Speech, Riches, and Gifts – Ecclesiastes 5

Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 5

Wise Speech (5:1–7)

As Solomon moves toward concluding the first part of his investigation into “all that is done under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13), he briefly detours from his general discussion of labor in Eccl. 2:18–6:9 to specifically address wise speech in Eccl. 5:1–7. These verses are not a departure from Solomon’s larger look at labor, as he views wise speech as a part of man’s work before God. Solomon’s advice here about speech is to “not be rash” (Eccl. 5:2a), to “let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2b), to “pay what you have vowed” (Eccl. 5:4), to not make “excuse[s]” (Eccl. 5:6), and to “fear God” (Eccl. 5:7). In context, the speech Solomon has in mind here are words spoken as “you go to [or are in] the house of God” (Eccl. 5:1). Yet, the advice that Solomon gives in Eccl. 5:1–7 related to worship is applicable to all of our spoken words, for all speech is before God whether in a religious context or not.

While Eccl. 5:1–7 is the first time in this book that Solomon addresses wise speech, note that he revisits the topic several times over the following chapters (cf. Eccl. 6:11; 9:16–17; 10:12–14; 12:10–11). Of course, in his earlier writings Solomon had written quite extensively about wise and foolish speech (cf. Prov. 4:24; 5:3; 6:12; 8:13; 10:20, 31; 12:18–19; 16:21, 23, 27; 17:4, 7, 20; 18:21; 19:1; 21:23; 22:11; 25:15; 26:28). The exhortation in Eccl. 5:6 about not letting your mouth cause your flesh to sin is likely referring to sacred promises or to vows that are later broken. Observe that Eccl. 5:7 is an interesting verse, as Solomon writes, “In the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity.” While this verse may seem out-of-place, Solomon did mention dreams in Eccl. 5:3. His point here is that both dreams and thoughtless words evaporate without lasting impact.

Vanishing Riches (5:8–17)

As he had done in Eccl. 4:1–3, so here in Eccl. 5:8–9 Solomon observes the vanity of oppression experienced by the poor. When he writes “do not marvel at the matter” (Eccl. 5:8a) Solomon is not instructing his readers to overlook oppression; rather, he is exhorting them not to be surprised by oppression. The observation that “high official watches over high official” (Eccl. 5:8b) is likely a reference to governmental corruption that produces the aforementioned oppression. In the following verse, as he teaches that “the profit of the land is for all” (Eccl. 5:9), Solomon is contrasting the oppression caused by corrupt bureaucracy with the productivity resulting from honest labor. Yet, notes Solomon, even the material flourishing of honest labor does not ultimately satisfy man, for when there is increased production there is almost always increased consumption (cf. Eccl. 5:10–11).

One of the problems with wealth is that possessing it oftentimes causes anxiety. In regard to the wealthy, Solomon observes, “The abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep” (Eccl. 5:12). This is in contrast to the laboring poor man who enjoys sweet sleep. This harm caused by wealth is a “severe evil” (Eccl. 5:13) writes Solomon. Furthermore, wealth can always be quickly lost by a bad business decision, thus leaving one’s family without material provision (cf. Eccl. 5:14). Since mankind is born into the world with nothing, and he will depart from the earth carrying nothing, man’s interaction with the material world between his birth and his death ought to be evenly tempered. Yet, mankind is driven to continually work, which is equivalent to “labor[ing] for the wind” (Eccl. 5:16; cf. 1 Tim. 6:7). In sum, then, in the fallen world man’s days are filled with darkness, sorrow, sickness, and anger.

Enjoying God’s Gifts (5:18–20)

Recall that there are five instances in this book where Solomon repeats a similar positive exhortation to enjoy the present world. Eccl. 5:18–20 is one of these passages; perhaps even being the clearest of Solomon’s teachings about presently enjoying the fruits of one’s labor (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:11–13, 22; 8:15). Eccl. 5:18–20 is given in contrast to those described in Eccl. 5:12–17 who experience anxiety about their wealth. The difference between these two groups is not the possession of wealth, but one’s perspective on wealth, security, and God. As he had done at Eccl. 2:24; 3:13, so here at Eccl. 5:19 Solomon describes the ability to view wealth properly, and especially to enjoy it, as a special gift of God. Eccl. 5:20 is a helpful verse, as Solomon notes, “For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.”

Application Questions:

  1. As you have grown in your Christian maturity, what practical areas of your life have been impacted the most?
  2. What does Solomon mean when he refers to those who sacrifice but “do not know that they do evil” (Eccl. 5:1; cf. Isa. 1:10–15; Amos 5:21–24)?
  3. How careful are you in monitoring your spoken and written words? What steps can we take to better represent Jesus with our speech?
  4. How can we balance the realization that oppression will always be present in the fallen world, with the duty to effectively help those impacted by corruption?
  5. Do you get distracted by the darkness, sorrow, sickness, and anger of the fallen world? Do you see and enjoy the good gifts that God has given to you?

Published by

David W. Jones

David W. Jones is a professor and author working in the field of Christian Ethics. You can following him on Twitter @ethicist.