Solomon is still showing that every thing in this world, without piety and the fear of God, is vanity. Take away religion, and there is nothing valuable among men, nothing for the sake of which a wise man would think it worth while to live in this world. In these verses he shows that power (than which there is nothing men are more ambitious of) and life itself (than which there is nothing men are more fond, more jealous of) are nothing without the fear of God.
I. Here is the vanity of man as mighty, man in his best estate, man upon the throne, where his authority is submitted to, man upon the judgment-seat, where his wisdom and justice are appealed to, and where, if he be governed by the laws of religion, he is God's viceregent; nay, he is of those to whom it is said, You are gods; but without the fear of God it is vanity, for, set that aside, and,
1. The judge will not judge aright, will not use his power well, but will abuse it; instead of doing good with it he will do hurt with it, and then it is not only vanity, but a lie, a cheat to himself and to all about him, Ecc 3:16. Solomon perceived, by what he had read of former times, what he heard of other countries, and what he had seen in some corrupt judges, even in the land of Israel, notwithstanding all his care to prefer good men, that there was wickedness in the place of judgment. It is not so above the sun: far be it from God that he should do iniquity, or pervert justice. But under the sun it is often found that that which should be the refuge, proves the prison, of oppressed innocency. Man being in honour, and not understanding what he ought to do, becomes like the beasts that perish, like the beasts of prey, even the most ravenous, Psa 49:20. Not only from the persons that sat in judgment, but even in the places where judgment was, in pretence, administered, and righteousness was expected, there was iniquity; men met with the greatest wrongs in those courts to which they fled for justice. This is vanity and vexation; for, (1.) It would have been better for the people to have had no judges than to have had such. (2.) It would have been better for the judges to have had no power than to have had it and used it to such ill purposes; and so they will say another day.
2. The judge will himself be judged for not judging aright. When Solomon saw how judgment was perverted among men he looked up to God the Judge, and looked forward to the day of his judgment (Ecc 3:17): “I said in my heart that this unrighteous judgment is not so conclusive as both sides take it to be, for there will be a review of the judgment; God shall judge between the righteous and the wicked, shall judge for the righteous and plead their cause, though now it is run down, and judge against the wicked and reckon with them for all their unrighteous decrees and the grievousness which they have prescribed,” Isa 10:1. With an eye of faith we may see, not only the period, but the punishment of the pride and cruelty of oppressors (Psa 92:7), and it is an unspeakable comfort to the oppressed that their cause will be heard over again. Let them therefore wait with patience, for there is another Judge that stands before the door. And, though the day of affliction may last long, yet there is a time, a set time, for the examination of every purpose, and every work done under the sun. Men have their day now, but God's day is coming, Psa 37:13. With God there is a time for the re-hearing of causes, redressing of grievances, and reversing of unjust decrees, though as yet we see it not here, Job 24:1.
II. Here is the vanity of man as mortal. He now comes to speak more generally concerning the estate of the sons of men in this world, their life and being on earth, and shows that their reason, without religion and the fear of God, advances them but little above the beasts. Now observe,
1. What he aims at in this account of man's estate. (1.) That God may be honoured, may be justified, may be glorified - that they might clear God (so the margin reads it), that if men have an uneasy life in this world, full of vanity and vexation, they may thank themselves and lay no blame on God; let them clear him, and not say that he made this world to be man's prison and life to be his penance; no, God made man, in respect both of honour and comfort, little lower than the angels; if he be mean and miserable, it is his own fault. Or, that God (that is, the world of God) might manifest them, and discover them to themselves, and so appear to be quick and powerful, and a judge of men's characters; and we may be made sensible how open we lie to God's knowledge and judgment. (2.) That men may be humbled, may be vilified, may be mortified - that they might see that they themselves are beasts. It is no easy matter to convince proud men that they are but men (Psa 9:20), much more to convince bad men that they are beasts, that, being destitute of religion, they are as the beasts that perish, as the horse and the mule that have no understanding. Proud oppressors are as beasts, as roaring lions and ranging bears. Nay, every man that minds his body only, and not his soul, makes himself no better than a brute, and must wish, at least, to die like one.
2. The manner in which he verifies this account. That which he undertakes to prove is that a worldly, carnal, earthly-minded man, has no preeminence above the beast, for all that which he sets his heart upon, places his confidence, and expects a happiness in, is vanity, Ecc 3:19. Some make this to be the language of an atheist, who justifies himself in his iniquity (Ecc 3:16) and evades the argument taken from the judgment to come (Ecc 3:17) by pleading that there is not another life after this, but that when man dies there is an end of him, and therefore while he lives he may live as he lists; but others rather think Solomon here speaks as he himself thinks, and that it is to be understood in the same sense with that of his father (Psa 49:14), Like sheep they are laid in the grave, and that he intends to show the vanity of this world's wealth and honours “By the equal condition in mere outward respects (as bishop Reynolds expounds it) between men and beasts,” (1.) The events concerning both seem much alike (Ecc 3:19); That which befals the sons of men is no other than that which befals beasts; a great deal of knowledge of human bodies is gained by the anatomy of the bodies of brutes. When the deluge swept away the old world the beasts perished with mankind. Horses and men are killed in battle with the same weapons of war. (2.) The end of both, to an eye of sense, seems alike too: They have all one breath, and breathe in the same air, and it is the general description of both that in their nostrils is the breath of life (Gen 7:22), and therefore, as the one dies, so dies the other; in their expiring there is no visible difference, but death makes much the same change with a beast that it does with a man. [1.] As to their bodies, the change is altogether the same, except the different respects that are paid to them by the survivors. Let a man be buried with the burial of an ass (Jer 22:19) and what preëminence then has he above a beast? The touch of the dead body of a man, by the law of Moses, contracted a greater ceremonial pollution than the touch of the carcase even of an unclean beast or fowl. And Solomon here observes that all go unto one place; the dead bodies of men and beasts putrefy alike; all are of the dust, in their original, for we see all turn to dust again in their corruption. What little reason then have we to be proud of our bodies, or any bodily accomplishments, when they must not only be reduced to the earth very shortly, but must be so in common with the beasts, and we must mingle our dust with theirs! [2.] As to their spirits there is indeed a vast difference, but not a visible one, Ecc 3:21. It is certain that the spirit of the sons of men at death is ascending; it goes upwards to the Father of spirits, who made it, to the world of spirits to which it is allied; it dies not with the body, but is redeemed from the power of the grave, Psa 49:15. It goes upwards to be judged and determined to an unchangeable state. It is certain that the spirit of the beast goes downwards to the earth; it dies with the body; it perishes and is gone at death. The soul of a beast is, at death, like a candle blown out - there is an end of it; whereas the soul of a man is then like a candle taken out of a dark lantern, which leaves the lantern useless indeed, but does itself shine brighter. This great difference there is between the spirits of men and beasts; and a good reason it is why men should set their affections on things above, and lift up their souls to those things, not suffering them, as if they were the souls of brutes, to cleave to this earth. But who knows this difference? We cannot see the ascent of the one and the descent of the other with our bodily eyes; and therefore those that live by sense, as all carnal sensualists do, that walk in the sight of their eyes and will not admit any other discoveries, by their own rule of judgment have no preëminence above the beasts. Who knows, that is, who considers this? Isa 53:1. Very few. Were it better considered, the world would be every way better; but most men live as if they were to be here always, or as if when they die there were an end of them; and it is not strange that those live like beasts who think they shall die like beasts, but on such the noble faculties of reason are perfectly lost and thrown away.
3. An inference drawn from it (Ecc 3:22): There is nothing better, as to this world, nothing better to be had out of our wealth and honour, than that a man should rejoice in his own works, that is, (1.) Keep a clear conscience, and never admit iniquity into the place of righteousness. Let every man prove his own work, and approve himself to God in it, so shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, Gal 6:4. Let him not get nor keep any thing but what he can rejoice in. See 2Co 1:12. (2.) Live a cheerful life. If God have prospered the work of our hands unto us, let us rejoice in it, and take the comfort of it, and not make it a burden to ourselves and leave others the joy of it; for that is our portion, not the portion of our souls (miserable are those that have their portion in this life, Psa 17:14, and fools are those that choose it and take up with it, Luk 12:19), but it is the portion of the body; that only which we enjoy is ours out of this world; it is taking what is to be had and making the best of it, and the reason is because none can give us a sight of what shall be after us, either who shall have our estates or what use they will make of them. When we are gone it is likely we shall not see what is after us; there is no correspondence that we know of between the other world and this, Job 14:21. Those in the other world will be wholly taken up with that world, so that they will not care for seeing what is done in this; and while we are here we cannot foresee what shall be after us, either as to our families or the public. It is not for us to know the times and seasons that shall be after us, which, as it should be a restraint to our cares about this world, so it should be a reason for our concern about another. Since death is a final farewell to this life, let us look before us to another life.