Ecclesiastes 5:1-9 How to Relate to God and the Government
I was always told that in polite company, one should never talk about politics or religion. In Ecclesiastes 5:1-9, Solomon talks about both. First, he talks about how we should relate to God and then Solomon will give us an insider’s view of government. It’s clear that Solomon respects God. You can see that by the advice gives us. He shares three different ways to relate to God:
HOW TO RELATE TO GOD
1. Draw near and listen well because God is listening
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Better to draw near in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they ignorantly do wrong.” (Ecclesiastes 5:1, HCSB)
In his book That’s Life, Derek Tidball tells the story of a dinner guest at a Cambridge College who was asked to say grace before the meal. To make matters worse, it was to be said in Latin! Knowing neither God nor Latin, the quick-thinking fellow intoned, ‘Omo, lux, domestos, brobat, ajax, Amen.’ After repeating the ‘Amen’, everyone sat down to eat. No one had noticed!1 For many, worship can become a meaninglessness exercise. The Preacher takes great pains to make sure that it isn’t.
A proper attitude is essential as a person approaches God, and one must recognize who God is and who we are as worshipers.2 God expects a person to approach God with respect and with an attitude of submission.
Our modern expression, “Watch your step!” comes from Solomon’s warning: “Walk prudently.” Literally, the Hebrew says, “Keep your foot.” You may remember a time when you heard that phrase from your parents. You were angry, and your words were approaching the territory known as disrespect when Mom or Dad said, “Watch your step, young man” or “young lady.”3
The right way to approach God in worship is to come with our ears wide-open. The Preacher assumes that when people go to the house of God, there will be something for them to hear. That “something” is the Word of the living God. The house of God is a place for the reading and the preaching of the Word of God. So the first questions we need to ask ourselves as we prepare for worship are: Am I ready to listen to the voice of God? Is my heart open to spiritual instruction? Are my ears attentive to the message I will hear from the Bible?4
2. Be quiet and stay calm because God hears the inaudible and sees the invisible
“Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. For dreams result from much work and a fool’s voice from many words.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2–3, HCSB)
To quote the great theologian Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons: It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.5
Words are sometimes treated casually. When a harsh statement is made, a person may quickly add, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that!” Promises are given, then broken without concern because it was simply inconvenient to follow through. Relationships are damaged by such practices, and perhaps even more so by gossip. In a Peanuts comic, Linus announces to his sister Lucy that he’s decided not to get her a Christmas present because she punched him. In the next frame, Lucy puts her fist up to Linus’s face, then pulls it back quickly. “What are you doing?” Linus asks, to which Lucy replies, “Taking back a hit!”6
Every time a mouth is open, a heart is on display, and we are as likely to hear a word from Hell as a word from Heaven.7
3. Make a commitment and keep it because God believes it and doesn’t forget it
“When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because He does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.” (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5, HCSB)
As a troubled young man walked through a field in Germany, a terrible electrical storm filled the sky. A lightning bolt struck a nearby tree, and he instantly took it as a sign from God. “Help me!” cried the young man, “and I will become a monk.” That sudden vow changed the life of Martin Luther.
Another young man, a disreputable character named John Newton, made a similar promise to God in the middle of a deadly storm at sea. “Help me,” he prayed, “and I will change my life.” Out of that prayer came a gradual transformation that led Newton into the ministry and made him a world-class hymnist, the author of “Amazing Grace.”
There are times when God uses a storm or crisis to awaken us, and we make life-changing vows and commitments to Him. The problem is that most of us are quicker to make a commitment than we are to keep it. We live in an age of halfhearted vows and ill-kept promises. If every single person kept the promises they made to God in a pinch, then Africa and Asia would be swarming with millions of missionaries.8
Vows are verbal promises that God meant for you to keep. God is not pleased by insincere ritual or empty words. Instead, God desires the sincere obedience that comes from trusting dependence on him. According to Walton, fearing God is “taking God seriously—just as we might take a parent seriously or the police seriously when we are convinced that they will act on what they say and follow through.”9
Toward the end of his three volumes on the history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle concluded that the revolution failed, not because of corruption in high places, but because ordinary people in their ordinary places neglected to keep their promises.
If we do not keep our promises, what once was a human community turns into a combat zone of competitive self-maximizers. We are at sea, loose-jointed, uncertain, leery of each other, untrusting. Nobody can trust his or her neighbors. And without trust, no law, no police force, and no legal contracts can keep a community human. We are a people who can join together in a permanently free society only if we are a people who can keep promises together.10
4. Don’t decide now and deny later because God doesn’t ignore my decisions.
“Do not let your mouth bring guilt on you, and do not say in the presence of the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands? For many dreams bring futility, so do many words. Therefore, fear God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:6–7, HCSB)
In other words, don’t go back on your promises. The reason is because you are lying to God. If you can’t keep your word, you have to remember that God remembers. Speaking of lying…
HOW TO RELATE TO THE GOVERNMENT
There are two truths in how a Christian should relate to the government.
1. Don’t be surprised by government corruption.
“If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them.” (Ecclesiastes 5:8, HCSB)
The verse describes systemic corruption in which government officials (or corporate executives, or union bosses, or policemen, or the military, or elected officials, or rich and powerful people of various sorts) oppress others or are complicit in the activities by protecting those under them who engage in these activities. The prophets regularly condemned leaders in Judah and Israel for this sort of behavior, and history is replete with examples of such abuse. Typically those harmed the most by such corruption are the ones least able to bear the losses.11
2. God still uses government despite the corruption.
“The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field.” (Ecclesiastes 5:9, HCSB)
Having shown that the fruits of labor could be lost through a rash vow to God (vv. 1–7), Solomon added that one should not be surprised if the result of his labor were lost to the next highest authority, the king, and his officials.12
The Hebrew text is terse and cryptic and has had generations of scholars scratching their heads to probe its meaning. The major question has to do with whether verse 9 is a contrast to verse 8 or a climax. Was the king part of the problem, or was he thought to make a difference in maintaining stability despite the corruption?13 The general idea seems to be that in spite of corruption in the bureaucracy, it is better to have organized government, and a king over the land, than to have anarchy. A few dishonest people may profit from corrupt practices, but everybody benefits from organized authority.14
We have to remember that God created the institution of government to serve His purposes. But since the government is served by sinners, there will be agents who misuse their position.
T. M. Moore has written a loose poetic paraphrase of these verses that can help us remember its spiritual lessons.
How brazen and dishonest people are
with their religion. They will go as far
with it as suits their needs; so they attend
the services and sing the hymns, and when
they have to, give a little money to
the Lord. But do they live as one should do
who’s made a vow to God? Don’t kid yourself.
Among their friends their faith is on the shelf.…
Remember, God knows everything.
He knows our hearts when we before him bring
our worship, and you can’t fool him. So take
a good look at yourself before you make
your next appearance before the Lord. And go
to listen, not to speak, for he will know
just what you need. Why, any fool can spout
a lovely prayer or sing a hymn about
his faith. His words are mindless, like a dream,
although to people looking on they seem
impressive. Not to God.…
For words are cheap,
just like the dreams you have while you’re asleep.
God wants your heart, my son, not just a show.
Get right with him before you to him go.15
1 Derek Tidball, That’s Life, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 72. In Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005).
2 Edward M. Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 49.
3 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth: How to Find What Really Matters in Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 108.
4 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 120–121.
5 Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 120.
6 Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2010), 93.
7 Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 122.
8 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth: How to Find What Really Matters in Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 111–112.
9 Edward M. Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 50.
10 Craig Brian Larson and Phyllis Ten Elshof, 1001 Illustrations That Connect (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 479. Originally from: Lewis B. Smedes, A Chorus of Witnesses (Eerdmans, 1994)
11 Edward M. Curtis, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 51.
12 Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 988.
13 David A. Hubbard and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, vol. 16, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1991), 136.
14 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 67.
15 T. M. Moore, Ecclesiastes: Ancient Wisdom When All Else Fails: A New Translation and Interpretive Paraphrase (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), pp. 43–44. In Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 127–128.