Every few years at Grace Bible Church we have a series called “You Asked for It,” which consists of questions people have about the Bible and theology. One of the more common questions is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Of course, that is also a common objection that unbelievers have against Christianity. It is hard for us to understand, and the “answer” is often quite complex.
Solomon deals with that same issue in this last paragraph of Ecclesiastes 8.
10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Once again, Solomon deals with a situation that he feels is vanity, emptiness. It has to do with death and how it doesn’t seem to matter whether one is righteous or wicked. Death comes to us all.
Solomon has been pondering about the power of earthly kings and how we might respond to them (8:2-4), and over God’s sovereignty over death (8:8). Death sobers us. It makes us face our own mortality. It forces us to ask ultimate questions. We are often distracted by the pace and problems of life, but standing next to a grave reminds us of something we try all too hard to forget: that death is coming for us all.
What was troubling Solomon, as it troubled many biblical writers and many people today, is that bad people seemed to have a good life. If God were just, then He ought to judge the wicked and reward the righteous. But when he looked around, he saw just the opposite. The wicked received a good burial; the righteous were quickly forgotten. That didn’t seem fair.
Solomon is saying that the wicked deeds of the wicked were forgotten in the eulogy. Like today, only good words were spoken at their funeral. Like the Living Bible says “I have seen wicked men buried and as their friends returned from the cemetery, having forgotten all the dead man’s evil deeds, these men were praised in the very city where they had committed their crimes!”
Solomon was like Asaph, who admitted that he was “envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3). Asaph makes this complaint in Psalm 73, where he also writes, “They have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (vv. 4–5). In other words, God’s enemies seem to get all the blessing. They make more money, have more power, and experience more pleasure and more popularity than the people who try to do what God says.
This is what Asaph saw, and the Preacher saw it too.
Here was his epitaph for the wicked: “They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things” (Ecclesiastes 8:10).
Although wicked people are prominent in the city, and sometimes even in the church, when they are dead they will be forgotten.
As far as this present life is concerned, however, the wicked often seem to get what they do not deserve. Qoheleth writes about this injustice in Ecclesiastes 8:14: “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.”
In other words, the wicked get rewarded (seemingly by God) while the righteous receive punishment, or bad things in life. We see this happen in the world all the time. Life seems grossly unfair.
Solomon calls this “vanity.” The Reformation theologian Theodore Beza called it “repugnant to reason.” It smacks of injustice and it grates on our sensitivities.
To make matters worse, the apparent inequity between the rewards of the righteous and the unrighteous makes some people more likely to do evil. Notice what happens when the sins of the wicked go unpunished: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11; cf. 7:29).
Here we get another ugly glimpse into the total depravity of the human heart. Because we are not punished right away for our sins, we are emboldened to keep sinning. Because we don’t reap what we sow right away, we think we are getting away with it and so we keep right on sinning. Justice is so painfully slow that some people think they can get away with murder. Remember how Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, professional baseball players, kept using steroids, even though they had been banned, simply because no one was holding them accountable. If there are never any consequences, why not go ahead and sin?
When people operate unrighteously, they are taking advantage of God’s patience. God is patient to allow people time to repent, but He won’t be patient forever. He is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6), but judgment will come. The Scripture says, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Yet many people abuse the kindness and the patience of God by making them an excuse for their immorality.
Peter tells us that in the last days there will be scoffers who deny the coming of Christ as judge, arguing that things will continue as they were from the beginning of creation (2 Peter 3:4).
Cornell University’s William Provine makes this exact argument in his book on Darwinism. “When you die,” he says, “you’re not going to be surprised, because you’re going to be completely dead. Now if I find myself aware after I’m dead, I’m going to be really surprised! But at least I’m going to go to Hell, where I won’t have all of those grinning preachers from Sunday morning.” Then Provine summarizes his own worldview, which has no room for God or for a final judgment:
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life. . . . Since we know that we are not going to live after we die, there is no reward for suffering in this world. You live and you die. (from a 1994 debate with Phillip Johnson at Stanford University, “Darwinism: Science of Naturalistic Philosophy?”)
Dr. Provine offers a long list of things that he “knows,” yet they are actually things that he believes , since none of them are capable of rational or scientific proof.
But notice how similar his worldview is to the one we are warned about here in Ecclesiastes. When people do not believe in God, they misunderstand why life matters and lose their foundation for righteous living, and therefore they turn their hearts toward evil.
To regain God’s perspective on good and evil, instead of this secular perspective, go to the graveyard. Go visit the grave of someone evil. The reality is, they die too.
Now, Alexander MacClaren offers a different perspective. He thinks it is God’s design that justice doesn’t come upon sinners swiftly. Even though the time lapse between sin and punishment may encourage some to sin, it can also be an opportunity for repentance. He says…
If evil-doing was always followed by swift retribution, obedience would be only the obedience of fear, and God does not desire such obedience. It would be impossible that testing could go on at all if at every instant the whole of the consequences of our actions were being realized. Such a condition of things is unthinkable, and would be as confusing, in the moral sphere, as if harvest weather and spring weather were going on together. Again, the great reason why sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily lies in God’s own heart, and His desire to win us to Himself by benefits. (Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, 2 Kgs – Eccl, 369)
Likewise, the Puritan Charles Bridges reminds us…
Were the execution instantly to follow the sentence, how many glorious manifestations of grace would have been lost to the Church! We might have known Paul as “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious;” but not as the “chief of sinners, who obtained mercy,” as a special display of “all long-suffering; and for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe.” (1 Tm 1:13-16). (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 197)
The Preacher believed that although there were plenty of injustices in this life, he was convinced that God would make things right in the end: “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12–13).
It seems that the Preacher is asking us to look beyond this life and see that ultimate justice occurs in the next life. This is what Asaph discovered. Troubled by what he saw—the good life of the wicked—he went to the sanctuary, spent time with God getting His perspective right and “then I perceived their end.”
Whereas before he had almost slipped because he believed that God was rewarding the wicked, now he sees it differently:
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
God treats them like a bad dream and despises them. They will be cast down to ruin, destroyed and swept away by terrors.
Asaph admits that he was thinking more like an animal than a human. In other words, that his perspective was all earthly and temporal and man-centered.
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.
But God is faithful to reward Asaph, in this life and in the life to come.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Qoheleth also knows that ultimately things will not go well for the wicked. One day that wicked person will die, be buried, and then forgotten.
T. M. Moore offers the following paraphrase of verse 10: “And then they die. The funeral’s nice enough: we give the guy his due; his loved ones weep; his friends all say they’ll miss him; then we bury him away from sight, and everyone forgets him.”
Verses 12–13 tell us more. Verse 12 tells us that the wicked want to prolong their days. Because they do not have the assurance of Heaven, they desperately cling to this life. But verse 13 affirms that they will not experience even one more moment than God gives them. The wicked cannot prevent or postpone their own death. David said something similar: “I am gone like a shadow at evening” (Psalm 109:23).
The Preacher says further, and rather ominously, that “it will not be well with the wicked” (Ecclesiastes 8:13; cf. Isaiah 3:11). He is likely thinking about what happens to him after he dies. After death, the wicked faces judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Their sins will be counted against them. And because their names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life, they will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).
Therefore, we are not to envy the wicked, no matter how good their lives seems right now. It will not go well for them on the day of judgment. They will be “thrown into the outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
Given the iniquities of life and the reality that we all die, Qoheleth is still more hopeful about those who live a God-fearing life. “I know that it will be well with those who fear God,” he says, “because they fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12).
What is significant about this statement is that the Preacher usually tells us about things he “sees” and experiences, but this is something he “knows.” I think this is something he knows through revelation. His reply is “not an observation, but the answer of faith.” He believes something that he cannot yet see—that one day all will be well for the person who fears God.
Again, the “fear of God” is not living in terror of God, as if at any moment He will strike us with lightning for a single misstep. It is, however, a recognition that God is judge and we will one day give an account to Him. Michael Eaton calls it “the awe and holy caution that arises from realization of the greatness of God” (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 122-123).
In this case, the realization of God’s greatness also comes with a realization of his nearness. Those who fear God are said to “fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 8:12), meaning that they know they are in his presence.
Most of us walk through our lives without any recognition that God is right there with us, watching us, hearing us, knowing every thought. We would live more carefully and cautiously if we did remember that God is always near, always aware of what we are doing, saying and thinking. He is with us in every moment, with a desire to help us.
The proper fear of God is an important theme throughout Ecclesiastes, but especially at the end. The Preacher has told us to fear God because he is sovereign over the times of life (Ecclesiastes 3:14) and also to fear God when we go into his house for worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1, 7). Later he will tell us to fear God by keeping his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Here he says that if we fear God, it will go well for us in days to come.
Remember the words of the thief on the cross next to Christ. Two thieves were crucified that day, one on either side of Jesus. One of them mocked our Lord, but the other thief rebuked him by saying, “Do you not fear God?” (Luke 23:40). Then he demonstrated his own fear of God by asking the crucified Christ to be his Savior. “Jesus,” he said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). This is the way for anyone to begin living in the fear of God: Ask Jesus to save you!
Steve Brown reminds us:
There were two thieves on the cross. One is there so that we might not presume. The other is there so that you might not despair.. One is damned and the other is saved.
Anyone who asks for forgiveness will receive the same promise of eternal life that the thief received when he was dying on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus will say to us what he said to that thief: “You will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is for this reason, and for this reason alone, that all “will be well” for the man, the woman, or the child who fears God. It is only because Jesus died for our sins on the cross.
Qoheleth’s conclusion that he has returned to so often is: “And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15).
In spite of all the vanity “under the sun,” it is possible for us to find genuine joy in the ordinary things of daily life. Indeed, that is one of the main points of this book.
Here is how Augustine summarized its message: “Solomon gives over the entire book of Ecclesiastes to suggesting, with such fullness as he judged adequate, the emptiness of this life, with the ultimate objective, to be sure, of making us yearn for another kind of life which is no unsubstantial shadow under the sun but substantial reality under the sun’s Creator.”
I don’t think Solomon is resigning himself to cynicism here. He reminds us that life is a gift from God and that we should choose to rejoice in the good gifts that God has given us. We don’t have to figure out all of the mysteries or resolve the inequities of life, we can simply trust God with it and enjoy the simple things of life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Our life is not only a great deal of trouble and hard work; it is also refreshment and joy in God’s goodness. We labor, but God nourishes and sustains us. There is a reason to celebrate. . . . God is calling us to rejoice, to celebrate in the midst of our working day” (Life Together, quoted in James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 47–48).