Drawing near to God requires that we listen before we speak:
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. (Eccl. 5:1–3)
Temple sacrifices were offered in silence. In effect, the silence shouted out the steadfast love of a holy, holy, holy God for undeserving sinners. Then the silence was broken by a reading from the Law of Moses and an explanation for the people. The response to hearing from God was to speak to God—through prayers, songs, and sometimes personal vows. The service closed with a benediction.
The emphasis in Ecclesiastes 5:1–3 is on listening to the Word of God.
This listening ear is contrasted with the mouths of fools. Here the foolish worshipers are not necessarily those who bring blind, lame, or sick animals to be sacrificed (“they do not know that they are doing evil,” v. 1); rather, the foolish are those who sin with their mouths. Instead of being like Moses before the burning bush—with their sandals off, mouths shut, and ears open, respectfully revering the Lord, Ex. 3:5)—they chatter on before their Creator. They mumble mantras before the Almighty! With hollow hearts and blank minds, they offer up “empty phrases” (Matt. 6:7), thinking that the more they talk, the more God will listen.
In the temple, Israel was to listen first. As Christians, we know and appreciate that through Jesus’s death, our Lord judged the temple (Matt. 21:13; 23:38) and replaced it (Matt. 12:6; 24:2; 26:61; 27:40, 51). We do not journey to Jerusalem to worship God in some building. Under the new covenant in Jesus’s blood, we have a perfect and permanent sacrifice and an intercessor for our sins (Heb. 7:23–28), as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within everyone who worships God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24; Eph. 2:13–22). Jesus is the temple we go through to worship God rightly, and in him we become the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:5). Nevertheless, like Israel of old, we are to hear (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut. 6:4) before we speak to God. In all walks of life, but especially in public worship, we are to “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). The words of God, rather than the words of the worshiper, are to take priority. Wise worship starts with locked lips.
Those lips should not stay locked, however. Worshiping wisely also involves right words at the right time. We are to listen to God first and speak to God second. The second half of this Old Testament text covers the boundaries for this second lesson:
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not 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 voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (Eccl. 5:4–7)
If it is not obvious from the repetition of the word vow (five times), this section centers on temple vows. Such a vow involved a conditional promise; a worshiper coming to the temple asked God for something in return for something—usually money or an animal sacrifice (Lev. 27:1–25), although it could be just about anything or anyone. For example, barren Hannah vowed to give God her son if she was able to conceive and give birth (1 Samuel 1–2). So the problem being addressed in Ecclesiastes is not the vow itself (it was a condoned but not commanded biblical practice), but the temptation to “delay” (Eccl. 5:4) or “not pay” (v. 5) the vow once the request has been granted. To say to the temple “messenger” (the spiritual bill collector sent to retrieve the coins for the temple treasury) that “It was a mistake” or “It was unintentional” is intentionally sinful (Num. 15:30–31; Deut. 23:21). It is better not to vow than to vow and refrain from keeping your end of the deal. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37 NIV), as Jesus said. Why? Because God doesn’t take kindly to vows like that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Or, as Solomon exhorted, God “has no pleasure in fools” (Eccl. 5:4) and “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (v. 6). All toying with God will be exposed (“You blind fools!” Matt. 23:16–22) and judged (“a rod for his back,” Prov. 14:3). All lame excuses will be leveled by the Lord.
We all make vows to God and to one another. I vowed to remain faithful to my wife “’til death do us part.” As an ordained minister, I vowed “to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity, peace and unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise.” If you are a witness in a court of law, you vow (perhaps even with your hand on a Bible) to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” so help you before God. Making vows is not the issue. Making impulsive promises that you have no intention of keeping or without any real idea of what you are saying is foolish (cf. Prov. 20:25). It is a dream-induced fantasy.
Twice Solomon compares “many words” (Eccl. 5:3, 7) to dreams. The sense of verse 3 is that just as an extremely busy day produces sound sleep (and the dreams that come with such sleep), so a fool produces verbosity. And the sense of verse 7 is that pious phrases uttered by “the mouth . . . [that] pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28)—reciting God’s covenant statutes (Ps. 50:16)—will prove to be as futile as the fantasies created in slumberland. Poof! They are gone the moment you awake. We should watch out for making dreamlike oaths. If we are to vow, let us “make [our] vows to the Lord [our] God and perform them” (Ps. 76:11). Let us not say to the Lord, “I will do this” and then fail to do it (cf. the parable of the two sons, Matt. 21:28–30). There is no value in mindless muttering and great danger in rash vows (e.g., the story of Jephthah’s daughter, Judg. 11:29–40). Perhaps the only vow we should make—certainly the safest, but never the easiest—is the vow to fear God. Pledge to do that today! “Lord, I will listen to you when you speak; and, Lord, when I speak to you I will not come before you with aimless chatter or deluded daydreaming, but with humble and honest admiration and heartfelt and reasonable requests.”
[Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from The Pastor’s Book: A Complete and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry by R. Kent Hughes. © 2015 by R. Kent Hughes. Used by permission of Crossway. www.crossway.org.]
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He has authored numerous books for Crossway, including Disciplines of a Godly Man, and is the series editor and a contributor to the popular Preaching the Word series.
Publication date: November 9, 2015