Solomon said that there is a time for everything, and those times are determined by God. When it rains, it rains because God decreed that it would rain. When two nations go to war, they go to war because God decreed that they would. Our view of God’s eternal decree is summarized best in 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Everything – even death itself – is ordained by God for His glory and His people’s good.
Having completed a magnificent presentation of God’s eternal decree, Solomon turns to the largest portion of Ecclesiastes (3:16-8:17). Here, the Preacher will reflect on how God’s eternal decree influences the meaning and pragmatics of life in a fallen world. His attention is first led to evil (3:16-4:16), but the object in focus at the end of chapter 3 is man. For this reason, we will categorize the present study as “people in God’s decree,” though it is correct to consider it “part one” of Solomon’s treatment of evil in God’s decree.
Inescapable Evil (v.16)
First, there is evil that is inescapable (v.16). “Moreover I saw under the sun: in the place of judgment, wickedness was there; and in the place of righteousness, iniquity was there” (v.16). This verse presents two parallel statements (common practice in Hebrew poetry). Solomon sees wickedness in the place where justice should reign. What precise “place” Solomon has in mind could be a number of things. Perhaps Solomon generalizes in order to encapsulate all earthly seats of justice. The temple was a place of justice. Solomon’s court was a place of justice. Today, the Supreme Court is a place of justice. Solomon sees wickedness in those places.
There is evil in the places where evil should be fought, and that’s where the weight of this verse falls. The immediate point is not that wickedness can be found in brothels – no one is startled by this. Solomon is saying that brothel-brand wickedness is found in the courthouses and local churches. The surgeon’s scalpel is not sanitized. The infantry regiment is overweight. The nursery is filled with swallow-able objects.
The practical significance is this: “If even our places of justice are corrupt, then how can we escape evil?” Solomon is directing our eyes to inescapable corruption. Trying to fight evil while your high-places of righteousness are engrossed in iniquity, is like trying to fight a cold with an autoimmune disease. The reality is that, regardless of how you interpret the millennium: there will never be a perfect administration of justice on earth without direct rule from Jesus Christ. There will always be wickedness in the place of justice. This is the reality of our situation in a fallen world. Solomon is directing our eyes to evil that is inescapable.
Inescapable Evil is Momentary (v.17)
Second, inescapable evil is momentary (v.17). “I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work’” (v.17). There is evil about which you cannot do anything, but that does not mean it will never be handled. There is a day of judgment coming. This is the hope Solomon directs his readers to in the face of inescapable corruption.
Our days seem long on this earth, groaning under the weight of evil. There will come a day when heaven will open and a white horse shall appear. And upon this beast will sit the Christ Himself, come to judge and make war. And his eyes shall be flames and on his head shall be many crowns. And heaven’s armies will follow him on white horses. And the wicked will cry out for mountains to fall down upon them to hide them from His wrath (Revelation 19).
And in eternity, these wicked days will appear momentary. The inescapable evil that surrounds us will appear brief. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the momentary nature of evil. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not see. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, emphasis mine). So we read Ecclesiastes 3:17 with much joy: “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” Solomon says that God has decreed a time for evil to exist, but He has also decreed a time for evil to be destroyed.
This is a good point to keep in mind when the world laughs at you for believing what the Bible says. It is easy to watch the news and think to yourself, “The church is out-numbered. How might we survive the crazies?” You need to look at wickedness in the context of history – both past and future. One day, the people of God will be gathered around the throne of Christ, in the new heavens and new earth, and will be scoffing at the futility of abortion. We will be laughing about how feeble the campaign to normalize homosexuality was. God’s Word and the people He calls out of the world through His Word are on the right side of history. In the light of eternity, evil has a brief tenure. There is evil that is inescapable, but inescapable evil is momentary.
Inescapable Evil is Humbling (vv.18-22)
Third, inescapable evil is humbling (vv.18-22). “I said in my heart, ‘Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals’” (v.18). God is testing men. From the context, it is clear that God is testing men with inescapable evil. He uses inescapable evil as a test.
Now, Solomon does not say that God is tempting us. God does not tempt people. There is a difference between “tempting” and “testing.” “Tempting” is trying to bring someone down into sin; “testing” is trying to reveal someone’s true nature. “Tempting” has the aim of destruction; “testing” has the aim of revealing. God will never tempt you, which means He will never entice you with sin for the purpose of destroying you. God will never do that. However, God may test you: He may bring you in contact with wickedness in order to reveal and refine the nature of your faith. James says that we should rejoice when God tests us because “the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3).
When Solomon says that God is testing us, he means that God is attempting to reveal who we really are. God does this by ordaining inescapable corruption in the world – corruption that we are powerless to fight. So who are we? Who are we shown to be, when we are viewed in the light of inescapable evil?
Solomon tells us at the end of verse 18: “That they may see that they themselves are like animals” (v.18). God wants you to look at the inevitable reality of wickedness on earth and be reminded that you are like an animal. This is the lesson God wants you to learn from wickedness in the courtroom, in the local church, in the Presidency. This does not mean that you are like an animal in every way. You are created in the image of God, and animals are not. Solomon explains what he means in verses 19-20: “They themselves are like animals. For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.”
Solomon is drawing a singular comparison: people, like animals, die. Dogs die, fish die, deer die – and people die. There’s the lesson: when it comes to life on earth, your fate is the animal’s. Notice that Solomon’s emphasis, his main point of comparison, is between man and animal. He is emphasizing the creatureliness of mankind. Man is no better off than the animals. Animals are mortal and we are mortal. We both come from dust and we both return to dust. You are a creature. You are a mere creature, and certainly not God.
“How can I look at inescapable evil in the world and be reminded that I’m a mere creature?” There is no way you can fix all of these problems. You do not have the power to rid the civil government of wickedness. You do not have the power to make the nation see how evil abortion is. The job is too big for you. It is common place today to encourage people (especially children) by saying, “You can do anything and be anything you set your mind to.” That is a lie. There are many things you cannot do. There are many jobs that are beyond your ability. Ridding the world of injustice is a job too big for you. You cannot save the world from inescapable evil. Only God can do that.
So don’t try to do God’s job. You are not God. There is a God in Heaven, and you are not Him, and you need to be reminded of your place in this world. Your place is with the animals: doing what God created you to do. Your job is not to save the world from evil – your job is to be about the work that God has given you: whether it’s dishes, a biology exam, a football game, a double-shift at the mill, a root canal, or a 500 mile day in the truck – whatever it is that God has given you to do, you are to do it with all your might and in the joy of the Lord. Because you are not God; you are one of God’s creatures.
This is exactly what Solomon encourages us toward in verse 22: “I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” The great, immovable fortresses of evil in this world are momentary reminders that we are, after all, quite small, and our lives are truly quite simple, and that’s really how God wants it to be.
God wants you to live like a spider. Her life revolves around weaving a web and trying to catch a mosquito. She is not concerned about the 18-wheelers zooming by on the highway. She is not worried about who is going to be the next President. She is not loosing sleep over what the next pandemic will look like. She’s only concerned with doing what God made her to do: make a web, catch a bug, go to sleep. Make a web, catch a bug, go to sleep. etc. God wants you to live like a dog. His life is also simple: eat all the food, bark at everything, and sleep everywhere. The dog is not anxious over the evils that persist on earth: he is only concerned with living the life that God created him to live. Eat, bark, sleep. Eat, bark, sleep. etc.
I could explain to you in detail the lives of millions of animals and insects on this planet, who know why God made them, and who are doing exactly what God made them to do, and who do it with joy. Have you ever seen how glad a dog can be to fetch a muddy stick? These animals are not trying to be something God did not make them to be.
Every living creature on earth does what God created them to do – except people. We are not satisfied with the lives God has given us. We grow discontent and try to make our own way. We think that being a faithful husband who works hard and does not complain is too simple of a life to live. We think that changing diapers and cooking pasta for church potlucks is too simple of a life to live. We are convinced that there have to be more glorious achievements than paying attention in a high school biology class.
People think there is not anything glorious in such a life, but Solomon means to communicate that there is nothing more glorious and happy and joyful than living the life God has made you to live. Which means there is more glory in a pile of dishes than in the Oval Office, if that’s your lot in life. There is more majesty behind a push-mower than behind the desk of Supreme Court justices, if that’s the life God created you to live. It is a simple life that the world yawns at and that makes God smile. So do not let the evening news send your life into chaos. Instead, let it humble you to the point where you place the world in God’s hands and say, “I’m going to do what God created me to do – I’m going to trust everything else to God.” “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (v.22).