Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Today's passage develops the theme of God's judgment (see Ecclesiastes 3:15). The Teacher reflects on two issues, which force us to face our limitations as humans: injustice and death.
″In the place of judgment-wickedness was there″ (v. 16). When injustice triumphs, we become sick at heart. What can we do? Most of us do not have the power to challenge, for example, a corrupt judiciary. But God does: ″there will be . . . a time to judge every deed″ (v. 17). God's control extends here as well (see vv. 1, 11). Again the Teacher affirms a belief in God's judgment: we cannot call the unjust to account, but God can.
Yet the fact of present injustice may seem to poison life. Humans often seem to be treated like animals (v. 18; see also 9:11-12; Habakkuk 1:12-17). Clearly we will all die like the animals, and no one knows for certain what happens then (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Everything is a ″breath″ (v. 19): life is brief and frustrating, hard to make sense of.
Does the phrase ″God tests them″ (v. 18) mean that we are no more than laboratory rats? That is a frightening image. But there is a more positive way to translate this phrase: ″God's intention is to purify them, so that they may see . . .″6 How does God ″purify″ us? By forcing us to face our limitations, including the fact that we will die.
Life is brief and uncertain. We should adjust our aims and expectations accordingly. We don't know what will come of our life's work after we are gone, but we can still enjoy our ″work″ in the present: it is our ″lot″ (v. 22)-what God has given us. Better to find satisfaction there than to embark on imposing, self-centred projects, which will almost certainly disappoint us.
Throughout chapters 1 to 3, the Teacher has urged us to be realistic. And when he recommends that we find enjoyment in things that lie within easy reach (food, drink, satisfying work) rather than pursuing over-ambitious goals, this is not a counsel of despair, as it might be in a secular thinker. Rather, he sees the enjoyment of food, drink, and work as a positive, sober, and reverent response to the God-given limits of our creaturely existence-and, indeed, an expression of trust in God.
If we are content with what God has given us, that is a strong witness. If we recognise our creaturely nature and accept our ″lot″, that is a powerful testimony to God's goodness. Many people around us need to hear this message: you do not have to resist God in order to have a fulfilling life. Just as important, many around us need to see us Christians living that message out.
6For the translation ″purify″, see Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, 92-93.
What is your response to the presence of injustice in this world? What practical actions can you take? If we resolve to be realistic about our limitations, does that mean we cannot also dream of a better world?
Consider Ecclesiastes 3:17 and 3:21 in today's passage. How certain does the Teacher seem to be about life after death, or at least a final judgment?