Ecclesiastes/Job Lesson 10
SUBJECT: Heed the warnings
CENTRAL THEME: The wise person heeds the warnings gained from past mistakes and godly counselors.
INTRODUCTION: One of the difficulties of parenting is trying to warn children not to make poor decisions. Parents are able to give these warnings because they learned the hard way through the many mistakes they made along the way—many mistakes that could have been avoided if they had listened to their own parents. Much pain and many heartaches can be avoided when one has a teachable spirit. In Ecclesiastes 4:13–5:7, the Teacher instructs the reader that they can avoid many disappointments and problems by listening to wise counselors.
WHAT LESSONS FROM HISTORY DO PEOPLE RELY ON WHEN LIVING TODAY? WHY MIGHT A PERSON IGNORE HISTORY AND THE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED?
UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT:
Thus far, Solomon has encouraged the reader to enjoy God’s good gifts of food, drink, and work. The warning has been to avoid making these good things into ultimate things, because they do not last. Again, one of the truths that Solomon has made clear is that all things achieved or built by humans will fade as vain and futile. Variations on the word “vanity” or “futility” are used nearly forty times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The repetition of this word in the book as a whole, along with its definition, remind us that life is a vapor or breath. Life under the sun is fleeting and elusive. Therefore, the search for meaning and purpose in this life apart from God is also fleeting and elusive, like chasing after the wind. We are not transcendent over time but live and die within the time that God has allotted us.
The wise person understands this, and understands that God alone transcends time and history. In chapter 3, the Teacher exhorted the reader to fear God because of His sovereignty. Chapters 4–5 focus on God’s holy and righteous character that sets Him apart as transcendent. Unlike the kings of the earth whose thrones do not last, God is eternal and will rule forever. Therefore, living for the things of this fleeting life is a vain pursuit. Living a life of wisdom before God is the proper goal of every creature under the sun.
God is to be approached with reverent awe or fear. The language of God being in heaven while we are on earth strikes at the very core of our humility. This truth reminds us that everything under the sun is finite and futile compared to God. There is no place for carelessness or vanity in the presence of God. Because all of life is lived before God, we should be humble before Him in our worship, in our listening, and in our speaking. In this section of the book, the Teacher moved from abstract observations of life under the sun to concrete ways to live in wisdom. It teaches us that our primary focus in life should be on living a life that exemplifies the fear of God—living before Him with reverence and proper perspective.
EXPLORE THE TEXT: ECCLESIASTES 4:13–5:7
Objective Statement: Every Christian should learn to heed warnings from past experiences and lessons, by following these three applications taught in our text.
APPLICATION #1 – WHEN LEADING (Eccl. 4:13-16)
13 “Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. 14 For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor. 15 I considered all the living which walk under the sun, with the second child that shall stand up in his stead. 16 There is no end of all the people, even of all that have been before them: they also that come after shall not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
The Teacher contrasted “a poor and a wise child” and “an old and foolish king” to remind leaders of the value of continually listening to wise counsel. He pointed to the cycle often seen in leadership as a king ascends, loses touch with his kingdom’s changing needs, and eventually is discarded in preference of a new leader who then repeats the cycle.
In ancient Israel, the general consensus was that young people were foolish and old people were wise. What’s more, kings were supposed to be guided by wisdom (Prov. 8:15). Here, Solomon used irony to teach the wisdom of being teachable by stating that “a poor and a wise child” is better than an experienced “king” who has sat on the throne many years but is no longer willing to listen to wise counsel. In contrast to the much older king, this young male, possibly a teenager, was teachable and willing to pay attention to the insightful advice of others. The older king’s refusal to listen to wise counsel was “foolish” and shameful.
The Teacher recognized that having a teachable spirit was necessary for living a meaningful life, and this means receiving instruction in community with those who are wise. Valuing and receiving instruction from wise counselors is central to the Bible’s concept of wise living. (See Prov. 4:13; 19:20.) In contrast, fools arrogantly despise instruction and wisdom. (See Prov. 1:7; 5:12-13; 15:5.)
A life guided by human wisdom that reaches the pinnacle of human achievement and is exalted by the adoration of many “is vanity and vexation of spirit.” This is medicine that needs to be given in a world where men and women wear themselves out striving after empires of dirt. People live, die, and are forgotten. This is true of even the greatest leaders and kings of history, as illustrated by one of them—Solomon of Israel.
This reminds us that it is never a lasting venture to build our own empires of dirt. In many cases, the leaders who strive to build their own empires close their ears to the wise counsel of others. Specifically, they close their ears to counsel that goes against their plans or warns them of folly in their endeavors. Of all people, Christian leaders must heed Solomon’s words and willingly listen to wise counsel when leading.
The wisest counsel comes from the One who is greater than Solomon, namely, Jesus Christ. To those who seek to build their own empires of dirt, Jesus said to seek first His kingdom and righteousness. In a world where people despair in fear over living, dying, and being forgotten, Jesus comes to us with a promise: “I will never leave or forsake you.” There is wise counsel here for leaders, namely, to focus on what matters most. What matters most is the investment we make in eternity.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT THAT WE REGULARLY ASSESS OUR LIVES TO SEE IF WE ARE BUILDING OUR OWN EMPIRES OR WORKING TO BUILD GOD’S?
APPLICATION #2 – When Worshiping (Eccl. 5:1-3)
1 “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.”
Solomon challenged worshipers to approach God with a heart for obedience rather than with meaningless rituals. He further encouraged worshipers to listen more than they speak when in the presence of God.
So many of Solomon’s ideas and observations are horizontally focused, musings on life “under the sun.” But on a few occasions he broke out of his cynical syndrome, which he did here with reflections on authentic worship. The very word, “worship”, comes from the idea of ascribing worth to God. Worship involves a holistic perspective on all of our lives. One of the things Solomon teaches us here is that God does not delight in religious ritual but in repentant worship.
First, we are taught to approach God in reverence—“keep thy foot” when you approach the sovereign God of the universe. The phrase “keep thy foot” is a warning that means “to be cautious” or “to be careful to do something.” It is the same word Moses used when he exhorted the Israelites to keep the law and keep the Sabbath (Deut. 4:40; 5:12). Here, “keep thy foot” means to think carefully before taking action “when thou goest to the house of God” to worship.
In approaching God for worship, consider the nature of worship and your purpose in going. How often is our approaching God a mere formality? Throughout the Old Testament, we see this was a serious issue. Isaiah 29:13 warns us of the woes of Israel: “this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me.”
If anyone thinks God could not care less about what is happening in his or her heart, they are sorely mistaken. “Fools,” according to the end of verse 1, do not know how to keep from doing evil. They do evil even when they approach the house of God.
2 “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. 3 For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.”
Second, Solomon tells us to listen to God with reverence. When we approach God, our posture should be that of listening to what God has to say first. “God is in heaven,” and we are “upon earth.” He is far above us, far superior to us. A shadow of this reality is shown when we meet someone of power. It is customary when one meets royalty to be quick to listen. If you and I were to meet with our president, we would be told by a White House aid that we are not to speak until we are spoken to first. Our words are to be few because our first instinct in these situations is to be mindful, attentive, quick to listen, and slow to speak.
This speaks to how we are to approach God, even in prayer. We don’t enter into the presence of God aimlessly running our mouths. It is no coincidence that Jesus, in Matthew 6:9, began the model prayer with these words: “Our Father which art in heaven.” Before any petitions are made, there is an acknowledgment that God is in heaven. This brings our posture to patiently waiting in silence, in contrast to the fool who talks on and on.
The fool is not mindful or attentive. He does not listen. The fool fills the void with his words and posits his ideas and concerns before ever stopping to think: maybe I should listen. Solomon illustrated this point in saying that just as many concerns lead to anxious nights of fevered dreams, so too do a “multitude of words” reveal anxious foolishness. Many dreams accompany much labor, because one exhausted with the cares of this life will, in his or her exhaustion, lose touch with reality. This is a reminder to not lose touch with eternal reality. In order to hear God with reverence, you must first be attentive and listen.
In some ways the “fool’s voice” reveals pride: “I know what’s best.” Or we could say that a fool’s talk reveals a deep insecurity: “I am afraid of what’s best.” We don’t like to be quiet, to stop and reflect—that may make us realize we are more dependent on God than we would like to think. It’s much easier to fill the void with our words. But a reflection on the nature of prayer teaches us that prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word—and the last word.
The answer to our prayers is not so much focused on what we ask for, how we say it, or how many times we say it. Rather, it depends on God, who knows what is best for us. Therefore, we trust with humble hearts that He will answer, and we trust that how He answers is according to His will—believing that He knows best.
Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to speak before listening to the God who has spoken. The key to listening to God with reverence is placing yourself in a position to hear God, and He has spoken in His Word. Instead of being hasty to speak, let your words be few.
It is important to have a gospel perspective in approaching God. In the Old Testament, people were required to bring sacrifices to God in the temple as a way of atoning for sin and as a way of entering into God’s presence. This is why the Teacher reminded us that “God is in heaven” and we “are on earth.” There is a holy distance between God and sinful man. With the coming of Jesus, our Mediator, that distance has been bridged. Does that mean that reverence is no longer needed? Certainly not. It was at a great cost—the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of man—that we are able to enter into God’s presence in full confidence, in humility, by the blood of His only Son.
We can enter the presence of God with confident, assurance of faith. (See Heb. 10:19-22.) But we also enter the presence of God in reverent repentance. Our faith keeps us from despair and fear that we have no audience before God. Our repentance keeps us from pride, reminding us that our audience before God is a gift of grace through Christ. Without faith in Christ and repentance of sin, we approach God as fools, in useless ritual. When we approach God in Christ, it is deeply personal (new heart) and profoundly reverent (clean heart).
Why is our posture for worship and prayer important as we approach God? In what ways does the good news of the gospel impact our posture?
APPLICATION #3 – When Promising (Eccl. 5:4-7)
4 “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. 5 Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. 6 Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? 7 For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God.”
Solomon’s last instruction in this passage is simple: do not harshly make a vow before God. Or, if you do make a vow, be hasty in fulfilling it. In fact, for this reason, it is better not to “vowest a vow” at all, lest it lead you into sin. (See also Deut. 23:21-23.)
Verses 4-6 have as their background Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 23:21-23 concerning making “a vow unto God.” A vow involved an oath to God promising to offer something to Him if He would act on behalf of the individual making the vow. Sometimes people make vows in the midst of great danger or need, but other times it is out of great desire. For instance, Hannah was unable to have children. So she went to the tabernacle and vowed to God that if He gave her a son, she would “give him unto the Lord all the days of his life.” In grateful response to the Lord granting her request, her husband offered a vow offering on their behalf in gratitude for what God had done (1 Sam. 1:9-28).
It is far “better” not to promise in the first place than to make a vow and not follow through. Do not let your mouth make a fool out of you; do not let your mouth make a sinner out of you. Don’t let your empty words drag you into judgment. God is not a cosmic vending machine; nor is God someone to trifle with.
God never required anyone to make a vow to Him. Therefore, failing to keep a voluntary vow to the Lord in His house was a serious offense and equated to breaking the third commandment, which forbids the misuse of the Lord’s name (Ex. 20:7; see also Lev. 19:12). God’s final words in Leviticus warn of the costliness of breaking a vow (Lev. 27). The voluntary act of making a vow to God was the highest worship one could offer God. Voluntary expressions of worship are more a blessing to God than doing only what is required. For this reason, it is foolish to take what is a delight to the Lord and turn it into self-centered grandstanding before Him, acting as if one delights in God when in truth that person just seeks to advance himself or herself with grand promises.
There would be no need to double up on our words if we could be trusted as always truthful and faithful. This is why we often speak in vows. How many times have we said, “Honestly, I am telling the truth.” Or, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Vows exist because we are by nature untruthful. This should cause us to be somewhat suspicious of ourselves and the deception that is deep within our own hearts. When we speak to God or when we speak to others, we should allow our simplicity to safeguard our sincerity with an unadorned yes or no. This truth is governed by a deep reverence of the God who hears all our words and who will ask us to give an account for every word on the last day.
The wisdom literature of the Bible often teaches us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. When we fear God, we revere Him and we stand in awe of Him. We come into His presence with reverence. We listen before we speak. And when we speak, we measure our words carefully. Now, perhaps you are hearing this and are sitting under the weight of your sin.
Christ’s payment for our sin included our less-than-worthy worship, our foolishness in not listening to God, and our unfulfilled vows. Christ took on the payment for those sins as well, to wash us clean before our holy God. It is only by grace that we can approach God, listen to God, and speak to God. The great payment of God’s only Son will also give us a deep reverent confidence, that in Christ, we can approach God, hear God, and speak to God through Jesus our Mediator. Reverence for God will cause us to draw near and listen, rather than to run our mouths like fools. Reverence for God will cause us to not delay in keeping our word. Wise believers carefully weigh the promises they make to God and others, knowing they will be expected to keep any promises made.
HOW DO OUR WORDS OR KEEPING OUR WORD, AFFECT OUR WITNESS TO OTHERS? WHY ARE OUR WORDS SUCH AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF OUR WITNESS IN THE WORLD?
Remember our Objective Statement: The wise person heeds the warnings gained from past mistakes and godly counselors.