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. Ecclesiastes 8, verses 5 and 6.
I think that a good way to interpret this verse is to remember that, in Ecclesiastes 3, God said “for everything there is a time.” Throughout the four verses previous to this one, God is saying that we should keep our words, remember our oaths, and understand our duty. With this verse, He is saying something a bit more.
Whoever follows the orders of those appointed over him usually comes to success. Success is a matter of training, discipline, and execution. Attitude, background, endeavor, and perseverance (as well as perspiration) are all brought to bear in doing our duty as directed by those above us. Don’t buck the system because it’s bigger than you. Why is that? Why do we come to no harm?
Maybe it’s a matter of psychological conditioning. Do it right, get rewarded. Push the button, get the banana pellet. It’s training and conditioning, demand and response. But that doesn’t factor in obedience, which is an attitude. It trains behavior but says nothing about why that behavior is desirable.
So maybe it’s fear. Fear those in charge and do what they want you to do because, if you don’t, they can thump you. Throughout history, that’s what kings have done. There is indeed a proper time for every matter, namely it’s taking care of those matters when you’re told because you’re going to get in BIG trouble if you don’t. It’s all about intimidation. No, that isn’t it. Fear doesn’t explain why good people stand up to intimidation. Fear doesn’t explain when good people go to work day after day and actually enjoy their jobs. Fear doesn’t explain people sacrificing for others, for their families, for little or no gain. No, it isn’t fear.
So maybe it’s because that’s how the Almighty designed it. I’ve always heard that, the more you study Scripture, the more you see how it all fits together, and in this verse I see that. As mentioned, I think that Ecclesiastes 3 helps to amplify and understand Ecclesiastes 8. For everything there is a time, and there is a time to obey orders and do our duty. Those times are set and controlled by God, who is the ultimate king and the ultimate source of real justice. We live under that justice; much as the atheists try to deny it, even they live under God with the rest of us. That’s simply a fact of life.
What about that ‘man’s misery weighs heavily on him’ part? Well that’s true isn’t it? You could interpret that to mean that life is a drudgery, and sometimes it feels like it is. I think you could also interpret it to be a reflection of doing our duty: doing things we might not want to do despite anything else we have on our plate. And I think you could reasonably also interpret it to mean doing our duty is the proper thing to do despite those things on our plate, which is slightly different than what the last statement said.
But no matter how you interpret it, I keep coming back to the holistic nature of the thing. It fits together. This book fits with the Proverbs, which fit with the Beatitudes, which reflect the Law and Jewish customs outlined in Exodus through Deuteronomy, which reflect the history of the Jewish people in most of the Old Testament, which is reflected in the letters of the Apostles in the New. Which are inspired by the foundation that is the Gospels. Which is an explanation of God’s unending love. Which is Christ. The whole thing fits together and serves to explain not only our behavior under authority but also our motivations for wanting to behave that way. It’s a law thing, it’s a gospel thing. It’s a tradition thing, it’s an untraditional thing. It’s a human nature thing, and it’s especially a Jesus saves thing.
And no matter how you interpret it, THAT is a very good thing.