Whatever exists now has already been, and whatever will be has already been; for God will seek to do again what has occurred in the past.
I saw something else on earth: In the place of justice, there was wickedness, and in the place of fairness, there was wickedness.
I thought to myself, “God will judge both the righteous and the wicked; for there is an appropriate time for every activity, and there is a time of judgment for every deed.”
I also thought to myself, “It is for the sake of people, so God can clearly show them that they are like animals.”
For the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same: As one dies, so dies the other; both have the same breath. There is no advantage for humans over animals, for both are fleeting. Both go to the same place, both come from the dust, and to dust both return. Who really knows if the human spirit ascends upward, and the animal’s spirit descends into the earth?
So I perceived there is nothing better than for people to enjoy their work, because that is their reward; for who can show them what the future holds? (Ecclesiastes 3:15-22)
The Preacher’s meditations become no less unsettling over time. More has been revealed since his time; nevertheless, his core exhortation endures.
The Preacher’s main themes involved everything as hevel: vain, futile, even absurd, and all human pursuits as ultimately chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14). He recognized history as cyclical: things come and go, and there is really nothing new on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:3-10). Despite our protestations we and all we have done will be forgotten on the earth (Ecclesiastes 1:11). The Preacher considered pleasure, wisdom, and labor, and saw the futile end of all of them; none of them could provide humans with ultimate meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26). There is a time and season for everything under heaven: the things we enjoy as well as the things we would assiduously avoid (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
In Ecclesiastes 3:9-22 the Preacher considered God and man. God has made everything beautiful in its time; humanity has the spark of eternity yet cannot and should not know what will be (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11). Humans should truly enjoy the gifts God has given them: to find happiness in relationships and joy in their labor, and to eat and drink well (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). God’s work endures forever; humanity cannot enhance or diminish it, and thus should revere God (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
The Preacher continued his meditations regarding God and man in Ecclesiastes 3:15-22. In a way he returned to his theme in Ecclesiastes 1:3-10: what exists now also existed in the past, and what will take place also took place in the past, for God will do again what was done in the past (Ecclesiastes 3:15). Thus the Preacher saw the cyclical nature of the creation as a very deliberate and specific plan of God, and such a perspective will usefully guide us in our understanding of Scripture and God’s purposes in time. For example, not for nothing would Jesus show a vision to John regarding the things that would be, yet in terms of what had previously happened in Israel: beasts, whore Babylon, a “new heavens and a new earth” (cf. Revelation 13:1-22:6). God has seen powers rise and then has judged said powers; so it has been, thus it is, and so it will be until the Lord Jesus returns. To this end history can provide an analogue for the future: while specific contexts change, the general tenor and nature of events play out consistently at different points in time.
The Preacher saw something on the earth: wickedness in the place of justice and fairness (Ecclesiastes 3:16). On account of this he concluded God would judge the righteous and the wicked since there was a time and purpose for every effort (Ecclesiastes 3:17). Perhaps this is part of what led the inspired editor of the Preacher’s homily to conclude as he did in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, how humans would do well to fear God and keep His commandments, since He would judge everything. This is one of the rare times in which the Preacher indulged himself with meditations beyond life “under the sun,” and thus worth highlighting all the more. Inversion of justice into injustice represents a profound moral travesty and a constant plague within human societies. Societies seem to cultivate a group of people who leverage authority and law to aggrandize themselves at the harm of others, and manipulate the “halls of justice” in order to justify themselves and to provide cover for their oppression. Such injustice makes our blood boil whenever we see it happen to ourselves, those we love, or in situations in which we can look “objectively”; and yet how often do we tolerate some level of injustice when it works to our benefit and favor? The Preacher did not trust in earthly corrections to such injustice; instead, he entrusted himself to the confidence God would make right all that went wrong, and to make straight all which humans made crooked. Such injustice does not merely affect humanity; it offends the structure of the universe which the Creator has made, and the Creator has ways to bring His creation back into alignment.
Yet even as the Preacher entrusted ultimate judgment to God, he continued to explore what such things might mean “under the sun”: God allows all such things to remind humans how they are animals (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Humans and animals live on account of the breath of life, and they both will expire on account of the corruption of the creation (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). The Preacher wondered how he could know whether the spirit of man went up to God while the spirit of animals went down into the earth (Ecclesiastes 3:21).
We have a strong impulse to emphasize how God made humans in His image and gave them dominion over the animals (Genesis 1:26-27), and how in Christ our souls go to heaven to be with the Lord until we share in the day of resurrection (Philippians 1:24-25, Revelation 7:9-17). Yes, in Christ we have more coherent revelation regarding the nature of life after death, and some distinctions which should be made between humans and other animal life. Nevertheless, we do well to sit in the Preacher’s discomfort for a moment. While we are made in God’s image, God did make us as part of the creation, in the animal kingdom, among the primates. He breathed the same breath of life into animals and humans (Genesis 1:30, 2:7). Scientific understanding through DNA has confirmed this understanding: we are made of the same “stuff” as the creation, with similar structures to other animals, and are a part of God’s glorious creation. Humans are animals; humans may aspire to be more than animals, and should not justify animalistic impulses because they are animals, but they remain animals nonetheless. Animals live and die; humans live and die. Despite all our grandiose pretensions, we remain the creation, not the Creator.
And thus the Preacher recapitulated his argument: people should enjoy the work they do, for such is their reward, for they cannot know what the future will hold (Ecclesiastes 3:22). If God visited us and granted us the ability to see what would happen in humanity in future generations, what benefit would we gain from it? We imagine we would see our future descendants and all the wonderful technologies and things they might enjoy. Yet would we not perceive how we would most likely be forgotten, and all of our works with all the time and energy invested therein demonstrated as fleeting? Would our descendants not exasperate us by repeating many of the same mistakes we did, and following after the patterns of behavior we thought long ago perished?
We can understand how many find the Preacher depressing and distressing. He certainly knew how to take humanity down a notch. Nevertheless, we do well to appreciate his wisdom and learn the appropriate humility which comes from recognizing the value in his meditations. We do well to keep an eternal perspective on our lives and all we do. How much of what we are and do proves fleeting, and yet in the moment how much of ourselves do we invest in such things? How can we live so as to glorify God in Christ and obtain life in Him, so that our labor is not in vain?
Ethan R. Longhenry