Admonition to Fear God (5:1-7)

5:1 Watch your steps when you go to the house of God: draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 5:2 Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not 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. 5:3 For as a dream comes with much preoccupation, so the voice of a fool with many words. 5:4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it, for He has no delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5:5 It is better that you not vow than to vow and not fulfill it. 5:6 Do not let your mouth cause you to commit sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands? 5:7 For in many dreams there are many profitless words. Rather fear God.

Qoheleth’s speech has so far been about the vanity of life with respect to temporal things. So this passage on a specific religious practice seems to be a digression, especially since in the passage that follows and the rest of the speech, the subject matter returns to temporal things. This digression is only apparent, and it actually alerts us to the meaning of the text.

For this passage is not out of place if we recognize what it is really about. Though Qoheleth seems to have used far too many words, what he really wants to say is, “Fear God!” (verse 7b). This admonition to fear God is in fact expressed right at the very beginning: “Watch your steps” (verse 1), that is, proceed carefully with what you are going to do or say in the temple. If we have been following the preceding flow of thought we can understand why he admonishes his audience to fear God. For he has been arguing that in light of the vanity of life the most sensible thing to do is to fear God, so that we can have enjoyment of life. So it is a matter of time before he appeals to his audience to fear God. But if he does this only at the end of the speech, which he does in 12:13, his audience may not be prepared to respond. And this passage is an appropriate place to give a preliminary appeal as he has by now touched his audience emotionally as well as explained sensibly why they need to fear God. But why then all this talk about “the sacrifice of fools” and “fulfill what you vow”?

This is the first time Qoheleth directly admonishes his audience to fear God. When he talked about the need to fear God earlier, his audience may be smugly thinking that they already feared God. So they would take it as a tacit encouragement rather than an implicit admonishment. For his original audience, like all ancient peoples, was basically religious. And religious people, if they faithfully observe their prescribed religious practices, usually assume that they are already God-fearing. In fact, in some contexts such as Isaiah 29:13 and 2Kings 17:25-28, “fear of God means religious practices, or religion in general” (Sarna 1993: 87-88). So if Qoheleth instructs religious people to fear God without also helping them see (in a non-offensive way) that they may not be God-fearing after all, they will be taken aback and may even be offended: “Are we not God-fearers already?!”

Apparently, Qoheleth had in mind an audience that was quick to make vows but slow to fulfill them. They did not even realize that this was evil, a clear sign that they were not really God-fearing. This explains why Qoheleth used the context of making vows to admonish them to fear God. Vows were voluntary and were usually made out of a psychological need in times of crises. It was an attempt to “bribe” God to answer a desperate prayer. So what was vowed was usually very costly. Because of this, when the crisis was over, what was promised in the heat of the moment may likely be withheld. Since this agreement was entirely between God and the person who made the vow, only a genuine God-fearer would be conscientious enough to fulfill it. Put in general terms, an excellent way for a person to know if he truly fears God is how readily he would avoid doing what is wrong and seek to do what is right when nobody (except God) is watching or is holding him accountable. This is what it really means to be conscientious.

Hence the making of vows was a serious matter. So Qoheleth admonished his audience to “watch your steps” when they went to the temple. They should be careful with what they would say to God. To avoid making rash vows it was better to go to the temple to listen than to speak. For just as much preoccupation with the crisis one is facing results in dreams during sleep, speaking too many words in the temple results in saying foolish things before God. This caution was applied particularly to people who went to the temple with a heavy heart. Perhaps the phrase “in many dreams” in verse 7 refers to the mental state of the worshipper at the temple: he was still preoccupied with the crisis he had been facing, and had thus been experiencing many dreams lately. People in such a condition were thus prone to make hasty vows, saying “many profitless words” before God. The command to fear God is thus most appropriate in this context.

Therefore we must not remove Qoheleth’s admonishment about going to the temple to listen rather than to speak from its context of making vows. As Fox notes, “the central theme [of the whole passage] is vows .... [Even] the remarks about sacrifices and speech are subordinate to this theme and allude to the circumstances of vows” (1999: 229). Qoheleth was thus neither discouraging prayers at the temple nor advocating a very austere form of religion. As Whybray puts it, “these verses should not be taken as expressing the whole of his views about worship: he is concerned here only with one particular aspect of it (1989: 91). Addressing this particular religious practice not only gave Qoheleth an appropriate context to ensure his religious audience understood what he meant by fearing God. As we shall now see, it would also help promote a God-fearing way of life.

In the Old Testament God did not forbid, only regulated, vows: those who made vows must make sure they fulfilled it without delay (Deut 23:21-23). Qoheleth was simply reiterating this teaching. Since it was not required of them, it was better that they did not vow than to vow but not fulfill it. He likened a vow made impulsively in the presence of God to “the sacrifice of fools,” a sacrifice that offended instead of pleased God. It was a foolish act. Making a costly promise in haste without first giving it adequate thought usually led to regret when it was time to fulfill it. This would then lead to making an excuse before “the messenger,” probably “the priest who officiates at the temple to which people come to confess that they have erred” (Seow 1997: 201). This lax attitude disregarded that “God is in heaven and you are on earth,” amounting to not recognizing His majesty or even reality. It expressed, and would further cultivate, a lack of the fear of God, and would thus hasten a deeper decline in conscientious living.

Hence this religious laxness has social consequences. And it also has personal consequences. Qoheleth warned his audience that not fulfilling their vows was sin and they would not get away with it. God “has no delight in fools,” meaning He is displeased by their foolishness. He would “be angry with your words” and would even “destroy the work of your hands.” This statement must be understood in the context of the speech. In our exposition on 3:10-15 we explained that when Qoheleth refers to something as God's doing, he may not be talking about a supernatural involvement, but simply a naturally experienced or observed phenomenon. This is because he considers whatever happens as God's doing, since it is either directed or permitted by God. How then would vow-breakers experience this “destruction” of the work of their hands? Beginning with 2:24-26 Qoheleth has been saying that in order to have the ability to enjoy the fruit of our labor, that is, “the work of your hands,” we need to please or fear God. And here, the statement that God would “destroy the work of your hands” is made in the context of not pleasing or fearing God. So the “destruction” simply means that vow-breakers would not have the ability to enjoy the fruit of their labor.

This inability is not so much the direct consequence of breaking the vow. Note that the admonition, “(Rather) fear God,” is given as the alternative to making empty vows and “God be angry with your words.” It is also the antidote to “and destroy the work of your hands.” That means, the actual reason behind the lack of enjoyment is the lack of the fear of God, of which the failure to honor vows is only a definite expression. Qoheleth has yet to explain why the lack of the fear of God leads to the inability to enjoy life. But as already alluded to in one way or another in the course of our exposition of the preceding chapters, it is unlikely that people who do not fear God, such as those who are greedy and are dishonest in their dealings with others, can find satisfaction in life and enjoy the fruit of their labor. The lack of the fear of God expresses itself in more than one way. Some expressions (like the example just used) reveal more clearly than others (like the making of empty vows) why people who do not fear God cannot be happy. And of course, the fear of God or the lack of it actually falls on a spectrum; it is a matter of degrees and not a clear-cut dichotomy. So are the consequences.

As for Qoheleth’s original audience, the making of empty promises to God was a clear indication that they were not really God-fearing. For us today, it may be the making of empty promises to fellow mortal beings. We can no longer do business with just a handshake. We need legally binding contracts before we have some assurance that people would honor their promises. Hence when promises are made without such contracts, they are usually not seen as binding. So those who make the promises may not consider themselves accountable to anyone. In such a culture, only those who are adequately God-fearing or conscientious would consistently honor their promises.


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