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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Ecclesiastes 5

 

 


Introduction

CHAP. V.

Vanities in divine service, in murmuring against oppression, and in riches. Joy in prosperity is the gift of God.


Verse 1

Ecclesiastes 5:1. And be more ready to hear, &c.— For, to be ready to obey is a better sacrifice than the gift of fools; because they know not when they do evil. It is plain that Solomon intended to oppose the course which he advises us to take when we go into the house of God, to that which is generally pursued by fools, or those who are ignorant of divine knowledge: but the beauty of that opposition is almost entirely lost in modern versions, through the turn given to the whole sentence. By means of the translation here offered, two sorts of sacrifices are distinctly opposed to each other; namely, a sacrifice of obedience, wherein the most essential part of the wise man's worship consists; and a sacrifice of oblations, wherewith the ignorant foolishly imagines he can render to God all that he owes him. The paranomasia in the original might, perhaps, be thus preserved in our language; "An offering of obedience is a sacrifice preferable to the gift of fools." The particulars hitherto alleged in support of the main argument may be viewed in very different lights, as appears by the apprehensions of those who would exclude this book from the canon: though they are really calculated to instil the fear of God, and a thorough reverence of him into men's hearts; yet some might imagine that they are apt to produce an effect directly contrary to that respect and reverence which we owe to the Almighty: the sacred orator, being aware of this, thought proper here to insert a few admonitions concerning that respect and reverence. I. Though some may be apt to infer from the obvious vanity of every thing in this world, that God does not concern himself about human affairs; yet never go into his house only for form's sake. II. When you resort thither, be mindful of your duty to him; and remember, that such a continual watchfulness over yourself as the ignorant and giddy are not capable of, is more acceptable to him than any form of outward worship.


Verse 3

Ecclesiastes 5:3. For a dream cometh through the multitude of business For as a dream bringeth abundance of trouble, so does the voice of an ignorant [or unguarded] man abundance of words. Desvoeux.


Verse 4

Ecclesiastes 5:4. For he hath no pleasure in fools For it is the property of fools to have no fixed will. Desvoeux. The Hebrew is, For no will in fools; and so the LXX render it.


Verse 6

Ecclesiastes 5:6. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin, &c.— Let not thy mouth weakly excuse thee to no purpose, and do not say before the messenger [who is sent to require from thee what thou hast vowed] it was a mistake. Solomon advises any man who has made a vow to accomplish it, and not to look for excuses and pretences in order to avoid paying that debt. The motive he suggests to support this advice, viz. that the non-payment might be the means of kindling God's wrath against a perjured man, is very proper; for there was a special law (Deuteronomy 23:21.) against any one who was slack in paying a vow; and such a man was particularly threatened with the anger of the Almighty. Every critic knows, that the word angel is literally the name of an office. מלאךֶ, malak, is as often applied to men, as to those spiritual beings whom we call angels, and means a messenger. Now, as the priests kept a servant to levy their share out of the offering of the people, 1 Samuel 2:13-16 and as they were greatly concerned in seeing the vows punctually paid; it is probable that they kept messengers also to go and summon those whom they knew to have vowed any thing the payment of which would be profitable to them. I do not know but that an employment which we find in after-times established in the synagogues, without knowing when it began, might be the same in the main which is here alluded to. The Jews, who scrupled to handle money on the sabbath-day, used to bind themselves on that day to an officer sent by the rulers of the synagogue, to give such or such sum for alms, and that officer received the sum from them the next day. This conjecture is the more probable, as that officer, who was the chazan, or minister of the synagogue, is sometimes styled צבור שׁליח shaliach tsibbur, the messenger of the synagogue. Desvoeux. Archbishop Tillotson understands the passage in the general acceptation. The reader will find his sense of it in his 75th Sermon, on good angels.


Verse 7

Ecclesiastes 5:7. For in the multitude of dreams, &c.— From the 2nd to this verse we have Solomon's second admonition to this purpose. Let no one rashly call by oaths upon Him who dwells in heaven, to be a witness of what passeth upon earth; and, to avoid the occasions of swearing, be sparing of your words; for the voice of a giddy man is like a dream. His many words are as vain, when you come to examine them, as the uneasiness brought on you by a dream, which vanisheth away when you awake: Ecclesiastes 5:3. Yet if you have vowed or promised any thing with an oath, do not be dilatory in performing it. You were free, and might have dispensed with binding yourself in that manner; but after taking such an engagement upon you, not to discharge it is the behaviour of an imprudent man, who does not know his own will: Ecclesiastes 5:4. Do not aggravate the crime by denying the vow when you are required to pay it. Discharge your engagement, and do not provoke God to anger, who is able to punish you with the utmost severity. The words or arguments which you might think of using to justify yourself, are as vain as dreams. Therefore do not attempt it; but fear him to whom you are really bound, notwithstanding all the evasions you may have recourse to: Ecclesiastes 5:5-7.


Verse 8

Ecclesiastes 5:8. Marvel not at the matter Marvel not at such a dispensation of Providence. Desvoeux.


Verse 9

Ecclesiastes 5:9. The king himself, &c.— The king is served on account of the field. Desvoeux. Houbigant renders the verse, And when these things are so, it is advantageous for the land that there be a king who may destroy the oppressor of the province. In this and the foregoing verse is contained the third admonition. Let no one look upon the injustices which men in power are guilty of, to the prejudice of the poor, as a disparagement of Providence; for one who is above—not the governors of provinces only, but likewise above the monarchs from whom they derive their authority, keeps them all in reserve for the day of retribution; and, as a token of his firm resolve to distribute justice to all with the most perfect equality, he has so ordered things in this world, that, after all incroachments and extortions of the powerful, there is a common fund remaining for the support of all, without distinction, and for the sake of which chiefly the kings themselves are served. For what inducement have other men to subject themselves to the king's authority, but that under his protection the land may be properly improved and cultivated?


Verse 10

Ecclesiastes 5:10. He that loveth abundance, &c.— And he who loveth numerous company, no income shall be sufficient for him. See Desvoeux, p. 281.


Verse 12

Ecclesiastes 5:12. The sleep of a labouring man, &c.— The sixth and last instance, wherewith this fourth proof, and the whole argument in support of the first proposition, is concluded, is that of the insufficiency of riches to make a man happy, whether he loves money for the sake of money, or is fond of it only as it affords him opportunities of spending it in feasts and entertainments; Ecclesiastes 5:10. This is made the more conspicuous by the opposite instance of the poor labourer. Covetousness is insatiable: yet what is acquired does not turn to the personal advantage of the owner, who does not become capable of consuming more in proportion as he increases in wealth; but must see his income spent, either by the company he delights in, or at least by his servants and other dependants. As for himself, he really fares worse than a ploughman who sleeps sound, even after eating more than the unexercised constitution of the rich man will bear. Whereas the wealthy man is often deprived of the sweets of sleep by the natural consequences of his gluttony: Ecclesiastes 5:11-12.


Verse 13

Ecclesiastes 5:13. There is a sore evil There is an aggravation of evil: see Ecclesiastes 5:16 and ch. Ecclesiastes 6:2. This verse contains the second general proposition. Earthly goods, and whatever we can acquire by our utmost trouble and labour in this world, are so far from making us lastingly happy, that they may be looked upon even as real obstacles to our ease, quiet, and tranquillity. The proofs of this proposition we here subjoin, in the same analytical manner as on ch. Ecclesiastes 1:2-3.

Chap. Verse. Ecclesiastes 5:13. II. Proposition.

Ecclesiastes 5:14-17. 1st Proof. Instability of riches. Ecclesiastes 6:1 to Ecc_2:2 nd Proof. Insufficiency of riches to make one happy.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-6. Corollary. The fate of an abortive is preferable, upon the whole, to that of one who lives without enjoying life.

Ecclesiastes 6:7 to Ecclesiastes 9:3 rd Proof. Men's insatiableness.

Ecclesiastes 6:10-11. General conclusion from the first and second propositions.


Verse 14

Ecclesiastes 5:14. But those riches perish For those very riches perish, notwithstanding the constant trouble taken to preserve them; a man begot a son, and not any thing in his hand.


Verse 17

Ecclesiastes 5:17. All his days also he eateth The first proof of the second proposition is comprized in Ecclesiastes 5:14-17 and is taken from the instability of riches. The longer one has been in possession of a plentiful fortune, the more it vexes him to see it, notwithstanding all his assiduity and care, dwindling away to nothing; and to leave his son, whom he had lived in hopes of leaving a rich heir, reduced to poverty. Yet this is a misfortune, against which no man can be certainly guarded, although he himself carries nothing away of what he has heaped up, and passes the remainder of his days, after the sinking of his fortune, in affliction, and continual repining at his present situation.


Verse 18

Ecclesiastes 5:18. Behold that which I have seen, &c.— Behold that which I have observed to be good; that which I have observed to be proper, &c.


Verse 19-20

Ecclesiastes 5:19-20. Every man also to whom, &c.— And indeed any man, to whom God, &c. (for this very thing is certainly a gift of God) Ecclesiastes 5:20 will not much remember the days of his life. Solomon means to say, that time floweth unobserved by men who enjoy a constant prosperity. Now this, together with the pious reflection, that God is the author of such temporal blessings, is the very sense put by the LXX upon Solomon's words, Because God occupieth or taketh him in, or with the joy of his heart. Desvoeux.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Since in the world all is vanity, the substantial good must be sought, and can only be found in the ways of godliness, in the worship and service of God. But even here we must beware of vanity in our approach to him, lest our very prayer be turned into sin. Solomon directs us, therefore, whither to go, to the house of God; and how to behave in the congregation, so as to profit thereby.

1. We must draw near with reverence and godly fear, jealous over our hearts, that our corrupt affections may be put off, our thoughts solemn and recollected, and our devotions heart-felt and sincere.

2. We must beware that we offer not the sacrifice of fools. The prayers of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord. While they think to recommend themselves to God by their pompous and hypocritical devotions, the sacrifices of the lip and knee, not of the heart, they consider not that they do evil; they deceive themselves, and insult the heart-searching God: or, they know not but to do evil; for to do good they have no knowledge. How many self-righteous formalists in the day of judgment will be astonished to see their very prayers and devotions, on which they trusted, rising up to their condemnation!

3. That we may not offer the sacrifice of fools, these necessary cautions are to be attended to.

[1.] We must be ready to hear God's word read and preached, that we may be instructed in the knowledge of his holy will, and directed how to serve him acceptably, and worship him in spirit and in truth. Note; They who place all their dependance on the form of public prayer, and are inattentive to the word of God read, or expect no benefit from the gospel-sermon preached to them, are certainly self-deceivers, and strangers to the power of godliness.

[2.] We must not be rash with our mouth, nor our heart be hasty to utter any thing before God. Serious meditation must precede; the heart be engaged; the presence of God felt; a sense of our wants deep; and our words breathing the language of fervent desire. And the same maybe said of speaking for God, as well as to him: the subject must be well-digested, and not the crude effusion of hasty lips.

[3.] Our words must be few, and fervent, rather than prolix tautology: not that when the heart is full, we are straitened; it is not the length of prayers, but the vain repetition and dry formality of them, which God condemns. And abundant reason there is for these cautions, if we consider God with whom we have to do, and our vanity and vileness before him. His is in heaven, enthroned in glory and light inaccessible; omniscient, and almighty; the object of eternal adoration of saints and angels; and far exalted above all blessing and praise; and we are upon earth, worms and dust before him, yea, sinful dust and ashes, unworthy to open our polluted lips, or lift up our eyes to him. Highly profane and strangely ignorant would it be therefore in us, to be uttering a multitude of words before him, unmeaning, crude, and indigested, like the ravings of a dream which cometh through the multitude of business. In common conversation a fool is known by his talkativeness; but, to approach God with such noise and nonsense, is not only the foolishness of folly, but the height of impiety.

2nd. From the service of prayer, the wise man passes on to vows, wherewith a man shall bind his soul.

1. We must be conscientious in fulfilling our vows. Defer not to pay it; precisely and punctually perform the engagement, and that without delay; for delays are dangerous, where the path of duty is evident. To play the fool with God, is to bring ruin on our souls; for he will not be mocked, and hath no pleasure in fools; abhors such lightness and falsehood. Therefore,

2. We should be cautious of making vows. However frequent under the law, they seem less suited to the gospel dispensation, and tend to ensnare the soul and bring it into bondage. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin, by vowing what is evil, and not fit to be observed; or what, through the frailty of our nature, we are not likely to perform: lest too late we should be driven to a foolish and sinful excuse, and say before the angel, It was an error; before the great angel of the covenant, Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, the vows had better be repented of and broke, than kept, when contrary to the glory of God, or the good of our neighbour, or our own evident duty toward ourselves.

3. We must fear God, and that will prevent hasty words, and vain terrors from our dreams. They may be strange, confused, frightful, and often perplex the minds of the superstitious; but in general are no more to be regarded than the multitude of words in the mouth of a fool, which are not fit to be repeated. They who fear God, need fear nothing beside.

4. We may not question the equity of divine Providence, because of the injustice too commonly practised among men. It is a grievous and melancholy scene to behold the poor oppressed, and the form of law cloaking the most arbitrary and unrighteous decrees; but we must not therefore think that God has forsaken the earth. Marvel not at the matter as strange, or at the will of God in permitting it; for he that is higher than the highest, the omnipotent and eternal Judge, regardeth; observes the wickedness of the proud and the oppressor, and will reckon with them shortly, when every cause shall be revised at his bar. And there be higher than they; either superior courts, wherein appeals may be lodged; or the holy angels, the ministering spirits who wait on the heirs of salvation to defend them, and are the executioners of divine vengeance on their enemies; or the eternal Three, before whom the proudest and most exalted of the sons of men are less than nothing and vanity, more easily crushed than a moth under the finger.

3rdly, Great riches, as well as all other things, however in general coveted, will be found a great vanity.

1. The earth affords enough for all, and agriculture is a noble employment, as it may be rendered, the excellency of the earth above all things is this; we can do much better without the merchant, than without the husbandman. The king himself is served by the field, with provisions for himself and his houshold: or, is a servant to the field, delights in husbandry, and counts it no disparagement to his dignity.

2. Tillage is a needful employment; and a decent profession, got by honest industry, desirable; but an inordinate love of money is highly criminal, and attended with much misery.

[1.] The desires are insatiable. He that hath much, would still have more, and is ever craving. The abundance possessed cannot satisfy; something still is wanted. Hunger cannot be fed on gold; much less the soul find rest in this shining vanity.

[2.] Great estates will be attended with great expences: as the wealth increases, so does the family, equipage, and retinue; and the owner has no other satisfaction of his affluence, than the seeing it with his eyes. He can but have food and raiment, and of that he had equally sufficient for himself when he had less. Indeed, to have it in our power to do good is a blessing; but when the heart is covetous, it gives a man only pain to see his substance in any way expended.

[3.] The servant who labours has, in some instances, the advantage. Sweet sleep closes his eyes; no indigestion disturbs his slumbers; no cares keep him waking; weary with toil he reposes, and rises refreshed and vigorous. Thus shall the weary but faithful believer rest, and awake with joy in a resurrection-day. But the master, gorged to satiety, with his stomach loaded, lies down and tosses restless and unquiet on his bed of down; or, filled with carking anxiety, and a world of business, his ruffled mind admits not the soft hand of sleep to close his eye-lids: or perhaps conscious guilt haunts him, and startles him with frightful dreams in broken slumbers.

[4.] Riches are often exceedingly hurtful to their owners: they tempt the robber and murderer; they afford opportunity to gratify every lawless appetite; puff up the mind usually with pride and security; through excess and luxury, bring diseases upon the body; and plunge men into divers foolish and hurtful lusts, which finally drown the soul in perdition and destruction: and a sore evil indeed is this!

[5.] Riches ill got, or ill used, soon perish by evil travail; trading beyond their capital, many have been ruined; by mismanagement, the greatest estate melts as snow before the sun; and God, in his providence, often blows upon the abundance of the wicked, and like a shadow it flees away. So that his son, who was to have inherited after him, finds himself a beggar, and worse off than if he had been born with no expectations, and taught to earn his own bread.

[6.] Riches cannot descend with men into the grave. Naked as they came from the womb, must they be carried to the tomb, and leave all their possessions behind them. In all points as he came, so shall he go; and if this be the case, what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind? for as vain will riches then appear, and as unsatisfactory. A sore evil this to those who had taken up their rest below, and laid to their soul, Take thine east. Note; (1.) Though our bodies must return to the dust, whence they came, it is grievous indeed when the soul returns as it came, un-renewed and unholy: far better never to have been born, than thus to die. (2.) They who labour for their bodies merely will find their fearful disappointment at last; while they who labour for their souls will carry all their riches with them.

[7.] Riches often make a man's days uncomfortable, as well as his death miserable. All his days he eateth in darkness, his carking cares prevent his enjoying his very meals; he grudges the expence, or his soul is utterly destitute of the divine light and love. And he hath much sorrow and wrath with his sickness; it is bad with him in health, and worse with him in sickness: he receives it not as the rod of fatherly chastisement, but feels the wrath which is in the visitation; quarrels with God's providence, grieves bitterly at the thought of leaving all behind him, and is shocked at the terrible apprehensions of death. Or, as the words may be rendered, he is much angry; a thousand causes of vexation daily arise to him from those around him; and he hath sickness brought on him by his fretfulness and anxiety, and wrath at those about him; discontented and peevish with them, however assiduous to wait upon him; or with God himself for having thus afflicted him; and this but aggravates his misery.

4thly, Solomon, in the view of the vanity of riches, makes the same conclusion that he had done before, chap. Ecclesiastes 3:22 that the best use of them is, the moderate enjoyment of them, without starving ourselves with covetousness, or killing ourselves with labour and care. All our days it is good to rejoice in the fruit of our toils; it is our portion in this life, and cannot be enjoyed hereafter. The possessions themselves are God's gift; and therefore, in gratitude to the giver, to be used cheerfully: and the heart to do so he must give also, or else the possessors can have no comfort in them; and this will tend to make the days of our pilgrimage less tedious; whilst, in answer to our prayers, God is pleased to fill us with food and gladness, make us forget our labour and disappointments; and with thankfulness to him, and cheerfulness of heart, to hold on our faithful course, advancing to our journey's end in peace and comfort, till he at last admits us into his eternal rest.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Ecclesiastes 5:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/ecclesiastes-5.html. 1801-1803.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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