Drop Your Phone in the Lake: Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3
Life is filled with unexpected moments of deep joy. For example, a few years back someone let us borrow their lakefront home while they were out of town. Outside their home was a dock where they kept their ski boat and inner tubes that our kids were very excited to ride on at twice the speed of sanity. In order to drive the boat, I had to study and pass a test to get my boating license, and it was very helpful to learn that you should not smoke while gassing up your boat – who knew?
Our times together out on the water were wonderfully fun. I found driving the boat therapeutic, and my kids could spend the entire day getting pulled around on the lake loving every minute of it. It was incredibly relaxing to have my mind distracted from work at the church and misery in the world. The worst part of every day was pulling into the dock, tying up the boat for the night, and checking my phone to see that horrible things had happened to people while I was having fun. From media, social media, calls, texts, and emails the phone would blow up with bad news of oppression, injury, injustice, pain, suffering, and misery. Before I could make the short walk from the dock to the grass, my joy would fade like an inner tube with a leak. I would then spend time praying and grieving throughout the rest of the day.
Then, one day something amazing happened! Standing on the dock, I took my phone out of my pocket and it bounced off the dock into the water, where it disappeared into what the Old Testament calls Sheol. At that moment, joy enveloped me like a warm towel after a cold day on the water. It was such a relief to know that, for at least a few days, no bad news could come my way. For the rest of the glorious vacation I did not have a phone.
Eventually I got another phone, which felt like I was sticking a vein in my arm connected to an IV bag filled with poison. Some days, it feels like my phone only exists to make sure that I get a front row seat to human suffering. Today, we know more information than ever, which means we know for sure that the world is an evil place. This is the sad sentiment of Solomon in Ecclesiastes.
Evil happens in the world, and in the pursuit of justice people take their case to court. The only problem is that sometimes the courts are corrupt Solomon says. To be sure, there are good cops, good lawyers, good laws, and good judges. But, there are also bad cops, bad lawyers, bad laws, and bad judges. Unfortunately, the bad guys seem to often find a way around the system to get what they want so that corruption is covered by more corruption. This is the tall glass of reality served up to anyone who has bellied up to the bar of life under the sun. Making matters worse, we seldom even know all the facts or exactly what happened in various circumstances. As Proverbs 18:17 (ESV) says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Sometimes, if not oftentimes, we are rushing to conclusions about things we know very little facts about.
The only hope for any justice leads us invariably to long for the day that God holds court. If there is no good God who sees and knows all and judges justly in the end, then there is truly no hope for justice in this life. All we are left with is social Darwinism, might makes right, the fittest survive, and the rest of us just get to be the human shield here to stop the bullets from getting to the bourgeoisie.
After continually wandering and speculating in Ecclesiastes, this statement from Solomon about God’s final judgment feels like a raft adrift at sea has finally dropped anchor. Here, a major theme of Ecclesiastes emerges – the future judgment. This theme points to Jesus’ cross where our sin was judged. This theme points to the White Throne judgment near the end of Revelation, where everyone who does not know Jesus is once and for all judged and sentenced to their eternal fate in hell.
There are many false views of the afterlife which contradict the Bible’s teaching about the Kingdom. While each could merit more lengthy study and verses, for the purpose of brevity I will explain each briefly.
Universalism teaches that in the end, everyone will wind up in heaven forever, and that no one will spend eternity in hell. Annilationism teaches that no one will spend forever in hell, as in the end they will simply cease to exist at some point following death. But, Daniel 12:2 refutes both saying, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Simply, Daniel says that Christians will be in heaven just as long as non-Christians will be in hell, forever. Furthermore, Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible and is clear that not everyone will be saved when speaking of the eternal life he offers, as a narrow path on which few travel and narrow gate through which few pass.
Both reincarnation and purgatory say that there is further opportunity for salvation following death. Hebrews 9:27 refutes both possibilities saying “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”
Soul sleep is the teaching that following death our body and soul both lie dormant until the resurrection of the dead. Philippians 1:21-23 refutes this by saying, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Lastly, perhaps the most commonly held false view of the afterlife is that we will never again occupy physical bodies and live a physical existence. This is perhaps most commonly seen as the cartoon picture of heaven where people sit around on cottony clouds in diapers with little wings strumming little harps, which to me seems more hellish than heavenly.
The Bible teaches that we are both material body and immaterial soul that are united in this life. For Christians, following death the body and soul are separated so that while our body rests in the grave our soul goes to be with Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:8). One day the body and soul of Christians will be rejoined upon our resurrection, patterned after Jesus resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). For non-Christians, following this life, their body rests in the grave while their soul goes to a place of just punishment (Hades) where conscious eternal torment is experienced until their body and soul are rejoined for final sentencing into the endless pain of hell (Revelation 20:13-14).
Jesus speaks of the fact that all people will rise for a physical eternal life in John 5:25-29 saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
Often, justice does not come in this life. And, people die without justice. This is a frustrating reality as Solomon says. He did not live on this side of the resurrection of Jesus and so he struggled to see how justice and fairness could be brought into this world.
If you spend any time with children, you will hear one phrase repeatedly, “that’s not fair.” Kids, made in God’s image with a conscience, just know that when someone takes your toy and hits you over the head with it, or wipes their nose on your dessert that a cosmic law established for all eternity has been clearly violated. As we get older, we stop saying “that’s not fair” and instead start saying, “life’s not fair”. We stop appealing to some higher cosmic law, and just settle in to the reality that life is a wood chipper and we are just another log. Wanting the injustice to stop, we come together as societies, and nations, and communities, and we organize in such a way that we can bring about some measure of justice. That’s why we have laws. That’s why we have elected officials. That’s why we have police officers. That’s we have jails. That’s whey we have wars. That’s why we have capital punishment. That’s why we have the threat of retribution from the state. If nothing else, we at least impose a fine to try and keep people in some sense of order, knowing that without any threat of justice literally all hell will break loose as our cities cannot even endure a one hour power outage without Armageddon being unleashed in the dark.
Unfortunately, systems and institutions, the means by which we try to restrain evil, are a failure because the system is only as good as the person who is in charge of implementing its policies and procedures. Sinners don’t bring about ultimate justice upon sinners. We can’t. We’re imperfect. We’re flawed. Sometimes, we have mixed motives and selfish intentions. That’s why none of us believes that all of the criminals are actually in jail and all the innocent people are on the street as this section of Ecclesiastes reminds us.
The truth is we have a love-hate relationship with justice. When someone sins against us and we are the victim, we want justice. But, as good hypocrites, when we sin against someone and they are the victim we want mercy. Because of this propensity, what invariably happens is that justice keeps getting orphaned by the system.
Looking at it from under the sun, or from the world’s perspective without revelation from God, it seems like we are no better off than the animals. Animals stalk and devour one another, then they die and it’s all over. Any honest person would have an easier time believing in devolution than evolution – that the evolutionary chart in school was in the wrong order and we are on our way to being apes with a thumb, wifi, and a drivers license.
Solomon’s point is that since no one comes back from the dead to prove that there is anything like a final judgment or eternal state, we are left to fend for ourselves and roll the dice. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus solved this problem for us. He came back from death to prove to us that there is life after death, that sin and death are not the final world, and that there is a new world coming on the other side of death because of the justice of God at the cross of Jesus.
In closing, Solomon says that death is, for the believer, a great relief. One day, life comes to an end and we don’t have to read the news, hear the horror, or comfort the victims anymore. One day we won’t scar anyone, and they won’t scar us any longer. In the meantime, Solomon says that there are two things we can do as we exit the burning building called earth.
One, we can comfort the oppressed. Sometimes, people don’t need an answer they just need a friend. There are miseries in this life that we cannot explain or change, and we just need someone to sit with us for a season of grieving and healing because the only thing worse than suffering is doing so alone. This is the simple “ministry of presence.” After a hard time or trial people are able to say, “you were there for me” when we comfort them.
Two, we can grab with both hands the opportunities for joy that God affords us in this life. The Bible is a most honest book, and it honestly urges us to find the joy that God provides along the way home. After the final judgment when all is said and done, every tear has been wiped from every eye, every ember of evil has been extinguished, and the Kingdom of God in all its glory is unveiled, there will be nothing but peace, joy, and love. For the people of God, this Kingdom reality begins internally through the Holy Spirit the moment we meet Jesus, it continues externally as we experience Kingdom moments in this life, and it continues eternally in the presence of our Judge, the Lord Jesus, who died on the cross in our place for our sins to defeat our rebellion with his redemption.
The only two things that go with us into the kingdom are people and memories. Therefore, comfort people and make memories as we wait for Jesus to sort everything out in the end. If we are believers, as Anne Lamott says, “All we are really doing is just walking each other home.”
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 3:16- 4:3
- Do you agree that in the world there is a lot of evil, and even the justice system has elements that are “corrupt”?
- Are there any examples in your life where you have rushed to judgment without all the facts?
- How do you feel emotionally about the concept of a final judgment by Jesus Christ for everyone who has ever lived?
- Have you fully accepted the fact that Jesus’ death in your place for your sins brought complete justice and forgiveness for you in the sight of God?
- Who in your life has been a means of comfort to you when you were broken, hurting, or oppressed?
- Why is it important to find joy in life among the trials, tears, and troubles? Are you any good at doing this
If there is no good God who sees and knows all and judges justly in the end, then there is truly no hope for justice in this life. All we are left with is social Darwinism, might makes right, the fittest survive, and the rest of us just get to be the human shield here to stop the bullets from getting to the bourgeoisie.