Whether it’s television, movies, or literature, the oldest trick in the book is the surprise ending, the twist at the end that changes everything. You know how it works: the character you thought was the hero actually turns out to be the villain or the twist at the end makes you question everything you’ve seen and heard up to that point.
The end makes all the difference.
I guess we could say that idea originates in the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes ends with a “twist” that puts the entire book in perspective.
One commentator writes, “Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling books of the Bible. The theme of the book appears in the prologue: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ The general conclusion comes in the epilogue, which speaks of fearing God and keeping his commandments because we must one day give account to him. The meaning and purpose of the book must be discovered within this framework.”
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon. Solomon says that the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commands. This is life’s meaning, purpose; but the twist is that Solomon has been crying out about the meaningless of life up until the very end!
Fear – Hebrew scholars say that the word is used two different ways:
- The anticipation of harm – a sense of dread. This is the typical way we think of fear. In 3:10, Adam says to God, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” Obviously there are times when “fearing the Lord” includes this kind of fearful anticipation.
- The positive feeling of awe and reverence for God, which may be expressed in piety or formal worship.
The children of Israel feared God – they feared being harmed, feared that God would “break out against them” (Ex. 19). But their fear never moved to the positive sense of awe and reverence for God, because it wasn’t too long afterward they were bowing down before a golden calf.
The Pharisees were guilty of this same fear-based religion. Second Temple Judaism was marked by a tremendous amount of fear – fear of exile led to the stringent practices we see in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. In Matthew 23, Jesus says that the Pharisees “preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” The Pharisees used fear to keep people in line, which is one of the reasons they had such a problem with Jesus. He wasn’t afraid of them.
Should we have a healthy appreciation for God’s holiness? Absolutely. But the fear of the Lord doesn’t mean that we live our lives quaking with fear. That is not the best motivation for being a Christian. God desires that we have an understanding of His love and that we come to Him in love. That is the best motivation for following Him.
So what, then, does it mean to fear the Lord? The Bible uses the word “fear” over 300 times in relation to God, so we make a huge mistake if we downplay it. What does it mean?
Put simply, it means to trust Him.
One resource puts it this way: “The fear of God is an attitude of respect, a response of reverence and wonder. It is the only appropriate response to our Creator and Redeemer.”
And this is Solomon’s big twist at the end of Ecclesiastes.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a systematic attack on the meaningless of everything if one does not first fear and obey the Lord. Or as we sing sometimes, to trust and obey Him.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Solomon begins with a pretty bold statement, one that is depressing apart from the ending. Everything is meaningless! Solomon doesn’t offer up any explanation at the beginning of this sermon, he just states the fact that everything is completely meaningless.
And the rest of the book is a deconstruction of the things that typically give meaning to life.
Skipping ahead, Solomon says that the pursuit of wisdom is meaningless.
I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
He goes on to say that he devoted himself to acquiring wisdom, but he calls this meaningless, chasing after the wind.
(I used to think about this verse when I was learning Greek and Hebrew in school. Meaningless!)
Have you ever tried to learn some new skill?
Had to learn something new in business, some new strategy that you needed to implement to grow your industry?
Have you ever tried to figure something out, worked hard to study something in school?
How about studying God’s Word to try and learn and grow to become a better Christian?
Solomon says that is all meaningless, unless we fear God and learn to obey Him.
Then Solomon goes on to say that the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, even laughter, is meaningless.
I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good. But that also proved meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?”
Medically, we know laughter is really good for us. Have you heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine?” The reason that’s a popular saying is because there’s some truth to it. Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Doctors say that nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. It lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded. It also helps you to release anger and be more forgiving.
Laughter is really, really good for us. It’s hardly meaningless.
But again, the ending is essential. Laughter IS meaningless unless it is accompanied by the fear of the Lord and the desire to live in obedience to Him.
Solomon then turns his attention on work and labor.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
At this point, we might start thinking that Solomon needs a hug. He says that even work and toil are meaningless. And his proof of this is that one day we have to turn over all of our projects to someone else. We have to turn over all that we’ve worked for and give it to someone who might be wise or might be foolish!
This proves the danger of proof-texting, of grabbing a passage of Scripture and reading it outside of its context. If you just opened up your Bible and read this passage, it might lead you to quit your job, to lay around the house all day and do nothing — which are the kinds of things that are condemned elsewhere in the Bible!
So, what is Solomon saying? Again, the ending is essential. His argument only makes sense when you hear it in totality. He’s saying that work and toil isn’t a sufficient goal for human life. Unless accompanied by the fear of the Lord, a life of work and toil is essentially meaningless.
So, what does it mean to fear the Lord?
Again, it means to trust and obey Him. To trust Him so much that nothing else matters; to trust Him to the degree that everything else is absolutely meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
And this life of trusting obedience is demonstrated in the NT church:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
This morning, one of our members talked to me after church, talked about fear. He said, “You know what I always tell myself about fear? I’ll say, ‘Fear God and nothing else.’ That’s the good kind of fear.”