For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4


Ecclesiastes 8

A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2004 James Melough

8:1.  “Who is the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.”


The question is rhetorical, for the truly wise man has no equal.  He knows the true meaning of things because he is able to analyze them, and understand their significance.  His wisdom makes his face pleasant, refined, bright, for it is easy for him to be at peace with himself and with others.  On the other hand, the man who lacks wisdom frequently tries to hide his deficiency under a stern, proud, arrogant, defiant look.


8:2.  “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment, and that in regard to the oath of God.”


In those early days it was customary to have subjects swear allegiance (the oath of God) to the king, and to obey him; nor has time changed anything, for in the NT we are also commanded to be obedient to all government officials, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him ... for so is the will of God,” 1 Peter 2:13-14.  (It is scarcely necessary to add that this applies only to laws that don’t require us to do what God has forbidden, see Acts 5:29, “We ought to obey God rather than men”).


We are commanded also to pray for rulers, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, suplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness, and honesty.  For all this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,” 1 Timothy 2:1-3.


8:3.  “Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him.”


The first clause is a command not to be in a hurry to become disloyal to the king, or to join with those who plot rebellion against him.


The second part, “...he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him,” may certainly be construed in the context of his being a tyrant, but in the context of the sentence the words may also mean that as king it is his prerogative to do what he thinks is right.


8:4.  “Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?”


In that day the word of the king was law.  He held the power of life and death over his subjects, and was accountable to no one.

Nor should we ever forget that that same power resides in Him Who is King of kings, and Lord of lords.  We do well to be governed by reverential fear in all our dealings with Him.


8:5.  “Who keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment.”


This might be paraphrased, “He who is obedient to the king will suffer no harm; and a wise man intuitively knows not only the right time for yielding obedience, but also the right way in which to carry out the king’s commands.”


Some understand the reference to “time and judgment” as meaning that the wise man is also aware that a time of judgment awaits every man; that of the believer being at the Bema (the judgment seat of Christ, and that of the unbeliever at the great white throne.


8:6.  “Because to every purpose there is a time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.”


This is generally taken to mean that there is a time in which every man is free to follow his own inclination, but there is also a time in which God will judge each man’s doings.


The “misery of man” is better translated “the evil or wickedness” of man is very great, and because it is, his eternal misery will be correspondingly great if he dies without having trusted in Christ as his Savior.


8:7.  “For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?”


Man can’t fortell the future.  He knows not what a day may bring forth; nor can anyone tell him when he will be called to stand before God for judgment, or what the nature of that judgment will be.


This applies only to the unbeliever, for the believer is informed by Scripture that the judgment awaiting him will be at the Bema to give him an eternal reward commensurate with the faithfulness of his service to Christ during his Christian life, the judgment due to all his sins having been borne by the Lord at Calvary.


8:8.  “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it.”


Some translations render “spirit” as “wind,” for the wind is a symbol of the spirit of life in man, and also of the Holy Spirit, see John 3:8,  Man has no control over the spirit of life within him: God imparts it at birth, and takes it back at death.  Nor has he any control over the Holy Spirit, though he may both quench and grieve the Holy Spirit, see 1 Thessalonians 5:19 and Ephesians 4:30.


The war in which there is no discharge is that in which man is engaged from birth to death, for inherent in man is the sense of right and wrong, so that believer and unbeliever alike are constantly confronted with the need to choose between right and wrong.  Some however, take the war to be between death and humanity; man wants to live: death wants to slay him.


The last part of the verse is generally taken to mean that the unbeliever is under the control of wickedness, nor will he ever know release from that evil power until he becomes a new creature by trusting in Christ as his Savior.


8:9.  “All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.”


He had devoted his attention to the study of everything that is done on earth, to all the things that occupy man’s attention in the course of his life, and he had observed the tendency of each man to try to control others, that attempt resulting only in harm to the man himself, for every such effort simply arouses the opposition of the one over whom control is sought.  It is to be noted, however, that some translations render the latter part of this verse “to their own hurt,” i.e., the hurt of the subjects, not of the ruler.


8:10.  “And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity.”


This verse has been variously translated, but it seems that what Solomon is declaring is that he had witnessed the burial of wicked men who had pretended to be righteous by punctilious observance of outward religious forms, “the place of the holy” being the Temple into which they entered to “worship.”  Death however, had ended the charade, and they were soon forgotten by those they had sought to impress.


The same pretext is continued still, and with the same results.  The hypocrites are soon forgotten.


8:11.  “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”


Because God doesn’t immediately punish wrong, men make the mistake of thinking that He never will, and so continue to sin with impunity.  They mistake His gracious patience for indifference, failing to understand that his forbearance is designed to give them opportunity to repent; but once that period of grace ends, and they cross the invisible line that separates His mercy from His wrath, they are doomed irrevocably to eternal judgment.


Some understand the reference to be to the failure of the magistrates to punish wrongdoers, and thus encourage others to sin with impunity.


8:12.  “Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him:”


While it may seem that sinners prosper while the righteous are impoverished, Solomon had the wisdom to realize that that was a state of affairs limited to life “under the sun,” i.e., here on earth.  It will be very different in eternity.  There each will inherit everlasting blessing or punishment according to whether his deeds were good or evil. 


This may not be construed as teaching salvation by works, but rather that a man’s works furnish evidence of his spiritual state, as it is written, “Ye shall know them by their fruits ... a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit,” Matthew 7:16-18.


Relative to “the fear of God,” the word “fear” in this context means reverential awe, not slavish terror.  It is the obedient believer’s reverential love for God that impels his obedience.


8:13.  “But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God.”


Whatever pleasure the wicked, the unbeliever, may have here on earth, will be more than cancelled out by the eternal misery awaiting him, first in hell, and then in the awful lake of fire.  However long his earthly life may be prolonged, it will be as a shadow compared to the eternity of suffering and darkness to which each passing day is carrying him, because of his contempt for God.  The reverential awe that unbelievers refuse to accord God here on earth will be replaced by dreadful eternal terror.


8:14.  “There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.”


In the context of this verse “vanity” means frustration, futility, emptiness, and it consists in the fact that here on earth it happens not infrequently that the upright or just man experiences circumstances that we would think should rightly befall the wicked, and vice versa.  We should remember however, that earthly life is merely the prelude to an eternal existence of bliss or woe, depending on whether the individual died as a believer or an unbeliever.  In eternity God will adjust each man’s state according to His own perfect knowledge and wisdom.  The preacher however, seeing things only from the earthly perspective, concluded that the seeming injustice was proof of the emptiness or worthlessness of all earthly existence.


8:15.  “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry; for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”


Continuing to view man’s life as a mere earthly phenomenon with nothing beyond death, he concluded that man should enjoy himself by eating and drinking, and making merry during all the time of his earthly existence.  And his advice might have merit were it not for the fact that earthly life is but the prelude to an eternal existence in the bliss of heaven or the torment of hell and the lake of fire.


8:16.  “When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:).”


In the course of his search for wisdom he was led to take note of man’s preoccupation with business, i.e., money-making; and he saw that there were men, who in that pursuit, voluntarily busied themselves to such an extent that they could rest neither day nor night.  What he doesn’t say is that the consequence of their failure to seek after God, would be that throughout eternity they would be unable to find rest, no matter how desperately they might seek it.


8:17.  “Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.”


Having devoted himself to a thorough study of man’s busy activity here on earth, and having concluded that it was all vanity, i.e., empty and worthless, he then devoted himself to the study of God’s work, only to find that it was so great as to be beyond human comprehension, it being impossible that the finite should be able to grasp the infinite.  And though he didn’t say so, he might have concluded that what affords most satisfaction to the mind, and comfort to the heart, is not the contemplation of God’s creative power, but rather of His love displayed at Calvary.


Some scholars understand this verse to be saying also that it is impossible for man to understand God’s work of judgment.

[Ecclesiastes 9]


     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough