[This is our last week in the study of Ecclesiastes. Next week we will start Hebrews.]
Last week we looked at this last paragraph of the book of Ecclesiastes found in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14. We see that Solomon is explaining to us why he wrote this book. He wants us to learn wisdom. He hopes that we have learned a few lessons along the way and that God’s Word has changed us.
9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
We saw that Solomon knew that God’s Word, when taught in the right way, would bring pleasure (v. 10), but also would bring pain (v. 11). It brings pain not for the purpose of injuring, but for the purpose of correcting. The Shepherd’s words (the word of God) guides us and goads us into right living.
But we have to be careful. Not just any information, not just any book will do. We must be careful not to “go beyond” (v. 12) these writings. Not every source of information out there is worth listening to.
The final two verses of Ecclesiastes 12 bring Solomon’s message home and give us two more reasons for the Word of God. Not only does it bring pleasure and pain, but it brings perspective (v. 13) and preparation (v. 14). It brings perspective on life now and it prepares us for eternity.
The book’s final words provide an ethical and eschatological conclusion:
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Notice that Solomon tells us that this is his conclusion. After all has been taught in the earlier parts of Ecclesiastes, this is the end. This is his conclusion.
The “whole duty of man,” or “the purpose of life” is to fear God and keep his commandments. Like the greatest commandment of the New Testament (love God and love your neighbor) this simplifies life under the Old Covenant—an attitude and an action—fear God and keep his commandments. Both of these are necessary.
What strikes us here is the comprehensiveness, the universality of this mandate. In all of life, we are to fear God and keep His commandments. We dare not compartmentalize our lives and live for God on Sunday but not Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We cannot give God our church life but keep our family and work and leisure lives to ourselves.
The Preacher is saying, in every area of life we are to fear God and obey Him. Nothing is off limits.
Abraham Kuyper, a Christian theologian and one-time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, once said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
He is literally Lord of all.
You have never seen anything in your life that God did not create (Rev 4:11), and Christ is intimately involved in upholding in existence the very things that are in your field of vision at the moment (Heb 1:3). These same things, along with you who are looking at them, were made by and through Christ, and were made for one supreme reason: to belong to or to ‘be unto’ Christ (Col 1:16)
Christ is the origin and the destiny of every object you have ever seen, every person you have ever heard or encountered, every idea you have ever contemplated. Without his express immediate and personal sustaining this very instant, the objects you see in front of you right now would cease to exist before you could finish reading this sentence, and you would not outlast them. Furthermore, God’s plan for the whole universe, including you, is to bring it all under Christ’s rule (Ephesians 1:22).
And the amazing thing is that God wants to use us, not that He needs us, as His agents in the world.
So because of His greatness, we should fear and obey Him. Put that way, it seems most natural.
This is not the first time that Solomon has told us to “fear God.” To fear God is to hold Him in highest respect and honor. It is more a fear of not wanting to displease Him than a fear of being punished by Him.
Luther distinguished between a servile fear and a filial fear.
The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It’s that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it’s the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.
Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he’s afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he’s afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child’s world, the source of security and love. [https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-does-it-mean-fear-god]
We know he’s our father. We know he’s good. But we also agree with Mr. Beaver in the book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Speaking of the lion Aslan (who represents the Lord), he says:
Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
If we are living in sin, then yes, we may have a fear of punishment. Hebrews 10:31 says “It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” But our normal motivation should be to so want to please God that we fear falling short of that. We have such an earnest desire to do everything we can to bring him glory and honor that we fear missing the mark.
The “fear of God” that brings God pleasure is not our being afraid of him, but our having a high and exalted, reverential view of him.
Derek Kidner says, “Fear God is a call that puts us in our place, and all other fears, hopes, and admirations in their place.” Fearing God means that we recognize that we are the creature and He is the Creator. He is great and majestic and all-powerful, and we are small and weak.
Charles Spurgeon put it like this: “There is the natural fear which the creature has of its Creator, because of its own insignificance and its Maker’s greatness. From that we shall never be altogether delivered. With holy awe we shall bow before the divine majesty, even when we come to be perfect in glory.”
Fear of the Lord is something the Bible talks about from beginning to end as absolutely central to having a right relationship with God and having a life that represents that.
Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…” Proverbs 9:10 says it is “the beginning of wisdom.”
“If it is the ‘beginning of wisdom’ it is also the end, the conclusion; no progress in the believer’s life leaves it behind.”
So when we start with the right view of the majesty and holiness of God and recognize him for who he is, we’ll say with Isaiah, “Woe is me. I am undone. I’m a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5), or Peter when he sees the glory of Christ and his power says, “Depart from me. I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
This is the sort of “fear” that expresses itself in [good] trembling and amazement and an overwhelming sense of personal frailty and finitude.
So Sam Storms defines the fear of the Lord as
To fear God means to live conscious of his all-pervasive presence, conscious of our absolute, moment-by-moment dependence on him for light and life, conscious of our comprehensive responsibility to do all he has commanded, fearful of offending him, determined to obey him (Deut. 6:1-2,24; 8:6; Pss. 112:1; 119:63; Malachi 3:5), and committed to loving him (Deut. 10:12,20; 13:4).
He goes on to helpfully distinguish…
It is not to be frightened of him in the sense that we live in uncertainty as to whether he might one day turn on us and lay upon us the condemnation that our sin deserves. It is not to be afraid of him in the sense that we live in doubt about his intentions or whether or not he plans on fulfilling the promises of his Word. It is not to be terrorized and paralyzed at the prospect of having our transgressions visited yet again upon us, in spite of the fact that they have been fully and finally visited on our Savior, the Lord Jesus. It is not to live in anxious dread that divine wrath will yet find us out and bring death and eternal destruction to our souls.
After all, Psalm 130:3-4 says…
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”
We do not fear God because forgiveness may be withheld, but because it has already been given! The unshakeable knowledge that God will never “mark iniquities” (v. 3), which is to say, the assurance that our sins have been forever forgiven, is the reason why we fear God. There’s no escaping the force of the psalmist’s language: fearing God is the necessary fruit of forgiveness! This alone demands that fearing God entail something altogether other than being afraid of judgment.
But that forgiveness reveals His incomparable greatness in mercy and majesty, thus thrilling our hearts and overwhelming our hearts. It is that bone-shattering realization that it is by mercy and grace alone that we are not forever consumed by divine justice. One can thus simultaneously “taste” the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 34:8a) and “fear” him (Ps. 34:9a) at the same moment.
“Surely one of the reasons in these day for low moral standards is the lack of awareness of the majesty and holiness of God and of our accountability toward him. To a certain degree the same deficiencies can be seen among professing Christians. One of the marks of spiritual decline is that “there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps 36:1). Instead we fill ourselves with confidence in our own sufficiency. This is the complete antithesis of holiness.” (Kenneth Prior; The Way of Holiness, 21)
Not only will the godly man fear God, but will also obey every command. Fear is the attitude; obedience is the action of a man who fears (and loves) God. The fear of God without obedience is only a sham.
Interestingly, Doug Eaton notes that “This is the only place in Ecclesiastes where the commands of God are mentioned.”
The fear of God is the inspiration and impetus for our obedience. Abraham’s obedience demonstrated his fear of God. It was because Abraham feared the Lord that he obeyed God’s voice (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 239).
Matthew Henry said, “Wherever the fear of God is uppermost in the heart, there will be a respect to all his commandments and care to keep them. In vain do we pretend to fear God if we do not make conscience of our duty to him” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 1052).
The commandments of God are the concrete expressions to us of God’s glory and will. If we are committed to him in devotion and love, we shall love his commandments, too. The fear of God and the love of God are but different aspects of our response to him in the glory of his majesty and holiness (cf. Dt 6:2, 4, 14) (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, 242). If we fear God we will gladly submit to Him and His will in every area of our lives.
At various points the Preacher has told us to fear God because his work is eternal (3:14) and because he demands holy worship (5:7). He has told us to fear God in times of adversity as well as prosperity (7:14–18). He has told us that if we do fear God, it will go well with us (8:12). Now we are told to fear God and to obey him because one day we will stand before him for judgment.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
This is the reason why we should fear and obey God. We will be held accountable. Six times in his discouragement, Solomon has told us to enjoy life while we can; but at no time did he advise us to enjoy sin.
Why does Ecclesiastes tell us about the final judgment here? Because it means that everything matters. The Preacher began and ended his spiritual quest by saying that everything is vanity and that without God there is no meaning or purpose in life. “Is that all there is?” he kept asking. “Isn’t there more to life than what I see under the sun?” If there is no God, and therefore no final judgment, then it is hard to see how anything we do really matters. But if there is a God who will judge the world, then everything matters. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 281)
The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does. What we did, how we did it, and why we did it will all have eternal significance. The reason everything matters is because everything in the universe is subject to the final verdict of a righteous God who knows every secret. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes, 281)
It’s so striking that while Ecclesiastes tells us there is no “gain” to be had under the sun, the apostle Paul says that there is in fact one thing to gain: dying. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). The more we live for Christ now, the greater will be our gain in eternity. The less we live for Christ now, the less death will be gain. If we don’t live for Christ at all now, if we have nothing to do with him, then death will not be gain, but loss.
Unfortunately, Solomon did not live up to the wisdom he had learned and which he teaches us here. 1 Kings 11:6 tells us that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father had done.”
With this, we are invited to consider one last truth in this vain life under the sun. And that is this: every human wise man has fallen short of his own true wisdom.
The Preacher is not the Savior. He cannot save the oppressed and the oppressor whose plight he has so deftly and humanly entered. The Preacher cannot even save himself. Knowing wisdom and avoiding folly has not power in itself to rescue us.
So we thank the Preacher for mentioning the Shepherd back up in verse 11, “the one Shepherd.” In that one word Solomon points to the amazing reality that his father had experienced.
As we look at all the wants, the pastures, the paths, the deadness of soul, the valleys of death’s shadow, and the enemies surrounding us, we are encouraged to engage in these realities under the sun in the presence of God as our shepherd. This Shepherd is the Lord, the want provider, the rest giver, the pasture and path leader, the soul restorer, the one who is with me in the presence of death and enemies, the head anointer and cup filler and the One who chases me with goodness and love every single day of my life, and then finally secures for me an eternal place in his house.
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, comes to our wreckage under the sun. He knows and calls and tends and protects His sheep by name. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. In him all that is wrecked in this world under the sun will one day be restored.