FROM ECCLESIASTES 3:16-22
This week in our series from the book of Ecclesiastes, the author or “the Preacher” departs from the previous 18 verses where writes of a world where God is ruling things which enables him to present a positive, hopeful worldview. A couple of verses into the text this morning, he returns to a much more cynical perspective because he will once more look at things without God in the picture. This godless perspective is what he calls life “under the sun.” As we move back into this world without God, the Preacher also returns to the topic that for him is the formidable obstacle to finding meaning in life. That is the reality of death. Repeatedly in this book the author asks—“If we’re all going to die, what possible meaning could life hold? It’s all vanity.” He’s already addressed this topic in chapter two and the repetition here tells us that this is a very important question for us to contemplate as well. As we saw in 2:16, he teaches that death is the great equalizer between the wise and the fool. The wise man lives responsibly and accumulates wealth and stature, while the fool wastes his life in dissipation, but in the end he says, “…How the wise dies just like the fool!” In the end, they both meet the same fate—in death, both lives are drained of any meaning. In the text for this morning, he speaks even more boldly of the equalizing power of death. Death not only flattens the differences between the wise man and the fool, it also equalizes humans and animals or “beasts.”
He ultimately arrives at this topic of beasts and death by way of a seemingly unrelated one and that is the topic of injustice. He says in verse 16, “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.” Although he’ll briefly return to a God-centered perspective in the next verse, notice that here the Preacher writes of a godless, life “under the sun.” His contention is--in this world without God, there IS no absolute or ultimate justice and he heightens this truth by saying this is true even in a place where you would expect justice—a court of law. That is what he means when he speaks of “the place of justice” and “the place of righteousness.” He underscores his contention that there’s no justice in this world by stating that even the legal courts are bankrupt of any kind of ultimate justice.
This is a bit ironic since this man was a former king of Israel and at one time oversaw the Jewish legal system. Evidently, he knew from his own interaction with the legal system that even with a good judge, jury and attorneys, there is in this fallen world no guarantee justice will be done. It’s probably safe to say that the Hebrew courts were in many ways inferior to our courts. Even with all its flaws, most of us would agree that if we were in legal trouble, or were accused of criminal activity, we’d have a better chance of finding justice here than in any other country. I don’t think the Hebrew courts could boast that when the state is prosecutor, it had to prove the charges beyond doubt. I wouldn’t bet on having an absolute right to counsel there as we do, or in many cases, a guaranteed right to appeal if you lose your case. However, as fair as our legal system tries to be, on this fallen planet, there are good liars, partial judges, incompetent witnesses and inept lawyers which means perfect justice is far from a certainty. After noting this reality in verse 16, the Preacher gets to his first point in verse 17.
For this these next two verses the author very briefly brings God into the picture before moving back to a world “under the sun” in verse 19. If you don’t keep up with these rapid switches in perspective, you’ll miss the meaning of the text. Verse 17 says, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked…” Qohelet teaches us that: Our only hope for ultimate justice is with God. This truth is taught throughout the Bible beginning in Genesis. When Abraham pleads for justice in the case of Sodom, he says to the Lord in verse 25, “25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The answer to that question—as God proved by sparing Lot and his family while destroying the wicked city of Sodom is, “yes.” Much of the time however, God’s perfect justice will not be seen in this life. Qohelet alludes to this in the second half of verse 17, “for there is a time for every matter and for every work.” As we’ve seen before, like everything else--God’s justice is in his time, not ours and sometimes we must wait until the next life to see ultimate justice done.
In these verses, the Preacher assumes there will be an afterlife of some sort when God’s final justice will be handed out and everything will be made right. The Old Testament doesn’t teach in much detail about this afterlife the Preacher alludes to, but one exception is in Daniel chapter 12. He is prophesying of the end times and says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The Preacher’s view assumes this is the case and in verse 17 and he says this time of complete justice will come in God’s timing, not ours. Notice the difference the presence of God makes in the Preacher’s attitude. He’s wise enough to know there’s no guarantee of justice in this life. But he doesn’t despair over that because he knows with God in the equation, ultimately justice will be done. One of the most basic lessons of Ecclesiastes is--the presence of God injects hope into this world’s hopelessness. God is the answer to all this world’s most difficult questions. The God of the Bible alone makes sense of this fallen world. Without God, wise observers of life look at the injustices of this world and know they can’t offer any promise of future justice for those who have been savaged by the injustices of this world. Without God, if someone robs you and kills you, that’s an unfortunate twist of fate—too bad for you. With a God-informed world view, the Preacher kindles hope for absolute justice in God’s time.
In verse 18 he makes two significant shifts. First, he returns to a world without God and second, he moves from the topic of injustice to the reality of death. He reflects on the injustices of this world and says, “18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” This is the Qohelet of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes! Verse 18 is the transitional sentence that takes us from his discussion of injustice to his discussion of beasts and death. It’s a pretty long leap between legal injustices on the one hand, and on the other, the beastly qualities of fallen humans. How does he get from one to the other? First, we must understand that this leap wouldn’t have been as long for Qohelet as it is for us. For a person in the Ancient Near East, it would have been much easier to associate injustice and beasts that succumb to death. In the west today-- except for the nature channels, we aren’t confronted with the cruel injustices that dominate the world of beasts.
For instance, we don’t see things like a pride of lions killing and eating two new-born water buffaloes and their mother. We don’t often see the larger predator toying with--tormenting his helpless prey—until he gets bored and kills and eats it. In many cases, the helpless prey has no chance—and there’s something within us that says, “That doesn’t seem fair.” That grasshopper was just minding his own business—not bothering anyone when that praying Mantis ambushed him and tore his head off. The prey animal is just not losing a contest of some kind, he’s losing his life—cubs will die of starvation or predation because a wild beast ate their mother. Biologists can objectify it for us by reminding us that this “food chain”—a nice, clinical term for all the carnage that goes on in nature--is necessary to maintain the ecosystem. But that truth doesn’t change the violent and cruel injustices that permeate nature. The bigger animal doesn’t just steal the food of the smaller animal, the smaller animal BECOMES food of the bigger animal. In many cases, the smaller animal has little if any chance of ending up anywhere else but in the bowels of the larger animal where his proteins are extracted from his dead flesh. Even today, we link these two seemingly different worlds of law and the animal kingdom. Anyone ever hear of “the law of the jungle?”
There are some clear parallels between the law of the jungle and what happens in court. One of the laws of the jungle is—“every man for himself.” When the lion chases after the herd of zebras, there is very little sacrificial behavior going on among the zebras. If one zebra can run in a way that places another zebra between himself and the lion, then that’s just too bad for the exposed zebra—let him escape on his own—every zebra for himself! Today, within the judicial system we call that, “turning state’s evidence to cop a plea.” One defendant squeals on a bigger fish to expose him to prosecution in order to get off or pull a lighter sentence. “Every man for himself.” Another law of the jungle is “the survival of the fittest.” In a legal context, we could put it—“he who can hire the best lawyer wins.” That’s not always the case of course, but it’s not uncommon—the injustices of nature are also seen in a different form in the courtroom. Finally, “kill, or be killed” is a law of the jungle. In our system of jurisprudence, at times defendants will blame someone who they know is innocent of the crime they have committed. In order for the guilty to stay out of jail, he’s willing to lie to a jury, sending an innocent man to jail in order to spare himself. That’s “kill or be killed.” This connection between beasts and the injustices in the courts helps us understand verse 18. “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing [or, manifesting what’s inside] them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.” God uses our imperfect and sometimes shamefully unjust legal system to show us that in the end—we’re beasts and even in the court room, sometimes the law of the jungle prevails.
The Preacher moves from this truth to his second point which is: The injustices of this world point to the greatest weakness of humanity—our mortality. Moving from injustice to beasts is a big leap, but it’s a very small step for the Preacher to move from the beast-like quality of humanity to the topic of death. He says in verse 19, “19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.” In this life, we share our final fate, death--with the wart-hog or the slug. When humans die, they aren’t less dead than animals. Humans are equally dead and their dead bodies assume room temperature just as animals do. If we didn’t cremate them or pump them full of chemicals, they would putrefy at the same rate as animal carcasses. We have breath in our lungs that is necessary for survival as do all land animals. If that breath leaves and doesn’t return, we die just as certainly as an elephant or a humming bird. At this level of mortality, we are like the beasts.
This truth doesn’t cancel out the fact that humanity alone is created in the image of God and is therefore uniquely valuable to God. Jesus says in Matthew 10:31, “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Just because life leaves our bodies in the same manner a sparrow dies, that doesn’t mean that sparrows are our equal. This is where the radical animal rights movement has gets it wrong. They see the physiological realities we share with the rest of the animal kingdom and wrongly assume that therefore, humans and animals are of equal value. Humans are of infinitely more value than animals, but that doesn’t stop the Bible from making this obvious comparison between man and beast in other places. Psalm 49 says in verse 12, 12 Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.” Qohelet says of man and beast, “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” There are many texts that speak of death as “returning to dust.” Psalm 90:3 says of God, “3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” There are several others and they all flow from the creation account where God forms Adam from the dust of the earth. After Adam’s sin in the garden, God curses him in Genesis 3:19. “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Anyone who has seen cremains will tell you that we’re dust. In that limited sense, both humans and animals all go to one place. The truth the Preacher is bringing out is simply—the fact that animals and humans share the experience of death is an indicator of how weak we are in our fallen mortality. In one of the defining experiences of our lives—our deaths, we’re just like animals. And the beastly injustices of this world, even in the courtroom, remind us of our beastly qualities.
A final point is in verses 21-22. Qohelet writes, “21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” The Preacher’s final point is: Apart from truth-driven faith in Christ, the best we can do in this life is “carpe diem.” Carpe Diem means “seize the day” and its fuller meaning is revealed in the extended version of the Latin phrase. I’m told by a reliable source that the extended version of the phrase is “carpe diem—quam minimum credula postero” and that translates into 'Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future” Live for today only—the future should have no impact on what you do today. Apart from God, that’s the best we can do in this life. The reason the Preacher tells us not to let our future impact our present is because of the doubt he voices in verse 21 about what happens to people after death. “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beats goes down into the earth?” If you’re not certain about what happens to you after you die, it only makes sense to live for today? The problem is--we’ve already seen from verse 17 that the Preacher assumes God will judge people after they die. So, why does he express doubt about that here just four verses later? Again, we must see that the Preacher is writing from two different contexts here. When God is in the picture as he is in verse 17, there is comfort in knowing that this world’s injustices will be righted after this life is over. However, here in verse 21, he’s fully shifted back to a godless worldview and within that worldview, there’s no evidence of life after death. In that godless context, he’s quite right to ask, “Who knows…” what will happen to us after we die?
Belief in an afterlife of any kind cannot be based on empirical evidence. You can’t see, hear or measure an afterlife. It’s a matter of faith. That doesn’t make life after death any less real, it simply means that you arrive at the conclusion through faith in the truth of Scripture. Without a truth-driven faith in Christ, why wouldn’t you just “‘seize the day” in life? This matter of whether human spirits will go up and animal spirits go down touches on the topic of whether our dead pets will be waiting for us in heaven. When I’ve previously informed certain people there’s no solid Biblical hope that we will see “Fido” or “Checkers” in heaven, they have become upset with me. So, I won’t be mentioning that truth here.
In this context of no assured hope of an afterlife, Qohelet closes with a question. “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” The implication of the question is--no one will be escorting you to heaven to give you a sneak peak of it before you get there. Qohelet had clearly not been watching Oprah when she had on her show people who’ve had near-death experiences and come back to tell us about them. Those people really do think—to use the Preacher’s phrasing, they have been brought “to see what will be after them.” Many report that as a result of their experience, they no longer fear death. Don’t be fooled. Many of those near-death experiences can be explained biologically and some can even be reproduced with the right drugs. What doesn’t fall into those categories will either be explained when we understand the brain better, or it’s a deception from Satan. Satan—who “appears as an angel of light” would love to convince people that after death—there’s nothing but light and warmth and euphoria regardless how you have lived, or what you believe. These people who’ve had near-death experiences will one day actually die and unless they know Christ--sadly, they are in for the most horrific surprise imaginable.
As we close, here are two points of application. First, we must regularly remind ourselves of our mortality. The Preacher spends a lot of time in this book contemplating his death and that is a good thing. As we’ve said before, we live in a culture that does everything possible to anesthetize us from the reality of our own mortality. In addition to the foolish hope people derive from near-death experiences, there is the entire culture that downplays death. People don’t die any more, they simply pass away. Coffins are now caskets. Dead people are buried in cemeteries, not graveyards. The vehicle that has been universally associated with death—the hearse is giving way to the much more discreet SUV. Most people under 50 are much more likely to identify the undertaker as a professional wrestler than with someone who takes care of dead people and their families. Our post-Christian culture obscures the painful reality of death as a coping mechanism because they don’t have any hope and so they run from death. Some run from it by trying to laugh it off. Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  A post-Christian culture like ours is forced to resort to a belief suspended in mid-air—really a wish--that death is not the end and there will be a good life waiting for us after we die. In death-challenged culture, it’s even more important for believers to think about their own mortality.
One of Jonathan Edward’s life resolutions was, "Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.” That may seem grossly morbid to us, but it’s not inconsistent with the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90. In verse 12 he prays, “12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” He’s asking God to show us the brevity of our lives so we can develop wise priorities. In Psalm 39:4, David is even more explicit. “4 “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” Do you ever pray that way? If we all prayed that way, I daresay we would seek to spend more of our lives doing things that count for eternity, rather than “having fun”—which seems to be the highest goal of much of our culture. For many evangelicals, there is only one notion associated with their death. That is—that is when I go to heaven. That is NOT the impact Moses or David’s mortality had on them. They want God to impress their mortality on their conscience so that they will live differently. We should think often of death and those thoughts should compel us to number our days—know that they are limited and stop wasting time with things that won’t matter to anyone the moment our heart stops. That’s why we should think about our deaths. It’s no accident that another of Jonathan Edward’s resolutions for his life is: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.” Resolving to use your time in the most profitable way should be the result of regularly contemplating your death. Thoughts of our own mortality should not depress us; they should spur us on to live more zealously for Christ. These sections in Ecclesiastes on death should remind us to think often of our mortality.
Second and finally, we must make certain we know where we will spend eternity. Qohelet reminds us that under God, there will be ultimate justice and in a world filled with injustice in and out of the courtroom, that should comfort our hearts. But the sword of justice cuts two ways. It’s not just God’s vengeance on the injustices of others, but also on all us sinners and we’ve all sinned because we were born with sinful hearts—hearts that want to go our own way. The Bible says, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Our sinful hearts don’t want God as our King—we want to be our own king—running our lives the way we think best. That’s the essence of sin and it’s for that independence from God that he sentences people to an eternal hell. The good news is that God made a way for us to have new hearts that will want to submit to him as our King. He sent his Son to this world to make for himself a holy people. In order to do that, he had to do the work necessary to forgive our sins so they would not be counted against us. He also had to work to make us righteous—good and acceptable to God. He accomplished both of those works by dying on a cross. When he was on the cross, in ways I don’t understand, he took my sin upon himself. The Bible says he actually became sin for me. “21 For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus paid a death penalty for my sin he never owed, so that I could spend eternity with
him in a heaven I never deserved. He stood in for me and God punished
him for my sin. That
means my criminal record against him has been wiped clean--I am forgiven of all my sin. But
he not only took my sin and put it on Jesus, he also took Jesus’ his perfect righteousness—good enough to make
me deserve heaven—and he put it on me. Because
he was willing to do that, in God’s sight, I’m as righteous as Jesus because I have his own righteousness. Jesus
bore my sin and I bear his righteousness. The
best news is—God will give this to anyone as a free gift. The
Bible says, “23
wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
All that’s necessary for you to have
this gift is to stop trusting in your own goodness to get you into heaven—it never will—and begin placing your
trust in Jesus Christ and what he did for you on the cross for sin. If
you’ll trust in Jesus, he’ll give you a new heart. You’ll
increasingly want to do what he says and you can know joy in this life and eternal bliss in heaven after you die—NO
DOUBT ABOUT IT!
And, as we’ve
been reminded today, unless Jesus comes back, we’re all going to die. May
God give us the grace to live every day of these mortal lives for his glory and our joy.
 As cited in Ryken, p. 104
Page last modified on 12/17//2012
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