To a person with long experience of the Western world, the degree of acceptance called for by this verse is almost beyond belief! Our cultures value such a high level of freedom of speech that our “kings” are called into account in the public media virtually second by second! Every word they utter is parsed for secret meaning, and every phrase is analyzed until all aspects of possible meaning are mined for insight as to how to criticize them. Every leader is considered fair game.
We certainly live in a different age than that of Solomon. However, we must keep in mind who we are, who is giving this counsel, and why this counsel is given. We are dealing with God and His purposes, so the counsel fits these realities above all other considerations.
Two examples of the need for the wisdom of giving deference appeared in recent news broadcasts. The first involved a young woman stopped by a policeman for a minor driving infraction. She had either given a wrong signal as to which way she intended to turn or had, for some reason, given no signal at all. As the patrolman began questioning her, she suddenly became irate to the point that she needed to be restrained, arrested, and imprisoned. A few days later, she hanged herself in the prison cell. Nothing indicates that the patrolman mistreated her in any way.
The second incident occurred a few days later under similar circumstances. A patrolman stopped a man for a minor moving violation and asked the driver to produce his driver's license. The man at first merely hesitated but soon began expressing angry resistance. A second time the officer asked him to produce his license. Suddenly, the driver jammed the car into gear, stepped on the gas pedal, and began driving away. The patrolman shouted at the man to stop and at the same time drew his weapon. The man would not stop, so the patrolman fired one shot, hitting the driver in the head and killing him.
Both of these incidents escalated to high intensity within a few moments. There were no drawn-out arguments and no prior history between those involved, just a citizen confronted by a public authority figure whom the citizen heatedly refused to submit to. Their resistance to a simple legal request became their death sentence.
As humanists have risen to leadership in virtually every aspect of society in the Western world, self-centered disrespect has surged to the fore. Nevertheless, Ecclesiastes 8:4 continues to stand as a reminder of what Romans 13:1-4 confirms to Christians regardless of when they live: Rulers in their position of authority in society stand in the place of God to us because they are ordained of God. Despite the rapidly declining social conditions on earth, God still rules His creation. Therefore, He counsels us to give those in leadership within our nations, not merely respect, but some measure of reverence as well.
In addition to this instruction, Ecclesiastes 8:1-4 also contains an implied promise of favor to those who have made the covenant with God and are honestly and consistently striving to remain faithful to their responsibilities within it. Such a person is indeed wise because he understands the nature of his duties as a citizen. Thus, this verse provides practical wisdom to pass through life smoothly. Such a person is thought to be an excellent citizen.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fifteen): Deference