The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)
Throughout Ecclesiastes, as the Preacher has systematically stripped the hope out of various avenues for pursuing joy, meaning, and purpose, he has also repeatedly given us a glimpse above the sun to the only real and lasting hope for humanity. This hope is that truly enjoying life can only come as a gift from God. The LORD alone is beyond vanity. He alone is joy, meaning, and purpose. And while this refrain has popped up throughout the book, here in these final two verses Solomon concludes by fixing our eyes squarely upon Him who is above the sun.
THE END OF THE MATTER // VERSE 13
In no uncertain terms, Ecclesiastes now draws to a close with the end of the matter. The book has, in many ways, been a winding journey through the Preacher’s collected thoughts on life. No one can argue that the adventure is not beautiful and poetic, but it is also difficult to decipher. And often the pieces of Ecclesiastes that are easiest to understand are also the hardest to swallow. Throughout the book, the fragmented pleading of the refrains to enjoy life in contentment have been lights at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, the point of Ecclesiastes, so far, can seem to be that there is no point to life so you might as well just enjoy the life given to you by God. But within these final two verses, we definitively learn what the overall message of the Preacher is for us. He now finally presents his barebones conclusion, the end of the matter, after all has been heard. After reflecting upon relationships, work, finances, possessions, children, wisdom, folly, knowledge, ignorance, anger, enjoyment, contentment, pleasure, legacy, eternity, oppression, justice, laughter, mourning, prosperity, adversity, time, life under the sun, and, of course, death, Ecclesiastes now offers at its conclusion the purpose behind all of human existence: fear God and keep His commandments.
THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN // VERSE 13
If saying that the purpose of humanity is to fear God and keep His commandments seems like a slight hyperbole, note the final phrase of verse 13: for this is the whole duty of man. Since man is, of course, referring to all of mankind or humanity, the author is blatantly ascribing these two items as our reason for existing. If this sounds a bit shocking to you, it should. The very idea of having and/or discovering the grand purpose for being alive is an innately human experience. No person can live into adulthood without wrestling with this thought. James K. A. Smith, in You Are What You Love, (commenting on Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”) says it like this:
To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something. We are like existential sharks: we have to move to live. We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end. In philosophy we have a shorthand term for this: something that is oriented toward an end or telos (a “goal”) is described as “teleological.” Augustine rightly recognizes that human beings are teleological creatures. (8)
Second-century Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, agrees with Smith’s conclusion: “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work” (19). If modern and ancient, Christian and pagan, agree that we are teleological beings, then what’s the point of emphasizing this point?
Unfortunately, the postmodern thought of today seems to be snuggling a bit too close to nihilism. Either outlook is frightening enough on its own, but together the result can be horrific. When postmodernism’s perpetual skepticism meets nihilism’s cynical declaration that nothing matters, the question is no longer “What is humanity’s purpose?” but instead “What should I do without purpose?” The closing song of the musical Avenue Q sums up this mentality quite well. Throughout the play, one of the main characters searches for his purpose in life, and when his quest proves futile, the cast sings about the comfort that, for all of its hardships, at least life is only temporary. It’s a repackaging of the nihilistic refrain: let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Which, to be fair, is a soundly logical assertion if we are merely products of Darwinian evolution, just lumps of cells that formed by chance with an accidental consciousness that will cease to be after death. Without a Designer, searching for a design is a waste of time. We might as well enjoy life to the fullest because it’s all we have.
This may sound similar to the refrain of Ecclesiastes to eat and drink, for there is nothing better than to enjoy the toil that God has given us, but these two philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. For all of the Preacher’s talk about the futility of life, he has never concluded that nothing matters so we just need to grit our teeth through life and enjoy as much of it as we can. No! The Preacher has repeatedly commanded us to enjoy life as God’s gift. We don’t try to enjoy food and drink because there’s nothing better to do; we eat and drink with joy because flavors and full-bellies are the Creator’s blessings upon His creation. For all the vanities under the sun, we know that the Creator of even the sun itself is governing all things for His glory. In the midst of adversities and evils, we are called to, even then, rejoice in the blessings all around us.
And we can do this. Even though the world is broken and so are we, God’s creation and image have not been marred to the uttermost. Now please don’t report me to John Calvin. I wholeheartedly believe in the depravity of man, especially since it is the one doctrine of Scripture that can be empirically confirmed (as I believe Chesterton noted). But even though the damage is beyond our ability to repair, by His common grace, we are not as sinful as we could be. God still preserves glimpses of His goodness, even among those who actively blaspheme Him. There is, therefore, always grace to enjoy around us because God has preserved it.
All of this emphasizes the fact that Ecclesiastes gloriously proclaims that we do have a God-designed purpose. There is a meaning behind all of life’s futilities and adversities. And now that very purpose is being stated explicitly: the whole duty of mankind is to fear God and keep His commandments.
This duty of humanity is, in reality, one action, which is why he says duty is singular instead of plural. Fearing God and obeying God are so interwoven to one another that separation sabotages both.
Let us think this through.
To fear God is to see God as God. A true glimpse of God’s holiness must result in fear. He is too great and too beyond us for us not to quake at His presence. Fear is the proper reaction to seeing God for who He is. Being afraid during an earthquake is a justified reaction, and taking shelter from a tornado is the wise response. We fear elemental forces such as those because we rightly recognize them to be beyond our control. We become afraid because we are of no consequence to their raw power. To stand defiantly in the midst of a tornado is not bravery but foolishness of the highest order.
But what does this have to do with God? Nahum writes of God that “His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it” (1:3-5).
Just as we flee in fear of the natural elements so do they flee from the LORD. It is wise to fear whatever puts fear into our fears. The LORD formed and created all things. He is utterly above and beyond all things. Nothing in existence is His equal, and nothing can even begin to rival His glory. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom because nothing is more foolish than not fearing God. Anyone who does not fear God does not know Him.
But how does fearing God intertwine with obeying His commands? Simply put, why would we not follow to the letter each command of the Being who authored all of reality? Fearing God without also obeying Him is an impossibility. The fear of God will always lead to obedience, and disobedience is evidence of the denial of God. We cannot fear Him without obeying Him, but we also cannot obey Him without fearing Him. Why is this? Could we not, at least, superficially obey His commandments? Could we not just go through the motions and it still count? No, the greatest commandment in the Bible is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” We cannot love God without first knowing Him, and as stated previously, we cannot know God without fearing Him. No one, therefore, can love God without also fearing Him. Obedience to the greatest commandment requires the fear of the LORD. Thus, we cannot obey Him without fearing Him.
I pray that we now see clearly that the duty to fear God and obey His commands is only one duty, one great responsibility and purpose for all of humanity.
THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT // VERSES 14
The final verse of Ecclesiastes is very much a warning. Primarily, it acts as motivation for fearing God and keeping His commandments, just like the phrase for this is the whole duty of man. Thus, if duty alone will not motivate you to serve God, perhaps impending judgment will. If the fearsome Creator that we have been discussing is promising a judgment day, we should rightly shudder at the very thought. God’s final judgment is not a topic to be treated lightly or frivolously but with reverential fear and trembling. Four questions will guide our study of this verse.
What will God judge?
If the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God is promising judgment, knowing what exactly He will judge should be our top priority. The author provides one answer with two modifiers: every deed, even those done in secret, whether good or evil. In other words, nothing we do will escape the judicial verdict of Almighty God. Nothing is secretive enough to hide from the all-seeing eyes of the LORD. Sadly, many will write off this statement as being referring to the vindictive God of the Old Testament. Jesus, they would argue, is different; the primary message of Jesus is love, not judgment. First, the primary message of Jesus was the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, which should be met with repentance. Second, Jesus actually takes this thought one step further beyond deeds. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus declares, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus, thus, affirms a coming day of God’s ultimate judgment and adds that our words will be judged along with our deeds.
Further in Matthew, Jesus takes the judgment even further by noting that sinful words derive from a sinful heart. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (15:18-19). God’s judgment will not only come upon what we do but what we say and even think.
Why is this good news?
Now that we know what exactly God will judge, why is this verse good news? Because God’s law is etched onto our hearts (Romans 2:15), we long to see evil brought to justice. Just this week on the local news was a report of a woman who pleaded no contest to fleeing the scene of a fatality after hitting a man with her car. The court gave her thirty days in prison with three years’ probation, to which the man’s family claimed that justice was not served. In those types of moment, we inherently long for justice. We ache to see wrongs being made right. We yearn for retribution and vengeance to come upon the head of evildoers. If you do not think this is true, read stories from Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, the lynching of Jesse Washington, the “population transfers” in the Soviet Union, or countless other atrocities committed throughout history. Even though, as I said, God has gracious prevented humanity from being depraved to the uttermost, we certainly have made plenty attempts to prove our depravity beyond a doubt. No one with an even semi-functioning conscience can deny longing for evil to be judged.
Why is this bad news?
So God will judge everything that we do, say, or think and that is good because evil deserves to be punished. Unfortunately, this is also bad news for us. Why is God’s judgment bad news to us? Sadly, we desire to see evil punished, as long as it’s not our evil, but if God will judge everything, we clearly have evil deeds, words, and thoughts that require justice as well. Of course, someone might argue that their deeds, words, and thoughts haven’t been too evil, at least compared to the exploits of Nazis and the like. Surely, then, God’s judgment will be less severe upon us, right? How could God send regular people to an eternal hell alongside committers of genocide, serial rapists, child molesters, and mass shooters? The problem with these kinds of questions is that they fundamentally misunderstand the sinfulness of sin. All sin is primarily an offense against God Himself. Every murder is first and foremost an attack upon the God whose image the murdered person bore. Every theft is robbing from God who gives to all as He sees fit. Ultimately, the breaking of God’s law is cosmic treason, a declaration that we know and are greater than the Creator of all things. Assuming that we are not bad enough to earn God’s eternal judgment is a fundamental lack of understanding who God is. R. C. Sproul points out this error powerfully at a Q&A session from the 2014 Ligonier National Conference, where he answered the question of why God was so severe against Adam and Eve when they sinned. Here is his answer:
This creature from the dirt defied the everlasting, holy God after that God had said that the day that you shall eat of it you shall surely die. And instead of dying that day, he lived another day. And was clothed in his nakedness by pure grace. And had the consequence of a curse applied for quite some time that the worst curse would come upon the one who seduced him, whose head would be crushed by the seed of the woman. And the punishment was too severe? What’s wrong with you people? I’m serious. I mean this is what’s wrong with the Christian church today. We don’t know who God is. We don’t know who we are. The question is: why wasn’t it infinitely more severe? If we have any understanding of our sin and any understanding of who God is that’s the question, isn’t it?
Indeed, each sin, no matter how small we think it is, is a transgression against the eternal God; therefore, the justice served against such a crime must also be eternal. Since God knows all things that we do, say, and think, we have no hope of disguising ourselves as slight sinners either. Each sin earns us God’s full judgment and not one of them escapes His sight. This is bad news for us.
What hope do we have?
Our final question to ask in light of these two verses and the truths that we have seen in them is: What hope do we then have? Calling our circumstance bleak is sugar-coating it. Some claim that God could simply forgive sin, waving it away as if it never happened. But such an action would fly in the face of justice. A judge who refuses to deal punishments for crimes is an unjust judge. Neither could God draw a line between more and less serious sins, forgiving the small ones and punishing the large ones. Doing so would fail to properly uphold His eternal glory. Besides, even if God did so, we would then simply argue about why God drew the line wherever He drew it.
So the question then becomes: how can God remain just, while upholding His infinite glory and granting us forgiveness? The sheer impossibility of each of these elements being fulfilled should cause everyone to cry out, “Who then can be saved?”
Such is the magnitude of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Upon the God-man, as He hung from the cross, came the coalescence of God’s justice, glory, and love. Jesus satisfied God’s justice by offering His own undeserved death as payment for our sins. This was possible because of the deity of Christ. He was able to pay our everlasting debt because He is from everlasting to everlasting. Thus, God’s justice was served and His glory honored. With God’s justice met and glory exalted, His love is then displayed. Having entirely absorbed our punishment in Christ, God then imputes upon us the righteousness of Christ. We are, thus, more than forgiven; we are adopted as children of God, coheirs with Christ. This is the gospel, the good news. The entirety of Scripture points to this message: God rescues rebellious sinners at the cost of His own blood.
THE END OF THE MATTER
The grand purpose, design, and duty of humanity is to fear God and obey His commandments, which we fail time and time again. Frighteningly for us, God will bring each and every thing into judgment, and that very judgment would consume us entirely if it were not the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For all of its poetic beauty, Ecclesiastes, like all Old Testament books, ultimately points beyond itself to Christ.
In Christ alone are we able to fear God and obey His commandments, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
In Christ alone are we able to go to the house of God, drawing near because for us Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In Christ alone are we able to eat and drink and do all things with joy as He strengthens us in contentment of the life graciously given to us by God.
In Christ alone are we able to find, in the midst of the adversities of life, the peace that surpasses all understanding.
In Christ alone are we able to rejoice in our toil under the sun, knowing that for us, to live is Christ.
In Christ alone are we able to meet our inevitable and looming death with confidence that to die is, in fact, gain.
In Christ alone are we able to find gain in this life under the sun, counting everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity without Christ.