“I spoke to my heart with respect to the sons of man that God is purging them, yet to see that they themselves are as beasts to themselves.”
While often, Solomon’s phrase, “I spoke to my heart” or “I said to my heart” indicates the beginning of a new section, these words seem to form a bridge between verses 17 and 19. In verse 17, Solomon speaks of a place of judgment where both the righteous and the wicked will be judged — the sheep separated from the goats, to borrow Jesus’ language in Matthew 25:32. Here, in verse 18, the same idea is captured in the idea of God purging men. The Hebrew word that I translate here as “purge” is the word ברר (barar), which refers to cleansing something by purging, testing, or sifting things out. Surely this takes place in the absolute sense at time of final judgment where mankind will be purged and cleansed. The elect will be glorified, having their sin and dross once and for all time removed. Those chosen for destruction will also be removed from the race of man and condemned into the pits of hell for all eternity. Thus, both individuals and the race will be cleansed in this judgment.
There is some debate as to how one translates this final verse. Some translators imply that this is simply a reference to man as a beast (particularly in the context of the verses that follow). Yet, I lean toward Luther’s translation along with that of the 10th century Rabbi, Sa’asiah ben Yosef Gaon, who saw this as a reference to the way the wicked of mankind behaved like beasts toward the righteous. As the Rabbi commented that the difference between the righteous and the wicked is as great a distance as is the distance between man and beast. The final word, לָהֶם (lahem — “to them”) seems to support this reading and not simply be seen as a reflexive pronoun.
Reading the text in this manner causes one to interpret not only the final judgment of God, but also the many earthly judgments that God brings into our lives as a tool to refine mankind — to make the elect godly and to distinguish the wicked more and more from those of faith. And, indeed, is that not what often happens in this life during times of crisis. The wicked become hardened and often, like animals, seek simply to save themselves. At the same time, the Godly grow in faith and often go to great lengths to care for others.
The sad thing is that in our culture, for more than a generation, children have been taught that they are no different than animals, just perhaps with a more developed brain. The law of the jungle teaches the survival of the fittest and we have a generation today that seems to be living it out in our schools, our communities, and sadly, sometimes even in our churches. Yet, the scriptures teach that mankind bears God’s image and thus has dignity that is altogether different than that of the animals. And our behavior toward one another ought to reflect that distinction. All too often, even in the context of the church, it does not…