Ecclesiastes 3:18–4:16. Everything Has Its Balance.
Key Notes: Animals and humans. Justice. A life not worth living? Future grace. Workaholics.
3:18–22 Here the Scholar considers Man in relation to the beasts. He muses on the uniqueness of the human predicament, having eternity in our hearts, but living within a fixed period of time. As if to keep us from marveling at ourselves, he reminds us that we share the fate of the beasts. Many readers of Ecclesiastes are shocked at the earthy, seemingly unspiritual outlook of the book, but many moderns would agree: when you are dead, you are dead. Has "eternity in their hearts" really faded from modern man? Here, however, he affirms an after-life (3:19–20) as he speaks of the spirit of man rising up.
Modern science makes much of the close relationship between mammalian animal bodies and the bodies of humans. The Scholar acknowledges that animals have a spirit. He claims that no one can know whether the fate of the animals’ spirit is the same as ours or different, whether one goes up to God while the other goes down into the ground. I don’t see this as a challenge to our assurance of salvation; he is saying that we can’t actually observe where the spirit goes after death. He bumps up against another limit of wisdom. Our powers of perception and reason don’t give us answers about that.
This passage seems oddly juxtaposed with what precedes it, until we notice the links between the two. Verse 16 seems to be the beginning of another of Qohelet’s protest against injustice, but verses 17 and 22 still tie in the theme of time, seasons, and eternity. The message, then, is that the the human courts may get it wrong, and the guilty may get off free. We all die; death does not give us justice; even animals die. Just do right and enjoy a clean conscience. It is up to God where your spirit will reside.
Ecclesiastes 4 He now considers Man in relation to man.
4:1–3 The literary structure paints a vivid picture -- on one side, the oppressed are in tears, and on the other side the oppressors have power. And the oppressed have no comforter, no recourse to help, no hope for rescue. Better to be dead, and better than that never to have been born--there is no stronger way to describe the plight of the oppressed. Stop and let that soak in for a moment. That is language you would not expect to find in Scripture.
Is there such a thing as a life that is not worth living? Those who support abortion and euthanasia think so. And the Scholar seems to think so as well. Again, the tragedy of our circumstances, of being mortal, is that we have little insight into the future. If we had the means to go back in time and erase a few infamous oppressors, there is a compelling moral argument in favor of doing so. But we cannot.
John Piper wrote a book a while ago called “Future Grace.” His premise is that the faithfulness and obedience of God’s people is fueled by God's grace. As God has been gracious to us in the past, we believe that He will extend grace to us in all our tomorrows. In all the phases of our lives--from the embryo, in infancy, childhood, schooling, marriage and careers, to old age and death--we depend on God's provision. He has not failed us. Our circumstances challenge us, but God calls us to be a forward-looking people, trusting Him for the future. In the midst of it all, we do not close our eyes to the suffering in the world, but we mourn and we try to make it right.
4: 4–6 The Scholar introduces a disturbingly contemporary issue: is all our labor and achievement a product of envy? Are we all just working to "keep up with the Jones”? If someone came up to you today and offered to double your salary, but the work would be much harder and would require longer hours, would you be able to rightly value your leisure, your relationships, and health, and walk away from it?
Qohelet again tells the other half of the story. Industriousness is preferable to laziness, but there is another line we should not cross: the one between industry and workaholism. The scholar merges the themes of workaholism and relationships. Some people spend so much time working that they isolate themselves. Working makes no sense if you don’t have someone to share the fruits of your labor. If you fail, you will need someone to help you back on your feet. If you are attacked, your money won’t fend off the attackers, but a friend will. And your money won’t keep you warm at night!
4:13–16. Chapter 4 ends with a parable that is difficult to follow. It is a story of a King who was rich but old, and too proud to keep learning, and a young, poor youth who had his ear attuned to wisdom and grew up to take the King’s place. Wisdom, then, does have its benefits. But there is a twist. Many years later another king will come, and the people will cheer that new king and forget the previous one. Our Scholar may be the aging ruler reflecting on his many years of empty pursuits.
The Scholar ends this chapter with another penetrating observation. Glory fades, reputations are forgotten. Wisdom is helpful, but it’s not everything.
Can one overestimate the value of wisdom?
Notes prepared by Greg Meyer.