Stuart Chase - 22 Nov 2020
Vain Justice (Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:3)
Most of us love a good story with a satisfactory ending. Whether the story is verbalised, written, or portrayed on screen, we find it satisfying to read of complicated events neatly wrapped up in a well thought-out ending.
When I was in matric, my class was required at one point to bring a novel to school to read during one of our free study periods. I forgot about this requirement until I left the house that morning. As I headed out the door, I grabbed the nearest novel I could find and rushed off to school.
When our reading period arrived, we had to show our novel to the teacher. I pulled it out of my bag and, while the teacher made her way around the class, read the blurb on the back of the book. The summary filled me with a sense of foreboding dread:
Every jury has a leader, and the verdict belongs to him. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a landmark tobacco trial with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake begins routinely, then swerves mysteriously off course.
The jury is behaving strangely, and at least one juror is convinced he’s being watched. Soon they have to be sequestered. Then a tip from an anonymous young woman suggests she is able to predict the jurors’ increasingly odd behavior.
Is the jury somehow being manipulated, or even controlled? If so, by whom? And, more importantly, why?
This was 1996. The novel had just been released. The Runaway Jury would prove over the next few years to be a wildly popular book but, as someone who typically did not (and does not) read a lot of novels, the thought of sitting through study period reading a story about a tobacco trial did not seem terribly exciting. As it turns out, the story was gripping and eventually led me down a brief rabbit trail of acquiring every John Grisham novel I could.
Grisham spins a fascinating tale with a satisfying outcome. You walk away from the story feeling that, while there were some shady dealings going on during the trial, the right verdict was reached. Justice was done. It’s the way we like stories to end.
Every now and again, stories don’t have a satisfying conclusion. It may be a TV series that ends the scene on a cliff-hanger and then is cancelled before it can be resolved in the next season. It may simply be a poorly constructed ending to a novel. Regardless, some stories leave us walking away feeling empty.
As we have been considering Ecclesiastes, we have observed that Solomon has considered life to be something of a story with a bad ending. As he has considered reality after reality under the sun, he has concluded that it is all empty. There is no lasting meaning to be found in life under the sun.
In 3:16–4:3 he looks at yet another reality of life—justice—and concludes that even in this realm no lasting satisfaction can be found. We consider his argument under four broad headings.
The Paucity of Justice
First, we consider the paucity of justice. “Paucity” is not a word we use frequently, but suits the context here. “Paucity” describes the presence of something in small or insufficient quantities. Solomon describes the paucity of justice in 3:16: “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.”
In Scripture, “justice” and “righteousness” are often used synonymously. Here, Solomon is drawing a slight distinction between the two. He talks of “wickedness” being found both “in the place of justice” and “in the place of righteousness.” “The place of justice” refers to the courtroom, where just verdicts should be pronounced. “The place of righteousness” refers to the temple, where righteousness should be taught and practiced. But instead of justice and righteousness, Solomon saw that “wickedness” prospered here.
Humans have an innate longing for justice and righteousness. We want evil to be punished and justice to prevail. Every society has a legal system set up for this purpose. But we are all suspicious of the legal system. We are frustrated by flagrant miscarriages of justice.
In 2015, nineteen-year-old Brock Turner sexually assaulted 22-year-old Chanel Miller on the campus of Stanford University while she was unconscious. Two students intervened and restrained Turner until the police arrived. The presiding judge sentenced Turned to six months in jail, stating that a longer sentence “would have a severe impact on him.” Turner’s father dismissed the act as “twenty minutes of action.” He ultimately served three months before release.
We hear stories like that we know that it’s just not right. Justice was not done. Sadly, countless more examples of justice miscarried can be told. Indeed, too often, “in the place of justice there is wickedness.”
But there is another place where we might think that we should see right being done: in the religious community. The church—or, in the old covenant, the temple—ought to be “the place of righteousness.” The church, after all, is where those who have been declared righteous by God, gather to worship. Of all places, the church should be the place where righteousness is exemplified. But as Solomon looked to “the place of righteousness” he saw only “wickedness.” Even in the community of faith, where people professed to love one another, they mistreated each other.
Believer, don’t think that you will escape mistreatment and wickedness in the church. The church is the community of forgiven sinners, but even forgiven sinners sin. Church members lie to one another. Church members gossip about one another. Church members mistreat one another. Churches can be torn apart by the sins of its members. If this is the best hope we have for ultimate justice, it is indeed vanity.
The Promise of Justice
Thankfully, the court and the church are not our ultimate hope for justice. Solomon clings fervently to another promise of justice: “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (3:17).
When we are frustrated at the miscarriage of justice, and when we are disheartened by wickedness in the church, we must take hope in the fact that ultimate justice will one day be done. In Jesus Christ, God will see to it. He has appointed a day in which his Son will judge the righteous and the wicked (Acts 17:30–31). The Judge of all the earth will ultimately do what is right (Genesis 18:25). The wicked will experience eternal punishment and the righteous eternal life (Matthew 25:41–46). As Solomon will later himself say, “God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14).
As he looked under the sun, Solomon was discouraged because justice was nowhere to be found. As he looked above the sun—to God’s throne room—he was encouraged that the final day of judgement would come. And he reminded himself that it would come in God’s timing. As Habakkuk would say centuries later, “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).
The Preparation for Justice
Even if we have faith that justice will ultimately be exercised, we struggle with impatience. We want justice to be done now. It only takes a few hours for justice to take place in the movies, so why doesn’t it happen as quickly here. Solomon has an answer for that too: This life is, in one sense, preparation for justice.
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. 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. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 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?
Solomon says here that this life is God’s “testing” ground for humanity in preparation for ultimate justice. He must believe this. If he doesn’t, then life is once again vanity. If life under the sun is all there is, then humans are nothing more than “beasts.” Humans die in the same way that animals die. If there is no hope beyond the grave—nothing more to life than what we experience under the sun—humans have no ultimate advantage over animals.
Note carefully Solomon’s argument here. Remember that he is arguing from the viewpoint of life under the sun. He argues that, constitutionally, humans and animals are the same. Humans and animals were created from the same dust (cf. Genesis 2:19). The same breath of life that is in humans is in animals. Humans and animals share a common destiny: the grave (3:20). His question in 3:21 is not a theological statement about human spirits going to heaven (“upward”) and animal spirits remaining on earth (“down”). He is making an observation about death. “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (12:7). He is simply saying that death undoes life. Human and animal bodies were created from the dust. Human and animal breath came from God. At death, this is undone and these gifts go back to where they came from. If there is nothing beyond the grave, there is no distinction between humans and animals.
In this scheme, “there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (v. 22). If there is no distinction between humans and animals, enjoy your life the same way your dog does. Sleep all day, play with a ball, tear up the garden, and chase away the neighbour’s cat. There is no more point to life under the sun if there is no distinction between humans and animals. And there is no hope of ultimate justice.
As it is, however, there is a distinction. The distinction is not that humans have souls and animals don’t. The distinction is that humans have a promise of resurrection that animals don’t. Animals experience life under the sun and nothing more. But humans face a day of ultimate judgement and their life of earth is the testing ground for that judgement. What you do on earth matters profoundly, because God will bring everything—every word, thought, and deed—into judgement at the last day.
The Problem of Justice
The promise of ultimate justice, however, did not completely erase the problem that Solomon saw. In 4:1–3, we find him back in the same place he was in 3:16:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Solomon began by observing wickedness in the court and in the church, which drove him to despair. He then comforted himself that ultimate justice would be done and that this life on earth is, in fact, a testing ground for the final day of judgement.
But it is as if he now takes that promise of justice and looks to see if it makes a difference in life here and now. And he finds that it doesn’t. The promise of final judgement must be embraced by faith because, once understood, it doesn’t actually change oppression on earth. Even though he believed in final judgement, he still saw “all the oppressions that are done under the sun.” Oppressors oppressed and sufferers suffered and the thought of final judgement brought no relief under the sun. In fact, the “dead” were “more fortunate than the living who are still alive.” The dead experienced no more oppression and oppressed no one. In fact, to never have been born is the best state of all because then you know nothing at all of oppression. We begin to learn about suffering the moment we are born.
This particular text may well be the most depressing yet in this book. There is a lack of justice both in court and in church. There is hope of ultimate justice, but that hope of justice doesn’t change the fact that there is still a lack of justice on earth. This reality disturbed Solomon. For all his wisdom, he did not have all the answers. But at least he was asking the right questions.
Perhaps you have wrestled with the same questions. Perhaps it disturbs you profoundly that wickedness is found both in the court and in the church. Perhaps this has led you to wonder whether there is really any difference between humans and animals. Are we just more evolved beasts? Do we just die like the animals and that is the end? Is the best we can hope for to enjoy life in the here and now in preparation for eternal oblivion? The Bible will not allow us to believe that.
The Bible promises that oppression will not have the final word, even as it reminds us that God is in no hurry. Ultimately, oppressors will be condemned and the oppressed will be comforted. The only way to escape eternal condemnation and to receive eternal comfort is to find it in Jesus Christ.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Even as you consider the futility of life under the sun, consider with faith the hope of life in the Son. Are you headed for eternal condemnation or are you headed for eternal comfort? The difference is what you do with Jesus Christ. Reject Jesus Christ and you face eternal punishment. Receive Jesus Christ and you will receive eternal life. Believe him today.