The Common End of Man and Beast
“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity….All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (vv. 19-20).- Ecclesiastes 3:18–22
Scripture gives us the truth about God, but it is equally the case that it gives us the truth about human beings. Often the Bible does this by juxtaposing a key truth about the Lord and a key truth about humanity. We see this in Ecclesiastes 3:17–18.
Having learned in v. 17 that a day is coming when the Creator will judge all people, we might be tempted to ask God why He has ordered things this way, or even to claim that He should execute judgment right now. Yet as one commentator notes, it is not our place to judge the Lord but rather to judge ourselves rightly. Verse 18 reminds us of this fact: “God is testing [human beings] that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.” The seeming “delay” of judgment is meant to bring us to the realization that like the animals, we are mere creatures and not in control of the times and seasons for judgment. And creatures have no right to demand anything of the Creator (Job 38–42).
Ecclesiastes 3:19–20 builds on v. 18 to assist us in developing an appropriate understanding of our place and significance in creation. Despite the fact that we are made in the Lord’s image and are more like Him than is any other created being, we are still just that—created. Like the animals, we are made of dust and to dust we will return. And yet, we are not like animals in every respect. Verse 21 points to this truth. As translated in the ESV, this may not be plain at first, for this verse, which is difficult in the Hebrew, is hard to render in English. The ESV follows several other translations in giving English readers a question from the Preacher that makes it seem as if he is uncertain about where the spirits of people and beasts go when they die. However, several commentators believe the Preacher is actually making a statement of certainty, namely, that although humanity and beasts both go to the grave, the afterlife for each is different. In the light of the fuller new covenant revelation of heaven and hell, we have a better understanding of this afterlife.
How then shall we live in light of the fact that life is fleeting and that we will go to the grave no less than the beasts will? The Preacher’s answer is that we should enjoy life in the present (v. 22). Given his teaching on final judgment (v. 17), he is not advocating a crass hedonism when he exhorts us to rejoice in our work, which in this context refers to all of life. Instead, the Preacher is calling us not to discount the present and the pleasures of God’s good creation. The Lord wants us to enjoy them now, for we will leave them behind at death.
Knowing that we will die just like the beasts, when viewed in the proper context, frees us not to take ourselves too seriously. Death is the great leveler, bringing the end to influence of king and commoner alike. This does not negate the importance of our decisions for eternity, but it does help us gain perspective on our successes and failures. Our mistakes will not derail God’s plan, and our successes should be enjoyed as gifts of the Lord on this side of eternity.
Passages for Further Study