Last week’s portion of Ecclesiastes had to do with worship, with “going into the house of God” and how we should enter and conduct ourselves in God’s house. I think the first thing to be noted is that it was expected that one would “go to the house of God.”
With COVID and the availability of preaching on our televisions and computers, some people have opted to stay home. It has become too easy to sit around in our pajamas, allowing the kids to play in their rooms and sip our morning coffee while we watch a sermon.
Yet we should rather have the attitude of the ancient Israelites, who even though they had to march for miles in dry, barren country and go uphill for the last few miles, would go up to Jerusalem at least three times a year and said to one another, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”
There are many reasons for attending worship services instead of staying home and watching services digitally. First, you miss out on the fellowship of the saints. Second, there are no opportunities for you to serve. Third, you neglect corporate prayers and accountability. And fourth, you miss out on the special presence of God in communion.
So I hope you will “go the house of God” of your choice this week. Go back to your former church, or try out someplace new.
Here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon says…
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.
Today we are going to focus in on vv. 3-7. The main point of these verses seems to be that we should not make vows that we cannot keep.
Solomon expresses the idea in verse 1 that it is better to listen when we are at church, rather than talk. We are to “let our words be few.” Why? Because “God is in heaven and you are on earth.” God is the one in charge. He has all authority. He is in control.
We might imagine that our business and our dreams have some weight. All that we’re worked for or envisioned certainly seems important to us.
The Living Bible expresses the thought of verse 3 well:
“Just as being too busy gives you nightmares, so being a fool makes you a blabbermouth.”
In God’s presence, be quiet and listen. Speaking betrays our own self-importance but merely makes us a fool.
It is hard to be wise all the time, and the more talking we do, the greater the chance that we will say something foolish, especially when we worship. As a general rule, fools are verbose (cf. Ecclesiastes 10:14). They rarely keep their thoughts to themselves but tend to do a lot of talking.
Even in Proverbs Solomon warns against “many words.” In Proverbs 10:19, he says…
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
Moses would affirm this as it was his words spoken in anger that kept him from entering the promised land. Measured and weighed words are wise words. The more of them we speak – the more likely our sin nature will be expressed in them. Thus, the greater volume of words – the more likely there will be ones spoken that are sinful.
The word “transgression” is an interesting word to use in this proverb. Transgression is the Hebrew word “pasha” which means a rebellion or revolt – a breaking with authority. The idea is that of breaking with God and His perfect and absolute truth and wisdom. Instead, we speak and within those words we depart from what He says. In a verse that promises us prosperity, God says to Joshua to not let God’s Word depart from his mouth. This is true when speaking with men and with God.
Wisely consider your words before you speak, rather than regret them after they are out. My father used to tell me, “It is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
In Proverbs 17:27 Solomon presents the other side of this admonition by saying
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Thus, James tells us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger…”
Solomon repeats the same idea in verse 7:
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Really, it is not the number of words that is the primary issue, but whether you give enough thought to the issue before you speak.
Whether we pray or sing or make vows, we need to think about what we are saying.
Even Jesus taught us not to keep babbling on and on like pagans but simply to go to our Father with our requests (see Matthew 6:7ff.).
Jesus Christ is our perfect example. Although there is little said about how he listened to people, it is most likely that he did—really listen to people’s needs and hearts. But He also is our perfect example with regard to talking. He only spoke the truth. Although he was bold, he never spoke rashly.
Even when he was persecuted, he did not respond in unrighteous anger. To the very end of his life, when he was dying on the cross, every word that Jesus ever spoke was carefully chosen.
The central issue in this passage is making vows and not keeping them. Very possibly this is in the context of stating that one would obey God’s Word, and then failing to do so.
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.
It is not entirely inappropriate to making a vow to God. However, they can be abused. They can be a way of saying that you will do something and then either intentionally or not, failing to follow through.
After telling us to listen up and to watch what we say, the Preacher now tells us what to do. He says, “Do what you say.” Or to be more precise, he says, “Pay what you vow.” Here Ecclesiastes is talking about one very specific kind of speech — the promises that we make before God.
Integrity is doing what you say you will do. When you lack integrity, you might use vows to bolster your credibility, especially among those whom you have failed before.
In Biblical times people often made vows to God, usually in the context of public worship (see Leviticus 22:18–20). We find this language in some of the psalms, like Psalm 50:14 (“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High”) or Psalm 65:1 (“Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed”). We also see examples in stories from the Old Testament, such as the story of Hannah, who vowed to dedicate her firstborn son to the ministry of a priest (1 Samuel 1:11), or Jephthah, who rashly made a vow that cost him his daughter (Judges 11:29–40).
Here in Ecclesiastes we are not talking about a sinful vow but about a holy promise to offer God a gift or sacrifice, like the vow Asaph described in Psalm 76:11: “Make your vows to the LORD your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared.” The point the Preacher is making here is very simple: if we make a vow, we need to be sure that we do what we say and pay God what we owe.
It is much easier to make a promise than to keep it, isn’t it? People do this with God all the time, especially when they are bargaining with him in prayer. They say things like, “God, if only you will forgive me just this once, I swear I will never commit that sin again,” or “I promise that as soon as I get more money, I will start giving 10 percent back to you.”
If you have ever offered a prayer like that — as many people have — then you also know how easy it is to forget what you promised! Before we know it, we are committing that same old sin again or being just as selfish with our money as ever, in which case it would be better if we had never made God a promise at all.
Jesus told a parable about someone like that — a son who said he would do what his father said and go out to work in the fields, but never went (Matthew 21:28–31). The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes would have called the boy a fool because he never did what he said.
It is not just our words that we owe to God but also our works. If we tell him we will do something — if we make a commitment to ministry, for example, or if we pledge to give our money for kingdom work — then we need to do what we promised and pay what we owe. In fact, Ecclesiastes says that we need to do it without delay. Following through promptly on our commitments is an important part of practical godliness.
Another way to say this is, don’t play games with God! If you promise him something, be a man or a woman of your word. In some cases this means that it would be better for us not to promise God anything at all. But the Bible assumes that there are times when it is appropriate for us to take spiritual vows, like the vows of covenant matrimony, for example, or the promises people make when they become members of a church. When we are considering a vow, here is some good advice for us to follow, from the worthy old preacher Charles Bridges:
A solemn engagement advisedly made with God is a transaction needing much prayer and consideration. It should rest on the clear warrant of God’s word. It should concern a matter really important, suitable, and attainable. It should be so limited, as to open a way for disentanglement under unforeseen contingencies, or altered circumstances (Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (1860; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961), p. 105).
We should fulfill our vows first because we’ve made them to God. He deserves our faithfulness because He has kept every promise to us.
A second reason we should keep our promises to God is that it is sin not to. Verse 6 says…
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?
The word for sin here is chatah. It is the archer’s word for “missing the mark.” While this doesn’t seem to be a highly offensive way of referring to sin, it is this very sin that condemns us before God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)
There are many ways that our mouths can lead us into sin (just read James 3!). But presumably what the Preacher has in mind here is the great sin of failing to keep the promises that we make to God.
We might want to call it a “mistake,” like “you’ve misunderstood me,” but in reality it is a sin to make a promise to God (really to anyone) and not keep it.
God does not take broken vows lightly. A broken vow may incur His judgment and He may “destroy the work of your hands.” The “much business” that swells our sense of self-importance and causes us to talk too much and be rash in making promises, may be destroyed right from under our feet.
What God wants is highlight by David as one of the characteristics of true believers allowed into God’s presence in Psalm 15. Verse 4 says “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”
There are times when we make a promise, when the skies are blue, and suddenly a storm blows in and damages our ability to make good on that promise. The good circumstances surrounding the initial promise are no longer present when the promise is due to be fulfilled. In fact, it is a lot harder now to fulfill that promise. But the person that God allows in His presence fulfills that promise. Though circumstances have changed for the worse, he does not change and fulfills his promise no matter how much pain or cost it requires now.
John Piper gives an example from the life of Amaziah, asking “where do we get the strength of character” to keep promises that have become so difficult to keep. He writes…
There is a story in the Old Testament that gives an answer (2 Chronicles 25:5-9). Amaziah was the king of Judah. He was being threatened by the Edomites. So he counted the men in his country above 20 years old, and formed an army of 300,000 men.
He also went to the northern kingdom of Israel and hired 100,000 valiant warriors. He paid them 100 talents of silver (about 6,600 pounds of silver).
But this displeased the Lord and a man of God came to Amaziah and said, “O king, do not let the army of Israel go with you, for the Lord is not with Israel … God will bring you down before the enemy.”
You can imagine Amaziah’s first thought. “Amaziah said to the man of God, ‘But what shall we do for the hundred talents which I have given to the troops of Israel?’” It was a reasonable question. It is the question we all ask when we have made a rash commitment of money and things go wrong. Should Amaziah stand by his commitment to the warriors of Israel when he tells them to go home? What should he do?
The answer of the man of God was simple: “The Lord has much more to give you than this.” In other words: trust God and keep your word. Stand by your commitment because the Lord will take care of you and see that your integrity is rewarded in ways that you could never imagine.
The issue at a moment like this is trust. Will we trust God to act for us? Will we take Psalm 37:5 to heart and bank on it: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in him and he will act”? The issue is trust. Will we trust God to come through for us in his way and in his time?
Many promises are broken because people do not trust God. In fact they don’t even think of God. He is not in the equation. Money is in the equation. Shrewdness is in the equation. Human probabilities are in the equation. But God is forgotten. He is just not as real as the money we might lose.
I call you to reckon with the powerful, relevant, present, promising reality of God. Be holy. Be faithful. Keep your promises. Be people of unimpeachable integrity. For God’s sake. “He is a shield to those who walk in integrity” (Proverbs 2:7).
The Preacher closes this passage by describing the heart attitude that we ought to bring to everything we say and do in worship: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).
If “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (as Solomon once said; Proverbs 1:7), then this is one of the wisest verses in Ecclesiastes. It brings together the two grand themes of this great book. Ecclesiastes began with the vanity of vanities — the futility of life in a fallen world. Here we see such vanity in the idle daydreams and foolish words of a churchgoer who only pretends to worship, without ever really offering his mind and his heart to God.
We also see the Preacher’s answer to life’s vanity. At the end of Ecclesiastes, when he finally reaches the conclusion of his spiritual quest, he will say that the goal of life is the fear of God (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The book thus moves from vanity to reverence. God is the one whom we must revere.
Charles Bridges defined the fear of God as “the grand fundamental of godliness.” To fear God is to recognize his might and majesty. It is to acknowledge that he is in Heaven and we are on earth, that he is God and we are not. It is to say, “Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?” (Psalm 89:6–7).