Ecclesiastes is a puzzling book of the Bible. At the same time, it speaks powerfully to the confused human state we are in.
Kathleen and I have worked our way through the book several times in our daily Bible reading across the years. It has triggered many rich conversations.
One morning we read verses 10 and 11 of chapter 8 (NLT):
I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This too is meaningless. When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.
The writer seems to pose two problems for people who believe there is such a thing as righteousness: (1) How is it that those who have done evil things seem to get away with it, and are even given accolades at their funerals? (2) Why do others not see that when wrongdoing is unaddressed, this encourages others to do the same?
A couple of sentences later (verse 14), the writer voices a third perplexity: Why do good people sometimes get punished as though they are wicked?
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 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. Certainly she was a controversial figure, particularly when running as a vice presidential candidate in 2008. And still, by all fair reports, she has been a decent person. She is married to her first and only husband, and faithful to her family, especially to her Down’s syndrome child. She has been an accomplished mayor and governor, and to our knowledge has never been indicted.
Yet such public abuse was rained down upon her back then! It seems to us that there was more negative press coverage by far than for a contemporary, Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme bilked investors of billions.
There is also the late Dr. George Tiller, usher in his Lutheran church and infamous for the thousands of late-term abortions he performed in Kansas. Yet in death he was praised for his service to the cause of women. Killing babies perfectly able to survive outside the womb and weeks away from natural birth seemed to be hailed as a great service to humanity.
And we have more recently the worry that there are two systems of justice in North America: One for selected politicians and bureaucrats, and another for the rest of us. While the actual merits of each case are open to argument, the perception that Lady Justice is no longer blind is widespread indeed.
But for the writer, these dilemmas are not completely unresolved. He writes in verse 8:12 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.
Jesus speaks the final word on this issue. He says in John 5:28 and 29:
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.
We are sobered to know of the eventual punishment of the unrepentant wicked. Their future is unspeakably bleak. But, at the same time, our Lord’s words prompt us to live upright lives. And this knowledge of eventual justice is a balm for the wounds of injustice we experience in this world.
And above all, when we know that there is to be an absolute resolution at the Final Judgment of both good and evil, we can settle into the life of faith in God in Christ Jesus, in the midst of our dilemmas.
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