The Sacrifice of Fools (Phil Johnson)

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7   |   Sunday, May 17, 2015   |   Code: 2015-05-17-PJ

Our text this morning will be the first seven verses of

Ecclesiastes 5. Don't turn there yet. It'll take me a little while

to get there, because I want to start by reminding

you what a tragic figure King Solomon was. Then I want to

introduce you to this book and what it's about.

First, briefly, let me remind you of the biblical assessment

of Solomon's life. Remember that Solomon made a mess of

his own home life; he compromised on the issue of false

worship; and in the closing years of his life he finished very,

very badly. Here's what 1 Kings 11 says at the end of

Solomon's life and career:

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with

the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite,

Sidonian, and Hittite women,

2 from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to

the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage

with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will

turn away your heart after their gods." Solomon clung to

these in love.

3 He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And

his wives turned away his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 2

4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his

heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to

the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.

5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the

Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the


6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD

and did not wholly follow the LORD, as David his father

had done.

7 Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the

abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of

the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.

8 And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made

offerings and sacrificed to their gods.

9 And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his

heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel,

who had appeared to him twice

10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he

should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what

the LORD commanded.

What a tragic legacy for such a gifted man! Solomon's life

and character are a bold reminder to us that as the end of life

approaches, we can't coast to the finish line. Even the best of

lives can end in disaster.

But Solomon learned some valuable lessons from his own

failure, and he records them in the book of Ecclesiastes. This

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morning, we're going to look closely at what he learned

about true worship. But let's go to Ecclesiastes 1 and start

there with a quick survey, so that we get this in context.

I've never preached a full sermon from Ecclesiastes

before. I've used a few verses from chapter four as my text in

a wedding sermon, but I've really never attempted a full

exposition of any verse or passage from this bookCpartly

because this is a hard book to preach from. It's Solomon's

testimony about his quest for wisdom, pleasure, the meaning

of life, and the whole duty of humanity before God.

He recounts his quest from the perspective of human

wisdom, and he candidly describes how an over-reliance on

human wisdom blended with a lack of spiritual discipline

frequently led him into various kinds of spiritual dead ends.

Then he ends the book by telling us the single most

important lesson he has learned from his own life as a

monumental spiritual failure.

Let's trace this through quickly and we'll try to follow the

thread of Solomon's argument. Ecclesiastes chapter 1. He

introduces himself in verse 1: "The words of the Preacher, the

son of David, king in Jerusalem." There's no question who tis

is, so after that one-verse introduction, he jumps right to the

heart of his message. Here is the whole theme of the book in

a single verse (v. 2): "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity." His point is that nothing in this

world has any eternal worth. It's the same point Jesus made

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 4

in Mark 8:36 when He asked, "What does it profit a man to

gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"

Solomon is giving us an earthly perspective on the

significance of human life, and it is a bleak picture from the

very start. He talks (verse 3) about the drudgery and

dreariness of laborCand the fact that with all the work we do,

we never actually gain anything permanent from it. He talks

about the monotony of human existence. Verse 4: "A

generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains

forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to

the place where it rises." He goes on to talk about the circuit

of the wind (verse 6), the water cycle (verse 7). His point

there is not about the wonder and wisdom of God who

engineered and created these phenomena. He's speaking from

an earthly point of view. So he concludes (v. 8) that "All

things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it." In the

immortal words of Mick Jagger, he can't get no satisfaction.

There is nothing new under the sun. Verse 14: "I have seen

everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity

and a striving after wind." And that becomes a constant

refrain, repeated nine times in the first six chapters: "all is

vanity and a striving after wind." Nothing in this world is

permanent, nothing is really pleasurable, nothing has any

lasting worth, and nothing brings peace to the human heart.

It's a very bleak picture. Human life frankly does look bleak

if you face it honestly from a purely human perspective.

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And Solomon goes on for several chapters in this same

vein. Now understand: Solomon is a believer, even though

he has irreparably destroyed his own reputation and legacy.

He does know and affirm biblical truth, and we'll see that in

the end. After all, he was used by the Holy Spirit to write the

book of Proverbs. So he is not promoting a carnal

worldview; he is simply showing that any worldview that's

not biblical is necessarily negative, nihilistic, narcissistic,

nonsensicalCor all of the above. And Solomon speaks from

personal experience. He tried everything.

Chapter 2, for example, recounts his experiments with a

kind of hedonismCviewing life as a quest for pleasure. He's

not advocating that approach to life. In fact, he starts that

chapter by telling us the end of the matter. Ecclesiastes 2:1:

"I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure;

enjoy yourself.' But behold, this also was vanity." He goes on in

that chapter to say wisdom and work are more rewarding

than sheer pleasure. However, he says in verse 21,

"Sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and

knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by

someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great

evil." So even wisdom and work per se are no sure answer to

the dilemma of life's monotony and meaninglessness.

Solomon goes on like that for several chapters, sharing

gems of wisdom that he has learned, some profound, some

just good common sense. It's all interwoven with his

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 6

observation that human life, considered by itself apart from

any eternal values or eternal rewardsCmere earthly life, at

the end of the day, is pure vanity.

This, by the way, is the logical and inevitable conclusion

of atheism. Again, Solomon isn't promoting atheism; he's

showing us what happens when you apply common-sense

wisdom and sound logic to atheistic principles (3:19-20):

"What happens to the children of man and what happens to the

beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have

the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for

all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust

all return." And the agnostic is in the same leaky boat (v. 21):

"Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the

spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?"

Here is probably the wisest man who ever lived (aside

from Christ), and he is leading us through the process of

analyzing human life by employing the very best of human


By the way, wisdom is a virtue, commended many times

in Scripture. Jesus Himself says in Matthew 10:16 that He

wants His disciples to "be wise as serpents and innocent as

doves." But sheer wisdom alone is no substitute for moral

integrity. You can possess great wisdom, but if that's all you

haveCif you don't also set your heart on eternal thingsCyour

wisdom is earthly and sensual and of no eternal value.

Solomon himself makes that confession in Ecclesiastes 2:15.

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It's a shame someone as wise as Solomon felt he needed

to experiment with hedonism and other worldly

philosophies, so that he had to learn these truths that way.

But the Holy Spirit used Solomon's experience for precisely

this reason: to record these lessons for us.

The book of Ecclesiastes is inspired Scripture, and even

though it its themes are human folly, earthly vanity, and the

futility of life apart from God. If we understand the context

and follow the argument all the way to the conclusion, it's a

powerful message.

And of course, Ecclesiastes ends with that famous text in

12:13-14. Jump with me to the end now, and let's look at the

last two verses in the book. Here's the moral of the tale:

Solomon says, [This is] "the end of the matter; [after] all has

been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is

the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into

judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."

Bottom lineCour lives are not for us. The only way to be

fruitful beyond the fleeting years of this earthly existence is

to live our lives for God. After all, we will be accountable to

Him even beyond the grave. We should occupy ourselves

with the authoritative, inerrant, inspired truth He has given

usCand be wary of anything else. That's the final lesson.

In fact, in verse 9, Solomon makes reference to the

inspired wisdom in the book of ProverbsCthe centerpiece of

the Bible's wisdom literature. What is written in that book is

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 8

trustworthy (v. 10). "The Preacher sought to find words of

delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth." Then verse 12:

"My son, beware of anything beyond these." The writings of

mere men do not deserve the attention and honor that we owe

to the inspired text. This is Solomon's declaration of sola

Scriptura: "My son, beware of anything beyond these."

And if we take Solomon's counsel on that, it will save us

from a lot of frustration. Think this through: Solomon, the

wisest man who ever lived, tried to master all the world's

ideas and integrate them with the simple truth God has

revealed, and he confesses that it's too big a project for

anyone. There are too many books for anyone to read, too

many human opinions to sort through and evaluate. It's a

completely futile goal, too, what is deemed wisdom in this

fallen world is ultimately incompatible with divine truth.

I have been a book editor for 40 years, and the end of

verse 12 could be my life's verse: "Of making many books

there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

What Solomon is saying here is something I wish every

seminarian would take to heart. There is very little real value

in loading your head with human philosophies and academic

theories. It's especially a waste of time to chase after novel

theological notions, trendy academic approaches to the Word

of God, or the musings of higher critics and anyone who

bows at their feet. If your love for the Word of God and your

ability to handle simple gospel truths doesn't exceed your

The Sacrifice of Fools 9

skill in parsing human opinions, then you really aren't doing

anything of eternal value. And frankly, if your interest in

Scripture is academic only, you're no better off spiritually

than the drunken derelict who sits at the end of the freeway

off-ramp begging spare change.

Furthermore (and this is applicable to all of us), it's

possible to be a redeemed person, full of wisdom and

understanding, and yet make a royal mess of your earthly life

by turning away from the simple yet eternal truth you know

because you want to dabble in things you know are

detrimental to your soul. Solomon is one of several

characters in Scripture who teach us that truth. It's the very

thing David denounced in Psalm 131, where he said, "My

heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not

occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me."

Solomon comes to the same conclusion, but only after he

has irreparably ruined his earthly life and reputation.

Ecclesiastes is a sad book, made all the sadder because of

what we know about Solomon's unfaithfulness. The theme of

Ecclesiastes is the very same message that dominates the

opening chapters of 1 Corinthians: "The wisdom of this world

is folly with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their

craftiness,' and again, 'The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,

that they are futile'" (1 Corinthians 3:19-20). But Solomon's

warnings about the folly of human wisdom are all the more

potent because they come from someone so wise and so full

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 10

of great potential, and yet in the end, he became a living

example of the shame of human folly.

But the book of Ecclesiastes is more than just a lament

about the folly of human reason. It's well-salted with wise

counsel for Solomon's childrenCand for you and me as we

read and ponder Solomon's testimony. There are moments of

inspired clarity throughout the book, and one of my favorites

is the text I want you to turn to now: Ecclesiastes 5:1-7.

Here Solomon gives some extremely wise and relevant

counsel about religion and the manner in which we worship

God. He knows the average person reading his testimony

will think, I know the solution to the emptiness and

monotony of this life. It's religion. And often what they mean

is that they will adopt some God or buy into some religious

system that suits their personal tastes and build their lives

around that. You know: I'll make God my co-pilot. (I've

never understood why anyone would make a confession like

that. If you're flying the plane with God in the co-pilot's seat,

you need to change places with Him.) But people embrace

silly religious sentiments, or religious superstitions, instead

of biblical truth, and they try to stave off or paper over the

futility of human existence with their own self-directed

notions about God.

No, Solomon says. Even religion can be vain, foolish,


The Sacrifice of Fools 11

And let's be honest: Most of the religion in this world is

precisely that. It's like shoddy clothing made of fig

leavesCinadequate to cover the shame it is trying to hide.

And in the end, false religion simply cannot stand up to the

wear and tear of real life. It will end in eternal disgrace and

dishonor and destruction. Self-styled religion no better (and

in most ways even worse) than the unbelief of the atheist.

Both are sheer vanity.

So Solomon includes this firm but beautiful warning

about the hypocrisy and vanity of all false religion. He

knows that most of his readers will have enough common

sense to understand the point he is coming to. If all of earthly

life is sheer vanity, we need to anchor our souls in eternal

realities. Solomon also knows it's the natural tendency of

every fallen human heart to try to cover our folly with fig

leaves or (if you're more sophisticated) post-it notes, so he

warns his readers not to go that route.

Here's the text (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To

draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of

fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.

2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let 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.

3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's

voice with many words.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 12

4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for

he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.

5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should

vow and not pay.

6 Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say

before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should

God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your


7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there

is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.

I see in that passage five distinct exhortations, and each one

is in response to some folly that characterizes virtually all

false worship. In fact, these are all common tendencies of

every fallen person. Even Christians can and do fall into

these errors. Solomon is giving us words of caution against

some of the most common mistakes we make with regard to

our worship.

Five exhortations, and we'll take them in the order they

appear. Verse 1, number 1:

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Solomon says, "Guard your steps when you go to the house

of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice

of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil." The

phrase, "Guard your steps" is a figure of speech. It's

Solomon's way of saying, "Be mindful of what you are

doing. Don't come thoughtlessly to the place of worship."

And specifically: "draw near to listen" and learn, not just to be

entertained, and certainly not to put your own piety on

display. We all know people who want to talk but never

listen. They're willing to teach, but not to be taught. They

love being the center of attention, and in the minds of some

people, the gathering of God's people for worship seems like

the ideal venue in which to put themselves on the public


That was Jesus' chief complaint against the Pharisees,

right? Matthew 23:3, Jesus says, "They preach, but do not

practice." They were good at telling other people what to do,

but somehow all those words didn't translate into any deeds

of kindness. Jesus said, "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to

bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves

are not willing to move them with their finger" (v. 4).

Every distinctive feature of their religion shouted, "Look

at me! See how devout I am!" Jesus said (vv. 5-7), "They do

all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their

phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 14

of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and

greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others."

This is a problem today, too. It's a pervasive problem in

charismatic circlesCmuch like in the Corinthian church.

Everyone wanted to speak at onceCeven though no one had

any discernible message. Nobody was interpreting. No one

was even listening. Everyone was too busy

speakingCspeaking in tongues, no less. In 1 Corinthians

14:23, Paul says, "If . . . the whole church comes together and

all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will

they not say that you are out of your minds?" I've been in

charismatic assemblies that functioned precisely that way.

And charismatics by no means have a monopoly on this

issue. There are plenty of musicians who identify with the

church because they see it as a venue in which to perform;

businessmen who come to the place of worship mainly

because they think it's a good place to troll for clients; single

people whose first priority is to meet other singles; and so


In fact, let's be brutally honest: we all have a natural

aversion to listening and being taught. It's a tendency we

must fight. We love the music, and the fellowship, and the

coffee and donuts. All of that comes easy. But we have to

discipline ourselves to listen to the teaching. Our minds

wander during prayer. We think through the lunch options

during the Scripture reading. We drift off and sometimes

The Sacrifice of Fools 15

even doze off when we are supposed to be listening and


That's a dangerous corruption of what worship ought to

be. And the remedy, Solomon says, is to "Guard [our] steps

when [we] go to the house of God." Be diligent to listen when

we should be listening.

"To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of

fools." That's Solomon's description of all false, hypocritical,

or half-hearted worship: It's "the sacrifice of fools." And of

course, one of the defining characteristics of all fools is that

they are oblivious to their own foolishness. They lack

self-awareness. In Solomon's words, "they do not know that

they are doing evil."

That doesn't mitigate the evil. Ignorance is no excuse for

foolishnessCbecause it's a culpable ignorance. That's the

difference between foolishness and inexperience. The

ignorance of a fool is the fault of his own thoughtlessness, or

sinful neglect, or willful stupidity.

Instead, Solomon says, "Guard your steps when you go to

the house of God." Give thought to what you are there for.

Pay careful attention to the words of praise, and instruction,

and rebuke, and exhortation. And above all, don't speak

when you ought to be listening.

Here's admonition number two (vv. 2-3):

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 16


There's a logic that flows with these admonitions. Listen

when you are being taught. And if you must talk, think first.

Verse 2: "Be not rash with your mouth, nor let 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. For a dream

comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many

words." Now, the context here pertains especially to

corporate worshipC"when you go to the house of God." The

principle applies to all of life, of course, and these verses

echo several of Solomon's Proverbs. Proverbs 15:28: "The

heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of

the wicked pours out evil things." Proverbs 10:19: "When

words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever

restrains his lips is prudent." Proverbs 17:27-28: "Whoever

restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit

is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is

considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed


Think before you speak, and speak as little as possible. It's

a simple principle that some of us have a very hard time

putting into practice. I think most of my grandchildren

inherited my loquaciousness. They like to talk even when

there's nothing to say. I hope they can learn this principle,

but I admit, I've been struggling for 62 years to learn to hold

my tongue more often than I turn it loose.

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James expounds on this principle at length in James 3, and

he doesn't mince words. He says, "The tongue is a fire, a world

of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members,

staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,

and set on fire by hell." He calls the tongue "a restless evil, full

of deadly poison." And he starts that chapter with this: "Not

many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you

know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

He's on the very same page as Solomon here. It's better to

listen than to teach. That's pretty simple, right?

A woman I don't know recently wrote me an angry e-mail

because she heard I agree with the principle the Apostle Paul

spells out in 1 Timothy 2:12, where he says, "I do not permit a

woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she

is to remain quiet." Teaching offices in the church are not

open to women for the public instruction of men. And this

woman scolded me, saying she knows a lot of men who are

worse teachers than she is, and it's unfair for the apostle Paul

to let them teach when they could actually learn a lot from

her, or even from their wives.

I wrote back to say she had misunderstood me, and I

actually agree with her up to a point. My position is that no

one should hold a teaching office in the church unless he

meets the biblical qualifications. That rules out most men,

too. I'm with James on this: "Not many . . . should become

teachers." When the church gathers corporately, only those

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 18

who are gifted and qualified to teachCmen whose gifts and

qualifications have been observed, and examined, and

approved by the elders of the church. Furthermore, James

says, "[those] who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

Therefore it behooves them in particular to think carefully

and study diligently before they speak.

But the principle here applies to everyone, including

teachers. Let your words be carefully measured, and don't

speak rashly. Don't talk at all unless you have thought

through carefully what you are saying. The words we speak

in worship are uttered "before God, for God is in heaven and

you are on earth."

There's one more important application of this principle.

It's a reminder that when we are gathered to worship, we

should not sing, or pray, or read even a responsive reading

without carefully pondering what we are saying. The practice

of saying or singing things mindlessly, by rote, will sow

seeds of hypocrisy. To do that in worship isn't even true


Verse 3: "For a dream comes with much business, and a

fool's voice with many words." That's a hard verse to interpret,

but the context helps us. Verse 7 also mentions dreams and

long-winded verbiage, and it's clear that Solomon doesn't see

anything beneficial or positive in dreams or unbridled talk.

People today speak of "dreams" invariably as something

The Sacrifice of Fools 19

positive to be pursued. "Follow your dreams," people tell

their children. Scripture says that's a foolish outlook on life.

A "dream" in this context refers to human

whimsyCirrational, spontaneous, fanciful thoughts that may

have the superficial appearance of something coherent, but

Solomon speaks of a dream as something capricious and


"Much business" refers to a distracted, preoccupied mind

lacking any singular focus. That kind of mental frenzy

spawns irrational dreams, and Solomon is saying that's fatal

to true worship. ThinkCthink carefully and with

focusCwhen you come to the place of worship.

Don't speak when you ought to be listening. Don't talk

without thinking. And now thirdC


Verses 4-5: "When you vow a vow to God, do not delay

paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is

better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not

pay." This doesn't need a lot of comment. Breaking a vow

made before God is a very serious sin. And life is full of

vows. Marriage is sealed with a vow. Testimony in court is

confirmed with formal public vows.

By the time of Jesus, people were in the habit of making

casual, mindless vows all the time. If someone didn't utter

an oath in that culture, you might assume they were lying.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 20

But Jesus said (Matthew 5:33-37), "Do not take an oath at all

. . . Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than

this comes from evil." James picks up on the same principle in

James 5:12: "Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by

heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your "yes" be

yes and your "no" be no."

Both Jesus and James were talking about the casual use of

oaths in everyday conversation. They weren't teaching that

Christians should not take marriage vows or be sworn into

office or be sworn in to testify in court. What Jesus taught

and James echoed is simply an application of the principle in

our text: an oath is a very serious thing, not to be entered into

thoughtlessly. An oath is a formal promise to God, and

therefore oaths should never be broken. In most

circumstances, it is better not to swear at all, but "When you

vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure

in fools. Pay what you vow."

Again, the flow of logic is seamless. Don't talk when you

ought to be listening. If you must talk, think first. Verse 2:

"Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter

a word before God." Don't talk without thinking. And the

corollary of that principle is this: Don't make a thoughtless

vow you're not gong to be able to follow through on.

Here's a fourth principle of true, transparent worship:

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If you should sinCif, for example, you have made a rash

or foolish vow and find you cannot pay it (v. 6), "Let not your

mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger

that it was a mistake."

In other words, don't compound your sin by trying to

make excuses. First John 1:9-10: "If we confess our sins, he is

faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all

unrighteousness. [But] if we say we have not sinned, we make

him a liar, and his word is not in us."

Here again, Solomon is giving us a countermeasure for

religious hypocrisy. And once more, the very honesty

Solomon is calling for compels us to acknowledge that what

he condemns here is a sinful tendency we all have. We

typically try to minimize or deny our own sins. We make

excuses when we ought to be making a confession. True

worship demands that we mortify that tendency and not call

our sins "mistakes." That's pretty much a frontal blow at the

spirit of our generation, isn't it?

Solomon speaks of "the messenger." That's a reference to

the priest. Again, the context here has to do with how we

approach worship in the house of the Lord, and in the Old

Testament, that involved priests. Malachi 2:7 says this about

the priesthood and various duties incurred by both

worshipper and priest in the context of Old Testament

Temple worship. Notice how many ways this parallels our

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 22

passage. It speaks of the duty of the worshiper to listen. It

strongly implies the priest's duty to think before he speaks. It

places the priest under a vow of confidentiality. And it refers

to him as the Lord's messenger. (The priest, by the way, is

the one you would go to in order to formalize a vow, and

then to certify that the vow has been fulfilled.)

Malachi 2:7: "The lips of a priest should guard knowledge,

and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the

messenger of the LORD of hosts."

Here's the point, then: be candid with the Lord's

messenger. These days we don't make confession to a human

priest, but Scripture does say, "Confess your sins to one

another, and pray for one another" (James 5:16). Confess your

sin; don't cover it up or make excuses for it. If you can't

fulfill a rash vow you made, admit it; don't try to justify


The second half of Ecclesiastes 5:6 says, "Why should God

be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?" In

other words, it is better to confess and seek God's mercy than

to cover our sin and face His wrath.

There was, by the way, a provision in the Law of Moses

for people who made a rash vow they couldn't possibly

fulfill. Leviticus 5:4-6:

If anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do

good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is

The Sacrifice of Fools 23

hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he

realizes his guilt in any of these;

5 when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses

the sin he has committed,

6 he shall bring to the LORD as his compensation for the

sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb

or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make

atonement for him for his sin.

And that's followed by a long, careful instruction about what

to do if you were too poor to afford the sacrifice of a lamb or

a goat. So even in the law, God had merciful provisions for

those who could not keep their vows. But notice: whether

you were rich or poor, confession of your sin was the starting

point of forgiveness. To make excuses was to spurn God's

gracious proposal of mercy.

So, to review: Verse 1: Don't speak when you ought to be

listening. Verses 2-3: Don't talk without thinking. Verses 4-5:

Don't make a vow and then fail to pay. Verse 6: Don't make

excuses instead of confessing. And finally verse 7:

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 24



This is the fatal mistake most people make in religion.

And sadly, we have a glut of religious leaders who are highly

esteemed among evangelicals who basically encourage

people to pursue their own dreams and base their worldview

on whatever brings them happiness, or comfort, or a feeling

of self-esteem. Robert Schuller made a career of telling that

lie, and the fruit of it was sheer vanity, just as Solomon says.

In the end, Solomon gives us a different, better

perspective. Verse 7: "For when dreams increase and words

grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear."

The first part of this verse echoes the point he already

made in verse 3: "For a dream comes with much business, and

a fool's voice with many words." We're not to be guided by our

dreams. Dreams are a distraction from the truth. "A dream

comes with much business." Remember what that means: a

dream is the product of distractions and double-mindedness.

A dream by definition is a fantasy. I realize there are a few

occasions in Scripture where God spoke to people in dreams.

But those are very rare occasions, and when God did speak

through dreams, there was no ambiguity about whether He

was the source of the dream or not.

The fact is, the Bible never encourages us to look for

inspired meaning in our dreams or mystical significance in

our own imaginations. In fact, we are expressly forbidden to

The Sacrifice of Fools 25

go beyond what is written. First Corinthians 4:6: "Do not go

beyond what is written." and Proverbs 28:26: "Whoever trusts

in his own mind is a fool."

In this context, dreams are expressly named alongside

rambling, wordy speech as one of the key marks of a fool.

Verse 3 makes the two things parallel: "A dream comes with

much business, and a fool's voice with many words." In other

words, a dream is like the blather of a fool.

Verse 7 comes back to that point again, linking the folly

of the motor-mouth with the absurdity of the mystical


The silliness of looking for truth in dreams rather than in

the Bible is a very serious and very potent threat to a person's

spiritual well-being, mental health, and doctrinal soundness.

This was a pervasive problem in Old Testament times. Listen

to Jeremiah 23:25-26 (this is the voice of God speaking): "I

have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my

name, saying, 'I have dreamed, I have dreamed!' How long shall

there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and

who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make

my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one

another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal?"

If it's foolish to talk to much, it is at least equally foolish

to let dreams dictate our behavior, our worldview, or worst

of all, our faith. If this was a problem was pervasive in Old

Testament times, it is absolutely endemic in our generation,

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 26

mainly because of the charismatic movement. Anyone and

everyone can claim direct revelation via dreams these days

and teach their fantasies as if they bore the weight of divine

authorityCand rarely will such claims meet with any

challenge or criticism. But if you echo Solomon's opinion

that human dreams are expressions of human folly, and that

"He who trusts in his own heart is a fool," prepare yourself.

That is the idea that gets all the reproach today.

But once more: we are never instructed in Scripture to

pursue our dreams. That is a recipe for folly. We're to fear

God and follow Him. That means His WordCnot our own

dreams and fantasiesCshould be the foundation of our

worldview and the anchor for our faith.

That's Solomon's final point here. Human dreams and

human ramblings contain nothing but vanity. "But God is the

one you must fear."

Solomon is actually giving us a preview of the punch line

he is building to at the end of chapter 12. It is the capstone of

his counsel about true worship. It's the same essential

message we hear from the angel in Revelation 14, who

accompanies Christ to earth and stands in midheaven, saying

"Fear God and give him glory."

That's the essence of true worship. That's our duty when

we come to the place of worship. It doesn't happen

spontaneously, and we can't meet this standard at all, even in

The Sacrifice of Fools 27

the most rudimentary way, apart from the enabling grace of