Ecclesiastes 3:16-22, “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. 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. 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? 22 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?”
If this world is all that there is, if we just die and that is the end of it all, then life is inherently futile. There is no transcendent purpose that gives meaning to creation. There is no right or wrong; everything just is, so there can be no lasting moral evaluation of it. Something that is wrong today might be right tomorrow and vice versa. No true judgments are possible; everything is relative, and if everything is relative, everything is meaningless. However, if there is a perfectly good Creator who defines the world and all that is in it, life is meaningful. The fleeting nature of life with all of its apparent absurdities will give way finally to eternity when the plan of the Lord will be seen more fully, the meaning of apparent coincidences will be revealed, and all injustices will be rectified.
The key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is to recognize that the Preacher is making one very simple point—only God can make sense out of life. Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 indicates as much. In Ecclesiastes 3:16, the Preacher observes what we have all seen with our own eyes: in the very place where justice is supposed to be found, wickedness often reigns. Even in the best justice systems, criminals often go free because they are able to bribe an unjust judge. All too often, justice is bought and sold. Criminals escape justice, and the innocent are punished. There is no better example of this than in the trial of Jesus. The false witnesses to His “crime” at His trial could not even agree with one another, but He was convicted anyway even though such testimony should have led the judges to throw His case out of court (Mark 14:53–65; see Deut. 17:6). Miscarriages of justice are inevitable in our fallen world.
Honest atheists see this reality and are driven either to suicidal despair because they realize that goodness cannot prevail, or to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power,” whereby they seize whatever power they can and use it to their own advantage. Their reasoning is that we might as well do all we want before we cease to exist. Thankfully, there are precious few consistent atheists, and Ecclesiastes 3:17 explains why. The Preacher understands that despite the fact that justice is not always done on earth, a day is coming in which God will judge both the righteous and the wicked. Such knowledge is planted deep in the human heart and is a consequence of our being made in His image (Gen. 1:26–28). Even the most forthright unbelievers know that God will judge all, and generally speaking, this understanding keeps them from collapsing in despair or becoming tyrants.
For believers, the knowledge that there is a day of perfect judgment coming fills us with hope. We understand that on that day, everything will be set right. Every injustice will be overturned, and people will receive their due. Believers will receive heaven because they are so closely united to Christ that His perfect obedience and its due reward is reckoned as theirs (2 Cor. 5:21). Unbelievers will be condemned for their sin, for they are not covered by Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
Scripture gives us the truth about God, but it is equally the case that it gives us the truth about human beings. Often the Bible does this by juxtaposing a key truth about the Lord and a key truth about humanity. We see this in Ecclesiastes 3:17–18.
Having learned in v. 17 that a day is coming when the Creator will judge all people, we might be tempted to ask God why He has ordered things this way, or even to claim that He should execute judgment right now. Yet as one commentator notes, it is not our place to judge the Lord but rather to judge ourselves rightly. Verse 18 reminds us of this fact: “God is testing [human beings] that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.” The seeming “delay” of judgment is meant to bring us to the realization that like the animals, we are mere creatures and not in control of the times and seasons for judgment. And creatures have no right to demand anything of the Creator (Job 38–42).
Ecclesiastes 3:19–20 builds on v. 18 to assist us in developing an appropriate understanding of our place and significance in creation. Despite the fact that we are made in the Lord’s image and are more like Him than is any other created being, we are still just that—created. Like the animals, we are made of dust, and to dust, we will return. And yet, we are not like animals in every respect. Verse 21 points to this truth. As translated in the ESV, this may not be plain at first, for this verse, which is difficult in the Hebrew, is hard to render in English. The ESV follows several other translations in giving English readers a question from the Preacher that makes it seem as if he is uncertain about where the spirits of people and beasts go when they die. However, several commentators believe the Preacher is actually making a statement of certainty, namely, that although humanity and beasts both go to the grave, the afterlife for each is different. In the light of the fuller New Covenant revelation of heaven and hell, we have a better understanding of this afterlife.
How then shall we live in light of the fact that life is fleeting and that we will go to the grave no less than the beasts will? The Preacher answers that we should enjoy life in the present (v. 22). Given his teaching on final judgment (v. 17), he is not advocating a crass hedonism when he exhorts us to rejoice in our work, which in this context refers to all of life. Instead, the Preacher is calling us not to discount the present and the pleasures of God’s good creation. The Lord wants us to enjoy them now, for we will leave them behind at death.
Knowing that we will die just like the beasts, when viewed in the proper context, frees us not to take ourselves too seriously. Death is the great leveler, bringing the end to the influence of king and commoner alike. This does not negate the importance of our decisions for eternity, but it does help us gain perspective on our successes and failures. Our mistakes will not derail God’s plan, and our successes should be enjoyed as gifts of the Lord on this side of eternity.