In Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes, Solomon contemplates God’s sovereign providence, God’s counsel in time, as it shapes the life of men under the sun. Man senses that work of God, but walks over against it in darkness. This is brought out yet more fully in what he says in this section. Verse 15 ends on the note, “God requireth that which is past,” or more literally “seeks what is pursued.” In the activities of men, God is a righteous judge. In His counsel and purpose, and in His providence, God judges the works of men in time and eternity. Seeing this is, however, a matter of faith.

What is seen under the sun among men stands in contrast to this truth. “And moreover I saw the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there” (Eccl. 3:16). Solo­mon looked to the place where judgment was to be found, where justice was to be administered in truth. It was not there. Looking to the affairs of men, in court and civil dealings among men, which in Israel were to be according to the law of God, one expected to find justice in the fear of God. But what was found there was a perversion of truth and right, a bending of justice in sin. This is no less true in our day in a sinful world. This was not only in the corruption and perversion of formal judgment, the rule of law, but it was a corruption and perversion found also in the judges themselves. Where uprightness or righteous­ness in the person of the judge should be found, there was iniquity. They and their judgments were corrupted and perverted. Sin and iniquity lie as a stain upon all the affairs of men. When men stand in places of power and responsibility, in the place of authority to render just judg­ment, iniquity is there. Men defraud their neighbor under the “appearance of right” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 42), by cunning devices and with lies and deceit.

Solomon does not enter directly into the causes of this perversion of justice. The Word of God abundantly testi­fies of the covetousness of men, of the taking of bribes, of influence pedaling, and of the power of rich men to oppress their neighbor. The wickedness of man and his wickedness in judgment fill the world around us under the sun. We should note, however, that Solomon, being king, beholds this not only in the world in general but also as one who rules in the life of the church. In Israel also this perversion of justice was to be found.

Our text does imply a certain spiritual root that is at the heart of such perversion. It is that men, walking in the arrogance of sin and pride of heart, put from them the truth of God and His judgment. They say within them­selves that God does not know. In their darkness they say there is no one above them who will require what they do as they pursue their prey and persecute the afflicted. Thus it is with the rich man in Psalm 73, men of power in the earth:

Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth (Ps. 73:6-9).

It may seem under the sun that such wickedness of men goes unchecked and unpunished. Solomon himself, though king, was unable to restrain it. Yet, the testimony of God’s Word, which we hold by faith, stands in opposi­tion to what is seen. Solomon sets before us both what he sees under the sun and what he contemplates in his heart by faith. He shows us his own inner thoughts. “I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work” (Eccl. 3:17). God does judge the affairs of men ac­cording to His own counsel and purpose. Included in that counsel is that wicked men judge wickedly, for sin must be exposed as sin. “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction” (Ps. 73:18). This too is in the seasons of God’s providence.

But God will judge the matter with a righteous judg­ment, that men should render an account before Him. He judges between the righteous and the wicked. He did so between Saul and David, and between David and Absalom. The unjust judge is one who is a fool, who walks to his own destruction, but in God’s time and not by man’s determination. God will bring truth and righteousness to light and wickedness into condemnation. He is truly the righteous judge of all. It is not true that God does not see or know. He does. But that is not immediately apparent under the sun, for judgment is not executed instantly but in its season. That God does judge, is judging even now, and will finally judge in eternity is known by faith. God’s judgment serves His counsel and purpose. In that confi­dence Solomon speaks in his heart of a fact: “God shall judge.” Nothing is hid from His sight. His judgment is sure, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked” (Eccl. 3:17).

Solomon further reflects on this working of God’s providence in judgment: “I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts” (Eccl. 3:18). There is in God’s sovereign dealings a working of judgment that tests and proves men in the affairs of life, exposing what they are in themselves. Over against the arrogance of men stands the reality that he will die. The wages of sin is death, and man is a creature of the dust. In his pride he exalts himself and works wickedness, corrupting also justice and judgment, in the service of his own pride and covetousness. But he is as the beast of the earth.

What stands on the foreground is the truth of man’s creaturely powerlessness. For all his boasting in himself, he is of the earth earthy. The statement is very direct, he is a beast. Lest we misunderstand the point of comparison, Solomon explains it, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity” (Eccl. 3:19). The beasts of the field were formed of the earth in their creation. They too are of the dust of the ground. Their breath is the breath of a living organism tied to the earth. They too lie under the curse that came upon the creation because of man’s sin. Man, as he is formed of the dust of the ground, is not different from the beasts in this aspect of his creation. He breathes the same air, eats and drinks, begets offspring. He is tied to the earth and is earthy, a creature of the dust.

This organic commonality with the animals man shares in such a way that he can see it under the sun. It is not hid from him. It answers and rebukes the sinful pride with which man exalts himself. And like the beast also, he dies. He returns to the dust. “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccl. 3:20). Solomon has in view the physical reality of death and corruption from the viewpoint of what is seen under the sun. The departure of the breath of a man and that of an animal in death are visibly the same. They both die, and both return to the dust in corrup­tion. From that viewpoint the sons of Adam have not “preeminence above a beast.”

Where are the great men of the earth who heaped riches to them­selves, defrauding their neighbor? Where is the great name, the powerful man, the statesman of the earth, or the man of power and influence? Their names run across the headlines for a season, under God’s providence, in the affairs of life, and then the headlines pro­claim: they are dead. They carry nothing with them. The result is that “all is vanity” (Eccl. 3:19). They are like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who heaps and gathers, builds bigger barns, and would then take his ease, “But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Luke 12:20).

That reality of death confronts man under the sun and testifies against him. But there is more, which cannot be seen with the eye. Man is not a mere beast. He is a crea­ture of the dust, and this alone reproves him; but he has also a soul, a human spirit, distinct from the animals. The animal’s life is communicated organically by its begetting of offspring. It is of the earth alone, and its life is in its blood. But man was made by a twofold creation. God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man be­came a living soul or organism. Physically man is like the beast, and yet he is different. But this difference cannot be seen with the eye directly at the moment of death. It, too, is known by faith and not sight. Solomon therefore adds, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” (Eccl. 3:21). With that distinction comes the truth that it is appointed unto men once to die and afterward the judgment. The Lord will require the soul of the rich fool. He will stand before God. This truth the wicked of the world do not want to hear in their pride and covetousness. He who walks by faith knows the end of the matter, and the distinction between a man and a beast. The spirit of man goeth upward, unto God who gave it and who judges the works of men.

The application of this truth Solomon will make more fully, particularly to the young man and his labor, activ­ity, and walk, “…but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (Eccl. 11:9). Here he would have us to draw a conclusion concerning the activities of life and their place, by contrast with the folly of sin. God ordains the seasons of life. To walk humbly with God from day to day in contentment is the true value of the transitory gifts of life. The future is in God’s hands and under His dominion. God ordains what happens and befalls us in this life. Not in the life of the world, but in Him is our true refuge, as the God of our salvation in Christ. The things of the world and the activities of this life are our portion under the hand of God.

Solomon thus draws this conclusion, “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?” (Eccl. 3:22). The answer to the question “who?” is no one, no mere man. The present blessings and rejoicing in contentment are our portion. They are from the hand of the Lord. Tomorrow is unknown to us, hidden in God’s counsel. It is in His hand that we should thus rest, con­tent with our daily bread.