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If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then why is the world wracked by so much evil? Surely God knows what is going on down here. Certainly he has the power to change it. And we can be absolutely certain that he desires to do so. That being the case, why do we experience so much suffering and pain? Ecclesiastes 3.16–22 asks and answers this question, but its conclusions are surprising.
The Preacher opens with a simple observation: “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” (3:16). There is no substantial difference between justice and righteousness in this verse. By making the same statement twice, the Preacher is simply emphasizing that things are not the way they are supposed to be on planet Earth. Where goodness should be, we see badness instead.
Surprisingly, the Preacher does not speculate on the cause of the world’s moral pollution. Elsewhere, the Bible plainly states that the parlous state of the world is the result of human actions: “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5.12). But here in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher is more interested in how we live a sinful world than in how the world came to be sinful in the first place.
First, he teaches us to live in light of the coming judgment. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter for every work” (3:17). The end-times judgment of us and our deeds is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. Summarizing the biblical evidence, the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ will return from heaven “to judge the living and the dead” (Matthew 25:31–46, 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12, Revelation 20:11–15).
Although we experience evil at the present time, we know that evil will not hold sway forever. In between that time and now, we must be patient. God has appointed a time to judge the world, but it is not now. Instead, in the present, he invites us to repent of our own wickedness and turn to him for forgiveness. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [to return and judge the world]…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Second, the Preacher reminds us of our humble place in the cosmos: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Do you remember how the Serpent tempted Adam and Eve to sin? He said, “God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The first and perpetual human sin is idolatry, trying to replace the Creator with a creature. From idolatry flow all the injustice, wickedness, and death we see around us. So, for our benefit, the Preacher reminds us that we are just creatures—beasts. Like them, we die. Like them, we do not know what the future holds. By reminding us of our similarity to animals, the Preacher humbles us. Therein lies our salvation: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4.10).
How do we live humbly and mindfully of the coming judgment? The Preacher tells us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot” (3:22). In one of my favorite classics, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, thinking about the evil that has descended upon his little Shire and the attendant responsibilities thrust into his hands, says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which the wise old Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Today, how do you decide to use the time God has given you?