How many Bible readers do you know who consider Ecclesiastes their favorite book? It’s a puzzling read. You ask, is this writer a pessimist or an optimist? Or neither? And does he know that in places he seems to contradict himself? Or so it seems?
Kathleen and I are working our way through the book in our daily Bible reading and we stop often to ponder just what the writer means.
This morning here is what we read in chapter 8:10,11 (NLT):
“I have seen wicked people buried with honor. How strange that they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are praised in the very city where they committed their crimes! When crime is not punished people feel it is safe to do wrong.”
The writer seems to pose two problems people often come up against if they believe there is such a thing as righteousness: (1) How come sometimes even outwardly religious people who have a reputation for doing evil things — and their evil is known — seem to get away with it and even are given accolades of praise at their funerals? (2) Can’t anyone see that when wrongdoing goes on and people get away with crime this way it encourages more crime in their community?
A couple of sentences later the writer goes on: “And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!”
As we reflected on this passage, Kathleen mentioned the name of Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska. She is by all fair reports a decent person. She is married to her first and only husband, and faithful to her family, especially to her Downs Syndrome child. She has been a successful mayor and governor, and there is no evidence that she is carrying on a diatribe against anyone.
Yet, for months now, she has been the most maligned and reviled person on this continent, even worse than Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme bilked investors out of billions of dollars in savings and who is sentenced to 150 years in jail and restitution of 170 billion dollars.
There is also the late Dr. George Tiller, usher in his Lutheran church and famous for the thousands of late term abortions he performed in Kansas. Yet in his untimely and violent death he was praised for his service to the cause of women, as though killing unborn babies was some sort of great service to humanity.
Ecclesiastes sets forth the problem as a dilemma. Bad people sometimes appear to “get away with murder” and are praised. Good people in spite of their decency are sometimes maligned and scorned as though they are in fact wicked.
But, for the writer it is not a completely unresolved dilemma. He writes that when you take the long view of life there is resolution: “But even though a person sins a hundred times, and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off” (verse 12). It is a solution resolved more fully in Psalm 73, but both still comes short of offering a fully satisfying answer to such moral quandaries.
It is Jesus who speaks the final word on this issue. He says, “Don’t be surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to judgment” (John 5:28,29).
We take no comfort in the future of the unrepentant wicked. It is unspeakably bleak. But, at the same time, his words prompt us to live upright lives. And when we know that there is to be an absolute resolution at a final judgment to all unresolved issues, both good and evil, it tends to settle us to live the life of faith in the midst of these dilemmas.