Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)
Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Silence Not Sacrifice
1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.
3 For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.
4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let 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 words, and destroy the work of your hands?
7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.
Perhaps it is my skeptical nature but I’ve always been wary of those who knew too clearly what God wanted from them and others. I think that sometimes the quest for certainty fills that uneasy quiet space of waiting for God to speak. In our own time there has become more common for people to claim they are spiritual but not religious, where that organized religion for various reasons may not speak to them. There are times where Christianity has tried to model itself after the ancient mystery religions where you did certain acts to try to appease a god or goddess to act on your behalf, but the LORD the God of Israel’s ways are not our ways. As Amy Plantiga Pauw can say memorably, “God does not exist to satisfy human aims and desires. God is not a mascot for our favorite causes.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 166) There are many times when people have used their religious piety as a way of bringing glory to themselves or securing their own sense of place within the chosen people. Qohelet encourages us to enter into that space of silence and waiting to draw near and listen to God.
It is possible that the narrative of 1 Samuel 15, where King Saul uses sacrifice as a way to cover up his disobedience to God’s command in the defeat of the Amalekites, informs this portion of Ecclesiastes. Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the people and the animals but when the battle is won in addition to sparing King Agag’s life the people also spared the best of the sheep, cattle, and other valuables. Capturing the spoils of war was a normal practice but here the Amalekites are dedicated as herem where they are consigned to destruction. (For much more about the understanding of war, herem, as well as an ethical reflection on how to address texts like 1 Samuel 15 see my post on Deuteronomy 20). When the next day King Saul is confronted by Samuel he claims that these best animals are to be a sacrifice to God. Samuel informs King Saul that he has earned the LORD’s disfavor and states:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15: 22f
Guarding one’s actions before God also involves the words that we say and the promises that we make. The misuse of the name of God was a serious offense for the people of Israel, enough so that it became enshrined within the ten commandments. When speaking about vows in verse four, Ecclesiastes begins with a direct parallel of Deuteronomy 23: 21. Making promises before God is a serious measure, in discussing Deuteronomy 23 I mentioned Jephthah’s rash oath and since I have just been discussing King Saul there is his rash oath in 1 Samuel 14: 24 which puts his son Jonathan’s life in danger. Ellen Davis shares, “To vow something before the priest (NRSV: “messenger”) that one has not considered carefully or, even worse, has no intention of fulfilling is to mock God” (Davis, 2000, p. 165)
Ecclesiastes has been pondering the place of humanity with its mortality within the seemingly timeless nature of creation and the eternity of God. Humanity, with all its limits, is placed in the position of listening to the wisdom of the eternal one. Ecclesiastes has striven to pay attention in the present moment to the gifts that God provides. It may be a paradox but a part of wisdom is learning to be patient with the finite gift of time. Making space and silence to be in that place where our words and wisdom fade before the words and wisdom of God.
Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, can take the words of Ecclesiastes a step further. Ecclesiastes stated it is better to not vow than vow and not fulfill it but Jesus says not to swear an oath at all. For Jesus all words were to be faithful to what is said, whether they are under oath or not, and as in Ecclesiastes our power to fulfill these vows is often limited by the reality that one ‘cannot make one hair on one’s head white or black.’ (Matthew 5: 33-37)
Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20
8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field.
10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.
11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.
13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt,14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.
18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil– this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.
Gratitude and joy are the gifts from God in Ecclesiastes, not wealth or wisdom (even though it is better than foolishness). Our desire for wealth, power, possessions, land, position, and numerous other things we think will make us happy is insatiable. When riches and status become the central quest in life they leave the seeker unsatisfied. Governments may be corrupt, the system may be unfair, riches may be lost suddenly and all may be vanity yet joy can be found.
Ecclesiastes can recognize the problems and corruption that are a part of government and bureaucracy and still believe they ultimately benefit the land and the people. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right are real, and a person may not be in a position to change these things. Yet, the author is no revolutionary. Even with all of the government of his time’s flaws he still sees the king (and by extension the rest of the government) put in place to serve the land and the farmer. The people placed in positions of authority may be motivated by a quest for greed or power, yet in the balance there is justice in the midst of the injustice, protection of justice and right in the midst of the injustice and ultimately even a bad government is in service of its people. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, not prophetic literature, so do not be surprised that it is invested in the maintaining of the way things are. Yet, there is wisdom in learning the balance of where one can invest in change and where one learns to live in an imperfect system.
Wisdom that is applied to the increasing of goods or the increasing of position and power is never satisfied. The human appetite for acquisition is insatiable. Riches can be hoarded and lost and never enjoyed. The future is never guaranteed, permanent security is never guaranteed, one’s position in society is never guaranteed. If one lives one’s life only for the future never enjoying the food and drink that one has, never giving thanks for the banquets one can be a part of or host, then one lives impoverished. If one spends one’s nights continually plagued by insecurity over one’s possessions or plotting how to increase one’s wealth or stature, one lives an impoverished life. If one never is given the gift of enjoying their labor and their time of leisure, one lives an impoverished life. The paradox of Ecclesiastes wisdom is that it is by embracing one’s limits-one’s mortality, one’s possessions, one’s position, and one’s companions that one is able to be thankful. Gratitude and joy is a gift of God in the midst of our brief days, our limited resources, our imperfect situations and governments and in our families and friends. Ecclesiastes is not, as I once thought, dismissive of life but actively seeks to embrace life as it is lived in the present.