The Agora
Bible Commentary

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Ecclesiastes 5

Ecc 5:1

Vv 1-7: The futility in insincere worship. Even in the "house of God" may be found "vanity"!

By reversing the negatives of this section, we may see the portrait of a true worshiper: (1) he comes to listen (vv 1-3); (2) he comes to renew his commitment (vv 4-6); and (3) he comes to stand in awe of God (v 7).

Now for the first time in the Book, Qoheleth addressed the reader directly. From this point on there will be considerable personal exhortation. Since Qoheleth has established that he understands the human condition, it now must follow that such experience gives him reason to be heard, as he offers his advice.

Vv 1-3: The folly of much talking. A wise man will talk little and weigh all his words well, always aware of his own limitations, and God's infinite wisdom and greatness. The fool is known by his thoughtless, foolish, trivial chattering.

GUARD YOUR STEPS WHEN YOU GO TO THE HOUSE OF GOD: "Watch your step": Exo 3:5; Psa 119:101; Pro 1:15. Cp idea, Hab 2:20; 1Ti 3:14,15. Cp also Jacob seeing the vision at "Beth-el" (the house of God!) in Gen 28:16,17. Isa 1:11,12.

GUARD: The Hebrew "shamar" implies several things: (1) to exercise great care over something -- as in preparing properly for an audience with an important person; (2) to give careful attention to the paying of an obligation or the obeying of a law; and (3 to guard against intruders -- in this case distraction of wrong or worldly thoughts as we serve God.

GUARD YOUR STEPS: Literally, "keep your foot" (as AV). "The allusion is either to the pulling off of the shoes off the feet, ordered to Moses and Joshua, when on holy ground, Exo 3:5; Jos 5:15; and which the Jews observed, when they entered the temple on their festivals and sabbaths, even their kings... [which signified] the putting off of the old man, with his deeds, laying aside depraved affections and sordid lusts... or the allusion is to the custom of persons in those eastern countries dressing or washing their feet when they visited, especially those of any note; and entered into their houses on any business, as Mephibosheth, when he waited on David, 2Sa 19:24; or to the practice of the priests, who washed their feet when they went into the tabernacle of the Lord, Exo 30:19,20" (Gill).

GO NEAR TO LISTEN RATHER THAN TO OFFER THE SACRIFICE OF FOOLS, WHO DO NOT KNOW THAT THEY DO WRONG: Cp Jam 4:8-10. Possible reference to Uzziah's imprudent attempt to act as a priest: 2Ch 26:16-21.

GO NEAR TO LISTEN: The KJV has: "Be more ready to hear" -- but it needs to be remembered that, when "hear" occurs in the Bible, it always implies "to hear with attention, and understanding, that is, to LISTEN", and not the "in one ear and out the other" type of "hearing"! "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak" (Jam 1:19).

THE SACRIFICE OF FOOLS: What is "the sacrifice of fools"? Not any specific sacrifice, but rather -- as the context shows -- ANY sacrifice (legitimate though it might be otherwise) which is undertaken in the passion or heat of the moment, and without moral and spiritual understanding.

The prototype of all such "sacrifices of fools" must be the farm produce, the "fruits of the soil", offered by Cain in the beginning. The context there suggests plainly that he should have known that an appropriate sacrifice involved the shedding of blood, as Abel his brother offered (Gen 4:4). But in his pride Cain offers instead... what HE wants to offer (Gen 4:3,5) -- and it is rejected by the LORD. (The irony is that afterward Cain DOES shed blood, but it is the blood of his brother (Gen 4:8; 1Jo 3:12)!

Another way of offering "the sacrifices of fools" is to multiply offerings, even if they are legitimate, out of all proportion -- as a means of hiding one's sins or making restitution for a lifestyle which is contrary to God's commandments (Isa 1:10-17).

WHO DO NOT KNOW THAT THEY DO WRONG: Or "who never admit to their sins"! "Who make no acknowledgment of doing wrong" (Roth).

Ecc 5:2

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: Cp Pro 28:9; Luk 18:9-14; Mat 6:7,8; Jam 5:16. Long, repetitious, vain prayers are an abomination to God. "True prayer is not a rush of words or a flush of feeling. Like sacrifice, it is a product of a dedicated life held in awe by the divine majesty" (Eccl 45). And so any vow of special service to Yahweh ought to arise out of a measured, reasoned decision to devote one's life to Him -- not from a rash, ill-considered "snap decision". Baptism, for example, should be the result of a careful, well-thought-out decision process -- not an emotional "altar call"!

GOD IS IN HEAVEN AND YOU ARE ON EARTH, SO LET YOUR WORDS BE FEW: "The knowledge of Yahweh's infinite greatness, and of the vast gulf that separates the worshiper from the object of his worship, should act as a brake on volubility in prayer. God is immortal, invisible, holy, high above men, enthroned in the heaven of heavens; whilst man, on the other hand, is but a worm, an earthbound, finite, frail, sinful creature of dust and ashes. This knowledge should engender the spirit of deep humility and reverential awe in the heart of the worshiper. Therefore let your words be brief" (Krygger). Or, as LGS more succinctly expresses it, "True prayer is not a rush of words or a flush of feeling. Like sacrifice, it is the product of a dedicated life held in awe by the Divine Majesty."

Bowen speaks of men who think lightly of prayer -- as a good-luck charm, or a superstitious whim: "Their prayer is like the rambling dream of a business man. 'Help me God, just this once, and I'll make it up to you -- I really will.' The thoughts tumble out full of self-interest and greed. This is the voice of the fool when he approaches God. And yet men comfort themselves in the thought that, having prayed thus, they have God in their debt."

Ecc 5:3

AS A DREAM COMES WHEN THERE ARE MANY CARES, SO THE SPEECH OF A FOOL WHEN THERE ARE MANY WORDS: Muddled dreams arise out of day's anxieties (the KJV uses the word "business", which may suggest that these cares are limited to the workplace, but they are not). Similarly, a fool's words are confused and inconsequential, because not logical. So beware of making decisions in the heat of the moment; take time to weigh the alternatives, and to pray -- and give God time to help you make the choice or find the answer.

Ecc 5:4

Vv 4-7: The folly of rash vows, thoughtless promises, and ill-considered statements. In our present dispensation the command is carried further and all vows are forbidden, but the basic principle is the same: care and thoughtfulness and restraint, instead of impetuousness and rashness.

WHEN YOU MAKE A VOW TO GOD, DO NOT DELAY IN FULFILLING IT. HE HAS NO PLEASURE IN FOOLS; FULFILL YOUR VOWS: A vow is a solemn, sacred promise -- when coupled with an oath it is absolutely binding and irrevocable, and carries a curse upon the one who vows if he or she fails to fulfill it. See Deu 23:21-23; 29:12-19; Act 5:4; Psa 50:14; Mal 1:13,14; Gen 28:20; Mat 12:36,37.

God Himself has made vows and confirmed the same with an oath, as in the promises to Abraham; this is binding and irrevocable (Heb 6:13-18).

Ecc 5:5

IT IS BETTER NOT TO VOW THAN TO MAKE A VOW AND NOT FULFILL IT: Which is, of course, the reason why one should exercise care and restraint before making any serious vow... or pledge or commitment of any sort.

The converse of this approach is commended by David: "LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He... who keeps his oath even when it hurts..." (Psa 15:1-4).

Ecc 5:6

DO NOT LET YOUR MOUTH LEAD YOU INTO SIN: The mouth is a very dangerous part of the body: "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless" (Jam 1:26). "Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person... All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue" (Jam 3:5-8).

AND DO NOT PROTEST TO THE TEMPLE MESSENGER: "Malak" = angel, or messenger. The "messenger" or "angel" (KJV) here is a priest (cp Num 15:29-36; Lev 5:4-6; 27:14,15; Mal 2:7; 3:1), God's representative at the Temple; thus the NIV translates "TEMPLE messenger". The picture is of a sad and repentant worshiper, coming to beg of the Temple priest to be relieved of his foolish and hasty promise: 'I didn't really mean it!' How pathetic, when dealing with Almighty God!

MY VOW WAS A MISTAKE: That is, do not claim strong emotion -- "a spiritual high", anger, excitement, etc -- as an excuse. Nor for that matter can ignorance ("I didn't know what I was doing at the time!" "I wasn't really serious!") be a valid excuse -- there IS such a thing as the sin of ignorance (Num 15:22-31)! And, be assured, it is a SIN -- not just a "mistake"! "It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows" (Pro 20:25).

WHY SHOULD GOD BE ANGRY AT WHAT YOU SAY AND DESTROY THE WORK OF YOUR HANDS?: As the vower's unfulfilled promise brought no result, so now it may be expected that God will bring to nothing any work that he DOES undertake instead, which will now be for himself and not for God! He has placed himself ahead of God; how can he hope ever to be successful?

The primary example in Scripture of reneging on a vow is the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10). These two made a promise of their own free will but then defaulted on that promise (Peter called it lying to the Holy Spirit: v 3!) -- they kept back part of what they had vowed to give to the LORD, and they were destroyed.

Ecc 5:7

MUCH DREAMING AND MANY WORDS ARE MEANINGLESS: Perhaps, the concerns of this world turn a man away from the sober worship of God. Or, man may divert himself from the service of God by a life of day-dreams, of "what-ifs", or "if-onlys"!

THEREFORE STAND IN AWE OF GOD: Or "fear God", as in Ecc 3:14; 7:18; 8:12,13; 12:13. (Also see Psa 19:9; 33:8; 34:11; 111:10; 112:1; Pro 1:7.) "The reverent man holds God in awe as the supreme reality, 'the living and true God', while to the shallow man God is only the channel for the indulgence of his own emotions. In that radical difference lies the reason why the one is humbled before God and the other inflates himself; and so while the offering of the one is accepted the effusiveness of the other is not only in vain but recoils upon himself" (LGS).

Since Uzziah may be the author of this section, the summary of 2Ch 26:3-5 might be relevant here: "Uzziah... did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done. He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the FEAR of God. As long as he sought the LORD, God gave him success."

Ecc 5:8

Vv 8-17: The folly of seeking pleasure and security and satisfaction in this world's goods.

IF YOU SEE THE POOR OPPRESSED N A DISTRICT, AND JUSTICE AND RIGHTS DENIED, DO NOT BE SURPRISED AT SUCH THINGS; FOR ONE OFFICIAL IS EYED BY A HIGHER ONE: "Oppression" "has a basic two-fold range of meaning: (1) 'oppression; brutality' (eg, Isa 54:14); and (2) 'extortion' (eg, Psa 62:11)" (NETn). Cp Pro 22:16,22,23; 23:10,11; Psa 94:1-11; Jam 5:4. An assurance that, in future, God will right all wrongs: cp Jam 5:1-6.

DO NOT BE SURPRISED: "The word rendered 'marvel' [AV; "be surprised": NIV] in this passage occurs in two other places (Gen 43:33 ; Psa 48:5). Obviously it implies some distress of mind, the kind of perplexity which fills the minds of men at the present time, and from which disciples of Christ may be free. The judgments which fall upon men are very terrible, but not nearly as terrible as the sins which need such rebuke. The way is dark for the moment, but there is light ahead, light of such quality as to make the present darkness negligible.

"A man needs to make some progress in spiritual studies before he begins to understand why a nation which trusts to its righteousness may sometimes be smitten and overwhelmed by men who are obviously the enemies of God. The Scriptures are plain enough in their teaching that the wicked are often used as 'the sword of the Lord' (Psa 17:13). Bible history furnishes many instances of the temporary success of wicked men and of punishment falling upon some who were very imperfectly aware of their errors" (CEcc).

AND OVER THEM BOTH ARE OTHERS HIGHER STILL: Probably a reference to the angels? The AV perhaps has the pronouns better organized: "For he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they." He who is "higher than the highest" would of course be God Himself. And now, by the AV rendering, those who are "higher than THEY" [not 'higher than them all' -- because they cannot be higher than God Himself -- but rather those who are 'higher than the oppressors'] would be... the angels.

"Sennacherib valued himself highly upon his potent army, but one angel proved too hard for him and all his forces" (Henry).

Ecc 5:9

THE INCREASE FROM THE LAND IS TAKEN BY ALL; THE KING HIMSELF PROFITS FROM THE FIELD: "A cultivated field has a king" (RSV mg). An orderly society, with enforced laws, allows planting and harvesting and thus prosperity, which profits all -- esp the rulers.

There is some legitimate question as to the meaning of this last phrase. The NETn states: "Most English versions deal with the syntax so that the king is viewed in a neutral or positive sense: 'the profit of the earth is for all; the king himself is served by the field' (KJV); 'a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land' (NASB); 'this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field' (NRSV)... 'a country prospers with a king who has control' (Moffatt)... 'a king is an advantage to a land with cultivated fields' (RSV); 'the best thing for a country is a king whose own lands are well tilled' (NEB); and 'an advantage for a country in every respect is a king for the arable land' (NAB)."

Ecc 5:10

Vv 10,11: Wealth is "hebel" (vain, meaningless) because it brings anxiety rather than fulfillment. Riches do not protect the man; the man must "protect" the riches!

WHOEVER LOVES MONEY NEVER HAS MONEY ENOUGH; WHOEVER LOVES WEALTH IS NEVER SATISFIED WITH HIS INCOME: A reference back to the greedy oppressors of v 8. It is a fundamental fact of life that the acquisition and enjoyment of "things" can never achieve satisfaction, primarily because -- no matter how rich one is -- there are always more "things" to be lusted for, and acquired. Unchecked desire always overtakes expanding means. This is a prescription for unhappiness. The fabulously wealthy John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much more money he wanted. He replied, "Just a little bit more!" My father once spoke of the richest family in the county where I grew up: "They don't want a lot more land -- just what adjoins them!" This is a problem for the whole human race. They get -- they want more; they get more -- they want yet more! "The leech has two daughters. 'Give! Give!' they cry"... some things and some people "are never satisfied" (Pro 30:15).

It should be noted that this verse speaks, not of those who HAVE money, but of those who LOVE money. Having and loving are not the same thing! One may -- like an Abraham -- possess much wealth, yet not truly love it -- but simply be grateful for it, and use it wisely and well. On the other hand, one may -- like a Judas -- have little or nothing in the way of this world's wealth, yet desperately desire such wealth -- so much so as to do almost anything to acquire it. This is of course the same point the apostle Paul was making when he wrote to Timothy: "People who WANT to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the LOVE of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1Ti 6:9,10).

I once worked in a downtown Austin bank. Austin at that time was an up-and-coming business center, but it still retained a lot of the old-time small-town flavor. At first I was impressed by the very well-dressed, well-groomed folks who came into the bank on business. At the same time, I was somewhat amused at the other sorts of customers who showed up -- farmers and ranchers in their pick-ups and old workclothes. But one day it dawned on me that the "fashionable" sort were there begging to borrow money, while the "old blue-jeans and dirty boots" set were there to invest the money they already had.

Ecc 5:11

AS GOODS INCREASE, SO DO THOSE WHO CONSUME THEM: As a man grows wealthier, so his servants and retainers and dependents increase. A vicious circle. Nor can he find greater and greater pleasure in grander and grander "consumption" (Ecc 6:2): bigger mansions, finer fashions, grander furniture, more expensive "toys".

AND WHAT BENEFIT ARE THEY TO THE OWNER EXCEPT TO FEAST HIS EYES ON THEM?: They provide no intellectual or moral or spiritual benefit -- only a "vain" sort of pleasure and pride. The only enjoyment left is to bring out one's riches in private, and gloat over them! And what a pallid "blessing" is that!

Ecc 5:12

THE SLEEP OF A LABORER IS SWEET, WHETHER HE EATS LITTLE OR MUCH: Cp Psa 4:8; Pro 3:24. Physical labor or exertion is a good reliever of stress, and an aid to digestion -- so the one who works well usually sleeps well.

BUT THE ABUNDANCE OF A RICH MAN PERMITS HIM NO SLEEP: There are two possibilities here: (1) "Abundance" = wealth. Wealth is "hebel" (meaningless, vain) because, rather than give satisfaction, it demands increased vigilance to protect it (insurance, financial advisers, security systems, etc) -- and along with such vigilance comes anxiety and worry. Or... (2) "Abundance" = over-indulgence, in food, drink, etc (cp Luk 21:34) -- which can cause one to lose sleep. The wealthier a country, the more sleeping aids of all sorts are sold there! "It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mat 19:16-26), and sometimes even to get a good night's sleep!

Ecc 5:13

I HAVE SEEN A GRIEVOUS EVIL UNDER THE SUN: WEALTH HOARDED TO THE HARM OF ITS OWNER: "Riches of their own have no power to impart satisfaction or joy. On the other hand, they can rob a man of sleep, destroy his tranquility of mind and spirit, and become a source of evil. Even Hezekiah was led astray by riches (2Ki 20:12-18). Paul, in powerful and direct language, warns of the deadly peril, the hurt and sorrow, that are associated with the lust for wealth (1Ti 6:5-10). It was the love of money, the deceitfulness of riches, that brought final ruin to the Laodicean ecclesia (Rev 3:14-17)" (Krygger). So Solomon, in Pro 1:19, speaks of "ill-gotten gain (which) takes away the lives of those who get it." "Whoever trusts in his riches will fall" (Pro 11:28; cp Luk 12:21; Jam 5:3).

Ecc 5:14

OR WEALTH LOST THROUGH SOME MISFORTUNE: "A bad venture" (RSV), or a bad investment. Or "bad luck" (NET).

SO THAT WHEN HE HAS A SON THERE IS NOTHING LEFT FOR HIM: Nothing to pass along as an inheritance to the next generation.

Ecc 5:15

Vv 15-17: The "living death" of Uzziah the leper in his own separate house. Cp 1Ti 6:7.

NAKED A MAN COMES FROM HIS MOTHER'S WOMB, AND AS HE COMES, SO HE DEPARTS. HE TAKES NOTHING FROM HIS LABOR THAN HE CAN CARRY IN HIS HAND: Man starts with nothing, and he finishes with nothing. In between, he may perhaps accumulate great possessions, but he cannot carry anything with him beyond the gates of death! "We are born with our hands gripping, but we die with them extended, letting go what we held fast" (Henry). Cp Ecc 2:17-20; Job 1:21; Psa 49:17; 1Ti 6:7.

NOTHING... IN HIS HAND: There is an irony here: while man can carry nothing material or tangible in his hand when he departs this life, he CAN carry with him a good character and a clean conscience! And such "possessions" are more than enough with which to face the great beyond!

Ecc 5:16

AS A MAN COMES, SO HE DEPARTS: Repeating v 15.

WHAT DOES HE GAIN, SINCE HE TOILS FOR THE WIND?: Here, perceptively, the writer defines wealth as "wind" -- that which is insubstantial, cannot be captured, and cannot be held. He feels it for a moment, it seems so real, and then it slips through his fingers and is gone for ever. Jesus seems to have this passage in mind when he asks: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mat 16:26).

Ecc 5:17

ALL HIS DAYS HE EATS IN DARKNESS, WITH GREAT FRUSTRATION, AFFLICTION AND ANGER: A miser refuses to spend his money to have light. And so he eats "the bread of sorrow" (Psa 127:2, AV) in darkness (cp Mic 7:8), which is symbolic of his sick spirit. Figuratively, men choose to live in the darkness of ignorance, due to the hardening of their hearts (Eph 4:18; cp Mat 6:23). And ultimately the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out (Pro 13:9).

FRUSTRATION: Preoccupations, worries, concerns, anxieties -- that may accompany the build-up and protecting of wealth.

AFFLICTION: Physical strain or sickness that accompany hard labor and struggle.

ANGER: Rage over thwarted expectations and schemes.

Ecc 5:18

THEN I REALIZED THAT IT IS GOOD AND PROPER FOR A MAN TO EAT AND DRINK: Cp Ecc 2:24n. To eat and drink is expressive of companionship, joy, and satisfaction, including religious celebration (Deu 14:26); here it symbolizes a contented and happy and fulfilled life. In Solomon's kingdom, eating and drinking were the means of describing a peaceful and prosperous time (1Ki 4:20,25; cp Jer 22:15).

PROPER: Literally "beautiful" (as KD). "Comely" (KJV), "fitting" (RSV).

AND TO FIND SATISFACTION IN HIS TOILSOME LABOR: As the Law itself commands in Deu 12:7.

DURING THE FEW DAYS OF LIFE GOD HAS GIVEN HIM -- FOR THIS IS HIS LOT: "Lot" or "portion" (AV) is Heb "cheleq", from a root word meaning "to be smooth" -- probably related to the smooth stones that were used in the drawing of lots. Thus the "few days of life" are man's allotted portion from God (cp Num 18:20; Deu 32:9); throughout Ecclesiastes, the term is used in reference to man's temporal profit from his labor and his reward from God (eg, Ecc 3:22; 9:9). So even in prosperity and thankfulness, in the enjoying of God's good gifts, there is a reminder of the inherent brevity of life.

Ecc 5:19

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: Contrary to what might appear from earlier verses in this chapter, the possession of wealth is not necessarily an evil. Contentment is the key: it matters not whether we are poor or wealthy, humble or distinguished... if we always accept that our portion is a gift from God then we will enjoy our lot with contentment. "But godliness with contentment is great gain... But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (1Ti 6:6). It is vain and foolish to rebel against our appointed portion and to challenge the wisdom of God's providential hand at work in our lives. If we believe that our lives are being directed and organized by God, then this divine principle will become the very core of our contentment: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phi 4:12,13).

"Enjoyment does not come from possessions, or from riches. Nor does it come from companionship, from popularity and fame, from the approval and the admiration of others. Enjoyment comes by knowing the Living God and taking everything from his hand with thanksgiving, whether it be pain or pleasure. That is the gift of God, and that is the lesson of this great book" (RS).

Qoheleth's advice may be summarized: Accept that both prosperity and adversity will be encountered in life. React consistently under both conditions -- remember that God is in charge, and that all things will ultimately work out for good (Rom 8:28). It is indeed appropriate to be happy at prosperity, but it is not appropriate to be resentful when adversity sets in. "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10).

Ecc 5:20

HE SELDOM REFLECTS ON THE DAYS OF HIS LIFE, BECAUSE GOD KEEPS HIM OCCUPIED WITH GLADNESS OF HEART: The man who is content with his blessings is happily occupied in the enjoyment of them, and in his daily labors -- and thus is less inclined to morbid introspection, or to undue worry and anxiety. He is not looking back with regret, or forward with fear. This same truth is expressed, but a bit more negatively, by Jesus: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Mat 6:34).

The word "seldom" does suggest, however, that -- even in the midst of enjoying life -- the wise man will periodically remember that his days are still numbered (Psa 90:12).

Previous Index Next