In a previous existence, I held a job where I was responsible for upholding the principles of fairness and accountability. And by that, I mean I was a high school swim coach. I loved swimming, and I loved helping others feel pain through swimming. I enjoyed the job immensely, but early on, I learned a valuable lesson about the necessity of timely justice.
From the outset, I was basically doomed. Although I had been a swimmer myself, I really didn’t have an appropriate appreciation for the theological depravity of man. So, I developed a system where if someone broke the rules, they would have to submit themselves to pushups as punishment after practice. Breaking the rules included goofing off, ignoring commands, and the like. Well, after about 3 days of trying to implement this system, I realized it was a complete and unmitigated disaster.
What happened was all fairly predictable. A swimmer would break the rules, and I would tell them to make sure to report at the end of practice. However, the end of practice would come around, and no swimmers were reporting for punishment. They were running off to be picked up by waiting parents and had already forgotten all about the supposedly impending judgment.
The Importance of Timely Judgment
It was during that time that I read Ecclesiastes 8:11 in my devotions.
Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.
I may not be very bright, but I quickly surmised one of the main issues that led to the coaching chaos: the swimmers did not see any immediate ramifications of their actions, and so undiscipline was not only acceptable but preferred.
Well, over the next few days, I made sure to have a few team meetings about how things were going to change. After kicking a few people out of practice for lack of discipline and giving out hundreds of pushups as immediate consequences, things drastically improved. The team environment became more enjoyable for everyone, and I learned a valuable lesson—sinners need speedy judgment.
Although my life as a swim coach is in the past, I have often thought about the ramifications of the wisdom principle of Ecclesiastes 8:11—delayed judgment is essentially the same as no judgment. When people do not see that judgment will come quickly, they are “fully set to do evil.” This principle has many applications to life.
Practical Ramifications for Parenting and Life
There are perhaps two obvious applications for this realization. One is with regard to parenting. Oftentimes parents struggle because they do not discipline their kids with appropriate swiftness. Children (especially small children) have a very small attention span. Unless a parent takes swift action so that the child associates their actions with punishment, the child will solidify his or her heart to do whatever it is they want to do according to to their sinful disposition.
But, as parents, it is our job to teach children that they cannot do whatever they want to do. They must obey and submit to authority (which, for the first season of life, is primarily the parents). However, unless a child recognizes that judgment comes swiftly, that child will be more prone to disobedience and bad attitudes.
Another equally serious ramification is that of civil punishments. Penalties for crimes committed in society are to be enacted swiftly. Yet, we live in a society where a murderer can easily be “on death row” for sometimes as much as 30 or 40 years. That is hardly a deterrent for those who are contemplating sinful action.
Shockingly, some cities and states have enacted bail reforms that allow criminals to go free after being arrested. This has led to shocking statistics, such as 10 individuals being arrested 500 times in New York. Without question, it is a blight on society when justice is not enacted speedily, and we are suffering those consequences in America right now.
Eschatological Ramifications of Imminent Judgment
A lesser-appreciated aspect of this principle relates to eschatology. We are told in 2 Peter 3:3-4 that in the last days, scoffers will mock the idea of the imminent coming of Christ. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” Similarly, Paul says that at the time Christ comes, people will be saying, “Peace and safety” (1 Thess 5:3), and they will not expect Christ to come.
This is why Paul also writes that evil people and impostors “will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13). People will neglect the return of the Lord, and they will set their minds on pleasures and self-fulfillment rather than a fearful expectation of judgment.
But not so the Christians. Christians are repeatedly reminded to watch for the return of the Lord. For example, Mark 13:35-37:
Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.
Or again, 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4:
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.
In other words, Christians are commanded (and expected) to be looking for the coming of the Day of the Lord. This expectation of Christ’s return will motivate believers to live holy lives of pure conduct. For example, 1 Peter 1:13-15 links the setting of one’s hope on the return of Christ to the motivation for living a sober, holy life. Similarly, James 5:8-9 admonishes believers to live a life of holy conduct, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Or, as James puts it in verse 9, “The Judge is standing at the door.”
The Bible pictures the world as getting worse and worse because unbelievers fail to see the nearness of Christ’s judgment. They do not believe judgment is in any sense swift or imminent. Christians, however, understand that Christ will return and bring judgment. This is a strong motivation for holy and righteous living, knowing that “the Judge is standing at the door.”