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. 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? – Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 ESV
For Solomon, life had become little more than a never-ending cycle of unavoidable outcomes. Planting was followed by harvesting but eventually required that the whole laborious process begin again. Periods of peace would be interrupted by times of war. Efforts to build something of significance would only result in its eventual demolition. Seeking for something that was lost might result in finding it – only to lose it again. Feelings of love could give way to thoughts of hate. And ultimately, life would be trumped by death.
And as he notes in this passage, even while man lives, he experiences the inevitability of injustice. Where he expects to see righteousness rule and reign, he instead finds wickedness. Solomon describes life lived “under the sun” as a disappointing and difficult experience, and the only silver lining he can find in this dark cloud of despair is his belief that God will judge the righteous and the wicked. But it is likely that Solomon is not thinking of a future judgment related to the end of the world and the eternal state. He has his eyes fixed solidly on the here-and-now. Consider his closing statement in this passage. “Who can bring him [man] to see what will be after him?” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 ESV).
The idea of a future judgment was almost impossible for Solomon to fathom. His perspective was immersed in the present, bound by time, and hampered by his inability to see anything beyond the grave.
Two different times in this passage, Solomon uses the phrase, “I said in my heart.” This is a statement of deep reflection. He is wrestling with substantive issues, turning them over in his mind, and trying to come to some sort of resolution. He is attempting to use his wisdom to reconcile his many observations concerning life’s inequities and futile inevitabilities, and he draws some less-than-encouraging conclusions.
These verses are not random, off-the-cuff thoughts, but the well-reasoned reflections of a man who has spent countless hours struggling to resolve what he believes to be concerning contradictions. And yet, so much of what he has concluded is wrong. His views on life and man’s existence lack a divine perspective. Yes, he acknowledges the existence of God and even concedes the sovereignty of God over all things. But he views God as nothing more than a distant deity, far removed from everyday life, who stands in detached judgment over the affairs of man. In fact, when considering the human condition from his limited earthly perspective, Solomon concludes, “God proves to people that they are like animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18 NLT).
That view of God fails to focus on His love, mercy, and grace and exposes Solomon’s lack of an intimate and interpersonal relationship with the Almighty. While Solomon was the son of David, he did not share his father’s opinion about God. Compare the rather pessimistic conclusions of Solomon to those of his father.
But you, Lord, are a shield that protects me;
you are my glory and the one who restores me.
To the Lord I cried out,
and he answered me from his holy hill. – Psalm 3:3-4 NLT
You make me happier
than those who have abundant grain and wine.
I will lie down and sleep peacefully,
for you, Lord, make me safe and secure. – Psalm 4:7-8 NLT
But as for me, because of your great faithfulness I will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple as I worship you. – Psalm 5:7 NLT
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:3-9 ESV
David fully acknowledged the inferior nature of man when compared to the majesty of Almighty God but he also recognized man’s God-given status as the crowning achievement of creation.
Yet, all Solomon seemed to see was the fact that men were doomed to the same fate as animals. Death and decay await them both. And Solomon further expresses his dire outlook by asking the question, “who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21 NLT).
In other words, what guarantee do we have that there is something out there after death? How do we know that there is any existence beyond the grave? You can begin to see why Solomon reached the conclusion, “there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 NLT).
When he considered the fact that the wise and the foolish both end their lives in death, he concluded, “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).
Enjoy it while you can. That seems to be Solomon’s philosophy of life. Since he had no guarantee of what would happen after death, he was going to grab for all the gusto he could in this life. He resigned himself to the reality that this is all there is, which led him to say, “I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 NLT).
But notice that he has relegated all of life to this world. He displays no concept of eternity or the hereafter. Once again, a comparison of the mindset of Solomon with that of his own father reveals a startling disparity in their viewpoints. David repeatedly expressed his belief in the eternal nature of his relationship with God.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23:6 NLT
I have asked the Lord for one thing—
this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord
and contemplate in his temple. – Psalm 27:4 NLT
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! – Psalm 61:4 NLT
There is little doubt that life can be filled with injustices. We all know that death is inevitable and inescapable. But we have an assurance from God that all injustices will one day be rectified. It may not be in our lifetime, but we can rest assured that God will ultimately replace all wickedness with righteousness. He will mete out justice to all those who have lived their lives by taking advantage of the innocent and abusing the helpless. And while the fall brought the inescapable reality of death to God’s creation, He plans to redeem and restore all that He has made.
And for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, we have the assurance that our existence does not end with our death, because He died so that we might live. And nobody expresses this reality better than the apostle Paul.
For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. – Romans 8:22-25 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.