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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:The Wisdom of Complying with Unjust Government
Text:Ecclesiastes 8:1-17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 106 - Father, Father of All Things
Psalter 50 - The Dominion of Jesus Christ
Psalter 21 - Assurances for Evil Days
TH 324 - Christ Is Coming!

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

When I was young, I lived in Thailand for a few years. I knew the king and queen were much loved by the people. He was like a demigod. But there were lots of quiet gossip and rumors about his family - like how the crown prince tried to assassinate his younger sister, who was also in line for the throne. How the princess was loved; but the crown prince was spoiled by his mother. Gossip, yes. But they had to be careful. Thailand has the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws. It’s illegal to speak negatively about the royal family. People have disappeared or jailed because of what they’ve said. A politician was jailed 4 years because he said how easier life would be if he was born in the palace. A man was imprisoned for using a scarf with a royal emblem to wipe tables. Others were arrested for placing pictures of people above the king’s pictures on websites. Meaning, you had to scroll past theirs to get to his.

What do you do with such unjust and capricious rulers? How do you stand up to them? How do you solve this problem? What do the Scriptures say? Life is messy and messier because of unjust government. Solomon has touched on this before, but now, gives this more specific wisdom - comply with an unjust state. Just obey.

And he does it by giving 3 pieces of advice. Firstly, rulers can be very unjust, but we must comply with them. Secondly, unjust rulers may prosper, but we must be holy. Thirdly, wisely wait upon God’s just purposes.

Firstly, rulers can be very unjust, but we must comply with them. In the world, we have good, bad, incompetent, and ever changing government. Australia has a new prime minister every few years. Americans impeached their president. Our leaders are occasionally involved in lawsuits. Whether you agree or disagree, they’re governed by constitution. But there are also dictators. Myanmar had an elected government, then a military coup and civil war, and now accusations the elected government tampered with votes. North Korea imprisons her enemies with their families to deter dissent. The Taliban have returned and reign in terror. Dictators do exist and citizens of that country suffer. And this was common in the ancient world. Most countries were ruled by an absolute monarchy. 

Solomon himself observed this. Verse 4 - “Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou?” The king’s command is backed by power, who can question him? And in verse 3 - he does whatever he pleases. That’s why Solomon said don’t be hasty to go from his presence. Don’t anyhow offend him and don’t join yourself with those who plot against him. Now, why does Solomon say this? Shouldn’t he have said - challenge these evil leaders, take them to task, rise up against them! Dear friends, we can’t exactly take our 21st century mindset to read this passage. Solomon is telling us that there’s a problem with human government. While Solomon was a good king, he looked at the rulers around him. And he saw the state could be severely unjust. And if the word of the king is supreme, who can challenge him? He does what pleases him, verse 3. 

When the people of Israel wanted a king - they told Samuel. And Samuel said fine - I’ll help you get a king. But he warned them - the king will take your sons and draft them into the army. He will force you to work the fields. He will also take your daughters and force them into his workforce. He will take away your best fruit and animals and give them to his officials. He will tax you to pay his government. And the time will come when you will beg for relief from the king. But what did the people say? We still want him. Now, we need government - there can’t be anarchy. But when we have government, we cry for relief. Solomon said in verse 9, “All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt.” The state has power to hurt its own people. 

To be clear, Solomon was writing about the absolute dictatorship he saw. How about for us? We don’t live in an absolute dictatorship. I know some people think so. But we can challenge leaders, write and sign petitions, vote government in and out, and there’s even an opposition leader. But this doesn’t mean there won’t be capricious leaders. It may not be the MP but his flunky that is unjust. And we affirm this because we know human nature. While they’re in office, they have power. Governments can act justly and wisely - or not. Justice and wisdom don’t always walk hand in hand; and government doesn’t always walk hand in hand with the people. Yes, even good governments can have wicked leaders. We also experience this with bosses. There can be high-handed and unfair managers, directors, bosses - they can be tyrannical. We sons of Singapore have done NS - we know how volatile commanders can be. We have to watch their faces.

But what’s clear is this. Even when rulers don’t act justly, what must God’s people do? Solomon said in verse 2 - “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment.” We are to comply. Just obey. Verse 4 tells us not to avoid doing our duty as citizens, nor to do evil. Why? There are 2 reasons. One is for the sake of the citizen. It’s for your sake. If we obey, we won’t be punished, verse 5 - “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment.” Comply. Watch their faces. If we don’t, we will feel evil. Dearly beloved, we see this happening in places like Myanmar. The state can be bad. And it’s a guessing game. It’s the same with the Taliban. When they came into power, the women put their burkhas back on. But they’re still beaten. Yes, even if you obey, verse 9 - the king can still hurt you. But for our sake, let’s just comply. 

But it’s also God’s will. Verse 2 - “I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God.” Comply! It’s God’s will. But how? There are 2 ways of looking at verse - but both are correct, whichever Solomon meant. Firstly, we obey the government because God has promised to give them power. It’s his oath to them. Romans 13:1 says civil authorities have their power from God. Why comply? Because God appointed and empowered them. The second possibility is this - we obey government as part of our vow to God. Christ is our king - since we’ve sworn obedience to Christ, let’s obey the authorities he’s chosen. 1 Peter 2:13-17 tells us to obey human rulers for God’s sake - fear God, respect the king! But when the king’s unfair, volatile, tyrannical, why obey? For your sake, it’s better to live than to die. And as Christians - we’re obliged to obey. Admittedly, it’s often hard. If the king’s gentle, it’s easy. But when his word is supreme and he does what he wants, verse 6, when your misery increases, how can you obey him? How can you comply with a difficult king? Just do it.

Now to be sure, Solomon was not speaking in absolute terms. Neither were Peter and Paul. There are times when civil disobedience is right. There are times to resist authority - when they require you to sin against God. That’s why Daniel continued to pray towards Jerusalem, even though he was forbidden. His three friends refused to bow down to the idol. The Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh and continued to deliver male Israelite babies. The Bible even recorded their names - Shiprah and Puah. Brave women who feared God. In the last century, we have several examples. Christians refused to get abortions in China under the one child policy. Iranian Christians didn’t shy away from preaching the gospel to Iranian Muslims. In Nazi Germany, Helmuth James von Moltke was enlisted to work in the foreign service in counter-intelligence. As a Christian, he was against Adolf Hitler. But he had to comply. Instead of using violent force against them, he used his high position to rescue prisoners from death, defying the Nazis. He founded the Kreisau Circle, to find non-violent ways to topple the Nazi regime. Eventually, he was caught and sentenced to death. At his trial, the judge said - “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity - we demand the whole man! From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lies your loyalty and your faith?” His answer was obvious. But as a Christian, his faith helped him to comply with government and also not to comply to government. How do we do this? 

Secondly, unjust rulers may prosper but we must be holy. Yes, dearly beloved, unjust rulers can get away with their crimes. They prosper and not punished. And not only that, they are deified or praised. Verse 10 - “And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity.” Verse 10 describes wicked rulers who, when they died, were honored highly - like gods almost. Why didn’t God punish them? Why were they allowed to continue in wickedness when they were alive? And not just that. When they died, the wicked things they did in life were forgotten. Some Hebrew manuscripts and the LXX say they were even praised in the cities where they committed their crimes.

This reminds us of Chairman Mao. He wanted to unite China and make all citizens equal. But what happened? He slaughtered millions to get power. In his policy in the 50s and 60s - the Great Leap Forward, millions died. Untrained farmers were sent to steel factories. During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were made to plow the fields. What happened? Famine! But what happened to Mao? Today, he lays in state, surrounded by flowers, and people come to worship him. He has a personality cult. It’s unfair. And that’s what verse 14 says, “There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.” Good people are treated like they’re wicked; and wicked people treated as if they’re good. It’s hard to stomach, and that justice comes too late angers us even more. Verse 11 says, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” Wicked people are not punished quickly enough. 

This can refer to two things - both are correct. Sometimes a wicked government itself not punished quick enough. Or a government doesn’t punish its own wicked leaders quickly enough. That’s why corruption exists. When COVID19 first broke out, Dr Li Wen Liang tried to warn people of the disease. The police told him to stop making false comments. They investigated him for spreading rumors. But when it really was a pandemic, the police apologized, Dr Li was exonerated and honored as a hero by the government. But you know what? He already died of COVID. They apologized, so what? Were they held accountable?

And so because of such wicked government, people may ask - shouldn’t I rise up against them? Shouldn’t I riot? Shouldn’t I write nasty things about them? Incite violence? After all, see what happened during Arab Spring? They got rid of dictators - Qaddafi and Mubarak. Well, to be clear, things are not better in the Middle East. Things are worse today. How about the Russian Revolution? Lenin killed the royalists. He freed the people - to be under Soviet rule. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, QAnon. Defund the police! Dearly beloved, God’s people must live holy. Verses 12-13 gives instruction to live holy. Verse 12 says, that while the sinner sins 100 times, even though he lives long and gets away, those who fear God and do good are better off. Folks, some of you have been very badly treated by bosses or by authorities or by military commanders or whatever. They get away with it. But it’s still better to do be holy than to do what they do. To retaliate in a sinful way. And ultimately, verse 13, the wicked will not prosper. They will have their end. Yes, on this earth, they may prosper - in death they may even be praised - but it will not be forever. They will be judged by God. 

Human government may be bad - so the obvious human thinking is - resist it and fight. But Solomon says - just comply. The wicked state will hurt you. But if for conscience sake we must resist them, be wise and holy - like Daniel and his 3 friends. And be prepared for the state’s harshness. As we comply and be holy, let’s be guided by God. 

That’s the last piece of advice - wisely wait upon God’s just purposes. Dear folks, we may ask - why does God allow the wicked to prosper? Why doesn’t he mete out justice immediately? Why does he call us to comply with corrupt government? Why does he tell us to be holy, when fighting back feels so much more right and just? Verses 16-17 tell us we won’t be able to know the full answer to this - even if we apply our hearts to know wisdom and to see all the business that is done on earth, even if we don’t sleep day or night, no one can discover what God is doing under the sun. Not even the one who works hard nor the wise man. Why are the unjust not punished? Why are citizens and employees mistreated? Why isn’t God taking action now? Trying to understand it is exhausting. God’s ways are higher than ours. Isaiah 55 - as the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s ways are higher than ours. Psalm 145 - God’s ways are unsearchable. Romans 11 - who knows the mind of God? Psalm 139 - God’s knowledge is too wonderful for us to understand. You see, when we look from a human perspective - verses 16-17 say that when we apply our hearts to know wisdom about what God is doing now, we won’t understand. 

Only when we apply ourselves to see things God’s way, will we’ll understand. Verse 1 speaks of wisdom - “Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man's wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.” This wisdom seems to be different from the wisdom in verse 16. If you have that worldly wisdom, you won’t be able to understand what God’s doing. But when you have this wisdom, your face will shine. The hardness of your face will soften. Like what James says - the wisdom of God is pure, peaceable, and gentle. Instead of being bitter, angry, unresolved, at the injustice here, we will be at peace. Even the way we stand against injustice, will be holy. Who can make the face shine? Only God. Numbers 6:24 - “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: the LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” When we stick close to God, and have his wisdom, he helps us be at peace even if we don’t understand all he’s doing. This helps us to serve him. And this is why God’s people can have a glad heart. Verse 15 - we can be happy. We can eat, drink, and be merry.

Dearly beloved, what does God’s wisdom impart? Jesus was a righteous and powerful king. He came down to subject himself to Satan’s temptation, and the harshness and injustice of men. He complied when he said render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s. He stood his ground in holiness when he preached the gospel and cleared the temple, but was silent as a lamb when he didn’t fight the soldiers. He told his followers to put away the sword. But how does he change hearts and topple governments? He died an unjust death for his enemies. The Gospel was preached, the Spirit worked - and his enemies believed. His people turned the world upside down not by revolution, but by reformation and revival! When they were attacked, they loved. When they were reviled, they reviled not again. How did the Cornelius come to faith? How did the centurion at the cross cry out - truly, this was the Son of God! Christ is doing something in the world when he calls us to be holy, to comply, to resist peacefully according to conscience, and to die. This is how he topples governments. This is how he makes people just. This is how he makes enemies friends. He transforms the hearts. That’s the wisdom of complying with unjust governments. So that our light will so shine. 

How do we apply this? There will always be unjust government - tyrannical people - even in the work place. Comply, as Jesus did. Do what you can to obey, knowing what they can do to you. Be holy - shine for Christ - be firm as Daniel and his friends, or appeal as Esther did. Dearly beloved, God is doing something through this compliance and holiness. The Word of God is displayed and preached. The unrighteous will say - truly this was the Son of God.

Sermon Outline:

  1. Rulers Can Be Very Unjust, But We Must Comply with Them
    1. Human government is unjust
    2. God’s will for his people to comply
  2. Unjust Rulers May Prosper, But We Must Be Holy
    1. Unjust rulers prosper and go unpunished
    2. God’s people must be holy
  3. Wisely Wait Upon God’s Just Purposes
    1. We can’t understand God’s purposes on earth by human wisdom
    2. True wisdom makes the face shine and the heart glad



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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