The Wheels of Justice
Passage: Ecclesiastes 8:10–9:1
Good morning! Turn to Ecclesiastes 8:10. Have you ever heard the quote, “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine”? That’s actually a paraphrase of an ancient Greek proverb. The Greek biographer Plutarch referred to this proverb in the first century A.D. when he made the following complaint. He said,
"Thus, I do not see what use there is in those mills of the gods said to grind so late as to render punishment hard to be recognized, and to make wickedness fearless."
Plutarch was not the only one to feel this way. People have felt this way ever since the fall of man. Solomon struggled with thoughts like that roughly 3,000 years ago.
This past week, a horrific trial has been all over the news. You know what I’m talking about? I’m referring to the trial of the former team doctor for USA gymnastics, Larry Nassar. Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for molesting 150 underage girls–the youngest of which was only six years old at the time the abuse occurred. There are many troubling aspects to the case, but perhaps the worst of all was the way that he got away with it for 25 years, even after many complaints and reports had been filed.
How many of you saw Rachael Denhollander’s testimony at the trial? If you haven’t seen that, you ought to go back and watch it, because it’s powerful. Denhollander is a Christian, and she did a wonderful job of articulating and modeling the gospel on that national stage. In her speech, she describes the horrible turmoil she went through for years, while justice went unserved and everyone ignored her. Of course, now we know the end of the story. Justice finally was served. But I want to bring you back to the middle of the story for now, because today’s text has to do with how a Christian ought to respond to injustice, or at least to slow justice. If you’re Rachael Denhollander, what are some truths that you need to keep in mind during those 17 years between report and sentencing? It would be impossible to exhaust that topic in just 9 verses; but in this passage, Solomon at least speaks to it.
The first thing I want you to see is the reality of injustice. I almost called this “The perception of injustice” because in the end, God’s justice is always served. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that in the meantime, injustices take place. So let’s take a look at the specific injustices Solomon was contemplating.
The Reality: Injustice
Hypocrites Are Praised (v. 10).
From a translation perspective, this may be the most difficult verse in the book of Ecclesiastes. So I want to do deal with those difficulties; but I also want to make sure that I bring out what I believe to be the proper interpretation of the text. I don’t want the translation difficulties to get in the way of the overall point Solomon is trying to make here.
In this verse, Solomon says that he had observed burials. And who were the deceased? Were they nice guys? No, they were wicked men! But not only were they wicked men; they were hypocrites! They had come and gone from the holy place. (That’s a difficult phrase to translate, but most of the versions agree that that’s what it means. Perhaps this is a reference to the temple or to some other holy place.) These men pretended to worship God right alongside the rest of His people, when in reality, they were living selfish, cruel, and godless lives. We could apply this to Larry Nassar. Rachael Denhollander said in her speech that his desire to help little girls was nothing more than a facade for his desire to harm them. He was a true hypocrite.
But back to Ecclesiastes. What is it that troubles Solomon about the death of people like this? Well, that’s where another difficult translation issue comes in. Those of you who are using a NKJV, do you see a little footnote after the word, “forgotten”? What does the footnote say? It says, “Some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint, and Vulgate read praised.” Now usually, when questions like this come up, it’s best to stick with the Masoretic Text; but in this instance, there is a very strong case for the secondary reading. So much so, that the ESV and NIV make it the PRIMARY translation. So it appears that what Solomon is lamenting here is not that evil deeds of the wicked have been forgotten, but that they are actually being praised. For whatever reason–perhaps because people were unaware of their wicked deeds, perhaps because they don’t care, maybe because they think that their accomplishments outweigh their shortcomings, or maybe because of some kind of revisionist history, people are actually posthumously praising the very hypocrites who deserve to be denounced–in the very city in which their evil deeds had been perpetrated.
That’s obviously bad, but Solomon goes on, and in v. 11, he laments what Shakespeare referred to in “Hamlet” as “the law’s delay” (v. 11).
“The Law’s Delay” Breeds Evil.
I think this verse is pretty self-explanatory. In her speech, Rachael Denhollander implored the judge to hand down the maximum sentence in order to send a message to other would-be perpetrators. What message does it send when justice takes so long to come to fruition that the criminal seems to get off the hook? Unfortunately, the message that sinners often take from that is that “I can sin and get away with it,” and as Solomon puts it, their hearts become fully set on evil.
Now, the interpretational question regarding this verse is whose sentence are we referring to? Is it a human sentence? Or is it God’s sentence? The verse doesn’t say. And the argument could be made either way, based upon the context. So I think it’s best to conclude that this verse could be talking about either. And in fact, since we know that Solomon had a very high view of God’s sovereignty, it’s quite possible that he was referring to both, in the sense that human justice is ultimately an outworking of God’s justice. When human justice miscarries, God-fearing people are left to wonder whether God’s justice has also failed.
In v. 14, Solomon lists one final aspect of injustice that he has observed. He says that sometimes, retribution and reward are flip-flopped (v. 14).
Retribution and Reward Are Flip-flopped.
Have you ever mislabeled a gift and then accidentally given it to the wrong person? That can lead to some awkward moments. “Oops! That was supposed to be for my wife!”
In this verse, Solomon is observing situations in which the wrong person gets the “gift” (so to speak), except that in this context, it seems more like a sick trick than a funny misunderstanding. Just (or “righteous”) men get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men get what the righteous deserve! It seems totally backwards!
So how is the God-fearing person to respond under this set of circumstances? What truths are we to keep in mind? Well, to encapsulate everything Solomon says in this passage, I would say that our response must be one of humble submission and faith. And by the way, that certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t do what we can to see to it that justice is served. The Bible is very clear elsewhere that it is our duty to stand up for the innocent. And thankfully, we live in a country in which many times, that’s possible. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, we’ve done everything within our power, and yet justice is still suspended. In cases like those, how are we to think? Number one, we are to walk by faith; not by sight (vv. 12-13).
The Response: Humble Submission and Faith
Walk by Faith; not by Sight.
These are two of my favorite verses in the whole book because they so starkly contrast Solomon’s perspective elsewhere. Time and time again, Solomon has told us what he SAW. “I saw this, I saw that, I observed something else.” But in order to get through this situation, he has to go back to something he KNOWS. Notice what he says (v. 12). Solomon says, “Even if a sinner gets away with evil one hundred times” [and in the case of Larry Nassar, the number “100” was certainly no exaggeration], I KNOW that it will be well with those who fear God!” How does Solomon know this? Did he learn it through observation? No, he learned it through God’s Word.
Solomon is convinced that fearing God is always worth it in the end, and he continues on with life in light of his faith in this reality. Do you believe that fearing God is ALWAYS worth it in the end?
Fearing God is very important in this text, because Solomon says it twice (v. 13b). And the second time he mentions the fear of the LORD, he throws in this other phrase, “before Him.” The literal idea is “before His face.” So once again, we have this concept of “corum deo.” Do you remember, someone asked R.C. Sproul, “What is the primary concept in the Christians life?” and he responded “corum deo,” which is a Latin phrase that means, “before the face of God.” To live as a believer is to recognize that my entire life is played out before God’s face. He sees EVERYTHING I do, even if nobody else knows; and because I am aware of that fact, I choose to live, to speak, to act, and to think according to His commands, every single moment of the time. Do Christians fail in that at times? Yes, we all do. So we confess our sin to the appropriate people, ask for forgiveness, and get back up. But this is how we seek to live: before the face of God Almighty. And the Bible says that if I live that way, IT WILL BE GOOD FOR ME. Not it MAY be good for me, not it MIGHT–it WILL be good for me, ultimately speaking, when all is said and done. This is the truth that provides the antidote to Satan’s oldest lie, and it is what keeps us going when injustice seem to prevail.
But there’s also a flipside to this truth, isn’t there? Not only will it be good for those who fear God, but it will be bad for those who ignore or reject Him (v. 13).
The principle in this verse is very straightforward. The wicked man will not prolong his days. He will not continue, not in the sense that he will be annihilated, but that he will be judged and will cease to experience good things. He will “fall off the map,” so to speak, when God steps in.
Of course, the problem that we have with this verse is that this principle often appears to fail. It certainly appeared to have failed in the cases Solomon was observing! After all, the wicked people he is talking about seem to have received a proper burial! They didn’t die prematurely, nor did they necessarily receive any sort of equivalent consequences for their actions here on earth! So what do we do with a promise like this? Well, first, we have to recognize that this is not a limited problem. The question, “Why do the wicked flourish while the righteous suffer?” is common throughout all of Scripture. You find it over and over again in the Psalms, most famously in Psalm 73. You find it in Habakkuk and other prophetic writings. The whole book of Job is about this. And you find it in the New Testament, as well. So this is not a limited problem. Second, you have to recognize that many times, the promises in vv. 12-13 play out in this life. The cases of injustice stand out to us so starkly because there are so many cases in which justice is served. Generally speaking, those who fear God are blessed in this life, and those who don’t fear Him suffer the consequences. That’s what the wisdom principles in Proverbs and elsewhere are all about. But third, we must understand that the ultimate fulfillment of these and many other promises like them awaits the final judgment, when the wicked are cast into hell, and we who have received Christ as Savior come into our inheritance. Without that day in mind, these verses become nonsensical. And that is why WE MUST NEVER LOSE OUR ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE, because if we do, we will begin to become discouraged and to drift. Finally, we need to humbly admit that there is nothing we can do in and of ourselves to earn God’s favor and blessing. On that day when we receive our inheritance and the wicked are cast into hell, it will NOT be because we were intrinsically better than they were. Rather, it will be because Christ died for our sins and regenerated us. HE MADE US GOOD, and that is nothing we can boast about. You see, we deserve wrath just like those wicked people we are focusing on. And if we are not under wrath any longer, it is only because of what Christ has done.
And so, the most important way that we need to respond in the face of injustice is to trust God and walk by faith; not by sight. Second, we must let go of the injustice and cling to joy (vv. 14-15).
Let go of the injustice and cling to joy (vv. 15).
It’s very important to read this verse in context. Solomon has just finished talking about how wicked men receive the reward of the righteous and righteous men receive the reward of the wicked. Then he follows that up by saying this he commends enjoyment.
Now, it could be very tempting to take this as admonition to just let go and give in to a life of total hedonism. “You can’t solve life’s problems, so you might as well just give yourself to food and drink and whatever other pleasure your heart desires. Eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you die.” Many have misinterpreted Ecclesiastes this way. However, that is NOT what Solomon is saying here. You say, “How do you know?” Number one, because it contradicts the rest of Scripture. Number two, because it contradicts what Solomon JUST SAID! He just finished saying that he knows the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be punished. So either he’s very badly schizophrenic, or this verse is not quite as jaded as it might first appear.
This verse is not about abandoning oneself to pure hedonism, it’s about letting go of things you can’t control so that you are free to enjoy the genuine blessings of God. God has given us so many good gifts! What a shame it would be to miss out on those good things because we are frustrated at the injustices around us or bitter about the injustices we ourselves have experienced. You say, “How can someone who has suffered so much possibly hang on to joy?” Here’s how. Are you ready? Submission. Humbly submit yourself to God’s sovereign plan. You say, “That’s insensitive. How can you say that?” Well, I hope you see that it’s not me saying that; it’s God. Consider the words of someone who suffered more than most of us ever will. Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” Those are not the words of a jaded, cynical bitter, miserable man. They are the words of a happy man–a man who has learned to forgive. Submitting to God’s sovereign plan is EXACTLY what God demanded of Job. It’s not insensitive to ask that of a person who has suffered greatly, because that is the route to true joy.
So whether you yourself have been wronged, or whether you’re just frustrated at the injustice suffered by another, you’ve got to come to place in which you can trust God with it, let it go, and cling to joy.
Finally, you’ve got to accept your inability to understand God’s sovereignty (8:16-9:1a).
Accept your inability to understand God’s sovereignty.
In v. 16, Solomon says that he applied his heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, and what did he find? (First, he found that people are so busy, they don’t have time to sleep–that seems to be somewhat of an aside.) But then he says that he found out that a man cannot find it out! No one can completely understand God’s providence! Why would God allow all of those little girls to suffer? I don’t know. “What do you mean you don’t know? You’re a pastor! You’re supposed to know these things!” I’m sorry. I don’t know! I’m not God! The best I can possibly do is to suggest some possible reasons why God might have allowed those tragedies; but in the end, I don’t understand God’s providence. No one does! “Not even a wise man,” Solomon says. “Not even me, the wisest man who ever lived. Not even when I dedicated my life to figuring it out.”
Early on in our study, we talked about the meaning of the word, “vanity.” We said that it literally means “vapor,” and that can refer to that which is transitory or fleeting, that which fails to satisfy or make good on implicit promises, and that which is enigmatic, or impossible to understand. Throughout the book, we’ve seen that word used in all three of those ways, depending on the context. In this passage, it is used in the third way. What does Solomon say in v. 10 when the hypocrites are praised? “This is vanity.” What does he call it when wicked people get what the righteous deserve and righteous people get what the wicked deserve? He calls it “vanity.” He says, “I don’t get it.” It’s like I’m in a fog. I tried to grasp God’s providence, but like a vapor, it alluded me. I don’t know why God does what He does.”
“But I do know something that makes it okay” (v. 9:1a). Me, as a righteous person–I’m in God’s hand. He’s in control, and ultimately, things are going to turn out for my good.
In her testimony at the Larry Nassar trial last week, Rachael Denhollander shared a quote by C.S. Lewis that she said she had clung to throughout the whole process. He said,
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
What C.S. Lewis comparing the universe with? He was comparing it with God. The words “justice” and “injustice” carry meaning only because HE exists. Last week, Rachael Denhollander finally got to see Larry Nassar dramatically brought to justice, 17 years after her first report. But she also referenced the fact that God’s justice was not fully worked out in that courtroom–it awaits a future date. She said,
“The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God's wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.”
Praise God not only for justice, but for grace.
The famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came across a little German poem that picks up on that ancient Greek proverb about the millstones of the gods. But unlike the quote from Plutarch, this poem had a much more positive message. Wadsworth translated it into English and called it “Retribution.” It goes like this.
"Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds he all."
Rest assured; God’s justice always prevails in the end. So, Christian, choose to believe that, even when the universe seems unjust. Release your anxious, frustrated questions, and humbly submit to Him. Determine to enjoy what He has given you. Rest in the fact that you’re in His hand, and rejoice that God’s wrath was poured out on Christ, instead of on you.