“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 ECCLESIASTES, WE ARE CONFRONTED WITH OUR POWERLESSNESS. Neither the human race collectively nor any of us individually can ever be sure that performing actions “A” and “B” will lead to “C” in this life. It might, but it might not. But if what we do can’t be counted on to give us the life we want, what difference does it make how we live? Let’s summarize the advice given in Ecclesiastes, and then pay special attention to the conclusion.
Do the best that we know to do. Wisdom is no guarantee of success, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless — wisdom will give our plans their best chance of succeeding (11:1–6), and only a fool would disregard wisdom. Even at our wisest, however, we humbly recognize that we’re not in complete control. God may overrule even the best of our projects, based on His greater wisdom.
Enjoy each day’s happiness. Rather than basing our happiness on our (very weak) ability to make the future turn out the way we want, Ecclesiastes recommends that we simply enjoy today’s pleasures for their own sake (3:12,13,22). As far as earthly joys are concerned, God means for us to enjoy them and then let them go.
Fear God and keep His commandments. After advising us to act wisely and relish the joys of daily living, Ecclesiastes ends with a profound conclusion: no matter what happens, we should fear God and stay within the boundaries of His laws. Doing this is “the whole duty of man” (12:13). The meaning of this statement is aptly rendered in the CEV paraphrase, “This is what life is all about.”
The key to human conduct, therefore, lies not in figuring out what will produce this or that result tomorrow — it lies in the fear of God and obedience to what He has commanded. By frustrating our ability to create the future we want in this world, even by the means of religious activity (7:15), God is calling us back to the main thing that was lost in Eden: simple, unconditional reverence.
We must adjust our minds to the doing of what is right because it is right, and not because it will turn earthly events in our direction. The sooner we give up our “comprehend and control” approach to life, the sooner we’ll be ready to hear the gospel.
“Duty is ours and events are God’s” (Angelina Grimké).