Of Men and Beasts and Judgment Day

 

Ecclesiastes 3:16-22, 12:1-8 (text); John 5:25-29
June 2, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)

One of man’s oldest questions is, “Is there life after death?” You and me and all mankind possess a sense of life after our life on earth is done. We all wonder what the afterlife is all about and where we’re going after death. This is why many people consult mediums, and dabble in paranormal activities. And this is why some of the most popular books today are those who had so-called “near-death experiences” telling stories about what they saw in heaven or even in hell! But Jesus and the Bible tells us that all these NDEs cannot be true, and inquiries about life after death and the spirit-world are abominations to God.

Thus far in our studies in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we have looked at the author’s quest for meaning in wisdom, work, pleasure, and even life itself. In the first 15 verses of Chapter 3, he looks at life, and sees that, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (verse 1). Then he concludes that God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (verse 11).

In our text, verses 16-22, he goes back to his thoughts about life and death, and concludes again that “all is vanity” (verse 19). Why? First, he says that since all of us, men and beasts, are destined to die anyway, what’s the use of life? If there is no life after death for mankind, then all pagans are right: humans are nothing but mere animals.

Second, life seems to be unjust—full of sufferings, wickedness and injustice. What’s the point then in being good and doing good in this life, when we’re all going down to death, and after that, our existence ceases?

And third, although the Teacher is not sure that there is life after death, he also says that God will judge both the righteous and the wicked (verse 17).

Today, we will study these three things from our text and from other texts from Scripture under the theme, “Of Men and Beasts and Judgment Day”: (1) Both are Dust and Return to Dust; (2) But Only One Will Be Judged; and (3) Some to Life, Some to Judgment.

Both are Dust and Return to Dust
Are we merely like beasts and animals, formed from the dust of the ground? The Teacher echoes Genesis 1:24 and 2:7, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds …” God uses the same words for “living creatures” in 2:7, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Mankind, like beasts, are “living creatures,” literally, “living souls.” In Genesis 2:7, the word for “man” is adam and for “ground” is adamah. We are earthbound in our earthly existence. But even if man is an earthly being just like the beasts of the field, there are differences, big differences.

First, God “breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7)—physical, mental, and spiritual—into man. Only to human beings alone, not to animals, does it say that God gave his own breath. The “living souls” of beasts were brought forth by the earth (1:4), while Adam was made “a living soul” by God’s “breath of life” (2:7). John Calvin makes this great distinction:

For what if I should maintain that the distinction was constituted by the word of God, by which that breath of life is distinguished from the souls of brutes? For whence do the souls of other animals arise? God says, “Let the earth bring forth the living soul,” etc. Let that which has sprung of earth be resolved into earth. But the soul of man is not of the earth. It was made by the mouth of the Lord, i.e., by his secret power (“Psychopannychia,” 1534).

Second, God created man in his own image, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Again, we must note another difference between Adam and the beasts. The earth brought forth animals “according to their kinds” (Gen 1:21, 24-25), but God created man “in his own image.” And how are we in God’s image? Does God have physical parts like us? No, the image of God in us is in our perfect holiness, righteousness and knowledge of God. Believers are regenerated living creatures, having “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). And believers are also “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). This transformation is ongoing until the believer’s last breath in this world.

Third, God God made man “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor”? (Psa 8:5). And doesn’t it also say that God gave him “dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet … the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea …”? (verses 6-8) God bestowed on mankind a royal and priestly status, having both kingship and stewardship over his creation.

But this image of God in us was corrupted when the image-bearer Adam fell into sin. As our covenant head, Adam represented all human beings descending from him in his sin. Because of this, we are all without exception born with Adam’s guilt and sin. The true righteousness, holiness and knowledge that God gave us were lost. All human beings are now bound in their sinful nature.

However, even after Adam sinned, human beings are still image-bearers of God. We haven’t completely lost God’s image. After the great flood, God made a covenant with Noah, restating man’s kingship and stewardship over God’s creation. One of these responsibilities is in his relationship with other mankind. Shedding the blood of other human beings unjustly, which is murder, is punishable by death. Why? Because, God warned Noah, he “made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). Man, even in his sinful state, still bears God’s image.

James also condemns cursing others with our tongues, because they too are “made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9). We’re not merely beasts or animals, so we are to treat others with dignity and respect, whatever their skin color, language, appearance, mental capacity, economic or social standing, or any other difference from us.

Godless and pagan evolutionists use these words of Ecclesiastes to say that human beings are mere animals. This is why killing babies in the womb is nothing for them. But why do unbelievers who say that we are mere animals fight for so-called “human rights” or “civil society” under the “rule of law”? If we’re not accountable to our Creator, since there is no Creator, why strive to be “good” and “civilized” human? Why not just live like beasts in the forest, who kill each other for food?

The Teacher seems to be saying this in verses 19-20. Beasts and men are born and live to die. Both were made from the dust of the earth, and both will return to dust after death, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). The psalmist also sees this certainty in death, “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psa 49:12; see also Job 10:9; Psa 22:15). When it comes to death, human beings have no advantage over animals.

But what the Teacher is not saying is that men and beasts are both equal before God. It is only in death that we suffer the same destiny, but that’s about it. In terms of our standing before God and before others, we have an advantage over beasts because we are image-bearers of God: we have a sense of good and evil, of justice and injustice.

But Only One Will Be Judged
“It’s so unfair!” This is the battle-cry of all humanity from their younger days until they die. And this is so Biblical! Life’s so unfair. Why are we poor, while other families are rich? Why am I not as beautiful as my friend? Why didn’t I get the job, when I’m more qualified? Why do we have rebellious children, when my friend’s children are godly? And on and on and on.

This is also the reason why the Reformed doctrine of election is very popular. As soon as other evangelicals hear the word “election” or “predestination,” they recoil in disgust over its “injustice” and “unfairness” even when they are clueless as to what it really means. The immediate reaction is, “I don’t believe in that kind of God—unfair, unjust,unloving. Choosing some to salvation, and not choosing others? God will never do that!” Sadly, the God of the Bible has already done it, even before the creation of the world! (Eph 1:4).

And ufortunately for all of us, ever since Adam fell into sin, life will always be unfair. There will always be injustice in this sinful world. Even “in the place of justice and righteousness,” there will be wickedness (verse 16). The courts of justice are full of injustice. Many are condemned wrongly of crimes they did not commit, some to the death penalty. There is the case of Brian Banks, who when he was 16 years old, was highly acclaimed as a high school football player. He was going to be recruited to play for USC. But he was accused of rape by a classmate and sentenced to jail. He served five years in prison and was released. But his accuser admitted after another five years into his probation that there was no rape. So finally, after 11 years, his conviction was overturned. This year, he was signed by an NFL team, but only after injustice wasted 11 years of his life.

Not only that, many who have committed violent crimes are given light sentences or even acquitted because of technicalities. There are unnumbered crimes that go unsolved, and the criminals are still roaming the streets scot-free. This is so unfair! Therefore, so many people take matters into their own hands, because they don’t see that the scales of justice will ever be balanced.

Even in the Bible, we see many people crying out for justice. Moses said of rebellious Israel, “They have dealt corruptly with [God]; they are … blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” and wonder why God doesn’t punish them (Deut 32:5). The psalmist also mourned this evil situation in this sinful world, “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psa 73:3). Even the prophet Jeremiah cried out to God against injustice, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1)

Like us, the Preacher saw this injustice all around him, even in his prosperous kingdom. Like us, he has seen all kinds of oppressors who have power, and those who are oppressed who cry for help, but are not comforted (4:1-2). So he concludes that those who have not been born and have not suffered, and those who have died and have been relieved of suffering, are better off than those who are alive and are suffering from evil deeds (verse 3).

But then in verse 17, he acknowledges that not everything is for nothing, “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.”

God is not unfair or unjust. He is fair and just, because he is holy. This is his perfect essence. In fact, because of his holiness, he will surely put an end to all unfairness, injustice and oppression. So when we see all kinds of wickedness go unpunished, we are not to take matters into our own hands. First of all, he has appointed civil magistrates as his representatives to impose his justice on all mankind. Listen to what Paul tells us about civil authorities in Romans 13:2-4:

Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

But what if the civil authorities themselves are corrupt and unjust? Then God will punish not only evildoers, but evil authorities too.

Secondly, let us not despair when life is unfair or unjust because in the fullness of time, the wicked will be judged, and justice will surely be done: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19).

Some to Life, Some to Judgment
The Teacher says earlier in verse 1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He repeats the same thought in verse 17, “there is a time for every matter and for every work.” If there’s a time and season for everything under the sun, surely there must be a time when justice will be accomplished.

Plaque with three saints rising from the dead, ca. 1250, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (click to enlarge)

Plaque with three saints rising from the dead, ca. 1250, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (click to enlarge)

But even as he previously has said that God will judge both the righteous and the wicked, the Teacher seems to waiver at the destination of the human soul, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (verse 21) He doesn’t really understand from where the human spirit comes (11:5), or where it goes after death.

Later however, he affirms that man’s soul returns to God after death, “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7). At death, man’s physical body, the “dust,” returns to dust, and man’s spirit returns to God. Notice that the Teacher mentions only two elements of a human being: a physical element, the body; and a non-physical element, the spirit. In many other texts, we read about these two parts of the human being, not three, as most evangelicals believe.

This is why our confessions always mention these two parts, body and soul For example, Q&A 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism says that our comfort in life and in death is, “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…” God will punish unbelievers “with everlasting punishment both of body and soul” (Q&A 11). Christ “bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race … in order that … He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation” (Q&A 37).

When will God accomplish this judgment of the righteous and the wicked? In the Old Testament, Daniel 12:2-3 stands out: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

This is clearly the resurrection of the dead, and this happens after “a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (Dan 12:1). This is a clear reference to the Second Coming of Christ, which will also be Judgment Day for all mankind.

Matthew Chapters 24-25 also show these two events occurring in rapid succession. Matthew 24 refers to a “great tribulation” never seen before in the world (verse 21). And then, “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (verse 29), Christ will return from heaven. This is Judgment Day! Then in the next chapter, Matthew 25:31-32, describes the Judgment Day scene in words very similar to Matthew 24:30-31. Notice the similarity between these two texts:

Matthew 24:30-31 Matthew 25:31-32
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man … with power and great glory (v 30). When the Son of Man comes in his glory … then he will sit on his glorious throne (v 31).
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (v 31). and all the angels with him … Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate … the sheep [elect] from the goats (vv 31-32).

On this Judgment Day, everyone will get what God has always promised: eternal life for those who have been given the righteousness of Christ, and eternal punishment for the unrepentant wicked. Jesus also affirms this in John 5:28-29, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Notice that this resurrection is in “an hour,” a single event.

Therefore, do not be deceived by those who say that there will be two resurrections: the resurrection of believers during the Secret Rapture fiction, and then some 1,000 years later, the resurrection of unbelievers. This teaching is not only unsound; it is nowhere found in the Bible.

So do not despair, beloved Christians. The unbelieving wicked who have done unjust and unfair deeds will be given their just desserts. They will all be resurrected to everlasting fire. So the psalmists comfort us:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous … but the way of the wicked will perish (Psa 1:5-6).

Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb (Psa 37:1-2).

Though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever (Psa 92:7).

They will all perish and be destroyed.

In contrast to the everlasting condemnation of the wicked, the righteous will be rewarded. First of all, the perfect image of God in us will be restored through Christ, who is the exact image of his Father, “the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). We will be like Christ, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Paul says that we who are God’s elect will “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). He will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21). Paul also confirms this glorious reward, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49). Our Adamic body of dust will become a glorious spiritual body, just like Christ’s resurrected body. And this body will never return to dust again.

Second, our longing for perfect justice will be accomplished. God has meted out his justice against all our sins on Christ when he was crucified on the cross, accomplishing his perfect justice in Christ for us. But his justice will also be done against all evildoers. When David was being persecuted by his enemies, he asked the LORD four times, ”How long” for justice to be done (Psa 13:1-2). The souls of martyred saints cry out to God in heaven, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:9-10).

We are to trust that God’s “time for every matter” under the sun will surely come to pass in righteousness and justice. When we despair of our sufferings in this world because of unjust people, we take comfort God’s promise, “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Hab 2:3). We are to trust Jesus’ promise, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:7-8).

As the sheep are gathered before the throne of Christ on Judgment Day, he will say to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). To his faithful stewards, he will say,“Well done, good and faithful servant … Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21).

When your gaze is fixed upon your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, your life will not be meaningless and in vain. Therefore, pursue all things necessary for our body and soul in this world. Pursue heavenly wisdom, because Christ is our wisdom from heaven. Pursue heavenly pleasure, because true and eternal pleasures are found in Christ alone. Pursue godly work, because only by working our jobs as if we are working for Christ will give us joy and satisfaction in our toil. Finally, pursue justice and righteousness in this world, because Christ himself—the sinless, perfect Judge—was himself judged by God in order to give us our perfect righteousness in him.

 

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