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ECCLESIASTES: PART SIX

PRESENTED ON 01-18-14

 

         Today we will continue with the series I began in September discussing the book of Ecclesiastes.  To date we have moved through the first four chapters of this book and today we will look at Chapter five. 

       Ecclesiastes 5:1: Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

       The Hebrew words translated “guard your steps” is a Hebrew figure of speech that means to watch your behavior when you go to the house of God.  A better translation is “guard your feet” as this is the Hebrew figure of speech being expressed here. Don’t allow your feet to walk in the wrong direction.  Don’t allow your feet to lead you into trouble.  We are going to see as we move along here that Solomon is addressing the issue of making vows to God and then failing to keep them.  But before we get into that let me say a few words about figures of speech used in the Scripture. 

       There are multiple hundreds of figures of speech used in Scripture.  Bullinger, in his Companion Bible, defines a figure of speech as a word or words used out of their ordinary sense, place or manner for the purpose of attracting our attention to what is said.  He goes on to say that a figure of speech is a designed and legitimate departure from the laws of language for the purpose of emphasizing what is said. In other words, figures of speech are attention grabbers. 

       Bullinger writes that “Figures are never used but for the sake of emphasis. They can never, therefore, be ignored. Ignorance of Figures of speech has led to the grossest errors, which have been caused either from taking literally what is figurative, or from taking figuratively what is literal.” 

       I might add to Bullinger’s statement that taking what is figurative as literal and what is literal as figurative has led to a lot of false doctrine in Christianity over the years, especially in the area of prophetic interpretation.  It is often a real challenge for students of the Scriptures to rightfully determine what is figurative and what is literal. 

       The exhortation to guard your steps or your feet is pretty clear.  Solomon isn’t instructing us to place some literal guard around our feet.  He is not instructing us to literally watch our feet so we don’t slip on ice, wet pavement or a banana peel.  He is using this figurative expression to say watch your behavior. Watch how you conduct yourself, and, as we will see, he is specifically addressing the issue of making vows. The same Hebrew figure of speech is used in the following Proverbs which Solomon also wrote.

       Proverbs 1:1 &16: My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them.  Verse 16:  for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood. 

       Proverbs 3:21-23: My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.

       When Solomon speaks of feet rushing into sin and keeping your foot from stumbling, he is talking about avoiding lawless behavior. Avoiding sin. He is talking about exercising caution, sound judgement and discernment in how you live.  

       Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is teaching that one should guard their feet when entering the house of God.  Of course, when Solomon wrote this the house of God was the temple he had built during his kingship over Israel.  He says "Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong."  We see in the following four verses what he is talking about.

       Ecclesiastes 5:2-5: 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.  As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.

       Solomon is addressing the issue of promising God you are going to do certain things and then not doing them.  To make a vow is to make a promise. Promising God you are going to do something is often done when people find themselves in some sort of crisis situation and they want God to deliver them from the crisis.  People often come before God during a crisis and promise God all sorts of things in exchange for God intervening on their behalf. 

       People virtual bargain with God in promising God they will do this or that if God will just intervene to save them from the crisis they are in.   People have vowed to God they will change if only He will heal them or if only he will provide a way out of financial difficulty, remove an addiction or correct a family problem.  People will promise to pray more, study their Bible more, go to church more, live a more moral life, treat their spouse better and the list goes on and on.

       The problem is that when a healing does take place, a financial difficulty is removed, a serious problem is resolved, the promises made to God are quickly forgotten until the next crisis and then the promises are made all over again in return for God’s favor.   God calls such behavior the behavior of a fool.  Solomon says it is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.  Solomon may have been thinking about what Moses wrote.

       Numbers 30:1-2: Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

       To make a vow to God and then fail to follow through on such vow is tantamount to lying.  We know to lie is to behave contrary to the will of God.  It is probably best to never make a vow to God.  We humans, being as weak as we tend to be, place ourselves at risk when doing so.  Jesus appears to have recognized the danger in making vows to God when he addressed this issue at one point during His ministry.   

       Matthew 5: 33-37:  “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all – not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one (NET).

       Apparently Jesus recognized out inability to follow through on a vow and appears to be teaching it is better we don’t make the kind of emphatic promises that are inherent in the making of a vow.  Solomon wrote a lot both here in Ecclesiastes and in the Proverbs about being very careful about what comes our of ones month.  He advises it is better to keep your mouth shut than to make promises you won’t keep.  He instructs that we should not make a promise to God and then realize it was a mistake.  God does not look favorable upon such  behavior.

       Ecclesiastics 5:6-7: Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the [temple] messenger, "My vow was a mistake." Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

       Solomon is saying recognize God for who He is.  Don’t lie to God.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  As I sang in the song last week, we are just a sinner saved by grace.  As sinners saved by grace, we have an obligation to respond to the grace of God by doing our best to obey Him.

       However, we should not audaciously think we can make promises that we in our humanity may have a very difficult time keeping.  Instead we should ask for and rely on the power of God’s Spirit to grant us the ability to be obedient.  We should, in humility, come before God with requests and not try to bribe God into answering prayer by promising to do this or that if only God will answer our prayer. 

       Solomon continues his dialog in what appears to be unrelated statements but yet statements that reflect his keen observations on life.

       Ecclesiastics 5:8: If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.

       Here Solomon is reflecting on the chain of command in government. Decisions are made at the top which are then administrated by the lower echelons of government all the way down to its lowest levels.  Policies carried out at the district level are reflective of policies enacted at the regional level which reflect polices established at the state and federal level. 

       We tend to criticize low level government officials for the way they handle certain situations but they often are simply carrying out polices of higher ranking officials who in turn are carrying out the policies of still higher ranking officials.  Such lower level workers would get fired if they didn’t carry out the policies of their superiors. 

       Unfortunately this chain of command often inhibits the exercise of common sense as we recently saw in Milwaukee with the firing of a Milwaukee County Transportation employee who was in violation of work rules.  While on duty, he intervened in a scuffle going on between a man a women where the women was apparently getting beat up and the transportation employee came to her aid.  Based on work rules that apparently prohibit getting involved in private matters while on duty, someone made the decision to fire this worker.    

       This decision was made because someone at a higher level of administration had at some point established this work rule and those at lower levels of administration were simply implementing this rule.  Just doing their job as the saying goes.  Fortunately, this gentleman got his job back following a backlash from both the private and public sectors. 

       Ecclesiastics 5:9:  The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

       Interpreters have had a difficult time with this passage.  There are three basic interpretations seen in various English translations of this verse.  Remember, translation always involves doing ones best to understand the meaning of a word or phrase in one language and then finding words in another language that best fit that meaning.  What makes translation of ancient documents difficult is that meaning of words change over the years.  A translator of the Hebrew Bible into English can’t just go to a current Hebrew Lexicon and use the meaning of a word as it is currently being used in the Hebrew language. The translator has to try and determine how a word or phrase was used and understood in ancient times. 

       One interpretation of the Hebrew here is that the king takes care of the security of the cultivated land.  A second interpretation is that the king is in favor of a prosperous agricultural policy and a third interpretation of the Hebrew is that the king exploits the poor farmers: Some feel the best interpretation is to see this statement within the context of exploiting the poor since this is what Solomon is dealing with in verse 8.  This interpretation is reflected in the NIV.

       On the other hand, the Septuagint treats the syntax so the king is viewed in a neutral sense.  The abundance of the earth is seen as being for everyone and the king is dependent on the tilled field just like everyone else.  Most English versions deal with the syntax in this manner so that the king is viewed in a neutral or positive sense.

       Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field (KJV).

       The best thing for a country is a king whose own lands are well tilled (NEB),

       The produce of the land is seized by all of them, even the king is served by the fields (NET).

       You can see the different ways in which the Hebrew syntax is understood for this passage.  Solomon now turns to the subject of money.

       Ecclesiastics 5:10-11: Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.   As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?

       It should be pointed out that Solomon is not saying to be wealthy is wrong.  Solomon, himself, was very wealthy.  Solomon is pointing out that the love of money is where the problem is.  A person who places his affection on having wealth is always seeking greater wealth.  Having money and wealth becomes an end unto itself.  Such people spend their whole life trying to increase wealth and often fail to enjoy what their wealth can offer.  What is of greater concern is that some horde their wealth rather than share it with those in need. 

       Solomon is pointing out that to just continue to accumulate stuff so that you and sit and gaze at it is not the way to go.  Ones life is not defined by how much stuff one has. Jesus made this very clear at one point during His ministry.

       Luke 12:15-21:  Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."  And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, `What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'  "Then he said, `This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' "But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

       The last line of this passage is instructive. Jesus is indicating the main problem with the rich man was that he stored up things for himself and was not rich toward God.  It is not wrong, in and of itself, to store up things.  To prepare for a rainy day is just common sense.  The problem is doing so at the expense of not being rich toward God.  What does it meant to be rich toward God?  Jesus answers that question in his continuing dialog with His disciples after giving the parable about the rich man.

       Luke 12: 29-34: And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

       There is so much being revealed in this statement that I could give a sermon just on this passage.  Jesus is saying don’t set your heart on what you eat or drink.  He is not saying don’t provide for yourself.  He is not saying you should not be prepared for emergencies.  Don’t set your heart on it.  Don’t allow providing for yourself to become the all consuming focus in your life.  Jesus is saying that if you seek the kingdom, your needs will be met.  You will have the wherewithal necessary to live and provide for yourself and your family.

       Jesus goes on to show how the Father wants to give us the kingdom and the kingdom is tied to how we conduct ourselves relative to helping others who are in need.  Jesus instructs to sell ones possessions and give to the poor.  Some have mistakenly read this to mean we are to sell all we have and give to the poor.  Well if we did that we would become the poor and we would have to be given support.  This is not what Christ is saying.  He is saying we should take care to properly provide for ourselves and our families.  He is saying we also have the obligation to look after the needs of others.

       In looking after the needs of others we build treasure in heaven.  In other words, our focus is not to be on earthly treasure.  We are to use earthly treasure to help those in need and by doing so we will be pleasing to God and God will reward us with heavenly treasure.  It is heavenly treasure that we are to be seeking by fulfilling our responsibilities to our fellow man. 

       Ecclesiastics 5:12-14: The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him.

       Here Solomon continues with pointing out the problems associated with accumulating wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth.  When ones focus is on ones stuff, it can weigh on your mind and cause sleep problems.  Horded wealth can be very harmful to ones mental health as it can produce the constant fear of loss.  When such loss occurs, it can put one over the edge.  Look at all the suicides that occurred in the 1929 crash of the economy.   Solomon now sums up what he has been saying by providing sound advice as to how we are to conduct our lives.

       Ecclesiastics 5:15-20: Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?  All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him--for this is his lot. Moreover, 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. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.

       Solomon reflects on what should be apparent to us all.  We come into the world having nothing but our life.  During our life on this earth we struggle and strive to accomplish and attain but ultimately we have to give up our physical life and all that we accomplished and accumulated is left to others.  In reflecting on this, Solomon realized that since this is the case, it apparently is what God intended and we should take what God gives us and enjoy it.  In so doing we won’t spend time worrying about how long we are going to live or how much stuff we can accumulate.  Our focus will be on doing the best we can with what we have been given and leave the rest up to God. 

       This corresponds well with what Jesus said about setting our focus on the kingdom.  If we set our focus on the kingdom, then everything else will fall into place.  Setting our focus on the kingdom is to live ours live in harmony with the behavioral requirements of the kingdom.   It means embracing the two great laws to love God and our neighbor.  In loving our neighbor we provide for our neighbor when in need.  We follow the example of the Good Samaritan and go out of our way when necessary to help those in need even thought it may require sacrifice on our part.

       Serving and meetings the needs of others is foundational to being a Christian.  It is foundational to being a decent human Being.  It is foundational to pleasing God and being recipients of the heavenly treasure Jesus spoke of in Luke 12. 

 Next week we will discuss chapter 6.

PART SEVEN