New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Ecc 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to God’s house; for to draw near to listen is better than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they don’t know that they do evil-
Ecclesiastes  is in many ways Solomon's self-examination; and it was accurate. He indicates here that the temple had actually made him stumble, and that his numerous  sacrifices  had  been  the sacrifices of a fool, rather than the wise man he had appeared to be. He had offered huge numbers of sacrifices at the dedication of the temple; but now he realize that he would have done better to personally listen to Divine instruction than offer them all as a fool. He should have 'drawn near', an idiom for offering sacrifice, with an obedient and open ear rather than with thousands of animals. He analyzes so clearly where he had gone wrong, he sees it all; but does nothing about it, refusing to personalize the truths he perceived. Surely he was casting a sideways glance at himself when he spoke of the wise child (cp. Solomon initially, 1 Kings 3:7) being greater than the old and foolish king who would no  longer  be  admonished  (Ecc. 4:13;  even  though Solomon had advisers, 1 Kings 12:6). Yet he chose to do absolutely nothing about this; once again, his accurate spiritual knowledge had no real  practical influence upon him. 'Guarding the steps' could be an allusion to the practice of removing footwear when entering a holy place; although this seems an irrelevant exhortation. So I suggest it is parallel with 'drawing near' in offering sacrifice. And Solomon is saying that the use of the temple for huge scarifies, as he had done at its dedication, was not the right thing; rather would be it be better to be obedient. But Solomon wasn't obedient, so we conclude again that he has penetrating insight into his own failures and weaknesses, but refused to personalize and act upon that insight. This is a human feature so true to observed reality in spiritual life. This chapter appears to be Solomon's critique of the temple cult he had started.

Ecc 5:2 Don’t be rash with your mouth, and don’t let your heart be hasty to utter anything before God-
As :1 is Solomon's self criticism regarding the temple, I suggest that this talk about the danger of vows is also Solomon looking back at himself. Indeed I am seeking to demonstrate in this commentary that all of Ecclesiastes is Solomon's autobiography and reflections about himself. Hasty oaths might be a sideways stab back at Saul, who enforced such a hasty oath about not eating honey. Solomon throughout Proverbs is always alluding to the individuals who had stood against David his father, and that bitterness and perceived need to knock down potential opposition remained with him all his days. For he is now writing this in his old age. But the oath in view is I suggest that of David regarding the building of the temple, which Solomon fulfilled (Ps. 132:2). This allows us to interpret these verses in context. The criticism of the temple in :1 leads on to this criticism of oath taking in :2. The context is then seamless; whereas other interpretations tend to make these verses out of context with each other. 

For God is in heaven, and you on earth-
Descriptions of God’s dwelling place clearly indicate that He has a personal location: “God is in heaven” (Ecc. 5:2); “For He looked down from the height of His sanctuary; From heaven the LORD viewed the earth” (Ps. 102:19); “Hear in heaven your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:39). Yet more specifically than this, we read that God has a “throne” (2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 11:4; Is. 6:1; 66:1). Such language is hard to apply to an undefined essence which exists somewhere in heavenly realms. God is spoken of as “coming down” when He manifests Himself. This suggests a heavenly location of God. It is impossible to understand the idea of ‘God manifestation’ without appreciating the personal nature of God.

But I suggest that Solomon is again talking about God tongue in cheek, with some level of sarcasm; for he was writing this when his heart had turned away from God (1 Kings 11:3). I suggest we are reading here Solomon's regret that David had taken the oath about building the temple, because he is now rejecting the temple cult. He built "houses" of worship for the gods of his wives, and worshipped them instead of Yahweh (1 Kings 11:4-8), worshipping in those temples rather than in Yahweh's temple. So we can understand his reflections in Ecc. 5 as meaning that he was regretting David had vowed to build the temple, leaving him to fulfil it; and his references to Yahweh dwelling in the temple are therefore to be read as sarcastic. .

Therefore let your words be few-
The idea is, 'don't make oaths'. Not few in the sense that we don’t pray for very long, but few in terms of their simplicity and directness. The Lord warned us against the complicated prayer forms of the Pharisees; and asked us to mean our words of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ rather than use more sophisticated assurances.

Ecc 5:3 For as a dream comes with a multitude of cares, so a fool’s speech with a multitude of words-
I have argued throughout that Ecclesiastes is Solomon's self reflection, a kind of autobiography. It is also a rejection and renunciation of his faith, because he wrote it at the end of his life, when his heart had been turned aside from God (1 Kings 11:3). If we enquire what reference a "dream" may have to Solomon's historical life, we naturally think of the dream at the start of his life when he was offered whatever he wanted, and he chose wisdom (1 Kings 3:5). Several times in Ecclesiastes he appears to regret that choice, as he considers there to be no ultimate advantage to wisdom or going God's way because death ends it all, and God, Solomon thinks, cannot resurrect the dead to judgment (Ecc. 3:22). And so in Ecc. 5:3 Solomon seems to be saying that that dream was simply self induced, an outcome of his "multitude of cares", and the "multitude of words" of wisdom he had written in response to it was but "a fool's speech". Like many who have had the direct involvement of God in their lives in youth, he came to rationalize it as nothing at all Divine, considering his dream had just been some Freudian reflection of his own internal "cares". And this kind of rationalizing of the Divine over time is absolutely true to observed experience in those who turn away from God.

Ecc 5:4 When you vow a vow to God, don’t defer to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay that which you vow-
As noted on :2, Solomon's writings (especially in Proverbs) are full of allusion to historical incidents which condemn the enemies of the line of David, or justify David. He may have in view David's vow to build the temple (Ps. 132:2), which God in fact made to be deferred until Solomon fulfilled it. Even in old age, Solomon was still bent on justifying his father David and fighting the battles of yesterday, as so many. I suggested on :1-3 that Solomon is here rejecting the temple cult, but he justifies his building of the temple on the grounds that David had made a vow to God about it, and so Solomon had had no option but to fulfil it.

Ecc 5:5 It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay-
This continues Solomon's criticism of his father's vow to build the temple, and is justifying his building of it. He had to make such a statement, because as noted on :2, Solomon built "houses" of worship for the gods of his wives, and worshipped them instead of Yahweh (1 Kings 11:4-8), worshipping in those temples rather than in Yahweh's temple. So here in his old age, having made that change, he is justifying why he had built a temple for Yahweh in the first place, although he had at this point ceased using it himself.

Ecc 5:6 Don’t allow your mouth to lead you into sin. Don’t protest before the messenger that this was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?-
The "messenger" is the word for "angel", but is used of the priests before whom David had apparently taken the vow to build the temple in Ps. 132:2. Solomon implies that the entire plan of building a temple for Yahweh "was a mistake", but David, and he too at the time, had feared God's wrath if he didn't fulfil the vow. He is justifying how he had forsaken Yahweh's temple for the temples he had built nearby for the gods of his wives. He is saying that the temple of Yahweh had been a "sin" and "mistake", but he is justifying in his autobiography why he had built it. Likewise as explained on Ecc. 8:16 he again laments his wasting time and effort building Yahweh's temple. He uses the same word in Ecc. 10:5 to describe his own "mistake" or "error" as the ruler.

Ecc 5:7 For in the multitude of dreams there are vanities, as well as in many words: but you must fear God-
The criticism of "many words" in Ecc. 5:7 and 6:11 seems a reference to his own writing down of the wisdom God had given him, codifying it into books such as the compilation we have in the book of Proverbs (Ecc. 12:10,12). He associates the "many words" with "dreams", perhaps an intensive plural for "a great dream". It was as a result of the dream of 1 Kings 3:5 that he was given the "many words" of wisdom which he now considered unhelpful and irrelevant because death meant that there was no particular ultimate advantage of wisdom over folly; wisdom was at best profitable in this life in some short term sense. And he therefore associates "many words" with folly (Ecc. 10:14). He considers he had been foolish by preaching and believing those many words of Divine wisdom. Now, for him, the true wisdom was in idolatry and not Yahweh worship in His temple. For he had forsaken worshipping at Yahweh's temple and instead worshipped in the idol temples he had built nearby (1 Kings 11:4-8). So "But you must fear God!" can be read as sarcasm, seeing he had forsaken God.

Ecc 5:8 If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent taking away of justice and righteousness in a district, don’t marvel at the matter: for one official is eyed by a higher one; and there are officials over them-
The "oppression" in view was that by Solomon. “Surely oppression maketh a wise man foolish” (Ecc. 7:7 RV), he commented at the end of his life- even though right then he was chastising the people with whips, oppressing them (1 Kings 12:11). He  came  to whip his people (1 Kings 12:14),  treating  them  as  he  thought fools should be treated (Prov.26:3)-  suggesting that he came to see himself as the only wise  man,  the  only  one  truly  in  touch  with  reality, and therefore  despising everyone else. 1 Kings 5:13-16 reveals that Solomon  had  153,000  full  time  and  90,000  part  time  male servants.  Israel's  complaint  that  Solomon  had  whipped them implies  that  he  treated them like slaves, with himself as the slave-driver.  600,000  adults came out of Egypt (Ex.12:37), and assuming  the  population  only  rose  slightly over the next 550 years,  we  have  the picture of an Israel where almost half the males  (i.e. probably the majority of the working population) were pressganged into slavery to a despotic King Solomon. 

Solomon seems to be saying that if anyone complained about his slavedrivers, they were to remember that there was a hierarchy of control above them which ended in one man- himself. He is playing God here, as do all who abuse others, appropriating Divine language to himself.

He knew the true wisdom, he saw his reflection so accurately in the mirror, but resigned from its personal implications. He could even write that “I returned and considered all the oppression that are done under the sun [by himself!]: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power [Solomon was king and had set up the tax system in a clever and biased way]; but they had no comforter” (Ecc. 4:1; 5:8). It was a real case of spiritual schizophrenia- he sorrowed for the people he oppressed. He even seems to say that there is nothing to be surprised at in the poor being oppressed, because the whole hierarchy of officialdom above them do the same (Ecc. 5:2). He saw his sin as inevitable, as part of his participation in humanity- he didn’t own up to his own desperate need for grace. Yet he also knew that “man lords it over man [cp. Solomon’s oppression of the people] to his own hurt” (Ecc. 8:9 RSV).  

Ecc 5:9 Moreover the profit of the earth is for all. The king profits from the field-
He said that a King “who maketh himself servant to the cultivated field” brings profit to the land (Ecc. 5:9 RVmg.)- as if he was justifying his zealous commitment to agriculture and considering the people of God to be so blessed by his presence amongst them. The mere possession of wisdom, of intellectual truth, can so easily lead us to this kind of empty self-congratulation.   It was really Solomon's self-justification.

“Even the wild land when cultivated has a king” (Ecc. 5:9, Lukyn Williams’ translation) seems to be justifying the bringing of newly cultivated land under Solomon’s immediate taxation; Solomon is merely describing a state of misrule by him without drawing any conclusions (so L.G. Sargent concludes, Ecclesiastes p. 49). He analyzes his sins so well, as do many imprisoned criminals. But still without repentance. And yet we each have the potential for this schizophrenia within us; we are, as Paul so strikingly describes, two different people within us, fighting for mastery of the soul (Rom. 7).

Ecc 5:10 He who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase: this also is vanity-
This is yet another piece of self-realization   which   doesn't  seem  to  have  resulted  in motivating  Solomon  to  grab  hold on his inner being and shake himself. The lack of "satisfaction" is a major theme in the descriptions of condemnation for those who break the covenant (s.w. Lev. 26:26). And it is the principle we must live by today; that the only satisfaction is in the things of God's Kingdom. Even in this life, the eye is not "satisfied" with seeing or wealth (s.w. Prov. 27:20; Ecc. 1:8; 4:8; 5:10). And those who seek such satisfaction from those things will find that dissatisfaction is the lead characteristic of their condemnation (Ps. 59:15). Tragically Solomon knew the truth of all this but lived otherwise; just as so many do who give lip service to the idea that the things of the flesh cannot satisfy.

It is possible to see Solomon as an anti-Christ, as well as a type of Christ; like Saul, he was both a type of Christ, and also the very opposite of the true Christ. This point is really brought out in Is. 53:11, where the true Messiah is described as being “satisfied” with the travail or labour of his soul, and will thereby bring forth many children. The Hebrew words used occur in close proximity in several passages in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon speaks of how all his “travail” or “labour” has not “satisfied” him, and that it is all the more vain because his children may well not appreciate his labour and will likely squander it (Ecc. 1:8; 4:8; 5:10; 6:3). Likewise the ‘Babylon’ system of Revelation, replete with its feature of 666, is described in terms which unmistakably apply to Solomon’s Kingdom. This feature of Solomon- being both a type of Christ and yet also the very opposite of the true Christ- reflects the tragic duality which we will observe at such length in our later studies.

5:11 When goods increase, those who eat them are increased; and what advantage is there to its owner, except to feast on them with his eyes?-
“He that loveth silver (as Solomon did, Ecc. 2:8; 1 Kings 10:21-29) shall not be satisfied with silver (as he wasn’t- see Ecc. 2); nor he that loveth abundance (s.w. used about the abundance of Solomon’s wives, 2 Chron. 11:23) with increase. When goods increase, they are increased that eat them (cp. the large numbers at his table, 1 Kings 4:27)” (Ecc. 5:10,11). The Hebrew word translated “not be satisfied” occurs around 25 times in the Proverbs, with Solomon warning of how the way of the flesh couldn’t satisfy. Solomon said all this with an eye on himself. He laments how when wealth is increased, “they are increased that eat them” (Ecc. 5:11 AV)- and yet he prided himself on how many people sat at his table eating his food, how many courtiers he had… He preached it to others, he felt deeply the truth of it, but he saw no personal way out of it. All he had was the accurate knowledge of his situation, but no real motivation to change- like the alcoholic or drug abuser who knows every aspect of the harm of his habit.


Ecc 5:12 The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not allow him to sleep-
This references Solomon's own insomnia, a characteristic which surfaces again in his description of his own old age in Ecc. 12:4. He complains at the effect of his own wealth and avarice. If he had accepted that his wealth was a gift from God by grace, in response to his choice of wisdom, then he would not have had all this regret about being wealthy.

Ecc 5:13 There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm-
Again Solomon has himself in view; see on :12. He felt he had been harmed by wealth, as many old wealthy people do as they look back on their broken families and ruined personal lives. "Harm" is the word for "evil". Solomon feels that not being able to take wealth beyond the grave is "evil" (Ecc. 4:8; 5:13; 6:2). If Solomon had instead humbled himself to accept that his wealth was a gift from God by grace, in response to his choice of wisdom, then he would not have had all this regret about being wealthy. Perhaps the real force of all this is the word "kept". Wealth is to be used for others during our lifetimes, not "kept". Otherwise we will end up with the angst of Solomon about how that wealth will be used after us.

Ecc 5:14 Those riches perish by misfortune, and if he has fathered a son, there is nothing in his hand-
Again this is true to observed reality; at the end of their lives, the wealthy often regret that they are passing on wealth to a son who is not going to use it appropriately. This was clearly Solomon's fear for Rehoboam, as witnessed several times in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It is all an outcome of the inevitable truth expressed in :15, that we cannot personally take wealth with us beyond the grave. The hoarding of personal wealth always invites the fear as to what shall happen if misfortune takes it from us; hence GNB "and then lose it all in some bad deal and end up with nothing left to pass on to their children".

Ecc 5:15 As he came forth from his mother’s womb, naked shall he go again as he came, and shall take nothing for his labour, which he may carry away in his hand-
This inability to take personal wealth beyond the grave is "evil" (:16) for Solomon. But he is raging against what is God's plan, the nature of things instituted by God in order to drive us to Him, and generosity towards Him in this life in the perspective of eternal life and service in His future Kingdom. That is the only perspective which makes any sense and enables us to live with wealth without it being a cause of endless angst to us. Solomon appears to be almost quoting Job's conclusion in Job 1:21; but Job goes on to say that because of this feature of the human condition, entering and exiting life naked, "blessed be the name of Yahweh". But Solomon had turned away from Yahweh and so is left with nothing but pain as he comes to this realization. And idolatry gave him no satisfactory explanation for it either. This verse is quoted in 1 Tim. 6:7, and the surrounding context of 1 Tim. 6:5-10 is an exhortation not to be like Solomon at this point. Solomon is consistently read in a negative light in the New Testament, and never as an example of repentance or faith.

Ecc 5:16 This also is a grievous evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go. And what profit does he have who labours for the wind?-
See on :15. The language here is similar to that in Mal. 3:16, where Judah lament that there is no profit in obeying God. Perhaps Malachi is alluding to Solomon's attitude here as the characteristic of God's condemned, rejected people. The fact we can't take wealth with us is only a grievous evil for those like Solomon who don't understand wealth within the context of it being God's gift, to be used for Him. 

Ecc 5:17 All his days he also eats in darkness, he is frustrated, and has sickness and wrath-
This again is Solomon's description of his self perception. He was frustrated and angry as he faced death and final sickness; and he feels that this is in fact how he has always been, eating his sumptuous meals in the darkness of depression. And this again is absolutely true to observed experience; the feelings of old age depression are extrapolated by the sufferer and assumed to have been how their entire lives have been, whether or not that was the case. He comments again in Ecc. 6:4 that his whole life has begun and ended in darkness.

The reality of death meant to Solomon that any apparent sweetness to life ends because of the problem of eternal death. Solomon refuses any idea of resurrection or victory over death. The essence of the purpose and achievment of God through His Son was understood by Abraham, Job, David and many others. But Solomon stedfastly refused it. And he seems to now be kicking over the traces of his earlier glorification of his father David. For David has used the same words in glorying in that fact the darkness shines as the day to Yahweh (Ps. 139:12). Solomon uses the term here for how men live their lives in "days of darkness" but in Ecc. 11:8 he uses this term of death. He sees life as being lived in the same unconscious spirit of death; he has no conception of God's light and life breaking in to human life right now.

Ecc 5:18 Behold, that which I have seen to be good and proper is for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy good in all his labour, in which he labours under the sun, all the days of his life which God has given him; for this is his portion-
This reference to God as the giver of life may be sarcastic; see on :19,20. For elsewhere Solomon has argued that his conclusion that man should just enjoy his life is because God lacks the ability to resurrect and judge him (Ecc. 3:22). Seeing Solomon feels he has lived in the darkness of depression because of his wealth (:17), he commends the simple labourer who at least experiences some joy as a result of his labour.   

Ecc 5:19 Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to eat of it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour- this is the gift of God-
Solomon clearly has himself in view, for he was the one to whom God gave wealth as well as the opportunity to enjoy it. He apparently recognizes this as indeed "the gift of God", but then blames God for having given him a life which therefore had no time for self reflection, because of the joy of this life which God had given him. But even this apparent gratitude to God is nuanced by Solomon's complaint in Ecc. 6:2 that he has been given wealth, but his death stops him from ultimately enjoying it. The idea that work is a "gift of God" appears to be deconstructed in the New Testament allusions to this; for they insist that the "gift of God" is the grace of salvation without human works (Eph. 2:8; Rom. 5:15; 6:23; Jn. 4:10). This suggests that as in Ecc. 2:24,26; 3:13, Solomon uses the idea of "this is the gift of God" wrongly and sarcastically.   

Ecc 5:20 For he shall not often reflect on the days of his life; because God occupies him with the joy of his heart
See on :19. Solomon blames his lack of self examination on God, who has given him wealth and the opportunity to indulge it in "the joy of his heart". And yet in :17 Solomon feels he has lived in the darkness of depression because of his wealth. So here he appears to be mocking God, who supposedly, so he now reasons, gives man so much joy in his heart that he never has time for self examination. I suggested on :19 that Solomon is being sarcastic about God; he is for sure wrongly accusing and representing Him. And seeing he had been given so much Divine wisdom, this is a grievous failure by him.