“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-13).
With these words Qoheleth, “the Preacher” brings his meditations on what is good for mankind to a close. The author identified himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem;” – without a doubt, Solomon. He was eminently qualified to write on this subject, being at the time, himself king of Judah and the wisest man on earth besides. He had the money to purchase, build and plant, the opportunities to travel, investigate and observe, and the time necessary to think and experiment and to enjoy all the things he wanted to test and try.
Among the most remembered of the sayings of the Preacher is, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” He looks at the cycles of the seasons and the coming and going of one generation after another and all the searching and uncertainty of men as they seek after what is good “under the sun” – what will give them pleasure or satisfaction or meaning in life – and concludes that it is all without point or purpose. He said, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Eccl. 1:14).
To understand the words of the wise man in this book, one must understand the meaning of that little phrase, “under the sun.” Solomon is talking about what is good in this life or what men seek after while they live in the here and now. Human beings have always had the tendency to think about this life before and above life hereafter. We spend far more time planning and working for the things we value as being of greatest importance to us here. But to what purpose? Why do people work so hard to have lots of money or possessions? Why do they spend so much money on big houses or fancy cars? Entertainment? Clothes? Vacations? Always more, more, more.
In the 2nd chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes something of his search for what is good for man. He said “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure,” and went about to obtain whatever he wanted by toil or hard work. It seems that his work brought him greater pleasure than whatever came from his toil. If he laid his money up his heir might be a fool and spend what he received frivolously. Even the things he acquired for himself from his toil were seen as being vain or empty and devoid of whatever pleasure they were intended to bring. So what is the point of the toil and labor of man? As the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you when you die.”
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (vs. 24-25).
From this we should know that God does want us to enjoy life in this world. Solomon understood this and advised that we enjoy what we earn by our labor as long as we live “under the sun,” but that we realize that it is from God.
When he came to consider the end of man “under the sun,” that is what happens to those who live in this world, Solomon considered it all to be pointless or vanity. He said…
“For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17).
The preacher was considering the question of what is good for man while he lives here “under the sun.” What gain is there to be had from living in a pointless world? He sees the end of life and says it is vanity – like trying to catch the wind. The wise man and the fool alike die and are soon forgotten. What profit is there in living as a wise man if the benefit of his wisdom only reaches as far as the grave?
We must remember that he is only considering the question of what is good for man while he lives in the present world. He does not introduce the idea of anything beyond life under the sun until the last few verses of the book. He does point man to a better way of living before he comes to “the end of the matter” however. In chapter 3:11-13 he had this to say…
“[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”
So the picture is not all bleakness and futility. As long as man keeps God in the picture and works in harmony with his purpose, life can be fruitful and enjoyable. With God in the picture, even our daily labor is a source of pleasure. Work is God’s plan for man. It is not for punishment, but for his and our glory. Do it honorably and do it with joy because it is God’s gift to us!
Solomon has much more to say about life here on earth and how to live it successfully. But when he came to draw the book to a close he turns to that which makes life worthwhile. In chapter 13:9-10 he says…
“Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”
Instead of being something he just tossed off, the Preacher had given great care to the things he had written. He is saying that people would do well to listen to what he had to say. He then adds,
“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
One could depend on the truthfulness of what he had written. In fact, he cautions against anything that did not agree with what he had said. One would only be wearing himself out if he pored over the books of supposed wisdom – and there were many of them to read, study and think about – no end to them, in fact. (Did they have all the “pop psychology” self-help books back then? I wonder!)
So, what is the point of it all? He sums up the whole thing in a few words. Here is the conclusion he came to after all his experimentation, his testing and trying, his sampling and tasting. Here is what life is all about. Here is the “bottom line.”
“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)
It does not matter what we have. It doesn’t matter what we have experienced. It doesn’t matter what our preferences are in food, clothing, art, entertainment, etc., etc. All that matters is our attitude toward and what we do about it.
He says that man’s life is really all about God. It is about fearing and obeying him. We must fear him, not in the sense of a cowering, quaking terror, but in the sense of a holy respect or reverence for him. A respect that draws us to him instead of driving us away. Such a reverence that leads us to do his will, knowing that he has purposed this for our own good. This fear of God should consume us. It should be our obsession so that everything we do is consciously done with him in mind. Everything we do should be done to his honor and glory. THIS is what life is about. This is the conclusion to the whole matter.
To bring the whole thing to a close, the Preacher reminds his readers that finally we will be judged for how we have lived and for what we have done while here “under the sun.” What about your life? Do you hold the God of the universe in holy, reverential awe? Are you keeping his commandments? Remember… judgment is coming! And he will be the judge!