I heard a sermon yesterday on Ecclesiastes 8:1-9. Verse 2 says
I say, “Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. (NASB)
The sermon observed that this passage was about seeing wisdom in the world and that one primary effect of having wisdom is submission to authority.
If you go to the New Testament, to Romans 13, the authorities that exist are appointed by… man? No, they’re appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God and those who resist bring judgment on themselves… Honor the king. The kings back in the New Testament, they were dirt bags. I don’t know how else to put it. They were killing Christians. They had no ethics whatsoever… Remember, those authorities placed over us are for our good… Wisdom respects authorities. It’s also a test of faith. Do you have faith or not?
The verse is not immediately clear. What is the “oath” referring to? Translations vary quite a bit. The ESV says “I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.” This translation would seem to fit with the above exhortation and with the view of most Christians today. But the NASB seems to refer not to God’s oath to the ruler, but to some kind of oath of man before God. The sermon recognized this, but wasn’t entirely clear about its meaning.
What makes this verse so serious in regards to keeping the king’s commandment is that he says for the sake of your oath to God. He brings God into the mixture. If we were simply to obey those in authority over us because we were afraid we were to be guillotined, or electrocuted, well, that’s restraint, that’s good, but if there’s resentment in the heart, if there’s hatred towards those leaders that are over us, that could be a dangerous thing.
Now, granted, during the time that this sermon was preached, it was a theocracy. God was on the throne, so to speak. God spoke to the king. Kings were inspired at times and we had the Word of God given through kings. Hopefully they were not corrupt. A lot of them were. But it was a theocracy so the Jews there had a commitment to God. They made an oath to serve the king and therefore they were serving God. So Solomon is saying, “Just remember, you are to obey me, but not for the sake of me, but because of the fact that you made an oath. You made an oath that you would obey the king and therefore you would obey God.
Now, those of us that are born again – those of us that are Christians – we desire not to go the way of the broad path. We desire not to go the way that everyone else is going. Everyone else loves to slam the president… We are Christians now, we joined ourselves to the church. We joined ourselves to saints. And if you join this church, we make an oath, a vow to live a life worthy of a follower of Christ. It means we’re not going to be insurrectionists. We’re not going to be rebelling against the authorities…
Obey the king for the right reason, is what Solomon is saying here. It is because of your oath to God.
So the “oath” in question is interpreted as an oath to obey God. In the Old Covenant, this oath to obey God meant an oath to obey the king because the king spoke for God and it refers to a specific oath the Israelites took. In the New Covenant, this oath refers to the commitment of every Christian to obey God. Our obedience to God means we obey the commands of the president.
Again, this is a difficult verse, so I don’t mean to single out this sermon. I comment only to try to bring out some clarity. The above explanation does not seem to be consistent or clear. If the Israelite’s duty to obey the king was because the king was a prophet, then how can that apply to us today? Our oath to obey God would not translate into any requirement to obey our rulers, who are not prophets. The root of the confusion is a misunderstanding of what the “oath” in question refers to. It does not refer to an oath or vow to obey God. It does not refer to an oath to God, but an oath taken before God.
What, then, was the oath? First, note that for several generations God was the king of Israel. God was their earthly king who sat on his throne in the tabernacle making judgments and leading the Israelites in battle. But the Israelites lusted after the other nations and wanted a king like theirs (1 Sam 8:1-9; 19-22; 10:19). God knew this would happen, despite his warning not to (1 Sam 8:10-18), so in the Mosaic law, he provided direction for the establishment of a king.
When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. (Deut 17:14-5)
Note that it is the people who will be setting the king over themselves. God is said to choose the king, but the people set the king over themselves. God chose Saul by anointing him by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 10:1). God’s choice was revealed to the people through the drawing of lots (1 Sam. 10:20-24). Once this occurred, the people accepted Saul as their king (1 Sam. 10:24). Saul disobeyed God, so God rejected him as king an chose David instead (1 Sam 16:12). But Saul remained king over Israel until the people anointed David king (which was many years after God anointed David).
And Abner conferred with the elders of Israel, saying, “For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the Lord has promised David, saying, ‘By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from the hand of all their enemies.’” …
And Abner said to David, “I will arise and go and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.”(2 Sam 3:17-18, 21)
“So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.” (2 Sam. 5:3)
Solomon was made king in the same manner.
And they made Solomon the son of David king a second time, and they anointed him as ruler for the Lord and Zadok as priest. Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father; and he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him. All the officials, the mighty men, and also all the sons of King David pledged allegiance to King Solomon. (1 Chron 29:23-24)
Commenting on these passages, as well as Ecclesiastes 8:2, Samuel Rutherford said “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)” (Lex, Rex). The NET translates the verse “Obey the king’s command, because you took an oath before God to be loyal to him.” Matthew Henry notes
We must be subject because of the oath of God, the oath of allegiance which we have taken to be faithful to the government, the covenant between the king and the people, 2 Chron. 23:16. David made a covenant, or contract, with the elders of Israel, though he was king by divine designation, 1 Chron. 11:3. “Keep the king’s commandments, for he has sworn to rule thee in the fear of God, and thou hast sworn, in that fear, to be faithful to him.” It is called the oath of God because he is a witness to it and will avenge the violation of it.
The oath is a contract. It neither implies divine authority for the ruler, nor obligates the people beyond the terms of the contract. Solomon says you should obey the king for the same reason you should obey your boss: because you agreed to. Unlike your boss, the king might kill you if you don’t. The rest of the passage is Solomon’s wise reflection on how to act before an almighty king who can kill any who disagree (note v9). Henry says “In short, it is dangerous contending with sovereignty.”
Thus this passage does not obligate us to obey every command of a ruler from the heart as part of our obedience to God.