The Reason Behind Our Right
Passage: Ecclesiastes 8:1–8:17
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The Reason Behind Our Right
July 20th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Our Motivation to Obey
What do you usually do when you pull up to a stop sign? Think about it. We all know what you're supposed to do, but what do you actually do in most cases? Do you always come to a complete stop?
Would your answer change if the question became, "What do you do when you pull up to a stop sign at 2:00am in the morning, when there's no one else around?" Would your answer change if six other cars were pulling up to that intersection at the same time? Would your answer change if there was a police cruiser parked on the opposite corner? Would your answer change if traffic cameras were installed in order to reward good drivers with cash prizes? Would your answer change, if somehow, stop sign law was added to the Ten Commandments? Maybe it would be "Nine-B": "do not bear false witness, but DO come to a complete stop." Would that change anything?
If the issue is our obeying the rules of the road, then with each of those different situations, there might be different motivations for our obedience, or for our failure to obey.
What motivates you to obey; to follow the rules, assuming that you do?
Turn with me, once again to the raw, but realistic book of Ecclesiastes. As we continue our study in this book we find ourselves this morning in Ecclesiastes chapter 8. (pg. 557)
II. The Passage: "It Will Not Be Well with the Wicked" (8:1-17)
Listen to what the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes 8, verse 1:
A. The Usefulness of Wisdom (8:1)
Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed.
You may remember from last week that as we finished chapter 7, the Teacher had confirmed the fact that even though God had made mankind upright, all of us, each and every one of us, has turned to our own schemes and devices. None of us are ultimately righteous.
So here the Teacher continues to look around and maybe with despair, he asks, "Who...who is like the wise? Who understands?"
But as he has been doing throughout this book, out of this love and hate relationship he has with wisdom, he is here once again commending wisdom. And when a person gains wisdom, it changes their whole countenance. The heart softened by wisdom is reflected in the face declares the Teacher.
So once again, he not only praises wisdom, but goes on here to share some of his own wisdom about what it is better in terms of living our lives here "under the sun".
B. Obedience In Light of Earthly Judgment (8:2-9)
Look at what he prescribes in verses 2-9:
I say:ï»¿ Keep the king's command, because of God's oath to him.ï»¿ 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, "What are you doing?" 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. 6 For there is a time and a way for everything, although man's troubleï»¿ lies heavy on him. 7 For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? 8 No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. 9 All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.
Now, the circumstances behind these verses are not exactly clear. But what is clear is the advice: "keep the king's command". Now what we need to remember here is that in chapter one, the Teacher has already described himself in 1:12 as "king over Israel in Jerusalem". The Teacher is a king. So he has a unique perspective on how one should conduct himself or herself in the royal presence.
The advice given here may reflect the Teacher's experience with disgruntled subjects and those who were tempted to resort to rebellion because of their suffering. The troubles, the injustices that take place when a "man had power over man to his hurt" (v. 9), these difficulties need to be addressed with wisdom. Thus the Teacher writes in verses 5 and 6, "the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. For there is a time and a way for everything, although man's troubleï»¿ lies heavy on him."
The wise, advises the Teacher, the wise will listen to the king's command, his "supreme" word, first, because he has been divinely appointed, but also, second, because the king has the power to punish, even with death.
Rebellion will not give man power over his own death, but he may actually hasten it because of the king's wrath. The wickedness of insurrection will deliver no one.
In general, what we find here is one of many places in God's word that calls God's people to obey those who are in authority. The Apostle Paul put it this way for followers of Jesus Christ:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1, 2)
So, in some sense, what the Teacher is talking about here is obedience in light of earthly judgment. We stop at the stop sign when the police officer is watching us because we know that if we do not, we will suffer the consequences of a ticket and a fine.
And obviously, the more serious the infraction, the more serious the penalty.
Part of the reason why we do what is right should be because of a respect for those that God has put into authority, whether we like or dislike their political outlook or party affiliation. We are and we should be concerned about the civil consequences of our actions.
Of course, those earthly judgments that influence our motives might not always come from the government. Sometimes we obey out of obligation or duty because we are afraid of what others will think about us or because of family pressures. All of these could be considered earthly judgments; and earthly judgments are motivations to obey.
But are they the main reasons behind our doing what is right, behind our decisions to follow the rules?
C. Obedience in Light of Heavenly Judgment (8:10-13)
Look at what the Teacher goes on to tell us in verses 10-13:
10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praisedï»¿ in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.
Notice where this passage begins and notice where it ends up.
It begins with a disturbing observation. It begins with the Teacher at a funeral. The wicked, those who did not do what was right, were being praised after their deaths in the very city where their wickedness was practiced. People at a funeral usually say only nice things about the dearly departed, whether they mean it or not.
We even read that before their deaths, the wicked were even allowed to go in and out of the Temple. There seemed to be no consequences for their actions.
In verse 11, the Teacher tells us that part of the problem here is that wickedness like this was not being punished by the civil authorities, and least not quickly. When the very authorities we're supposed to respect fail to do their job, people are tempted to disregard the rules altogether. That's how our hearts are bent, states the Teacher in the last half of verse 11.
We fall into this trap sometimes, don't we? We might fail to do what is right and realize that no one found out, or that no one cared, that it didn't seem to hurt anyone, or that we actually benefited in some from our sinful choice. And that lack of consequences can actually feed our desire to make the same kinds of decisions again.
But as I mentioned, notice where the passage ends. It begins with the wicked, but ends with God.
The Teacher tells us in verse 12 that even "though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God". "But" as he goes on to make clear in the next verse, "it will not be well with the wicked".
You see, the Teacher wants us to remember that yes, part of our desire to do what is right should come from a respect for our leaders and their power. But when those leaders fail to address our wrongs, we should not think that free to do whatever we want because we are free from any consequences. The same goes for doing anything that is right, whether it is a civil law or not.
No, there will be inevitably be consequences, whether there were earthly consequences or not, because God is just. It is better to fear God, because it will not go well with those who do not fear Him and fail to do what is right. What the Teacher is talking about here is obedience in light of heavenly judgment.
God will see to it that we reap what we sow. And as we understand more clearly in the New Testament, there are, in fact, eternal consequences for our actions. There is eternal suffering in store for those who practice wickedness because God's sentence will be executed
For those who believe in heavenly judgment, this reality is often a factor when it comes to motivations for obedience. Many people follow the rules because they are afraid of what God might do to them. They are driven forward in obedience by fear of divine punishment. [maybe we would stop a the stop sign out of fear of breaking one of the Ten Commandments]
And while we are warned time and time again in Scripture about the eternal consequences of our actions, is this the main reason behind our doing what is right, behind our decisions to follow the rules?
D. Obedience in Light of Earthly Blessing (8:14, 15)
Look again at Ecclesiastes 8, this time at verses 14 and 15:
14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
Once again, the Teacher is breaking with tradition and confirming that doing good, doing what is right, obedience, does not always lead to blessing. As he mentioned in the last chapter in verse 15, he had observed instances in which a righteous person seemed to be suffering with the consequences of wickedness, and other instances, when a wicked person seemed to be enjoying the blessings associated with obedience.
The mindset that the Teacher is confronting here is one that thinks about obedience in light of earthly blessing. He is challenging the person who thinks that if they do what is right, they will always be rewarded.
Now, Scripture certainly teaches us that it is better to obey; just as the Teacher confirmed that "it will be well with those who fear God". But sometimes we are motivated to follow the rules, not simply because it is right, but because it is advantageous; because it is profitable. Sometimes our fundamental motivation in obedience is our own comfort, our own peace of mind, our own advantage.
If we came to the stop sign, and made a complete stop, maybe we would be motivated to do so by the possibility of certain rewards for good driving.
But it doesn't always work that way does it? Sometime, we choose to do the right thing, and we still find ourselves suffering; suffering under criticism; suffering under fear; suffering under financial pressures; suffering under sickness.
But even though our obedience does not guarantee blessing, look at how the teacher instructs his readers to enjoy the blessings that do come. Verse 15:
15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Though the righteous should suffer, and the wicked prosper, the Teacher recommends that all we can do is enjoy what we do have, the portion that God has given to us.
We'll talk more about this idea next week, but look at how the Teacher finishes.
E. The Uselessness of Wisdom (8:16, 17)
You'll see in verses 16 and 17 that he concludes this chapter by returning to the theme of wisdom. I mentioned earlier his love/hate relationship with wisdom. Well, we see that here as he talks about the limitations of his quest. Verse 16:
16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
Wisdom might be very useful in the everyday issues of life "under the sun", but it is useless when it comes to the bigger questions, because God does not allow us discover why certain things happen, why things turn out the way they do; He does not allow us to see the details of our days to come.
I think what the Teacher wants us to recognize here is that wisdom should lead us to obedience, yes, but also humility. The fear of God that is inspired by God's power and His mysterious purposes is the same fear of God that should cause us to choose the right.
What I hope you ultimately see here in chapter eight are the several ways in which the Teacher is talking about obedience and disobedience; the several ways in which he is describing reasons behind our doing what is right.
III. Obedience in Light of the Earthly Blessing of Heavenly Love
Do you want to do what's right? Do you? Doing the right thing isn't always easy is it? That's often why we really don't want to do what's right. It's hard.
I think one of the things we have to state explicitly is that doing the right thing is always about doing what God wants, not matter the situation. We're not just talking about obeying the laws of the land, not just cultural rules of decency, not just ethical expectations, but to obey God's commandments and to honor him in all of our decisions.
But what is the primary reason behind our right? Do we follow God's path because we are afraid of earthly consequences, afraid that we might be punished or looked down on or ruin a relationship? Do we follow God's path because we believe that God will squash us if we don't; that He's just waiting to make us miserable if we mess up in some way? Do we attempt to do the right thing because we are hoping it will bring us blessing, that we will get ahead in some way because we've played by the rules?
You see, the Teacher has certainly given us a lot of reasons to do what is right, to obey. He's also challenged other reasons we might have; he's challenged them by showing that things don't always work out the way we think they will.
But our perspective today must be radically influenced by a reality that came after the time of the Teacher. We live on this side of the cross of Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection have changed everything.
The cross is the one place where all the motives addressed by the Teacher are fulfilled. Jesus suffered the earthly judgment of the cross. But he also endured the heavenly judgment of God by dying for our sins. And He did this to make possible an incomparable blessing for those of us on earth.
This is how the Apostle Paul expressed it when he wrote to his co-laborer, Titus:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope-the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 3:11-14)
Do you see what Paul is doing here? He wants Titus and those that Titus is serving to think about obedience in light of the earthly blessing of heavenly love.
Jesus gave himself for us in order to "redeem us from all wickedness". And what's more, he wants to purify us and make us eager to do what is good, eager to choose the right thing, eager to obey. Eager? Why would be eager?
The eagerness Paul has in mind here is connected to a motive that is much bigger than any the Teacher has touched on. You see, the grace of God displayed at the cross of Jesus Christ inspires something greater in us.
When God pours out his love for you by pouring out the blood of His Son, how could you not be driven to respond in love as well?
Jesus himself said this: "If you love me, you will obey what I command." (John 14:15)
And how could we not love the One who has proven himself the loveliest? How could we not be devoted to the One who devoted his sacred head to destruction for us? How could we not adore the One who put our greatest need before his own right to life?
In dealing with our ‘bent heart' at the cross, that very heart the Teacher talked about, both in chapters 7 and 8 of Ecclesiastes, in dealing with that heart, God made it possible for us to be motivated by more than just the fear of earthly judgment or heavenly judgment, more than just the desire for earthly blessing.
He made it possible for us to be motivated by love, plain and simple; a love overflowing with gratitude; a love intertwined with worship; a love illuminated by, as Paul puts it in II Corinthians 4, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (II Corinthians 4:6).
Isn't that beautiful? Isn't Jesus beautiful?
In every opportunity to do what is right, are you motivated to obey by an unquenchable love for Jesus Christ? Think about it. Think about a situation right now, or one that is coming up, or one you seem to face time and time again, think about what it will mean that your decision to do the right thing will be inspired by your love for Jesus Christ?
I have often had the chance to minister to those who are faced with the possibility of or working through the issue of divorce. And I as encourage them to pursue the heart of Jesus in that circumstance, it is very easy to to be motivated by the themes the Teacher has touched on.
Sometimes they are motivated to keep things together our of fear of earthly consequences, like injured children or financial pains or reputation. Other times, a person may be afraid of what God will do since He says in Malachi, "I hate divorce". In other instances, when one spouse is trying to reconcile with an unwilling husband or wife, it is easy to let obedience be motivated by one's belief that God will absolutely fix everything. They obey in order to obtain the blessing of a restored marriage.
But the only motivation that will enable someone to weather the storms of that kind of situation is love for Jesus Christ. If that is not our primary motivation, to honor our Lord, then our desire will to reflect his selfless forgiveness will eventually sputter.
Not only does such a motivation give us clarity about a greater good that is accomplished in our decision or decisions for good, but it also helps dispel doubts we might have about our decision. Will it really be better if I obey? The love of Christ emphatically tells us, "yes".
We do the right thing, not because we have to, but because we want to. We have to in the sense that, as Paul put, the "love of Christ compels us".
Is God dragging you into obedience like a stubborn donkey sitting on its rear-end, or are you following him willingly, out of a trusting, eager love?
You will, but only if you are looking to Jesus, if you are inspired each day by the wonder of His cross. The love of God demonstrated at the cross Christ actually breathes a new fullness into the words of the Teacher: "keep the king's command".
Is your true King the One who gave himself for you? If He is, then you will be living in light of his words: "If you love me, you will obey what I command."