“Justice delayed is justice denied.” This famous phrase encapsulates the idea that the ability of a legal system to produce justice is only as good as its ability to move people through the courts as quickly as possible. Until the innocent are acquitted and the guilty are convicted, one cannot say that justice has been done.
When a society’s justice system is known for its inefficiency and for taking far longer than necessary to deal with the criminal element, that criminal element is emboldened. They see that any consequences for their actions will be long delayed, if imposed at all, and they believe that the enjoyment they might get out of a crime is well worth it. After all, if there is not much hope that one will be punished, why not do what one wants to do?
Of course, we are speaking from the perspective of unregenerate people, and in today’s passage, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes considers the effect that the apparent delay of justice has on those who are set on wickedness. First, he looks at the reality that the wicked are afforded a proper burial and even praised by their community (Eccl. 8:10). In Scripture, burial is a great honor and not to be buried is a great dishonor or a significant misfortune (Jer. 16:6). Thus, the Preacher is speaking of the honor that is shown to wicked people. This he presents as something perplexing (“vanity”; Eccl. 8:10). It is indeed strange, from the perspective of a transformed heart, that society would fall at the feet of wicked people such as politicians and actors who lie under oath, engage in all manner of sexual debauchery, and so forth. But if we think about it a bit, it is easier to understand why such figures would be lauded. That these individuals can sin with abandon and escape consequences gives the ordinary sinner hope that he can do the same, or at least that he will not be judged harshly.
Add the delay of justice to the honor that so many evil people receive, and you have a potent combination of factors that encourages many people to think they can sin with impunity. When the sentence is not pronounced quickly, people become more set on their evil, believing they can escape justice at last (v. 11). Yet, that is the wrong lesson to learn from justice’s delay. God often allows earthly justice to be delayed and does not immediately mete out heavenly justice because He is showing kindness meant to lead a sinner to repentance (Rom. 2:4). To presume upon this kindness is a great sin, and it happens whenever people harden their hearts because they think judgment will never come.