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"MESSAGE FOR MAY 26, 2013"

FROM ECCLESIASTES 8:10-15

This week we jump back into our series of messages from Ecclesiastes.  The author, who calls himself the Preacher and/or Qohelet, returns to a familiar theme as he once again reflects on the many injustices of life under the sun—that is, life without God factored in.  In the section we looked at last time, we were reminded of the Bible’s consistent call for God’s people to submit to those in authority, even those who abuse their power—so long as our submission does not cause us to disobey God.  The author concluded the section by assuring us that those who do abuse their power to the hurt of others will suffer the consequences in this world and/or the next.  This next section is connected to what we talked about last time. 

Beginning with verse 10 Qohelet writes, “10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”

When the Preacher begins this section with, “Then I saw the wicked buried…” in light of what he said in the last section about the wicked receiving their ultimate justice, it would be tempting to think the author is about to say something like, “When those who abused their power were buried their wickedness caught up to them.  Their name quickly faded from memory.  No one attended their funeral—all of their honor had vanished.”  That would carry a sense of justice, but that’s not what he says at all.  He says about these wicked people—these power abusers, “They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things.”  Seeing the wicked buried simply causes the Preacher to more deeply reflect on the injustices of this life as it relates to wicked people.  In fact, he records four truths about the injustices of this life that are apparent in this life under the sun.  His opening sentences seem to indicate that at death, these wicked people are treated as they were in life.  His first point seems to be: In both life and death, the wicked are honored.   He’s not saying this is the way it ought to be, but the way it is in our unjust world.  When Jewish people with social standing died—wicked or not—during this period of history, their burial was not only always proper, the sometimes long funeral procession began at the temple or synagogue.[1]   That would have lent an air of respectability—even reverent honor to the observance of their death.

While they were alive, these wicked people were seen going in and out of the temple—they were outwardly religious and when they died, they were buried out of the temple.  They were like the Pharisees Jesus condemns in Matthew 23.  27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”  Though they lived a wicked life, when they finally die (and the author has already said they frequently live long lives in spite of their wickedness) everyone acts as if the phony moral façade they put on in the temple was really who they were.  At their burial, they are treated as morally excellent, upright people—people who were devoted to God.  When they die in their wickedness, they’re still honored by the people.  It says “they were praised in the city where they had done such things.”  These people who are honoring them know good and well they were wicked, but they honor them just the same.    

This still happens today all the time.  An extreme example of this would be in the Godfather movies.  When one of the Mafioso dies, they bury him out of the church and everyone talks about what a wonderful man this guy was who days before had ordered the assassination of a rival mob boss.  People celebrate them because even though they’re dead, those with power and authority command honor even in their death irrespective of their immorality.  If a mayor or congressman or president or a captain of industry dies, even if they were widely known to be arrogant or crooked or adulterous or abusive, when they die, everyone gathers to celebrate what a great person has departed.  The Preacher’s response to this?  “This is also vanity.”  It makes no sense—it’s without meaning.  But it’s the way it is in our unjust world.

Next, he gives one reason why people choose lives of wickedness.  Verse 11 says, “11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”  That is--because the penalty or consequences of our sins is very seldom immediate, that absence of accountability unleashes our hearts to break the rules or civil regulations or company policies or criminal laws—depending on the context.  We might state this truth this way: The absence of accountability emboldens the sinful heart in its rebellion.[2]  Again, we see this all the time.  Lance Armstrong broke the rules of competitive cycling on performance-enhancement, not because he didn’t know it was wrong, but because he knew they hadn’t developed a good test to detect well-executed blood doping.  There was no accountability so his sinful heart was emboldened to do what he knew was wrong.  Some politicians violate the law and even their own frequently stated ethical convictions, not because they don’t see their hypocrisy in doing so, but because either 1. They don’t believe anyone will catch them or 2. If they are exposed—they don’t really believe the electorate will care enough to hold them accountable.  People cheat on their taxes, not because they’re ignorant of the tax law, but because they think they can outsmart the IRS.  People—like me (at times)—drive over the speed limit, not because we don’t know it’s illegal, but because the chances of getting ticketed are generally remote.

Here’s how this is explained.  At the heart of sin is acting in your own self-interest, independent of God or his authorities.  When we obey laws ONLY because we will be held accountable if we don’t, we’re not showing any godly virtue—we’re just acting in our own self-interest.  If we don’t pad the deductions on our tax returns ONLY because we don’t want to pay the fine if we get caught, we’re simply looking out for ourselves—there’s nothing inherently virtuous about that decision.  If we drive the speed limit ONLY because we fear a ticket, we’re just protecting ourselves.  We’re not doing it as unto the Lord.  First Corinthians 10:31 says, “31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  Obedience that honors God is what we perform because we love God and want to glorify him.  And God knows whether we’re obeying for his glory or because we simply want to avoid punishment.  One reason why God allows for this delayed accountability is—he is merciful.  Part of God’s mercy is his withholding from us the consequences our sins deserve. 

God is merciful.  Exodus 34 says, “6 “…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”   Psalm 103:10 says, “10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”  One reason God allows some wicked people to live so long or not immediately receive punishment for their sins isn’t because he doesn’t know what evil people they are.  He may be withholding his judgment because he’s showing his mercy.  Peter says, “9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” [2 Peter 3:9]  What may very well seem to be gross injustice when we see wicked people not receiving what they deserve may be God’s mercy as he patiently waits for them to repent.  One implication of that for us is that when God allows us to see and perhaps even know these people who practice great wickedness but have not yet received what their sins or crimes deserved, we should pray for them to respond to God’s clear mercy in their lives.  We should pray that the kindness of God’s mercy would lead them to repentance.  When we’re frustrated or discouraged as we see people live in great wickedness but who seem to be coated with Teflon and have escaped accountability so often, we should be amazed at God’s mercy.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want justice done—it simply means that we should temper that desire with an understanding of God’s mercy. 

In verses 12-13, we come across a third truth about this world’s injustice.  “12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.”  These verses are very difficult because in verse 12 he speaks of a sinner prolonging his life while in the next verse, the text says he will NOT prolong his days.  The scholars are all over the place here, but I think it’s best explained by having the first verse describe a hypothetical situation whereas verse 13 describes the typical reality as observed in the wisdom literature.  In other words, verse 12 says in effect, “Even if a wicked person were to live what was for them the best possible life—doing as much evil as they desire—a hundred times--and living a long prosperous life in his wickedness, he is still far worse off than those who fear God.”  The implication for those who fear God is—don’t envy the wicked and don’t believe the lie that they’re getting away with something.  The main truth is: Though it may appear differently in this world, the righteous are ultimately vindicated and the unrighteous will be punished.

The key concept in these verses is the fear of God.  The righteous will be vindicated because they have it and the unrighteous will be judged because they lack it.  There are many ways to explain the fear of God, but I like the way Michael Eaton puts it.  He says the fear of God is “the awe and holy caution that arises from the realization of the greatness of God.”[3]  When you have encountered God in his glory and splendor and holiness, it engenders an awe and holy caution where sin is concerned.   This definition is all the more accurate when you read the Preacher’s description of the fear of God.  He says, “…it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him.”  In other words, part of fearing God is living with the awareness that you are always living before him.  The ongoing awareness that God is present and watching you contributes to a healthy fear of God.  People who KNOW that God is with them in the bedroom behave differently than those who have cordoned God off from their intimate lives.  People who live with an awareness that God is sitting next to them in the front seat, don’t engage in road rage.  People who abide in God (another way of putting it) in the office will not pad their expense accounts or call in sick when they’re not. If a believer is living in some kind of habitual sin, they do their best to stamp out any awareness of his presence because it only gets in their way.  If we’re in sin and we aren’t able to shut him out of our lives, we live in the misery of his constant conviction.  As David says in Psalm 32, “day and night his hand is heavy upon me.”  Fearing God and living in sin don’t go together.

Qohelet assures us that even in the best case scenario for the wicked, “it will not be well with [them].”  In addition to their ultimate punishment, Proverbs 13:15 says, “15 Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin.”  Other translations say, “…the way of the transgressor is hard.”  The Hebrew word translated “hard” literally means “an enduring rut.”  Living wickedly may look like it’s a party, but sin has consequences that make it hard as well—an enduring rut.  Drug addiction, unhealthy relationships, sexually transmitted disease, always having to work to cover up your lies and feeling isolated and alone are enduring ruts and the wicked live in those ruts.  We know sin enslaves people from what Jesus tells us in 8:34 “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”  Living in sin extracts a heavy a toll on a person in this life.  Also, even though we all know scoundrels who live a very long life, the wisdom literature tells us repeatedly that it’s predominantly the righteous God blesses with many years of life.  That truth is not as evident today in our culture when excellent health care is available to everyone.  The wicked do not fear God—they live and act as if God is either absent or indifferent to their sin.  At their worst, the wicked have hardened their heart toward God so severely that they don’t care if he exists or what he thinks about what they do.  They are totally deceived.  They don’t live with a conscious knowledge of the truth of Hebrews 9:27, “27 And …it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,”   

Having assured us that justice will ultimately be done; the Preacher reminds us of the sad reality so often conveyed in the Bible’s wisdom literature.  Verse 14 says,
“14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.”  He states what is obvious to anyone who has lived much of life.  That is—often, the righteous seem to get what the wicked deserve and the wicked seem to get what the righteous deserve.  Philip Ryken does a good job of illustrating this point.  He cites several examples of this injustice.  “Cruel dictators drive out free governments.  The man who robs investors of their inheritance gets a huge bonus, while hardworking people lose their jobs and their homes.  Suffering pastors are put in prison, while the persecutors of the church grow strong in their cruel power…the student who cheated on a difficult exam gets an A, but all you get is a C-.  The worker who stabbed you in the back gets the promotion, while you remain stuck at the same pay grade.  Or you make a commitment to chastity, and although you are still single, the girl who throws herself at men gets a ring on her finger and a long white dress.”  That’s often the way life is--all of us have experienced the injustices of living in a fallen world. 

For those who have a very strong sense of justice—it REALLY bothers us when, to paraphrase Jerry Reed, the bad guy gets the gold mine and the good guy gets the shaft.  In the face of these injustices, the only things that keep us from becoming horribly cynical at times is the awareness of God’s ultimate vindication of the righteous and the fact that, even when we get the shaft, it’s a sovereign God’s shaft and he has good in it for us.  In the midst of all this talk about those who are righteous and those who are wicked, there’s a central truth in the Bible we mustn’t ever forget that is so helpful in keeping us from cynicism and disgust.  

If we take a gospel-driven view of the wicked and the righteous, our attitudes can be far more sympathetic toward the wicked.  This is the case because at the level of the gospel, there are no righteous people.  Romans 3:10 is clear.  Paul says, “10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;”  No one lives a righteous life and none of us deserve anything good from God.  Even the best of us in our best moments can give God nothing better than the filthy rags of our own self-generated righteousness.  John Piper in his book “50 Reasons Jesus Came to Die” masterfully explains this.  He says, “What a folly it is to think that our good deeds may one day out weigh our bad deeds…There is no salvation by balancing the records.  There is salvation only by canceling the records…”  The reason for this, quoting Piper is, “Even our good deeds are defective because we don’t honor God in the way we do them.  Do we do our good deeds in joyful dependence on God with a view to making known his supreme worth?  It is folly to think our good deeds will outweigh our bad deeds before God.  Without Christ-exalting faith, our deeds will signify nothing but rebellion.”[4]

That means that unless our bad deeds (which are all of them in some sense) are canceled or blotted out we have no hope.  Thankfully, our record of bad deeds has been “nailed to the cross” according to Colossians chapter two.  Jesus took our sin upon him and in HIM, our sins were nailed to the cross to secure our forgiveness.  In addition, Jesus made us righteous with his own righteousness by cutting and pasting his righteousness onto those who have placed their trust in him.  He not only pays the massive debt of our wretched sin, he gives us the vast riches of his righteousness.  Someone who has no righteousness of their own, but only that which Christ has given has no business condemning the wicked.  It’s easy to look down our nose on the crooks, cheats and philanderers in the news if we see them as beneath us.  But the ground is level at the cross and we all stand equally condemned apart from Christ’s saving work.  The only thing that separates us from “the wicked” of this world is the utterly undeserved grace of God.  When we remember that, it’s much easier to show mercy to the wicked than to condemn those who are doing the same things we once did and perhaps still do at times.

In verse 15, Qohelet tells us by implication that we shouldn’t obsess over this world’s injustice.  It’s easy to become cynical-especially in our scandal-laden society.  It’s tempting to become so discouraged by the downward moral trajectory of our country we see manifest every day in the news, that we forget to do what the Preacher counsels in verse 15.  That is, “15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”  We’ve heard this counsel to enjoy life at least five times up to this point in Ecclesiastes.  He’s not telling us to bury our head in the sand or “tune out” to the evil and injustice around us.  Ignorance is not bliss and that kind of escapism is not taught in the Bible.  But in the face of all the injustices, we must not let them—whether in our family, our job or our government overwhelm us or bring us down to discouragement.  Our fretting about it or obsessing over it won’t change anything anyway.  Qohelet’s point is that we should enjoy life and the blessings of God rather than allow the wickedness we see make us cynical or bitter or simmer in self-righteousness.  Life is too short and we know that even in the midst of the injustices of this world God is working out his plan.  We can trust him in the midst of evil to bring good out of it for his Name and for our sake.

As we close, let’s think about a couple of points of application for us.  First, do we live in the fear of God or fear before him?  There are areas where my heart is so cold to God that I have managed to stop remembering that he is right there with me when I sin.  We must pray that God in his grace would remind us of his abiding presence in our lives—that we would recover that sense of caution toward sin that a healthy fear of God promotes.   Do we hold him in awe and reverence?  One way to know is to ask yourself, “Am I cautious about sin—is there a healthy inner repulsion from sin or am I regarding it more lightly than I once did?”  Many in the church have, for all intents and purposes, allowed the glorious truth that God loves us to cancel out the truth that “our God is a consuming fire” who is with us every time we sin.  Have you allowed the knowledge of God’s love for you to overwhelm your fear of him?  That’s easy to do in our current church culture, but that’s not the gospel and it doesn’t reflect the titanic Biblical truths about God’s holiness and majesty. 

Second, do we in our self-righteousness look with disgust upon the wicked?  As wicked people ourselves apart from Christ, we are indebted to cry out for God’s mercy on the wicked so that they may know the same joy of forgiveness and transformation that we do who, by his grace trust in him.  It’s so easy for us to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11.  “11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”   It’s far better to pray as the tax collector prayed.  “13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”   May God give us the grace to live with a constant awareness of his presence and in constant praise for his undeserved mercy and live in the midst of a wicked and unjust generation with joy as we daily experience God’s manifold grace.


[1] Gredanius, Sydney—Preaching Christ through Ecclesiastes, electronic edition.

[2] The wording here is borrowed from Winter, J. (2005) Opening up Ecclesiastes.  Opening Up Commentary (111-116).  Leominster:  Day One Publications.

[3] As quoted in Ryken, Ecclesiastes, Crossway, p. 196.

[4] Piper, John, “The Passion of Jesus Christ’ later retitled, “50 Reasons Jesus Came to Die,” Crossway, p. 32.

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