Living With Limits
(Ecclesiastes 8)

By David Feddes

I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:17)

Question: What do Batman and James Bond have in common?

Answer: Neither one has to live with limits.

No matter how tangled and confusing a mystery might be, Batman and Bond are always smart enough to figure it out. No matter how hopeless a predicament they’re in, Batman and Bond always have a special gadget that enables them to escape. No matter how smart and strong the bad guy is, Batman and Bond always win in the end. They can do anything; they can figure out anything; they have no limits.

Even death itself is no limit for them. No matter how many people around them die, they remain alive and healthy. Shucks, they don’t even get older. The years go by, but Batman and Bond remain forever lean, muscular, and handsome. Time doesn’t affect them or limit them, and neither does authority. Nobody gives Batman orders; they don’t even know his true identity. Nobody orders Bond around, either. He works for a government, but Bond’s bosses are usually just the butt of some joke. He has the right to do whatever he chooses, including a license to kill.

Batman and Bond both live without limits—they have that in common. Oh, and one more thing they have in common: they’re both fictional, unreal. If you want to know how to handle yourself in a world that isn’t make-believe, if you want deal with the world as it actually is, then forget Bond and Batman and look in the Bible at Ecclesiastes 8.

The world of Ecclesiastes 8 is a world with limits. It’s a world where our choices are limited by the policies of people in power, a world where time takes its toll and all of us end up dying, a world where rulers can be rotten and sometimes bad guys win and good guys lose, a world with problems nobody can solve and puzzles nobody can figure out. In other words, it’s the world we’re living in. It’s reality.

Ecclesiastes 8 deals with some tough realities, but it opens on a positive note, in praise of wisdom. “Who is like the wise man? Who knows the explanation of things? Wisdom brightens a man’s face and changes its hard appearance” (8:1). Have you ever seen a comic strip where someone thinks of a good idea and a light bulb goes on in his head? That’s a good picture of what wisdom does: your mind brightens with the right answer, and your face brightens in a smile.

But remember: even when the light bulb goes on, any wisdom you or I might have is still just a light bulb; it’s not the sun. It can shed a bit of light to help us take our next few steps down life’s path, but it’s not the blazing brilliance that enlightens and energizes the whole world. God’s wisdom is the sun; our wisdom is a little light bulb. It can be useful, but it doesn’t enable us to take charge of every situation or to answer every question. In fact, an essential part of wisdom is knowing our limits and learning how to live with those limits.

Limited by Authority

One limit we all face is authority. Unlike Batman or Bond, we can’t simply do as we please. We live within boundaries set by those who have authority over us. Those in the army have commanding officers. Those who work in companies have bosses. And all of us have political rulers and police making us live under certain laws. Unless we want trouble, we’d better obey orders from our superiors and live within the policies they set for us. Listen to verses 2-6 of Ecclesiastes 8.

Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 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. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?” Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.

That last phrase reminds us that sometimes it’s miserable to live with the limits imposed by other people. The Bible says that when the Israelites first decided they wanted a king, the prophet Samuel warned them, “Here’s what you’re getting when you get a king. He’ll draft your sons to serve in the military. He’ll put your daughters to work for the government. He’ll claim some of the best land as government property. He’ll make sure his political pals have the best of everything. He’ll tax you terribly—the tax rate will be ten percent” (see 1 Samuel 8:10-18). Does any of that sound familiar? Actually, a ten percent tax rate sounds low compared to what most of us pay. But aside from the fact that today there are even higher taxes and more regulations, government is a lot like it was back in the days of the ancient kings.

And government isn’t the only authority we find burdensome. Many of us work for bosses who limit our freedom. They cram us into cubicles. They set strict schedules. They work us harder than we like and pay us less than we want. They tell us to do some things that seem silly and make some policies that seem crazy. That’s why the comic strip “Dilbert” is so popular: it pictures the way many office workers feel about their bosses.

We don’t like living with the limits of other people telling us what to do. But, says Ecclesiastes, that’s life. Deal with it. How? Well, in general the best way to deal with it is to follow orders. Do what you’re told. Why?

One reason is that you have a duty before God. At the time Ecclesiastes was written, people would swear an oath of loyalty to the king in God’s name. If they later disobeyed the king, they had to answer to God. Maybe you haven’t taken a formal oath, but you must still answer to God for how you respond to authority. If you’re a citizen of a country, you are under its laws and you’re subject to its leaders. If you’ve agreed to work for a company, you have a duty to serve the company well and do what your boss says. That’s a moral obligation before God.

But there’s also another reason for obeying your superiors, an obvious, practical reason: they can make life miserable for you if you don’t obey. The king “will do whatever he pleases,” says Ecclesiastes. So don’t second-guess him or say, “What are you doing?” If you want to avoid harm and save yourself a lot of trouble, it’s usually best to follow orders.

God’s will and your own wellbeing: those are two big reasons to obey your superiors. As the Bible says in Romans 13:5, “it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also because of conscience.”

Obedience isn’t your only option, of course. If you get an order you don’t like, you can get angry and walk out. But that’s a sure way to make unnecessary trouble for yourself. “Do not be in a hurry to leave,” says Ecclesiastes. Another option is to stand up to your superior. On rare occasions, if your superior’s orders go against God’s orders, you may have to disobey. As the Bible puts it, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) But if you decide to stand up against orders, make sure it’s not for a bad cause. Make sure it’s to keep God’s commands. When it comes to living with the limit of authority, wisdom tells us that obedience is usually the best policy.

Seizing Opportunities

Still, wisdom isn’t content with “Yes, sir; no, sir; anything you say, sir.” There are ways to influence our superiors without opposing them, and there are times when a wise person can make the most of a situation. Wisdom recognizes and honors limits, but it also looks for opportunities within those limits. As Ecclesiastes puts it, “the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.”

One biblical example of this is Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a talented Jewish man who worked as part of the staff of the king of Persia. One day Nehemiah heard that the people of Jerusalem were in trouble: their city remained in ruins, and nobody seemed to be doing much about it. The news broke Nehemiah’s heart. He wanted to go help them—but how could he? He couldn’t very well go straight to his boss and say, “King, I quit. My people need me.” He could get thrown into prison or even killed, and that wouldn’t help anybody. Nehemiah knew that no matter how miserable he felt, no matter how much he wanted to get away and help his people, it wasn’t the right time to take his problem to the king.

So what did Nehemiah do? He took his problem to a higher king: he prayed to the God of heaven. He asked God to grant him success by making the king favorable to him. Four months went by. Nothing changed. The situation weighed heavily on Nehemiah, but he kept obeying orders and doing his job. Then one day the king asked him why he was looking so sad. Nehemiah was frightened, but he saw his chance. He explained his sorrow over Jerusalem and his desire to go there and lead a rebuilding project. The king liked the idea and sent Nehemiah on his way (Nehemiah 1-2).

So you see, there’s more to wisdom than wanting the right goal. Wisdom also watches for the right time and the right way to reach that goal. For at least four months Nehemiah’s misery weighed on him, and there may have been times when he felt like plunging ahead no matter what. But that would have defeated his whole purpose, so he simply kept obeying the king and praying and watching for his opportunity. “For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,” says Ecclesiastes, “though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.”

Maybe you’ve got something weighing on your heart, and you really can’t do much about it. You have obligations to keep, bosses to obey, and other things that limit your options. What can you do? Well, live with your limits: obey orders and do a good job. But then start praying. Pray for those who are in authority over you, and pray that God will give you a chance to do more and serve him better and that he will give you the wisdom to seize the opportunity when it comes.

Other Limits

The authority of superiors is a limit we have to live with, and it’s not the only one. There are other limits which none of us—not even rulers and bosses—can control. We can’t control the future; we can’t avoid death; in some cases, we can’t even escape our own patterns of behavior. Ecclesiastes 8:7-8 says, “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death. As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it.”

Who can say what the future holds? The Bible says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you should say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).

Batman and James Bond know the future. They know they’ll catch the crooks and be hearty and healthy when the movie ends. They know time can’t affect them: they’ll always be tall, dark, and handsome. (There’s always a new actor waiting in the wings to make sure of it.) Time doesn’t affect them; death can’t touch them. But it’s another story for all of us who live outside movieland fantasies. The future is uncertain, and death is certain. The only uncertainty about death is when it will come.

We live under the limits of time and death, and we also live under the limits of our sinful nature. Ecclesiastes says that just as an army won’t let soldiers desert in war, so wickedness won’t release those who are caught up in it. That’s one limit we hate to face. We like to think we can turn over a new leaf any time we choose. But we’re driven and dominated by forces that are beyond our control, forces we can’t simply walk away from, forces that direct us the way a general directs a private. Once we start marching with the army of sin, there’s no getting out of it on our own. And this is one army where everybody dies.

Sin has made us all part of an army that’s marching toward death. We see those on the front lines, the oldest among us, falling rapidly. Occasionally, we see someone further back, someone younger, struck down. As for ourselves, we don’t know or control the exact time of our own death, but we know it’s coming. Even if we survive while others fall, advancing age keeps moving us closer and closer to the front line where everybody dies.

Those are the facts. I’m not my own boss. I’m not in charge of my own future, my own death, or even my own character. There are limits on what I can do. And I’m not just limited in what I can do; I’m also limited in what I can understand. The last half of Ecclesiastes 8 deals with some of the strange things that stump us, puzzles that defy explanation.

Limited Understanding

In verse 9 the Teacher says, “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.” Why would rulers abuse their people and provoke a revolution? Why would corporate bosses mistreat employees and wear them out or else drive them to leave and work for a competitor? Who can understand why a rotten ruler or a bad boss hurt the people under him and ruin himself in the process? It makes no sense—but it happens.

But here’s an even more perplexing puzzle: sometimes rotten rulers and bad bosses are actually admired. They’re immoral and nasty, and yet people praise them and churches welcome them. Even when they die, instead of having people spit on their grave, these lowlifes get a beautiful burial, a fancy funeral filled with flowery phrases. Ecclesiastes 8:10 says, “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 movies Batman and James Bond always get the bad guy, but in reality many crimes go unpunished and many crooked people live in luxury. Who can figure it all out?

Well, whatever else we don’t know, one thing is sure: if crime pays, people are quick to go bad. Ecclesiastes says, “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (8:11). What should we think about that? Should we simply conclude that we’re better off doing evil as long as we can get away with it? No, says Ecclesiastes. “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow” (8:12-13).

In other words, I don’t care how many crimes they get away with. I don’t care how long they live. I don’t care how much they prosper. I can’t make sense of it all, but I know, I just know, that it’s better to honor God than to get on the wrong side of God. It may look like the wicked are doing well and living long, but there’s got to be another angle, another perspective, and from that perspective, it will suddenly become obvious that it’s not going well for them at all. In saying this, Ecclesiastes went beyond what seemed to be true to what simply had to be true. And he was right, as Jesus later showed.

Jesus told of a man named Lazarus who revered God and yet went through life poor and disabled, homeless and malnourished. The closest he ever got to medical help was when stray dogs would lick his open sores. The closest he ever got to decent living conditions was when he would lie on the street outside the entrance to the estate of a certain Mr. Moneybags. Eventually Lazarus died. As for Mr. Moneybags, he cared little about God or about other people, and yet everything seemed to go his way. He wore expensive clothes and lived in luxury on his magnificent estate. After a long and prosperous life, he died and received a splendid burial. So far, this sounds like a classic case of the godly suffering and the wicked prospering, doesn’t it?

But listen to the rest of the story. Jesus lifts the curtain that stands between this life and the life to come. He says that when Lazarus died the angels carried him to a place where Abraham and all of God’s people live in joy. Meanwhile, Mr. Moneybags found himself in hell, pleading for even a drop of cold water to cool his burning mouth. But a gaping canyon separated him from all help and hope. He was doomed to eternal fire.

So Ecclesiastes was right: even when the wicked prosper, in the long run it is infinitely better to revere God.

Still, even if we know that, it still doesn’t answer all our questions or make it easy to stomach the injustices that are all around us. Verse 14 of Ecclesiastes 8 says, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This, too, I say, is meaningless.” Even knowing about heaven and hell, it’s hard to understand why some of the best people suffer and some of the worst prosper.

At that point, we must learn to live with our limits. Where we see injustice and have the power to help, we should do so; but sometimes there’s not much we can do. Where we can warn the wicked of hell and encourage the faithful with the hope of heaven, we should do so; but sometimes there’s not much more we can say. You and I can’t stop every crime or abuse of human rights that we see in the news, and we can’t make sense of such things. When we’ve done what we can, we need to face our limits and then enjoy the time we have and the good things God sends our way. Ecclesiastes 8:15 says, “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”

Don’t let questions about the past or worries about the future ruin your enjoyment of what God gives you right now. Jesus once said not to worry about tomorrow because each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34). So too, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about everyone else’s problems because each of us has enough trouble of his own. Deal with your own troubles and the struggles of people you can help, but don’t take the weight of the world on your shoulders. Only Jesus has shoulders big enough for that. Trust him, and then enjoy the life God gives you.

Ecclesiastes 8 ends by stating in no uncertain terms that we will never be able to figure out how every human problem fits into God’s plan. The Teacher says,

When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.

What a Relief!

Living with limits may seem like a burden, but it can also be a great relief. Isn’t it a relief to know that you don’t have to know it all? Isn’t it a relief to know that you don’t have to take charge of everything? Isn’t it a relief to live with limits on your power and wisdom, knowing you can trust the unlimited power and wisdom of God? As the Bible says, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:2-3).

Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you can rejoice, even when you face limits on your own power and freedom. You can’t always make your own choices when you’re limited by a ruler or boss, but faith tells you that submitting your will to a boss you can see is good practice for submitting your will to a God you can’t see, and faith also tells you that in prayer you are speaking the Ruler over every ruler and boss. You can’t control your future, but faith tells you that Jesus does control your future. You can’t prevent your own death, but faith tells you that Jesus has conquered death. You can’t save yourself from wickedness; but faith tells you that Jesus has saved you.

Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you can rejoice, even when there are loose ends and unanswered questions. Indeed, you may see some of those questions in a new light. Like Ecclesiastes, you can’t figure out why people would mistreat others even to their own harm; but then you realize how often you’ve mistreated the very people you need most, and you repent. You can’t figure out why the sentence for crimes isn’t quickly carried out; but then you realize that if God instantly carried out the sentence on every sin, you would be in hell right now. You can’t see why the righteous get what the wicked deserve and the wicked get what the righteous deserve; but then you realize that when Jesus was nailed to a cross for you, the righteous Savior got what your wickedness deserves, and you (though wicked) get what his righteousness deserves: eternal life through faith in Jesus.

Once you know the truth of the gospel, you still don’t know everything, but you know enough. By faith in Jesus you know that the very mysteries that defy explanation turn out to mean salvation. The strange ways of God which force you to live with limits are part of his plan to bring you into wisdom and freedom and life without limit.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.