The Prickly Problem of Injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18)

As we finish up Ecclesiastes 3 we see the Preacher dealing with the issue of injustice here on earth and whether real justice can be expected here, then Solomon gets back to the issue of dying, one issue that frequency disturbs him.

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?

Even if someone believes that we are nothing more than mere material beings, whose choices have nothing to do with a sense of morality but are just physical/chemical responses we have no control over, we don’t live that way.

Materialists and atheists hardly live consistently with their worldview.  Instead, they say we are nothing more than the result of physical or chemical processes, but in reality they make choices every day and do cry out “This is unfair” or “This can’t be right.”  They know when they see right and wrong.

The reality is, they deny real choice and a sense of morality because they want to escape any thought of being held accountable for their life.

One of the more consistent arguments against Christianity is the existence of evil.  If there is a God, why does He allow evil?  Well, there are several possible answers to that, but let me just say that we all have questions at times of “Why do innocent people suffer?” and “Why do bad people get away with it?”

That seems to be part of the issue Solomon is dealing with here in vv. 16-18.

A phenomenon that makes it most difficult for us to understand God’s ways, and respond to them properly, is the problem of injustice in this life.  Solomon believed God would eventually balance the scales of justice (v. 17), and that He uses injustice for His own purposes (v. 18).

We don’t always get justice here on earth, Solomon says, in v. 16.  There is “wickedness” even in “the place of justice” and “the place of righteousness.”  God has established governing authorities for our good, to reward good and punish evil, according to Romans 13.  But we know it doesn’t always turn out this way.

We believe that life is ordered by moral principles, that when violated, receive punishment.  But that doesn’t always seem to happen, at least not soon, or not in this life at all.

Asaph dealt with this in Psalm 73.  Asaph starts out parroting his theology lesson for that day—” Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”  Then he explains…

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. 

He observed that these wicked and arrogant people were prosperous, healthy, not in trouble even though they walked around in pride and violence.  They were always at ease, living on easy street.  In contrast, Asaph goes on to say that he “had been stricken and rebuked every morning” (v. 14).  To try to understand this injustice in life was “a wearisome task” (v. 16) until, and notice the turning point in his thoughts, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

Now he began thinking from God’s point of view.  He was able to see their “end,” what would ultimately happen to them in the future.  Even though earlier he had wondered whether it was worth keeping himself pure and following God, now he reflects back and says…

21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.

In other words, “I was thinking like an animal.”  Animals don’t think about God or the future and Asaph now realizes that all he was thinking about was man, in the here and now.  He wasn’t thinking about God, about spiritual realities, or about eternity.

But notice how he ends…

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

First, he had compared what the wicked had now (seeming good) with their future (definitely bad), whereas his own was good (glory).  Second, he learned that having God was more important than having anything else, or everything else.

As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “We don’t know that Christ is everything we need until he is everything we have.”

Again, Solomon says…

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. 

This issue of injustice will come up several times throughout Ecclesiastes.

Here Qoheleth sounds like one of the Biblical prophets. Men like Amos and Jeremiah were always crying for justice, and rightly so because justice is one of the deepest longings of the human heart.  It starts during childhood: “Hey, that’s not fair!”  Unfortunately, unfairness does not stop at the playground but goes all the way through life.

The problem here is that even “the place of justice” is unjust.  The very place where we most expect and most need to receive justice turns out to be a place of unfairness.  Even the court system is corrupt. 

At times even innocent people are convicted for crimes they never committed, maybe based on being at the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe because of someone’s desire for revenge, or maybe based upon skin color.

At the other end, some people get away with murder because they can hire the best lawyers.

We feel at a loss because there seems to be nothing we can do about this.

The Preacher’s frustration is not simply that injustice is done, but that it goes unpunished.  According to Martin Luther, he is “not complaining because there is wickedness in the place of justice but because the wickedness in the place of justice cannot be corrected.” 

When the halls of justice become corridors of corruption, where can righteousness be found?

Solomon will pick up this theme again in Ecclesiastes 4:1…

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun.  And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 

We hear a lot about oppressors and the oppressed in discussion about racism and intersectionality issues.  Marx and now much of society wants us to think only in these terms.

But there is a reality that much oppression happens, here and around the world.  Oppressors (by nature) have power on this side, but God is not on their side.

God is not on the side of injustice but stands against it with all his power.  We see this again and again in the Biblical prophets.  Amos preached against people who “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy” (Amos 4:1; cf. Proverbs 14:31).  Ezekiel warned about extortion and stealing from foreigners (Ezekiel 22:12).  Zechariah listed the people who were most likely to be oppressed: widows, orphans, travelers, and the poor (Zechariah 7:9–10; cf. Exodus 22:21–22). It is not just words and actions that bring oppression but also legislation.  Thus Isaiah pronounced God’s woe against “those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isaiah 10:1).

When the Preacher saw what was really happening in the world, he longed for someone to comfort the oppressed and dry their tears.  In a culture of exploitation, he wanted to rectify wrongs and console the victims of injustice.  Twice he lamented that no one was able to offer any comfort.

Twice in Ecclesiastes 4:1 he says “they had no one to comfort them” and “there was no one to comfort them.”  And notice this was both for the oppressed AND the oppressors!

The Preacher had an intense, heart-felt response to these people and the pain they were in, just like we see exhibited with Jesus.

On the one hand, Jesus responded to the plight of the oppressed with lamentation, like the tears that Jesus shed for the harassed and helpless people of Israel, “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

On the other hand, he responded to their oppressors with indignation, like the angry words that Jesus had for the moneychangers at the temple (e.g., Luke 19:45–46).  

But what the Preacher mostly felt was frustration that he could not bring an end to oppression.

Even though Solomon, at that time one of the mightiest men on earth, could do nothing about it, he believed that ultimately God would.

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.

Here the Preacher applies what he had taught earlier in the chapter, that “there is a season for everything and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

So there is a time for justice.  Thus, rather than getting angry or sad about all the oppression we see around the world, we can trust God to make all things right in the end.

This does not mean that there is never a time for us to pursue justice now.  Depending on our place in society — the spiritual or civil authority that God has given to us — it is our responsibility to fight against oppression.  As fathers and mothers, as pastors and elders, as citizens and public officials, we are called to do what is right in the home, in the church, and in society.

Yet, unfortunately, even our very best efforts will not bring an end to all oppression.  There will still be violence against women and children.  Police officers will still get killed in the line of duty.  There will still be structures of corruption in business and government.  Foreign powers will still abuse their own people in defiance of world order.  But in all the situations that we do not have the power or authority or wisdom to resolve, God will see to it that justice is done.

Our confidence ultimately does not lie in a justice system but in the Chief Justice himself, Jesus Christ.  God has promised a day when his Son will judge the righteous and the wicked (Acts 17:30–31).  The time for his work of divine retribution is the Day of Judgment, when he will render his final verdict on all mankind.

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25), asked Abraham.  And the answer is, “Yes, he will be just and do justice.”

Indeed, the wicked will one day be punished forever (Matthew 25:41–46), and the righteous will be comforted by the Spirit of God, who will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 21:4).

As the Preacher will go on to say at the very end of his book, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

Sometimes the certainty of future judgments, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, seems not enough for us.  But who are we to teach God His business?

Solomon next says that we need to learn some truth about ourselves:

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. 

Again, this phrase “I said in my heart” represents the conclusions Solomon comes to after observing life and meditating on these realities.

He says first that the difficulties of life, like injustice, is one of the ways God tests us.

We know from the New Testament that trials are meant to test us.  James speaks of trials that come, and if we endure them with joy, we will “pass the test” and become mature.  Peter also talks about trials being like the fire that purifies the gold.

God’s purpose in trials is to test us to approve us.  God doesn’t test us so that we will fail, but so that we will pass the test.

Testing teaches us things about ourselves.  For example, Jesus said to Peter…

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

In the very next breath, Peter said, “”Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 

And we know that Peter didn’t do that, but denied Jesus three times.

Peter was full of bravado and self-confidence.  He believed that he would stand up for Jesus when the pressure was on.  But Peter was going to be tested.

We might think that Peter failed the test.  On one level he did.  But Jesus didn’t pray that Peter wouldn’t fail, but that “your faith may not fail.”  That’s why Peter later taught others that trials purify our faith, burning away the dross of bravado and self-confidence, leaving real, true faith in Jesus Christ.

Peter should have, but didn’t at the moment, learn two things about himself.  First, he was in that moment very vulnerable to Satan.  Second, he was in that moment very valuable to Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, Jesus Christ is praying for all of us.

Solomon says here in Ecclesiastes 3:18 that one thing we might learn about ourselves, especially in times of injustice, is how beastly we act.  He said, “God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.”

That is not the whole truth about ourselves, we are more than that.  But it is true that sometimes we act like that.  And it is no wonder, since children have been taught that we are but animals in school!

Hopefully this statement shocks us into living as God intended us, “in his image,” but as we do it should force us to remember that others are also “in his image” and we should do everything we can to protect and enable other image bearers to flourish.

So let’s do what we can to bring justice to other image bearers, and be willing to leave ultimate judgment to God.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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