I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but this little book by Solomon has been steeped in controversy for some time. A lot of rabbis and other religious leaders didn’t want it included in the canon; they claimed that it was too cynical and depressing. But I thoroughly believe that it’s part of God’s word and inspired by the Spirit. As such, it’s “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” We need to hear what this elderly king has to say to us, because God is speaking through him.
Having said that, this isn’t my favorite book in the O. T. I much prefer Proverbs, or Genesis, or Isaiah. There are passages in this book which can depress you. In fact, they’re meant to depress you. Why? So you can just wallow in depression? Of course not. Recall the words of Michael Card: “Remember darkness drives us to the light.”
We need to keep in the forefront of our studies this one little phrase: “Under the sun.” It’s the king’s term for human life outside of God. It’s the materialist mindset: Matter is the only thing that matters. He’s showing us the end result of trying to find meaning outside the Creator.
He starts out today’s passage with a small ray of hope, a whisper of eternity. It looks to our natural perspective that nothing ever really changes in the world. Peoples’ natures haven’t changed at all. We’re all still sinners living in a fallen world. But there is an end to this: “God will call the past to account,” and later in the passage he tells us that “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.” Right now is God’s time for watching history unfold and working (mostly) behind the scenes. But there’ll come a day for the time of judgment of all humanity.
But for now, until he decides to end human history, we have a heavy burden to bear. The Bible tells us the way things ought to be, but you can’t move towards that goal without being honest about the way things are. The truth is, there’s a lot of injustice in the world. My in-laws have experienced a little of this. During their work in Indonesia, it was common knowledge that in order to get anything done you had to “grease a few palms.” If you didn’t, any paperwork you submitted to the government would get lost in the shuffle. And that’s probably the most benign example of this syndrome. The 20th century saw more people who died by the hands of their own government than all other recorded history combined. So when we hear about the latest atrocity committed by a government, why should we be surprised? Solomon saw this thousands of years ago.
So how do we interpret vss. 18-21? First off, we should know what this is not. This is not a theological revelation about the final state of either men or animals. The Hebrew’s a little vague, but it doesn’t look like Solomon’s telling us if we’ll see our puppy dogs in heaven. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about in the third paragraph. He’s pointing out to us how life and death look like to the physical eye. If God didn’t reveal anything to us, then it does look like men and animals all suffer the same fate. We all die, and as near as we can tell from this side, that’s the end of everyone’s (men and beasts) existence. You live, then you die, then that’s it.
But of course this isn’t the last word on the subject. Even within this passage, we see Solomon affirm that death isn’t the end of a man—God certainly can’t judge anyone if they don’t exist, right? And of course Scripture has a lot more to say on this subject. I’ve written before about the fact that we as N.T. saints have a more complete revelation of the afterlife than the O.T. believers did. By his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
But the point is that outside of Christ, there is no hope or ultimate purpose. We might as well just be animals, if death is just the end. There’s tons of injustice that happens every day, and if there’s no God, then the perpetrators have gotten away with it the vast vast vast majority of the time. And that’s the world in which your lost family members, friends, and neighbors live. Kind of makes you want to share the Good News with them, doesn’t it?
Lord Jesus, you are my hope, and I have no other. I’m really sorry for trying to find one. Everything outside you is darkness and emptiness, and you’re the light of the world. Please help me to be a better reflection of that light.