Ecclesiastes: Oppression, Part 1
Published June 22, 2023
“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. 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.” Ecclesiastes 3:16-17
After several weeks of reflection on the Time Poem in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, we are moving forward into the rest of chapter 3. We already examined 3:9-15 a few posts back, which teaches that God is sovereign over time. This brings us to 3:16-22, which teaches that mankind is bound by time. The chapter may be outlined as follows:
- A Poem on Time (3:1-8)
- God Is Sovereign Over Time (3:9-15)
- Mankind Is Bound by Time (3:16-22)
Commentators have wrestled over the abrupt transition in verse 16, which suddenly introduces the topic of oppression. Indeed, Ecclesiastes contains many abrupt subject changes and often lacks transition statements to show the logical connection between new subjects and previous ones. Sometimes the new subject will only be discussed for one or two verses before the preacher either returns to the previous subject or moves onto another subject entirely. However, most of these one or two verse topics are covered multiple times in the book, with each occurrence adding something to the topic. In this respect, Ecclesiastes is like a classical symphony in which the composer introduces a short musical motif then revisits and further develops it throughout the composition. First-time listeners may miss these motifs completely, but students of the symphony will recognize and appreciate the development of themes across the composition. Because of this, some subjects in Ecclesiastes lend themselves well to a topical approach, that is, a consideration of all the passages in the book on that given topic.
One such topic that works well with this approach is oppression, which is introduced in 3:16-17 and pops up again in two other passages (4:1-3 and 5:8-9). For this reason I have decided to tackle these three passages on oppression in three posts. Not surprisingly, these three passages containing a mere seven verses do not cover all that Scripture teaches on this topic, but each passage teaches a significant theological truth about oppression that every Christian should know. In this post, we will consider 3:16-17.
From the very beginning of Ecclesiastes, the preacher (Solomon) has pulled back the curtain on this fallen world and has exposed the vanity of life, so it comes as no surprise that he would discuss the topic of oppression. A simple definition of oppression is “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” (Merriam-Webster). Verse 16 introduces a particular form of oppression that the preacher has observed: “in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.” In some English translations, the phrase “in the place of” can be read in two ways: (1) Idiomatically – wickedness was found in place of (or instead of) righteousness. (2) Literally – There is a place of justice, but in that place wickedness was found. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for “place” in verse 16 is rarely, if ever, used idiomatically in the manner of option 1, so verse 16 is certainly talking about a literal place. Therefore, many interpret “the place of justice/the place of righteousness” as a courtroom (the NLT goes so far as to use the word “courtroom”). So in the very place where justice should be dispensed and righteousness upheld, the preacher finds wickedness. Perhaps the reason the preacher begins with oppression in the courtroom, before moving to more general examples of oppression in the later passage, is to illustrate the extent to which oppression has permeated society. It has infected the very authority established by God to uphold justice.
In a fallen world, injustice is simply a reality. All of us have either experienced it first hand or witnessed it happen to others. In either case, when our sense of justice is violated, we feel an outrage in the depths of our soul that can only be assuaged by the wrong being righted. Sometimes we have the privilege of seeing some wrongs made right in this life, either through the actions of ourselves or others, but what about the situations in which injustice prevails? How do we cope when we are powerless against oppression? The responses are unbelievers are legion, ranging from anesthetizing the pain through substance abuse to inciting Marxist revolutions. For Christians, however, there is only one proper response.
“I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked . . .” (3:17). The ultimate solution to oppression is the certainty of God’s judgment. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed,” Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). The preacher’s response to oppression is not unrestrained outrage, but trust. Trust in the reality of the coming judgment. The certainty of the coming judgment is grounded in the second half of verse 17: “for there is a time for every matter and every work.” This should sound familiar because it is a direct callback to the poem in 3:1-8, in which God has appointed a time for everything. Solomon trusts that God will judge the righteous and the wicked because God is sovereign over time. The grounding of God’s judgment in His sovereignty over time works in two ways: (1) The most obvious way is that if God has appointed a time for everything, that means He has appointed a day of judgment. (2) The second way is that if all times are appointed by God, then the times in which injustice prevails are subject to God’s sovereignty and cannot exist one moment longer than God allows. God’s sovereignty over time means that there is a fixed amount of time in which sin is allowed to exist, and once that appointed time is over, sin will be no more.
In the face of oppression, Christians can have the same hope that Solomon has. This is not an excuse for passivity, for the Bible commands us to do justice (Micah 6:8). But in the face of specific injustices we are powerless to change, or oppression generally, which will exist until Christ returns, we can experience peace by resting in the reality of the coming judgment. The outrage we feel deep within should translate into prayers for justice (Luke 18:7), and we can have confidence that God will answers these prayers. For some injustices, we may see God’s answer come even in this life. For others, they will be made be right on the Day of Judgment, “for there is a time for every matter and for every work.”
The first theological truth about oppression in Ecclesiastes is that Christ’s return will usher in a day of judgment that will end all oppression. The practical application of this truth is that in that face of oppression, Christians need not despair or harbor outrage, but should trust God to right every wrong. We can pray for God’s justice and experience peace while we await his response.