Opposing Ideas in Ecclesiastes: Justice and Mercy

When the book of Ecclesiastes highlights judgment, it can arouse questions about the apparent contradiction between the grief of Ecclesiastes and statements of abundant mercy elsewhere in the Bible. This excerpt from the Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament provides clarity in understanding God’s character of both justice and mercy.

The Justice and Mercy of God

Ecclesiastes 12:14 asserts:

For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Jeremiah 31:34 affirms:

No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

The one text speaks of God’s righteous judgment, the other of His gracious forgiveness of sins. How shall we harmonize them? Hundreds of Bible passages could be adduced as parallels for the first text listed and just as many confirming the teaching of the second text. In fact, the whole Bible may be said to be divided into two great parts: one proclaims God’s wrath and judgment; the other God’s forgiveness. In dealing with the above texts, we are simply looking into the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. We are here therefore concerned not merely with two isolated statements, but with two great doctrines of the Bible, or with two grand divisions of the Scriptures.

God shall judge every work, even every secret deed, as to its moral value, whether it be good or evil, says the Ecclesiastes passage. The meaning evidently is that God is a righteous, impartial judge, and whatever is wrong will be treated by Him as wrong, and whatever is right will likewise receive its proper judgment. The sentiment expressed is similar to that found, for instance, in Psalm 5:4–6. We need not multiply passages to show that the Scriptures proclaim the perfect justice and impartiality of our great God. It is universally agreed that they describe God as just, that is, as the almighty Ruler of the universe, who will punish the evildoing He has forbidden and give due recognition to the innocence of the righteous.

Justice through Christ’s Death

The text from Jeremiah is no less plain in asserting that God, when the days of the new covenant have come, will pardon the wrongdoing of His people and not remember their transgressions of His holy will. We are here reminded of the wonderful words proclaimed by the Lord Himself when He passed by before Moses:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exodus 34:6–7).

In the New Testament, for example, we hear Jesus say:

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. For He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Luke 6:36, 35).

It might seem that these texts describe the direct antithesis of justice. How can God be just and at the same time forgive evildoing? This question takes us into the very heart of the Scriptures, to the message of redemption through the substitutionary work of our Savior. Paul discusses this very matter, the relationship between God’s justice and His forgiveness, and explains it authoritatively in Romans 3:21–26. God, who is merciful, wished to save the sinful race that His justice had to condemn. It seemed that either the mercy or the justice of God would have to be infringed or impaired. But the love of the heavenly Father had from eternity provided a way of escape, a method by which sin would be punished and still forgiveness of sins not be obstructed. Jesus, the Son of God, became humanity’s Substitute. The punishment that the righteousness of God had to mete out to sinners was borne by Him. Hence no one can say that God is not just and does not punish sin.

Mercy in Our Redeemer 

And now, since the penalty of all sins has been paid, the mercy of God freely pardons the guilty human race and provides for it eternal salvation. The message is sounded forth: in Christ we have the redemption through His blood, namely, the forgiveness of sins. The work of Christ, then, makes it possible for God to be just and to judge every evil deed without withholding from sinful beings the forgiveness of their sins. What at first sight seems to us very conflicting is all wondrously harmonized if we look at Christ. It is the glory of the Christian religion that it preserves inviolate the teachings both of God’s justice and of God’s mercy and grace.

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Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture: ESV®.

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