Stephen Pinker in his latest book Enlightenment tries to tell us that everything is getting better (thanks to the 18th-century Enlightenment which apparently had no dark spots at all) and that, as long as we get rid of religion, we will continue to progress to Nirvana.
But unless you live in the privileged world of the privileged you have to face up to the question of how fallible fallen human beings are to live in a corrupt society. This is the question to which Solomon now turns (Ecclesiastes 8:1-8) offering his advice on how to survive in society.
People like to pontificate on how things should be. Advice is given as though we start with a blank slate and can just make or remake society as we please. But in the real world things are much more difficult. How do we live in the world as it is, not in some fantasy world?
This was a problem faced in the New Testament church. Slavery was bad and slave traders were destined for hell, but meanwhile how were Christians to live in a society which was dependent on its millions of slaves (from doctors to gardeners)? From the safe comfort of 2,000 years later in our middle-class Western liberal societies, conditioned by centuries of Christian teaching, it seems obvious that we would all of course have stood up against slavery. But back in the real 1st century the options were not that clear-cut. Most of the early Christians were slaves. Should they revolt and be wiped out in a bloodbath (as happened in other slave revolts)? Or should they seek to live with what they had and hope over the years to change the thinking that permitted slavery?
In a similar situation Solomon talks to the people on the basis of them having a king. God had warned them it was a bad idea – that a king would become autocratic and authoritarian. But that is what they had chosen and that is the situation Solomon spoke into.
What do you do when the authorities are autocratic?
1. Stay out of trouble. Try to live at peace with all humanity.
2. Admit your limited knowledge – in the final analysis no one has the power or knowledge to act correctly in every situation.
3. Don't be treacherous.
4. Don't push things when you have been told no.
It is possible and sometimes even necessary to disobey, desert and defy. But you need to discern when is the right time. We are to be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. We need wisdom to live in this complicated and evil world: 'The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.' Nehemiah waited until the right time to approach the king. Esther approached the king knowing that it could mean the end of her life, but she did so wisely. The prophet Nathan challenged King David, but again did so wisely.
In our current context and culture, it is important for us as Christians to work out the wisest and best way to approach those who rule over us. That is why we are called first of all to pray for those in authority. But then we need to think about the wisest way to do things. In today's Western church there are those who are fighting to preserve Christendom and retain a Christian heritage that has all but gone. For me that is a lost battle and will only result in the kind of frustration that Solomon describes in verse 7 – we don't know the future. On the other hand there are those who want to take 'The Benedict Option' and opt out of any formal Christian civic involvement. Perhaps we should just live as alternative Christian communities out of the mainstream? But that is a kind of defeatism which also makes the error of not realising that the primary enemy is not 'out there' but 'the enemy within' – something Solomon alludes to in verse 8 – we just don't have the power to live as a pure community in a corrupt world.
We cannot control the king – but perhaps we can influence? Perhaps we can change a corrupt regime? But there are things we cannot control or change. We don't have the power to control the wind, or more accurately to retain our spirit. We cannot lock up our spirit. Our longings, impulses and convictions cannot be confined. We are not master over our own spirit. Despite what the 'masters' tell us we are not even master over our own death – much as we might want to be.
Tolstoy's observed that everyone thinks of changing society, no one thinks of changing themselves. We can only change society if people are changed – including ourselves. The problem is not just that human power is limited but that we are trapped. There is no release in or from wickedness. We are at war. Sin, Satan and society do not give up their prisoners easily. It seems an insurmountable problem.
Solomon has again described the frustrations, burdens and limitations that we have with this life 'under the sun'. How can we be released? Bob Dylan sang I shall be released, which has a refrain that gives us a clue:
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released.
We need release. We need someone to free us. We need a new relationship – not just with the king, but also with the King of Kings. That of course is why Christ came as the 'light come shining'. He is the one who releases us from wickedness. He is the one who releases us from the power of evil and the power of corrupt authorities. Life under the sun without Christ will be a continual series of frustrations and disappointments. Life with Christ is freedom. 'So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8:36).