Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #6 Stop, Thief! – Ecclesiastes 5

16 Mar

The magazine cartoon showed a dismal looking man walking out of a bank manager’s office with the manager saying to his secretary, “He suffers from back problems: back taxes, back rent, and back alimony.”

Many people today suffer from similar “back problems.” They refuse to heed the warning Bill Earle gave many years ago: “When your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall.”

The wealthy King Solomon knew something about money. Some of this wisdom he shared in the Book of Proverbs, and some he included here in Ecclesiastes. After all, he couldn’t discuss “life under the sun” and ignore money!

But he goes beyond the subject of mere money and deals with the values of life, the things that really count. After all, there is more than one way to be rich and more than one way to be poor. In this chapter, Solomon issues three warnings that relate to the values of life.

  1. Don’t rob the Lord (ECCL. 5:1-7)

(Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 NIV)  “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. {2} Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. {3} As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. {4} When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. {5} It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. {6} Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? {7} Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.”

Solomon had visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he paid a visit to the temple, that magnificent building whose construction he had supervised. He watched the worshipers come and go, praising God, praying, sacrificing, and making vows. He noted that many of them were not at all sincere in their worship, and they left the sacred precincts in worse spiritual condition than when they had entered. What was their sin? They were robbing God of the reverence and honor that He deserved. Their acts of worship were perfunctory, insincere, and hypocritical.

In today’s language, “Keep thy foot!” means “Watch your step!” Even though God’s glorious presence doesn’t dwell in our church buildings as it did in the temple, believers today still need to heed this warning. The worship of God is the highest ministry of the church and must come from devoted hearts and yielded wills. For God’s people to participate in public worship while harboring unconfessed sin is to ask for God’s rebuke and judgment (Isa. 1:10-20; Amos 5; Ps. 50).

Solomon touched on several aspects of worship, the first of which was the offering of sacrifices (v. 1). God’s people today don’t offer animals to the Lord as in Old Testament times, because Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the sacrifices in His death on the cross (Heb. 10:1-14). But as the priests of God, believers today offer up spiritual sacrifices through Him: our bodies (Rom. 12:1-2); people won to the Saviour (Rom. 15:16); money (Phil. 4:18); praise and good works (Heb. 13:15-16); a broken heart (Ps. 51:17); and our prayers of faith (Ps. 141:1-2).

The important thing is that the worshiper “be more ready to hear,” that is, to obey the Word of God. Sacrifices are not substitutes for obedience, as King Saul found out when he tried to cover up his disobedience with pious promises (1 Sam. 15:12-23). Offerings in the hands without obedient faith in the heart become “the sacrifice of fools,” because only a fool thinks he can deceive God. The fool thinks he is doing good, but he or she is only doing evil. And God knows it.

Then Solomon issued a warning about careless praying (vv. 2-3). Prayer is serious business. Like marriage, “it must not be entered into lightly or carelessly, but soberly and in the fear of God.” If you and I were privileged to bring our needs and requests to the White House or to Buckingham Palace, we would prepare our words carefully and exhibit proper behavior. How much more important it is when we come to the throne of Almighty God. Yet, there is so much flippant praying done by people who seem to know nothing about the fear of the Lord.

When you pray, watch out for both hasty words and too many words (Matt. 6:7). The secret of acceptable praying is a prepared heart (Ps. 141:1-2), because the mouth speaks what the heart contains (Matt. 12:34-37). If we pray only to impress people, we will not get through to God. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, wrote: “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.”

Verse 3 presents an analogy: Just as many dreams show that the person sleeping is a hard worker, so many words show that the person praying is a fool (Prov. 29:20). I recall a church prayer meeting during which a young man prayed eloquently and at great length, but nobody sensed the power of God at work. When an uneducated immigrant stood up and stammered out her brief prayer in broken English, we all said a fervent “Amen!” We sensed that God had heard her requests. Spurgeon said, “It is not the length of our prayers, but the strength of our prayers, that makes the difference.”

Solomon’s third admonition had to do with making vows to the Lord (vv. 4-7). God did not require His people to make vows in order to be accepted by Him, but the opportunity was there for them to express their devotion if they felt led to do so (see Num. 30; Deut. 23:21-23; Acts 18:18).

The Preacher warned about two sins. The first was that of making the vow with no intention of keeping it, in other words, lying to God. The second sin was making the vow but delaying to keep it, hoping you could get out of it. When the priest [“angel” = messenger] came to collect the promised sacrifice or gift, the person would say, “Please forget about my vow! It was a mistake!”

God hears what we say and holds us to our promises, unless they were so foolish that He could only dismiss them. If providence prevents us from fulfilling what we promised, God understands and will release us. If we made our vows only to impress others, or perhaps to “bribe” the Lord (“If God answers my prayer, I will give $500 to missions!”), then we will pay for our careless words. Many times in my pastoral ministry I have heard sick people make promises to God as they asked for healing, only to see those promises forgotten when they recovered.

People make empty vows because they live in a religious “dream world”; they think that words are the same as deeds (v. 7). Their worship is not serious, so their words are not dependable. They enjoy the “good feelings” that come when they make their promises to God, but they do themselves more harm than good. They like to “dream” about fulfilling their vows, but they never get around to doing it. They practice a make-believe religion that neither glorifies God nor builds Christian character.

“I will go into thy house with burnt offerings; I will pay thee my vows, which my lips have uttered, and my mouth hath spoken, when I was in trouble” (Ps. 66:13-14). When we rob the Lord of the worship and honor due to Him, we are also robbing ourselves of the spiritual blessings He bestows on those who “worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

  1. Don’t rob others (ECCL. 5:8-9)

(Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 NIV)  “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. {9} The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.”

Solomon left the temple and went to the city hall where he again witnessed corrupt politicians oppressing the poor (3:16-17; 4:1-3). The government officials violated the law by using their authority to help themselves and not to serve others, a practice condemned by Moses (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 24:17).

The remarkable thing is that Solomon wrote, “Don’t be surprised at this!” He certainly did not approve of their unlawful practices, but he knew too much about the human heart to expect anything different from the complicated bureaucracy in Israel.

The niv translation of verse 8 gives a vivid description of the situation: “One official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.” Instead of the poor man getting a fair hearing, “the matter is lost in red tape and bureaucracy” (v. 8, tlb), and the various officials pocket the money that should have gone to the innocent poor man.

Verse 9 is difficult and major translations do not agree. The general idea seems to be that in spite of corruption in the bureaucracy, it is better to have organized government, and a king over the land, than to have anarchy. A few dishonest people may profit from corrupt practices, but everybody benefits from organized authority. Of course, the ideal is to have a government that is both honest and efficient, but man’s heart being what it is, the temptation to dishonest gain is always there. Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Solomon’s investigation bears this out.

  1. Don’t rob yourself (ECCL. 5:10-20)

(Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 NIV)  “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. {11} As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? {12} The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. {13} I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, {14} or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him. {15} Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. {16} This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? {17} All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. {18} Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. {19} Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God. {20} He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

Solomon had already discussed “the futility of wealth” in 2:1-11, and some of those ideas are repeated here. What he did in this section was demolish several of the myths that people hold about wealth. Because they hold to these illusions, they rob themselves of the blessings God has for them.

Wealth brings satisfaction (v. 10).

Some people treat money as though it were a god. They love it, make sacrifices for it, and think that it can do anything. Their minds are filled with thoughts about it; their lives are controlled by getting it and guarding it; and when they have it, they experience a great sense of security. What faith in the Lord does for the Christian, money does for many unbelievers. How often we hear people say, “Well, money may not be the number one thing in life, but it’s way ahead of whatever is number two!”

The person who loves money cannot be satisfied no matter how much is in the bank account—because the human heart was made to be satisfied only by God (3:11). “Take heed and beware of covetousness,” warned Jesus, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15, nkjv). First the person loves money, and then he loves more money, and the disappointing pursuit has begun that can lead to all sorts of problems. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10, nkjv).

Money solves every problem (v. 11).

There is no escaping the fact that we need a certain amount of money in order to live in this world, but money of itself is not the magic “cure-all” for every problem. In fact, an increase in wealth usually creates new problems that we never even knew existed before. Solomon mentioned one: relatives and friends start showing up and enjoying our hospitality. All we can do is watch them eat up our wealth. Or perhaps it is the tax agent who visits us and decides that we owe the government more money.

John Wesley, cofounder of the Methodist Church, told his people, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wesley himself could have been a very wealthy man, but he chose to live simply and give generously.

Wealth brings peace of mind (v. 12).

The late Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion, used to say, “I don’t like money actually, but it quiets my nerves.” But Solomon said that possessing wealth is no guarantee that your nerves will be calm and your sleep sound. According to him, the common laborer sleeps better than the rich man. The suggestion seems to be that the rich man ate too much and was kept awake all night by an upset stomach. But surely Solomon had something greater in mind than that. The Living Bible expresses verse 12 perfectly: “The man who works hard sleeps well whether he eats little or much, but the rich must worry and suffer insomnia.”

More than one preacher has mentioned John D. Rockefeller in his sermons as an example of a man whose life was almost ruined by wealth. At the age of fifty-three, Rockefeller was the world’s only billionaire, earning about a million dollars a week. But he was a sick man who lived on crackers and milk and could not sleep because of worry. When he started giving his money away, his health changed radically and he lived to celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday!

Yes, it’s good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy.

Wealth provides security (vv. 13-17).

The picture here is of two rich men. One hoarded all his wealth and ruined himself by becoming a miser. The other man made some unsound investments and lost his wealth. He was right back where he started from and had no estate to leave to his son. He spent the rest of his days in the darkness of discouragement and defeat, and he did not enjoy life. Like all of us, he brought nothing into the world at birth, and he took nothing out of the world at death (see Job 1:21; Ps. 49:17; 1 Tim. 6:7).

This account makes us think of our Lord’s parable about the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). The man thought all his problems were solved when he became rich, but immediately he was faced with providing bigger barns for his wealth. He thought he was safe and secure for years to come, but that night he died! His money provided no security whatsoever.

Keep in mind that Solomon was advocating neither poverty nor riches, because both have their problems (Prov. 30:7-9).

The Preacher was warning his listeners against the love of money and the delusions that wealth can bring. In the closing verses of the chapter (vv. 18-20), he affirmed once again the importance of accepting our station in life and enjoying the blessings that God gives to us.

The thing that is “good and fitting” (v. 18, nkjv) is to labor faithfully, enjoy the good things of life, and accept it all as the gracious gift of God. Solomon gave us this wise counsel before in 2:24, 3:12-13, and 3:22, and he will repeat it at least three more times before he ends his “sermon.”

There are three ways to get wealth: we can work for it, we can steal it, or we can receive it as a gift (see Eph. 4:28). Solomon saw the blessings of life as God’s gift to those who work and who accept that work as the favor of God. “To enjoy your work and to accept your lot in life—that is indeed a gift from God” (v. 19, tlb).

Solomon added another important thought: the ability to enjoy life’s blessings is also a gift from God. Solomon will expand on this thought in the next chapter and point out the unhappiness of people who possess wealth but are not able to enjoy it. We thank God for food, but we should also thank Him for healthy taste buds and a digestive system that functions correctly. A wealthy friend, now in heaven, often took me and my wife to expensive restaurants, but he was unable to enjoy the food because he couldn’t taste it. All of his wealth could not purchase healing for his taste buds.

Verse 20 may mean that the person who rejoices in God’s daily blessings will never have regrets. “The person who does that will not need to look back with sorrow on his past, for God gives him joy” (tlb). The time to start storing up happy memories is now. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

It may also mean that the believer who gratefully accepts God’s gifts today will not fret and worry about how long he or she will live. It is an established fact that the people who have the most birthdays live the longest, but if they keep complaining about “getting old” they will have very little to enjoy. People who are thankful to God “will not dwell overmuch upon the passing years,” as the New English Bible translates verse 20. They will take each day as it comes and use it to serve the Lord.

In chapter 6, Solomon will conclude his discussion of “the futility of wealth.” He might well have chosen Matthew 6:33 as the text for his message, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (nkjv). The important thing is that we love the Lord, accept the lot He assigns us, and enjoy the blessings He graciously bestows.

If we focus more on the gifts than on the Giver, we are guilty of idolatry. If we accept His gifts, but complain about them, we are guilty of ingratitude. If we hoard His gifts and will not share them with others, we are guilty of indulgence. But if we yield to His will and use what He gives us for His glory, then we can enjoy life and be satisfied.

Whenever I go to the airport to pick someone up, I park outside of the arrival terminal. My goal is always the same: to avoid paying to park my car. So I wait as long as I can near the curb of the airline pickup area. While waiting I will often hear a recording over the loudspeaker, “The white zone is for loading and unloading only. No parking.” Now, mind you, I am waiting to load up; however, if my passengers are delayed and I am waiting at the curb too long, a police officer usually approaches my car and asks me to move on. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I oblige him. However, I must confess that I have been known to make the loop at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and begin this vicious cycle all over again.

Can I be honest? I wish there were some way to announce over a loudspeaker system outside every church, “The worship zone is for learning, listening, and changing only. No parking! Be alert! Listen carefully. Truth will be deposited in your head that is designed to change your life.” But chances are good that even if a loudspeaker made such an announcement, the same thing would occur—folks would still “park” and turn a deaf ear to the recording and give pastoral police officers the runaround.157

In Eccl 5:1-9, Solomon pens some convicting words.158 He is going to sober us up. He may even make us feel badly. Now, I hope that you don’t come to church to be made to feel happy. The Bible isn’t a book about happiness; it is a book about holiness. This means sometimes the Bible will say things that you and I don’t like. Yet, if our goal is to become progressively holy, we will welcome the hard words of Scripture. For hard words make soft people and soft words make hard people.159 In these nine verses, Solomon shares two prohibitions that will enable us to exercise holiness and worship the right God in the right way. He wants us to see that God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

1. Don’t be rash with your words (5:1-3).

In these first three verses, Solomon challenges his readers to prepare their hearts, minds, and mouths for worship. The idea is: before we worship, we must check our mental attitude and motive. In 5:1 Solomon writes, “Guard your steps160 as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.” This verse is rather meaty because it encapsulates two important issues: our preparation for worship and our participation in worship. The first emphasis is upon our preparation for worship. Since Solomon built the Old Testament temple, he was an expert on how to approach God. It took him seven years and 153,000 men to build the temple, so he knows a thing or two.161 In 5:1, Solomon’s first words are a command to “guard your steps.”162 This is a common expression in our culture. When you exit a bus, the bus driver will say, “Please watch your step.” When you are getting off a plan, a flight attendant will generally stand at the cockpit door and tell you, “Thank you for flying with us and please watch your step.” When someone tells you to watch your step they are warning you of a potential danger just ahead that you had better pay very close attention to. When you were growing up, was there ever a time when you became angry and spoke rash and disrespectful words to your parents? What was their response? If your parents were like my parents, you probably heard these words: “Watch your step, young man (or young woman).”163

Solomon warns you to “guard your step as you go to the house of God.” This seems out of the ordinary to our modern culture. We have warnings about sin, temptation, and unbelief, but a warning about how to worship seems unusual to our ears. Our problem is that we do not take worship seriously enough. We tend to think that as long as we are worshiping the Lord, it does not really matter how we worship. But the Scriptures teach otherwise. So sacred was God’s house that the Lord said to Moses in Lev 15:31: “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.” God at times actually took the lives of those who failed to come to His house in the right way, as a warning to the whole nation that they were dealing with a holy God.

My mom spent the first twenty years of her life in the Roman Catholic Church. When she became a Christian at twenty and began attending an evangelical church, she marveled at how lax evangelicals seemed to be in the church worship service. My mom saw people eating and drinking in church. She noticed people talking during the worship service, coming in late, and going in and out during worship. Initially, my mom didn’t know what to think. It seemed so irreverent. It took her years to understand the evangelical culture. So which worship culture is correct—the formal Catholic or Orthodox Church or the informal Protestant church? The answer is both can be right! Now please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. I recognize that in the church age there is nothing hallowed about a building. The Bible tells us that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit.164 However, when the church gathers for the purpose of worship, there ought to be a sense of God’s holiness and abiding presence.

This past week, Lori and I discussed with our children why it can be a good idea to fold our hands and close our eyes when we pray. The principle is to show respect for God and be free from distraction. We can’t put away some of the distractions that are in front of us so it can be helpful to close our eyes in prayer and in worship. Likewise, God wants us to enter into worship prepared and focused. Men are good at preparing. They’ll stay up late Friday night getting ready for Saturday’s fishing trip. They’ll spend hours organizing a basement workshop before beginning a project. They’ll devote a week preparing for a tailgate party at the football stadium. And they’ll study catalogs all summer looking for the perfect fall hunting jacket. The men of the Old Testament were charged by God with certain preparations as well—preparations for worship. At the first Passover, men were to select a perfect lamb, slaughter it, put its blood on the doorpost, roast the meat, and make sure the house was cleansed of leaven. Do men—or women—spend as much time preparing for worship today?165 What kinds of preparation should be made? Go to bed early and wake up early. Meditate on Scripture. Pray with your kids before church. Teach them the importance of service. Talk about the Lord on your way to the church. This Saturday, try to keep Sunday in mind. Try to give it the kind of preparation that will make it a day to remember. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

The famous researcher, George Barna, recently said, “Having devoted more than two decades of my life and all of my professional skills to studying and working with ministries of all types, I am now convinced that the greatest hope for the local church lies in raising godly children.”166 Barna is exactly right! If the family breaks down, the core of society is demolished. It has been said again and again that the church is one generation from extinction. Therefore, it is imperative that we train our children how to worship God and love and serve the church.

5:1b alludes to participation in worship. Solomon says, “Draw near to listen…” Solomon has just indicted “Back Row Baptists.” It is so interesting to me that some Christians have to get to church early to make sure that they get that back row or near that back row. Instead of the front rows filling up first and moving backward, we start in the back and move forward. It is like we want to get in the church building but just barely in it. Solomon says draw near to listen. It is not draw near to sing louder. It is not draw near so that you can pray longer. It is not draw near so you can be closer to your friends so you can talk throughout the service together. No, it is draw near so that you can listen.

The “sacrifice of fools” refers to speaking foolishly.167 Solomon warns us of hearing too little and talking too much. The word “listen” carries double force: “listening with the intention of obeying.” God wants us to hear from Him. He seeks an open heart and a closed mouth. Thus, if you have walked out of church not hearing from God then you have not worshiped. You have attended church but you have not worshiped. You can check off your obligation card “I did it” but you did not worship. Worship can only occur when you hear from God. Today, will you make every effort to hear from God? Will you open up your heart and close your mouth?

Now that we’ve walked the walk, we have to talk the talk. We must talk cautiously to the Lord as well as walk cautiously before Him.168 In 5:2 Solomon writes, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.” When I was growing up, my parents would say, “Watch your tone of voice!” They wanted to remind me that they were in authority over me and I needed to respect them. Likewise, God is saying, “Believer, you need to remember who your Father is.” It is unwise to hastily and impulsively give God a piece of your mind. First of all, you will be giving God a piece of your mind that you can ill afford to lose. Second, Solomon declares that “God is in heaven and you are on the earth.” Many people assume Solomon is saying that God is way up there in heaven and we are way down here on earth, so we’d better listen well. In actuality, this is a statement of perspective, not distance. God is in the realm of the infinite. He alone hears the inaudible. He alone sees the invisible. That’s the reason we are to be calm and quiet.169 What a putdown; what a blow to our egos! In five simple words—“you are on the earth”—the author shoots down any chance for us to think “more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think” (Rom 12:3). What we consider to be great (i.e., “the earth”) Solomon and God conceive as being not merely small, but insignificant (in comparison to heaven). We are merely on earth—an average-sized planet in our relatively small solar system, but a planet that few humans have circumnavigated and even fewer have been able to leave for brief ventures into (near, not deep) space.170

Solomon wants you and me to understand that God is not your “buddy next door,” He’s not the “big man upstairs.” He’s the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is full of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Yes, He’s also a faithful friend and a caring Father, but He’s always more than that too. He expects us to take Him seriously as the chief authority in our lives.

Since we can’t understand everything, we should be careful about what we say to God. Do you know why? In 5:3 Solomon writes, “For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.” Just as hard work produces sleep and dreams, so a fool produces many words and much pontificating. In contrast, Solomon says that men of effort are known for their dreams. They work hard and they are silent. Can you say to God that you are mixed up and need some answers? Certainly. God wants us to be honest with Him. But He also wants us to be careful how we approach Him. You have to watch your tone of voice. We may ask why but not with anger or disrespect. There can be no accusations as though God were not in control or bitterness as though we sit in judgment over Him.171 God is free to do what He wants, whenever He wants. Remember, He is God. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

[Why should you not be rash with your words? Because God is God and you are not. Solomon now shares a second prohibition.]

2. Don’t be foolish with your words (5:4-9).

Solomon warns us against foolish speech and making foolish commitments. In 5:4 he writes, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Solomon says that if you make a vow to God, then you’d better do what you said you would do. He begins with the assumption that at some point or another most people will make a vow to God (“when you…”). Yet, he follows up this assumption with a prohibition: “do not be late in paying it.” He then concludes 5:4 with a short, direct command: “Pay what you vow!” This short sentence is literally translated, “WHAT YOU VOWED, pay [it]!” The emphasis is upon the vow. Solomon, in essence, labels the person “a fool” who fails to pay his vow on time.172 Think about this. People make vows all the time. People are baptized. People become members of a church. Parents dedicate their children. Spouses commit their lives to one another. People make commitments to read God’s Word and to maintain their purity. Yet, all of us have broken vows that we have made before God and others. Maybe you have even said, “God, if you get me out of this mess I promise that I am going to stop this or start that or serve you with my life. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God remembers these vows and holds us to them.

Therefore, Solomon’s suggestion in 5:5-6 is, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” Solomon says, “It would be better for us to keep quiet and not utter anything rash or foolish.” This is why I challenge people who are contemplating marriage and church membership. I want to make sure they understand what they are committing to. Please listen carefully: I believe that there are many Christians today who are experiencing God’s judgment in their lives because of their refusal to follow through with their commitments to Him. That judgment may not come in the form of physical ailments and death, though it certainly can.173 It may instead come by means of God destroying the work of our hands. That is, God may take our goals and aspirations and efforts to succeed and just turn those things into dust. Or He may allow us to prosper but make us miserable in our prosperity.174

In 5:7 Solomon writes, “For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.”175Solomon returns to the idea of dreams. His conclusion is that dreams and words can be nothing but emptiness—hebel. Thus, he tells us to fear God. To fear God is to stand in awe of Him. It is not to quake into oblivion or to become comatose. It is to acknowledge His worth. It is to respond to Him with obedience and gratitude. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

Solomon closes out this section in 5:8-9 with an exhortation for us to watch what we think in reference to humans. “If you see oppression of the poor and denial176 of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” These are peculiar verses that don’t seem to fit in this chapter. Yet, it seems best to place these verses with 5:1-7 instead of with 5:10-20. What, if any, connections are there between the two sets of verses? In what way(s) are we to compare our relationship to earthly rulers with how we are to act in the presence of God? It seems that Solomon is suggesting that we would not be so foolish as to chatter boldly before imperfect but powerful government leaders about problems we encounter. If not, then why do we chatter incessantly before the all-powerful God?177 He is sovereign and is in complete control.

While we search for excellence in many areas of living, let us not forget to pursue it also in our worship by paying attention, paying our vows, and paying respect. It might be easy to conclude from this message that a Christian should pray silent and short prayers, should never make public commitments, and should cower in absolute fear of God. But to come to that conclusion would be to miss the whole point. Rather, what we should do is to be sincere when we speak, to think through our commitments before we make them, and to never lose our reverence and awe for God.

158 This passage seems to be an interlude in the book of Ecclesiastes. So far in the book, Solomon has been focused on the horizontal, but now he focuses in on the vertical. This chapter presents something of an interlude. Up to this point, Solomon has been merely giving his observations. But now he gives a series of exhortations. So far, he has only showed us the way the world IS. Now he tells us what we are to DO on the basis of how the world is. (1) Before worship (5:1a); (2) during worship (5:1b-3); and (3) after worship (5:4-9).

159 I first heard this quote from Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Ballard, WA.

160 The commands of Eccl 5:1 and that of 5:7 together form an inclusio around this section, emphasizing the point that God is God and we are not. Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

161 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.

162 This is an idiom for “be careful what you do.” The NET Study Notes write, “This is a compound figure: ‘foot’ is a metonymy for ‘step,’ and ‘step’ is a metonymy for ‘action’ (e.g., Job 12:5; 23:11; 31:5; Pss 119:59, 101, 105; Prov 1:16; 3:23; 4:26-27; 6:18; 19:2; Isa 58:13; 59:7; Jer 14:10).

163 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 108.

164 See Paul’s words in 1 Cor 6:19: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Cf. 1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16 where Paul speaks of the local church as God’s temple.

165 David Jeremiah, “Turning Point,” 1/18/2008.

166 David Jeremiah, “They Walked with Him: The Little Children,” Today’s Turning Point 2/9-10/2008.

167 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 74. See Hos 14:2; Heb 13:15.

168 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 109.

169 Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 152-153.

170 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

171 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 74-75.

172 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes. The content of 5:4 (Heb. 5:3) is similar in meaning and intent to that of Num 30:2 and Deut 23:21, as the following chart reveals:

Eccl. 5:4 (NASB) “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Num. 30:2 (NASB) “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Deut. 23:21 (NASB) “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you.”

173 See the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:27-34).

174 See also Michael P. Andrus, “In Search of Excellence in Worship” (Eccl 5:1-7): unpublished sermon notes.

175 The phrase “fear God” also occurs in Eccl 3:14; 7:18; 8:12, 13; and 12:13.

176 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, writes, “The word translated by the NASB here as ‘denial’ (gazel) is consistently translated by the NASB as ‘robbery’ (or the like) in each of the five other occurrences of this noun in Scripture (Lev 6:2; Isa 61:8; Ezek. 18:18; Ezek 22:29; Ps 62:1). The verb form of this noun (gazel) is variously translated as ‘to seize,’ ‘to take by force,’ ‘to tear away,’ and ‘to rob.’ Thus, the word here translated as ‘denial’ should be understood to convey a sense of forcefulness with it. In other words, by using this noun, the author graphically portrays a situation in which “justice and righteousness” have been ripped away from people against their will.

177 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

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Posted by on March 16, 2021 in Ecclesiastes


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