Solomon as the preacher has been describing the way of the fool in his walk, talk, and inability to know the way of wisdom under the sun. That foolishness of man is rooted in the Fall and in the folly and depravity of sin. He turns now to a description of two contrasting states, the one rooted in folly, the other in wisdom.
This contrast comes with woe or blessing upon the land. The land is the earth, viewed from its division into territories or countries. The woe and blessing are not upon the people only but also upon the whole realm or kingdom. The description is, first of all, a general one.
Woe is that which causes distress and grief, which has its source, in earthly terms, in the character of the rulers. The land is not well-governed. The rulers rule for their own pleasure and not for the welfare of the land. The blessing, by contrast, is that which is straight or right, fitted to the need of the land, and therefore works tranquility and happiness, or prosperity under the sun. The land of woe is in decline, and those who should keep it work its destruction. The happy land is flourishing under good governance. Such, in general, is the principle even of the kingdoms of this world seen under the sun.
But we must inquire further. The land of woe has a king who is a child, one who is young, immature, and inexperienced. His princes are self-indulgent rather than wise counsellors. They eat or feast in the morning. As is clear from the end of verse 17, they feast for drunkenness. They drain the kingdom of its riches and increase to profit themselves and not the kingdom. They rule for their own pleasure. The ruler as a child is contrasted with one who is a son of nobles. The idea is not that of European nobility, or of a higher caste of person distinguished from lower classes, but of one of noble character. That is, the issue is one of maturity, not necessarily of chronological age.
The Spirit by Solomon, prophetically, may well have Solomon’s son Rehoboam in view, whose folly with that of his companion princes and their counsel would be part of the occasion for the division of the kingdom. Rehoboam’s son, King Abijah, in his confrontation with Jeroboam describes his father at the time of the revolt and division of the kingdom as “young and tenderhearted” (II Chron. 13:7). As Rehoboam was 41 years old when he became king, he was young or a child only in the sense of his immaturity, and tender (like the young shoot of a plant) in heart only by inexperience. To be 41 years old and a child in character is a matter of the foolishness of sin, of pride and self-indulgence, not a matter of age.
It is that immaturity, which ultimately is a spiritual problem in both the childish king and his profligate princes, that is the point at issue. It brings woe upon the land under their rule. The happy land, by contrast, has one who is trained and mature to govern, with princes who are devoted to the needs of the land as a whole. The officials or princes of the prosperous kingdom eat for the proper reason, for strength to labor and not for drunkenness. The land is, therefore, well-governed, in good order, and those over it look to its welfare and that of its citizens. Ultimately, this requires discernment or natural wisdom. The description, therefore, also contains a general truth concerning kingdoms and nations under the sun.
Yet foolishness and wisdom are essentially spiritual realities, and the word spoken in Ecclesiastes was delivered for the church’s instruction. What is said, therefore, must be applied not simply to lands in general but to the land, which was Canaan, the land of promise, the type of the kingdom of God. The history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel is the spiritual history of the church of the Old Testament. That history as it is unfolded in Scripture makes clear that the principle stated in these verses would be repeated again and again. Only under godly kings in Judah would the land have spiritual peace and be genuinely prosperous, as a blessing.
In that connection, Psalm 144 describes the blessings of that typical kingdom in terms of earthly prosperity, as a figure of the spiritual blessings of God’s covenant with His people and a godly seed, and is a prayer for those blessings. It concludes, “Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 144:15).
The true blessedness can only come in the way of such spiritual blessings within. In like manner, the Word of God describes the woeful land, the church corrupted, in terms of God’s judgment upon a sinful and profligate people: “And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them. And the people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbour: the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honourable” (Is. 3:4, 5).
Woe and blessing are divine works in God’s sovereign government of all things. He sets up childish, self-indulgent rulers in judgment and chastening where there is need for reformation and renewal. In His blessing He gives men of noble character to rule in the life of His church and kingdom. Like the psalmist in Psalm 144, we are earnestly to seek and pray for God’s blessing upon His church. When God gives this blessing, we should thank and praise Him for it.
This sovereign government of God in sending woe and blessing is a sobering thought, for what is said of the Old Testament church applies likewise to the New Testament church, to both individual congregations and denominations, as is clear, for example, in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. When the foolishness of sin, of pride, of self-indulgence, and of vanity enter the church, both in the pew and in the councils of the church, God sends this woe upon the church or congregation. When the church departs in the way of worldliness, spiritual drift in doctrine, or the hypocrisy of Phariseeism, He may give His church over to woe in its government, so that the foolish rule in the church. Many a denomination, through its departure from the Word, has been given over to the rule of the hireling, to men-pleasers as elders, sustained by a people with itching ears. Folly begins to pervade the life of the church, so that the rulers as fools and therefore the parishioners, also foolish, labor and walk in vanity. The preacher has just said in the preceding verse, “The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city” (Eccl. 10:15). When that city is the heavenly city of God, of which the church in the world is an imperfect manifestation, the matter is spiritually destructive.
There is a reason why the apostle in Acts 20:28 says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” The order is important. First take heed “unto yourselves,” the pastors and elders, then “and to all the flock.” The reason given in verses 29-31 is the threat of spiritual corruption from within and without. It is God’s church. He bought it, He keeps it. Faithful rule in wisdom is the rule of Christ the noble King of the church over His blood-bought flock. Those who rule under Him are to be spiritually the sons of nobles and princes who eat for strength and not drunkenness, who serve the King of the church and seek the welfare of the flock. Blessed and happy is such a church, such a congregation, such a denomination—the land. “Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 144:15). There God commands the blessings of His covenant.