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Go to Bible: Ecclesiastes 5
“Guard your step.” The Hebrew is more idiomatic, literally, “Guard your foot.” This is perhaps more awkward in English than our idiom, “watch your step,” but it is not saying “watch your step” in the sense of not tripping over something. To “guard” your step was to beware of entering the presence of God without giving proper thought to what you were doing and why you were there.
“Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” In this case, “the sacrifice of fools” is the sacrifice and vow that a fool would make. The whole context, Ecclesiastes 5:1-6, is about words and vows. The fool makes a vow without counting the cost, and then cannot pay (Ecc. 5:4), and has to tell the messenger that the vow was a mistake, which makes God angry and leads to what the vow was made for in the first place being destroyed. The wise thing for people to do when in the house of God (the Temple) is to listen first then make commitments.(top)
“rash.” The Hebrew word is bahal (#0926 בּהל), and in the Piel form, as it is here, it has two meanings; to dismay or terrify; and also to act hastily or be hurried. Both meanings are true in Ecclesiastes 5:2. Although most modern versions are leaning toward “hasty” or “quick,” in part because the second phrase of the verse is about being hasty before God, the aspect of words that dismay or cause fear is an important meaning of the word, arguably the most import meaning. If we are not hasty with our mouth, many times we will not be rash or hurtful either. Thankfully, the English word “rash” can include both the meaning hasty and hurtful.
People should not be quick or hurried in what they say, but should think through their words. We are each responsible to make sure that our words are godly and that we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), and that what we say benefits the hearer (Eph. 4:29). The whole point of the phrase, “For God is in heaven and you are on earth,” is that God is our heavenly judge and He hears us and will hold us accountable for what we say. Jesus warned us about what we say: “And I say to you, that every careless word that people speak, they will give account of it on the Day of Judgment” (Matt. 12:36). It is in our power to speak in a godly way, which will result in blessings for both ourselves and others.
The book of James also has a lot to say about speaking, and has a number of parallels to Ecclesiastes. For example, James 1:19 says to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
“utter a word.” The Hebrew is more literally, “bring up (or “out”) “a word,” but the meaning of “word” can be quite broad. The NAB suggests a promise, which is certainly included by the fact that what is spoken is the sacrifice of fools, and fools promise many things to God that they do not really have any intention or means to fulfill. The Hebrew can also mean “bring up a matter,” as if the person was going to bring up something to God for consideration.(top)
“cares.” The Hebrew word is `inyan (#06045 עִנְיָן), and it generally refers to business, work, affairs, activity, tasks, occupation, but it carries a somewhat cynical meaning and so “cares” seems to fit this context well. In Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew word appears a number of times (cp. Ecc. 1:13, 2:23, 2:26, 3:10, 4:8, 5:2, 5:13, and 8:16).(top)
|Ecc 5:4||- (top)|
|Ecc 5:5||- (top)|
“cause your whole body to sin.” In this context, “your body” is a graphic way of saying “you,” and many English versions omit “body” altogether and simply say “you” (cp. ESV; NASB; NET; NIV). It is likely that James was using this verse in Ecclesiastes as background when he pointed out that the tongue was evil, “staining the whole body” (James 3:6). The wise person carefully guards their mouth and does not let their mouth cause them to sin.
“the messenger.” This is perhaps the Temple priest because the temple was a likely place where a person would make a vow (the priests were messengers of God; Mal. 2:7). It is also possible that “the messenger” was some other messenger, perhaps a messenger from the person to whom the vow was made, inquiring why the vow was not fulfilled. The verse does not tell us exactly who the messenger is, and it is not important for understanding the verse. Angels were also messengers of God (the Hebrew word for “angel” means “messenger”) but “angel” is an unlikely interpretation here because how would someone tell an angel?
“it was a mistake.” That is, that the vow was a mistake.
“destroy the work of your hands.” This statement can be understood in the context. The person has made a vow, but for some reason cannot keep it or does not want to keep it. The vow almost certainly had to do with an exchange of some kind: “I vow this if you will do that.” But now the person who made the vow says he cannot (or will not) keep it, so whatever good he was trying to accomplish by making the vow will now be “destroyed.” The Anchor Yale Bible: Ecclesiastes, by Choon-Leong Seow, translates “destroy” as “take away,” and makes a good argument for that translation. If the person reneged on his vow, what he received as part of the vow would be taken away.(top)
“pointless.” See commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2.(top)
“denial.” The Hebrew is more literally, “robbery,” and denial of justice is a robbery, but we would not word it that way in English.
“in the land.” More literally, the “province” or “state,” but that does not communicate the Hebrew meaning as well as “in the land,” because when they thought of the “state” of Israel, it was the whole country, but a “state” to a Western reader does not have that as a primary meaning.
“watches over another authority.” Even people in high positions have people over them watching them. There is also the possible meaning that “watch” is actually “watch over, protect,” which is a meaning of the Hebrew. In that case, the point the verse is making is that evil is throughout the system, and when a lower official perverts justice, officials above them often protect them for various reasons, thus making the whole world’s system corrupt, which is certainly true in a sense. If both meanings are indeed being set forth in the verse, it is an amphibologia, where one thing said has two true meanings.(top)
“But in all, an advantage….” After speaking about how corrupt the government can be, one might think that it is better not to have a government. But governments, even though they have some corrupt officials, usually help the people produce. For example, they usually have rules that help the production of agricultural products, and this was especially true of ancient societies before huge farms could be farmed by very few people with powerful tractors. The Hebrew word translated “agriculture” could also be translated as “a cultivated field.”(top)
“money.” The literal Hebrew is “silver,” but silver was money in the biblical world. Ecclesiastes was written before coinage, when silver and gold were measured directly by weight.
“pointless.” See commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2.(top)
“consume.” The literal Hebrew is “eat,” but this is not just about “eating.” The Hebrew “eat” has a wide range of meanings, and so “consume” is a more appropriate English translation in this context.
“to the owner.” That is, the owner of the goods that increase.(top)
|Ecc 5:12||- (top)|
|Ecc 5:13||- (top)|
“nothing to pass on.” The idea is that the man has fathered a son but at the end of his life has nothing to pass on.(top)
“can carry away in his hand.” This is the same “in his hand” that occurs at the end of Ecclesiastes 5:14. In verse 14, the man has nothing to pass to his son, and in verse 15 the man can take nothing he can take to the next life for himself.(top)
|Ecc 5:16||- (top)|
|Ecc 5:17||- (top)|
“appropriate for one to eat and drink.” Many verses in Ecclesiastes encourage people to rejoice and have fun in life (cp. Ecc. 2:24-25; 3:4, 12-13, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 10:19; 11:7-8). See commentary on Ecclesiastes 2:24.
“see good.” This phrase is idiomatic, and it is hard to understand exactly what the idiom means in this context. Generally, “seeing” something is experiencing it, and thus it can mean to “experience good” (Seow, Yale Anchor Bible), or it can have the meaning of “find enjoyment” or “enjoy good” (R. Belcher Jr, Ecclesiastes; Mentor Commentary). Or “see good” can mean to “prosper.” Or, the idiom can mean all of these things, which is why the idiom might have been used in the first place. By leaving the idiom in the text, the reader is presented with all these meanings.(top)
“to enjoy them.” The literal Hebrew is to “eat of them,” but in the culture, a major way of enjoying riches was to eat the good food that riches could buy, so “eat” was often used for “enjoy.”
“to accept his portion.” Life is unpredictable and difficult. This should not catch us off guard, because Scripture is clear that we live in a fallen world, there are many evil people, and the Devil controls much of what happens (1 John 5:19). But in spite of that, many people somehow expect life to be easy and wonderful, and are angry when it is not (Ecc. 5:17). To live a peaceful, joyful life, we must be honest about the fact that this life will be difficult; and we have to have a clear hope in what will certainly be a wonderful future life.
The translation “accept his portion” or equivalents points out that a key to leading a peaceful life is to accept what comes up in life and not constantly be fighting it (cp. CEB; ESV; GWN; NIV; NLT; NRSV; RSV; R. Belcher, Ecclesiastes, A Mentor Commentary; D. Garrett, The New American Commentary).
“this is the gift of God.” This also occurs in Ecclesiastes 3:13 (see commentary on Ecc. 3:13).(top)
“brood much over.” The literal Hebrew is “remember,” but this is the “pregnant sense” of remember, which includes not only memory, but spending mental time thinking, fretting, considering, etc. In that context, “remember” gives somewhat the wrong impression in English.(top)