Chapter 5 True Religion and Worship. The Problem of Riches. The Good Life.
The Importance of True Worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).
This chapter now begins with one of those periods in The Preacher’s musings when he seems for a short period to break through the veil of meaninglessness. Here he considers man approaching God, with true seeking, true worship, and contact with the heavenly, that men might learn to fear God more (Ecclesiastes 5:7). It is contact with everlastingness.
It is the first time that the Preacher has considered temple worship. But the way it is naturally introduced demonstrates that we are to see it as a part of the background to all he says. And he speaks wisely. Man should approach God thoughtfully, ready to hear and learn. God is the teacher. Man is the suppliant. He obviously here considers that a man can know God. Here is the previous godly man Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 now involved in worship. For a while his pessimism is in abeyance.
‘Guard your steps (literally ‘your foot’) when you go to the house of God, for it is better to draw near to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools. For they know not that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, and do not let your heart be hasty to utter anything before God, for God is in heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few.’
For the first time The Preacher considers man’s worship. In it man is approaching heaven, he is approaching everlastingness. But he has already said that God’s ways are unknowable. Thus man should approach God with care and reverence. He should guard his steps, he should draw near to hear what God would say to him. He should stay with what God has revealed about Himself to His prophets (Abraham, Moses and so on). He should draw near ready to obey (see 1 Samuel 15:22). This is far better than simply approaching God with thoughtless ritual.
Many offer the sacrifice of fools. They do not consider themselves sinful and yet they offer a sin offering. They are not offering themselves to God and yet they offer a whole burnt offering. They are not grateful to God and yet they offer a thankoffering. These are the sacrifices of fools. They do it simply because it is the thing to do. But it will not impress God. In contrast with those who guard their steps, these simply ‘trample His courts’ (Isaiah 1:11-12). The fool in practise does not know God (Psalms 14:1).
‘They know not that they do evil.’ This may mean that they come carelessly, unaware of their sinfulness. Or it may mean that their very casual approach is in itself seen as evil. Both are in fact true.
But if a man comes rightly to God with a hearing ear, will he not learn something meaningful? It would seem so. There is no suggestion of all this being vanity here. But he must come wisely. He must not indulge himself in a multitude of words, he must not speak without careful thought, what he speaks should have been carefully weighed up. For he is approaching the One Who is in the heavenly realm, the One Whose ways cannot be ferreted out, The One Who is everlasting, who is in direct contrast with those who are on the earth. Therefore his words should be few. He is there to learn and to hear. He should say little.
Thus for a brief period The Preacher appears to acknowledge that there are meaningful things to learn, even though man cannot fully find out God. He is gradually approaching his moment of enlightenment.
How wise The Preacher was. These are word to which we should all take heed. The church is full of those who know God’s mind better than He knows it Himself, in ways that He has not clearly revealed. We would often do better to be silent and admit how little we really know of God than to speak boldly and mislead. It would have saved much suffering.
He goes on to expand his meaning.
‘For a dream comes with a multitude of business, and a fool’s voice with a multitude of words.’
Men who are too busy with a multitude of activity, including ritual activity, without stopping to hear, simply come up with dreams, something that comes from their own thoughts and minds. It is not from God. It is a fantasy, although they label it as from God. Those who would know God’s will must wait quietly before God. Furthermore a fool’s voice is known by its multitude of words, something to which we should all take heed. Those who have most to say about God often know the least. When we speak about God it should be thoughtful and measured and in accord with what has been revealed in His word, His revelation of Himself.
‘When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it. For he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vowed. It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay.’
How easily a promise is made to God. He will not come in person to require it of us. But beware, says The Preacher. When you have made a vow do not delay fulfilling it. It is the fool, the man whose belief and commitment is nominal, who makes rash vows, and in them God has no pleasure. Thus we must fulfil our promises to God promptly. It would have been better if we had not made our dedication, than to make it and then back down on it (see Deuteronomy 23:21-23).
So he does not consider this meaningless either. He considers it a serious matter. For a time he has lost his pessimism. He is aware that he is dealing with everlastingness.
‘Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger (or Angel) that it was an error. Why should God be angry at what you say (‘your voice), and destroy the work of your hands. For this is what happens through the multitude of dreams and meaningless promises and many words. But as for you, fear God.’
The Preacher warns us that we must watch our words before God, for if we do not we will commit ourselves in a way that then causes us to sin. And once we have made our vow (unless it was very foolish and not what God would require) we must be careful to perform it. We must not step back and say it was a mistake. We should not have made such a mistake. God is not to be mocked or treated lightly.
For if we are not obedient and honest with regard to our vows, God will be angry, and we will somehow suffer loss. Then he points out that situations like this often arise through too many self-induced dreams, too many meaningless promises, too much talking in prayer and not enough listening.
And at length he comes to his final conclusion. It is important to be in awe of God, to be submissive to His authority in godly fear. Later he will point out that to fear God and keep His covenant requirements is man’s whole responsibility and duty (Ecclesiastes 12:13). He is back to his thought that man must trust in God and walk before Him. In all this the Preacher is explicit about the good man’s personal relationship with God.
But who is the messenger (angel) who has been mentioned? In Malachi 2:5-7 we are told that it is the true priest, the one who receives God’s word, who is ‘the messenger of YHWH of hosts’, he who truly teaches the Law of Truth. Thus it is a godly priest who may be in the writer’s mind here. Alternately he may be referring to the Angel of YHWH, that mysterious figure Who so often represented God and was God.
It is important to note that there is no question of ‘vanity’ here. Here the ‘vanities’ are on the part of those who do not obey God (Ecclesiastes 5:7). For a brief while The Preacher is in his God-aware mood. Many a man, as he searches for the truth about God, has experienced such moments when all seemed to be settled, until the questionings started again.
Thoughts About The Burdens and Problems of Wealth (Ecclesiastes 5:8-17).
Here we find a total contrast to the first seven verses. There the thought was of attitude towards God. Now we move on to the attitude towards life. It must be remembered that many would see the wealthy as those who were pleasing to God. Was that not why they were wealthy? But the Preacher has come to recognise that it is not the wealthy who are pleasing to God, but those who are content with what they have and have an open heart towards God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26). Thus he points out that the accumulation of wealth, often by unjust means, may seem to add significance to life, but in the end it is meaningless and simply adds to the problems of life. (This is, of course, the view of one who is wealthy). He will conclude with the fact that seeking God is better.
‘If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent taking away of justice and right in a province, do not marvel at the matter. Because one who is higher than the high regards, and there are higher ones than they.’
There is nothing sadder than a province where there is no justice, and right is overturned, especially when it is accompanied by violence (Isaiah 5:8; Amos 8:4-6). Yet The Preacher advises patience. There is One Who is Higher than the high, and He can bring into play some who are even higher than the local oppressors, those who are princes and kings over the whole (this would be a carrying out of the justice demanded in Ecclesiastes 3:16-17). Thus matters can be righted. Those who have accumulated wealth by oppression will suffer for it. For the expression ‘one higher than the high’ compare ‘the one mightier than he’ (Ecclesiastes 6:10).
All of this is but a part of the overall procession of time.
Alternately we may see this verse as simply listing grades of officials, the high, the higher and the highest, with the thought that with such a multiplicity of officials it is not surprising that there is injustice. Everyone wants to have their share in what is available. So fields are taken away and the poor set to work as bondservants. This would fit in better with the meaninglessness of wealth (Ecclesiastes 5:10), but not with expectations of justice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17).
‘Moreover the profit of the land is for all. The king himself is served by the field.’
This may be seen as a comfort for the oppressed. While they may suffer some oppression and loss nevertheless they can remember that the profit of the land is, in the end, for all. All benefit from it in one way or another, either as owners or workers. This was especially so in Israel where land rights were seen as having been allocated by God and always, at least in theory, finally reverted to their owners. Why, he adds, even the king profits from his land in the countryside (or it may mean profits by way of taxation).
Alternately it may be seeing it from the eyes of the oppressing officials, ‘the profit of the land is for all (of us)’, just as the king himself profits from taxation of the land. Then the prospect for the righteous is more gloomy.
However some translate ‘a king is an advantage to a land with cultivated fields’. The idea being that his control of the reins and the stability that results enables the people to cultivate the land properly. His kingship is thus good for all.
Overall is either the thought that God watches over the oppression of the poor and the doings of the unjust, and will remedy the situation (as in Ecclesiastes 3:16-17), while those who make themselves wealthy will be brought to account, or the thought of the meaninglessness of such wealth to those who by one means or another obtain it. The latter is made clear in the next verse.
‘He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver, nor he who loves plenty with increase. This also is vanity.’
The truth is that those who seek to accumulate wealth will never be satisfied. The one who seeks silver will finally not be satisfied with it and will desire gold. For the one who seeks to build up wealth the amount of increase is never sufficient. He always wants more. Thus all is meaningless and empty.
‘When goods increase those who eat them are also increased, and what advantage is there to the owner except looking at them with his eyes?’
The achieving of wealth in fact simply results in larger households of family and servants to consume them, so that in the end they are no better off. And anyway, in the end such a man has so much that all the benefit he really obtains is that he can survey his wealth in order to gain satisfaction from it. There comes a point where he cannot really improve the quality of his life. He has much more than he can spend. So he is simply building up wealth for no good reason. And, as the next verse reveals, there is a downturn. He may find that he suffers from the rich food he eats. But what is certain is that he does not think of God.
‘The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much. But the fullness of the rich will not allow him to sleep.’
In contrast with the rich the working man sleeps well. He is exhausted and the food he eats, whether little or much, does not disturb his sleep. But the food of the wealthy causes problems that prevent sleep. This may also include the thought that the pressures of being wealthy also interfere with his sleep. So the labouring man is better off than the wealthy, even if he does not have much to eat.
‘There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun, namely riches kept by an owner to his hurt, and those riches perish by an evil adventure, and if he has begotten a son there is nothing in his hand. As he came forth out of his mother’s womb, he will go again, naked as he came, and will take nothing for his labour which he can carry away in his hand.’
Here the writer has in mind those who seek to build up wealth for their sons. It may well be that when the son comes to inherit there will be nothing left. He is thinking here of wealth lost through poor investment, speculation, foolish behaviour or as a result of the activities of others such as theft and banditry. Wealth quickly, or dishonestly and unfairly, gained, and yet at great cost, can equally quickly be lost, and possibly even result in physical disadvantage or death, especially in violent times. His son is left with nothing, and he himself (or possibly his son) goes to the grave just as he came, also with nothing. he can take none of the fruits of his labour with him. Furthermore wealth can bring other evils such as the need to be always on the alert lest any seek to get hold of his wealth. The wealthy are the focus of attention for the greedy and dishonest. So wealth may actually hurt us.
‘And this also is a grievous evil, that in all points as he came, so will he go.’
The thought of the man leaving as he came, makes The Preacher aware also of another significance of what he has said. When the wealthy die they can take nothing with them, even if they are still rich. For all go as they came, naked and with nothing. Thus in the end he gains nothing, and may indeed have lost what he could have gained by righteous living.
‘And what profit has he who labours for the wind?’
So the accumulation of riches is in the final analysis of no benefit. It just brings with it its own problems. And those who seek wealth, often hopelessly, desiring to find in it some extra meaning to life, simply find that they have laboured for the unattainable.
‘All his days also he eats in darkness, and he is sore vexed and has sickness and wrath.’
Such a man ‘eats in darkness.’ Compare Ecclesiastes 2:13. He is not a wise man because his life is concentrated in the wrong direction. The man who would be rich will stint himself, and overwork himself, and ruin his own health through stress, and thus be miserable, ill and bad tempered. It may also have in mind that the one who gains wealth and loses it spends the rest of his life regretting it, and suffering from the fact.
So wealth is not necessarily the road to contentment and wellbeing. It can bring as many problems as it solves. And yet all crave wealth to their hurt.
Better Than Seeking Riches Is To Seek To Enjoy Walking With God (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).
Once again he falls back on his idea of a godly man. Here is the one who does find blessing from God. We should note that what is in mind here is life within the covenant. It is the man who receives from God, acknowledges God, loves God and walks in His perceived will who is in mind. Even his food, drink and labour, which are central to his life and that of his family, are gifts from God.
It should be noted in this respect that in Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 worship of God was not being recommended, it was assumed, and the recommendation was as to how to approach it for it to be meaningful and beneficial. So all references to the life of the godly therefore assume this rightful worship of God. The writer is speaking of the full-orbed life of the godly.
‘Behold, what I have seen to be good and beneficial (literally ‘beautiful’) is for one to eat and to drink and to enjoy good in all his labour in which he exerts himself under the sun, all the days of his life which God has given him. For this is his allotment. Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him the power to eat of them, and to take his allotment, and to rejoice in his exertions, this is the gift of God. For he will not call to mind the days of his life a great deal, because God answers him in the joy of his heart.’
Once more the Preacher comes back to God as his solution. The sensible view of life is to walk with God on the daily journey, looking constantly to Him. It is to recognise what God has allotted and to be satisfied. We must remember that these would not be seen as platitudes. In those days to the ordinary man God was of great relevance. Thus they would interpret literally and meaningfully what the writer is saying.
What is good and beautiful for a man is to live a simple, ordinary life, to eat and drink without excess, to enjoy his work, and to look to God, accepting both at His hands. If he has been given wealth by God he should accept it joyfully as a gift, and he also should enjoy his food and drink and the work that he does, and look to God. Note the proliferation of the mention of God (four times), a direct contrast with what has gone before when the concentration has been on man. It is only in previous passages about the godly man (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26), the passage on everlastingness and judgment (Ecclesiastes 3:10-18), and the passage on worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7) that we otherwise have such constant mentions of God.
He is not here distinguishing between poverty and wealth. The idealistic view in Israel, if not always the reality, was of every man having his own vine and his own fig tree, and his own plot of land (1 Kings 4:25). It was seen as so much a part of essential Israel that it was even the vision presented by the Assyrians when they sought to encourage Jerusalem to surrender (2 Kings 18:31). Thus there would be levels of wealth, which were seen by each as his allotment from God, and with which each would be content.
But each was to look to God, worshipping truly (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2), waiting on God and absorbing His everlastingness (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and receiving the joy which God gives to His own in response to the fact that they are His (Ecclesiastes 5:20). It was a life of trust, and obedience to the covenant that God had made with Israel, with each man acknowledging and loving God with all his heart (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). This assumption lay behind the kind of life the Preacher is describing. For each man’s allotment in Israel came from the covenant with God.
‘All the days of his life which God has given him. For this is his allotment --- this is the gift of God.’ This very much has in mind man’s covenant relationship with God which lay at the root of Israel’s beliefs. The godly man looks to God, is faithful to God and receives with thanksgiving what God has given him. He trusts, obeys and enjoys, recognising that even his life has been given to him by God.
‘For he will not call to mind the days of his life a great deal, because God answers him in the joy of his heart.’ As a result he is not always looking back with regret, he is not worried about the future, he is not searching for what is meaningful. He will always have the joy of his continual walk with God, with the sense of everlastingness (ever undefined) in his heart.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 5". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Easter