As we read the fifth chapter of this marvelous book, remember the themes of Ecclesiastes: Vanity and the only worthwhile endeavor of serving God. Chapter 5 explores and elaborates on the ideas of a quick temper, the words we speak and how we ought to approach the idea of labor. Each of these ideas is discussed in light of the idea that all earthly efforts are vain and all godly efforts bear fruit.
Fools do not know that they do evil. This enlightening phrase clues us in on the fact that ignorance of a law, rule, or precept is not an excuse for having committed the trespass. Our conscience, formed as the result of our knowledge of what is right and wrong, should guide us to make the right decisions. But if we are unaware of the God-given directions on how to live, our conscience will let us down and our decisions will be poor. It is better to be wise (like Solomon), and educate ourselves on the Word of God so that we do not commit sin unknowingly.
A warning against impulsive speech follows. A person can easily misspeak in haste and regret for years the things they have uttered which hurt someone or committed them to something that they cannot achieve. The greater context here, however, is that of making a vow. We should not let our passions supersede our judgment when we are making a commitment, because, as the text says, “For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few.” The implication is that we cannot be sure of what will happen in the future that will prevent us from keeping a vow. Surely, we feel strongly about something and we want to seal it by swearing or by making a vow, but this passage suggests that it is better and wiser for us to realize our limits and hold our tongue. This does not mean that we should not hold true to a strong promise and keep our word, but the conclusion to arrive at is to realize that we are mere men and women on earth; our power and wisdom are little, and our speech should reflect that. If we swear or vow and break that vow, our mouth is causing our flesh to sin; this is what the passage warns against specifically.
Verse 8 might seem troublesome to comprehend at first, but if you look at it in the light of Solomon (inspired by God) explaining to us the workings of everyday life, it gets a little easier. When we see oppression in the world, this passage is asking us to not be outraged at the oppression, but rather to view it in its proper context. Is the “oppression” you see truly oppression, or is it a functioning piece of a larger machine? It could be that those hard workers labor for a greater good which serves the needs of many.
The benefits of this work are discussed starting in verse 10. If we work for silver and obtain much silver, can we eat it? No, of course not. More is needed in life than just the “valuable” things that we work for. Also, if I already have more things than I need, what good will it do me to gain even more? None! The “profit” to be had is only vanity, only for the owner to see it with their eyes. There is no real lasting value.
Adversely, the rich man with abundance cannot properly rest due to worry over his belongings, but the working man sleeps sweetly, resting from his toil and is not held down by the abundance of his possessions.
Verses 13-15 talk about the horrible end result of riches that are kept despite the fact that it hurts to keep them. If we obtain riches through dishonest ways, or hold onto riches even though it is dangerous or unwise to do so, the end result will not be worth the effort it took to procure the wealth. It is vain because, again, we were born with nothing and we take nothing with us when we die. The image of a newborn baby with empty hands is a fantastic illustration to bring this point home.
In this case, why should we labor for wealth, riches, and gold and silver and cars and houses and clothes and electronics that we cannot take with us and that will all ultimately perish? The car breaks down and rusts, the smartphone becomes obsolete, the clothes get stained and our physical body wastes away. What is the point of it all?
Solomon (inspired by God) tells us that it is good to work and enjoy the things that we receive. For the wealthy, they are given the gift of abundance from God and should rejoice in it as a gift, enjoying it appropriately, not as if it is an infinite resource that they deserve. No, the rich wise man knows from where his blessings came and He enjoys and shares them in the right spirit.
If we receive and enjoy our “vain” blessings appropriately, God will put joy in our hearts. One might say that we can have our cake and eat it too. Meaning, we can enjoy material and spiritual blessings alike, as long as we do it in the proper context.