A wise person obeys the law. That, in a nutshell, is the message of Ecclesiastes 8:1–9. Like so much else in Ecclesiastes, the message is obvious and common sensical, but it also raises difficult questions for those who live under difficult governments.
The Preacher begins with two questions and two observations. The questions are rhetorical. Wisdom makes a person incomparably valuable because he understands God, the world, and himself. The observations relate to the effects of wisdom, which makes a person happy (shining face) and ready to change bad habits (unhardened face).
Now, according to the Preacher, a wise person keeps the king’s command, more literally, pays attention to the king’s mouth. In other words, he knows the law and keeps abreast of current affairs. Moreover, he shows government officials the respect due their offices. That is what it means to not leave the king’s presence in a hurry.
Why does the wise person offer the king obedience and respect? The Preacher articulates two reasons: one based on principle and the other on practicality. The principled reason for obedience and respect is the oath of God. The English Standard Version translates the Hebrew of this verse as an oath God makes to the king, while the New International Version translates it as an oath, under God, that the wise person makes to the king: “because you took an oath before God.” Either way, the effect is the same: obey and respect the government as a matter of principle.
But the Preacher offers a practical reason as well: Government is powerful. The king “does whatever he pleases.” In the ancient world, the power of government was often arbitrary and whimsical, because it rested almost solely in the hands of one person—the monarch. But even in our democratic day and age, government can still act arbitrarily and whimsically. A wise person knows this and strives to stay on the good side of the law.
And yet, what about those who live under corrupt dictatorships, where the rule of law is a farce, and where there is no moral principle but only amoral power? Does the Preacher’s advice still make sense? Would it make sense, for example, for an oppressed and persecuted Christian both to obey and honor an oppressive and persecuting dictator? Yes, within limits. Notice what the preacher says: “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 trouble lies heavy on him.” Even where oppression (trouble) abounds, the wise man knows that a measure of order is preferable to limitless anarchy. The wise person will know when to obey and honor the government and when to seek its removal and replacement. But he will do so carefully, very carefully, lest greater problems be unleashed.
Verse 8 offers an interesting conclusion to the Preacher’s thoughts on the subject of government. The Preacher points out our powerlessness to avoid death, the inevitability of war in the present age, and the self-destructiveness of evil behavior. The last point is the most important, for it serves as a warning both to governors and the governed. To the governors: Oppression will corrupt and in the end destroy you. To the governed: Every revolution devours its own children.
So, a wise person obeys the law, both for principled and practical reasons. But the wise man also knows when to change the law and those who make and enforce it.