Summary: 8th in a series from Ecclesiastes. We need to base what we think about God on His Word, not on what we observe in this world.
In 1984, James Ealy was convicted in the 1982 brutal murders of 33 year old Christine Parker, her two children and one grandchild. Two years later, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the conviction - even as justices acknowledged Ealy almost certainly was guilty. They said police had arrested him without probable cause and conducted an illegal search, and they threw out virtually all of the evidence against him. Ealy was eventually released from prison after his parole from another offense in 1999.
Two decades after his first murder conviction was overturned, Ealy was arrested in December 2006 for the murder of Mary Hutchinson, the manager at the Burger King where Ealy worked. He is currently in jail without bail awaiting trial for that murder.
Just last month, Robert Lee Stinson was released after spending 23 years in prison for the 1985 first degree murder of a 63 year old woman. But new analysis of DNA and bite mark evidence revealed that none of that evidence could tie Stinson to the crime of which he was convicted.
Those are just two examples of the fact that injustice does exist in this world. Here “under the sun”, the guilty sometimes go free and the innocent are sometimes punished. But this is certainly nothing new. As Qoheleth looked around, he observed that the very same kinds of injustice were prevalent in his day as well. But that observation led Qoheleth to ask another important question: “Can we draw any conclusions about God based on what we observe here on earth?” Let’s read our passage for this morning and see how Qoheleth answered that question.
16 Moreover I saw under the sun: In the place of judgment, Wickedness was there; And in the place of righteousness, Iniquity was there. 17 I said in my heart, "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, For there is a time there for every purpose and for every work." 18 I said in my heart, "Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals." 19 For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. 21 Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth? 22 So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 (NKJV)
At first glance, this short section seems to be dealing with several unrelated issues. Qoheleth begins by addressing the kind of injustice that I already referred to. And then he goes on to make a comparison between man and animals – another passage from Ecclesiastes that when it is divorced from its context leads to all kinds of erroneous conclusions.
But a further examination of the passage reveals that these are not just some disconnected rantings and ravings, but rather a coherent train of thought. What Qoheleth discovered, and what I want us to see this morning, is that when it comes to God, there is more than meets the eye. We can’t “figure out” God based on what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. We’ve certainly seen that already in our journey through Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth has already pointed out that trying to make sense of our life here on earth or to try and somehow “figure out” God based on our experiences here on earth is only vapor and it provides us with no fulfillment or joy in our lives.
But this passage is the clearest warning yet against our tendency to base our ideas about God on our own experiences. We are also brought face to face with one of our greatest conflicts in life – the tension between God, whom we cannot see, and that which we can see. Or as the Apostle Paul described it, the tension between faith and sight:
We live by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV)
Although it is sometimes difficult to see in the midst of the apparent chaos of the Book of Ecclesiastes, this tension between faith and sight is really the essence of the entire book. Qoheleth is constantly looking at his world “under the sun” and attempting to reconcile what he observes with what he knows about God. And that is not always an easy task, as all of us have discovered in our own lives. So Qoheleth faced the same decision that all of us must make day-by-day, even moment-by-moment: