WRESTLING WITH INJUSTICE
Week of January 17, 2010
Bible Verses:† Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; 4:1; 8:2-13.
Lesson Focus:† This lesson is about how believers experience and respond to the injustices people inflict on one another.
The Place of Injustice: Ecclesiastes 3:16-17.
† Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. † I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.
This section deals with injustice in the world and not knowing whether or when it will be punished, and also revisits the problem of death. The Moreover of verse 16 connects this section with the preceding confessions. As a believer, the Preacher knows that life is good and to be affirmed. But he observes that there are terrible injustices in the world and he struggles with this contradiction. The idea of God having a time for judgment further links this section back to 3:1-15 and indicates why the Preacher finds Godís order for creation so problematic. In verse 16 the Preacher introduces a problem he has observed that makes nonsense of Godís order for creation. The parallelism (justice/righteousness) of this verse evokes the horror of what he has observed, as does the repetition of wickedness. The parallel term to justice, namely righteousness, intensifies the Preacherís observation by reminding the reader what justice is all about: it is to punish evil and reward good and so maintain righteousness among Godís people. But the Preacher observes terrible corruption; instead of righteousness he finds wickedness. Verse 17 picks up on the theme of time in 3:1-8 in a positive way and confesses that there will be a time for judgment that will resolve the problem of injustice. From the fuller revelation of the New Testament we know that at the consummation of history with the return of Christ there will be judgment and restoration, and this revelation answers the Preacherís probing questions about death and justice. How this will all take place we do not know, but the biblical story assures us that there will be a time for judgment, in which justice will be settled once and for all, and mercy will extend as far as it possibly can. This does not mean, however, that believers are exempt from the Preacherís struggle with injustice.
The Power of Oppression:† Ecclesiastes 4:1.
† Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.† [ESV]
In the first three chapters, the Preacher sets the scene by surveying the general contours of our human predicament and the associated issues with which we must grapple in order to make sense and success of our lives. He spoke of the spiritual bankruptcy of secular, under-the-sun living [1:1-2:23]. By way of contrast, he pointed briefly to the alternative, the life of faith in God [2:24-26]. Finally, he argued for the certainties of Godís providence and final judgment, urging, by implication, the necessity of receiving and enjoying life as the gift of God [3:1-22]. The next seven chapters [4:1-10:20] flesh out this thesis by highlighting particular problems and pointing to the Lordís answers. The recurring twin themes are, on the one hand, the utter emptiness of worldly values and, on the other hand, the meaning and joy that is to be found exclusively in a living faith relationship to God. In chapter 4, the Preacher deals with four areas of life he observes that reinforce his view that all is vanity: oppression [1-3], rivalry as the motivation for work [4-6], isolation in work and life [7-12], and the problem of government [13-16]. In 4:1 the Preacher turns to another aspect of life that he observes, namely oppression. His observation of oppression extends his social critique of injustice in 3:16-22. Oppression is a theme found throughout the Old Testament, from the oppression of the Israelites under the Egyptians, to the prophetic voices critiquing oppression, to Israelís experience of oppression in the exile. The Preacherís reference to all the oppressions indicates that oppression was pervasive in the society of his time. The horror and pain of such oppression and its relentlessness is evoked in the Preacherís response, the tears of the oppressed. Power is in the hand of the oppressor, and there is no one to comfort the oppressed. The Preacherís observation of oppression evokes horror in his mind, so much so that he goes on in verses 2-3 to praise the dead and to declare that it is better to be dead than to be alive and to have to witness or be subject to such abuse by human beings.
The Procedure of Protest:† Ecclesiastes 8:2-9.
† I say: Keep the king's command, because of God's oath to him. † Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. † For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, "What are you doing?" † Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way. † For there is a time and a way for everything, although man's trouble lies heavy on him. † For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? † No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. † All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.† [ESV]
From the Preacherís viewpoint, spiritual and ethical anarchism was but another aspect of the meaninglessness of under-the-sun secularized life. Where there is no God, absolutes cannot exist; relativism rules, and that means that people will do what they can get away with Ė and even define it as good. Yet, precisely because it is the ethics of shifting sand, injustice and frustration are its most prominent fruits. Therefore, in addressing the question as to how this meaninglessness can be rolled back, it is to be expected that Godís Word would teach us that we can be happy and enjoy His blessing in a proper respect for authority, both civil and divine. Having told us that we can learn from experience [7:1-14] and grow in wisdom as Godís children [7:15-8:1], it is a short step to bring us to the prospect of enjoying the good hand of God in the context of an ordered life [8:2-3].
Two main themes attract the writerís attention in Ecclesiastes 8. The first theme is the positive principle that we are called, in the Lord, to be obedient to the civil authorities [8:2], and the second theme is that God will bless His people even under injustice and an oppressive government [8:12]. The Preacherís first major proposition is that rulers are to be obeyed [8:2]. Submission to the king was made by a solemn oath before God and this command is consistent with the teaching of the Word of God [cf. Rom. 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:17]. The distinctly theological reason for a prudent and respectful submission to authority is the desire to obey God. This is the more profound reason because it gives expression to the true basis for all submission to the authorities. It is not a case of blind unquestioning obedience of the Ďmy country right or wrongí variety. The oath implies that there is a higher allegiance due to God Himself. His will is the first and most important consideration in this, as in all aspects of life. At the same time, situations can arise in which obeying God means disobeying the authorities [Acts 4:19; 5:29]. There are things to be rendered to Caesar and other things to be rendered to God [Matt. 22:21]. But Scripture is clear that within its proper, God-defined sphere, civil government is to be submitted to out of a desire to follow the Lord faithfully. God-honoring submission to authority is never blind obedience. The government is neither our conscience nor our ultimate sovereign. We are never called by God to a blindly passive and amorally slavish conformity to whatever laws men may decide to impose. We are actually called to an active, analytical, and ethically biblical response, even in the face of potentially threatening consequences. If this is done with wisdom, the danger may be averted and it may even be possible to achieve great things. A wise man will know what to do, how to do it and when the time is ripe.
There is a proper time and a way for everything [8:6]. The reason the Preacher gives for this proper timing is that man does not know the future [8:7]. Therefore he needs to be patient and rely upon Godís leading in order to make the wise decision how to correctly handle any situation because God-honoring submission to authority does not imply unlimited obedience [8:8]. The Preacher has spoken of the propriety of obedience toward our rulers [8:2]. He also spoke of the importance of careful procedure in approaching the authorities, especially when some change is desired [8:5-7]. Now, just in case we feel that we have no freedom of thought or action in relation to the power of the government, he tells us that it has very real limitations. However wise and respectful we ought to be to kings and politicians, we need not be cowed into servility or craven fear in their presence. They do not have unlimited power. Government is not God, however totalitarian its aspirations and policies may be, however godlike its pretensions to regulate the lives of its subjects. These limits are evident in two facts given by the Preacher. No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. What the Preacher is getting at is that human authority cannot prevent death when that day has come. The day of each personís death proves the limit of human power. Also, can the power of government prevent minds from thinking their own thoughts? The fact is that the tentacles of the greatest tyrannies have failed to crush the life out of the human spirit, far less thwart the purposes of God. God is in final control and will exercise His judgment over the governments of this world. Godís power in the exercise of His righteous judgment [3:17] is the ultimate limitation of the ambitions of political power.
The Prospect of Reversal:† Ecclesiastes 8:10-13.
† 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. † Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. † 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. [ESV]
The Preacher highlights four instances of injustice. (1) Authority is often exercised to the hurt of those whom it is supposed to serve [8:9]. (2) The wicked† are praised in life and eulogized in death in the very cities where they practiced their injustices [8:10]. (3) The sluggish execution of justice is observed to have the effect of encouraging lawlessness in others, as they become persuaded that they may get away with light punishment [8:11]. (4) The wicked are seen enjoying the benefits of their misdeeds throughout long lives, in the course of which they apparently avoid any penalty for their actions [8:12]. To manís universal experience of injustice, the Preacher offers two practical and God-centered answers. These are the answers of faith and are as universal in their applicability as the injustices he mentions are in their capacity to frustrate us. First, the doctrine. Consider the destiny of the righteous and the wicked [8:12-13]. In an echo of Psalm 73, the Preacher affirms as an article of faith that the prosperity of the wicked is an allusion. Things will not ultimately go well for them, whatever appearances there may be to the contrary. On the other hand, he knows that it will be well with those who fear God. He knows in the sense that he believes with unshakeable faith. It is not what he has seen with his eyes in the world. It is what he sees with the eyes of faith Ė faith in what God has revealed, reinforced by his personal experience of Godís grace. It is in the nature of faith to look beyond the evidence of the senses. By faith, the believer knows that Godís perfect justice is being worked out. And it is because of his faith in the doctrine of divine justice and the essential goodness of God that he can retain a sense of proportion about the as yet unredressed injustices of wicked people. To know the self-revealing God is to know that His will is being done and that this must end in the blessing of Godís people and the overthrow of injustice and oppression and every other contradiction of the mind and will of God. Secondly, the practice follows from the doctrine. The God who is just and good wants His people to enjoy His good gifts [8:15]. God has given. This is the bedrock truth that is to motivate our use of all our gifts. The leading motif of our lives should be a redeemed joy, relaxing in the sunshine of His smile and exulting in the assurance of His love.
Questions for Discussion:
1.†††††††† How do you deal with all the injustices that you see in the world? What does the Preacher say is the final solution to all injustice?
2.†††††††† What should the Christianís attitude be towards those in authority [see also Matt. 22:21; Acts 4:19; 5:29; Rom. 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:17]? How does the Christian determine when and how authority must be resisted?
3.†††††††† What are the four instances of injustice the Preacher highlights in 8:10-13?
4.†††††††† What two practical and God-centered answers does the Preacher give to manís universal experience of injustice? How can you use these answers in dealing with the injustices around you?
Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker Academic.
Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.
Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.