"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man." Ecclesiastes 12.13
I've just come to the end of Ecclesiastes in my Bible Readings and at first glance, you might think "Phew!" For much of the church's history, it's not really known what to do with the book of Ecclesiastes. But the truth is that Ecclesiastes is a book for our age, because it deals with meaninglessness.
Over the whole book, hangs the dark curtain of death - it's fair to say that it is not a laugh a minute! The writer explores what would life be like if death is the end, the great full stop. His answer is vanity, or meaningless, or pointless - depending on your translation. The reason is that death negates all human achievement. Even if we look to make a name for ourselves, such that historians record our great or dark deeds, even history itself will one day find death's curtain drawn across it. It is very moving and quite troubling to walk through a graveyard and read the inscriptions on the more modern gravestones. One of the most poignant phrases often repeated is, "Always in my heart". It is a lovely testimony to the enduring love we have for those who have died. And yet strictly it is not quite true, because my heart will one day stop beating.
This sense of pointlessness matters, because we are inevitably drawn to try to judge what a good life looks like. There is something innate in us that seeks to do something meaningful. The problem is that every judge we might seek to please, will one day die. So, if I am sitting in my workplace, worried by what my boss, customer or pupil will think of my work, I am living for a good opinion which will one day die. If my hope is that one day my children will turn out to be a vindication of my life, that too is only temporary. If I live for the esteem of those whom I esteem, it is pointless, because we will all die. Someone told me of a person whose ambition was to die a millionaire. What a pointless ambition. If death is the end, then better to die having been a millionaire!
Ultimately, the book of Ecclesiastes is not as depressing as it sounds. There are holes in the curtain, through which sparkling light pours and the last verses are an example of this. It's final verse speaks of something beyond the grave - it is a judgment. We normally think of this as bad news, but once we've read Ecclesiastes it gives it a new flavour. That judgment gives meaning to our lives - it denies the dread power of death. Knowing that, means that we can now live for a judgment that will not die. And so the writers conclusion is to fear the one who holds that judgment. Not cowering fear, but wonderful fear. This fear is one which gives hope and meaning, purpose and life to our lives. It helps put all other judgments on our lives into perspective.
So I will try, whenever I am worried about some judgment on my life to ask this - will this judgment last forever, or will it go the way of all flesh? Then I will try to look to the judgment of the one who holds the keys of death and Hades, who has risen again and who has promised to return to bring all his people to the new heaven and the new earth.