Governments and smoke - Ecclesiastes 8:1-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me read you something: ‘Back in 1976 many evangelicals had great hope for the reversal of America’s moral decline and firm convictions about just where that hope lay. A relatively unknown candidate had emerged from Georgia to take the country by storm. His name was Jimmy Carter, and he was a Baptist who talked openly about his faith. He even taught Sunday school.
Disillusionment soon set in, however, Even a President who taught Sunday school didn’t make a difference. So in 1978 leaders of what is now known as the Religious Right met in Washington to set their own conservative political agenda for the 1980’s. Their candidate Ronald Reagan, would be different, they promised. His public charisma and apparent sympathy for their convictions would channel evangelical energies and change the nation.
But as the sun set on the Reagan presidency eight years later, it also set on the hopes of many of these once-euphoric Christians who had overestimated their influence and underestimated the difficulty of keeping their balance on the slippery slope of politics. Despite unprecedented access to the Oval office, they had been unable to implement their evangelical agenda.’ So writes the late Charles Colson (Against the Night pp. 116-17), who knew what he was talking about, himself having been a former President’s right hand man, indeed President Nixon’s ‘hatchet man’, until a spell in prison led to his conversion to Christ. So why did Christians become disillusioned? Colson suggests it was due to a ‘disregard for two key truths, the solutions to all human ills do not lie in political structures; and second, it is impossible to effect genuine political reform solely by legislation.’
And you know what? The writer of Ecclesiastes would entirely agree. As we have been seeing, the ‘Teacher’ has been exploring what are the realistic and unrealistic expectations we can have as human beings living ‘under the sun’, that is, living in this fantastic, but fractured world. He has been considering whether we can ever achieve the ‘bottom line’ in life, gain real, lasting satisfaction and value. Indeed, he has been searching for someone or something to deliver the goods. So far he has explored education, work, pleasure, money and even religion and yet at every turn when considered in -and-of themselves they fail miserably. This is especially so when we ignore the eternal dimension to life, ‘life under heaven’; that there is more to life that what we can wear, what we can eat, what we can drink. We all know deep down this to be so, because God, he tells us, has put ‘eternity’ in our hearts. And yet the frustration is that left to ourselves, we can’t fathom what this ‘something more’ is. We need help from the outside, namely, for God to tell us.
But there is another arena to which people look in order to solve most, if not all, of their problems, and that is the political arena- the sphere of government. People turn to the so-called ‘movers and shakers’ of the world to provide the goods. Well, the Teacher was actually one of these. We are told at the beginning of the book that he was a King of Israel and it would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to believe his own publicity about how important he was and how powerful so that he at least was able to make a difference to people’s lives. But here is a man who wants the Truth- with a capital ‘T’ and he sees it as his responsibility to share the findings of his research so that those who follow his reasoning will be spared the misery of going down blind alleys with the result that they end up being disillusioned because of wrong expectations, including wrong expectations from those who govern.
Now there is little doubt that particularly in the 19th century and through the 20th century, right up to our own present day many people have placed great store in politics and the role of government to change the world for the better. This is not entirely misplaced of course. As we shall see, those in such positions of power do have a responsibility to use it properly for people’s good. And without doubt tremendous changes for the general well being of folk have been brought about by successive governments in Britain in terms of education, social welfare, health and a whole host of things. But where things start to go wrong is when politics is seen as the tool of an ideology which effectively rules God out of the picture altogether and puts man firmly at the centre. We see something of this in the inaugural address of President John F Kennedy back in 1961 in which he said that, ‘Since most of the world’s troubles have been caused by man most of the problems can be solved by man.’ Well, that kind of breezy optimism was sorely put to the test 50 years ago when the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear conflagration with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not that much has changed. The predominant outlook is still that with the right knowledge, the right resources, and the right will, crime on our streets will reduced, terrorists will be hunted down, poverty will be abolished and our environment will be made safe.
So according to the Teacher, what should our stance be towards government and what might we properly expect as a result? Let’s take a look.
First, we have the proper attitude towards government vv 1-6: ‘Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man's face and changes its hard appearance. 2Obey the king's command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3Do not be in a hurry to leave the king's presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4Since a king's word is supreme, who can say to him, "What are you doing?" 5Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. 6For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man's misery weighs heavily upon him.’ Here is the wise man’s approach which leads to a gracious demeanour, a ‘bright face’ rather than a sour one. In a nutshell he is saying: serve where you can, obey where you must, and stand apart from injustice. At the one extreme ‘Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence’ (retreating from the heat) and at the other ‘Do not stand up for a bad cause on the other’ (giving in to the standards around you). So do you see what he is getting at? He is saying, don’t unnecessarily endanger yourself, but don’t stand up for a bad cause either; keep a low profile and wait- there will be a proper time and a proper way to do things, for, as he said earlier in chapter three, ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’.
You know, sometimes we can be a little too hard on Christians in government because they don’t seem to be waving the Christian flag enough, or they appear to allow things through by way of legislation which we think do not sit easily with the Christian faith. In some instances that might be true. But we might pause and think of Daniel. He was in a position of great influence with several pagan kings. There were times, (maybe most of the time), when he simply got on with promoting the welfare of the Empire and one could imagine some of his fellow Jews complaining that he wasn’t doing enough to secure their freedom or improve their lot. But Daniel knew his limitations as to what he could achieve. On the other hand, there were times he drew a line in the sand and was willing to pay the ultimate price for it. That was a matter of conscience between him and God. As has often been remarked, ‘politics is the art of the possible’ and some things might be judged not to be possible, well, not just yet anyway- as we read in verse5, ‘the wise heart will know the proper time.’ So we have to be patient and do what can be done which might not be as much as we had hoped. What is more, the proper procedure might not be in place. As with the abolition of slavery it took many, many years (50 in all) to change attitudes and get the proper legislation up and running- so proper procedure has to be considered too. So let’s not be too down on our Christian brothers and sisters who find themselves in these positions, we need to pray for them and support them the best way we can.
Now here in our passage we have an absolute monarch and so the extent to which such a king could be influenced by ordinary people was severely limited. We, however, live within a democratic system and so the extent to which we can influence government is much greater. But maybe our expectations might be more realistic if, from a biblical viewpoint, we understood the purpose of government. You see, at its most basic, the role of government is to restrain evil and promote good. That is what the apostle Paul says in Romans 13. This means that a justice system is needed so that wrongdoing is punished. So we are not to take the law into our own hands or support injustice, a ‘bad cause.’ In such a society we surrender some of our basic rights on the understanding that they will be taken up by government on our behalf. So we surrender the right to protect our person and property by the use of force on the understanding that the government does it for us instead. Also, we expect that if a crime has been committed against us, then that person is punished for it. It is not just a matter of deterrence, nor simply correction, but of justice- deserts. On the other hand, those who do good in the community should be commended. I guess to some extent the honours system in this country was an attempt to do that. Those are the two fundamentals a government should be doing-restraining evil and promoting good.
However, ungodly expectations are sometimes made of a government which go way beyond what God has in mind. Let me give you an example which comes from an American junior school textbook but which could easily have been found in an English one. It says that over time, ‘people were no longer content to live as their forefathers had lived. They wanted richer and fuller lives. They wanted the government to help make their lives rich and full.’ And is that not what we hear from our politicians much of the time? Vote for this party and you will have a better deal under us, usually couched in terms of personal peace and affluence. But this goes way beyond the concept of limited government whose job it is to ensure the smooth running of society. In fact the name for this is idolatry -making claims which are reserved for God alone.
Which brings us to the limits of government vv 7-8: ‘Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? 8No man has power over the wind to contain it (better translation- ‘over his spirit to retain it’); so no one has power over the day of his death. As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it.’ Sometimes kings and politicians do act as if they have absolute power, but that is an illusion. As Jesus reminded Pilate, he only had the power God had given him. As an illustration of such limitations the writer focuses on the obvious limitation- death. The ruler has no control over the timing of his own death for example. All his plans and aspirations can come to nothing-if God decides his time is up. And it doesn’t always follow that the ruler or government has complete power over other people’s death either. I have mentioned the example of Cornelius Martens before, but it illustrates this point so well that I want to tell the story again. Cornelius Martens was in a German Christian community which was located in Russia during the 1920’s. He was quite an evangelist and many people were getting converted and eventually the communist powers that be caught wind of this and arrested him. He was thrown into a cell with other dissidents, many being non Christian, so he witnessed to them and some were converted. One day they were all taken out and forced to dig a shallow grave. That night at around midnight the prison commandant appeared with a couple of guards and made everyone lie down on their faces. Then he pointed to a prisoner and said, ‘Kill him’ so the man was picked up and pushed against the wall and shot. This happened several times and they all thought they were going to be killed. But eventually it was stopped. A week later, Martens was called into the office of the local communist party’s boss. The official told his two henchmen to take off Martens’ clothes, he said, ‘Don’t trouble yourself; I will do it for you as I am not afraid to die because I will be going home to the Lord. But if he has decided my hour hasn’t come you can’t do me any harm here.’ That was like waving a red rag to a bull because the official thought that is exactly what he could do. So he pulled out his pistol and said, ‘I will show you what I can do’ and he fired- and nothing happened, his fingers just froze around the trigger and he couldn’t pull it- call it paralysis if you like, but he just couldn’t manage to do it no matter how much he tried. His face juts got redder and redder; he looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel. He tried three times but he just couldn’t shoot the gun. God doesn’t always do that of course. Usually when guns are fired Christians get killed, but the Lord wanted to make a special point in this case. The fact is, governments are limited and cannot deliver beyond what God has designed they can deliver. To expect anything more is a chasing after the wind.
Thirdly, we must be aware of the failure of government: vv 9-15. As we have seen, the basic role of government is to promote the good and restrain evil. But you know as well as I do, (and our writer is certainly aware of the fact), that that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the wicked get a funeral with full honours as much as a good man-v10, proper judicial sentences are not carried out and the wicked seem to get away with too much-v 11 and roles are sometimes reversed so that the good folk get rough justice and the wicked get not justice at all, v 14. And all of this can become dispiriting to the citizen and in some cases lead either to cynicism or outright rebellion. But the Teacher won’t have either of these as an option for the believer v 12, ‘I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God. 13Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.’ In other words, God will have the last word, for final judgement will happen.
But in the meantime it will puzzle and vex us as to why God allows this kind of thing to happen. Why should good kings die relatively young, while tyrants can go on for years- government too seems like smoke, a vapour, which is the Teacher’s conclusion in v 16, ‘When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labour on earth--his eyes not seeing sleep day or night-- 17then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.’
It is important to notice that our writer does have a strong notion of God’s rule- v17, ‘then I saw what God has done.’ And this is a major biblical theme: viz. that the rise and fall of kings and governments all come under the divine decree and God’s government is the only one which will last for ever and cannot fail. We know that divine government by the more familiar term, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. While it is our duty, as the Teacher has told us in v2, to obey the king’s command and do all that we can to promote the general welfare of our fellow man by all legitimate means, our primary allegiance is to God’s government and the two are not to be confused. As we have seen, human government is limited and can achieve only so much, God’s kingdom does not suffer from such limitations and can achieve far more. Just listen to these words spoken by a former Prime Minister to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: ‘The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace…for which we all long… There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals are not enough. We parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You the church can teach the life of faith.’ Did you get that? ‘Something greater than themselves’ is needed for real change to take place. The political theorist, Russell Kirk, made the same point albeit differently, “Politics” he said, “is the art of the merely possible. The Long run decisions of the electorate are formed not by party platforms and campaign speeches, but by visions-by prejudices if you will. Only the changing of visions can produce large enduring political alterations, for better or worse.’ In other words, people need higher aspirations, values, a vision to bring about real, lasting change. And this can only take place if hearts are changed and no government can do that-but the Gospel can and does bring about such a change. Those who have changed this country for the better have been men and women inspired by the values of another government, a greater kingdom-the kingdom of heaven, whether they be a Lord Shaftesbury or a William Wilberforce. They have all recognised the value of government and respected its limitations, but more than that, they have all been animated by a commitment to a Personal God who has established his kingdom through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. That is a kingdom that will not disappoint, that is a kingdom which will outlast all other kingdoms, whose citizens discover that obedience to the commands of this King are good and right and who know that in the end righteousness will reign and wickedness will be punished. And that is a kingdom for which it is worth giving up everything.
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