Today’s passage is not the first or last that we will encounter in Ecclesiastes that is difficult to interpret and understand. It includes the oft-quoted one-liner, “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” After having read my collection of commentators on this passage, fewer words from them might have been helpful as well!
If I were to give a title to these verses that emphasizes the big idea to be applied, it would be “Keep It Real!” The writer essentially condemns two practices being made by people of his era who were not fully genuine in their relationship with God: uttering foolish prayers and making stupid promises without any desire of keeping them.
Something I have observed throughout my life of attending church on a regular basis is to have seen people who do the same out of some sense of obligation that is rather thoughtless. It is as if they have some general sense that a weekly religious duty is a correct thing to do, though they are obviously not actually that interested in the content or in the mission of the church. Their participation is almost superstitious and is essentially just going through the motions. Or perhaps they believe that simply being there and singing a few songs and repeating a few prayers gets them a minimal number of credits with God to make life workable. It is kind of like an insurance policy.
Jesus was critical of making what he called “vain repetitions” in prayer. God is not merely interested in our attendance pattern or obligatory gifts and promises, he is interested in the genuine condition of our heart and relationship with him.
Our faith is not a weekly thing of rituals that are done to appease God so that he won’t whack us at other times, He being then also obligated to at least minimally bless us. It is not a daily thing where we make a few prayers of oft-repeated and essentially mindless words in order to appear to both God and ourselves that we are connected to the divine. Rather, the life of faith is a continuous relationship of taking God with us throughout all of life, moment by moment. We should think of our prayer life as a continuous conversation with a continually present, nearby friend. Our actions and deeds, as well as the use of our resources, should be incessantly cognizant of Kingdom values and the larger picture of ourselves as servants of the Lord in all we say and do.
Solomon is saying that the person who is not entirely genuine in the things he prays and promises is a person who is chasing after the wind. It is futility. It risks the loss of meaning in life, God’s judgment, and the loss of the benefit or our labors. Life therefore is merely going through motions, possessing but the briefest benefit of that one key word in Ecclesiastes – be it “vanity” or “futility” or “meaningless” – the mere results of breath upon a glass.
So, having called the writer the “Mayor of Realville,” here we have his encouragement to “keep it real” in relationship with God.
Ecclesiastes 5:1 – Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.
3 A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool.
4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5 It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.