The Vanity of Political Power
“I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind” (vv. 15-16).- Ecclesiastes 4:13–16
Political power remains an enticing lure for people around the world. Across the globe, one king replaces another king or entire governmental systems are changed, including their leaders, in political revolutions. Every four years in the United States, billions of dollars are spent by presidential candidates who are vying for the office of chief executive of the nation. The power that high office brings with it is a temptation that many find irresistible.
Yet while we would not want to discount the impact that political leaders have on the world around us, pursuing political power as an end in itself is ultimately done in vain. It is as fleeting as anything else in creation. This is the point of the Preacher in today’s passage. The text presents to us a succession of rulers. First a foolish king who is replaced on the throne by a poor but wise youth, who in turn is forgotten by the generations after him once he dies and his successor takes the throne (Eccl. 4:13–16). One may attain great power in this life, but this power does not go with those who hold it when they die. It is passed on to someone else and the memory of the earlier ruler fades. It is of no lasting value, at least for the one who holds it, for every leader surrenders his authority at his death.
Scripture is filled with stories of foolish kings who believed their position secure and inviolable. Isaiah 36–37 gives us the account of Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, when he sent his army to defeat King Hezekiah of Judah and capture Jerusalem. Sennacherib boasted repeatedly of his position and his might versus the God of Israel. In the end, however, he was defeated and finally killed by his sons when he thought himself to be worshiping in the security of his pagan temple. Christ’s parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13–21 also speaks to the point made in today’s passage. The rich man thought himself secure in his wealth and influence, but he finally lost everything, for he was not “rich toward God.”
Of course, it is possible to be godly and rich or godly and politically powerful, so we should not read the above examples as telling us that only evil, godless people attain wealth and influence. However, from the perspective of this world, godly rulers die and give up their power no less than godless kings. It is better, therefore, to be poor and wise than to attain the heights of political power and believe that one’s wealth, understanding, and strength are forever. Such leaders are only fooling themselves (Eccl. 4:13–16).
Over the centuries, understanding the fleeting nature of political power has helped the church to stand firm in the midst of persecution. When one understands that the rulers of this earth have influence and might only temporarily but that God’s reign is eternal, it is much easier to stand firm in God’s truth when this world demands that we deny it. We are citizens of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” and our faithfulness in suffering carries with it an eternal reward.
Passages for Further Study