“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13
In the heart of the Old Testament wisdom literature is the book of Ecclesiastes. Traditionally attributed to Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ tone reflects that of an author who has witnessed many things in life and grown disillusioned, even bitter, with how the world is. The speaker in Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher,” reflects back on the folly of everything in this life, and how everything in life is meaningless when one attempts determining its meaning for oneself. With all its focus on the futility and meaninglessness of life, it is quite easy to view Ecclesiastes as a very bleak and cynical book, but this is only half of the author’s message. Sprinkled throughout the book are reminders to remember God and to seek after Him, and this encapsulates the other half of the author’s message: that the life lived for God is the only life with meaning.
This call to follow after God is most explicit in the closing verses of Ecclesiastes, in an epilogue of sorts following all of the book’s more extended passages detailing the Preacher’s experiences in life. It is as though he has sifted through all of his knowledge and experiences, collected throughout a lifetime, and reduced that down to its purest form. It is a simple scene to imagine: when asked how to live a successful life, the Preacher—Solomon—tells the questioner “Fear God, and keep his commandments, this is the whole duty of man.” The real key to success, as Solomon discovered, was honoring God in everything one did.
This one simple statement contains a lifetime supply of wisdom. Living according to Solomon’s recommendation allows us to have our priorities in the proper order: first and foremost, we fear God. This is not a terror or a phobia, rather a reverence and respect. We recognize that God is superior to us in every conceivable way, and we humbly submit to Him. We honor Him; we give Him precedence over everything in our lives. We stand in awe of Him. We give God His rightful position of superiority over everything in our lives, and we do not allow anything else to usurp that. It is when these usurpations of God’s sovereignty over our lives take place that we encounter the futility and meaninglessness described in Ecclesiastes.
When we fear God appropriately, we will seek to keep His commandments as we should. This is done from the same respect and reverence with which we fear God, not from a place of attempting to earn His favor or promote our own self-righteousness. Keeping His commandments is our duty, and since we respect God and submit to Him, we honor Him by doing what He has commanded us to do.
Which commandments, then? Only two, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:37-40).
As Christ explained, these two commandments summarize all of the Law and other commandments. These two commandments are at the heart of all the commandments given by God; they are the foundations upon which all the Law was built. If we love God with all of our beings, then we will seek to honor Him in all we do, we will fear Him, and we will seek to keep His commandments. We love God because we honor Him, and we honor Him because we love Him. Likewise, we will keep His commandments in treating our fellow man: we will love our neighbor because it brings God honor to do so, but also because that neighbor is made in the very image—just as we are—of the God we are seeking to honor.
Solomon’s advice is simple, yet it is profoundly true. Living a life in which one fears God and keeps His commandments is the only way to find meaning and purpose in the world. Though it may not lead to wealth and prosperity, or success in the world’s economy, it will lead to a life of peace and assurance, with eternal rewards to come.
artwork: “The Bible,” Marc Chagall, 1956.