Previous article in this series: September 15, 2012, p. 493.
The Word of God in Ecclesiastes 5 turns from considering the general vanity of men to their worship of God, for in that worship of God the folly of sin also manifests itself. Before describing that folly, the text turns to an exhortation, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God” (Eccl. 5:1).
God’s house, the temple, was the visible manifestation of God’s presence with His people, His covenant dwelling place. It is today the gathering of the body of Christ, the church, which is the “habitation of God through the Spirit” (.) Entering that house, we enter into the presence of God to have covenant fellowship and communion with Him. The holy majesty of God calls forth the exhortation, “keep thy foot,” or feet. The point of that calling is a serious one. Keeping one’s foot involves pondering our pathway, having a clear understanding of who we are and who God is as our exalted covenant God. It requires a reflection on Him into whose presence we come, before whom we speak, and to whom we bring our worship. That pathway spiritually is the way of the reverence of faith, the fear of God, with which Solomon concludes this section: “But fear thou God” (Eccl. 5:7).
Entering the presence of God as His dependent people we come not in our own strength or wisdom but as those in need of grace and wisdom that only God can give. Solomon therefore adds, “and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil” (Eccl. 5:1). Entering the presence of God in worship, desiring communion with Him in His house, we come to hear, to be taught of God, seeking His Word and His will. This was true for a child of God in the Old Testament as well as for us. He needed to be taught the law of God and His promises, and so do we. This is the proper fruit of that spiritual preparation of heart that guides our feet unto the house of God.
The fool, by contrast, does not consider where he is going or into whose presence he comes. He is not “more ready to hear.” The text speaks of the “sacrifice of fools.” While that includes a false and formal or ritualistic kind of worship, it embraces all his spiritual activity in God’s house. It embraces not only the sacrifices of bulls and goats laid upon the altar as empty form, but his thoughtless words and prayers, as is clear from the following context and the entering into a vow. The prayer of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee (), in its pride and self-righteous boasting, is the sacrifice of a fool.
The Word of God therefore adds: “Be not rash with thy mouth and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). The prayer of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (), and his attitude, in which he would not lift his eyes to heaven, reflects the truth expressed here. God is infinitely exalted and absolutely righteous and holy. Before Him we are mere creatures of the dust upon earth and, moreover, sinners. We are utterly dependent upon Him, not only for life and breath, but for grace and pardon for sin, for His mercy. His heavenly majesty must fill us with awe, even as the wonder that He is yet also our covenant God who condescends to know us in His love in Christ drives out terror and dread.
There was a time in the history of the church in the transition to the Middle Ages, and throughout them, when the exalted majesty of God and of the glorified Christ was so misused that God in Christ was almost unapproachable, except through mediators like Mary and the saints, who would mediate with the Mediator. Our Belgic Confession of Faith addresses this in Article 26 on “Christ’s Intercession.” Today the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, under the influence of humanistic Arminianism, to the extent that the reverence of faith, the fear of God, has been destroyed in the modern church. The admonition of the text is one we need to hear, “for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”
The Word of God points us to further reason, rooted in the vanity of the world under the sun. “For a dream cometh though a multitude of business” (Eccl. 5:3). After the labors of the day with its busy cares, worries, and stress, one’s sleep is often disturbed by the random wandering of the mind in dreams in the night. Such dreams are an empty vanity. In like manner, “a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words” (Eccl. 5:3). In a multitude of words the vanity of sin is to be found. The same random wandering of the dreaming mind comes now in speech of the fool’s voice, so that, “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin” (). While this is true in general, the point of the text is sharper, for it has in view words uttered before God. Man in his rashness with his mouth, his irreverence before God, reveals himself a fool. He himself is vanity. Much of that which passes for the worship of God in our age has this character. It is senseless and thus profane, like the prayer of the Pharisee, concerned with his own importance, full of man’s voice, but with no true fear of God. It is the sacrifice of fools. “But fear thou God” (Eccl. 5:7) is a needed warning for us also.
This truth is next applied to the vow. “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed” (Eccl 5:4). Such vows were a voluntary act of devotion. They were made before God in gratitude for His goodness and grace. Sometimes they were an act of thanksgiving, as in the case of Jephthah the judge, in anticipation of God’s blessings. Vows, also necessary ones, such as entering into marriage or when presenting our children for baptism, are profound spiritual acts, which call God to witness. Similar to an oath, the principle of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 37, Q/A 102 concerning the oath, applies to them, namely “… calling upon God, as the only one who knows the heart, that He will bear witness to the truth, and punish me if I swear falsely.”
Jesus references this passage among others when He warns against rash and profane swearing, which characterized the church of that day (ff,) and tells us to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” The vow was to be a solemn act of gratitude to God, grounded in His promises and blessings, made in consciousness of the truth that He alone enabled one to keep and perform it. This is still the case in our marriage and baptismal vows. The world we live in has no longer any conception of the seriousness of the oath or vow, not even a superstitious regard. The Christian church likewise, in its tolerance of divorce and remarriage, no longer takes the vow seriously, yet “…the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth” ( ).
The abuse of the oath or vow is a serious matter, as the text points out: God “hath no pleasure in fools.” King Saul troubled the people of God with such an oath, which he placed upon them for his own vain glory (). The people were robbed of a complete victory over the Philistines that day and were led into sin because of it. We do well to take the warning of the text seriously. Solomon adds, “Better it is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:5).
Such vows were often connected with thank offerings and sacrifices that pointed to Christ, and as such they were serious acts of devotion, faith, and worship. The fool is one who is rash with his mouth in what he utters before God (Eccl. 5:2). Solomon warns, “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error” (Eccl. 5:6). The point is that a rash vow leaves one guilty before God. Vowing what cannot be performed, or making a careless vow, profanes the glory of God. Seeking then to worm one’s way out of it compounds the error. The picture is that of making excuses before the priest, the angel or messenger of God, so as to take back the vow, to thus make it void and not have to fulfill it. It makes a mockery of the spiritual character of the vow by seeking to reduce it to a simple mistake. God judges such sin, and so Solomon adds, “wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?” (Eccl. 5:6).
God visits the sin, not only of profane swearing, but also of vows entered into in an empty and vain manner. Vows before God, taken consciously in His presence and resting upon His promises and in His grace to keep and perform them, are blessed. For He who is the witness to them is also the only one who can give us the grace to perform them. The Word of God therefore brings both the warning and the calling together here. “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God” (Eccl. 5:7). The fear of God must stand at the heart of all worship, prayer, and the making and performance of the vow. That fear is the reverence of faith, which stands before the majesty of God who is in heaven and sovereign over all things. The life of the world is full of the vanity of sin, but in the presence of the sovereign and exalted God and in His fear, there is peace. Drawing near to God in godly fear in Christ, seeking His grace and waiting to hear, we enter into the blessings of living communion with God. Like the publican who drew near to God confessing himself a sinner in need of God’s mercy, we also go down to our house justified, righteous before God in His grace (), for “…he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”