Saturday, November 30, 2019

Time and Chance (12)

Where does the concept of a final judgment come from?

If you do a Google search or consult an online concordance, you can hardly fail to notice that the vast majority of Bible verses dealing with the subject are to be found in the New Testament. Men seem to have always taken for granted that some kind of ultimate reckoning was inevitable, but there is a surprising dearth of clear teaching on the subject in the earliest books of the word of God.

In fact, we do not find incontestable references to a final, general judgment appearing in scripture much prior to the 10th century B.C.

The Concept of Final Justice

Men and women do not always get what they deserve in this life. God does not step in and reshuffle the deck for everyone who draws a bad hand, even when they are relatively decent people. Nor does he give all evildoers their just desserts simply because the families of their victims would pay premium prices for a front row seat. The Hebrew noun mishpat (“judgment” or “justice”) takes in both of these concepts: vindicating and rewarding the righteous, and punishing the wicked. But this is not how the world works at present. Observing what goes on under the sun, the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks of righteous men who perish in their righteousness, and wicked men who prolong their lives in their evildoing. Justice is not always dispensed in what some of us might consider a timely fashion.

Thus when the Preacher refers three times to God’s judgment, it is in stark contrast to these obvious injustices he has been pointing out, and there is no question that he has some sort of final reckoning in view.

So where did Solomon get such a strong conviction about ultimate judgment?

The Judge of All the Earth

I suppose he may have gotten it from Abraham, who famously (and rhetorically) asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Though Abraham was speaking about the coming fiery destruction of Sodom, which he would shortly see with his own eyes, rather than some kind of dispensation of ultimate justice, the title “Judge of all the earth” suggests God also presides over judicial proceedings of a much grander scope. However, Abraham regrettably declined to mention when or in what forum such an event — or series of events — might be expected to take place.

Many other early Old Testament characters make similar references to God as judge, but in most cases it is obvious they are speaking of God’s providential treatment of men and women during their own lifetimes. The OT expression “God judge between us” means basically “May God make it work out my way in the here and now”, not “May you burn in hell.”

No, the Preacher’s own convictions about the certainty of ultimate justice seem to be based on something a little more substantive than the expectations of the ancients.

My Redeemer Lives

It’s certainly possible the Preacher was familiar with a long oral tradition of belief in God’s judgment, or that special revelation on the subject was handed down throughout the early years of Israel’s history from generation to generation without being preserved in the form of holy writ. The concept of a day of reckoning may have been more firmly embossed on the Hebrew consciousness than we can determine from the infrequency with which references to it appear in the early Old Testament.

As one of the oldest stories in the Bible, the account of Job for a time formed part of this oral tradition. Job famously makes reference to a “Redeemer” who at last will stand upon the earth, which hints strongly at the idea of ultimate justice. But without a “Thus saith the Lord” to accompany such a pronouncement, the naysayers could easily argue that Job, like Abraham, was simply expressing a personal opinion.

However, it is most probable that Solomon got his beliefs about ultimate judgment from his father. David was both king and prophet, and wrote things like “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” and “The Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness” and even “He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.” David prophesied of judgments both personal and global; both interim and conclusive. It is in the psalms of David that the Christian can find the first unambiguous expressions of a theology of final accountability and ultimate justice. In all likelihood it is from his father that the Preacher internalized this important truth.

Here, then, is his reflection on ultimate justice.

Ecclesiastes 3:16  In the Place of Justice

The Necessity for an Accounting
“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.”
“Under the sun,” the Preacher says, “there is wickedness.” Justice does not prevail. Here I believe he is not merely telling us that wickedness had replaced righteousness and judgment in Israel in some general sense. Rather, his use of the word maqowm twice seems to suggest that wickedness is most evident in the very locations from which one ought to expect justice to be dispensed.

It’s not just that chaos and brutality prevail among the hoi polloi, but that the temptation to corruption and injustice is most powerful in places which have been explicitly dedicated to eliminating them. In this the Preacher was probably not indicting his own justice administration as uniquely awful, but rather taking note of a condition endemic in all powerful institutions across time and geography.

Evil in the Courtroom

The New Living Translation says, “There is evil in the courtroom.” I believe that’s the sense of it. This is one of the major problems besetting the U.S. in our own time. Roe v. Wade is a serious indication of the perilous decline of Western justice, but it was by no means the first instance, or even an early one. Where the rule of law is enforced unpredictably and inconsistently, the consequences are frequently catastrophic.

Man repeatedly proves himself incapable of providing justice to his fellow man. Something greater is needed. Some kind of divine global judicial review is called for.

Ecclesiastes 3:17  The Righteous and the Wicked

There is a Time
“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.”
Even if Solomon had known nothing of his father’s writings, and even if David had shared none of his thoughts about God’s justice with his son, I suspect the logic of the Preacher’s investigation would have nevertheless guided him inexorably to this very same conclusion. That seems to be what he is saying here: “I said in my heart,” as opposed to “I read”, “I heard” or “I have been told.” A final judgment simply makes sense to any man who looks at the world honestly. Maintaining the authorial position he has taken throughout Ecclesiastes as a man under the sun looking at the world and human society without the aid of revelation, the Preacher reaches the conclusion that divine judgment is inevitable. “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” Everything he has seen to date tells him the same tale.

Circling Back

Once again, he circles back to the fact that the human experience consists in long lists of opposites, and each of these has its place: birth and death; planting and plucking; weeping and laughing. If there is a time in which God’s righteous judgment has not yet been visited on sinful man, then there will inevitably come a time in which it will be. The cyclical nature of the world he observes all but demands it.

There is more to be said about judgment, and the Preacher will come to it before long.

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