The Chief End of Man in Ecclesiastes 12:9–14: Fear God *and Enjoy Him Forever?

What is the chief end of man? Not only does this question feature at the start of the Westminster Catechism, it also pierces to the heart of theological anthropology. The frame narrator in Ecclesiastes concludes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). Many interpreters assume, therefore, that fear lies underneath everything in the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole. In a meaningless, frustrating world, look “above the sun” to find meaning by fearing God.

This paper argues that the fear thesis misses half of the frame narrator’s point in Eccl 12:9–14. Using יוֹתֵר constructions in 12:9 and 12:12, the narrator wants to summarize Qohelet’s message with two complementary ideas, both seeking to address the programmatic question of the book: “What gain is to man? (מַה־יִּתְרוֹן לָאָדָם)”. In 12:12–14, the answer is obvious—namely, gain comes not by striving but by turning to God in proper fear and reverence, especially in light of God’s coming judgment. The lesser seen end for man appears in 12:9–11—namely, Qohelet intended his words for the delight of his hearers, though they might be hard to hear at times.

Reading epilogically, then, a close study of the body of Ecclesiastes confirms these two complementary ends of man: fear and delight. First, starting with the seven “enjoyment passages,” each passage either implicitly or explicitly pairs the ideas of fear and delight:

• 2:24–26. Qohelet calls for enjoyment but reminds the sinner of his need to be in right relationship with God.
• 3:12–13. Qohelet calls for enjoyment, especially in view of God’s unchanging, incomprehensible work and humanity’s finitude. (Explicit reference to fear in the context)
• 3:22. Qohelet calls for enjoyment in the midst of all people’s inability to know their own future. (Explicit reference to fear in the context)
• 5:18–20 [5:17–19]. Qohelet calls for enjoyment while discussing the futility of riches, contrary to expectations. This call for enjoyment flows from the extended meditation on the need for fearing God in Eccl 5:1–7 [4:17–5:6].
• 8:15. Qohelet calls for enjoyment in view of wicked people not receiving the judgment expected for their actions (cf. 3:16–22), yet he also affirms the good future fortune of the righteous. (Explicit reference to fear in the context)
• 9:7–10. In view of death, a death in the hands of the God who gives man his days, Qohelet urges his readers to enjoy life.
• 11:9–10. Qohelet calls for the young man to rejoice while simultaneously reminding him to remember the judgment of God. Per Ogden, the combination of smh and zkr serves as the theme of this whole section.

The frame narrator’s twin pairing of fear and delight accurately summarizes the message of Qohelet in the body of the book. Perhaps the Westminster divines should have considered Eccl 12:9–14 for the Scriptural defense of Question #1. Implications abound for theological anthropology, as well as interpreting Ecclesiastes as a whole, especially hebel.

6 thoughts on “The Chief End of Man in Ecclesiastes 12:9–14: Fear God *and Enjoy Him Forever?”

  1. Good fit, Good contribution
    As would be expected for a student studying under DeRouchie, Joshua’s proposed topic incorporates close exegesis as well as theological synthesis. This paper would fit the annual meeting theme, and it would complement Bradley’s topic as well.

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  2. Good Fit, Misleading Title
    Joshua’s proposed paper fits the Wisdom session as well as the annual meeting theme in offering a detailed examination of a central emphasis in the book of Ecclesiastes–the enjoyment of life. However, he seems to suggest that this theme is generally neglected in Qohelet studies, which is not the case, since it is highlighted by those reading the book positively and is not ignored (though evaluated differently) by those reading it negatively. More problematic is his misleading title, since the abstract neither addressed “God” as the object of one’s delight (a claim that Ecclesiastes does not make) nor its “forever” horizon (which certainly is disputed in Qohelet–and even OT–interpretation).

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  3. Good fit, selective treatment
    While the proposal rightly leverages the epilogue’s passing reference to delight and explicit attention to fear as a way of reading Ecclesiastes backwards, the connection between Qoheleth’s delightful words and his call to joy are questionable; and the proposal does not demonstrate an awareness of Qoheleth’s shift from profit to one’s portion.

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  4. Could work, but not my top choice
    The epilogue of Ecclesiastes is crucial to the interpretation of the book, and I like how he seeks to connect it to the content of the book. I am not so sure that his argument is as novel as he seems to think, but I would be interested in hearing how he develops his paper.

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  5. Not original
    There doesn’t seem to be anything original in this paper. Since it fits the conference theme, it might be better in a general session where the biblical material is not as familiar for the broader conversation.

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