Have you ever marvelled—or stood in despair—at life’s injustices? A wealthy businessman robs investors of their inheritance and receives a huge bonus, while the hardworking single mother loses her job. Faithful, gospel-preaching pastors are thrown into prison while persecutors of the church prosper in their opposition to the gospel. The student who cheated on that difficult exam gets an A while you, who studied the last two weeks into the early hours of the morning, have only a C to show for your efforts. A fellow employee stabs you in the back and receives a promotion while you sit on the same salary you received three years ago. You commit to God’s plan for premarital chastity and find yourself unmarried (though longing for marriage) in your late thirties, while the girl who flirted and threw herself at every guy she saw walks the aisle in a long white dress in her mid-twenties.
Oh, the injustice of it all! When you seemingly stagnate in your commitment to God’s truth while those who blatantly disregard God’s rules prosper, you might be tempted to ask, “What’s the use?”
As Solomon reflected on the life lessons that he had learned, he felt the same frustration. As he reflected on the appropriate response to human government and the reality of death (8:1–9), he paused to consider the seeming prosperity of the wicked. In Ecclesiastes 8:10–15, he wrestles with the problem of injustice. In these verses, we learn about the problem of injustice, we hear an answer to injustice, and we consider an appropriate response to injustice.
The Problem of Injustice
Death is a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes. Time and again, Solomon returns to the reality of human mortality and exhorts his readers to live wisely in light of it.
But as he reflected once again on the reality of death, Solomon “saw the wicked buried” (v. 10). Perhaps he saw a funeral procession pass by. Perhaps he actually attended a funeral. Whatever the case, it gave him pause to reflect on the problem of injustice. He offers four examples of injustice that appear problematic in the presence of a perfectly just God.
The Wicked are Praised
First, Solomon observed that the wicked are frequently praised. If you have ever attended a funeral where the eulogy did not match the reality of the deceased’s character, you know Solomon’s burden in v. 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.”
Think back to the examples that I mentioned above. Does it not frustrate you when someone who is obviously corrupt seems to prosper? Do you not grieve when poor Christians are driven from their villages and prevented from building houses on their own land while their persecutors receive the praise of the community? Do you not flinch when cheaters and backstabbers prosper?
It is bad enough when we see these things out in the unbelieving world, but there is something more sinister here: The “wicked” of whom Solomon writes “used to go in and out of the holy place.” These were not rank unbelievers. They were religious people, respected in their community. The devout saw through their hypocrisy, but so many others praised them. Think of the prosperity gospel preacher who so obviously preaches a deceptive message yet gains a large and vocal following. Think of the high profile preacher who is disqualified from ministry for unfaithfulness in his marriage but quickly moves to another town to plant a new church, which draws people in droves. Think about the popular evangelist or apologist whose gross moral failure comes out in the public eye and yet his followers stringently defend. Or consider a biblical illustration.
How do you feel when you read the story of Hannah and Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1? For all her sincere devotion and her fervent prayers, Hannah remained childless. Peninnah, who was part of a devoutly religious family, had children—and she rubbed it in Hannah’s face. What is your emotional response to each of those women when you read that account? Who is the villain of the story: Hannah or Peninnah? Do we not grieve with Hannah? And do we not rejoice when God answers the prayer of her heart and Peninnah vanishes from the biblical record? How do you think you would respond to a sermon in which Peninnah is painted is the hero and Hannah the villain?
On the other hand, does it not just grate us when we see people—particularly religious people—who ignore or contradict or disobey God’s word and seem to get away with it? There is something in the human spirit that responds viscerally to such injustice. No one rejoices when the bad guy comes out on top. At least not in the real world. We all share Solomon’s frustration. What’s the use?
Justice is Delayed
A second evidence of injustice that Solomon observed was the delay of justice. “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (v. 11).
In the United States this year, three criminal executions have taken place. Lisa Marie Montgomery was executed sixteen years after her crime; Corey Johnson 29 years after his offence; and Dustin Higgs 25 years after his. Seven more death row inmates are scheduled for execution this year. On average, they have spent 24 years in prison awaiting the execution of their sentence.
But let’s bring this closer to home. Is it not true that we live in a country that is not known for the speedy execution of justice? South Africa has some of the most robust laws in the world but the enforcement of those laws remains something of a joke. Violent crime abounds precisely because criminals don’t expect to be apprehended—and, even if they are, there’s a good chance that they will escape any form of meaningful justice.
If we are honest, we might admit our own guilt in this. Perhaps not to the same degree, but there’s a good chance that that speeding ticket will just go away if you leave it long enough. How long has government threatened action against non-payers of etolls? Nobody really expects anything to come of those threats. Indeed, when justice is delayed, our hearts are set to persist with injustice. What’s the use of promising justice when the promise is delivered so slowly that sinners are set to continue in their evil ways?
The Godless Prosper
Solomon’s third example of injustice has to do with the prosperity of the godless. “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” (v. 12). We will come back to the second part of the verse, but notice Solomon’s frustration that “a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life.”
If the wages of sin is death, why do sinners not die immediately when they sin? Why does justice so often delay? Why does God not strike down his enemies with lightning in a powerful display of sovereign vindication? It seems as if sinners can carry on endlessly without consequence. When the sinner is caught, justice is slow. That’s frustrating enough but, even worse, sinners are often never caught.
A cursory Wikipedia search reveals 82 pages dedicated to different unapprehended serial killers. Some will never be identified. Unsolved murders abound in our country. Investigations into house burglaries rarely produce any results. One often gets the sense that the officers assigned to investigate crimes are bored with them and don’t really expect to get anywhere with the investigation. What’s the use of having a criminal justice system if criminals are not apprehended?
What about the injustice you face in your family, at work, or at school? Why is injustice not quickly spotted for what it is and put to an end? What’s the use of doing right if the wrongdoers seem to prosper?
Justice is Reversed
Solomon seems to get drearier and drearier in his assessment of things. As if it is not bad enough that justice is delayed (v. 11), sometimes justice is never even seen (v. 12). Worse still, justice is sometimes reversed: “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” (v. 14). Vanity of vanities!
Recently, Gate, a man in Laos, and his wife converted to Christianity. When his faith was discovered, his parents and village leaders drove him, his wife, and their young child from the village. Gate owns a plot of land in a nearby village. He went there and began to build a house, but when village leaders learned of his faith they threatened him and his family if he did not stop the construction. This young Christian family now has nowhere to live and only rice to eat.
On the other hand, their persecutors live comfortable lives and are praised by the villagers for rooting out the evil from among them. What’s the use of following God if that’s the outcome?
Do you sense Solomon’s frustration? Do you share it?
We must not think that God sits aloof to all of this. Indeed, God knows far more intimately the problem of injustice than we might care to think. In fact, God has experienced these problems firsthand in the person of Jesus Christ.
Consider how the crowds of Jewish faithfuls praised the religious leaders and called for Jesus’ death.
Consider how the bystanders mocked him when he was on the cross, calling for him to come down from the cross. He could have done that and vindicated himself, but it would be forty years before his vindication to the Jewish authorities was openly displayed in the destruction of the temple.
Consider how the godless leaders who secured Jesus’ execution prospered, even as they relentlessly persecuted his followers and blasphemed his name, while he died as a criminal and as accursed by God.
Consider the vivid reversal of justice in Jesus’ death, as violent criminal Barabbas was released and innocent Jesus took his place on that cross.
Never think that God does not know what it means to suffer injustice.
The Answer to Injustice
Solomon does not leave his readers wallowing in the mire of injustice. As he wrestles with it, he offers an answer: “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. 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” (vv. 12–13).
The answer to injustice is faith. It is faith in ultimate justice. Solomon does not explain precisely how ultimate justice will come about, but he knows that it will. In the end, there will be a distinction between “those who fear God” and “the wicked.” And there will be this distinction because the same Jesus who experienced such grave injustice will see to it that justice is ultimately done.
Jesus pointed to the reality of this final justice in the Olivet Discourse:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
You see, there is a promise of ultimate justice, which radically alters our view of the temporal injustice we see in this world. Strangely, that final justice is only possible because of the reality of injustice. Solomon considered it “vanity” when he saw righteous people who experienced the fate of the wicked and wicked people who experienced the fate of the righteous. We understand his frustration, but let us never forget that our only hope in life and death is the truth that a righteous man experienced the fate of the wicked so that we, wicked men and women, can experience the fate of that righteous man.
Jesus did not deserve to die, for he never sinned. But he took the wages of our sin upon himself so that we can experience the benefits of the eternal life that he offers to all who will repent of their sins and trust him for forgiveness and cleansing. Jesus is the answer to injustice.
The Response to Injustice
How do we respond to this talk of injustice? Remember that Solomon is writing as one “under the sun.” He assumes in his writing that there is nothing beyond this life and therefore no eternal justice to correct temporal injustice. With that mindset, he writes, “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better 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” (v. 15).
If there is no hope of eternal justice, just enjoy life to the best of your ability here, because it’s all we have. There is nothing more to come—no eternal right to correct all those temporal wrongs. William Provine was an American historian and evolutionary biologist. Summarising his worldview, which had no room for eternal justice, he wrote,
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life…. Since we know that we are not going to live after we die, there is no reward for suffering in this world. You live and you die.
If that’s the case, then find all the joy and meaning you can under the sun. And curse the darkness while you’re doing it.
But if there’s more, it changes your outlook on life. Lewis de Marolles was a French Protestant who was imprisoned in 1685 for his faith. For years, he was tormented and promised freedom if only he would renounce his faith. But he wrote, “I am persuaded that all states and conditions in which it shall please him to put me are those states in which he judges I shall glorify him better than in an infinite number of others which he might allot me.” In other words, your current circumstances, no matter how unjust or adverse are the best circumstances for you—because even your most adverse and unjust circumstances are making you more like Jesus Christ. And there is nothing better than that.
So, Christian, as you survey the landscape of injustice, be persuaded that it is the best landscape that Christians can traverse, because it is in that landscape that we are made most like Christ and it is a landscape that will one day give way to glorious and eternal justice.