One of the fascinating things about the book of Ecclesiastes is that the final “answer” at the end of the book seems to have very little relevance to the questions and issues being discussed in the book. But it seems that there is a significant lesson in this.
Ecclesiastes asks the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:2). In other words, is there any satisfying way to live life? Is there a way for us to climb up out of the perplexities, the frustrations, the weariness, the injustices and evils of this life?
And if you’re someone with little experience with this biblical book, you are probably surprised to find out that the answer throughout the book is, essentially, “Apparently not.” Wherever we turn, life appears vain and meaningless.
Now, there are hope- and joy-laden truths scattered throughout the book. It is clear that pessimism and despair is not an appropriate response to the dark honesty of the book. However, the real “answer” or conclusion isn’t reached until 12:13: “The end of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
Now think about that: How is this relevant to the long list of questions, frustrations, injustices and evil given throughout the book?! We don’t find a long list of answers to our questions. Nor advice on how to immediately satisfy all our longings. Nor wisdom on how to protect ourselves from all the suffering and pain and tears.
Instead, God gives us a command: fear me and keep my commands. He points us in a certain direction. He communicates the purpose to our lives.
In other words, it would seem that our greatest need is not to “figure out life,” or to grab life by the horns and engineer it towards our own ends, or to squeeze as much happiness out of every season and experience possible. Our greatest need is to be in a relationship with God, to live under the loving care and authority of God.
God is saying something like: “Fear me and keep my commands. That is the end for which you were made, and the end to which you are to live. You don’t need to figure out the meaning to life. In fact, it is already figured out for you, built into the very fibers of your being.”
And as much as our age doesn’t want to be told that there is one, objective meaning and purpose to life; as much as we want to be self-ruled and figure out our own meaning, it is, in fact, incredibly freeing to be given meaning. To not carry on our shoulders the weight if figuring out life.
There is a great quote about this by Alan Noble in his recent book You Are Not Your Own. He writes,
“But the freedom of sovereign individualism comes at a great price. Once I am liberated from all social, moral, natural, and religious values, I become responsible for the meaning of my own life. With no God to judge or justify me, I have to be my own judge and redeemer. This burden manifests itself as a desperate need to justify our lives through identity crafting and expression. But because everyone else is also working frantically to craft and express their own identity, society becomes a space of vicious competition between individuals vying for attention, meaning, and significance, not unlike the contrived drama of reality TV” (pg. 4).
It is not that God doesn’t care about our questions and frustrations and weariness; he does immensely, and Ecclesiastes is a testament to that. But his solution to finding joy in the midst of this “vain” life is different than we expect.
It is dependent on us being in a relationship with him: a relationship of ongoing trust and dependence, rather than fighting for self-sufficiency. A relationship of resting and rejoicing in his loving care, rather than insisting we know better how to care for ourselves. And a relationship of fearing, loving and obeying him in all things.