Previous article in this series: December 1, 2016, p. 105.
Ecclesiastes 8:1-5 “Who is as 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” (Eccl. 8:1).
The conclusion reached in the preceding chapter is that wisdom, which is of God, true spiritual wisdom and understanding, is a rare gift of God in a fallen world. Fallen man walks after his own carnal wisdom, which is the folly of sin. The problem is “…God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” ().
To this must be added that God’s wisdom transcends man’s understanding, even the understanding of those that fear Him, so that as Solomon sought out wisdom and understanding, he was compelled to say, “That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?” ().
The way of wisdom for man is to seek it first of all in God’s Word: God’s revelation of Himself, His will, and His law teach wisdom. The wise man is instructed of God therein. The path of wisdom leads one who fears God away from himself and his own imagination to submission in humility before God. In that walk in the Word and will of God is to be found God’s blessing. This leads Solomon to a certain admonition or counsel to keep that Word of God with reverence, for God maintains His Word in His sovereignty and judgment.
He approaches this admonition by way of a rhetorical question: “Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?” Solomon declares repeatedly in the book of Proverbs that wisdom is the principal thing to be sought after, to be desired more than gold, and that it is the gift of God. To have this gift is to be a wise man who “knows the interpretation of a thing,” that is, discerns and understands the meaning of things.
The blessing of wisdom is twofold. First of all, “a man’s wisdom makes his face to shine.” The shining of God’s face is a figure of His turning in favor upon us, rooted in His grace and love. Here the figure is, in a sense, a reflection of God’s favor, in the face of a man who has wisdom and understanding within by God’s grace. It gives him an inner peace and joy reflected in his face. The face of the wise man reflects that joy and peace, and manifests it in a peaceable spirit.
Secondly, the effect is that the boldness, that is, fierceness and hardness of his face is changed. Wisdom works a humbling of pride, yielding a gentle spirit. A sanctifying grace of God, it breaks the power of a sinful human nature that is hard and self-willed. It works a change that bears the fruit of meekness, humility, and submission. It leads away from sin into a pathway that lives out of having peace with God.
The way of wisdom is the way of faith in the fear of God that takes heed to His Word. “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment and that in regard of the oath of God” (Eccl. 8:2). This verse and the following section have been variously understood. It is possible to understand it, as some do, as referring to the fifth commandment to honor the king as an earthly magistrate. This does not well fit the immediate context nor the full language of the text that follows. It is better to understand the text and what follows as being preeminently of God as the King, in His Word, sovereign majesty, and judgment. The thought parallels Ecclesiastes 5, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God…for God is in heaven, and thou on earth…” ().
The admonition or counsel (the words “counsel thee” are added) is to keep the commandment; literally, the mouth of the king, that is the word that proceeds out of His mouth: His will and judgment, and hence commandment. To keep that word, when it is God’s Word, is to hold it by faith in the heart, to regard it with respect, and to walk in obedience to it. He adds “in regard of the oath of God,” or even, in the matter of the oath of God. This expression is difficult, as it may refer to what God has sworn or to what man has sworn before God. The latter is perhaps the starting point. For Solomon has spoken in Ecclesiastes 5 of one who is rash with his mouth and hasty in heart to speak a vow in the presence of God, and then seeks a way to annul it ().
In his prayer at the dedication of the temple and the bringing of the ark into it as the emblem of God’s throne, Solomon prayed, “If any man trespass against his neighbor, and an oath be laid upon him to cause him to swear, and the oath come before thine altar in this house: then hear thou in heaven, and do and judge thy servants, condemning the wicked, to bring his way upon his head; and justifying the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness” (). It is that prayer that God declares to Solomon He has heard, appearing to him the second time ( ).
While the house of David, as God’s anointed kings, must judge the people in righteousness in harmony with such an oath, it is God’s judgment that is on the foreground in Solomon’s prayer. If the text is to be understood of an earthly king, then it is to be limited to the throne of David, the messianic throne, God’s visible representative as king, in Solomon as type and Christ in its fulfillment. God speaks His Word and maintains it. He judges among men, including our words and works. Entering His presence, we enter the place of the judgment of the king, also with our oaths and vows. He holds them. He who keeps the Word of God in his heart and walks in obedience, regards his or her oaths or vows in the light of the majesty and righteousness of the king before whom we speak.
Thus the admonition follows: “Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. Where the word of the king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doeth thou?” (Eccl. 8:3, 4). Ultimately, it is in the sight or presence of God that we stand. Into that presence of God we consciously come in prayer, in worship, and in all our spiritual activities. Before that presence a child of God would come in the Old Testament when he entered the temple to pray (), and when he entered the throne room of God’s anointed king. Careless irreverence before the majesty of the king had no place there then, nor does it now before God in Christ in heaven. God’s throne is a throne of righteous judgment.
“Stand not in an evil thing….” Before that holy throne sin, especially unrepentant sin, has no place. Yet such is the pride and folly of sin that, just as in the case of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, or as Cain and his sacrifice, men enter God’s presence in the arrogance of sin and rebelliously stand before him. “Stand not in a evil thing,” is therefore the warning. For the king is KING and His will prevails. That will of the holy King of heaven and earth is a holy and sovereign will. He declares, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (see also ).
While an earthly king may manifest a measure of sovereignty as a tyrant, God’s sovereign kingship is absolutely holy in power and judgment. Where His Word is, there is also indeed the power to perform His will, to bless and to curse in judgment and to carry out that blessing and curse in judgment. Of God above all, none may say “what doest thou?” He is truly God and we are but creatures of the dust, and by nature inventors of evil things.
But that means also that God carries out His judgment in time in His providence according to His own counsel, will, and purpose that are often hidden from us. Judgment may seem delayed in time. This is part of the concern with which Solomon struggles in the rest of the chapter. But he lays here the foundation, in calling us to submission before the king, to a patient waiting upon His will and in wisdom to rest in His Word, which He will surely perform, for His Word never returns unto Him void.
Thus he arrives at the blessedness of wisdom in the fear of God. “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing; and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment” (Eccl. 8:5). The words rendered “feel” and “discerneth” in the verse are the same word in the original Hebrew. The word means to know something by experience and, thus, to be able to discern something with a certain measure of understanding. Keeping the commandments of God guards one from sin and evil, and while trouble and trials do come in God’s sovereign providence, yet He makes all things work together for good to them that love Him (). Submitting himself to God’s will, in wisdom, a wise man knows God as a righteous Judge who will, according to His own time and purpose, render just judgment. He will deliver the righteous and judge the wicked. Such understanding works a patient waiting upon the will of God in trial and affliction, giving peace to mind and heart.
Let us then seek earnestly for this blessing of wisdom at the mouth of the King, Whose word is pure and whose testimonies restore the soul.