The deep-seated crookedness of the human heart due to sin means that the problem of wisdom, truth and justice for the social order cannot be solved by man's efforts to forcibly rearrange society.
Immanent Wisdom and the Democratic Delusion
I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness. (Eccl. 3:16).
Wisdom and futility
God’s Word is the revelation of his character and creational purposes. The scriptures republish God’s creation Word and tell us of his redemptive purposes for the fallen cosmos. It should not be a matter of hesitation to place our faith and confidence in this revelation and to assert its total authority. Indeed, the only alternative to grounding our faith in the transcendent wisdom of God as it speaks to our heart, the religious root of our being, is trusting the immanentist, presumptuous and fallible wisdom of sinful man. This would be a distortion of the faith function and a religious trust in the creature rather than the creator.
The book of Ecclesiastes is one portion of God’s word-revelation that speaks powerfully and with a timeless relevance to the human condition in the midst of its choice between these two kinds of wisdom. It is not, as some have thought, a random collection of thoughts and reflections on life by a philosopher cogitating simply on his experience. It is in fact the Word of God, and it comes to us through the greatest king in the history of the older covenant people. In it, Solomon speaks as a covenant-keeping man who knows and expounds God’s law-word (Proverbs) and who was well acquainted with the ‘wisdom’ of the ancient peoples.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes broadly portrays the core difference between Solomonic (covenantal) wisdom and the wisdom of humanistic man in apostasy from God. At the centre of that radical antithesis is the question of who governs time and what will take place in history. Who will be sovereign over creation (i.e. nature for the humanist) and history? In other words, Ecclesiastes is not simply highlighting discernable differences in the personal attitudes to life, work and piety between the covenant keeper and covenant breaker; what is being pointed out are the differences between two opposing civilizational programs – the one that Solomon represented which up to that point was the greatest the world had seen – and the humanistic dream of a paradise on earth created terms of man’s own religious consciousness and wisdom.
The Teacher argues in Ecclesiastes that autonomous man’s self-declared wisdom is in fact powerless to accomplish its aim in the face of man’s fallen, ruined condition and God’s curse on man’s work and world. In short, the world is crooked, and human wisdom cannot straighten it out. As long as man hardens his heart, refusing to face the problem of sin and alienation from God, all his goals will be frustrated. There is only futility and meaninglessness for those who refuse to reckon with God and his covenant-Word – that is the Teacher’s inspired thesis.
Of course Christian individuals and families also live in a broken and ruined world and, as fallen creatures, are touched by many of the pangs of which the Teacher speaks in this incredible book. In a sense the Christian lives in two worlds. We are being made new, we have the deposit of the new creation, but the old nature lingers and its desires battle against the new nature. Yes, we are being made whole, but our bodies are corrupted and await full redemption (Rom. 8). This means that we can relate to and empathize with the plight of humanistic man because “such were some of you (1 Cor. 6:11).” And yet, since God governs the times and seasons and is reconciling all things to himself, he alone is able to make our lives and work succeed and thus indicate the coming total deliverance from creation’s bondage to futility.
Wisdom and the Social Order
In chapter three of Ecclesiastes the Teacher moves to consider the kind of social order that man, under the sun, seeks to realise but which, because of his innate crookedness, turns to disorder. Because of the perversion of his nature, where God’s word is rejected, his justice is no justice, and his social order, oppression.
As Solomon looked around him in the context of a vast knowledge and experience of the surrounding empires, what he saw was man’s aspirations for a perfect community or ideal society being frustrated. The perennial hope of humanistic man, his dream to create a just order without the living God only ends, says the Teacher, in oppression, injustice and a sense of futility. As the Teacher says in 5:7, “for when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity.”
Beginning in 3:16 we have his first reflections on the problem of a man-centred concept of the just society – the city of man. That project began when man thought he could be his own god, defining good and evil, justice and injustice for himself – to build life and culture apart from God. Solomon renders his verdict on the project: “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness.” He doesn’t analyse those societies for us, or comment on the cause of Egyptian or Babylonian injustice – he doesn’t offer a socio-economic critique. He simply states that wherever one looks within the halls of power under the sun, man apart from God cannot realise the society he wants to attain – where there should be justice, it isn’t there.
Moreover, since no solution outside of God and his covenant is possible, the Teacher doesn’t offer any advice based in theories of ‘natural law’ for the sinner to order society in a ‘neutral’ way. Rather he reflects, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked (v. 17).” For Solomon, it is God who governs history and judges all men; his law and justice will prevail over man’s ideas, theories and social utopias. And this is how the believer is to think about the problem of justice – God is the judge and he judges in terms of his standard of righteousness. This encourages his covenant-keeping readers not to depart from God’s Word. But there is also more here. The Teacher helps us to understand why God permits injustice and man’s works of oppression in history. This is done in order to make his righteous judgment visible.
Injustice is only overcome by God’s justice, so people must be made to see by their frustration and inability to accomplish their end of happiness, rest, fulfilment and social order on their own terms, that their way is in fact injustice, and God’s way wholly just. Again, this should build confidence in God’s covenantal work in history for the believing reader. History is the theatre of man’s testing, so the Teacher says, “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” (v. 18).
God is not here making a qualitative comparison between the attributes of man and beast – one is God’s image-bearer, the other is not. Rather, by the testing of man’s idolatrous wisdom in history – that is, in the theatre of God’s righteous judgment – man is shown that he has no advantage over the animals who neither build civilizations nor reflect on and pursue justice and peace. Indeed, because of the curse, fallen man, like all animals, is destined to die (v. 19). The frustration of death is that it ends man’s planning, his empire building, his dreams for the future and the order he has sought to establish. In this sense, what advantage has he over the animal kingdom? Death is a trump-card man cannot overcome in seeking to make a name for himself by establish his order, by his own wisdom. This is true of individuals, not just civilizations, of course. Zack Eswine is insightful on this point:
When we were young, we dreamt of a house to buy, a yard to create with, pieces of furniture to possess, and a bank account to use for our gain. When we are old, a time comes to sell everything that once represented our dreams of a future. We have to move to an assisted living facility, or in with our kids while someone else uses the drapes we left on the windows we used to wash and enjoy. A young woman fills a hope chest with treasures over which she dreams, and intends to bring into her future with her man. An elderly woman has long since buried her lovely man and now has to sell or give her hope chest away. ‘As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. (Eccl. 5: 15)
Both those deemed wise and the fool will die. Neither the wisdom nor the folly of human beings can put this world right again – only a righteousness from heaven can do that. How far we have come from Eden – nothing lasts. Everything passes into memory. And finally Death stomps on it all.
Man’s attempts at building his just and permanent order by his own resources have never prospered – from Plato to Thomas Moore and Karl Marx. His order, however conceived, inevitably splits into the oppressors and oppressed (see: Eccl. 4:1-3). This is a remarkable observation of enduring relevance, for this has always been, and remains, the cry of the revolutionary – oppression! Yet the revolution almost always proves as oppressive, if not more so, than the previous order. As Kelley notes, “History consistently records that whenever man posits his notions of justice and the good society there the reality turns out to be a struggle for political power by those strong enough to impose their will on others.”
We know that philosophers have written their treatises for the ideal order, over and over, trying to overcome the problem of tyranny, but they never have any success altering the basic reality of oppression; was anyone surprised when Plato thought that the philosophers were best-suited to comprise the new ruling class necessary to realise justice?
This has led to increasing despair in human history, and yet there is never any shortage of new revolutionaries claiming to have realized what all previous generations failed to see – that if only we were all liberated from this new oppression, all will turn to paradise. There is a widely-held notion today that all truth claims and big narratives about the world (including God’s Word) are really forms of oppression and violence. The natural outworking of this doctrine, in the name of justice, is to unmask the power-motive behind all competing truth claims to demonstrate the true justice of the critical, revolutionary position. However, on this basis, “justice” is an ideal only, one that can never be realized; it is always on the horizon, but never reached. So the world is just endless revolution and the ceaseless overturning of power in hopeless futility. “Under the sun” then, as man sees it, “on the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (Eccl. 4:1). Since the humanist acknowledges no God who is finally bringing all things into judgment he has little motive to act justly, for in his apostasy, he doesn’t truly understand what justice is.
In our time, many humanists believe that modern versions of democracy have answered the problem of injustice (hence their attempts to export egalitarian democracy everywhere), but the outcome of this thinking, unhinged from the Word of God, has been shown to be the tyranny of the majority represented by a cultural elite determined to be ‘on the right side of history’ – a terrifying kind of smiling and self-righteous oppression backed by powerful technological statecraft. The idea that ‘more’ democracy is equal to more justice is a dangerous delusion. Majority opinion is rarely God’s opinion. The reality is that outside of the covenant of God, there is no solution to this problem; it is hopeless. The Teacher reflects soberly on this in Ecclesiastes 4:2-3:
So I admired the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
The deep-seated crookedness of the human heart due to sin means that the problem of wisdom, truth and justice for the social order (as indeed for the individual) cannot be solved by man’s efforts to forcibly rearrange society. The Christian, in the face of the dual modern responses of nihilism and despair or utopian equalitarian delusions, is tempted to both pietism and retreatism – escaping the world inwardly or outwardly. But that is not what wisdom calls us to. The hopeless condition of fallen man under the sun is precisely why it takes godly men and women, called to serve God and have dominion in Christ, to pray and work in faith for justice and righteousness – the kingdom of God.
Only the regenerate person has a truly new principle at work in them, recognising work as prophetic and priestly service to God and their fellow man, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the believer sees that unless we submit to God’s transcendent law-Word and government, the truth to which all are subject, then all that is left to man is tyranny, whether of the 1% or the 51%. Therefore we strive to bring every thought, activity and institution into subjection to Christ who alone reveals true righteousness and justice. Our failure to do so is an abandonment of the world to evil.
 Zack Eswine. Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R, 2014).