|16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again! 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.
18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is mere breath.
20 All go to one place;
all are from the dust,
and all turn to dust again.
21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; Who, really, is able to see what will happen after their passing?
I was watching a movie recently, and one of the main characters said to the villain, “You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.”
“They do?” asked the villain?
Except we know that is not true. The good do not always come out ahead. Sometimes the villain wins. Good does not always triumph over evil, at least not in ways that we can see. Sometimes nasty little fellows end up getting very rich.
Qohelet, in his unflinching view of life has seen that happen time and time again. We like to think that life is like the movies; the good guy always wins in the end, and gets to ride off in the sunset with the girl. The bad guy always suffers a humiliating defeat. But life is not a movie. It is much more complicated. (In fact, sometimes we cannot even tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys!)
But for Qohelet this is not a reason to despair. He has just told us that everything happens in its time. Justice will happen, and God will see to it, but in God’s time, not our time! The problem is that we often want things to happen in our time, according to our schedules. We don’t like waiting. Things are resolved on TV in less than an hour (not counting commercials). It takes slightly longer in movies—two hours. But it is always resolved.
That is not the way things happen “under the sun.”
Then Qohelet raises an interesting question. He has just talked about wickedness and injustice, in short saying we live like animals sometimes. Justice does not always prevail in ways we can see. But he takes that even further. A man lives, a man dies. An animal lives, an animal dies. What is the difference between us?
For Qohelet there is one major difference—we can take pleasure in our work. An animal does what it has to do to survive. Humans have more leeway. We are not just creatures of need. For Qohelet, even though he is not sure about an afterlife[i], the fact that we can be cognizant of our own existence sets us apart from the animals.
He ends this section by asking, “Who really knows what happens in the future?” and is most likely referring to what happens after we die.
Thoughts and Questions
- How does it make you feel knowing that you will not always see justice and what is right and good prevail? Does it make want to fight for justice even more, or sit back and just let things happen? Do you think that we are ever instruments of God’s justice?
- In a few weeks we will celebrate Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, according to Paul, is prove of our resurrection. Qohelet lived in a time long before Christ. How different is it to live our lives in the light of the Resurrection? How might your life be different if you did not know of the Resurrection?
[i] At the time that Qohelet was writing this the idea of a personal afterlife was new to the Jewish tradition. Qohelet is not sure he agrees with these newfangled ideas.