Ecclesiastes 3:16–22

Sights Under the Sun

Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, “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. 17 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. “

“Is that Mr. Scrooge?” “A Merry Christmas to you!” “And to you.” “Bah! Humburg!” “Look!” There’s Papa and Tiny Tim!” “And God bless us, everyone!” These are a few of the lines that you might hear around Christmastime. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is a classic. It is the story of the change that takes place in Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Dickens describes as “the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clapping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”[i] As the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come show Scrooge what his life has been, is, and will be, his eyes are opened to his sins.

In Ecclesiastes, Pastor Solomon guides us on a tour of his life, showing us what he has seen under the sun so that we might see ourselves, our world, and God as we really should. The motif of seeing is not new. In Ecclesiastes 1:14, Solomon said, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.” But he has also seen beyond the vanity to the value of wisdom over follow (“Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly,” Ecclesiastes 2:13) and the virtue of thanksgiving (“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,” Ecclesiastes 2:24). In Ecclesiastes chapters three and four, this theme of sight is more prominent. In Ecclesiastes 3:10, 12, and 14 we read the phrases “I have seen” and “I perceived.” In Ecclesiastes 3:16, 22; 4:1, 4, 7, and 15 we find the phrase “I saw.” So that we might change something about our own sinful perceptions and actions, we will focus on two sights that Solomon saw under the sun.

A Righteous Judge At The Right Time

Our tour begins in Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, “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. 17 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.”

The phrase “Moreover, I saw” (which could be translated, “I saw something else”) syntactically links us to the preceding verses. Old themes resource: death, vanity, and enjoyment in our toil. New themes arise wickedness and God’s justice. Solomon saw human wickedness in verse 16 and divine justice in verse 17. Here the wickedness is that of injustice and unrighteousness. The shock here is not that injustice and unrighteousness exist, but where they exist. Injustice is rife everywhere in our world. The shock, however, is that it is even “in the place of justice” (court of law). When we learn that a judge took a bribe, a lawyer misrepresented the facts, a witness lied under oath, or a murder got off scot-free, we cringe.

Throughout the world, courts of law typically contain representations—often a sculpture of Lady Justitia. Blindfolded, she holds balanced scales in her right hand and a large sword in her left. The blindfold represents impartiality (she judges everyone without passion and prejudice”), the scales fairness, and the sword her swift and final justice. But here in Ecclesiastes, the blindfold is off, the scales off-balanced, and the sword stolen. Outside the courthouse, the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are chanting, “Fair is soul, and foul is fair.”

The other location of unexpected immorality is “the place of righteousness (i.e. the temple). Both the court of law and the house of God are filled with evil people. Shocking!

Today the media makes a big deal about a prominent pastor who falls into some sexual sin or the CEO of a not-for-profit organization who embezzles funds. They do so because the story sells. As immoral and amoral as our culture is, we still expect certain people to be above such evils or at least have the willpower to avoid immoralities. But sadly, even the reverends are irreverent. Some were in Pastor Solomon’s day, and some are in ours as well.

If we will find wickedness even in the highest court and the holiest place, where do we go for justice and holiness? There is only one place to go, and that is above the sun to the heavens (Eccl. 5:2). We go to God—who alone is “good” (Mark 10:18) and who alone will judge “the world with righteousness; the peoples with uprightness” (Ps. 9:8; 75:2). This is where Ecclesiastes 3:17 takes us, “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.” This is also a shocking statement. We might well have expected Solomon to say, “This too is vanity. It’s like trying to bottle a hurricane.” Instead, he gives us one of the most amazing confessions of faith in the Bible. He meets the bad news of verse 16 with the good news of verse 17.

Throughout the Old Testament, we read how a righteous God sees, hates, and judges injustice and unrighteousness. Here Solomon stands on the character and promises of God. In effect, he stands alongside God incarnate. We know of Jesus’ trial before unrighteous religious leaders and an unjust Roman court of law. WE also know that, in the words of 1 Peter 2:22-23, “22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Immediately before theses verses, Peter gives the exhortation in 1 Peter 2:21, “21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” We follow in Jesus’ steps by entrusting ourselves to God, knowing that the Father (along with His son) will right every wrong. With equity, fairness, and justice, He will balance the scales, wield the sword, and render his verdict with His always-unbiased eyes wide open.

Sometimes this verdict occurs in our lifetimes. We witness the bad boss fired, the corrupt politician sentenced, the dictator fallen. But whether God’s justice comes during our lifetime, and through natural means (a court of law), or else after our lifetime (on judgment day, we need faith to believe what Ecclesiastes 3:17 teaches: God will judge everyone (“the righteous and the wicked”) at the right time (“for there is a time for every matter and for every work”). Believe that promise. Wait patiently for it to happen. In the meantime, cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge..?” (Rev. 6:10; Psalm 4:2).

There is “a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1), including the day that God has fixed to right every wrong. On that day, we will see how all the wicked knots and snarls under the loom were necessary for the beautiful end design. We will see how God made “beautiful in its time” (v.11) every moral monstrosity, even evils in the courts and the churches. We live under the loom now. We look up and see only the mess. We are “under the sun.” but someday we will see “above the sun” the beauty of the tapestry, a sight that will cause us to lift our hands in praise of God and to bow our heads and hearts in awe of him.

Our Morality- A Motive for Joy?

We may summarize Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 like this: The sight of wickedness in unlikely places should help us to turn in faith and hope to God, who will rightly judge at the right time. What comes next in verses 18-22 may be summarized as follows: The sight of our own morality should motivate us to work with joy.

Notice that both reactions to the realities of wickedness and death are unexpected and ironic. While we should expect to arrive at hopelessness after viewing wickedness in places that we do not expect to find it. Instead, we are told to hope in God. And while we would expect to arrive at despair after seeing that we die and return to dust just like every animal in the fallen world, instead we are told to rejoice in our God-given work. The Bible is an odd book at times. How are we to make some sense of this second application? Is our morality really a motive for joy?

The Reality

Before we get to the joy at the end of the tether, we must first feel the strength of the tether itself. We may subdivide Ecclesiastes 3:18-22 by using three Rs—the reality, the reason, and the reaction. The reality and the reason are discussed and illustrated in verses 18-21. In verse 18 we read, “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.”

In what sense are we like beasts? Solomon continues in Eccl 3:19-21, “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.[a] 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”

Pastor Solomon does not deny that human beings are made in the image of God and the pinnacle of creation (Gen. 1:27-30). As Psalm 8:5-8 testifies, God has made us a little lower than the angel, crowned with glory and honor, and given dominion over all creation. Neither is he denying some form of life after death; he has just talked about God’s future judgment (Eccl. 3:17) and will conclude the book with the ominous warning that “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14). Such a verdict assumes that people are alive, not annihilated, after death. Thus when Solomon wonders in Ecclesiastes 3:21, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”, He is making an observation from experience. He is asserting that no one has direct first-hand empirical evidence of what happens to the human spirit after death. At the funeral parlor or the gravesite, no one can verify that the soul went out, down, up, or anywhere else.

What we all know, however, is what he states in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: as, in a sense, both bodies share “the same breath,” so both bodies will share the same ashes. We all know the brute fact that our bodies die and turn to dust in the same was as the brute beasts. After death, the most beautiful woman and the ugliest hyena return to the same place both disintegrate into dust. In verse 20, Solomon is merely paraphrasing the final phrases of Genesis 3:19, “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.” Adam and Eve’s scheme to be like God failed miserably.

Human beings can do many things that animals cannot do. We can read, write, draw, cook, fall in love, and lament that our bodies will turn to dust. And we can drink spinach smoothies, pop vitamins, and invent all sorts of incredible gizmos such as treadmills and life-support machines, but nothing we can do or make changes the reality that our mortality makes us more like animals than like God, that “man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beats that perish” (Psalm 49:12).

The Reason

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter answers the question, “Why is God’s justice delayed?” by stating that God is graciously giving time for sinners to repent. Here in Ecclesiastes, however, the focus is on the step before repentance, which is a recognition of our fallen frame. That is the reason given in Ecclesiastes 3:18, “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.” We die like beats because we want to be like God (Gen. 3:17-19). The curse of Genesis 3 makes it absolutely clear that we are in the “finite mammal” category, not the “Transcendent God category. Martin Luther said to Erasmus, “Your God is too small!” to this, we might add, “And we are too big.”

The Response

The response to the reality and reason for God’s reminder of our fallen frame can be varied. People can be bitter, as Ernest Hemingway was when he wrote, “Life is just a dirty rick from nothingness to nothingness.”[ii]

Or they feel dejected, as John Updike was when he wrote, “I have time at last to consider my life, this its stubby stale end” (John Updike, Downtime,” in Americana (New York: Knopf, 2001), 46). People can feel deep sorrow as Nicholas Wolterstorff did when he wrote about the loss of his son, “There’s a hole in the world now.”[iii] 2). At the right time, each of these can be the right response. After all, there is a time to weep and mourn (Eccl. 3:4). But in Ecclesiastes 3:22, our reaction is to be rejoicing, “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 Masoretes of the Middle Ages assigned a Jewish holiday to each of the Five Megilloth: Song of Songs (Passover), Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (Fast of the Ninth of Ab), Esther (Purim), and Ecclesiastes (Feast of Tabernacles). Yes, the scholars paired that joyous harvest celebration—similar to Thanksgiving with Ecclesiastes! We might have had Solomon conclude by saying, “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should break down and cry or break it down and party on.” Instead, he calls us to cheer up and look up and bear down. His ironic application is to get back to work and be glad in it.

Pastor Solomon is calling for a change in attitude. Admittedly, he has been a downer for most of Ecclesiastes 1-3. But here as he did in 2:24-26 and 3:12, and as he will do in 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9, and 11:7-10, he reminds us of the gospel of enjoyment. Both animals and humans can work, but only humans can enjoy their work and the results of their labors. The beaver can build his dam, but he can’t sit down after a hard day’s work, thank God for his job, his family, and his food and then enjoy all that he has accomplished and all that he has been given.

In what you see, what you hear, and what you do—take joy! Reminders of our mortality should motivate us to rejoice. We should rejoice in what we see. We should rejoice in what we do. We should rejoice in our God-given, God-rewarded work.

Till One Greater Man

But wait a minute. Why? Why should the sight of our own morality motivate us to work with joy? Ecclesiastes 3:22 gives a reason. After we read, “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot,” we read the question, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” v.22) Despite what the bet selling books claim, the assumed answer rise, “No one.” There is no ghost of life-beyond-the grave who reveals to us now the events of the afterlife. Put simply, since the “future remains veiled,” enjoy your “time-bound lot in life.”[iv]

As Christians, we can add an additional and all-important reason for rejoicing: “our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). It is difficult to discern precisely what Pastor Solomon believed and taught about the afterlife. But the revelation of God in Christ is plain on these matters.

The New Testament clears up any potential misunderstanding, teaching us that the human spirit or soul survives death. In Philippians 1:21-23, Paul teaches an afterlife, “21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

And if any fog hangs over what is taught in that text, it is cleared up in John 11:25, “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.[a] Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” and later gave his disciples a promise so rightly read at funerals in John 14:1-3, ““Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;[a] believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?[b] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

We can rejoice in our work because Jesus has been raised from the dead.

[i] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Everyman’s Library children Classic (New York: Knopf, 1994), 3.

[ii] Ernest Hemingway, quoted in Allister McGrath, Doubting: Growing through the Uncertainties of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 60.

[iii] Gene Fowler, quoted in Jane Yolen, Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2006

[iv] Richard Schultz, “Ecclesiastes,” in Baker Commentary on the Bible, ed. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E Hill, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 588).