Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Like the proverbial elephant in the room, the issue of God's justice has lain behind much that the Teacher has said in previous chapters, but he has not addressed it directly. Today, he finally does so.
Ecclesiastes 8:9 notes that those in authority may use their power to oppress others. The question naturally arises: how can God allow this? The Teacher knows of wicked people who ended their days honoured by their fellow citizens: nothing bad ever happened to them. Even more baffling, they regularly entered into God's presence and left it unscathed and with their hearts unchanged (Ecclesiastes 8:10). Others see such things, conclude that God doesn't judge evil, and set about devising evil schemes of their own (v. 11).
This cannot be right, the Teacher protests (vv. 12-13): ″I know that it will go better with those who fear God.″ But then he reflects again on his experience (v. 14): righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and vice versa. There is a clear contradiction here: the Teacher brings this out by sandwiching 8:12-13 between 8:11 and 8:14.
To us, the solution may seem obvious: there will be a judgment after death where apparent inequities will be addressed. But the Teacher's focus remains resolutely on life ″on earth″ (v. 14), life as we know it now. So he leaves the contradiction unresolved for the moment, in effect saying, ″I can't figure it out.″ God cannot leave the righteous unvindicated and the wicked unpunished-yet that is what often seems to happen.
The NIV's translation ″meaningless″ (v. 14) may not be entirely suitable at other points in Ecclesiastes, but it does fit quite well here: God's contradictory-seeming dealings with humanity do indeed constitute a serious obstacle to any attempts to find meaning in life based on belief in God. The Teacher's response is one that he has made already: enjoy the pleasures that lie readily to hand (v. 15; see also 2:24-26; 5:18-20). Pleasures like food, drink, and good company will help you endure the toil that falls to your lot. Why break your head over life's insoluble enigmas? No one really understands what happens ″under the sun″ (8:16-17). Indeed, the effort to understand ″all the work of God″ (perhaps at the cost of sleepless nights) is just another example of pointless human activity.
This is the most emphatic statement in Ecclesiastes about the limits of wisdom. Ecclesiastes in general prizes wisdom, but it warns us that wisdom can take us only so far. In the end, we have to admit that we do not understand what is going on, and that God's actions in the world are mysterious to us. As Christians living in an era which has seen tremendous advances in human knowledge, we may find this teaching difficult. It is nonetheless wisdom to accept it. Acknowledging God's sovereignty (which includes accepting that God is under no obligation to explain himself to us) is the only secure basis for life in God's world.
Paul describes Christ as the one ″in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge″ (Colossians 2:3). So does the Teacher's point about the limits of our understanding remain valid for Christians today?
Two objections could be raised to the Teacher's advice in Ecclesiastes 8:15: first, it is hard to enjoy simple pleasures when your mind is occupied with perplexities; second, it seems heartless to dismiss life's enigmas by simply pouring ourselves another drink. How would you respond?