Observation and Reflection to Reinforce Sense of Vanity (3:16-21)

3:16 Furthermore, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there. 3:17 I said to myself, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for (judging) what is done there. 3:18 I said to myself concerning the children of man that God is testing them that they themselves may see that they are but animals. 3:19 For the fate of the children of man and the fate of animals are one and the same. As one dies, so dies the other. In fact they all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the animal, for all is vanity. 3:20 All go to one place. All are from dust, and all return to dust. 3:21 Who knows as for the breath of man, whether it goes up and for the breath of the animal, whether it goes down into the earth?

The word “Furthermore” indicates that this passage builds on what precedes. What precedes is mainly about the uncertainties of life. Now Qoheleth highlights that even in the courts of law, the very place where righteousness and justice are supposed to be guaranteed, wickedness may be present. There is no certainty even there. Thus he is going further to create a deeper and more graphic impression of the uncertainties of life. He is not saying there is no justice in the courts of law. We must not impose undue pessimism on him. He is simply saying he has seen unrighteousness and injustice even in the courts of law. Thus, there is no certainty that if we live a righteous life we will not suffer the fate of a criminal, and lose everything we have. This is simply realism. The purpose of this observation at this point of the speech is then to reinforce the sense of vanity evoked through the poem above. This explains the apparent pessimism in the reflection that follows.

As he reflects on this troubling observation, Qoheleth first affirms that God would judge both the righteous and the wicked at the appropriate time. This is because “there is a time for every matter, and for judging what is done there (in the courts of law).” This statement thus “repeats the idea of 3:1, except that the focus here is limited to the time of judgment upon injustice” (Fox 1999: 216). It confirms that the purpose of this observation is to build on the effects of the poem (3:1-8). Since this verse echoes 3:1, where the “time for every matter” refers to events in this world, the judgment alluded to here takes place before death. How God does this Qoheleth does not yet explain here. Even Tremper Longman III, who considers Qoheleth a pessimist, has to admit that in this text Qoheleth “addressed the injustice found in the human law courts.... He reminds himself ... that, though human justice is a rare and fleeting quality, God will set things right.... The innocent and the guilty would get what they deserve from the hand of God” (1998: 127).

It is only after having reminded himself, and reassuring us, of God’s own righteous judgment that he explains why God allows injustice even in the courts of law. Otherwise we will likely misinterpret his explanation as expressing pessimism. For he further reminds himself, and explains to us, that God is (only) “testing” humans to make them see for themselves that they are no different from animals. The Hebrew word translated “testing” basically means “to separate,” and can hence be translated, “choose, select, purify, [or] test,” depending on the context. In this context, “the word says something about God testing people” (Crenshaw 1987: 103). What is the purpose of this testing? To purify character. In Daniel 11:35, this same word is used in the context, “to refine, purge, and make pure” a group of Jews whom God allowed to suffer persecution. How then does injustice in the courts of law cause people to see that they are like animals? And how does this relate to testing them in order to refine or purify them?

When a judge, sworn to uphold justice, perverts justice, especially when his inhuman treatment of an obviously innocent person brings about much suffering, he is not only treating his victim as sub-human, he himself is behaving like an animal, as if not having a conscience. In fact, when someone behaves inhumanly towards others we say, “You are an animal!” And we know that, given the right set of conditions, anyone is capable of such behavior. So when faced with this testing or trial we are inclined to see that human beings are like animals. This then causes us to see that we are indeed no different from animals, as we have the same “fate” (final outcome) as animals—return to dust (verses 18-20). Qoheleth's comparison of humans with animals may sound unduly negative. But even Longman affirms that “he is not making a blanket comparison; he specifies one area of commonality--death” (1998: 128). Whybray says the first word, “For,” in verse 19 “makes it clear ... that he is comparing man with the animals only in one aspect: their mortality” (1989: 79).

Thus the statement, “man has no advantage over the animal,” must not be taken beyond this point of comparison and so misunderstand Qoheleth as unorthodox. In fact the basis for this statement is given: “They all have the same breath.” As noted by Whybray, “the view implied here, that God gives life to both men and animals by putting breath in them, and that when this breath is withdrawn they die is the common biblical understanding of the matter” (1989: 79). For instance, referring to both humans and animals, Psalm 104:29 says that when God “takes away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” Later, Qoheleth himself spells out that when we die, "the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it" (12:7). And he would have said the same about animals. For obviously, "the breath returns to God who gave it" is another way of saying "God takes away (that is, takes back) their breath," which applies to both humans and animals (cf. Job 34:14-15).

Furthermore, the reason humans have no advantage over animals is also given: “for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from dust, and all return to dust.” That means, there is no advantage for humans only because there is no ultimate profit even to humans, as they also die. It is like Qoheleth's comparison between a wise man and a fool (2:13-16), where it is clear that though Qoheleth affirms ultimate vanity for both because both die, he does not deny that the wise man has advantage over the fool. As a wise man, Qoheleth felt a deep of sense of vanity when he realized that ultimately he had no advantage over the fool because he had to leave behind whatever he gained through his wisdom. Similarly we would feel a deep sense of vanity when we realize that ultimately we have no advantage over animals. The seemingly pessimistic tone is to help recreate this feeling.

Some people think Qoheleth is skeptical that there is life after death. We will not dispute that he seems skeptical of the view that at death, “the breath of man goes up” while “the breath of the animal goes down” (verse 21). But we must not assume that the phrase “the breath of man goes up” refers to life after death, and so conclude that Qoheleth is skeptical about the next life. It is unwise to make this conclusion based on a verse we do not really understand. For even if we (wrongly) equate this phrase with Qoheleth's later affirmation that "the breath (of man) returns to God who gave it" (12:7), verse 21 is still not about whether humans have an afterlife (and animals do not). As just pointed out, the phrase in 12:7 simply means, at death, God takes back the breath, which also applies to animals. We would only be (needlessly) accusing Qoheleth of inconsistency--here being skeptical that the breath goes up, then later affirming it. We should give him the benefit of the doubt, as is expected in a court of law, lest we ourselves become guilty of injustice.

Norbert Lohfink wisely says, “Verse 21 expresses skepticism concerning an otherwise unknown theory about the difference between human and animal death” (2003: 67). Roland Murphy adds, “It is useless to try and determine from this ... his specific view on Sheol [the netherworld] and the next life” (1992: 37). It is all the more useless when we recognize that in this context Qoheleth has no need to say anything about the next life. When he affirms that humans have no ultimate advantage over animals because both die, he is only saying that when we die we leave everything behind. Whether there is an afterlife is irrelevant. For even if there is, since we cannot bring anything with us, there is still no advantage in this sense. Qoheleth thus has not said anything unorthodox.

Through the observation of injustice in the courts of law and his reflection on human beings being no different from animals, Qoheleth is actually continuing the discussion on how God uses the sense of eternity coupled with the sense of vanity to lead people to fear Him. In this light, he is saying that God is testing people to make them see that they are like animals to evoke in them a deep sense of vanity, in order to prod them to acknowledge Him. We have already discussed how “God so works,” in appointing events in this world so as to evoke the sense of vanity, “that man should fear Him” (3:14). But how does this testing result in purifying character? Learning to acknowledge and hence fear God is by definition becoming conscientious and thus seeking to be righteous. In other words, character is being refined.

When we experience or witness injustice even in the courts of law, we may become disillusioned with human institutions. We can actually become cynical about people. Qoheleth is implying that when we realize we cannot trust in people or human institutions, we should turn to God. In a premodern world this would be a natural response. But today, this may no longer be the case. Qoheleth’s observation that in the very place where justice and righteousness are expected there may be wickedness can also be applied to organized religion. For injustice has been blatantly perpetrated in the name of God by some religious groups. Many people have thus become cynical about religion, if not about God.

One reason injustice is not only blatantly but also widely perpetrated in the name of religion is because God no longer feels real. So even people who are outwardly “religious” may be inwardly lacking the fear of God. Craig Gay has a book subtitled, “Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist” (1998). In the chapter “The Irrelevance of God in the Technological Society” he says, “it is not difficult to see why science and technology have had a secularizing effect on modern culture. Scientific explanations of the world have eliminated the instrumental value of their religious alternatives. We no longer need religion to explain such things as disease or natural calamities” (102). Summing up, “the impact of science and technology upon the modern imagination is such that it has effectively stripped us of the ability to apprehend the reality of any other meaning and any other purpose in the world save those which we managed to ‘engineer’ for ourselves” (100).

To a large extent, Gay’s conclusions about science and technology having replaced religion to explain and experience reality are correct. But in our exposition of the previous passage we showed that science and technology and the “progress” they bring fail to help people come to terms with the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life and hence make sense of the totality of human experience. We still need to turn to God. Gay's conclusions on how modern people view this world may be final only if they do not come face to face with the somber reality concerning life and death embodied in the poem, elaborated and reflected on in this passage. And if they would hear Qoheleth out, they could have an existential encounter with this sobering reality. They may then rediscover the ability to apprehend this world from a very different perspective.


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