Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken
Ecclesiastes Chapter 8 – from the 1599 Geneva Bible’s To obey Princes and Magistrates to the New American Standard Bible’s Obey Rulers – is entitled something along the line of ‘Keep the King’s Commands’ (ESV). Here is the New International Version text:
Obey the King
2 Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do 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. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?”
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery.
7 Since no one knows the future,
who can tell someone else what is to come?
8 As no one has power over the wind to contain it,
so no one has power over the time of their death.
As no one is discharged in time of war,
so wickedness will not release those who practice it.
9 All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything done under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own hurt. 10 Then too, I saw the wicked buried—those who used to come and go from the holy place and receive praise in the city where they did this. This too is meaningless.
In the relatively few times I have heard in-depth sermons on this chapter, I have been told that the clear reading of scripture indicates that we are to be and remain subservient to the will and laws of whatever governmental body happened to rule the land in which we were born. Generally there is some vague allusion to Romans 13 or I Peter 3 added as further proof of our required subservience.
It has always been discomfiting to me that my simple reading of this chapter says something far different than what I have been told from the pulpit. As the years have passed since I have attended churches where blatant worship of the military and the United States is commonplace, I have slowly come to the realization that claiming the ‘plain’ meaning of scripture is a treacherous path to walk and can often provide cover for suspect interpretations when further evidence is lacking.
In this case, what I read tells me something far different from what I have been told. First, consider Solomon’s reasoning. Why should we obey kings? This not an exhortation, or his answer would be ‘because God commands it’ or some variation on that theme. Rather, he reminds the listener of the oath, sworn before God, that was given to the king. Long ago this was a normative experience – kings demanded absolute control and required loyalty oaths from their subjects. These are the types of oaths God, through Samuel, warned the Israelites to avoid when they clamored for a king:
14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your best Olive trees, and give them to his servants. 15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give it to his Eunuchs, and to his servants. 16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and the chief of your young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your sheep, and ye shall be his servants. 18 And ye shall cry out at that day, because of your king, whom ye have chosen you, and the Lord will not hear you at that day. I Samuel 8(emphasis mine)
Of course, no oaths of this type have been sworn before God tying the average churchgoer to the government. Nor do we live in a society where there is absolute control. For this other freedoms we enjoy we should be thankful to those – first in England and later in the United States – who understood the call of prudence, not unthinking obedience, in Solomon’s appeal.
Instead, Solomon’s reasoning for obeying the king: “for he will do whatever he pleases.” With this phrase, Solomon reminds us of the power and fickle nature of the king. Certainly in an autocratic regime where no one can “say to [the king], ‘What are you doing?’”, the king could imprison, torture, or kill on a whim. Solomon’s advice is more in line with that in I Peter 3:13-17 where Peter is reminding the early Christian church that civil governments tend to crack down on those who resist. For context, Peter would have pointed to Nero’s persecution of Christians and the various crackdowns on the Jews that were a direct result of resistance to Roman rule.
There is nothing new to this understanding of Solomon’s advice. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon has repeatedly told us that nothing is as simple – or as easy to control – as we think. Seeking joy in life through pleasure, toil, riches, and other pathways only serves our desire to bring the circumstances of life under our control. Yet, in all of these sections where Solomon discusses these attempts to control life, the end result is only a striving after the wind, a vapor that passes through our hands when we attempt to grasp it. In this light, it is logical to understand Solomon’s advice to obey as a prudent measure against the uncontrollable heart of a king, not a wholesale endorsement of the king’s commands.