Ecclesiastes 12:13
Great Texts of the Bible
The Whole Duty of Man

This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.—Ecclesiastes 12:131. Of what “matter” is this the conclusion? Ecclesiastes, in the writing of this little book, had a practical object in view. He had not indulged in any elaborate speculation; he had not attempted to solve the riddle of the world. He had simply recorded the results of his own experience and observation; and he had confessed himself unable to fathom the mysteries of Divine Providence. But he felt that he had a practical message for his countrymen. He had laid before them certain maxims for the guidance of their conduct. He had endeavoured to put them in the way of securing the “chief good” of life—of making the best of this present existence, with all its unsatisfying elements, and all its insoluble problems. And now, at the very end of his book, he seeks to drive the nail home, and to clinch all his exhortations by one pithy, pregnant counsel in which he sums up his practical philosophy of life.

And what is the conclusion of the Wise Man’s wisdom? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!” So the boy had been taught: and now the old man wonders whether it may not be, not only the beginning, but the end. When so much is dark, is not one path clear? one thing plain? Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” A life of godliness and virtue—this is the chief good for man. There is no better or deeper satisfaction to be found on earth than that which springs from reverencing God and keeping His commandments. This was the grand “conclusion” at which Ecclesiastes had arrived.

2. This may seem to us a very inadequate result, unworthy of a devout Israelite. It falls short of the faith of David. It is still further distant from that of a believer in the gospel. We should be tempted to look on one who declared solemnly that the experience of a long life had taught him to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and the eternal law of duty as speaking the language of a heathen. For such an one we should have little hope, or even, it may be, harsh condemnation. But the blessedness of thus apprehending any one article of faith is, that it must needs lead on to others. The words, “Fear God, and keep his commandments,” were the simplest of all precepts, and yet one who fixed his heart on them, and strove to live in them, would find himself led perpetually into new regions of truth, new convictions of sin, new forms of holiness.

The central peace of all is not allied with indolent quietude: the nearer to God the deeper the peace, and also the greater the necessity of eager activity. The realm is one of progress. The idea of continued progress in the Paradiso receives illustration as we note how the stages of mediæval learning are incorporated in the imagery. The virtues are not to be learned by practice or discipline, as in the Purgatorio; they must be effluent from graces already stored in the soul; they must come as from a centre of spiritual force, not as an acquired habit, but as in harmony with the governing impulses of the soul. But when these graces and virtues are thus possessed, more lies beyond. Then the powers of perception and apprehension are enlarged: the spirit can discern God in Nature, God in moral order, God in the very soul itself. The highest capacity reached is the theological, the final knowledge of God, not through any medium, like that of natural or moral order, but in direct spiritual vision.1 [Note: W. Boyd Carpenter, The Spiritual Message of Dante, 189.]


A Right Feeling towards God

To fear God is to have a heart and mind rightly affected towards Him. It is to have scriptural and realizing views of His being and perfections, of His holy law and government, of His redeeming grace and mercy. It is to know, to reverence, and to love Him, as He is in Christ. Hence it is said that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). To be destitute of it, whatever be the natural gifts and endowments a man may possess, is to be in reality a fool. The fear here in question is not the “fear which hath torment”—the slavish terror resulting from conscious guilt, the dark and disquieting apprehension of coming wrath that haunts the soul laden with unconfessed, unrepented, and therefore unpardoned, sin. No; it is a sentiment wide as the poles asunder from that spirit of bondage. This fear of God of which the author speaks, is the very spirit of adoption. It is the spirit with which the affectionate and dutiful child regards a father—a father whose wisdom he reveres, whose authority he owns, whose goodness has won his heart, whose favour is his chiefest joy, and whose displeasure fills him with grief and shame. The fear of God, accordingly, is, in Scripture, generally put for the whole of true religion in the heart, and is, not infrequently, inclusive also of its practical results in the life. Those who “fear God,” and those who have “no fear of God before their eyes,” are the two great descriptions of mankind.

1. Fear is not a characteristic of the religion of our age. Increasing knowledge has, according to its usual law, brought increasing familiarity. And it may be questioned whether pious affections have not been weakened and effeminated by the absence of it. In this, as in almost everything else, the pendulum explains the story. We have swung to the extreme on one side, because we had gone too far on the other. Not long ago, we heard little of love, and too much of fear; now, it is almost all love, and no fear. “Love God.” “Love God,” with our whole heart,—for He is “love.” He is our Father. He has “loved us with an everlasting love.” There never was a time, in all eternity, when He did not love us. No love like that love, so deep, so true, so faithful, so comprehensive, so minute, so like Himself,—for ever and ever! Love as we will, we shall never reach the deep echo of His love. And all other love, however dear, is only a drop in that one fountain! But let us remember that He is “a great God, and a terrible,” “of purer eyes than to behold evil”; and who cannot “look on iniquity.” Mercy and truth go before His face; but justice and judgment are the habitation of His throne.

As long as every opportunity that is offered to us means the choice between a wiser and a more foolish, or a nobler and more ignoble alternative, we shall be liable to choose the worse—not in blindness, but in weakness or passion—and then to recognize our lost opportunity, to feel the actual discord emphasized by the ideal harmony, and to know the anguish of the sense of sin. And when this experience has been ours, we shall know the meaning of the fear of God. Not that fear which drives us in terror to divorce our actions from our affections, and scares us from doing the thing we should still love to do; not the fear of God as of the Divine policeman who is always ready to bring the terrors of the law upon us; but the fear of God which is hardly even another aspect of the love of Him. We see the beauty of holiness, we see the mark of our high calling in communion with Him, we see the greatness of the opportunities of life; and this is the love of God. And we know that if, in yielding to sloth or to passion, we neglect these opportunities, and are content with the lower and the baser part, that harmony which we now feel will have its counterpart in the discord which we shall wake, in the hurt and miserable sense of sin. We know that we cannot escape, though we climb to the top of Carmel, or plunge into the depths of the sea; and this is the fear of God. It is the love of God which inspires our lives; it is the fear of God which protects us in our moments of weakness, when we love the part, rather than the whole, and would find a momentary and local harmony at the price of a permanent and universal discord.1 [Note: J. E. Carpenter and P. H. Wicksteed, Studies in Theology, 165.]

2. How are we to obtain this right feeling? That filial emotion which here and throughout the Old Testament is often called “fear,” that blended emotion of reverence and trust, awe and affection, can arise only where the spirit of sonship reciprocates God’s revealed aspect of compassionate and forthgoing fatherliness. It matters little whether we call the affection fear, or, with the first and great commandment, call it love. In that fear which realizes God’s fatherliness, there cannot be terror; and in the love which recollects that its Father is God there cannot be petulant boldness.

Perfect love does, indeed, cast out fear; for if we loved God perfectly, we should love Him always, and sin would never tempt us. And, therefore, it is in the love of God that the formula of harmony must be sought. Even when conscious of our own sin, conscious of our self-alienation from God, and the discord that it has waked in our being, we must seek to feel the harmony above and below; that the sense of opportunity, of privilege, of glory, of God, may still rise above the sense of failure, of exclusion, of shame, of self; that fear may be nought but an under-agent of love, the sense of sin nought but an undertone in the sense of salvation.1 [Note: J. E. Carpenter and P. H. Wicksteed, Studies in Theology, 166.]


A Right Thought towards God

The fear of God is that coincidence with His good pleasure, and that compliance with His revealed will which is called here keeping His commandments. He is our Creator, and, whether we will or not, we must be His creatures. But He is also the King of the universe, and we ought to be His loyal subjects. Almighty and all-wise, we should devoutly adore Him. Our righteous Ruler, we should with cheerful submission acquiesce in His disposal, and with strenuous activity should fulfil His commands.

1. Now, to obey God’s commandments we must know in what they consist. We must have a right thought towards God, a knowledge of His will. The commandments of God are many and very broad. He reveals His will in the natural universe and the laws which govern it—laws which, as we are part of the universe, we need to know and to obey. He reveals His will in the social and political forces which govern the history and development of the various races of mankind, which therefore meet and affect us at every turn. He reveals His will in the ethical intuitions and codes which govern the formation of character, which enter into and give shape to all in us that is most spiritual, profound, and enduring. To keep all the commandments revealed in these immense fields of Divine activity with an intelligent and invariable obedience is simply impossible to us; it is the perfection which flows around our imperfection, and towards which it is our one great task to be ever reaching forth.

Carlyle desired to tell the modern world that, destitute as it and its affairs appeared to be of Divine guidance, God or justice was still in the middle of it, sternly inexorable as ever; that modern nations were as entirely governed by God’s law as the Israelites had been in Palestine—laws self-acting and inflicting their own penalties, if man neglected or defied them. And these laws were substantially the same as those on the Tables delivered in thunder on Mount Sinai. You shall reverence your Almighty Maker. You shall speak truth. You shall do justice to your fellow-man. If you set truth aside for conventional and convenient lies; if you prefer your own pleasure, your own will, your own ambition, to purity and manliness and justice, and submission to your Maker’s commands, then are whirlwinds still provided in the constitution of things which will blow you to atoms.1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle, 1834–1881, i. 89.]

2. Throughout this whole Book there is not a single technical allusion, no allusion to the Temple, to the feasts, to the sacrifices, rites, ceremonies of the Law; and therefore we can hardly take this reference to the “commandments” as an allusion to the Mosaic table. By the rules of fair interpretation we are bound to take these commandments as previously defined by the Preacher himself, to understand him as once more enforcing the virtues which, for him, comprised the whole duty of man. And these virtues are: To love our neighbour, to discharge the present duty whatever rain may fall and whatever storm may blow, to carry a bright hopeful spirit through all our toils and charities; to do this in the fear of God, as in His Presence, because He is judging and will judge us.

Modern moralists prefer to ask, not “What is man’s chief end,” but “What is man’s duty; what is the supreme law of his life?” Man’s good presents itself to him as an ideal, which he may or may not realize in practice; this is what distinguishes the moral from the natural life. The law of man’s life is not, like Nature’s, inevitable—it may be broken as well as kept; this is why we call it a moral law. While a physical law, or a law of nature, is simply a statement of what always happens, a moral law is that which ought to be, but never strictly is. The ancients were inclined to regard the end as something to be acquired or got, rather than as an ideal to be attained—as something to be possessed rather than as something to become. The moral ideal is an ideal of character. The claims of righteousness become paramount: do the right though the heavens fall. The end of life is thus an ideal of character, to be realized by the individual, and his attitude to it is one of obligation or duty to realize it. It is not something to be got or to be done, but to be or to become. It is to be sought not without, but within; it is the man himself, in that true or essential nature, in the realization of which is fulfilled his duty.1 [Note: J. Seth, Ethical Principles.]


A Right Will towards God

But it is not sufficient to have a knowledge of the commandments of God; we must also keep His commandments. What do we mean when we say “keep the commandments”? It is an expression which has lost its force by frequent quotation. To “keep” is not to lose. To “keep” is to lay up in the high places of memory. It is to hide a thing down in the recesses of the heart. It is to observe cautiously, to treasure jealously, to hold fast, and never let go.

1. To keep God’s commandments, to discharge the various duties which He has appointed—this is the very best use which we can make of life; this is the highest good to which we can attain, amid all the difficulties, disappointments, sorrows, uncertainties, transitoriness and mystery of our present existence. And, in order that our souls may be sustained in living this life of godliness and virtue, we are ever to remember that we are responsible creatures; we are to look forward to a future life and a future judgment. To live in the light of that coming judgment leads us to keep watch even over our secret conduct, and deepens our reverence for all God’s holy laws.

Our thought will prosper, and our science, as we realize that it is not the first thing but the second. It does not till then realize its own place and right. To see God and hear Him is prior to all thought about Him or His world. The perception of faith is the condition of any science of God; religion founds all theology. The world we are in is not ours but God’s. We therefore revere its reality, and own a wisdom wiser and greater than ours. We do not create truth, but receive it. We do not command it, but obey it. Wisdom is over the thinker who loves it and seeks it. We are under obligation to seek and think the truth; we may not merely play with it, we may not loll in the stalls as it passes before us. It is a task, it is not a treat. And we do not legislate for truth; we have to see that the law of thought has its way with us. Our chief act of will is practically recognition of a gift. It is obedience to a grace, even in science.1 [Note: P. T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, 111.]

2. To be animated by true fear is to have a right will towards God—is to have been brought into fellowship with Him as a reconciled God and Father. And hence the inseparable connexion of these two things—fearing God and keeping His commandments. Love is the fulfilling of the law. It is itself the very essence of all true obedience; and wherever it is really shed abroad in the heart, it will, and must, tend to active personal devotedness to God’s holy service. To fear God in the sense here intended, and yet to be living in allowed sin—in wilful, practical, habitual opposition to God’s commandments—is a contradiction in terms. It is, in truth, a moral impossibility. “For the love of Christ constraineth us,” says the Apostle Paul, referring to the necessary and inseparable connexion between a right state of feeling towards God, and a right course of acting—“the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.”

Catherine analyses with keen insight the relations which redeemed humanity can bear to the Loving God: she tells us how the servant, obedient through fear, may become the friend, obedient through gratitude and desire for spiritual blessings; and how these lower loves, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, may be transformed into the love of the son, who seeks God for His own sake, “with nothing between.” And how shall human love, when it has reached this point, reflect the love of Him who “needs not man’s work nor His own gifts”? How become, not merely receptive, but active and creative? Catherine gives the simple Christian answer: “God has loved us without being loved, but we love Him because we are loved.… We cannot be of any profit to Him, nor love Him with this first love. Yet God demands of us, that as He has loved us without any second thoughts, so He should be loved by us. In what way can we do this, then, since He demands it of us and we cannot give it to Him? I tell you: through a means which He has established by which we can love Him freely, and without the least regard to any profit of ours: we can be useful, not to Him, which is impossible, but to our neighbour. To show the love we have to Him, we ought to serve and love every rational creature. Every virtue receives life from love, and love is gained in love, that is, by raising the eye of our mind to behold how much we are beloved of God. Seeing ourselves loved, we cannot do otherwise than love.”1 [Note: V. D. Scudder, Letters of Saint Catherine of Siena, 79.]

3. The New Testament fully endorses the idea that the “chief good” for man lies in a life of godliness and virtue. The gospel, it is true, seeks to infuse a spirit of love and trust into our reverence for God; but it does not abolish this reverence. It reveals to us a “Father in heaven” whose “name” is to be “hallowed.” It proclaims, indeed, the forgiving mercy of God, and offers pardon to the “chief of sinners”; but it does not lessen the sanctity of God’s law, or relax the demands of that law on our conscience. It points us to our great High Priest who has offered the perfect sacrifice of Himself upon the cross. It gives us a still larger view of the Divine commandments, and seeks to bring us into harmony with their inmost spirit. It does not “make void the law through faith”; it “establishes the law.” The Saviour whom it proclaims to us is the King whom we are bound to obey, and who said, “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets; I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.”

True religion is no mere mystic passive dream of devotion—a gazing in rapt reverence on the mystery of godliness, and no more. It is a system also of high comprehensive delicate law, which demands daily determined obedience. It is a doing and a being. The righteousness of Christ is excelling; it signifies infinitely more than civil law, social courtesy, or ecclesiastical discipline. It means a noble heart governing daily life in its most delicate relations and situations. It is no “rule of thumb,” but of finer discriminations than the most exquisite instruments of science. Let me not mistakenly spend life in arguing down and arguing away the lofty laws of Christ. Let me not labour to accommodate them to my weakness. Let me daily pray for the grace that will bring me up to the height of the law, and not attempt to bring down the law to my frailty.2 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]


Brown (A. G.), God’s Full-Orbed Gospel, 96.

Bruce (W. S.), Our Heritage, 161.

Gamble (H. R.), The Ten Virgins, 189.

Hadden (R. H.), Sermons and Memoir, 191.

Hamilton (J.), The Royal Preacher, 230, 242 (Works, iii. 220, 231).

Jowett (B.), College Sermons, 183.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Esther, etc., 402.

Parker (J.), The City Temple, iii. 10.

Plumptre (E. H.), Theology and Life, 309.

Salmon (G.), Sermons Preached in Trinity College, Dublin, 130, 148.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), New Ser., xvi. (1878), No. 1064; xvii. (1879), No. 1102.

Christian World Pulpit, xxx. 75 (J. M. Buckley); lxxviii. 152 (W. H. Harwood).

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