Though a sinner do evil an 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: 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. 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. 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 labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. 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:) 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 labour 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. Ecclesiastes 8:12-17
The Word of God now turns to what is a confession of faith. What is seen under the sun, because God’s judgment does not fall immediately on the wicked, is that the wicked pursue their evil course. “Therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). They arrogantly presume that God does not know and cannot or will not judge.
They are wrong. But this is a matter of faith in the truth of God as a righteous and holy God, who is both sovereign over the affairs of men’s lives and judges sin in time and eternity. Therefore, “though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged…, it shall not be well with the wicked” (Eccl. 8:12, 13). The word “prolong” is used twice in verses 12 and 13 with different reference points. The first refers to his evil activity. He walks in his sin and does evil again and again, so that the days of his evil activity are extended. His days in that sense are prolonged, a hundredfold in his evil works. It may seem as if he escapes judgment. Wisdom discerns that all is not what it seems: “It shall not be well with him.” There is an end that must be taken into consideration. The sinner shall die and enter into the place of judgment. We may be inclined to see only what is before us at the moment: the pathway of wicked men and their works, or the misery in the wake of their sins. What that wicked man is actually doing is filling up the cup of iniquity unto condemnation; he is not “getting away with it.”
Solomon says this wicked pathway of life does not truly prosper: “But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow” (v. 13). The second reference point, in that word “prolong,” is to the measure of his days. His prolonged career in sin does not add days to his life, as Solomon has said: “neither shall wickedness deliver those given to it” (Eccl. 8:8). He is running unto death and judgment. Solomon has made this point before, that though a man live twice a thousand years without good, it profits nothing for he still dies (Eccl. 6:6). He has no peace now and judgment will come.
He draws a picture of that life of the wicked. It is as a shadow. It is a transitory passing thing, insubstantial like a shadow or a passing vapor. It is also like a shadow that grows longer and longer toward sunset until it vanishes away with the close of day. As that shadow that grows long and fades, so the lengthening of the wicked in sin does not mean it is well with them. They stand under the wrath of God and descend into eternal darkness. They shall perish. The root of their folly is also set before us: it is so with the wicked “because he feareth not before God” (Eccl. 8:13).
By contrast he says, “…yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him” (v. 12). The fear of God is the beginning and true foundation of wisdom. It is the way of blessing. He repeats the idea: there is the person, the God-fearer, and there is his walking by faith in true wisdom fearing before God. By implication he turns from the way of evil to walk by faith in childlike obedience. For he is not only a God-fearer, but of them “which fear before him.” He lives consciously as one who stands in the presence of God, the King, hearkens to His Word, trusts His grace, and walks in that fear before Him.
By faith Solomon can say of them that fear God, “that it shall be well with them” (v. 12). God’s grace and favor shine upon them now, and though their days are also as a shadow in time, under the sun, yet their end is blessed.
Such confidence of faith is needed, for we walk by faith in God’s promises not by our own understanding in what is seen under the sun. Under the sun, what we see may appear contradictory. He declares, “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” (v. 14). “Happen” here is not random chance, but rather a sudden touch that strikes or brings one to the ground. In the context, it is God’s sovereign rule over man’s life when death carries him away. The righteous and the wicked both die. The righteous die and suffer affliction, while the wicked go on in the way of their sin. Job is an example of this, who though righteous, yet it happened unto him according to the work of the wicked. It was exactly the error of Job’s friends that, as it happened to him according to the work of the wicked, they drew the conclusion that Job himself must be wicked. The same mistake is made when judgment does not fall immediately or quickly upon the wicked.
The mistaken premise is that we can figure out what God is doing and understand His judgment by what we see in the world around us. It belongs to the limitations of wisdom and man’s understanding that this is not so. It rather belongs to the vanity, the transitory character of our life and of the world itself. Solomon explains this more fully in what follows.
But first he would draw out a conclusion that he has pointed out before rooted in that vanity of life, our limitations of understanding, and our calling to walk in fear before God. The right conclusion is not despair, nor the pride of the wicked who do not fear before God. Rather, it is to live presently in contentment of faith with thanksgiving. He says, “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 labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun” (v. 15).
In commending “mirth” or rejoicing he is not saying, “Let your heart be in the house of feasting and mirth” (Eccl. 7:2-4). He has rejected that impulse as the way of folly. To rejoice in the present daily blessings, one’s daily bread, is not only appropriate but the way of wisdom. The morrow is hidden from us. This kind of rejoicing, the covetous man, the man pursuing evil, can never real ly do. His bondage to covetousness will not let him rest in contentment and rejoice. His mirth is that of excess, sought as an end in itself. Rather, Solomon has in view what abides with us of our present labor under the sun. The word “abiding” has a kind of figure in it (in the original), of a person who comes and lodges for one night and is gone. So also is the fruit of our labor for the day. It is to be received with rejoicing, and the blessings received under the sun for that day. This is the way of wisdom. In that sense we are “to eat, and to drink, and to be merry,” or rejoice.
But wisdom includes also a recognition that God Himself imposes this limitation upon us, in the transitory character of life under the sun. The days of our life and our labor are that “which God giveth him under the sun” (v. 15). This rejoicing is part of what God is doing with them that fear God, His blessing upon us. The measure of our days are in His hand. He sends both joy and sorrow. Thus we may see, by faith, that it is well with us for His grace shines upon our way. And the end of that way, though death, is also a matter of faith; there too “it shall be well with them that fear God” (v. 12).
By faith also we know that it shall not be well with the wicked. God is righteous and a righteous Judge. That truth of who God is is not shaken by the transitory character of life or its vanity. Rather, that truth of vanity imposes a limitation upon our understanding from what is seen under the sun. The life of man and the whole creation through the Fall is subjected to vanity. Wisdom belongs to the comfort of faith in discerning the will of God and walking in it in fear before Him. It has also a limitation. God is God and His sovereign determination is not revealed to us in the ordinary affairs of life.
God has sent signs of His judgment in history recorded in His Word, that we may know that He is a righteous Judge over against sin. He showed Himself to be such in the flood, the plagues upon Egypt, the destruction of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho or the destruction of Sodom. That He is a righteous Judge God’s Word and works testify. But that does not mean that we can figure it out day by day in ordinary life by what is present in the world before us. Thus, there is a limitation to wisdom, in that which is hidden in the counsel of God. The vain, transitory character of life, where we do not know what shall be or when it shall be, makes it so. The problem is not in God; the limitation is in us as creatures of the dust.
Solomon, therefore, addresses further this limitation in verses 16, 17 (cf. text at the beginning of article). Solomon by the gift given him had applied his heart to know wisdom, to understand with skill and discernment the world around him. This was a matter of applying his heart, not merely his mind. That is, he was seeking a spiritual understanding not simply earthly wisdom, for the heart is the spiritual center of a man’s life. He sought to see the business or travail that is done upon earth, so as to know it, that is, to discern and understand it. He sought not merely the outward form of it, but its meaning and purpose. He was seeking to know God’s purpose and work therein.
He points us to the intense and prolonged character of his study and reflection. The parentheses added in the next part by the translation would suggest that the all-seeing eye of God and His beholding the works of men is being mentioned. The parentheses could better be dropped, as it is rather Solomon’s sleeplessness that is indicated. In seeking to understand, he kept himself awake at night with his reflections so that “neither day nor night” he saw sleep with his eyes. He did what many children of God have done pondering a matter, particularly when it is one of trouble and distress, when the way of God is not clear, or when the burden of the matter weighs upon mind and heart. It is this spiritual struggle that is in view, in which one walks the floor over the matter the way one walks with a fussy infant with a fever.
From it he derives his conclusion: “Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (v. 17). The conclusion reached is that behind all “the business that is done upon the earth,” there is the “work of God,” that is, God’s sovereign disposition and ordering of men’s affairs by His almighty power. To that work belongs both that God is righteous in judgment and that it yet happens to the righteous and to the wicked in a way that transcends our limited understanding (v. 14). Because behind the works of man is the work of God, “a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.” This is not a matter of frustration with the limits of our understanding. It is rather part of his confession, as the fruit of reflection, and as such it testifies to a humbling of one who is a child of God in submission to the will of God.
The searching of wisdom in man is limited. What is known is known by faith, not merely by the power of earthly observation and discernment. “Because though a man labour 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” (v. 17). This is Solomon’s confession of his own activity, of his sleepless nights. The activity was not unfruitful, as the book testifies, but the wisdom derived from it is limited because the one seeking to understand is himself finite and limited. The work that God does is a divine work, transcending the power of man, a mere creature, to fully comprehend it, even though a believing child of God. The principles we may know, which God has revealed in His Word. The way of God in His holy perfection and His sovereignty over all things is set before us in Scripture. But wisdom that is given to bring instruction and comfort is not exhaustive. The works of God are far deeper than our thoughts. Wisdom is not an end in itself. It leads us beyond ourselves into the presence of God that we should fear before Him in all His majesty, power and glory. It leads, therefore, to the real comfort of wisdom, which says “Thy will be done.”