I think the first complaint we may have uttered as children is “that’s not fair.” And the last complaint we very well may utter before death is “life’s not fair.” Those phrases are our attempts to articulate the irreconcilable injustices of life, particular to our comparisons with others. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes may have possessed staggering wisdom, but he was still human, and humans will compete, compare, and complain. This week’s text is interesting because it addresses some of those human tendencies.
I also noticed that under the sun there is evil in the courtroom. Yes, even the courts of law are corrupt! I said to myself, “In due season God will judge everyone, both good and bad, for all their deeds.” I also thought about the human condition—how God proves to people that they are like animals. For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! Both go to the same place—they came from dust and they return to dust. For who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life. And no one can bring us back to see what happens after we die. Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. But most fortunate of all are those who are not yet born. For they have not seen all the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, NLT)
This section of Ecclesiastes is tricky, but important. Here’s what I understand it to mean.
- In general, life is filled with injustice. In the preceding text the Teacher has pointed out life’s extremes and all that is between, so verses 16-17 serve as a cap on his prior observations.
- It is nearly impossible to find a non partisan source of arbitration that will advocate for those in need of justice. After all, those who have been tasked with providing justice are cut from the same human cloth as we are, and are not above providing favor to the powerful.
- Much of the oppression that occurs is at the hands of the powerful who are insensitive to the personal and physical needs of their victims.
Having made those obvious observations about injustice, he came to two conclusions. First, if justice cannot be administered by human hands, it will be found through divine hands, for God will judge all people according to their deeds. This conclusion is consistent with many similar statements in the New Testament by Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and in the Apostle John’s apocalyptic letter of Revelation. This hope tempers our demand for justice and vindication in this present life as we find comfort in the hope that God will ultimate level the playing field. If God doesn’t settle the score in this life, he certainly will in the next.
But the Teacher’s second observation is not as certain. While it sounds hopeful that God will administer justice, he makes the caveat that death is the only thing that really levels the playing field. To that point, humans are no different than animals, and the only one’s who have an advantage are those who haven’t been born.
While on one hand, it appears the the Teacher has become thoroughly cynical about justice and even the value of life itself. But on the other hand, he could be nudging his readers to acknowledge the reality of life’s injustices without becoming consumed with the demand for revenge. Injustice is a horrible thing in any society, whether it be in history or in the present moment. And justice is something worth pursuing, for sure. But at the same time the thirst for justice can become so all encompassing that we can miss the true meaning and value of life. We can become so fixed on what isn’t, that we can miss the what is that is before us each day. As with the extremes mentioned at the beginning of chapter 3, we can easily allow ourselves become defined by what isn’t fair and wear them as labels that limit us. And that may be worse than any injustice we face.