A commentary on Ecclesiastes 5
Solomon’s brutally honest assessment of life in general in Ecclesiastes chapter four leads to an equally brutally honest assessment of his own achievements as king in chapter five. He had been a workaholic, and as king, that meant he was busy not only with his own business, but with everyone else’s business as well. As an old man, he reflects on the question of his own integrity at work during his most productive years.
1 Watch how you walk when you go to the house of God. Drawing near for the purpose of listening is better than merely offer gifts like fools, because they do not even know they are acting improperly. 2 Do not be impulsive with that mouth of yours, and do not let your heart hurry to say what it wants to say to God, because God lives in the sky and you are on the land. For that reason, you should keep your words few. 3 Because a nightmare comes from working too hard, and too many words reveal a fool’s voice.
He reflects on how he had abused religion to bolster his own ego, and to drive his own ambition. He used to go to the temple just to brag about all his accomplishments in public. And – once there, he could not resist the temptation to vow to build more things “for the glory of God.” He could not resist the temptation to “give to God” more stuff – stuff God never asked for, and does not need. It was never about God, and it never really glorified God. It was all for the purpose of Solomon feeding his own desire for self-glorification.
So, now an older and wiser man, Solomon advises the next generation – and ours – to shut up and listen when they go to church. Real religion does not consist of showing off before the public. It consists of “caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”1
4 If you actually promise something to God, do not wait to make good your promise, because he is not pleased by such foolishness. Pay what you promise. 5 In fact, it would be better not to promise anything than to promise and not pay. 6 Do not let that mouth of yours cause you to sin, and do not excuse your promise by claiming it was a mistake. Why cause God to be angry at your excuse and destroy what you have accomplished? 7 Because when the nightmares keep coming, and words mount, it shows how impermanent life is. God is the one who should matter to you.
Solomon remembered all those times when he entered the temple and boasted of building this and giving that. He remembered that some of those times they were empty boasts, and he did not carry out his promises. When that happened, it was God’s reputation that was damaged. It would be better to not promise anything than to promise and not fulfil the promise. The wise person is considerate of God, because he is number one, and we are not.
8 If you are overseeing a province and you catch someone oppressing its poor people, and doing unjust and unrighteous things, do not be surprised that it happened. Because the overseer is being watched by someone over him, and both are being watched by yet higher ones. 9 This set-up profits the land in every way. It means that a king is committed to cultivating all his fields.
Solomon learned that depravity is built into the DNA of human beings. The idea that we are all basically good is not only naïve, it is unbiblical. If you have a supervisory position, sooner or later you will catch someone doing something unethical. Solomon recognized this fact, and suggested that a multi-layer oversight system makes for a healthy society.
10 Someone who loves money will never be satisfied with the money he has, nor someone who loves wealth with his current income. This fact testifies to the impermanence of money. 11 The more things you get, the more consumers there will be to eat them up, and what good is this for the owner? He just watches the process. 12 A hard worker sleeps well, no matter how much he eats, but the full stomach of the rich man will not allow him to sleep.
Solomon had organised and sponsored and supervised numerous work projects. He spent many sleepless nights worrying about meeting deadlines and accomplishing his goals. He had all the money he could ever want, but it was never enough to fill the void itself. Ironically, he envied those workers who essentially had nothing, but slept soundly every night from a hard day’s work.
Now, as an old man, he reflects on the misery that all that money brought him. He reveals that wealth had been a stress causer rather than a stress reliever. Even when he had it all, most of his time was spent watching it go away.
13 I have noticed such a terribly wrong thing under the sun: treasures were being hoarded by their owner — even though it hurt him to do so, 14 then those treasures were lost in a bad investment. And he had a son to look after, but he had nothing in his hand to pass on to him. 15 Just like he came from his mother’s uterus he shall go away, naked as he came, and he will take nothing for all his work with him. 16 This shows a terrible wrong: just like he came, so he will go, and what did he get for working for wind? 17 Furthermore, he spends those work days eating in the dark, aggravated, sick and angry.
Solomon is talking about those who once had means to provide for their own and lost it. Just one bad break, and they are left working hard for nothing, “eating in the dark, aggravated, sick and angry.” Solomon saw this as a terrible wrong because he had lived his life with ever-expanding ambition and expectation. He looked at lives spent with no hope of progress and was perplexed.
There are many all around us who have had the bad break. They have no hope anymore. They need to know the new life that Jesus can bring. They need hope again.
18 Take note of this! I have discovered that the proper and appropriate way to live is to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all your work under the sun. A person only has a few days to live that God has given, this is what he is given. 19 For those to whom God has given wealth and possessions and ability to enjoy them, accept that gift and rejoice in that work – it is a gift from God. 20 A person so blessed will not much remember the hard days of his life because God will have kept him busy doing what made him happy.
Solomon reflects on his busy and productive life in Ecclesiastes 5 and concludes that somewhere in the midst of all that he did and in spite of all he had, he did not stop and thank God for it all. He could have found enjoyment in knowing that everything he had was a gift from God, and all his work was a reason to rejoice in God’s grace. So, he offers that wisdom to the next generation. Never be too busy to acknowledge the grace of God in your life and your work. Accept his gifts, and take joy in his love.
- James 1:27 NLT.