Ecclesiastes 5
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
So also a happier and more effective Method of Worship is open to Men;

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7The men of affairs are led from the vocations of the Market and the intrigues of the Divan into the House of God. Our first glance at the worshippers is not hopeful or inspiriting. For here are men who offer sacrifices in lieu of obedience; and here are men whose prayers are a voluble repetition of phrases which run far in advance of their limping thoughts and desires: and there are men quick to make vows in moments of peril, but slow to redeem them when the peril is past. At first the House of God looks very like a House of Merchandise, in which brokers and traders drive a traffic as dishonest as any that disgraces the Exchange. But while the merchants and politicians stand criticising the conduct of the worshippers, the Preacher turns upon them and shows them that they are the worshippers whom they criticise; that he has held up a glass in which they see themselves as others see them; that it is they who vow and do not pay, they who hurry on their mouths to utter words which their hearts do not prompt, they who take the roundabout course of sinning and sacrificing for sin instead of that plain road of obedience which leads straight to God.

But what comfort for them is there in that? How should it help them, to be beguiled into condemning themselves? Truly there would not be much comfort in it did not the compassionate Preacher forthwith disclose the secret of this dishonest worship, and give them counsels of amendment. He discloses the secret in two verses (Ecclesiastes 5:3 and Ecclesiastes 5:7), which have much perplexed the readers of this book. He there explains that just as a mind harassed by much occupation and the many cares it breeds cannot rest even at night, but busies itself in framing wild disturbing dreams, so also is it with the foolish worshipper who, for want of thought and reverence, pours out before God a multitude of unsifted and unconsidered wishes in a multitude of words. In effect he says to them: "You men of affairs often get little help or comfort from the worship of God because you come to it with preoccupied hearts, just as a man gets little comfort from his bed because his brain, jaded and yet excited by many cares, will not suffer him to rest. Hence it is that you promise more than you perform, and utter prayers more devout than any honest expression of your desires would warrant, and offer sacrifices to avoid the charge and trouble of obedience to the Divine laws. And as I have shown you a more excellent way of transacting business than the selfish grasping mode to which you are addicted, so also I will show you a more excellent style of worship. Go to the House of God ‘with a straight foot,’ a foot trained to walk in the path of obedience. Keep your heart, set a watch over it, lest it should be diverted from the simple and devout homage it should pay. Do not urge and press it to a false emotion, to a strained and insincere mood. Let your words be few and reverent when you speak to the Great King. Do not vow except under the compulsion of steadfast resolves, and pay your vows even to your own hurt when once they are made. Do not anger God, or the angel of God who, as you believe, presides over the altar, with idle unreal talk and idle half-meant resolves, making vows of which you afterwards repent and do not keep, pleading that you made them in error or infirmity. But in all the exercises of your worship show a holy fear of the Almighty; and then, under the worst oppressions of fortune and the heaviest calamities of time, you shall find the House of God a Sanctuary, and his worship a strength, a consolation, and a delight." This, surely, was very wholesome counsel for men of business in hard times.

To make Worship Formal and Insincere.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7(d) But now if, like Coheleth, we follow these men to the Temple, what is the scene that meets our eye? In the English Ternple, I fear, that which would first strike an unaccustomed observer would be the fact that very few men of business are there. They are "conspicuous by their absence," or, at best, noted for an only occasional attendance. The Hebrew Temple was crowded with men; in the English Temple it is the other sex which predominates. But glance at the men who are there? Do you detect no signs of weariness and perfunctoriness? Do you hear no vows which will never be paid. and which they do not intend to pay even when they make them? no prayers which go beyond any honest and candid expression of their desires? Do you not feel and know that many of them are making an unwilling sacrifice to the decencies and the proprieties, instead of worshipping God the Spirit in spirit and nerving themselves for the difficulties of obedience to the Divine law? Listen: they are saying, "Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we bless Thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for Thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." But are these ineffable spiritual benefits "above all" else to them? Do they care for "the means of grace" as much even as for the state of the market, or for "the hope of glory" as much as for success or promotion? Which is most in their thoughts, their lives, their aspirations, for which will they take most pains and make most sacrifices-for what they mean by the beautiful phrase "all the blessings of this life," or for that sacred and crowning act of the Divine Mercy, "the redemption," in which God has once for all revealed His fatherly forgiving love?

What is it that makes their worship formal and insincere? It is the very cause which, as the Preacher tells us, produced the like evil effect upon the Jews. They come into the Temple with preoccupied hearts. Their thoughts are distracted by the cares of life even as they bend in worship. And hence even the most sacred words turn to "idle talk" on their lips, as remote from the true feeling of the moment as "the multitude of dreams" which haunt the night; they utter fervent prayers without any due sense of their meaning, or any hearty wish to have them granted.

Practical Maxims deduced from this View of the Business life.

(b) A noble philosophy this, and pregnant with practical counsels of great value. For if, as we close our study of this Section of the Book, we ask, "What good advice does the Preacher offer that we can take and act upon?" we shall find that he gives us at least three serviceable maxims.

A Maxim on Cooperation. Ecclesiastes 4:9-16To all men of business conscious of their special dangers and anxious to avoid them, he says, first: Replace the competition which springs from your jealous and selfish rivalry, with the cooperation which is born of sympathy and breeds goodwill. "Two are better than one. Union is better than isolation. Conjoint labour has the greater reward." Instead of seeking to take advantage of your neighbours, try to help them. Instead of standing alone, associate with your fellows. Instead of aiming at purely selfish ends, pursue your ends in common. Indeed the wise Hebrew Preacher anticipates the Golden Rule to a remarkable extent, and, in effect, bids us love our neighbour as our self, look on his things as well as our own, and do to all men as we would that they should do to us.

A Maxim on Worship. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7His second maxim is: Replace the formality of your worship with a reverent and steadfast sincerity. Keep your foot when you go to the House of God. Put obedience before sacrifice. Do not hurry on your mouth to the utterance of words which transcend the desires of your heart. Be not one of those who

"Words for virtue take,

As though mere wood a shrine would make."

Do not come into the Temple with a preoccupied spirit, a spirit distracted with thoughts that travel different ways. Realise the presence of the Great King, and speak to Him with the reverence due to a King. Keep the vows you have made in His house after you have left it. Seek and serve Him with all your hearts, and ye shall find rest to your souls.

A Maxim on Trust in God Ecclesiastes 5:8-17And his last maxim is: Replace your grasping self-sufficiency with a constant trust in the fatherly providence of God. If you see oppression or suffer wrong, if your schemes are thwarted and your enterprises fail, you need not therefore lose the quiet repose and settled peace which spring from a sense of duty discharged and the undisturbed possession of the main good of life. God is over all, and rules all the undertakings of man, giving each its season and place, and causing all to work together for the good of the loving and trustful heart. Trust in Him, and you shall feel, even though you cannot prove,

"That every cloud that spreads above,

And veileth love, itself is love."

Trust in Him and you shall find that

"The slow sweet hours that bring us all things good,

The slow sad hours that bring us all things ill

And all good things from evil,"

as they strike on the great horologe of Time, are set to a growing music by the hand of God; a music which rises and falls as we listen, but which nevertheless swells through all its saddest cadences and dying falls toward that harmonious close, that "undisturbed concent," in which all discords will be drowned.


The Quest Of The Chief Good In Devotion To The Affairs Of Business

Ecclesiastes 3:1 - Ecclesiastes 5:20I. IF the true Good is not to be found in the School where Wisdom utters her voice, nor in the Garden in which Pleasure spreads her lures: may it not be found in the Market, in devotion to Business and Public Affairs? The Preacher will try this experiment also. He gives himself to study and consider it. But at the very outset he discovers that he is in the iron grip of immutable Divine ordinances, by which "seasons" are appointed for every undertaking under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1), ordinances which derange man’s best-laid schemes, and "shape his ends, rough hew them how he will," that no one can do anything to purpose "apart from God," except by conforming to the ordinances, or laws, in which He has expressed His will. {comp. Ecclesiastes 2:24-26}

If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.
And a more helpful and consolatory Trust in the Divine Providence.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-17Not content with this, however, the Preacher goes on to show how, when they returned from the House of God to the common round of life, and were once more exposed to its miseries and distractions, there were certain comfortable and sustaining thoughts on which they might stay their spirits. To the worship of the Sanctuary he would have them add a strengthening trust in the Providence of God. That Providence was expressed, as in other ordinances, so also in these two:

First; whatever oppressions and perversions of justice and equity there were in the land (Ecclesiastes 5:8), still the judges and satraps who oppressed them were not supreme; there was an official hierarchy in which superior watched over superior, and if justice were not to be had of the one, it might be had of another who was above him; if it were not to be had of any, no, not even of the king himself, there was this reassuring conviction that, in the last resort, even the king was "the servant of the field" (Ecclesiastes 5:9), i.e., was dependent on the wealth and produce of the land, and could not, therefore, be unjust with impunity, or push his oppressions too far lest he should decrease his revenue or depopulate his realm. This was "the advantage" the people had; and if it were in itself but a slight advantage to this man or that, clearly it was a great advantage to the body politic; while as an indication of the Providence of God, of the care with which He had arranged for the general well-being, it was full of consolation.

The second fact, or class of facts, in which they might recognise the gracious care of God Was this, -That the unjust judges and wealthy rapacious "lords" who oppressed them had very much less satisfaction in their fraudulent gains than they might suppose. God had so made men that injustice and selfishness defeated their own ends, and those who lived for wealth, and would do evil to acquire it, made but a poor bargain after all. "He that loveth silver is never satisfied with silver, nor he that clings to wealth with what it yields" (Ecclesiastes 5:10). "When riches increase, they increase that consume them"-dependents, parasites, slaves, flock around the man who rises to wealth and place. He cannot eat and drink more, or enjoy more, than when he was a man simply well-to-do in the world; the only advantage he has is that he sees others consume what he has acquired at so great a cost (Ecclesiastes 5:11). He cannot know the sweet refreshing sleep of husbandmen weary with toil (Ecclesiastes 5:12), for his heart is full of care and apprehension. Robbers may drive off his flocks, or "lift" his cattle; his investments may fail, or his secret hoard be plundered; he must trust much to servants, and they may be unfaithful to their trust; his official superiors may ruin him with the bribes they extort, or the prince himself may want a sponge to squeeze. If none of these evils befall him, he may apprehend, and have cause to apprehend, that his heir longs for his death, and will prove little better than a fool, wasting in wanton riot what he has amassed with much painful toil (Ecclesiastes 5:13-14). And, in any event, he cannot take his wealth with him on his last journey (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16). So that, naturally enough, he is much perturbed, and "hath great vexation and grief" (Ecclesiastes 5:17), cannot sleep for his apprehensive care for his "abundance"; and at last must go out of the world as bare and unprovided as he came into it. He "labours for the wind," and reaps what he has sown. Was such a life, mounting to such a close, a thing to long for and toil for? Was it worth while to hurl oneself against the adamantine laws of Heaven and risk the oppressions of earth, to injure one’s neighbours, to sink into an insincere and distracted worship and a weakening distrust of the providence of God, in order to spend anxious toilsome days and sleepless nights, and at last to go out of the world naked of all but guilt, and rich in nothing but the memory of frauds and wrongs? Might not even a captive or a slave, whose sleep was sweetened by toil, and who, from his trust in God and the sacred delights of honest worship, gathered strength to endure all the oppressions of the time, and to enjoy whatever alleviations and innocent pleasures were vouchsafed him-might not even he be a wiser, happier man than the despot at whose caprice he stood?

He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.
And to take from Life its Quiet and Innocent Enjoyments.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-17(e) Now surely a life so thick with perils, so beset with temptations, should have a very large and certain reward to offer. But has it? For one, Coheleth thinks it has not. In his judgment, according to his experience, instead of making a man happier even in this present time, to which it limits his thoughts and aims, it robs him of all quiet and happy enjoyment of his life. And, mark, it is not the unsuccessful man of business, who might naturally feel sore and aggrieved, but the successful man, the man who has made a fortune and prospered in his schemes, whom the Preacher describes as having lost all faculty of enjoying his gains. Even the man who has wealth and abundance, so that his soul lacketh nothing of all that he desireth, is placed before us as the slave of unsatisfied desire and constant apprehension. Both his hands are so full of labour that he cannot lay hold on quiet. Though he loves silver so well, and has so much of it, he is not satisfied therewith; his riches yield him no certain and abiding delight. And how can he be in "happy plight" who is

"debarred the benefit of rest?

When day’s oppression is not eased by night,

But day by night, and night by day, oppress’d?

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,

Do in consent shake hands to torture him."

The sound sleep of humble contented labour is denied him. He is haunted by perpetual apprehensions that "there is some ill a-brewing to his rest," that evil in some dreaded shape will befall him. He doubts "the filching age will steal his treasure." He knows that when he is called hence he can carry away nothing in his hand; all his gains must be left to his heir, who may either turn out a wanton fool or be crushed and degraded by the burden and temptations of a wealth for which he has not laboured. And hence, amid all his toils and gains, even the most prosperous and successful man suspects that he has been "labouring for the wind" and may reap the whirlwind: "he is much perturbed, and hath vexation and grief."

Is the picture overdrawn? Is not the description as true to modern experience as to that of "the antique world"? Shakespeare, who is our great English authority on the facts of human experience, thought it quite as true. His Merchant of Venice has argosies on every sea; and two of his friends, hearing him confess that sadness makes such a want-wit of him that he has much ado to know himself, tell him that his "mind is tossing on the ocean" with his ships. They proceed to discuss the natural effects of having so many enterprises on hand. One says:

"Believe me, Sir, had I such venture forth, The better part of my affections would Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still Plucking the grass, to know where sits the wind: Peering in maps for ports, and piers, and roads: And every object that might make me fear Misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt Would make me sad."

And the other adds:

"My wind, cooling my broth, Would blow me to an ague, when I thought What harm a wind too great at sea might do. I should not see the sandy hour-glass run, But I should think of shallows and of flats, And see my wealthy Andrew, dock’d in sand, Vailing her high-top lower than her ribs To kiss her burial. Should I go to church"

"And see the holy edifice of stone, And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks, Which, touching but my gentle vessel’s side, Would scatter all her spices in the stream: Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks: And, in a word, but even now worth this, And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought To think on this: and shall I lack the thought That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?"

"Abundance suffereth not the rich to sleep"; the thought that his "riches may perish in some unlucky adventure" rings a perpetual alarm in his ears: "all his days he eateth in darkness, and is much perturbed, and hath vexation and grief." These are the words of the Hebrew Preacher: are not our own great poet’s words an expressive commentary on them, an absolute confirmation of them, covering them point by point? And shall we envy the wealthy merchant whose two hands are thus "full of labour and vexation of spirit"? Is not "the husbandman whose sleep is sweet, whether he eat little or much," better off than he? Nay, has not even the sluggard who, so long as he hath meat, foldeth his hands in quiet, a truer enjoyment of his life?

Of course Coheleth does not mean to imply that every man of business degenerates into a miserly sceptic, whose worship is a formulated hypocrisy and whose life is haunted with saddening apprehensions of misfortune. No doubt there were then, as there are now, many men of business who were wise enough to "take pleasure in all their labours," to cast their burden of care on Him in whose care stand both tomorrow and today; men to whom worship was a calming and strengthening communion with the Father of their spirits, and who advanced, through toil, to worthy or even noble ends. He means simply that these are the perils to which all men of business are exposed, and into which they fall so soon as their devotion to its affairs grows excessive. "Make business, and success in business, your chief good, your ruling aim, and you will come to think of your neighbour, as selfish rivals; you will begin to look askance on the lofty spiritual qualities which refuse to bow to the yoke of Mammon; your worship will sink into an insecure formalism; your life will be vexed and saddened with fears which will strangle the very faculty of tranquil enjoyment": this is the warning of the Preacher; a warning of which our generation, in such urgent sinful haste to be rich, stands in very special need.

2. But what checks, what correctives, what remedies, would the Preacher have us apply to the diseased tendencies of the time? How shall. men of business save themselves from being absorbed in its interests and affairs?

The Correctives of this Devotion are a Sense of its Perils;

Ecclesiastes 5:10-17(a) Well, the very sense of danger to which they are exposed-a danger so insidious, so profound, so fatal-should surely induce caution and a wary self-control. The symptoms of the disease are described that we may judge whether or not we are infected by it; its dreadful issues that, if infected, we may study a cure. The man who loves riches is placed before us that we may learn what he is really like-that he is not the careless happy being we often assume him to be. We see him decline on the low bare levels of covetousness and materialism, hypocrisy and fear; and, as we look, the Preacher turns upon us with, "There, that is the slave of Mammon in his habit as he lives. Do you care to be like that? Will you break your heart unless you are allowed to assume his heavy and degrading burden?"

Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
The Conclusion.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20For himself Coheleth has a very decided opinion on this point. He is quite sure that his first conclusion is sound, though for a moment he had questioned its soundness, and that a quiet, cheerful, and obedient heart is greater riches than the wealthiest estate. With all the emphasis of renewed and now immovable conviction he declares, Behold, that which I have said holds good; it is well for a man to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labours through the brief day of his life. And I have also said-and this too is true-that a man to whom God hath given riches and wealth-for even a rich man may be a good man and use his wealth wisely-if He hath also enabled him to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour-this too is a most Divine gift. He does not fret over the brevity of his life; it is not much, or often, or sadly in his thoughts: for he knows that the joy his heart takes in the toils and pleasures of life is approved by God, or even, as the phrase seems to mean, corresponds in some measure with the joy of God Himself; that his tranquil enjoyment is a reflection of the Divine peace.

II. There are not many Englishmen who devote themselves solely or mainly to the acquisition of Wisdom, and who, that they may teach the children of men that which is good, live laborious days, withdrawing from the general pursuit of wealth and scorning the lures of ease and self-indulgence; such men, indeed, are but a small minority in any age or land. Nor do those who give themselves exclusively to the pursuit of Pleasure constitute more than a small and miserable class, though most of us have wasted on it days that we could ill spare. But when the Hebrew Preacher, having followed his quest of the supreme Good in Pleasure and Wisdom, turns to the affairs of Business-and I use that term as including both commerce and politics-he enters a field of action and inquiry with which we are nearly all familiar, and can hardly fail to speak words which will touch us close home. For, whatever else we may or may not be, we are most of us among the worshippers of the great god Traffic-a god whose wholesome, benignant face too often lowers and darkens, or ever we are aware, into the sordid and malignant features of Mammon.

Now in dealing with this broad and momentous province of human life the Preacher exhibits the candour and the temperance which marked his treatment of Wisdom and Mirth. Just as he would not suffer us to think of Wisdom as in itself an evil, nor of Pleasure as an evil, so neither will be allow us to think of Business as essentially and of necessity an evil. This, like those, may be abused to our hurt; but none the less they may all be used, and were meant to be used, for our own and our neighbours’ good. Pursued in the right method, from the right motive, with the due moderation and reserve, Business, as he is careful to point out, besides bringing other great advantages, may be a new bond of union and brotherhood: it develops intercourse among men and races of men, and should develop sympathy, goodwill, and a mutual helpfulness. Nevertheless, thrift may degenerate into miserliness, and the honest industry of content into a dishonest eagerness for an excessive devotion to it. These degenerate undue gains, and a wise attention to business into tendencies had struck their roots deep into the Hebrew mind of his day, and brought forth many bitter fruits. The Preacher describes and denounces them; he lays an axe to the very roots of these evil growths: but it is only that he may clear a space for the fairer and more wholesome growths which sprang beside them, and of which they were the wild bastard offshoots.

Throughout this second section of the Book, his subject is excessive devotion to Business, and the correctives to it which his experience enables him to suggest.

1. His handling of the subject is very thorough and complete. Men of business might do worse than get the lessons he here teaches by heart. According to him, their excessive devotion to affairs springs from a "jealous rivalry": it tends to forth in them a grasping covetous temper which can never be satisfied, to produce a materialistic scepticism of all that is noble, spiritual, aspiring in thought and action, to render their worship formal and insincere, and, in general, to incapacitate them for any quiet happy enjoyment of their life. This is his diagnosis of their disease, or of that diseased tendency which, if it be for the most part latent in them, always threatens to become pronounced and to infect all healthy conditions of the soul.

The Expositor's Bible

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bible Hub
Ecclesiastes 4
Top of Page
Top of Page