Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity … The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl. 12:8, 13)
Ecclesiastes chapter 12 verse 8 contains the old Preacher Qoheleth’s final words which are exactly the same as his first: “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.” (see 1:2, 12:8).
The Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, refers to a “mist,” “vapor,” or “breath;” metaphorically it refers to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It is the Preacher’s repeated metaphor to express the futility of life under the sun, in a fallen world. Throughout his treatise, he has told us of the vanities of: work (1:3, 2:11,18-23), human wisdom (2:15-16), worldly pleasure (2:10-11), power (2:9,4:1), money (5:10-14), growing old, death, the grave, and our final return to dust (12:1-7, 3:20). His goal is to show the meaningless of a life lived apart from God. In the words of Derek Kidner, “nothing in our search has led us home; nothing that we are offered under the sun is ours to keep.”
Certainly apart from God, all is indeed vanity in this life. If there is no God and no final judgment, then in the end, nothing matters because it will all disappear like a vapor. But as important as the word vanity is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it is not the final word, either of this book or of the Christian life. There is an epilogue to Ecclesiastes beginning in verse 9 of chapter 12, which was likely written by a different author. The book’s final words provide an ethical as well as escatological conclusion. The words leave us with our responsibility for this life and the expectation of a coming judgment day, after this life. According to Philip Ryken, “when the Bible says that ‘this is the whole duty of man, ‘ it literally says that ‘this is the whole of man.’ … Ecclesiastes is making a wider point … ‘this is the whole of man’ is to say, ‘this is all there is to man.’ In other words, ‘this is what life is all about.’ … This is more than simply a man’s duty.” According to Charles Bridges, it is “his whole happiness and business – the total sum of all that concerns him – all that God requires of him – all that the Savior enjoins – all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.”
Because there is a God and a final judgment, then everything we do in this life is not vain, but important. God will expose every secret sin (12:14, Num 32:23); He will bring every deed done in darkness into the light (1 Cor 4:5); God will require us to give an account of our time, our effort, and our resources; in fact, we will be required to give an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36). There is nothing that will pass away like a vapor. This is where Ecclesiastes leaves us – not with a promise of grace, but the terrifying expectation of judgment (see Heb 10:26-27). That’s the end of the matter for humanity – as Hebrews 9:27 says, it is appointed to men once to die, and then comes the judgment. We are all sinners and the wages of sin is death. (Rom 6:23).
Ecclesiastes ends here; however, with the full light of the New Testament shining on it, the book does have a gracious purpose in pointing us to the gospel. While the Old Testament leaves us with a curse in light of the law and its ensuing judgment, the New Testament reveals to us the purpose of law and judgment is ultimately to lead us to Christ who can alone save us from the wrath of God. Because the Son of God took on human flesh and dwelled in this vain world, living the perfect life that was man’s failed duty, and taking upon Himself the judgment that our failure incurred, today we can be assured that His victory will save us from the vanity of death and the grave. And for the Christian, that is the end of the matter.