The next section of Ecclesiastes appears to be Ecc 5:1-7 in English versification (Hebrew verses 4:17-5:6). The ESV subtitles this unit “Fear God,” whereas Enns sums it up as “Watch Your Mouth with God.” The theme connecting this unit to the previous one is that of leadership, since we left off last time talking about kingship and politics.
Qoheleth actually is making use of an outline that Paul will use for many epistles. That is, prior to this unit Qoheleth has been reflecting on the indicative and now he moves to the imperative. Therefore, what we will find in Ecc 5:1-7 is what we might call instructions, ethics, or application. However, those words may imply something more positive than we actually read.
”Guard your steps when you go to the house of God” (Ecc 5:1a). Given the text that follows it appears that the ‘house of God’ is a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. It is possible to read this part of the verse as good advice, but then the next part explains further what Qoheleth means. ”To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil/wrong” (Ecc 5:1b). Qoheleth then would suggest that you listen because that would be better than sacrificing like a fool. The fool almost certainly would do the opposite – accompany their sacrifice with many words. After all, Qoheleth continues, ”Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God” (Ecc 5:2). If we were not somewhat familiar with Qoheleth by this point we might be tempted to see this instruction as very pious. Indeed, we remember Jesus saying similar things about not using many words when we pray – not to mention that the prophets and Jesus also offer up words critical of sacrifices (‘God desires mercy and not sacrifice’ or the like).
Enns notes that Qoheleth’s imperatives here are ironic since the last four chapters Qoheleth has not been listening but lamenting. He says that it may be that we are to understand Qoheleth as being sarcastic, which would fit the Qoheleth we know. The reason we are not to be quick to speak to God is given to us in the second half of the verse: “for God is in heaven and you are on earth.” Remember that it appears that Qoheleth is speaking about worship in the temple in Jerusalem, but he does not acknowledge God’s presence there – rather he makes a statement about God’s ‘distance.’ God is in heaven and you are on earth. Qoheleth continues, ”Therefore let your words be few.” Since God is so far away, don’t bother to say very much.
Remember that Qoheleth is angry with God. This advice might suggest that a large part of Qoheleth’s anger may be that God has not answered his prayer in the way that Qoheleth wanted it answered. So Qoheleth is going through a crisis where he feels like God is very far away and uninterested/unconcerned with Qoheleth’s plight. Ecc 5:3 mentions the word we have earlier seen is better to translate not as ‘business’ but ‘preoccupation.’ Qoheleth’s point is not altogether clear but is clearly meant to support what he has just said. It appears that Qoheleth is lamenting because prayer does not change anything. From his perspective God has decreed the times and seasons for everything and so prayer is a pointless waste of time – might as well and keep it short.
Qoheleth continues with the idea of vows, which were an important part of worship. Qoheleth’s advice here also appears to be the standard wisdom instruction – do not delay in fulfilling a vow, it is better to not make a vow than to make one you will not keep. This ”better than” language we have seen before. Enns argues we should read it in that light – Qoheleth makes a point that sounds pious (it sounds like what Jesus will say too) but Qoheleth does not make the point in order to be pious or encourage you to be pious. Qoheleth is saying that we ought not to trifle with God. He is saying that you better think twice before you make a vow – indeed making a vow is a dangerous thing and it might not be worth it. The ”better than” language then Enns is suggesting is a statement of resignation to reality.
The way that Ecc 5:5 fits the theme of the unit is that you are better off keeping your mouth shut. If you say very much you might just find yourself making an oath and you will have to do. Qoheleth continues, ”Let not your mouth lead you into sin and do not say before the messenger (angel?) that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecc 5:6). As Enns says, ”One gets the impression that, for Qohelet, God is waiting for the worshiper to trip up with his words” and don’t bother with the excuse that the vow was an accident – that will just make God more angry.
Qoheleth concludes, ”For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity [absurdity/meaninglessness]; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecc 5:7). The ESV heading ”Fear God” is misleading as we might normally understand that in a positive light – the same light as the frame narrator (”fear God and keep His commandments”). However, Qoheleth is not making a positive statement here. Qoheleth is telling us to be afraid – to be very careful what we say to God.
The next unit Enns calls ”Death Comes to Both the Greedy and Those Who Are Just Trying to Get Along.” This unit also has to do with leadership and the king. The complaint has to do with corruption and even the king is caught up in it. Here Qoheleth also continues his discussion of wealth and moderation. Those who hoard wealth rather than enjoying their possessions will only harm themselves. The wealth will be taken away by God through some grievous task (hence it is a grievous ‘evil,’ once again not in the same moral sense that we use the word).
We have seen a similar observation before where the problem was that you did not know whether the one to inherit would be wise or a fool. Now Qoheleth laments that the hoarder who loses his wealth will have nothing to leave his son. Qoheleth is not concerned about consistency. Should you think this unfair, Qoheleth says, ”As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (Ecc 5:15). Remember that Qoheleth finds no comfort from such cycles – they illustrate the absurdity of life.
Qoheleth continues, ”This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” (Ecc 5:16). Thus there is no profit/payoff for man because of death! And if that is not bad enough Qoheleth says, ”Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger” (Ecc 5:17).
Then Qoheleth utters another declaration of resignation to reality: ”Behold, what I have seen to be ‘good’ and ‘fitting’ is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the ‘gift’ of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” This is all God’s fault!
The phrase translated ”everyone” in Ecc 5:19 is כָּֽל־הָאָדָ֡ם. This is the question of the book – is ”all the man” (the whole duty of humanity) to eat and drink and find pleasure in his toil or is ”all the man” to fear God and keep His commandments? Qoheleth leaves no room for question about his overall point – the best you can do is be resigned to your lot in life and toil along the number of the days of your life.
And the lament that God may give you wealth, possessions, and even honor and then you are not able to use them is continued in the next few verses (Ecc 6:1-3). In Ecc 6:2 he even says, ”This is absurd; it is a grievous evil.” To avoid the moral connotations you might render the word ”tragedy.” Long life and many children do not make you better off than a stillborn child as far as Qoheleth is concerned. This idea if ”his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things” is true for everyone because of death.
Qoheleth continues with regard to the advantage of the stillborn: ”For it comes in absurdity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?” (Ecc 6:4-6). In other words, death comes to all – you would be better off if you had never been born.
”All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc 6:7-9). This phrase the ESV renders ”the wandering of the appetite” is more likely a reference to death or we might say, ‘passing away.’ Death is ”the walk” (which is more literal than taking it as ”the wandering”). Thus Qoheleth actually is saying that living is better than dying. However, death renders everything absurd and a striving after wind. Again, Qoheleth is not concerned with being consistent and we should avoid trying to read him as totally consistent on every point.
The next unit is a continuation on this theme of death. It begins on a familiar note, ”Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is know what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he” (Ecc 6:10). This one stronger than he is no doubt God Himself, thus you can use as many words with God as you want but–”the more words, the more absurdity/meaninglessness, and what is the advantage/profit (a variation on yitron) to man?” Qoheleth continues, ”For who knows what is ‘good’ for man while he lives the few days of his vain/short/absurd/meaningless life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” (Ecc 6:12). This also repeats familiar words and phrases.
Then Qoheleth shifts to a ”better than” theme, continuing the idea of death. The first half of Ecc 7:1 is what we might expect of wisdom literature: ”A good name is better than precious ointment,” but then Qoheleth dashes the point saying, ”and the day of death than the day of birth.” Having a good name/reputation would be better, except there is death. Qoheleth then tells us that it is better to ‘walk’ to the house of mourning than to ‘walk’ to the house of feasting (Ecc 7:2). The reason? ”For this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” As you might have guessed, ”all mankind” is כָּל־הָאָדָ֑ם Is ”all the man” that we die or is ”all the man” to fear God and keep His commandments?
Qoheleth then continues in like manner. Enns sums up Ecc 7:1-6 this way: ”death, anger, mourning, and rebuke are better than feasting, laughing, rejoicing, and singing.” Then Qoheleth says, ”this also is absurd” (Ecc 7:6). In other words, Enns explains, ”the very fact that death, and so on, is to be preferred over life, and so on, is what is absurd. The truth is better than fantasy, but it does not set you free – it leads to despair.”
The rest of this unit then broadens to other topics that follow, but still contains ”better than” sayings. Again we hear: ”Consider the work of God: who can make straight what He has made crooked?” (Ecc 7:13). And then it ends with another statement of resignation to reality: ”In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (Ecc 7:14). Interesting advice. There is no point in getting angry about this (Ecc 7:9) – this is just the way things are.
As Enns says, ”Qoheleth is observing the contradictory nature of reality. Sometimes wisdom works (at least for now), sometimes it does not. The larger point is that wisdom cannot be counted on. Qoheleth’s words here simply underscore that point. So he remarks that both money and wisdom offer some ‘protection,’ and that knowledge has some profit in that wisdom preserves the life of the one who possesses it. But, as vv.13-14 remind us, the previous discussion is ultimately for naught, regardless of where it might go.”
Nevertheless, for the rest of the chapter Qoheleth tries to use wisdom to make sense of all this. Yet he begins saying, ”In my vain/absurd/meaningless life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” This indeed is a common reason for biblical authors to lament. Except for Qoheleth these terms are devoid of their normal moral usages. Enns says that the usages here are to be understood as ‘practical.’ People do the right thing and die and people do the wrong thing and live. This makes life unpredictable.
Therefore Qoheleth says, ”Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” (Ecc 7:16-17). This is a call for all things in moderation. It is rather unpredicable whether doing the right thing will payoff (in the short run) or doing the wrong thing will not (in the short run) and then you will die (both the wise and the fool die, both the one who does the right thing and the one who does the wrong thing will eventually die).
Nevermind trying to make Qoheleth consistent here with what he has said earlier. The timing of your death is under God’s control (though being a fool means you die before your time?) and it is really good to have a long life?
I will leave the rest of this unit for you to try to make sense out of for yourself. Note the odd interjection of the frame narrator, ‘says Qoheleth’ in Ecc 7:27.