“The Whole Obligation of Man”
“Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man.”—ECCLESIASTES 12:13.
1, 2. Why is it appropriate to consider our obligation to God?
“WHAT is Jehovah asking back from you?” An ancient prophet posed that question. Then he specified what Jehovah required—exercise justice, love kindness, and walk modestly with God.—Micah 6:8.
2 In this day of individuality and independence, many are uncomfortable with the idea that God requires something of them. They do not want to be obliged. But what of the conclusion that Solomon reached in Ecclesiastes? “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man.”—Ecclesiastes 12:13.
3. Why should we give serious thought to the book of Ecclesiastes?
3 Whatever our circumstances and outlook on life, we can be greatly benefited if we consider the background of that conclusion. King Solomon, the writer of this inspired book, considered some of the very things that are part of our day-to-day life. Some might hastily conclude that his analysis is basically negative. Yet it was divinely inspired and can help us to evaluate our activities and priorities, with increased joy as a result.
Meeting Life’s Principal Concerns
4. What did Solomon examine and discuss in Ecclesiastes?
4 Solomon profoundly examined ‘the occupation of the sons of mankind.’ “I set my heart to seek and explore wisdom in relation to everything that has been done under the heavens.” By “occupation” Solomon did not necessarily mean a job, or employment, but rather the whole scope of what men and women are occupied with throughout their lives. (Ecclesiastes 1:13) Let us consider some principal concerns, or occupations, and then compare our own activities and priorities.
5. What is one of the chief occupations of humans?
5 Certainly money is at the core of many human concerns and activities. No one can justly say that Solomon had the nonchalant view of money that some wealthy people have. He readily acknowledged the need for some money; having adequate finances is better than having to live austerely or in poverty. (Ecclesiastes 7:11, 12) But you must have seen that money, with the possessions it buys, can become the prime goal in life—for the poor as well as the rich.
6. What can we learn about money from one of Jesus’ illustrations and from Solomon’s own experience?
6 Recall Jesus’ illustration of the rich man who, never satisfied, worked to acquire more. God judged him unreasonable. Why? Because our ‘life does not result from the things we possess.’ (Luke 12:15-21) Solomon’s experience—probably more extensive than ours—confirms Jesus’ words. Read the description at Ecclesiastes 2:4-9. For some time Solomon applied himself to gaining riches. He built exquisite homes and gardens. He could afford and obtained beautiful female companions. Did wealth and what it enabled him to do bring deep satisfaction, a sense of true accomplishment, and meaning in his life? He answered frankly: “I, even I, turned toward all the works of mine that my hands had done and toward the hard work that I had worked hard to accomplish, and, look! everything was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing of advantage under the sun.”—Ecclesiastes 2:11; 4:8.
7. (a) Experience proves what as to the value of money? (b) What have you personally seen that bears out Solomon’s conclusion?
7 That is realistic, a truth borne out in many lives. We must admit that having more money just does not solve all problems. It could solve some, such as making the obtaining of food and clothing easier. But a person can wear only one outfit at a time and enjoy only a certain amount of food and drink. And you have read of rich people whose lives are plagued by divorce, alcohol or drug abuse, and feuds with relatives. Multimillionaire J. P. Getty said: “Money doesn’t necessarily have any connection with happiness. Maybe with unhappiness.” For good reason, Solomon classed the loving of silver with vanity. Contrast that fact with Solomon’s observation: “Sweet is the sleep of the one serving, regardless of whether it is little or much that he eats; but the plenty belonging to the rich one is not permitting him to sleep.”—Ecclesiastes 5:10-12.
8. What reason is there not to overestimate the importance of money?
8 Money and possessions also do not bring a sense of contentment as to the future. If you had more money and possessions, you would likely have added anxiety about protecting them, and you still would not know what tomorrow will bring. Might you lose it all, along with your life? (Ecclesiastes 5:13-17; 9:11, 12) This being so, it should not be difficult to see why our life, or occupation, should have a higher, more lasting meaning than money and possessions.
Family, Fame, and Power
9. Why did family life rightly come up in Solomon’s examination?
9 Solomon’s analysis of life included the matter of preoccupation with family. The Bible highlights family life, including the joy of having and rearing children. (Genesis 2:22-24; Psalm 127:3-5; Proverbs 5:15, 18-20; 6:20; Mark 10:6-9; Ephesians 5:22-33) Is that, though, the ultimate aspect of life? It seems that many think so, given the emphasis in some cultures on marriage, children, and family ties. Yet Ecclesiastes 6:3 shows that even having a hundred children is not a key to satisfaction in life. Imagine how many parents have made sacrifices for the sake of their children in order to give them a good start and make their life easier. Noble as that is, surely our Creator did not mean that the central object of our existence is merely to pass life to the next generation, as animals instinctively do to continue the species.
10. Why may undue focus on the family prove to be vanity?
10 Solomon perceptively brought up some realities of family life. For example, a man may focus on making provision for his children and grandchildren. But will they prove to be wise? Or will they be foolish with what he strove to accumulate for them? If the latter occurs, what a “vanity and a big calamity” it would be!—Ecclesiastes 2:18-21; 1 Kings 12:8; 2 Chronicles 12:1-4, 9.
11, 12. (a) On what pursuits in life have some concentrated? (b) Why can it be said that seeking prominence is “a striving after the wind”?
11 At the other extreme, many have subordinated normal family life to their determination to achieve fame or power over others. This may be a fault more common among males. Have you seen this in your schoolmates, workmates, or neighbors? Many struggle desperately to be noticed, to become somebody, or to wield authority over others. But how truly meaningful is this?
12 Think how some struggle to become famous, whether on a small or a large scale. We see it in school, in our neighborhood, and in various social groups. It also is an impelling force in those wanting to become known in the arts, entertainment, and politics. Is it not, though, an essentially vain effort? Solomon correctly called it “a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4) Even if a youth became prominent in a club, on a sports team, or in a musical group—or some man or woman gained repute in a company or community—how many really know of it? Do most people on the other side of the globe (or even of the same country) know that the person exists? Or do they just continue in life totally unaware of what little fame he or she has? And the same can be said of any power or authority a person achieves on the job, in a town, or among a group.
13. (a) How does Ecclesiastes 9:4, 5 help us to have a proper view of striving for prominence or power? (b) What facts should we face if this life is all there is? (See footnote.)
13 What does such prominence or authority amount to in the long run? As one generation goes and another comes, the prominent or powerful people pass off the scene and are forgotten. That is true of builders, musicians and other artists, social reformers, and so on, just as it is true of most politicians and military leaders. Of those occupations, how many specific individuals do you know of who lived between the years 1700 and 1800? Solomon rightly assessed matters, saying: “A live dog is better off than a dead lion. For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, . . . the remembrance of them has been forgotten.” (Ecclesiastes 9:4, 5) And if this life is all there is, then striving for prominence or power really is vanity.*
Our Focus and Obligation
14. Why should the book of Ecclesiastes help us personally?
14 Solomon did not comment on many activities, goals, and pleasures on which humans focus their lives. Yet, what he wrote is sufficient. Our consideration of the book need not seem grim or negative, for we have realistically reviewed a book of the Bible that Jehovah God deliberately inspired for our benefit. It can help each of us set straight our outlook on life and what we focus on. (Ecclesiastes 7:2; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17) That is especially so in view of the conclusions that Jehovah helped Solomon reach.
15, 16. (a) What was Solomon’s view of enjoying life? (b) What appropriate qualification did Solomon put on enjoying life?
15 One point that Solomon repeatedly raised was that servants of the true God should find joy in their activities before Him. “I have come to know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good during one’s life; and also that every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work. It is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12, 13; 5:18; 8:15) Notice that Solomon was not encouraging revelry; nor did he endorse an attitude of ‘Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ (1 Corinthians 15:14, 32-34) He meant that we should find enjoyment in normal pleasures, such as eating and drinking, as we ‘do good during our life.’ That unquestionably focuses our life on the will of the Creator, who determines what is truly good.—Psalm 25:8; Ecclesiastes 9:1; Mark 10:17, 18; Romans 12:2.
16 Solomon wrote: “Go, eat your food with rejoicing and drink your wine with a good heart, because already the true God has found pleasure in your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9) Yes, the man or woman who really has a rich and fulfilling life is active in works in which Jehovah finds pleasure. That calls on us to take him into consideration constantly. How different this outlook is from that of the majority of people, who approach life based on human reasonings!
17, 18. (a) How do many people react to the realities of life? (b) What result should we always bear in mind?
17 Though some religions teach about a hereafter, many people believe that this life is really all they can be sure of. You may have seen them react as Solomon described: “Because sentence against a bad work has not been executed speedily, that is why the heart of the sons of men has become fully set in them to do bad.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11) Even those who do not become steeped in vile deeds show that they are principally concerned with the here and now. That is one reason why money, possessions, prestige, authority over others, family, or other such interests take on exaggerated importance to them. Solomon did not leave the thought there, however. He added: “Although a sinner may be doing bad a hundred times and continuing a long time as he pleases, yet I am also aware that it will turn out well with those fearing the true God, because they were in fear of him. But it will not turn out well at all with the wicked one, neither will he prolong his days that are like a shadow, because he is not in fear of God.” (Ecclesiastes 8:12, 13) Clearly, Solomon was convinced that it will turn out well for us if we ‘fear the true God.’ How well? We can find the answer in the contrast he drew. Jehovah can ‘prolong our days.’
18 Those who are still relatively young especially ought to ponder the absolutely reliable fact that it will turn out well with them if they fear God. As you personally may have seen, the fastest runner may stumble and lose the race. A powerful army may go down in defeat. A smart businessman may find himself in poverty. And many other uncertainties make life quite unpredictable. But you can be absolutely certain of this: The wisest and surest course is to enjoy life while you do good within God’s moral laws and according to his will. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) This includes learning from the Bible what God’s will is, dedicating one’s life to him, and becoming a baptized Christian.—Matthew 28:19, 20.
19. How can youths use their lives, but what is the wise course?
19 The Creator will not force youths or others to follow his guidance. They can immerse themselves in education, perhaps even becoming life-long students of books of human learning without number. That will eventually prove wearisome to the flesh. Or they can walk in the ways of their imperfect human heart or follow what appeals to the eyes. That will assuredly bring vexation, and a life thus spent will in time prove to be mere vanity. (Ecclesiastes 11:9–12:12; 1 John 2:15-17) So Solomon makes an appeal to youths—an appeal that we should seriously consider, whatever our age: “Remember, now, your Grand Creator in the days of your young manhood, before the calamitous days proceed to come, or the years have arrived when you will say: ‘I have no delight in them.’”—Ecclesiastes 12:1.
20. What is the balanced view of the message in Ecclesiastes?
20 What shall we conclude, then? Well, what about the conclusion that Solomon reached? He saw, or examined, “all the works that were done under the sun, and, look! everything was vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14) We do not find in the book of Ecclesiastes the words of a cynic or a disgruntled man. They are part of God’s inspired Word and worthy of our consideration.
21, 22. (a) What aspects of life did Solomon take into consideration? (b) What wise conclusion did he reach? (c) How has examining the contents of Ecclesiastes affected you?
21 Solomon surveyed human toiling, struggles, and aspirations. He reflected on how things turn out in the normal course of affairs, the frustrating and empty outcome that so many humans experience. He considered the reality of human imperfection and resulting death. And he factored in God-given knowledge of the state of the dead and the prospects for any future life. All this was evaluated by a man who had divinely enhanced wisdom, yes, one of the wisest humans who ever lived. Then the conclusion he reached was incorporated in the Holy Scriptures for the benefit of all who want a truly meaningful life. Should we not agree?
22 “The conclusion of the matter, everything having been heard, is: Fear the true God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole obligation of man. For the true God himself will bring every sort of work into the judgment in relation to every hidden thing, as to whether it is good or bad.”—Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14.
The Watchtower once made this insightful comment: “We should not waste this life on vanities . . . If this life is all there is, there is nothing important. This life is like a ball thrown into the air that soon falls into the dust again. It is a fleeting shadow, a fading flower, a blade of grass to be cut and soon withered. . . . On the scales of eternity our life span is a negligible speck. In the stream of time it is not even a healthy drop. Certainly [Solomon] is right when he reviews life’s many human concerns and activities and pronounces them vanity. We are so soon gone we might as well have never come, one of billions to come and go, with so few ever knowing we were here at all. This view is not cynical or somber or morose or morbid. It is truth, a fact to face, a practical view, if this life is all there is.”—August 1, 1957, page 472.
Do You Recall?
◻ What is the wise evaluation of the place of possessions in your life?
◻ Why should we not put undue emphasis on family, on fame, or on authority over others?
◻ What divine attitude toward enjoyment did Solomon encourage?
◻ How have you benefited from considering the book of Ecclesiastes?
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Money and possessions do not ensure contentment
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Young people can be assured that it will turn out well with them if they fear God