Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

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Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

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“The Conclusion of the Whole Matter”

At last we arrive at the last two verses of the book, the culmination of the words of truth from God that Solomon has laid out. Here the book boldly proclaims, in no uncertain terms: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Of course, in our previous study we have already turned here many times to see where Solomon has been going with his argument. So we know this ending well. And with the declaring of this to be the conclusion or end of the whole matter, it would seem to mean there is nothing more to say. Yet that was only in terms of the work of this remarkable book being communicated to us. For us, there is still more to think over and look into more deeply—and not just in our current study but as we move forward and continue on with life.

Let us give attention, then, to what we’re told here. First, those who claim that a later moralist added these verses to the end of the book must contend with the fact that what is said here is essentially said multiple times earlier in the book. There is no evidence that the earlier statements were added, though some try to argue that they were too. They actually fit very well in their contexts. So it makes sense that Solomon did end his work with these verses as a summation of what he wanted to leave us with—and we are assuming that for this commentary. And not only are these the last words of the book, but they are directly labeled as the conclusion—these being the ultimate takeaway rather than the final vanity declaration of verse 8.

On the first exhortation in this conclusion in verse 13, the Preaching the Word commentary points out: “This is not the first time that Ecclesiastes has told us to fear the living God. To fear God is to honor and revere him, to worship him as God [resulting from, it should be added, a humble and cautious awe of His omnipotence and holiness and devoted care for us, leading us to be devoted to Him]. At various points the Preacher has told us to fear God because his work is eternal (Ecclesiastes 3:14) and because he demands holy worship (Ecclesiastes 5:7). He has told us to fear God in times of adversity as well as prosperity (Ecclesiastes 7:14-18). He has told us that if we do fear God, it will go well with us (Ecclesiastes 8:12). Now we are told to fear God and to obey him because one day we will stand before him in judgment” (Ryken, p. 280). Fear is typically an enemy of faith because it is misplaced. We may be held back from obedience to God out of fear of difficulties and trials, fear of ridicule by others, fear of being subject to rules we don’t really want to live by, fear of missing out on something we desire for ourselves, whether immediate gratification or long-term plans and ambitions. If so, we are fearing the wrong things. We need to learn to fear God above everything else. As Derek Kidner notes, “Fear God is a call that puts us in our place, and all other fears, hopes and admirations in their place” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 107).

We are further told to keep God’s commandments. It’s stated in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: “The order of the two points (fear…keep) is significant. Conduct derives from worship. A knowledge of God leads to obedience; not vice versa” (Eaton, note on verse 13). Actually the end of the last sentence here is not entirely true, as obedience to God leads to greater knowledge and understanding (Psalm 111:10)—however, it is true that we would never initially obey without some knowledge of God. So a knowledge and fear of God must come first. It’s further noted that “this is the only place where the commands of God are mentioned. The body of the book has simply placed two alternative views of life over against each other and the life of faith has been commended. Now in the epilogue, almost as an aside, it is pointed out that such a life will have implications. It must not be restricted to the Mosaic law. It refers to all that is known to be God’s will” (same note). Of course, while it may seem a new thought and a brief aside, the need to obey God’s commandments naturally follows the repeated command to fear God, as this is what a person who truly fears God will do. The book has already told us that it’s best for people to rejoice and “to do good in their lives” (Ecclesiastes 3:12), which as noted earlier would include doing enjoyable things but also refers to living morally in obedience to God, since doing good equates to not sinning and to being righteous (Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Ecclesiastes 9:2). In fact, the book contrasted one who fears God with a sinner who does evil (Ecclesiastes 8:12), and a sinner is one who violates God’s laws, since sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Several times the book has spoken, whether overtly or implicitly, of sin and wickedness— commandment-breaking—as something to avoid (see Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 5:6; Ecclesiastes 7:17, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Ecclesiastes 7:26; Ecclesiastes 8:12-13; Ecclesiastes 9:2, Ecclesiastes 9:18). In telling us to not disobey God, Solomon has been telling us to instead obey God—and now the conclusion of his book specifically states, “Keep His commandments.”

In fact, this is what we are told to do throughout Scripture. “This phrase is found over 60 times in the Bible” (Hill, note on Ecclesiastes 12:13). And in a number of places it’s directly linked, as here, with the fear of God. In Deuteronomy 5:29, God said of the Israelites, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them…” They were later told, and Solomon’s words might be a condensed form of this, as we’ll consider more shortly: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD our God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). We see this in other passages too (Ecclesiastes 6:2, Ecclesiastes 6:24; Ecclesiastes 8:6; Ecclesiastes 13:4; Ecclesiastes 31:12; 1 Samuel 12:14). It results in blessing and joy. Psalm 112:1 says, “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who delights greatly in His commandments.” And this wasn’t just for the Israelites. In the New Testament, the apostle Peter stated: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35)—righteousness being obedience to God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 6:25; Psalm 119:172). The apostle Paul said we are to be “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Jesus Himself gave both directives, though not together in what’s recorded. He said on one hand not to fear people who can merely kill the body, but to properly fear Him who holds our very existence in His hands—“yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5; see Matthew 10:28). And at another time He said, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Of course, His call to “repent, and believe in the gospel” was also a call to obedience and trust in God (Mark 1:15)—as was His instruction to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), which would result in all earthly needs being met.

After telling us to fear God and keep His commandments, the last part of Ecclesiastes 12:13 says, as rendered in the NKJV, “for this is man’s all.” The earlier King James Version said, “for this is the whole duty of man.” What is actually meant here? The Hebrew here says that this is kol-ha-adam. The word kol means “all, the whole,” and can have the sense of “totality, everything” or “any, each, every, anything” (Brown Driver Briggs, H3605, e-Sword software). And ha-adam, with the definite article as noted before, can have the sense of “the man” or “the man(kind)” used in a plural sense—the word deriving from the first man, who was named Adam. We should note that the phrase kol-ha-adam occurs earlier in Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes 3:13 we’re told “that every man [kol-ha-adam] should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor.” In Ecclesiastes 5:19 we’re told that “every man [kol-ha-adam] to whom God has given riches and wealth” and power to enjoy receives God’s gift. And in Ecclesiastes 7:2 we’re told that a funeral is “the end of all men [kol-ha-adam].” Notice that in all of these cases, the Hebrew wording could be rendered with any of these phrases: “all of mankind” or “all men” or “every man.” Yet in none of these preceding verses can it mean the whole of what constitutes or pertains to a singular man or mankind generally. The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament notes on Ecclesiastes 12:13 “that kol-haadam never signifies the whole man, and as little anywhere the whole (the all) of a man. It signifies either ‘all men’…as at Ecclesiastes 7:2…or… ‘every man’…as at Ecclesiastes 3:13; Ecclesiastes 5:19…. We shall thus have to translate [Ecclesiastes 12:13]: ‘for this is every man’”—or, perhaps, “for this is all mankind.” Tyndale agrees: “The sense, therefore, is ‘This applies to everyone’” (note on verse 13). That would mean the directive to fear God and keep His commandments is not just for Israel but is a universal law for all mankind. A number of Bible versions give this sense (see Amplified, CEB, Fenton, GW, HCSB, JPS Tanakh, NAB Revised, NASB, NCV, NIRV, NIV, NLV, NLT, NRSV, TLV, Voice).

Yet it should be noticed that there is a difference between the use of the phrase kol-ha-adam in verse 13 and its uses in the earlier verses. None of the earlier cases are saying that something IS the all or whole of man (there is no actual word for “is” in the Hebrew here, but it has to be interpolated for the verse to make sense in English). Since the usage is different, and since there is no “for” or “to” before all or the whole of man, we may understand kol-ha-adam here as a construct chain wherein an “of” is understood— that is, “the all-[of] man.” Thus it’s possible that the verse can legitimately be translated, as in the NKJV and the earlier New American Bible, “man’s all.” This could have the sense of all that man is given to do, as in the KJV’s “the whole duty of man” (see also ArtScroll Stone Tanach, ASV, BRG, ESV, EXB, GNV, JB, LEB, TLB, MEV, NET, OJB, REB, RSV, WEB). Or it could mean all that human beings consist in or were created for, as other translators prefer (see CJB, CEV, GNT, ISV, NEB). The “whole duty” would correspond well with the passage in Deuteronomy 10:12-13, quoted above, where the Israelites were asked what God required of them except to fear Him, walk in His ways, love Him and serve Him, and keep His commandments. And it could well be that Solomon was giving a shortened form of this passage—yet in this case, too, the application would be to not just Israel but all mankind. The New American Commentary, however, takes the phrase in the latter sense, interpreting as follows: “‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of humanity.’ To obey God is to be truly human. Throughout his book the Teacher has investigated the situation of ’adam. Now, surprisingly, he affirms that the whole of humanity consists not in its mortality or ignorance but in its dependence on God [and in following Him]. And yet the conclusion is not surprising. It not only flows naturally from all that has gone before but is the book’s final look at Gen[esis] 2–3. Humanity sought to become like God in disobeying him, but instead they lost the one thing that made them truly human” (Garrett, note on verses 13-14). We should remember in this light that Solomon earlier stated that “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). God’s purpose for man was to produce children in His own image—not just in outward form and likeness, but in inner character. We are to fear and obey God because, as the Contemporary English Version renders the last part of Ecclesiastes 12:13, “this is what life is all about.” It might even be said that this is what makes human life complete. There’s a further aspect to this matter of “man’s all” we’ll consider shortly.

Now some will object to the focus here on commandments, seeing this as some kind of legalistic expression and forced submission and wonder why there is no appeal to love as the ideal in this grand conclusion. We should understand that love is the supreme principle behind God’s commandments as a whole. The passage quoted above from Deuteronomy 10:12-13 about fearing God and obeying His commandments includes the command to love and serve God with all our heart and being. Indeed, the foremost commandments of God are the two great commandments on which all the law hangs, as Jesus explained—to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31). The Ten Commandments show us how we are to love God and neighbor. In fact, Paul said that love is fulfilling the law (Romans 13:10). And the apostle John said, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Thus, fearing and obeying God IS love—and, no, it’s not some oppression-driven drudgery. Rather, as was already pointed out above, Psalm 112:1 says that people are blessed and are able to find delight in fearing God and keeping His commandments. Furthermore, God’s laws bring true freedom (Psalm 119:45; James 1:25), liberating us from ways that bring harm to others and to ourselves—the whole problem with our world. Moses said “to observe…all the words of this law. For it is a not a futile [empty or worthless] thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). This sounds similar to “for this is man’s all.” Against the vanity and frustration of this world, God has given us what is not futile—His laws. And this is the basis of a positive relationship with Him and fellow man.

Of course, the need to love God was not a foreign concept to Solomon. His father David had written, “Oh, love the LORD, all you his saints!” (Psalm 31:23). Yet the end of Solomon’s book here specified the commandments—as David often did too. These include and express love, but we should also note that in speaking directly of commandments the conclusion of Ecclesiastes leaves no ambiguity about what is meant. Reference to commandments shows we are not to determine this for ourselves. Love can be interpreted in various ways, and people may believe they are showing love in their feelings and actions while they are actually being contrary to God. True love is based on living by what God says to do. From a general command to love we could probably exercise reason to show kindness to another person to a certain extent. But how could someone without any knowledge of God’s laws come up with Sabbath worship as showing love to God without His revelation that this is what we should do? A foreigner in Solomon’s day hearing a general exhortation to love God might have been able to come up with ways to express that—but of course the various methods would not be enough and might well be egregious disobedience to God. Yet in hearing the more specific directive to keep God’s commandments, the response would naturally be: What commandments are these? And that would lead to seeking where these may be found.

That brings us to another vital point here—all of us need God’s revelation on how to worship and obey Him. We cannot obey God’s commandments and grow in His ways out of our own innate senses with no knowledge of Him and His will. To obey God’s commandments we have to know them. And to know them we have to know what God has revealed. In fact, to have a proper fear of Him and to learn to trust Him, we need the revelation of His Word, Holy Scripture. It is only here that we can make sense of our world and learn the right way to think and what to do. The previous verses just mentioned the studying of books after speaking of the wisdom that comes from God. What we need to realize is that one book, itself formed of many books, has the foundational answers and counsel we need. The goads and nails of wisdom just mentioned are found here. And the basis for the fear of God and the specific commands to follow are found in this book—the Bible. Tommy Nelson writes in A Life Well Lived: “Solomon’s conclusion gets to the heart of the matter. In a crazy, uncertain life, there has to be a source of wisdom that does not change and is never wrong. God has given us that wisdom in His holy Word. It’s our task to love it, learn it, and live it. If we do, we’ll find the joy that our souls have always longed for” (p. 206).

As was noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Job 28, man cannot use his technological genius to find the true wisdom of God. It can’t be found through natural exploration (verses 1-14). “But where,” the passage continues, “can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living” (verses 12-13). This treasure can’t be bought (verses 15-19). For, as Job explains, true wisdom comes only from God (verses 20-23). “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding’” (verse 28). This is the very way Job himself had been described by God, as one who feared God and shunned evil (Job 1:8). And it’s an exact parallel to the conclusion of Ecclesiastes—to fear God and keep His commandments. This is the path to true wisdom and understanding. Thus, if we really want to grasp the dilemma that Ecclesiastes has been dealing with—if we want to have any inkling in trying to make sense of it, here is the way. And yet for now, we still can’t see everything. As Dr. Walter Kaiser notes, having pointed to Job 28: “To the degree that God reveals His plan to believers, to that degree only are they able to apprehend that much of the plan of God. Yet there is still mystery left. Only God knows entirely; we mortals know only in part” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 93). Yet this is fine, as we learn to trust God to help us and to guide things to the ultimate purpose He is working out in us and in all the world. As Solomon elsewhere wrote, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10; see also Psalm 111:10). And here at the close of his later work of Ecclesiastes, we find that the fear of the Lord is also the end—the conclusion of the whole matter.

Something else the conclusion here accomplishes is that it answers the opening question of the book. Recall that the prologue of the book was found in the first three verses (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3). The first verse introduced the Preacher. The second verse set the tone of much that would follow with his “vanity of vanities” declaration. And in the third verse he asked, “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” (verse 3). That is, what benefit or advantage could be gained in living this life—against the emptiness and worthlessness of this life as a vapor? Solomon saw no profit or real and lasting value in what his own hands had wrought (Ecclesiastes 2:11). He revisited the question a few times (Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 3:9; Ecclesiastes 5:16). He had asked this question in a seemingly hopeless way, as if to say, “What is the point of living?” Yet he did find profit in wisdom, despite its limitations in this life (Ecclesiastes 2:13; Ecclesiastes 7:12; Ecclesiastes 10:10). Now at the end of the book the Preacher has repeated the “vanity of vanities” declaration regarding this life (Ecclesiastes 12:8). This is followed by more details on his writing of the work, giving God the ultimate credit for wisdom and its communication here (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12). Then in Ecclesiastes 12:13 his book essentially sets forth the profit or benefit to be found in life—and it could be that “man’s all” or “the whole of man” is meant in this context. That is to say, all that man has as benefit (this being the further aspect of this matter of “man’s all” noted above to be considered shortly). And, though it’s not directly stated, the profit or benefit gained is essentially again said to be found in wisdom—true wisdom and all it entails, for, as pointed out above, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and keeping His commandments is the path of understanding. Kaiser notes: “What is the ‘profit’ of living? What does a man get for all his work? He gets the living God! And his whole profit consists of fearing Him and obeying His Word” (p. 125)—and, it should be added, the great blessing and delight that results in, as we’ve seen (Psalm 112:1). In fearing and obeying God it will be well for us (Deuteronomy 5:29; Ecclesiastes 8:12), leading to prolonged days and being preserved alive, being for our good always (Deuteronomy 6:2, Deuteronomy 6:24; Proverbs 10:27).

Moreover, “those who fear him lack nothing” (Psalm 34:9, NIV). Indeed, they have everything they need in this life (Matthew 6:25-34) and will ultimately have everything period (Revelation 21:7). Remember that Solomon said early on in Ecclesiastes that “God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God” (Ecclesiastes 2:26). Ultimately the wicked will be gone and have nothing, as all will go to the righteous who fear God and keep His commandments (compare also Proverbs 10:28-30). This is the only way to true happiness, Solomon having also written, “Happy is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18). This includes experiencing all the earthly joys Solomon has commended throughout the book, as God gives His people the means to truly enjoy them as His gift. And an important part of being able to fully enjoy them is to keep them in the context of trusting God now and for eternity that is in His hands. We are later promised, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17, NIV). Thus, again, the real profit or advantage in living is in fearing and obeying God, which will lead to blessing and joy forever.

Indeed, in its repeated refrain Ecclesiastes has told us again and again to rejoice in the everyday gifts and physical blessings God gives. Yet even when these are diminished, there is still always much to rejoice in with regard to our relationship with God and the future He offers us. As the prophet Habakkuk states in the hymn of faith that ends his book: “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills” (Habakkuk 3:17-19). Nehemiah 8:10 further assures us, “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” God gives us abundant reasons for joy all through our lives today. Yet the greatest joy still awaits—when our lifetime of rightly fearing and lovingly obeying God, with ongoing repentance when we fall short, leads to these words we took note of earlier: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21). This is where following the conclusion of Ecclesiastes will take us. As David had written in Psalm 16:11, “You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” So there will be joy for eternity to come. Of course, knowing this gives us even more reason for rejoicing in the here and now.

And then we must further consider the last verse of Ecclesiastes. Observe that the conclusion does not end with the directive to fear God and keep His commandments or with the value of doing so. Rather, we are reminded of something else in the last verse that will help us to fear and obey God—a last attention getter to keep us on the alert and urgent about our own condition, the final verse stating, “For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” As with the directive to fear God, this is not the first time Ecclesiastes has told us to keep in mind God’s coming judgment. As we saw above, Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 2:26 that the sinner would have to give everything to the righteous. He said specifically in Ecclesiastes 3:17, after witnessing injustice and sin, that “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and every work.” He said in Ecclesiastes 8:12-13, also cited above, that it would be well with the righteous but not with the wicked, whose days would not be prolonged. And in Ecclesiastes 11:9, in the last subsection before the epilogue, he told the young to enjoy life, though again stating specifically, “But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.” That is, we are to temper whatever choices we might make with this important reality check.

It should be mentioned that some commentators do not believe that ultimate future judgment is intended in Ecclesiastes 12:14, since it just says “judgment” and not “the judgment,” with the definite article. They believe that judgment here and the earlier mentions just refer to God’s ongoing judgment in this life. It certainly is true that there is ongoing judgment through this life. This may have been in mind in Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, where Solomon stated that if we fail to live up to our stated commitments, God could be angry with us and destroy our works. Of course, much of God’s judgment is an ongoing evaluation and may not involve immediate chastening. God is regularly judging what we do and calling us to change and helping us to do so. God had an ongoing judgment of Israel and Judah nationally, and he sent prophets to call them on their disobedience, and He sometimes brought needed punishment. For God’s spiritual people today, His Church, we are told that “the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Again, this judgment is ongoing. But clearly God has also spoken throughout Scripture of a period of future judgment beyond this age. In Ecclesiastes, judgment in this age could conceivably be intended in the noted time for God to judge in Ecclesiastes 3:17 and in God’s judging a young man’s works in Ecclesiastes 11:9—but ultimate future judgment would fit in these cases just as well, perhaps better.

We should especially consider God setting things right in Ecclesiastes 2:26, with the sinner losing all to the righteous, and in Ecclesiastes 8:12-13, with the righteous coming to good and the wicked not being prolonged, after Solomon had lamented the wicked being prolonged and the righteous dying early as the vanity of this world. This could only refer to a righting of wrongs beyond the time of this world as part of God’s future judgment. And it seems likely that the final verse in the book must be looking ahead to that same time. The definite article is not necessary to designate that here, stating, “God will bring every work into the judgment.” This would be an odd way to say that God will judge every work. We might imagine something more like: “God will bring every work into judgment in the judgment.” But of course that is unnecessary. Thus the simpler wording we have, “God will bring every work into judgment,” can well apply to the judgment yet to come. Yet it’s of course also possible that ongoing judgment and evaluation in this life is intended on one level, with an eye to final determination in the future being also implied.

Note further that God will judge every secret or hidden thing, whether good or evil. Hebrews 4:13 likewise says that “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Jesus also said, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). Paul too spoke of “the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel” (Romans 2:16)—and when “the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5). And Paul further writes: “Therefore we make it our aim…to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10). The last phrase here is essentially the same as that in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “whether good or evil.”

The Preaching the Word commentary brings some good perspective on why Ecclesiastes ends on this note about judgment: “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 to 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…. At the final judgment, it will matter how we used our time, whether we wasted it on foolish pleasures or worked hard for the Lord. It will matter what we did with our money, whether we spent it on ourselves or invested it in the eternal kingdom. It will matter what we did with our bodies—what our eyes saw, our hands touched, and our mouths spoke. Whether we obeyed our father and mother will matter; so will the look we gave them and the little comment we made as we were walking away. What we did for a two-year-old will matter…. What we said about someone’s performance will matter… The proud boast and the selfless sacrifice will matter. The household task and the homework assignment will matter. The cup of water, the tear of compassion, the word of testimony—all of it matters. 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” (p. 281).

Of course, this can seem quite ominous. In fact, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary points out that “the Jews did not like ending a reading with a word of judgment, and in public they repeat v[erse] 13 after v[erse] 14. They follow the same practice at the end of Isaiah and Malachi [and Lamentations]” (Wright, footnote on verses 13-14). This is noted in Jewish Bibles. But judgment from God is not itself a bad thing, as His judgment is always just and righteous and exactly what is needed. Moreover, judgment is not only to declare everything evil and bring punishment and final condemnation. Judgment will declare both good and evil, the end of verse 14 states. And there will not just be condemnation of evil but reward for doing good (compare Matthew 16:27; Matthew 25:14-23, Matthew 25:31-40; Luke 19:12-19; 1 Corinthians 3:14; 2 John 1:8; Revelation 11:18; Revelation 22:12). We should note that even one of the verses quoted above about the Lord coming to judge what is now secret—where Paul says He will “bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts”—ends with this: “Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). It should also be pointed out that even the initial judgment that will come on the world at Christ’s return will not decree eternal condemnation for those in opposition to Him or for most of the human race through the ages who have not lived in obedience to God’s commandments. Those who have lived apart from the truth of God in this life will yet have the opportunity to follow God in the general resurrection of all mankind—beyond the resurrection of the just at Christ’s return. There is no explanation or hint of this in Ecclesiastes, but this truth is revealed through later Scriptures God inspired. (For more about this, read “How Eternal Life Will Ultimately Be Offered to All” in our free study guide What Happens After Death?)

Yet even for those who desire to follow God today, the conclusion to Ecclesiastes could still leave us uneasy. Fear God and keep His commandments, being mindful of judgment and reward, it boldly proclaims. The problem is that we have not always, and do not always, keep God’s commandments—at least to the full extent we should. As Ecclesiastes 7:20 told us, “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (compare Romans 3:23). So we might look at the conclusion of Ecclesiastes and still despair. Obey God? Easier said than done! Indeed, Paul said that the corrupted human mind is hostile to God and cannot obey Him (Romans 8:7). And even those who have been converted to and are growing in God’s way still struggle against sin (see Romans 7; 1 John 1:8, 10). But there is good news. God wants to save us and make us part of His family forever. He wants to extend to us His great mercy, and “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). A vital key is that we must repent—turn our lives away from sin and back to obeying God—and we must continue to repent when we falter. Moreover, we must have faith toward God and receive the basis on which the forgiveness of our disobedience is made possible—the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But this is not so that we may continue in sin. We must truly live in obedience to God. It is not enough just to know what we ought to do. We must also do it. As Paul wrote, “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13; compare James 1:22). Yet it remains a challenge, and we could never succeed on our own. We need the Father and Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit to be able to continue in obedience to God. And even then we still get tripped up in sin, as already mentioned. So we must continue to repent, striving with God’s help through Christ to persevere. And as long as we do not walk away from this salvation process, we will ultimately be ushered into eternal life in God’s coming Kingdom. Paul said that he was “confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). (To learn more, please send for or download our free study guide Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion.)

Of course, this wonderful truth and process was not yet fully revealed in Solomon’s time—though it appears the biblical patriarchs and prophets understood it to an extent. Yet even in that day, God had often called on His people to repent and be restored to a relationship with Him, to seek and receive His mercy and forgiveness. Eventually they would come to understand that the One who would ultimately judge the sins of mankind would Himself come as a man to die in payment of those sins (see John 5:22, John 5:26-27). And then, risen from the grave, He would go on to help us to obey God’s law for the great blessings that would lead to. No, God is not some harsh, stern judge. The Father and Christ are the epitome of love (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16). And this is the character they want us to build to be like Them—the character revealed in God’s wonderful commandments.

And so, as the Tyndale commentary ends: “We leave the Preacher there. His message is not complete, for he lived before the full light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw ‘afar off,’ and still leaves us with some questions. How can God accept us in such a way? What is the explanation of the hideous mess of this world? On what grounds can he feel confident that some future judgment will put it all right? Is there not a missing link in all this? [Yes.] The missing link is Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

As for Solomon personally, we do not know whether he ultimately turned to God in heartfelt repentance or if he went back to his spiral into immorality and idolatry. We would hope for the former, but other biblical history would seem to indicate the latter, as horrible as that would be. Considering how far Solomon departed from God in building pagan temples, it seems likely that he was never truly spiritually converted. Despite the brilliance and wisdom God gave him, and God using him to communicate valuable spiritual truth, it may well be that Solomon never had the Holy Spirit within him, as his father David did. In any case, it’s certainly true that a person as gifted as Solomon was, even with certain spiritual knowledge as he no doubt learned from his father and from many others and even from God Himself—even having the Holy Spirit with him and guiding him to a degree—would not, without the Spirit of God actually in him, be able to endure in righteousness, especially while having such great material wealth and power. The fact is, all of us need Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit to be spiritually converted, thereby receiving a deepened spiritual understanding and direct help from God in resisting sin and developing godly character. It is that spiritual help that will further enable us to endure in this process to the end of our physical lives to ultimately receive true salvation from sin and death and the sorrows of this age, the gift of abundant life and joy with perfect loving character in the family of God for all eternity.

The apostle Paul will answer the cry in Ecclesiastes of “All is vanity” in 1 Corinthians 15:54-58: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades [the grave], where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law [as we’ve broken it and earned its penalty of death]. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” It is Christ’s victory that gives us victory over this life’s vanity.

In the face of the vanity and trials of this life, Paul further said in Romans 8:18-21: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility [to vanity or frustration], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” What an awesome day that will be. This is why it will all have been worth it. Moreover, God will wipe away all tears from our eyes (Revelation 21:4), and we will no longer “see through a glass, darkly,” but will have perfect understanding (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). Then, all that we have had to endure through this life will at last make perfect sense. As the Scottish Bible teacher Oswald Chambers noted in 1917 on the oppression of tyranny in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, “There will come one day a personal and direct touch from God when every tear and perplexity, every oppression and distress, every suffering and pain, and wrong and injustice will have a complete and ample and overwhelming explanation” (“Shade of His Hand: Talks on the Book of Ecclesiastes,” The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, 2000, p. 1,280). Until then, we soldier on, as Paul wrote: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at things which are seen, but at things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

With the victory we have through Christ, knowing that our labor is not in vain in Him and that what we go through now will all have been worth it in the end, we can truly follow the repeated recommendation of Ecclesiastes to enjoy life today. As Paul said in Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!... Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (verses 4, 6).

And now, having finished our reading of the Old Testament, we stand ready to move ahead to the background and story of Christ’s life and teachings in the New Testament—teachings that answer in a more complete way the great quandaries raised in this book, showing us the way to fear God and keep His commandments and find ultimate joy as His immortal children in His family and Kingdom without end.