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Temple and State

Ecclesiastes 8

Lesson audio

Differing Views

Throughout the history of the church there has been one particular conflict between church and state which does not seem to be leaving us: just what is the role of the government in matters social? The matter is now before us again in what is called “social Gospel.” Here’s a brief history:


For those not familiar with St. Augustine, he’s the man who gave us original sin. He also gave us views of “just war” and the role of the state. Recall that he lived in a time when the Roman Empire (western) was collapsing. More and more authority was coming to the church.

His view was this: the state is the handmaiden of the church. Guided by the wisdom of the bishops, the state is to perform what we today would call welfare on behalf of the church. Thus society would continually improve until we reach the golden age of man. Note that the golden age was not the driving factor; rather, it was the supremacy of the church over the state. Roman Catholic politics are based upon this doctrine.

Post Millennialism

This view of Revelation, common from the Reformation through the beginning of the 20th century, holds that there will come a golden age of man, the millennium, which lasts for a thousand years. Since they saw no way for the millennium to arrive without human effort, it was obviously the task of the church in a democratic society to campaign for actions which would bring it about. Much of the law concerning child labor, for example, is rooted in this view. It is still the official view of many mainstream churches, which have a long tradition of what would today be called liberal politics.

Emerging Church

In the evangelical churches there is a new view sweeping over the land. In the “emerging church” view the promises of Revelation – the second coming, the judgment of the living and the dead, the millennium – are all “metaphorical” (English translation: not going to happen.) For example, our pastor preached on heaven – and not a mention of any of the seven last things.

Since, in this view, there will be no millennium it behooves the church to attempt to create the best possible environment here on earth. We don’t evangelize (there are many ways to heaven in this view) but we “build community.” Liberal politics now prevail.


The older view of the evangelical churches is based on two factors:

  1. The pre-millennial view of Revelation, which prophesies a golden age of man after the return of Christ. Thus it is that no amount of effort now will bring about such a golden age.
  2. A strong dose of American capitalism, which tends to view the poor as being deserving of it.

That said, we may now ask, “Just how does Solomon see it?”

Getting Along with the Government

Ecc 8:1-13 Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter? A man's wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam. (2) I say, "Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. (3) "Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases." (4) Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, "What are you doing?" (5) He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure. (6) For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight, though a man's trouble is heavy upon him. (7) If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen? (8) No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. (9) All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt. (10) So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility. (11) Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. (12) Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. (13) But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

The reader will recall that the basic relationship between the Christian and the state is one of submission. We are not speaking of rebellion here; rather, what does the Christian do with a more-or-less reasonable government?

Solomon’s advice

If your going to work in the palace (or the White House) there are three adjectives you need:

  1. Wise. The halls of government are no place for amateurs and fools. Rather, seek after wisdom – and use it. Does this mean that experienced politicians might do a better job? Could be. Could be. There is a time and procedure for everything – and you’d best know what they are.
  2. Obedient. Even to this day we swear in our congressmen and president. You take an oath of office. But you take it before God Almighty, and he will not take it lightly if you violate that oath.
  3. Righteousness. What goes around, comes around – usually in the next election. It is amazing how many of our politicians think that they can conceal – and how often they can’t.
The uncertainty principle

In physics there is a law known as the “uncertainty principle.” Very broadly put, it says that the more you know about one variable (say momentum) the less you know about another (position). You can’t know everything to the last decimal place – it is impossible.

The same is true in government. Many are the politicians forecasting glories for their programs and doom for their opponents’ ideas. But do you really know what is going to happen? More important, can you really control it. Solomon points out that you have as much chance of directing the wind as you do in avoiding death.

That said, there are going to be times that the government is run by wicked men (just who was Spiro Agnew?) But this principle applies to them too. Being wicked ultimately doesn’t work; it’s like drinking salt water when dying of thirst. It just brings on more wickedness until it falls apart. Ultimately, these people die and are forgotten. Who would remember Richard III if not for Shakespeare?

Justice delayed

Of course, that doesn’t mean that wicked rulers are not a problem. One of the more serious side effects is that justice is often delayed. Justice delayed is justice denied, we often say. It is certainly true that justice delayed invites more evil.[1]

But again, who wins in the end? It is better to fear God and be content with what you have than to climb the corporate ladder with a cutlass in your teeth.

What to Do

Ecc 8:13-17 But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. (14) There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility. (15) So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun. (16) When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), (17) and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, "I know," he cannot discover.

Expect perplexity

Let’s face it: our frustration with the evils of this world comes down to the fact that we know that shouldn’t happen – and yet it does. We then cry to God and ask why. Permit me three questions in response to that question:

  1. Does God have to explain it to you? Just who are you? You may want one; you may be obedient – but God is still God. He doesn’t have to tell you anything.
  2. If he did, would you understand it? Are you really as profoundly wise as all that? Is there that much IQ stuffed into your skull?
  3. If he did, what would you do about it? The reason you’re complaining is that you can’t fix it. You’d have to ask him to fix it anyway – and you don’t need to know why it’s broken to ask that.
What can you do?

Eat, drink and be merry.

Look, it’s not a sin to eat, drink and be merry. Honest. There’s a time and place for it; in due moderation, it’s just fine. Even better – it involves no complication of wisdom. All of us understand it.

The work of God

“What is man that you are mindful of him?” Therein lies our basic problem with the state. Particularly in a democracy, we feel we should see all ends, understand all things, and proceed with confidence.

It is not so. Consider, for a moment, physics. It’s still an on-going pursuit. But I ask you:

  • Could you really discover it all? The pattern so far is that every new discovery opens up more to discover.
  • Suppose we did discover it all. Could anyone understand it?

If that’s true of physics, how much more is it true about the nature of evil and righteousness?

[1] What this says for the debate about the death penalty, I leave to the reader.

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