Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him. For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be? There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it. All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt. And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Ecclesiastes 8:6-11
The gift of wisdom in the fear of God works both the grace of contentment and a knowledge of God’s sovereignty over the life of men, which yields a submissive and obedient heart. Thus it was said, “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing; and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment” (Eccl. 8:5). To underscore this truth, Solomon returns to the point made in chapter three: “To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1). To that idea of a time or season he now also adds judgment, which wisdom also discerns, for therein lies an element of its blessedness.
“Because to every purpose there is time and judgment” (Eccl. 8:6). The purposes or affairs of life come in time as God disposes. There is a time to every matter that occupies the life of man, whether to be born or die, to gather and build, or to scatter and tear down. God’s purpose is realized therein. God also “shall bring every work into judgment” (Eccl. 12:14).
This is reality. Man is not the master of his own existence, but man who is fallen strives with the sovereign majesty of God in rebellion, as the inventor of evil things (Eccl. 7:29). The result is, “therefore the misery of man is great upon him” (Eccl. 8:6). Misery is, first of all, that which is evil. The evil of man is great; it multiplies itself in his life, and with it comes the wretchedness and misery of his life. Man is not in control of his life. God indeed, “doeth whatsoever pleaseth him” (Eccl. 8:3), but of man such cannot be said. Of man it must be said, “For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be?” (Eccl. 8:7).
Man may indeed claim to be in control of his life and times, but they are not in his own hand. Though he walk in the pride of his heart, yet he is but dust. He does not know, let alone control, what shall be on the morrow. Wisdom teaches a man to say, “If the Lord will, we will do this or that” (James 4:13-16).
Further, God’s sovereign government is characterized by righteous judgment. He not only ordains what will come to pass, but does so as One who judges the works of men, in time and in eternity. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and “…the soul that sinneth shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). There is time and judgment. Nor does man know what shall be or when. Neither concerning his plans and designs, nor even concerning the measure of his own days is his life in his hand.
Solomon would drive this point home. He says, “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those who are given to it” (Eccl. 8:8). Man’s spirit is that breath of life in him. “Spirit” comes from the word for wind or breath by which the Spirit of God breathed into man, at his creation, the breath of life and he became a living soul (Gen. 2:7). Death is first described as the departure of that human spirit. It departs and he dies. He has no power over it to stave off the departure of his spirit. It is in the hand of the Spirit of God: “Thou hidest thy face they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29); “neither hath he power in the day of death” (Eccl. 8:8). Man is like the beast that esdies. Before the power of death he is frail and helpless. Whether it comes by age or disease, accident or sudden event, the time of it is in the hand of God, and it belongs to the judgment of God upon sin.
Wicked man is particularly described here as being at war and as seeking to deliver himself by his wickedness. He strives with death to gain the mastery over it, to put it from him, to be lord over its power. He would retain the spirit; he would remove the day of death. Sinful man seeks to escape that conflict to gain a victory over it. Much of his labor in science and medicine is directed to that end. So likewise he labors to ease the burdens of life and its hardships that death may be thrust away from him. He heaps and gathers riches to make himself secure in an evil day. He pursues pleasures of sin, and yet seeks to escape the consequences of them. When death becomes inevitable, then he may seek to rule it by taking his own life; but he is not its master.
Death is a relentless enemy of man’s life of sinful self-indulgence, “and there is no discharge in that war, neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it” (Eccl. 8:8). And, yet under the sun it may seem that there is no judgment, for all men die, the righteous as well as the wicked.
He now turns to illustrate this dilemma. As man who works evil does not seem to suffer the consequences (the judgment) due to his evil, Solomon says, “All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun: there is a time wherein one man ruleth over another to his own hurt” (Eccl. 8:9). Among the works of men are the wicked works of oppression, particularly when one has power over others. The rich, the powerful, the cunning man who oppresses his neighbor, pass in review before his eyes among the works done under the sun. That he has the wicked in view is clear from verse 10. He would have us see it as he also sees it, first of all, under the sun. What of that wicked man? The viewpoint is similar to Psalm 73 and the prosperity of the wicked.
The wicked man dies, seemingly there are “no bands in their death: but their strength is firm” (Ps. 73:4). The inspired writer observes, “And so I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of the holy, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done: this is also vanity” (Eccl. 8:10). Did that oppressor die in shame and misery? No, he was buried, no doubt with great men eulogizing his passing. He was profane, though outwardly religious, like the Pharisees who robbed widow’s houses, yet coming and going in and out of the temple and before God’s holy presence.
Yes, the wicked man died, but so do the pious and godly. Where then was justice? He lived his days and departed. While it is true that in departing he also departed from the holy men or godly who were so often the objects of his oppression (an alternative explanation for the place of the holy), yet this explanation does not address the development of the vanity found in the situation. Death is exactly that which is seen under the sun to touch the righteous and the wicked. But the reality is, that the wicked man dies. There was an end to his wickedness. He did not deliver his soul from death.
This pattern is so familiar in human life. Men come and go. A man dies and is forgotten, and the works that he did which were evil are also forgotten. They are caused to be forgotten, that is, put out of mind and remembrance. Therein is the vanity of the matter under the sun. Wicked man takes no instruction from his wicked neighbor’s death. It is treated as normal or natural and forgotten. That death is the judgment of God, which he did not escape. That judgment with all its horror, did come upon one who did wickedly and profanely, is not taken to heart. The life of men in the city goes on. The one forgetting is still one who also cannot escape from his own death. The sentence or verdict of God is there, but it is not seen by the eye of men. It is only by faith that the wise ponder the matter.
This leads to a certain conclusion: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the son of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). Evil works bring down upon them the just judgment of God. God’s condemnation of these evil works in His law is manifest. His Word stands and His verdict goes forth from His throne concerning them as a divine decree and sentence of guilt in judgment. But the sentence is not carried out speedily. The wicked are not instantly smitten in God’s wrath. In the moment of sin, judgment does not immediately fall upon the sinner. Adam and Eve did not immediately drop dead physically when they sinned, nor did Cain instantly perish when he murdered his brother.
That the sentence is not speedily executed does not mean it is not there, nor that God’s judgment is not at work in the life of the wicked. It is the sentence of physical death that takes a man’s name and place under the sun that is under consideration here. For God’s people, this seeming delay belongs to the mercy of God who brings His people to repentance, faith, and forgiveness in Christ. The apostle Paul describes the goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering of God as that which “leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4).
But with the wicked it has the opposite effect. They see also that the sentence is not speedily executed. This is the issue the passage in Romans addresses. Natural man thinks or deceives himself into thinking that he shall escape judgment or has escaped it (Rom 2:3). He despises God’s mercy shown to His people in this delay and it does not lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). This is the same concern that Solomon has here. That God’s judgment is not visibly manifested speedily in death leads men’s hearts in the way of their own wickedness. “Therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11). The effect is that described in Psalm 73. “And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?” (Ps. 73:11).
The result in the life of men is that their heart is “fully set to do evil.” They develop in sin. Their conscience is hardened. Sin and pride grow in them not only unto the day of their death but unto the day of God’s final judgment upon sin, the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. The Word of God makes it clear that behind this is the purpose of God that sin appear as sin in the day of judgment. Sin develops in the life of the wicked individual and in a wicked world and its society. It develops under an operation of the wrath of God, spiritually, so that the full reality of sin as worthy of eternal judgment is made plain. The individual is treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. The cup of iniquity in a wicked world is being filled up (Gen. 15:16). Sin grows like a weed that is to be cut down and burnt. This is the organic development of sin under the wrath of God described in Romans 1:18 ff.
The result is, therefore, that their heart is filled up in them to do evil, and the sons of men, fallen in sin, pursue sin. They seek out many inventions or devices to sin (Eccl. 7:29). Occasionally, the sins of some catch up with the wicked in this life, and they are brought to shame. But often they, seemingly, stand even above the law of men, buy their way out of difficulty, and continue on in their ungodly way. The full judgment of God is not seen under the sun, with one exception: they die and death comes upon them. Death is the norm in human life, but it is not normal; it is the judgment of God upon sin. The wicked perish and with it their hope ceases; their treasures go not with them, and they stand before the judgment seat of God. They do not escape.
Against that background the faith of the believer says, “Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him…” (Eccl. 8:12), to which we will return next time, the Lord willing.