Properly Approaching God
Proceeding into the second section’s last subsection (Ecclesiastes 5:1-17), Solomon now for the first time directly addresses his audience with several exhortations, starting in verses 1-7 with cautions about coming before God. As has been pointed to already, the answers to the problems of the human condition lie with Him. But the Creator and Ruler of the universe must be treated with humble reverence and submission.
The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes states: “Earth’s ‘vanity’ has been recognized (Ecclesiastes 1:2–2:23), but [then] considered in the light of the life God gives (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26) and the assurance of his sovereignty (Ecclesiastes 3:1-13). Injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22) and various forms of isolation (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16) have been faced. We stand in need of an altogether greater companionship [—the needed Comforter]. The Preacher earlier told of a God who gives a life of joy and pleasure. May he be approached? This question is now answered in terms of the house of God, obedience, sacrifice (v. 1), prayer (vv. 2f.), vows (v. 4). But there are dangers. If God is ‘in heaven’, the ruler (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15) and judge (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22), he cannot be approached casually. So a proverbial unit is inserted dealing with our approach to God” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).
It’s noteworthy that, as commentator James Limburg points out, “Ecclesiastes 5 is the place in the book where the most concentrated statements about God are found, with a total of 10 occurrences of the word” (Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 2006, p. 79).
The phrase “walk prudently” (verse 1) is literally “guard your feet” (NKJV Study Bible, note on verse 1)—that is, watch your step. And the context is that of going to “the house of God.” In Solomon’s time that meant going to worship God at the temple. Today the house of God is the spiritual temple made up of His people—the Church (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Timothy 3:15). The mention of God being in heaven (Ecclesiastes 5:2) could perhaps signify that God’s heavenly abode is intended, so that the meaning could apply generally to coming before God anywhere, even in private prayer. Yet the fact that we are then told to “draw near to hear” (verse 1) would seem to indicate a place of instruction. Of course, people of that time typically did not have their own copies of the Scriptures, so they had to go to where God’s Word was kept and proclaimed to be instructed. Today we still need to assemble to learn God’s ways, but we can also receive instruction from the Bible in private study. Moreover, the Hebrew word shema means more than “hear.” It means to attentively listen and heed, and is often translated obey.
Contrasted with hearing obediently is what we are not to do—“give the sacrifice of fools” (same verse). Note that what follows are warnings against being rash with the mouth and to let our words be few (verses 2-7). So the rash, multitudinous words are evidently the foolish sacrifice. Consider the opposite in Hosea 14:2, which encourages words of repentance, and offering “the sacrifices [literally “calves”] of our lips”—elsewhere referred to as “the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips,” which we are to continually be offering (Hebrews 13:15).
The warning is not against lengthy prayers to God so much as it is about not being cautious and sincere in what we say—and failing to realize that we should not be making commitments we may not be able to fulfill. Solomon states, “For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (verse 2). The point is that God is the One in heaven with the supreme vantage point and control over earthly circumstances. We are not. The New American Commentary notes on verses 1-7: “This text is similar to Deut[eronomy] 23:21-23 [about keeping vows to God], but the emphasis in Ecclesiastes is on the limitations of human knowledge and the contingency of human existence. We should be careful about making great promises to God because we do not know if our circumstances tomorrow will be what they are today. We may not be able to fulfill the vows we make. Thus our promises before God would be shown to be no more than idle boasts, and we will fall under judgment” (Garrett).
We find similar warnings against swearing and making claims about what we will do tomorrow in the New Testament, with the point made that we can’t ensure things will happen as we profess (Matthew 5:33-37; James 4:13-16; James 5:12).
Furthermore, Jesus told us to address God in prayer as “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9)— focusing on His sovereign position where He sits at the controls of the universe, as it were, and recognizing that we are far below Him. We are not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to (Romans 12:3). Expositor’s states regarding Ecclesiastes 5:1-2: “In contrast to the power complexes of the previous chapter, we are brought quietly into the presence of God. Jesus may have had these verses in mind when he told the story of the two who went to the temple to pray [one a proud Pharisee who saw himself more righteous than others and one a tax collector who would not look up to heaven but prayed for mercy as a sinner] (Luke 18:9-14). Here is a keen analysis of motives in prayer and worship. We come before God in humility, recognizing his majesty and his right to our lives. We seek his guidance and listen to his words” (Wright).
The Preaching the Word commentary notes: “The Creator/creature distinction has practical implications for what we say when we worship. We need to know our place, remembering both who God is and who we are. Isaiah said in one of his famous prophecies [which we quoted earlier in our comments on Ecclesiastes 3:11], ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8-9)” (Ryken, p. 123).
The statement in Ecclesiastes 5:3, “For a dream comes through much activity, and a fool’s voice is known by his many words,” is apparently a proverb—and is paralleled by the statement in verse 7: “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity.” The meaning of both statements is debated. It should be acknowledged that an intensely busy schedule and dealing with many concerns may trigger more dreams while sleeping, yet how does that parallel a fool’s voice being known for many words in verse 3—many dreams and many words being linked together as vanity in verse 7? The New American Commentary maintains that “the word ‘dreams’ refers not to literal dreams, whether as revelations sought by sleeping in a holy place or as the disturbed sleep of one who has many anxieties. Instead, the word is used metaphorically, as in the English, ‘He has big dreams.’ Those who have many troubles may fantasize of performing great and noble acts, but their aspirations are meaningless [or amount to nothing]. Similarly, many words (which proceed from the speaker’s presumption that he is wise) mark a person a fool [see also 10:14]. Verse 7a could be translated, ‘In excess dreaming there is an abundance of both vanities and words.’ In context these proverbs mean that fools seek to advance themselves before God with great vows and promises” (note on verses 3-7).
We should not be making rash and foolish vows before God, particularly in attempts to bribe or bargain with God, but verses 4-6 warn that if a person does vow he should be sure to follow through. As David earlier wrote, God will receive the person “who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind” (Psalm 15:4, NIV). The “messenger” in Ecclesiastes 5:6 before whom the one who vowed was not to say it was made in error was most likely a priest or other person sent from the temple to confirm or collect the vow. “The trouble was that some people tried to get out of their commitments by coming up with all kinds of lame excuses. (‘Vow? What vow? There must be some kind of mistake!’)” (PTW, p. 126). Of course we’ll all have to face the ultimate Messenger of God—Jesus Christ (Romans 14:10).
Thankfully He and the Father are merciful. “Once again we can only cast ourselves on the mercy of God, pray that he will forgive us for everything we have failed to do, and ask him to accept us through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only one who ever kept all his promises to God, including his own vow to offer a holy sacrifice—the sacrifice of his body for our sins” (p. 126). By God’s mercy through Christ we are able to be forgiven for all our failures upon repentance and faith. And we now have help to keep our commitments to God and others. We are helped by “a Savior who knows what it means to keep a commitment, who did everything he promised to the very death” (p. 126).
Instead of lofty imaginings about ourselves, we need to get real. For as Ecclesiastes 5:7 says, the answer to vanity or frustration or fruitless or worthless life is to “fear God”—to be in humble awe and properly concerned to not incur His disappointment and judgment, deeply motivated to follow what He says, as we saw in 3:15—again, the very beginning of true wisdom. This is a preview of the conclusion of the whole book, bringing together its grand themes of vanity apart from God and the need to fear and obey Him (see Ecclesiastes 12:8, Ecclesiastes 12:13).