TEXT: Ecclesiastes 5
THEME: A proper view of God helps us to live wisely
Is the pursuit of our dreams a guarantee that we will live a fulfilled life?
Much of modern advertising seems to think so. “This car will be your ultimate dream“; “that retirement plan will usher in your carefree future”;” this piece of real estate is guaranteed to be your heaven on earth” !
One man in the Bible had set his heart upon such a quest. King Solomon of Israel spared no expenses in the pursuit of self- indulgence, allowing his thoughts and desires to lead them wherever they would take him to. But, contrary to popular expectation, he discovered that the pursuit of all these things in themselves would lead to no lasting satisfaction. And so we find his oft repeated mantra: “All is vanity… a striving after the wind …”.
Even the pursuit of wisdom, which at face value seems to be a noble endeavor, if pursued only for its own sake, is vanity. Listen to Solomon in Ch 2:16: “the wise dies just like the fool … for of the wise as for the fool there is no enduring remembrance” .
It is not the wisdom about the fallen world that gives meaning to the fallen world; it is the fact that there is a providential God above this fallen world that supplies meaning to us in this fallen world.
I trust that you are beginning to see what Solomon is saying in this sermon. Life apart from God at the center is ultimately meaningless, empty and even despairing. Such an observation should not surprise us , for we were made for God, and as fallen beings we have this vacuum in our heart which creates a longing , of which as Augustine reminds us in his Confessions: “O God our hearts are restless until they are found in you!”
So, if wisdom, pleasure, work don’t do it for us, where shall we go to satisfy our heart’s hunger? In Ecclesiastes 3 we received the first positive indication. Here Solomon helps us to see that one of the great secrets towards experiencing satisfaction and meaning in life is to recognize and embrace the providence of God over everything in life, and to accept the fact that God has made a time for everything! It is this fact that brings joy to the soul, and we shall see this pattern repeated again as we now survey Chapter 5. But before we get there, just a brief recapitulation of Ecclesiastes 4.
This sobering passage looks at injustices and oppressions, jealousy and envy, at loneliness, and at political intrigue in this fallen world. Again, Solomon wants us to see that if we are looking for ultimate satisfaction from people in this life, we are going to be sadly disappointed. Satisfaction in this life cannot come from focusing on this life. It has to come from something outside this life. It must come from someone above this life. This thought then brings us to Ecclesiastes 5.
Outline of Ecclesiastes 5
Vv. 1-7 : a thought provoking treatise on how we should approach God in worship.
Vv. 8 – 9 : how should we respond to the oppression of the poor?
Vv. 10-17 : the emptiness of wealth , prosperity and affluence without God.
Vv. 18-20 : Enjoy what you have while you have it ! The keyword here is joy ! ( see also 3:12,13)
1. The Key : Worship thoughtfully and reverently – Learn to live from the center ! (1-7)
a. Draw near to listen (5:1): Let God have the first word – the sacrifice of fools forms the contrast – those who Jesus says , babble and who use many words.
b. Be careful when you speak (5: 2-3): Having told us that we must be quick to hear (and obey) he now he urges us to be slow to speak. The governing theological principle is this : "God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few." Here is something important for us to consider. Even though we are privileged to have entered into an intimate relationship with God (through Christ) , we must also learn to know our place. Therefore, let us be careful not to substitute our reverent intimacy with a flippant overfamiliarity. God is to be feared (Cf. 5:7 – also 3:14; 7:18 ; 8:12; 12:13). Don’t think that you don’t know God as well as you think . He is infinitely righteous and holy , and you are not. He sees everything with perfect clarity , and you do not . He is infinitely great and awesome in His Being , and you are less than a speck of dust in creation. You don’t know the mind of God (Isa 55: 8-9), yet He knows you better than you know yourself. He is utterly self sufficient in His own wisdom and counsel (Rom 11:34; Isa 40:13 ; 41:28) . You are not His counselor or His private secretary. You don’t have to instruct or remind God of anything - something that we often forget in prayer ! You don’t have to babble or to use many words to get through to Him (Matt 6:7,8) . A fools voice comes with many words (5:4). Fools say things about God that are not true at all. They come to false conclusions about His work in the world. Solomon warns you: “ Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God.” (5:2)
c. Keep your vows ! (5:4-6) : When anybody in Israel made a vow before God , they were under obligation to keep it - see Numbers 30:2 [For application : see Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:11 and 1:21 for fulfillment of her vow]. The temptation , as you might imagine, was to withhold one’s vow. Solomon reminds us to let our “yes” be “yes” or “no” before God, and the NT sees no change in status in this when Jesus speaks about this subject in Matt 5:33-37 . Word’s and vows are important to God . So , since our tendency is to make rash vows, it would be better not to vow at all. Doing so might provoke God to anger so that He destroys the work of your hands (5:6b). Don’t say to the messenger ( the one who has heard your vow before God , and who holds you accountable afterwards ) – it was a mistake ! Be also careful of this : “when dreams and words grow many, there is vanity” (5:3,7). Be careful that your dreams and the many words (perhaps the counsel of friends that surround you) don’t make you say things you should not say. The bottom line is this: Fear God. It is, as we have already observed a recurring theme in this book.
Learn to live from the center. Don’t play the fool with God. The ultimate reality is that He is the One who you must fear. Learn to listen to God; let your words be guarded when you speak about God. Obey God from the heart. This is true wisdom. For the rest, trust God.
2. Our response to oppression and violation of justice (5:8,9)
What should believers do when they see oppression and lack of justice and righteousness exercised in the land? Firstly, they should not be amazed by it (5:8a)! This is the way life is under the sun , and in the scheme of things every country has to contend with the frustration of officialdom and bureaucracy. It is in the nature of bureaucratic officials to oppress people . When a person gains power over other persons, it seems inevitable that a moral weakness develops in the person who exercises that power. “Power corrupts , absolute power corrupts absolutely “ said Lord Acton (1834 -1902 ), and English historian and politician. See also Samuel’s warning in 1 Samuel 8: 10-18 ! This is the typical expression of man’s fallen nature. So , do not be amazed when it happens! V.9 is difficult to translate, but taking the ESV we take the view that a land ( even with bureaucratic and stifling systems) can be blessed when its king is committed to making sure that there are cultivated lands i.e. food on the table!
3. The emptiness of wealth , prosperity and affluence without God (5:10-17)
5:10 : Life without God at the center produces all sorts of distorted perceptions. Nowhere is this more apparent than with money and wealth. Solomon says that if money is your first love, then it will leave you dissatisfied. It’s a strange thing about money. The more we have, the more we want.
5:11 : Wealth brings its own set of challenges . My father used to say : “ The more money you have ,the more worries you have; the more you need to fight to protect it.” This is burdensome. The more you have, the more you will have people around you who feed off you. Your responsibilities increase. You live to work for others.
5:12 : Wealth, far from providing peace and contentment, can actually make you restless and sleepless . The common labourer does not have this problem, whereas the rich man may lie awake at night wondering whether the stock -market would not perhaps leave him penniless tomorrow morning. If money is your first love , then this love will not put you to sleep tenderly at night.
5:13 : Solomon shares a testimony of what he has personally seen : “There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches being kept by their owner to his own hurt.” People in love with money , hoard their money and possessions, and often become deeply suspicious, paranoic and insecure. Can I trust my financial advisor? Can my wife and children be trusted ? How sad, when God, family and friends move into distance on account of the love of money.
5:14 : Here’s another reason why wealth and riches cannot satisfy. It so easily slips through our fingers: “… and those riches were lost in a bad venture.” And then your son (or family) who are your heirs sit with nothing !
5:15 -16 : The grand truth of course is that “a hearse pulls no trailer!” You can’t take it with you.
5: 17 : “… all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation, sickness and anger.” The heart fixed on material wealth makes you miserable - emotionally and physically!
4. Enjoy what you have while you have it ! (5:18-20 )
a. First principle : Live in the fear of the Lord (v.7)
b. Recognize that prosperity may be a very real trial to your faith . It is easier in this sense to be poor than to have much . Thomas Carlyle ( 1798 -1881) , a Scottish philosopher said, “For a hundred that can bear adversity, there is hardly a one that can bear prosperity.”
c. Key : Do not be owned by things ; things must be owned by you . “Possessions weigh me down in life ; I never feel quite free. I often wonder whether I own my things , or if my things own me.” That means that we use what we have been given by God to glorify God, and to meet the legitimate needs of our families and ourselves, and to do good to Christians, to promote the gospel, and to be generous in our community.
d. The result is joy ( mentioned 4 times in vv. 18-20) , and it is possible because God is at the center ! God frees us from the tyranny of possessions , and this produces joy !