“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered those words in the midst of his struggle to lead our nation to acknowledge the full civil rights of black Americans. His words also accurately summarize the message of Ecclesiastes 8:10–13, which serves as an encouragement to righteousness and a warning against wickedness.
The Preacher begins by making two observations:
First, he writes, “I saw the wicked buried.” Like all things that exist under the sun, human beings are mortal. Their lives are hebel, “vanity”—things that go “Poof!” The fate of death befalls all people, regardless of the morality or immorality of the pattern of their lives. In and of themselves, the deaths of the wicked do not trouble anyone’s conscience, for death is a human constant, a universal expectation.
What troubles the sensitive conscience is not the deaths of the wicked, but their lives. This is the Preacher’s second observation: “They [the wicked] used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things.” The spirituality and morality of the wicked relate to one another in inverse proportions: The greater their religiosity, the less their integrity, character, and good deeds. Such hypocrisy is troubling.
It is pointless too, or as the Preacher writes: “This also is vanity.” Why? Because God is just, and if he does not execute justice at the present moment, he will execute it sometime in the future.
Consequently, the Preacher’s words warn the wicked to cease and desist their law-breaking, God-mocking behavior. Unfortunately, because bad people so often get away with their misdeeds, others think that they can live without rules too. “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” But all of us—whether we are struggling to be good or striving to be bad—should approach life with one eye firmly on the future. If God is just, he will establish justice in the world, whether right now or eventually.
In the meantime, God offers us a chance to repent and do good deeds (2 Peter 3:9). God’s justice encourages us to do the right thing, even when doing so does not bring immediate benefits, because we know that God desires, honors, and ultimately rewards this kind of behavior. As the Preacher writes, “it will be well with those who fear God,” that is, show him the reverence and awe he deserves n every area of their lives.
At times, I am sure, Dr. King despaired of the progress of the Civil Rights movement. Such incremental steps toward justice, so much persecution, so many setbacks! And yet, because he was a Christian, Dr. King was an optimist. Justice will prevail.
God is just, so his creation is bent toward justice. In the long arc of our lives, we ought to patiently bend with it.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.