Ecclesiastes 3:16-22

IT IS often said that bad experiences are sometimes blessings in disguise. If this were true, then blessings can sometimes be very well disguised! Verse 16 addresses a particular form of evil, one which is all too prevalent in our world: injustice.

There is no need to look at the South Africa of the apartheid era to find its instantiations. Injustices come in many shapes and colours – some subtler than others – and they raise their ugly heads in every society.

“In the place of judgement – wickedness was there, in place of justice – wickedness was there” (3:16). These words express the brutal truth about our fallen world. In this world, injustice screams for redress, but more often than not it continues to prevail. For some Christians, the most pressing questions must be, Why does not God act now? Why is He so slow to judge? Why doesn’t He just step in and do something? Often, the perceived tardiness of God, His slowness to intervene, is met with impatience – even outrage – on our part.

The Preacher assures us that God will judge, but also reminds us that He will do so in His own time. God does not work according to our timetable, and we cannot dictate His itinerary. And just because divine judgement is seemingly absent in the present does not make it less sure. Here the Preacher reminds us that we are in no position to teach God how to conduct His business! God knows best, and He has appointed a time when He will judge humanity, the righteous as well as the wicked. However triumphant it may seem now, injustice will not have the final word. God’s justice will in the end prevail.

If God’s judgement lies in the future, how is God active now? God, according to the Preacher, puts man to the test (v 18). Who is the Preacher talking about here? Is he referring to the man of faith, the believer? Or has he returned to his pet topic, and speaks here of the “man under the sun”, the secularist and sceptic? The answers to these questions are crucial, for they have implications on our interpretation of the Preacher’s statements in the rest of this chapter (18-22).
The context suggests that the Preacher had the secular man in mind in these verses. Writing about this passage, the Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner concludes that “it is ‘man in his pomp’, the man without understanding, who is ‘like the beasts that perish’; and this is the man with whom Ecclesiastes is concerned”. Full of himself, and without fear of God or divine judgement, the fate of the secular man, the Preacher maintains, is “like that of the animals” (18).

Perhaps the best way to understand this passage in Ecclesiastes is to compare it with Psalm 49. In a tone reminiscent of the Preacher’s the psalmist writes: “For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others … But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:10, 12). Is the psalmist talking about all men in general? Or is he referring only to a specific group? Verse 13 holds the answer: “This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings.”

The psalmist is referring to the secular man, the unbeliever. For such a man, death is annihilation, the termination of existence. There is no life hereafter. In this way, the secularist shares the same fate with the beasts. The believer, in sharp contrast, has a very different perspective to death. Speaking for all believers, the psalmist continues: “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself” (49:15). Unlike the godless man, the believer knows that death shall not have the final word. God will save him from the grave and bring him into his glorious kingdom.

The point that the Preacher is pressing here is clear. The under-the-sun human being is like the animal that lives entirely for the moment with no future beyond this life. By choosing to turn his back on God, the secular man has replaced the glorious vision of eternal life with God with the tunnel vision of this-world existentialism. This is the tragedy of the man without God.

Dr Roland Chia, Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.