Qoheleth Chapter Eight

Translation from the Anchor Bible commentary by R.B.Y. Scott

1 Who can compare with the wise man? Who else understands what things mean? A man’s wisdom lights up his face, and the hardness of his countenance is transformed. 2 Do what the king commands, because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not hurry from his presence in agitation; nor hesitate to go when the errand is distasteful. For he does was he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is law, who dare say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 He who obeys will avoid trouble, and the wise mind will know when and how to act. 6 For there is a proper time and action in every circumstance. To his great misfortune 7 man does not know what will happen, and who can tell him how it will happen when it does? 8 As no man can control the wind [to confine the wind], so the day of one’s death cannot be determined; there is no immunity in the battle, nor can wealth save its owner. 9 All this I realized as I thought about everything men do under the sun, when one man has power to injure another. 10 Thus I saw wicked men borne to their tombs, and as men returned from the sacred place, they were praised in the very city where they had acted evilly. This, too, is futility. 11 Because the sentence for wrongdoing is not quickly executed—that is why man’s mind is filled with thoughts of doing evil, 12 since a sinner does what is wrong a hundred times, and still survives. I am aware [of what is said] that it will be well [in the end] with those who reverence God, because of their reverence for him; 13 and that it will not be well with the wicked and their days will not lengthen like a shadow, because they do not reverence him. 14 But there are anomalies in life: there are just men to whom what happens should happen to the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom what happens should happen to the just. I declare that such a thing makes no sense. 15 So I commend enjoyment, for a man has no other good in this life than to eat and drink and be happy; this will accompany him in his struggle during the few years which God grants him beneath the sun. 16 When I set my mind to acquire wisdom and to observe the activity which takes place on earth—for day and night it never sleeps—17 I saw that it all is God’s doing. Man cannot discover what it is that is going on in this world; however hard he may search he will not find out; if even a wise man says he knows, he cannot discover it all.

The beginning of chapter eight can sound like a call to complacency and non-questioning of authority. But there is more going on here than a simple exhortation to “do what you are told.” One can almost hear a slyness in the way Qoheleth says in verse 5 “He who obeys will avoid trouble, and the wise mind will know when and how to act.” There is a way to deal with authority, and questioning it, but it is not in putting yourself to death under its power. It is in finding the proper time, place and circumstance to do what is right. It is not then, that laws are not to be questioned, but that laws are to be obeyed until their exceptions arise in front of us. By that I mean, we do not know what will happen, and laws and kings have their limits just as much as wisdom does. You can play the line from Mark chapter 2 here out of Jesus mouth: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” So too, the King/Laws were made for humankind. Humankind were not made for the King/Laws. We are not made simply to follow laws. But the laws were made for our benefit. The King and the laws do not know what is coming any more than we do. And we cannot control the wind so that we may capture it. So look to the people and what God is doing, there you will find the proper time and circumstance where authority will be challenged.

The problem of authority then raises another question that follows in verses 9-14. Because our earthly authority is broken. It does not work. Wickedness is not swiftly punished, and in fact it is often is unjustly the opposite. Those who are wicked are praised in their wickedness and are rewarded instead of punished. Those who are righteous are condemned and thrown out as if they were wicked. Justice is not readily served in our kingdom. Today we have to look no further than the injustice surrounding Ferguson to see an example. How far gone is our thinking that our response to injustice and woundedness has been to open more wounds (with riot-like destruction)? The proper response to woundedness should be to seek healing! In our wounds and when faced with such injustice, we are doubly cast back to God. We must rely on God to see justice and peace where we cannot see it.

That is why Qoheleth ends with a repetition of “commending enjoyment;” with eat drink and be merry. For that is the balm. That is where healing will happen: In appreciating the things God does give. In making community with one another over bread and wine. In the grace that God gives, there is life. In the peace that God gives, we are reborn and we get a new life to share with one another. Wickedness is not silenced by more wickedness. And Wickedness does not save those who practice it (another way to render verse 8 above. I prefer this translation to “no wealth can save its owner”). But, to quote Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news!” The one who speaks with a positive voice, as given to them by the Grace of God, is beautiful indeed. The way to respond to hurt is to practice healing. The way to respond to injustice is to practice peace. It is not for us to sit in the seat of judgment. We are not good at it when we do it, and we open more wounds where we should be looking to healing. We cannot bring about Justice. And if we do, it is by the Grace of God not by our own strivings and worries. So look to grace. We can no more control the wind than we can capture it. It is God that we must look to in times of trouble. And God give us life to share. So share life! Eat, drink, be merry. In this justice is served.

Perhaps that sounds naïve. I can hear the question: “How can you think of feasting in such a time of terror?” To that I must reply: How can we think of anything else? How can we not be sent with hands bound to our families and to our loved ones, looking for solace? How can we not put on a feast, and make merriment when so much of it has been torn away from us? I say, how can you recommend pouring salt in a freshly opened wound? How can you not go seek comfort, and then to share it with one another?

I do not have any pie-in the sky expectations. And we must surely still continue to work for what is our reverent best guess at justice. But what better way to do that, then by first practicing peace and love? What better way to do that than to appreciate the things that God does give? For it is there that we will learn what Justice looks like. It is there that we will gather strength to go back out and meet our broken world in a new way. This is practical advice, and a sincere prayer. Not a whimsical exhortation to singing kumbaya around a campfire while the world still burns. It is not amnesia about what is going on- but it is the only sensible response. Our hands are tied in this matter, and we must vigorously work for love. When faced with tragedy there is nothing left for us to do BUT seek love and merriment in one another. Anything else is vanity and chasing after the wind. Anything else is insult added to injury. Just as there is nothing we can do when wounded BUT seek a hospital, or someone to give aid. So with injustice, there is nothing we can do but seek merriment, and someone to give love.

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