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What the Bible says about Deference to Public Officials
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Ecclesiastes 8:2

The mention of God colors and lifts the matter of deference far above mere social rectitude, making it part of our preparation for His Kingdom. This charge addresses our overall responsibility to God and thus to human governing officials because Paul shows them to be God's agents (Romans 13). In this context, it is the king.

Our responsibility is stated as obeying the king because of our oath to God. An oath is a formal declaration to do or not do something. Synonyms include “vow,” “pledge,” “swear,” or “promise.” Oaths are serious business. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus counsels us not to swear at all because of our weakness in keeping them. In this particular case, one may even bear greater responsibility than normal because the oath is made to God.

This oath could be one of three possibilities. Exodus 24:7-8 shows Israel's pledge to obey God by keeping the Old Covenant:

Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.” And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.”

The second oath is the covenant we have made with God to be obedient to Him. Jesus Himself says in Luke 14:26-27:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

Whether or not we fully grasped it, at the time of our baptism and laying on of hands, we were pledging our lives and activities to faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

The third possibility is the least likely to apply. It is swearing before a judge during a courtroom trial to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth “so help me God.” This used to be done with a raised right hand or with a hand on a Bible.

The sense of responsibility to obey God must be cultivated, despite the sometimes foolish, self-centered humans in between Him and us. Those people may have done something very damaging that directly affects us or someone we love. They may have spoken forcefully against God and His way. It is easy to feel oppressed by them because, in their unconversion, they have become enemies of God. Being self-controlled in such situations may even prove to be life-saving.

Giving deference is not a mere civil duty. Making the covenant with God and deferring to those in authority can become a difficult, sacred obligation. It becomes more difficult when we perceive their self-centeredness and feel oppressed by them but fail to see God and the working out of His purposes in the picture at the same time. It presents a situation where disciplined self-control may be absolutely necessary. We must firmly grasp that human nature is just below the surface in us; it always wants to regain its former enslavement of us.

So, being before the civil authority is not merely a civil matter. It presents a situation that is a personal matter between us and the unseen God.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fifteen): Deference

Ecclesiastes 8:4

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

Ecclesiastes 8:4-9

The term “king” used in this context makes some avoid or completely overlook the broader issue involved in the subject of deference. Hardly any of us will ever directly be confronted by a literal king. However, all of us are under the authority of leadership where we are employed, in the home, at school, or for that matter, even as we are driving to do our shopping. The principles of wisdom given in terms of a king, then, may apply to situations in our lower-level social status. To understand the counsel better, we can substitute the term “leader,” which is better suited to our lives.

Verse 4 begins an intriguing paragraph, as Solomon gives overall reasons why deferential respect is good counsel. It adds a note of sternness to Paul's words in Romans 13, making Solomon's counsel good and useful information for us. We might call it a series of common-sense reasons to prepare us for his conclusion in verse 17, rather than strictly spiritual reasons why being thoughtfully careful before a ruler, especially a stern one, is wise on its surface.

The first reason is the most directly spiritual, one we must consider highly important. People in positions of authority in society stand to us in the place of God because His Word clearly declares that they are ordained of God. Because God is involved, it should immediately suggest to us the reality of a greater purpose and power, and we should treat such authority figures with care. Therefore, with this advance warning, should we ever be put in this position, we must be respectful and on our toes.

A second general thought is suggested in verses 6-9. The idea is that we do not know the future, and we are virtually powerless even in controlling the present. Solomon wants us to take our limitations into serious consideration. I Peter 5:6-7 provides this similar sound advice: “Be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.”

A third thought is covered more thoroughly in verses 10-15. We are aware of grave injustices in this world, yet we can still enjoy the life God gives. We have to recognize that even if he grants our desire—for which we might have come before the leader—though it may be important to us, will not change anything in society. This is a reality. What we desire is not the solution to all of mankind's problems. Even if our desire is effective, it will change things only temporarily. He is not counseling us to abandon hope but to be willing to recognize the realities of life.

The fourth puts a cap on the entire circumstance: Since God is indeed involved, even the wisest person cannot find out all of His work. We must hold our expectations of accomplishment somewhat in check. In other words, be moderate in our expectations because we do not “see” things as God does. Compared to Him, we have severe limitations, and thus wisdom, even though using it is always good, may seem to have limitations.

It is also helpful to understand that Solomon's common-sense reasons are better understood within the historical times and circumstances in which they were given. If we apply their spirit to our time, we will find they are practical and workable regardless of the era we may live in.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fifteen): Deference

Ecclesiastes 8:5-8

In these verses about dealing with those in authority over us, the focus of deference appears to shift to facing a leader with a reputation for unusual discernment and perhaps stern, unbending judgment. Is the king here the Creator God or an earthly king? Even though Solomon is, in an overall sense, providing us wisdom about how we should approach an earthly king, he never completely loses sight of God, who stands unseen behind the earthly king's power. He seems to be giving the earthly king here a great deal more than the usual level of respect.

If it is God that he writes of, then it appears to make more sense because we can learn of the real power behind the throne. We can learn to fear God more deeply and readily by observing nature and applying to our lives what we discern there of His character. If we do this, we will see some of His attributes and come to respect them more deeply.

Does not God say that He upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3)? Careful and thoughtful observation of the natural world reveals the compelling, harmonious, and sometimes breathtaking beauty of the mind of our great Creator. It also at times displays His awesome and mysterious power that, almost like a machine, seemingly appears to move on inflexibly, not knowing or caring what it inflicts. Who can stop the weather from happening?

Everybody and everything gets caught up in God's movements. A blizzard, tornado, earthquake, flood, or drought seems unsympathetic about what or who is caught in its devastation. It is as if, once God's purpose is formed, nothing can turn it aside, despite human woes. These are displays of power that everyone should rightfully fear. Yet, the wise person will discern that God's purposes come to fruition slowly, so he patiently waits, having perceived that, behind all the outward appearances of harshness, there is good within it. Such a wise use of power can influence a human king.

Verse 7 appears to say that God, the great and awesome King, operates without regard for man's desire to know the future. Why is this good? Because not knowing the future with any certainty tends to keep man dependent on God. It makes faith in His love a necessity for his spiritual survival. When a person stands before a human ruler, he should keep his utter dependence on God in mind.

In verse 8, Solomon touches on death as perhaps God's ultimate power over man. When a man's time arrives, only God has the power to give him continued existence. The breath of life is in the hand of God, and if He allows this last enemy to grasp us, there is no escape. Solomon is reminding us that God's rule of His creation is not helter-skelter but operated with order and specific, individual attention to detail. No man has power to retain life beyond his appointed time. There are no grounds on which a person can procure exemption. Rebellious opposition to God will not avail us. Deference is clearly the order of the day to the Christian.

The overall point of Solomon's sobering exposition is that the Creator God must absolutely be treated with the greatest of respect and reverence. The human king, who stands in God's place before us as His agent, should also be treated with a measure of the same respect. In his office, he shares in some aspects of the Creator God's governing power. We must learn that the human ruler does not have to consult us, his subordinate, for permission to carry out whatever judgment he makes in regard to us.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Fifteen): Deference


 




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