Previous article in this series: March 1, 2019, p. 260.
The folly of sin becomes manifested in the world under the sun as it strives with the boundaries God has set in this life. To show this, Solomon who was himself king, turns first to the sphere of earthly government. But before turning to the folly “which proceedeth from the ruler” (Eccl. 10:5), he begins with an admonition in the text to one standing under the ruler as the servant, citizen, or counselor of the king. Both are sinners inclined to folly.
“If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences” (Eccl. 10:4).
The picture is of one who has offended or is perceived to have offended, so that the spirit of the ruler rises against him in anger and displeasure. As the text speaks of “great offences,” we may assume here that the displeasure of the ruler is just. It is the folly of the counselor or servant who has a place in the ruler’s presence. What is the way of folly, the way of sin, in such a situation? The temptation is to justify oneself out of a spirit of rebellion, to strive, to make excuses, to blame the ruler. In the figure, it is to rise up and leave one’s place.
The calling of those under authority is the opposite: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:1, 2). The calling of those under authority is submission in all lawful things, according to the Word of God. The Word of God does not command cowardly action nor false compromise, but a lawful submission to authority.
When that spirit of the ruler rises in displeasure against one, especially for just reason, the way of wisdom is not the way of our sinful inclination to rebellion and stubbornness, but to yield and submit. In doing so, we keep our place, yield to authority to receive rebuke, and accept judgment. This is the way of meekness before authority and before God. Pride would lead us in the opposite direction. But the ruler is set there by God, and his authority is derived from the One who placed him in his office. Rebellion is, therefore, also a striving against God. It is folly.
The way of wisdom, of yielding, “pacifieth great offences.” Yielding quiets the anger, prevents the quarrel from escalating, and seeks to restore peace. It is the way of laboring to remove the offense, that it should not become greater still. Thus we read, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up strife” (Prov. 15:1). We live in a world where the striving of those in power, among themselves or those under authority with them, predominates in civic life. The tongue of men is given to slander and contention. Men come with grievous words, with the goal of mastery over one another and stirring up strife. This works violence and disorder in society. It is the way of the fool who “saith to every one that he is a fool” (Eccl. 10:3). As sin develops under the sun unto the day of final judgment, the way of a child of God, which is that of wisdom, becomes increasingly difficult. Our calling is still, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
With that admonition and instruction, the Word of God turns to the ruler, for he is also a sinner and by nature given to folly: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler; folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth” (Eccl. 10:5-7).
The rulers in Solomon’s day, whether in Israel or among the nations surrounding them, were sovereign monarchs, hereditary kings. Our more democratic and republican forms of government did not exist in the Middle East. The principle issues, however, are the same, whatever form the role of the ruler and those in authority may take. Nor is it to the personal lives of kings to which we are pointed here in this description, but as they stand in positions of power under the sun, that is, to their rule and government. Solomon is again directing us to what he has observed. Where a human ruler in authority is to be found, a sinner is found, and with him the folly of sin by nature. Even a good ruler, held in reputation and honor like a good ointment, is subject to folly (Eccl. 10:1-3).
The “error” mentioned that proceeds from the ruler is one of wandering out of the way. That is, it is a departure from wisdom and judgment, a turning from the order of things that rest upon what God has ordained. God gives men gifts of wisdom and prudence, judgment and discernment. It is in that positive sense that we must understand the “rich” here in the text. They are rich through such gifts, not out of covetousness and greed, but by wisdom and prudence under the sun. They are, therefore, men of discernment who should be honored and received as counselors. The fool is self- willed, a profligate waster, a man without good sense.
When the ruler sets such a fool in a place of great dignity and honor while the rich are set in a low place, the order of things is turned upside down.
The long-term result is the destruction of the kingdom. The monarch is to seek the welfare of the kingdom and its citizens. His authority is to be exercised for the good of those under him and not for his own grandeur and glory. The error is no different, when in our democratic context, fools are elected to govern in the world rather than those who are sober and have discernment.
At issue in the text is the error of setting such fools in a position of power and influence. It is the ruler who has power to appoint them, to select them in preference to wise men, and to give them honor. It is the ruler who is out of the way. In our context of voting men into office, one would have to say that, in many respects, the error proceeds from the voter as well as those in direct power and authority. When the vain and foolish, the workers of iniquity rule, the end is destruction. God is against them that do evil. Because “righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34), wickedness destroys them. Behind what can be seen under the sun is the working of God’s almighty power and judgment, His wrath against sin, which gives men over to folly. The text does not dwell on this, though it assumes we understand it.
Rather, the text points us to the effect of this state of affairs, under the sun. “I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth” (Eccl. 10:7). This is the result of the folly of sin. Princes in the text are not the spoiled nobility of a corrupt kingdom, but those who are raised up to rule and judge with equity while the servant is not. The picture is again of folly that turns good order upside down, so that things are out of their proper place. Those qualified to rule and exercise authority are rejected, relegated to a low place, and made to walk on foot, while the fool and the servant are exalted and ride on horses. They have power and influence that is unfitting and for which they are unqualified. They have an honor and dignity that only fuels in them pride and more folly.
Yet, what Solomon says is what he has seen in the earth; it is what happens. Nor is it something that works anyone’s good. The folly involved will not end well for the kingdom. What is seen is sin and folly working through in the life of men. As it is also from the hand of God, it is a token of His judgment upon sin.
Since we also see these things under the sun, we are called to contemplate them and understand what we are seeing. The same principles and warning the Word of God applies to other spheres of authority—to marriage and family, to employer and employee, and to the life of the church. Also in the rule of the church, when there is a spiritual decline, the same working of folly leads the church in the way of worldly-mindedness, an unwholesome respect of persons and doctrinal drift. Walking circumspectly in a sinful world and having a regard for God-ordained authority, while confronting the reality of sinful folly seen before us, is a sober calling. As the fool lurks in our own sinful flesh, it must needs lead us to prayer and watchfulness in the battle of faith.