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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Ecclesiastes 5

Verse 1

Draw Near to God to Listen


Up to and including the verse of the last chapter it is about types of fellowship between people, or the absence of such fellowship. From Ecc 5:1 of this chapter, our focus is on the need for a larger and better type of fellowship: the fellowship with God. The Preacher does not say that searching for that is ‘vanity’ and ‘striving after wind’. He does say that it should happen in the right way, in the knowledge of Who God is and who man is in comparison to Him. It is about drawing near to God appropriately (cf. Exo 3:5; Jos 5:13-15; Jn 4:23-24).

He who draws near to God in His house must guard his steps (Ecc 5:1). Of course such a man should guard his heart, but the condition of the heart becomes visible in the path which those steps go (cf. Pro 1:15; Pro 4:26-27). He who goes to God’s house must be aware that he is not approaching an ordinary house. The house of God is at every place where God reveals Himself (Gen 28:17; 22), but it is certainly also the temple, which will be meant here.

The Preacher is focused on the man who is a worshiper. Up to now he has addressed his audience in the first person “I”, from his position as an observer. In the following section he gives exhortations. Just like the prophets he is calling to genuine service of God. He addresses people who have good intentions, but who are guilty of ignorance about God. These are the people who love singing and love to go to church, but who listen with half an ear and hardly ever get around to do what they have intended to do for God.

You’d better come “to listen”, than “to offer a sacrifice” – only for the appearance, without being involved with your heart – as a fool or in a foolish way. ‘To listen’ has the dual meaning of ‘to pay careful attention to’ and ‘to obey’. Those aspects are both more important to God than any sacrifice (1Sam 15:22; Pro 21:3).

The sacrifice is a sacrificial animal that has been killed to sacrifice to God and thereafter to serve as a fellowship meal. That is a peace offering. A sacrifice can devalue to a food feast, where people do not consider God at all. The Preacher might possibly have had this in mind when he made this remark. He does not mean that people should not bring sacrifices anymore, but that it should happen appropriately.

The grace of God, no matter how great it may be, should never be an excuse to make a mockery of Him. People do not take God seriously if they think that they can draw near to Him with pious, though empty words and added to that even dealing with holy things in a careless way (cf. Mt 7:21-23; Mt 23:16-18; 1Kgs 11:27-29). They have no idea that they are doing evil, and quit playing innocent when it is pointed out to them, the hypocrisy of their attitude. However, there is no innocent ignorance, but they are guilty of dishonoring God. They should have known better.

Verses 2-3

Speak Carefully in the Presence of God


James says in his letter in a general sense: “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak” (Jam 1:19). What generally applies to us men in our dealings with each other, applies in a particular extent to our dealings with God about what we say to Him (Ecc 5:2). Hastiness of spirit is always wrong, but especially in prayer. In this context, this is most probably a hasty, ill-considered making of a vow. Words that are spoken thoughtlessly reflect the inner life, because the mouth speaks from the heart. Just as it is not a matter of outward offering services, so it is not a matter of many words in our prayers.

There is nothing against long prayers. The Lord Jesus also prayed all night long once (Lk 6:12). It is said to us that we ought to pray continually (Lk 18:1; 1Thes 5:17). But God is against long prayers that are prayed for the appearance of religiosity as the Pharisees do (Mk 12:40) and against the use of many words as the Gentiles do (Mt 6:7-8).

We need to realize Who and where God is and who and where we are. God is in heaven, the place of His glory and His government. The contrasts are: God and man, and heaven and earth. God has an overview and control over everything; compared to that, man does not know anything at all. In that light it is purely arrogant to manipulate God by making great vows and promise to fulfill if He gives us what we desire.

Our impatience is in contrast to His greatness. The insignificance of man in contrast to the greatness of God should make a man to be a beggar and warn him not be wanting to be as God. Wanting to be equal to God is the origin of sin.

Ecc 5:3 corresponds to the previously mentioned, which we derive from the word, “for”. It clarifies that there is cause and effect in our approaching to God. Impatience in prayer is caused by a multitude of activities. Heavy responsibilities in daily life can disturb our concentration in prayer and lead to impatience in prayer. The fool will therefore express a torrent of words, without it having any effect.

Prayer demands rest and confidence, even though the reason to pray is still so urgent. The first gathering of the church for praying gives a nice example (Acts 4:24-31). We read that the church draws near to God to worship Him. Then the Scripture is cited and then the supplication comes, followed by the answer.

The multitude of words that the fool uses in God’s presence, is the talk that can be compared to a dream that comes from a lot of activity. The talk of a fool is just as unreal as a dream. An excess of words must lead to foolishness, just as an excess of activity leads to wild dreams.

It is something that any human being can fall into. Just as one can dream at night because of too many activities during the day, so one because he talks too much can start to speak a lot of nonsense. Anyone who is too busy, will have nightmares, anyone who uses too many words is a foolish chatter and chatterbox.

Verses 4-7

Pay What You Vow and Fear God


In the previous verses it is about the general service to God. In this portion it is about a special exercise: making a vow. It is not a warning against making a vow, but against making a vow and not paying it (Ecc 5:4; Num 30:2). Only a fool does such a thing. Hannah made a vow and did pay it (1Sam 1:11; 26-28; Psa 76:11). It is also important to pay the vow directly and not to postpone the paying of it. Paying the vow directly is the best evidence of the sincerity of the vowed you made.

People often make vows to God when He rescues them from problems (Gen 28:20-22). They say that they will serve God if He helps them. But if there is no living relationship with Him, they forget their vow as soon as they get the answer to their prayer.

Making a vow was not obligatory, but voluntarily (Ecc 5:5; Deu 23:21-23). You’d better be reluctant to make a vow than to pay it. Those who fear God, will:
1. not make a vow to God quickly;
2. be serious about paying the vow when they have made it;
3. confess broken vows as sins and will repent of it.

It is continually about vows that are in agreement with God’s Word. Herod should have gone back on his promise and should have broken it (Mt 14:6-9). He should have confessed that he had grossly overestimated himself in making such a promise, and had to go back on it before God. However, since he lived before people, he did not want to lose his face in front of them and carried out his ungodly promise.

No one should hold on to a vow that is connected to sin. Someone cannot be obliged to keep it by others, people or the devil himself. Such a vow must be broken under confession and in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The Preacher commands us not to allow our mouth to say anything that would lead us to sin (Ecc 5:6). Our words touch our whole being, they pull our whole being in the direction of our speech. Whatever comes out of our mouths brings us closer to God or takes us further away from Him.

“The messenger” is the representative of God. This may be the priest in whose presence the vow was made (Lev 5:4-5; Mal 2:7). It may be the messenger who is sent by the priest to someone to remind him of his vow.

God takes the failing of paying a vow very seriously. He becomes “angry” when we promise something with our mouths, when we say we will do something, and we do not do it. To despise a vow means to despise Him, before Whose face the vow is made. In this context one of the proverbs the Preacher has stated earlier is suitable: “It is a trap for a man to say rashly, “It is holy!” and after the vows to make inquiry”(Pro 20:25).

If we do not pay a vow, God cannot ignore it with impunity. We will experience His judgment because He will destroy the work of our hands. We should have payed our vows first, but we started to work for ourselves. That work is done in disobedience. That is why He is ruining it.

Vows were often made with a view to success in the work. An example of this is the field of which, by making a vow, one hopes to make much profit. If the vow is not kept, the offenders will be punished in that very place, and the blessing they wanted will be turned into a curse, with the result that there will be no profit at all.

The lightly pronounced vows of Ecc 5:6 are no more than a word game, a daydream (Ecc 5:7). Man tends to carry his illusion when he promises or worships, without being aware that he is in the presence of the Most Holy. It is as if he lives in the land of dreams, without a sense of reality. Man can only escape such a situation by fearing God. This means that he is aware of living in the presence of God, and shows this by acknowledging and honoring Him. Then he will pay attention to his words and will not make lighthearted vows that he does not intend to pay anyway.

He who fears God has nothing and no one else to fear. He can say to Satan: “Because I fear God, I do not need to fear you.’ Such a man will keep his promise: “He swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psa 15:4b).

Verses 8-9

Oppression Should Not Shock Us


The Preacher does not follow a certain pattern in this book, a clear progress of a subject. He gives his observations without paying attention to a possible connection between the subjects. It may be that he just goes from one subject to another. We can see that here too. He leaves the subject of drawing near to God and, from Ecc 5:8 to Ecclesiastes 6:12, points to situations around the theme of poverty and wealth, with the main idea being: the more wealth, the more corruption. The underlying idea seems to be that wealth is often obtained through corruption or oppression. The denial of justice and righteousness points to a crooked judicial system.

In Ecc 5:8, he points to the ancient playing pass-the-parcel system, floating on jealousy, in which always the next higher official is held responsible for. That goes on up to the highest and untouchable leader, who too rejects all responsibility himself. Anyone who has power over someone else is thus shirking his own responsibility. Bureaucracy and civil service send citizens from pillar to post, with endless delays and excuses and without getting what they are entitled to. The culture of self-enrichment is gaining more and more supporters. Everyone’s just filling his own pockets.

The Preacher does not speak about a village or a city, but about “a province”, with which a greater part of the country is meant (cf. Ezra 5:8). Oppression takes place under almost all governments and on all levels of management. It happens especially by local governments in the provinces that are far from the center of the government.

The Preacher does not call for a revolution to put an end to that culture. Soberly he says that we should not be shocked by it. It is embedded in the system and it is ineradicable.

In many countries there is oppression and injustice. This is because a selfish higher official is exploited and guided by an equally selfish and higher official, who in turn is placed under a higher official, etcetera. Because every higher official exploits the subordinate placed directly under him, the latter will do the same to those who are subordinate to him. The people suffer from this pattern of misrule.

Ecc 5:9 seems to be a counterpart of Ecc 5:8. With all bureaucracy it is an advantage when there is a stable point of authority: a king who has an eye for agriculture (2Chr 26:10). Among the inhabitants of a land there is a distinction in social status, but everyone is dependent on “the cultivation of the land”. Even “a king”, the highest authority, who is placed at the top of the people, has an advantage of the cultivation of the field. If the land is well cultivated and there is a fair distribution, the land will yield enough for everyone.

The king also is dependent on what the field yields for his family’s livelihood. The king that rules well, protects the farmer by a proper law enforcement. He realizes that he is dependent on the farmer for his livelihood. The king is a servant of the field. Such a king, instead of being the higher official oppressing those under him and enriching himself at their expense, will rule in justice and allow everyone to share in the proceeds of the field.

What a blessing it is when a king, the highest authority, seeks the well-being of the land. He is not an exploiter, he does not seek by war to enlarge his territory, but is someone who makes his territory available for arable farming, so that everyone can enjoy the proceeds.

We may think of the Lord Jesus in the light of the New Testament. He is the King Who seeks the well-being of His land, His kingdom, and all His subordinates.

Verses 10-17

Money Is Vanity and Causes Problems


If a man sticks to his money with his heart, his thirst for money cannot be quenched (Ecc 5:10). For such a person, money is his idol, the mammon (Mt 6:24). Money is a good slave, but a bad master. Whoever has the money as his master, is hunted by his desire for always more. His love for money controls and destroys him (1Tim 6:9). The same goes for loving abundance. He who sticks to abundance with his heart, always wants to have more income. He wants an increasing bank balance, an increasing harvest by having more lands.

Solomon points to the vanity of money and income. He is going to explain the vanity, the emptiness of money and income in the following verses. The Lord Jesus lifts this subject to a higher level when He says to a man who is risking to lose his inheritance: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Lk 12:15).

He who has a lot of goods, has a lot of friends (Ecc 5:11) or as Solomon already said in Proverbs: “Those who love the rich are many” (Pro 14:20). The more wealth, the more profiteers. Also all kinds of charitable organizations know how to find you and always appeal to your possessions. You have to deal with a lot of nagging of people.

You also have to leave the control of your goods to others. You cannot possibly control that all by yourself. But are you well aware that those whom you’ve entrusted your possessions to, may clean you out? They control your possessions in such a way that you yourself cannot get a hold of it and they profit from it. You look at it, but in fact you’ve lost the enjoyment of it. The only profit you have is the thought that it is your property.

Money makes clear that money does not satisfy. It draws people who want to profit from your wealth and take an advantage from it, which causes the peacefulness in your life to be disrupted seriously. Poverty may cause problems, but do not think that the love for money is a good solution for those problems.

Just look at “the working man”, the hard worker, with a simple profession, a low income with no possession (Ecc 5:11). This man does not have any of those problems. He who is without possessions, is without worries, in any case no worries about his properties and therefore also no people who are whining his head off in order to get some of his abundance. He is not worrying about whether he has little or much to eat, for he always has enough. At the end of the day he falls asleep. And his “sleep … is pleasant”. He has no nightmares; there is also nothing he is fretting and tossing about.

That is quite different from the effect that “the abundance” or multitude of goods has on the rich man. A rich man has a lot to eat and does so too. He stuffs himself so much that it makes him nauseous and cannot sleep. Excess harms. Another thought is that he is worried about how to maintain and increase his abundance. He is controlled by it (Ecc 5:10) and frets over it, with the result it “does not allow him to sleep”. The more riches, the less night’s rest. A lot of worries, little sleep. The big bed with the best mattress does not give him the ‘pleasant sleep’ the working man has who is lying down on the sack of straw.

One does not need money to be happy. Just look at the working man. He eats his bread by the sweat of his face. Working hard also ensures a good digestion. He who only organizes dinners in order to get large orders, gets fatter and fatter and more and more restless. The fitness clubs love to welcome such people. One of the reasons of the existence of those clubs is that people become too fat by too much and wrong eating. It is an example of symptom treatment. The life style is not changed, but the results of the wrong life style is being treated. It is trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.

The following story may serve as an illustration:
A rich industrialist met a simple fisherman. The rich man was bothered by the fact that on a sunny afternoon the fisherman leaned backwards in his boat, while his feet were dangling overboard. ‘Why aren’t you fishing?’ he asked. Because I have caught enough fish for today,’ replied the fisherman. ‘Why do not you go catch more fish?’ asked the rich man. ‘What should I do with it?’ ‘You could make more money’, said the rich man, who was becoming more impatient, ‘and buy a better boat, so that you can go deeper fishing and catch more fish. You can buy nylon nets and catch even more fish and make even more money. Then you can buy more boats and hire others to help you fish. You would soon have a fleet of boats and be as rich as I am!’ ‘And then what would I do?’ ‘You could sit down and enjoy life,’ the industrialist said. ‘What do you think I’m doing now?’ replied the fisherman and looked out over the sea.

There are more disadvantages connected to riches than just insomnia by exuberance or worries. One of them is that the hoarding of riches is for the owners “to their hurt” (Ecc 5:13). The Preacher calls it “a grievous evil”. It is an evil that makes one sick, and it is also an evil that comes upon the owner. It makes you sick from the sickness that riches cause.

The owner of riches becomes sick when he eats too much of his riches and gets stomach ache with the result that he cannot sleep (Ecc 5:12). But it could also be the other way around, which is that the wealth eats him up. He gets sick with the idea that he could lose his riches just like that, for example by theft, a wrong speculation or a thoughtless investment. He protects his riches anxiously, while he realizes that he has no absolute guarantee that his safety locks, alarm systems, cameras and hired security guards, rule out theft.

Paul states the same warning and deepens it because he connects riches with faith: “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1Tim 6:9-10).

In Ecc 5:14-17 it is about cases of a rich man, who lost his riches. That happened “through a bad investment” (Ecc 5:14), whether by others against him or by himself. Others might have robbed him. He may also try to cheat others in order to enrich himself and therefore got financially wrecked for example by theft or fraud or a sudden change of circumstances. In this way riches may get wings and just disappear. You are a mere spectator and can do nothing about it or get anything back. This verse contains a lot of frustration. It is about a man who has worked long and hard, and has lost everything in one go. He and his family are destitute.

An extra frustration is that he cannot leave his son anything. During his life, his riches has not done him any good. He has not been able to enjoy it, he has lost everything, and he cannot give anything to the son he has fathered. It delivers him a triple frustration.

This evil cannot happen to us with regard to the treasures that we have gathered in heaven. Evil practices cannot rob us from them. There is no thief that can get there (Mt 6:19-20). Therefore it is a good thing to invest in the heavenly things.

Apart from the loss of riches and health and getting a disease and frustration, one cannot take anything with him at the end of the journey, either. What a foolishness it is to work for riches, the striving for it and trying to pocket as much of it as possible. Every man leaves the world as he came into it: naked (Ecc 5:15). Even if he had his coffin made of gold and his hands filled with money when he is in the coffin, it would not do him any good. He is lying dead and stiff in his coffin and there is nothing left “that he can carry in his hand”.

This awareness must put a stop to a man’s pursuit for wealth. What a man had in his hand at birth was the capital he brought into the world: nothing. In the same way he leaves the world again (Job 1:21; Psa 49:16-17; 1Tim 6:7). It is as the saying says: There are no pockets in a shroud. We cannot take anything to heaven. However, we can send our treasures forward by giving away as much as possible for what promotes God’s work on earth.

If the thought pervades that a person will “return as he has come”, i.e. with nothing in his hand, it is “also a grievous evil” (Ecc 5:16). He has to grudgingly accept that this is reality, but he does not get around to it to agree that all the riches a person possesses under the sun, will end up being nothing at all. He must be aware that making an effort to become rich is equal to toiling for wind that cannot be held either. It takes more than that to agree that it is so and that is the understanding that any increase in money and goods during life will not bring anyone anything for eternity.

Ecc 5:17 strengthens the conclusion of Ecc 5:16 by recalling all the efforts and hardships that man has made to acquire his possessions, which he has now lost again. Concentrating on his wealth – both on its growth and its loss – has led him to a sad, shady life, “in darkness,” without any prospect of joy. He can sit in full daylight and yet in darkness because his heart is darkness. He has not been able to enjoy the full light.

Physically, he didn’t do well either. His mind and heart have been torn apart by his wealth. He was also upset about the lack of results or losses on the stock market, about the sometimes low return on his money. What annoyance he felt when he saw his wealth evaporate.

Verses 18-20

Enjoying the Good Things Is a Gift From God


After the sketch of the bitterness of life it is the right time for the Preacher to recall the remedy (Ecc 5:18). In the previous verses God is not mentioned. He now points out an aspect of life that should not be forgotten, an aspect which he introduces with a call “here is what I have seen”. There is actually a different life, just as exterior, real and perceptible. The Preacher has “seen” that it is possible for one “to enjoy” in all one’s labor, not at the absence of it. That is a provision of God in this short life. “To eat” and “to drink” are an expression of fellowship, joy, satisfaction (1Kgs 4:20). This is the portion of the wise.

General abuse of riches does not exclude the right use of it. When God gives it, we are allowed to enjoy it (Ecc 5:19). Both the means of eating and drinking as the possibility to enjoy it, come as a gift from God. Enjoying food and drinks as a result of hard labor, is possible in the awareness that He gives it in His power over it, to a man who is allowed to do it in His power. That it is a gift from God, means that it is not in man’s own power to enjoy it. That is shown clearly in the previous section.

When God gives it, you can make the best of it under the sun and enjoy the things on earth intensely. At the same time, these things have no meaning in themselves because they are as futile as the wind. Nor is there any advantage in them in relation to eternity. There is nothing left that you could save up to take any of that after you are dead. Wealth gives worries and restlessness and fear of losing it. Seen in that light, the advice of the Preacher: Do not hoard the riches, but enjoy it. You do not know how long it will be available to you because it is futile. You also do not know how long you can enjoy it because your life can suddenly be over.

Whoever is granted the gift of God to enjoy food and drink, does not worry about his years of life (Ecc 5:20).The idea is not that life will be so quiet that nothing memorable happens, but that life will be so filled with joy that the vanity of life is almost forgotten. Those who have enough do not concern themselves with the question of whether there is a benefit in wealth. It is not completely forgotten, but it does not predominate. The thought of brevity remains, but it will not cause sleepless nights.

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 5". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/ecclesiastes-5.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.