To See What Will Be After
Passage: Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:3
To See What Will Be After
March 9th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Living for Today?
Imagine...imagine for a moment...
Imagine there's no heaven.
It's easy if you try.
No hell below us.
Above us only sky.
Imagine all the people,
Living for today.
Recognize those words? There from the 1971 song "Imagine" by former Beatle John Lennon. What Lennon has given us here is a song about our perspective on live...about what we live for.
According to the song, we should live for...today. That's it. That's as far as we need to look. In Lennon's mind, that's as far as we can look.
What Lennon imagines will happen if we do this is that we will all come together in peace. Our problems will be solved.
True or a just figment of John Lennon's imagine-ation?
Turn with me once again to Ecclesiastes 3. This morning I'd like to take some time to consider chapter 3:16 through 4:3.
Ecclesiastes, as we've talked about, is a collection of thoughts, ponderings, musings, and conclusions, all based on the writer's careful observations of human life in all of its circumstances. This Teacher, as we're calling him, is struggling to make sense of life on earth, or as he puts, life "under the sun".
II. The Passage: "I Saw Under the Sun..." (3:16-4:3)
Now, before we look at this next section of verses, 3:16 to 4:3, let me briefly remind you of what we talked about last week as we studied the first 15 verses of chapter 3.
The Teacher showed us there that God is the Sovereign of our seasons. He is the One who holds time in his hands. The events of our lives are all worked out according to His appointed times. As 3:11 confirmed, "he has made everything beautiful in its time", or we could say, "He has made everything fit beautifully in its time" according to His eternal purposes.
Since we cannot change what God has done, since we cannot avoid the difficult times that will inevitably come, we should learn to enjoy what we can enjoy in our lives, since the circumstances for our enjoyment are yet another gift from God; a part of His plan.
But if this is true, if God really is the Appointer of human events, then as I briefly alluded to last week, we've got a really sticky problem here. And this problem is introduced explicitly in verse 16 as the Teacher shares another of his observations.
Look at what he writes:
Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.
Just as it wouldn't be difficult for any of us to point to examples of human corruption, so too were examples of injustice evident to the Teacher. Courts favoring the powerful. Judges accepting bribes. Leaders looking the other way. Rulers using their power to oppress.
Kenya is good current example of this kind of thing. Over the last two months, thousands of people have been displaced, injured, or killed because the ruling government tampered with elections and opposition party members became senseless vigilantes.
Ethnic strife has exploded in Kenya, and the corruption and greed of its so-called leaders are what lit the fuse.
"Wickedness" is what the Teacher labels it, and as it is today, it was a sad but all too common feature of human existence.
But how do we account for injustice and corruption if the events of our world are appointed according to the sovereign wisdom of God? Is God the instigator of injustice? Is He is the creator of corruption? These are the obvious questions that the Teacher's students or audience would ask. How can we make sense of this?
Well, look at the first thing the Teacher tells us about this problem in verse 17:
17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.
The Teacher knows that God is just, that God is THE judge of the universe. Therefore if that's true, then injustice, corruption, wickedness, cannot go unchecked. Notice how he connects us back to the very first verse of this chapter.
Even though we cannot always see how God's justice is administered, the truth about God's ordering of human affairs means that just as there is a time for war, and killing, and mourning, there must also be a time for judgment.
We need to remember that the Teacher here, like most of the writers in the Old Testament, does not envision a final judgment beyond this life. God had not made that clear at this point. If God was to act justly, if He was to judge, then that judgment would be poured out in this life; maybe through plague, maybe through an invading army, maybe through death.
As the Apostle Paul would later write in Romans 1:18, "For the wrath of God is revealed [not will be revealed, but is revealed] from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men..."
But the timing of God's judgment is according to His wisdom, according to His ordering.
And so even though the Teacher has not resolved the dilemma about God's plan and human corruption, he has made it clear that human beings are still held responsible for their evil choices. God may work everything out according to His plan, but men and women still decide to lie, steal, hate, twist, neglect, envy, and judge; we are responsible for those decisions.
But if a righteous God chooses to somehow fit this human corruption into His plan, then what purpose could it ultimately serve? Why allow it?
Look at what he goes on to tell us in verse 18:
18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.
The reason God allows corruption to continue is because opportunities for justice and righteousness (verse 16) are opportunities to test and prove that human beings are no better than animals; we are senseless beasts.
Isn't that a good way to describe the brutality and savagery and violence and greed we so often see around us? We are acting like animals fighting over a piece of meat. There are no ethics in the wild. But there certainly IS corruption in quote-un-quote ‘civilization'.
To strengthen this point, look at where the Teacher takes us. In verse 19 he points out something obvious about humans and animals:
19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?
The early chapters of Genesis confirm that mankind and animals all have received from God what's called the "breath of life". It is that animating spirit that distinguishes people and animals from plants and rocks.
But people and animals also, at some point, will have that breath taken away, that is, we all die. From the Teacher's point of view, no one can prove that there is any difference between the death of a person and the death of a penguin. Verse 21: Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? The implied answer? No one!
Therefore the fate of men and women simply confirms what human corruption seems to tell us: we are like animals.
And so what can we do in a world like this? Verse 22:
22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
What is the Teacher recommending here? He's telling us that everything in our life, all of our seasons and circumstances are in God's hands. Therefore, in this mixed bag we call life, we should enjoy the work that God has given to us. Remember what it says in verse 13 of this chapter:
The Teacher perceived that "everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man." Verse 22: This is our "lot" or "portion" or "inheritance". We cannot allow the reality of human corruption to corrupt our enjoyment of human blessing.
Maybe John Lennon was right about "living for today"?
Now even though this may seem to be the end of the matter, it never is in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher goes on in 4:1 to revisit the same basic problem:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
You see, the questions and the speculations about God's judgment, the recommendation to enjoy what can be enjoyed, none of this changes the heart-wrenching reality of human suffering; the sorrow of the oppressed.
Maybe death is really a blessing. Maybe non-existence is really the best position to be in when all is said and done.
III. Killed by Wild Animals...for Wild Animals
But I think what we need to do is go back to the final question posed in chapter 3, at the end of 3:22, a question we have yet to address:
Who can bring him [a man] to see what will be after him?
So what exactly is the Teacher asking about here? And how does this fit into the flow of the passage?
What might throw us off here is the phrase "to see". I believe "to see" here means something like "to experience". Like when we say, "I want to live to see a new day", were not just saying we want to see the clock change with our eyes or visually catch the sun rising. What we mean is "I want to live in order to experience another day in this world."
So here, the Teacher is recommending that we enjoy life right here and right now because who is going to bring us back from death so that we can enjoy this life again. Death is the final stop on this ride we call life. The Teacher is asking, "Once off, who is going to get us back on?" Again, the implied answer is, "no one".
Do you live with this perspective? Do people around you live with this perspective, that death is the absolute end? But what if it's not? What if there was someone who could bring you back to see life again? And if you knew this to be the case, how would you live differently today?
There's nothing wrong with enjoying the moment and addressing life as it, right now. We should do that. I believe John Lennon was reacting against the kind of religion that makes us "so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good". What he missed was the reality that our "now" will only become different in light of our "forever".
Rejoicing in our work, enjoying our lot in this life cannot be all there is. And if you knew this was not all there is, how would you live differently today?
Would you worry so much about clinging to the things of this present life? Would you work so hard to get what you can while you can? Would you put so much stock in how you look? Would you be anxious about all of the different outcomes that are possible in regard to your financial status, or your family, or your health?
The only way our life now is going to change is if our perspective on forever is a perspective of hope; not simply hope of living forever, but hope for liberation and transformation.
We can't forget what we learned here about human life right now "under the sun". When our perspective is limited, we...are animals. At least that's how we act. Remember, we the Teacher begins with the corruption of those who are supposed to be the pillars of justice and righteousness, but he ends up with a blanket assessment thrown over all of us. We are beasts, and like beasts we will die.
The situation in Kenya might have started with the leadership, but it certainly trickled quickly to the man on the street. Neighbors oppressing neighbors. We are beasts.
If that is true, then who wants to live forever? If life is oppressing and being oppressed, if it is wickedness in all of its subtle and not-so-subtle forms, maybe the dead are to be envied.
What is to be done for animals like us?
What the Teacher couldn't envision is that God would do the very thing he questioned in verse 22: He would bring a man back to see a new day, to see what will be after him.
And in that man's new life is our hope for new life. Listen to what the Apostle Paul tells us about how faith in this startling truth...
...Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authoritiesï»¿ and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Of course, the man who was raised was Jesus. But before he was raised, as we see here, he suffered. Jesus was rejected when wickedness was in the place of justice and righteousness. Consider the corruption of the leaders who condemned Jesus. Consider the savagery of those who beat him. Consider the senselessness of those who chanted for his death.
The death of Jesus Christ is the ultimate proof that we are but beasts.
But the death of Jesus Christ is also our only hope. It is there that the God of justice was at work accomplishing our forgiveness. If trust in Jesus as our only hope, we can have a perspective of hope, not simply because we will live forever, but because we will live forever forgiven, with God.
It is this perspective that Paul goes on to encourage in his letter to the Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is yourï»¿ life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
If we belong to Christ by faith, the animal has been killed. We can have a new perspective because in Him we will brought to see what will be after us.
Brothers and sisters, friends, the injustice and oppression of our world will not change when we imagine away eternity. World peace will not come by people simply living for today.
It will change when we accept that our injustice, and wickedness, and oppression, the fruit of the human heart, can only change through the one who suffered for us; the One who enables us to look above us, not just around us.
Sometimes the hardest issue for us is not accepting that we are animals when it comes to our sin-stained hearts. Sometimes the hardest issue is accepting God's transforming forgiveness and living in that transforming forgiveness. But that's what we need.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Meditate on His word. Claim its promises. Rejoice in what it tells you about who God is, about who you are in Him, and about what God will do in and for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. And look to Jesus, the one who will bring us to see what will be after us.