Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Ecclesiastes 12:13 - The Whole Duty Of Man

by Rev C. Bouwman

"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep
his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. -Ecclesiastes 12:13

Scripture Reading:
Ecclesiastes 12:8-14
Ecclesiastes 2:1-17

Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 65:2,3,6
Psalm 103:4,5
Psalm 119:25,26
Psalm 111:1,2,5
Hymn 56:1,2,3,4

Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!

This evening brings with it that time of year when we sit back to reflect, reflect particularly on the year that’s now coming to a close. As we reflect, we try to make up a balance, we try to pass some sort of judgment on 1997, to determine whether it was for us a good year or not.

As it turns out, in the course of the year our lives could continue; we’ve had food and drink, we’ve received health and strength, we could work and study. So we could say that Yes, 1997 was a good year.

But really, brothers and sisters, what was the life we received all good for? It’s true that we lived this past year, but some of us have lost loved ones to death; there was profession of faith this past year, but there were also those who broke with the church and the faith; there was Catechism instruction and Bible study clubs, but there were those who didn’t attend; good financial deals were made and various of us prospered, but there were also those who lost much; there’s been happiness in the families on account of weddings and births and anniversaries, but there were also those in our midst who struggled much in the family with tension and illness and strife. In the course of 1997 we’ve experienced what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes has written: There’s

"A time to be born,
and a time to die...;
A time to weep,
and a time to laugh...;
A time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain,
and a time to loose..." (3:2ff).

And really, beloved, what’s it all been good for? Why have we experienced birth and death, financial gain and financial loss, joy and strife, love and hate? Nothing happens by chance (that’s a given fixed in Holy Scripture); all instead comes from the sovereign and gracious hand of our covenant God. But why? What have all the difficulties of the year been good for? Why were we confronted with both health and handicap? Why were we confronted with both profession of faith and withdrawal? Why??

To get a handle this evening on the events of the year, we listen to God’s Word as it comes to us in the concluding words of the Preacher’s book, Ecclesiastes. I summarize the sermon with this theme:


1. what does the Preacher mean with this conclusion?
2. why does the Preacher come with this conclusion?

1 The author of Ecclesiastes, commonly known as the Preacher, had been busy writing his book. In the passage from which our text for this evening is taken, the Preacher draws together the conclusions that - he says- flow out of the material he has set forth in his book. What that conclusion is? Vs 13: "fear God and keep His commandments." See there the Preacher’s sum of all the matters he’s discussed in his book.

"Fear God, and keep His commandments." We’re familiar with these words. Time and time again we are told that we are to keep the Lord’s commandments, and somehow it’s not something we enjoy being told. For one thing, it means that we can’t do what we’d like to do, and that hardly agrees with our nature. More, we try to do what the Lord wants us to do, and to our deep disgust we discover time and again that No, we can’t do what God wants of us; we fail just too often. Now the Preacher would tie up his whole book with that instruction we hear so often: keep God’s commandments? We try so hard, but we can’t do it!! And we’re sure: instead of hearing this word, we’d rather hear Gospel!

"Fear God and keep His commandments," says the Preacher. What might the Preacher mean with the words "fear God"? Let it be clear to us, beloved: the words "fear God" do not instruct us to be afraid of God, in the sense that: you’d better obey God’s commands, otherwise God will punish you. To "fear God" is actually an instruction to stand in awe of God. I draw your attention here to Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. Once God had led Israel through the sea on dry foot to the other side, and then drowned the stubborn Pharaoh and his army in that Sea, we read this response from the people:

"Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord..." (Ex 14:31).

This fear was not panic or horror or terror of God; this fear was rather awe, respect, reverence for God. On the far banks of the Red Sea the people did not try to hide from God in dread of His presence; on the far banks of the Sea they rather stood in amazement at the wonderful things the Lord in wisdom had done for their redemption. This amazement is pointed up so emphatically in the song which the people sang on the far banks of the Red Sea:

"I will sing to the Lord,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has plunged into the sea!
The Lord is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation..." (Ex 15:1f).

I trust that it’s clear: "fear of God" does not mean dread, terror; here "fear of God" is adoration, awe for a God who could accomplish such wonders.

This "fear of God", though, can never stand by itself. To stand in awe of such a God, to respect this God highly on account of what He has done, implies automatically that one obeys His commands. To have high thoughts of God, to marvel at His greatness, His power, His mercy, His kindness, to stand in awe of this God on account of His works for us, implies that one has appreciation too for His instructions. It’s certainly a contradiction to fear God on the one hand and to disregard His commands on the other. So it is that in the law God gave to Israel at Mt Sinai, he repeatedly motivated His demand for obedience by reminding Israel that they were to fear Him. Consider, for example, this word from Lev 19:

"You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shall fear your God; I am the Lord" (vs 14).

To curse the deaf or put a stumblingblock before the blind: these are the kinds of things you can get away with because the deaf can’t hear the curse, nor can the blind see you put the stumblingblock in his path. But reverence for God and for what God has done for Israel in making them His covenant people was to lead to a lifestyle of obedience, of readily doing whatever it was that the Lord wanted His people to do - whether the blind or the deaf would notice it or not.

"Fear of God", then, and "keeping His commands" are not two separate concepts; these two belong together, flow one from the other. Together these two notions describe a life-style in which reverence for God is demonstrated by obedience to His commands. In fact, this reverence as demonstrated by obedience permeates into every corner of life, yes, it determines life-style down to the finest details of one’s existence. To know oneself to be a sinner damned under the righteous judgment of holy God, and nevertheless graciously forgiven by this God in the blood of Jesus Christ: that leads to deepest awe for God for such wonderful saving work, an awe for God that lays the ground-work for a life permeated with hearty thanksgiving on account of His grace in Jesus Christ; here’s in truth a life-style that has God in the center of one’s complete existence, a life-style that readily and cheerfully does what the Lord wishes, down to the smallest details of life. That, says the Preacher in our text, is the way each person should live; this is what life is all about.

To be honest, this is not new material for us. In the course of 1997, the Word of life has, by the grace of God, been heard in our midst many times. Through the preaching on Sunday and the Catechism instruction on through the week, through the Bible study done at club and the Scripture reading done at home, we’ve been told so pointedly in the course of the year just what it is that the Lord God has done for us sinners. Though so deserving of eternal punishments from holy God on account of our fall into sin, on account also of our daily sins, the Lord nevertheless had deep compassion on the creature He made in the beginning, and so was pleased to send His only Son to earth with instructions to atone for our sins; that’s the riches of the gospel as it was laid so pointedly before us again at Christmas. And we know - we’ve heard it so often this year- that such grace from God for sinners as we cannot but move the regenerated sinner to awe for God: what a God that He should do so much for the unworthy!! So it was that in the course of the year we’ve sung His praise, we’ve delighted in His goodness, we’ve marvelled that He should do so much for sinners as we are. And that, beloved, is nothing else than what the Preacher calls in our text "the fear of God". In truth, that we’re to fear our God is not at all a new instruction for us; in the course of the year we’ve heard so much that was calculated to move us to fear God, to stand in awe of Him.

And it was told to us too, time and again, in the public preaching and in our private Bible study, that this awe for God was to move us to lives of grateful obedience to God’s commands. God He is, and that’s why we were to do what He in Scripture tells us we’re to do. So also the matter of keeping His commandments was not a new thing for us.... In fact, the words of our text sum up all the preaching and all the instruction we’ve heard in the course of 1997:

"Fear God and keep His commandments."

Awe for God, and so a ready obedience to His commands: behold there in a nutshell all we’ve been taught this past year about the Lord and His service. The instruction of the year is the same as the conclusion of the Preacher.

2 We move on now to our second point: why does the Preacher come to this conclusion? The question is important simply because the instruction of the year turns out to be the same as was the conclusion of the Preacher. Why did the Preacher come to this conclusion? To ask the question differently: why did the instruction we received in 1997 have to be that we should fear God and keep His commandments?

I draw to your attention, brothers and sisters, that the investigations which the Preacher had considered in the course of his book are not at all strange to us. In point of fact - and this is something we need to note- so many of us have performed the same investigations in the course of 1997. In chapter 2, the Preacher tells us of how he sought to make the most of life; he made up his mind to enjoy life. So he built for himself a big house (houses, in fact), established gardens and orchards around his house, made a pool, hired staff to look after his estate. He brought in singers - we would say: he installed a state-of-the-art stereo system through his house to play the baroque or the country or the jazz or the rock his fancy desired. He brought in dancers and organised for himself numerous concubines - we would say: he watched the late-night movies or hired some erotic videos or used his internet connection to get sex on line. He established large herds and flocks, gathered up much gold and silver - we’d say: he invested in stocks and bonds, purchased another house, bought himself a boat.

And really, brothers and sisters, none of this is so strange to us; we’ve tried so much of the same in the course of the past year. No, we may not have gone to the scale the Preacher tried, but throughout 1997 we’ve tried to build up for ourselves a house to be proud of, we’ve worked to establish gardens and lawns. We’ve piped into our lives the music of our taste, we’ve brought dancers and entertainers into our homes, yes, in our own subtle ways we’ve also brought into our lives various concubines. In a word: in 1997 we’ve sought - as did the Preacher of long ago- to make the most of this life, to enjoy what there was to enjoy.

But the Preacher, brothers and sisters, passed years ago an evaluation of his efforts. Said he of all he tried to do to enjoy his life to the full: "this also was vanity" (2:1). That’s a judgment we may find disappointing; after all, we’ve rather enjoyed the good things of life in the course of 1997. Why it was, then, that the Preacher judged his life - full of good things as it was- to be all vanity and a grasping for the wind? He judged it to be vanity, beloved, because the wise and the fool, the rich and the poor all alike must die (2:16).

Death. That, says the Preacher, is the lot of all mankind. Whether princess or street urchin, whether wise or foolish, whether you enjoyed life or not: all alike must die. And when one dies, it makes no difference whether you were rich or poor, whether you were wise or foolish, whether you had enjoyed life or not. For at death all these things fall into a big hole, and all that’s left is that you stand before your Maker with empty hands. Death, the Preacher knows, is the great equaliser; at death kings and paupers, the educated and the feeble-minded, the wise and the foolish all stand equally before their one Creator, and none has an advantage over the other.

That’s why the Preacher says: there’s no real gain in building up big houses, in gathering many riches, in enjoying many women, in piping in all kinds of music. Yes, to the human flesh these things may be attractive for a while, but in the long term, when death comes to take you and you must stand before your Maker, all this enjoyment helps not an ounce. It’s all vanity and a grasping for the wind.

So it’s too, beloved, that the Preacher writes off squabbling and bickering and pursuing one’s own rights as so much vanity and a pursuit of wind. One can stew on why I was sacked and he promoted, why I am married and another single, why I had this experience in my youth and another had that, and so one can be busy with so many things of this life. But the Preacher knows: all this "sorrow and sickness and anger" (5:17) is vanity only, it’s all a striving after wind, a senseless effort, for death comes to one and all, and on that day all these concerns that now obsess the mind fall into a big empty hole.

Yet stew on so many wrongs of the past, pursue our own rights is something we’ve all done in this past year again. We mightn’t like to hear from the Preacher his evaluation of the sense of this stewing and this pursuit of our perceived rights, but we do well to hear it: being angry because of what happened in the past, holding grudges and resentment, seeking answers is a grasping for the wind, all vanity. For death comes to one and all, and then all that energy and effort trying to right the wrongs done to us in the past help us nothing any more. For with death we stand empty before the judgment seat of God.

What is all amounts to then? Chap 12:8:

"‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher,
‘All is vanity.’"

It’s the theme of the book: this life by itself, spiced up with pleasures and wealth as you will, has no sense. "All is vanity." See there the evaluation of the Preacher on all we try to accomplish in this life.

And lest anyone, beloved, is tempted to say that the Preacher could be wrong, that our own efforts of the past year (or years, for that matter) prove a different result, let it be known that the Preacher was moved by God Himself to utter this judgment on life as it meets the eye. In the words of vs 10:

"...what was written was upright - words of truth."

Pursuing wealth, pursuing pleasure, pursuing answers: God Himself moved the Preacher of Ecclesiastes to judge it all vanity and a grasping for the wind.

So it is, beloved, that we can also understand the reason why the Preacher comes with the instruction of our text. If life as it meets the eye is inherently futile, if amassing wealth and pursuing pleasure and having fun is ultimately all vanity because all must die and stand before the judgment of God, then the conclusion of the whole thing is rather obvious: "Fear God and keep His commandments." For: to fear God and keep His commandments in this life makes one able to stand before God in the judgment at death. To stand in awe of God in this life, to marvel at His saving grace in Jesus Christ, and so also gladly keep His good instructions day by day: that prepares one well for the day of death. This adoration of God today enables one to stand in the judgment tomorrow, and be welcomed into God’s kingdom and glory.

Now we can come back to ourselves in this life, as we’ve lived it in 1997. The sum of the Preacher’s instruction was the need to fear God and keep His commandments, live that Godly life-style that flows from adoration for God’s saving work. The sum of the year has been the same; in the preaching and at club, in our conversations at home and in our lessons at school, it’s been driven home to us that awe for God and keeping His commandments was so necessary, that this is what life is all about. But at the end of the year, beloved, we need to realise also that the Lord was pleased to drive home to us the truth of our text in the events that have confronted us this year. Church discipline had to be exercised for the benefit of various this year - why?- because these brothers and sisters did not wish to believe the inspired instruction of the Preacher; these members thought to enjoy this life for what it was, saw no need to fear God and keep His commandments in their concrete circumstances. These members, unless they repent, cannot stand in the judgment; they shall experience to their own eternal hurt - unless God yet work repentance- that life lived for itself was indeed vain, a grasping for the wind. Herein we were taught not to go and do likewise; herein we are taught just how vain life lived for itself really is.

In the course of the year Death has taken many from our town and country and world - and some of us came within a whisker of death also through accident and health problems. The Preacher would have us know (as the Bible also says elsewhere) that all the pleasure the dead had in life, all they decided to enjoy and to do, helped those who died not a thing once they had to appear before the throne of their Maker. At death whatever they possessed was taken from them, and they had to appear empty before the Lord, and God justly brought into judgment every thing they ever did, be it secret or open, be it good or evil. What made the deceased to stand or fall before that judgment seat was the matter of whether they feared God, were filled with awe for Him on account of His saving work in Jesus Christ, an awe that in turn determined the way they lived. For such fear of God is part and parcel of true faith.

It was the Lord who confronted us as congregation with physical death and spiritual death, with coffins and with church discipline. In so doing, the Lord confronted us in this past year with the lesson the Preacher also learned: concentrating on developing this earthly life for the sake of this earthly life makes no sense, it is vanity and a grasping for wind. God Himself has reached into our lives to teach us in no uncertain terms that this life is not what it’s all about. Life is instead about God, fearing Him, praising Him, living for Him.

Now why, my brothers and sisters, why has the Lord God given this pointed instruction to us this year? Why have we needed it? For this reason, beloved: our God would have each of us learn more and more the lesson of our text. Confronted as we were with the Word of God in the preaching and with the deeds of God in the discipline and the deaths that came our way this year (to mention now only these), we are compelled to learn and to acknowledge that life is more than music and pleasure, more than courting and eating, more than houses and money. The very fact that in the course of the year we have pursued money and houses, eating and courting, pleasure and music has made it necessary that we learn the lesson of our text anew; sin has remained in us so much in the 1997 that we needed to be told in uncertain terms - through word and deed- that we’re on earth not for ourselves but rather in order to adore God and so keep His commandments. All that happened to us in this past year came our way for that purpose.

And No, beloved, that God would impress this lesson on us again in the year past - both in the preaching of His Word and in the deeds He has done in our midst- is not cause for us to despair. In His concern for the church of all ages, the Lord moved the Preacher to investigate life and come with his inspired conclusion, and include that book in the Bible. In His concern for us today, the Lord our God sees to it that we - sinful as we remain- learn the lessons of Ecclesiastes. Here is not cause for despair; here is rather reason for deep gratitude. His mercy over us is so unending!

So it is, beloved, that we, as we farewell one year and welcome another, may be thankful for the year that has passed, despite all the difficulties that Father in wisdom has sent our way. At the same time we may greet the new year with eagerness, determined again to live this new year fully to His praise and glory, convinced also that the God who showed great care for us in 1997 will show equally great care for us in 1998. Amen.


Rev. Clarence Bouwman is the Pastor of Smithville Canadian Reformed Church in Smithville, Ontario. He has also been the minister of the Yarrow Canadian Reformed Church, the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott, Western Australia, churches in Byford, Western Australia, and Chilliwack, B.C. As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. C. Bouwman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.

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