1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ESV
Up to this point, Solomon has provided us with a somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal look at life. He has revealed a perspective on life as seen from his unique vantage point as an aging monarch whose reflections are filled with regret and remorse. He sees himself as a preacher or teacher, whose responsibility as a leader of his people, is to share his mistakes and the insights he has gleaned from them.
In this section, Solomon moves into a slightly different mode, writing in more of a proverbial style, similar to that of the Book of Proverbs, which he wrote and edited. Proverbs are succinct, simple statements designed to teach powerful truths using few words, but in a memorable and impactful manner. Typically, proverbs are gathered in collections, with what appears to be little or no rhyme or reason as to their order or flow. They appear as isolated and seemingly unrelated thoughts, with each operating as a stand-alone statement of truth.
In chapter five, we have a series of these proverbs, and the first few all have something to do with making vows before God. As has been the case before, Solomon appears to be writing from experience. These are not simply words of wisdom he has run across and deemed worthy of including in his book. They are written from personal experience. And the very first one he shares has to do with the attitude one should bring into the house of God. When entering into the presence of God, attitude and actions should not be separated. He warns against offering sacrifices to God in a flippant and disrespectful manner, simply going through the motions while showing no reverence or fear for God while doing so. He recommends listening over sacrificing.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1 ESV
The Hebrew word translated as “listening” is shama` and it carries with it the idea of not just hearing, but obeying. Solomon knew that there was a real risk of showing up at the temple to offer the required sacrifices and failing to hear what God may be trying to say. You could end up going through the motions of sacrifice, while ignoring the very one to whom you were offering the sacrifice. There is little doubt that Solomon was very familiar with the words of the prophet Samuel, spoken to the first king of Israel, Saul.
“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT
Solomon’s own father, David, had discovered this same truth.
6 “You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings.
Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—
you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
7 Then I said, “Look, I have come.
As is written about me in the Scriptures:
8 I take joy in doing your will, my God,
for your instructions are written on my heart.” – Psalm 40:6-8 NLT
And it was Jesus who said to the Pharisees, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 12:7 NLT), after they accused His disciples of breaking the law by harvesting grain on the sabbath. Jesus was condemning these men of placing higher priority on the sacrificial system than on the God to whom the sacrifices were being offered. And Solomon warns his readers: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:3 ESV). There is a sense in which Solomon is sharing truth based on personal experience. He was not simply spouting a clever-sounding maxim, but revealing a painful, yet valuable lesson learned from real life. He reminds us that God is transcendent. He is in heaven and we are on earth. There is a great gulf that separates us, both literally and figuratively. God is holy and we are not. God is sinless and completely righteous in all He does. We are just the opposite. And we cannot afford to enter into His presence with a sense of dishonor or disrespect.
And one of the areas in which we can get ourselves into trouble with God is through the making of vows or commitments to God. Vows were commonplace in Solomon’s day. They were verbal commitments made to God. A vow was a solemn promise to do something for God or to offer a sacrifice to God in the hopes of receiving blessings from Him in return. And Solomon warns, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV). Once again, this is most likely Solomon speaking from his own personal experience. There is little doubt that he had made many rash vows to God, promising to do something for God in return for blessings from God. But he had failed to keep his word. And he had learned the valuable lesson that God does not suffer fools lightly. The kind of vows to which Solomon refers could have been free-will offerings to God that would not have been part of the required sacrificial system. The vow or promise to present one of these free-will offerings would usually have been during some moment of trouble or difficulty, in an attempt get God to provide rescue or relief. The book of Judges records just such a rash vow, made by Jephthah.
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV
And the story goes on to record that God gave Jephthah victory over the Ammonites. But it also reveals the tragic outcome of Jephthah’s rash vow.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” – Judges 11:34-35 ESV
Solomon wants his readers to know that God takes vows seriously, which is why he states, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 ESV). Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be hasty. Treat God as holy and don’t be too quick to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Because God will hold you to your word. Again, Solomon seems to speak from experience when he writes:
Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? – Ecclesiastes 5:6 ESV
And it would seem from this verse, that Solomon has widened the application to include vows or promises made to other individuals. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it. You cannot simply tell them that your original promise was a mistake.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some serious things to say about the matter of vows.
33 “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ 34 But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. 35 And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. 36 Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-36 NLT
Do you see what Jesus is saying? The prevalent perspective in His day was to keep any and all vows made to God. But Jesus warns not to make any vows at all. His reason for this was that the Jewish religious leaders had developed a variety of loop holes and workarounds that would allow people to make vows without having to keep them. And Jesus lists just a few. They had developed a system by which you could make a vow that was legally breakable because you made it based on something that was non-binding. Through clever use of words, you could make a vow that sounded binding, but it wasn’t. It sounded serious and gave the impression you intended to follow through on your commitment, but you knew you would not. These kinds of vows were little more than lies, and Jesus warned His followers not to make them. Instead, they were to say “Yes, I will!” or “No, I won’t!”
Solomon wraps up this short section with a somewhat enigmatic verse.
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV
The New Living Translation sheds some light on what Solomon may have been trying to say. “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” Someone who experiences an abundance of dreams ends up struggling with whether what they have dreamed has true significance or meaning. What are they to believe. The same is true when we use too many words and make too many vows. No one know whether what we say is true or to be believed. Remember what Solomon said: Let your words be few. Verbosity is no substitute for integrity. Why waste your time making promises, when you could make the promise happen instead?
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.