Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, KJV)
The Preacher has come to the conclusion of his survey of the world, its pleasures, and how to seek joy. He has tried folly, wisdom, hedonism, materialism, and found nothing that ultimately satisfies. Thus, he concludes that wisdom is truly found in fearing God and keeping his commandments; it is found in a covenant with God and in obedience to what he has revealed.
This obedience, it should be obvious, is not a raw striving against evil or a behavioral modification program. it is the joyfully duty given to the Father, by a man who has been united to the Son, and who walks in newness of life in the Spirit.
Now, while we recognize that one cannot even approach his duty toward God without that covenant relationship, the Preacher here does not appear to intend only those in covenant with God in his address. Indeed, throughout his discourse, it is plain that he has been speaking of what is required of all men and the purpose of mankind generally speaking. Thus, we can also say it is the duty of all men – even those outside of Christ – to fear God and keep his commandments. We know that they cannot; however, the fact that they cannot does not change the fact that they are required to do so.
Let’s take an analogy. A Fire Department has the duty to put out fires within their jurisdiction. Let’s say a particular Fire Department had not kept the fire engine in good working condition. A call is made to the Fire Department that a fire has broken out at a home. As the fire engine is making its way to the home, it mechanically fails. The fire department is unable to put out the fire and the home is lost. Does the inability of the firefighters to get to the home negate the duty they had to put out the fire? Certainly not. The fire department is still responsible. Its duty still persists. Moreover, the cause of their inability to fulfill the duty is found in themselves. They neglected to do those things which would have allowed them to discharge their duty to put out the fire.
We may apply this analogy to the duty of man. Men everywhere are called to repent, fear God, and keep his commandments. We know that some men, because of their sin, will not. However, God still calls them to repentance outwardly, to fear Him, and to keep his commandments. Their duty is still their duty and because of this they remain responsible for their unbelief and disobedience.
With that in mind, the last verse of Ecclesiastes makes sense. God will bring every work into judgment – not just the good deeds of the righteous, nor just the bad deeds of the righteous, nor just the bad deeds of those outside of Christ, nor their good deeds only. God will bring all works into judgement. Were these verses only pertaining to the righteous in Christ, then man outside of Christ would be left with an excuse on the day of judgement. We know, however, that he is not without excuse (Romans 1:20).
We should note, however, that God’s judgment isn’t only on the wicked but also on the righteous. In the end, God will judge every deed – and not only those seen but also “every secret thing.” All works done by men will be called to account by God. Our duty is required of us and God will judge whether we have discharged our duty to Him or not. For those in Christ, let us rejoice that it is not on account of our works, but on account of the works of the Son whose righteousness is imputed to us, that we have standing before the Father on the day of judgment.
However, if we do that which is wicked in the sight of God, we have cause to fear his judgment, lest he say to us “I never knew you; depart from me; you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt 7:23, NKJV). Note here that it is those who practice lawlessness – who do not keep his commandments – who are told to depart. His law is the standard by which we will be judged. Our duty toward him, ultimately, is the law he has revealed. The fullness of our duty is not merely in a bare obedience to his commands, however. We are also called to fear Him.
The catechism teaches us that the chief end of men is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. This statement is profoundly biblical and finds utterance in these verses. We are to fear the Lord (have relationship with and enjoy him) and keep his commandments (glorify him through our works). Praise be to Christ that He has given us the Spirit to fulfill our duty.