. And Jesus won.
- Jesus on the cross, humiliated, and tormented, a victim of Roman injustice. The entire Roman empire backs the crucifixion, executing Him like a low class malefactor. And Jesus won.
- Jesus in the tomb, cold, and dead. Circumstances are utterly out of control now, as death itself confidently fights to keep him in the grave, because it has a-billion-and-O perfect record. And Jesus won.
- Jesus at the right hand of God, as King of Kings and Lord of lords. He rules over a world that mostly refuses to recognize Him, and over a church that’s immature, and sometimes its own worst enemy. And Jesus will win.
This is the wisdom according to which we compose ourselves.
And then we win.