Saturday, May 02, 2020

Time and Chance (34)

When we try to get some practical help for daily living from scriptural reflections 3,000 years old, it is obvious we are going to have to do a little bit of thinking: first, about whether these things can be applied to our own situation at all; and secondly, assuming they can be, what reasonable conclusions we might draw from them about our own situation.

A frequent example from the book of Ecclesiastes: the role of the king, and how to deal with him. To the 21st century mind, that might be a fairly obscure scenario. But of course the subject was very much of concern to Solomon when he wrote about it, since he presided over Israel at its most powerful and influential. He observed the comings and goings of his servants, courtiers, and the movers and shakers in Israel. Like everyone, he had good servants, bad servants and every sort in between. He saw which political approaches worked and which didn’t. He was in the best possible position to reinforce the good and deal firmly with evil.

And yet his power was not absolute. A king’s never is. Nor, for that matter, is a president’s or prime minister’s today.

So, despite the many differences in customs and culture, there is plenty in Ecclesiastes we can apply to our own political system and to our own dealings with authority, even though we are no longer ruled by monarchs.

The Deep State

There is a lot of talk in the media today about the Deep State. Wikipedia calls the existence of the Deep State a “conspiracy theory”, and the Left mocks those who believe in it, but there is nothing theoretical about pointing out that bureaucrats, functionaries and jurists almost always have agendas of their own. These agendas may or may not align with those of kings, presidents or prime ministers, and may or may not benefit the people.

In his book Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA, American historian Mark Riebling shows how major news events in the 1960s and ’70s were the fallout from repeated clashes between two American agencies with conflicting agendas, very little of which came to public notice at the time. This was the Deep State in action sixty years ago.

More humorously, the British TV shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister chronicled the interactions of an obstructive but circumspect civil servant and the bumbling politician whose affairs he was assigned to manage. The message of the show was that the Deep State — in this particular manifestation, networks of titled bureaucrats — runs the world, no matter what politicians think or say, and no matter what is actually best for the people who elect them.

Closer to Home

Closer to home, we find the same principle at work in the story of Esther, where Haman the Agagite, right-hand man to King Ahasuerus, decides to use his position to take revenge on a hated enemy by destroying his entire nation. This was not in the interests of either king or kingdom, but Haman pursued his agenda until foiled by the queen. Haman’s job was to do the king’s will, not to manipulate the king into doing his own. That’s the Deep State personified. It’s been around a long, long time.

Again and again in the books of Chronicles and Kings, wicked kings were done away with by the machinations of their most trusted servants. God did not condone this practice, and the insurrectionists were usually put to death for their actions, but the ancient Israelite Deep State served the purpose of keeping the monarchy on track from time to time.

Today, to the extent that judges make rulings which ignore the Constitution or turn it on its ear, and to the extent that agents of the various acronymic institutions do their own thing rather than serving the expressed will of the people, there is a Deep State at work regardless of whether we believe in it or what we might choose to call it. Men have always had a tendency to use power to pursue personal and ideological goals over and above the best interests of the governed, and this is one of the things the Preacher is going to warn us about as we begin our study of Ecclesiastes 8.

Ecclesiastes 8:1-5 — Keeping the King’s Command
“Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
A man’s wisdom makes his face shine,
and the hardness of his face is changed.

I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.”
Who is Like the Wise?

We start with a little rhetoric about the importance of wisdom and its transformative effect on the wise man: “Who is like the wise?” The answer is not too many.

Finding solutions to difficult matters is both pleasurable and a little bit addictive. I am often asked to troubleshoot the failed work of others, and it can be exhilarating to solve a tricky problem nobody else could. There is always the potential for people who can see things others can’t to become egotistical and difficult, but there is also an innocent and honest pleasure in having managed to fix something that desperately needed fixing. Joseph provided this sort of service to Pharaoh in the face of a coming famine: he outlined a logical way that Egypt could be saved rather than destroyed, and his God-given foresight and common sense were so impressive that Pharaoh appointed him to put his own plan into action.

Here the Preacher says dawning understanding has a softening effect on the wise man. The intensity of searching for answers gives way to an appreciation of an elegant solution. For the Christian, this is often the case when we suddenly see the word of God repeatedly proven true in experience, and realize that we have been given the key to a treasure beyond anything we had imagined. It’s cause for a grateful heart.

Wisdom and Civil Service

But on to the unaccountable civil servant and the potential havoc he may wreak in a kingdom, republic or democracy. The first three sentences are not out of place here. Wisdom, or at least the perception of wisdom, plays a major role in the establishment of any bureaucratic machine. The functionaries and advisors of a king are not chosen because they are thought to be idiots. Even if a king promotes his own friends and relatives out of the natural desire to show and receive loyalty, any monarch with the slightest sense of self-preservation exercises his nepotistic tendencies to make sure it is his smartest relatives who rise to the very top. Anything less is an unnecessary risk.

The Preacher tells us that true wisdom on the part of the civil servant is to “keep the king’s command”, and “be not hasty to go from his presence”. That latter phrase requires a little explanation. Servants by the very nature of their jobs must come and go from the king’s presence, and should not delay leaving the king when they are sent on their way. The Preacher is not saying a servant should spend all his time with the king; rather, he is cautioning him not to be hasty in using the king’s command as an excuse to run out unreflectingly and put his own agenda into action. It is quite possible the servant may be pursuing an “evil cause” and may end up just like Haman. A servant’s mandate is not to use the king’s name and conferred authority to further his own purposes, but to “keep the king’s command”. His energies must be devoted to discovering what the king desires and doing precisely that. That is the nature of true servanthood.

Three Possible Reasons

There are several possible reasons for this, depending on how you read the Hebrew. I don’t have a strong opinion about them, and the instruction is the same regardless of the motivation behind obeying it.

One possible reason for obedience is “because of God’s oath to [the king]”, which is how the ESV translates the Hebrew. The Preacher could be thinking of God’s personal promise to him that “I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ ” The promise was conditioned on Solomon “keeping my statutes and my rules” and “doing according to all I have commanded you”. The blessing of Israel depended on doing the will of God, and the servants of the king should do the king’s will rather than their own because it was usually their best shot at doing God’s will and bringing blessing on themselves and their nation.

A second possibility is that the Hebrew actually reads “because of your oath to God”. The suggestion there is that the civil servant, in assuming his position, had made a solemn promise to serve according to the will of the king, just as wives used to take an oath to “love, honor and obey”, and that the servant ought to keep his promise.

Either way, the Preacher points out that an oath has been taken, and that it is not just the king but God one is defying when one pursues one’s own agenda rather than executing the king’s commands to the best of one’s ability.

The third reason for unconditional obedience to the king’s commands is this: the king is “supreme”. Nobody can tell him what to do. You can plot, and sneak, and manipulate all you like, but when you get caught, as Haman found out, it’s the gallows. If you run afoul of a monarch, things will get ugly and you will have no court of appeal. One might think that this would not apply to the civil servants of democratically elected leaders, but Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini found to his chagrin in 2019 that his motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Conte resulted not in the election he had hoped for, but in his own ouster from power. This is still a common problem for functionaries who get too brazen about their opposition to the top man. “When you come at the king, you best not miss.”

No Evil Thing

The Preacher’s final comment on the subject is this: “Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.” Keeping the king’s command, even if it is not to your taste, is always the safest outcome, and certainly the most righteous. In the end, it is the king who will give account to God for his policies, not the bureaucrats who execute them. Thus the responsible servant who does the king’s will knows “no evil thing”. He does not encounter the judgment of those who go their own way. Wisdom will guide him in finding the best and most faithful way to carry out all the king’s commands in good conscience.

We are wise to remember this today. An office reporting structure is not a kingdom, but a mid-level manager’s job, like a civil servant’s, is to implement the policies he has been handed by management. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t use his own head, and that doesn’t mean he should execute orders he believes to be wicked.

It does mean that when he steps out on his own and departs from his instructions, he had best count the cost first.

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