An exposition of Ecclesiastes 5:1–7, preached at the PCC evening service on 24 August 2001

The book of Ecclesiastes is often very difficult to interpret because it is not only profoundly philosophical, but it is written in Hebrew poetry rather than prose. It is probably for this reason that many critics of this book have accused the author of being a fatalistic sceptic. And some even go so far as saying that this book should not be in the biblical Canon.

However, I believe that if you read this book carefully, you will see that Solomon is not in fact a fatalist or a sceptic. In fact, he is one who has thought about life carefully, and is deeply concerned that the vast majority of mankind is fooling themselves as to the significance of their lives,—that is, the significance of their lives when lived without God. Which is why we say that the theme of this book is that if all that there is to life is what we may see under the sun, then life is utterly meaningless.

Solomon is convinced that life is not meaningless. He is convinced that there is a God who will judge every one of us for every aspect of our lives. But he knows that not all his readers have an equally deep sense of conviction. Many of his potential readers would go about their lives without regards for God. These are the atheists: those who either do not believe in the existence of God or do not care if God exists. These would eat and drink, and work, and marry and have children, and die like anyone else. If they have any thought of God, they would quickly brush it aside, and they would live as if God does not exist. Well, Solomon, in the book of Ecclesiastes, seeks to shock them to their senses to realise that their lives are utterly meaningless. But many of his other potential readers have rather different philosophies of life. These would believe that God exists. And they would live religious lives. But their concept of God is too low, so that we may say that they are outwardly religious but not spiritual.

This is the group of people that Solomon is addressing in our text in chapter 5. And to this group of people, Solomon has a word of admonition, which may be summarised in these three words: “fear thou God” (v. 7).

What Does it Mean to Fear God?

Well, to fear God does not mean that we should be afraid of God as man are sometimes frightened of snakes, of height, or of ghost (even though ghosts do not exist). These are irrational fears. We cannot be taught or called to fear anything in this way. But Solomon calls us to fear God. In other words, we can be taught and called to fear God. What this means is that fearing God is not just founded in our emotions, but in our intellect—in our understanding of who God is.

Let me illustrate what I mean. There are many people who are afraid of cats. There is even a term for it. It is called “ailurophobia.” Now, many people are afraid of cats because they were scratched by a cat when they were young. But the vast majority of ailurophobic sufferers were never scratched by cats. They are simply afraid of them. There may be some of us in this congregation who are ailurophobic. You ask them for the reason why they are afraid, and they will say: “I don’t know. I am just afraid of them.” Well, that fear is an irrational fear. You can’t really teach someone, or call upon someone, to be afraid of cats.

On the other hand, you can teach someone to be afraid of, say, a hot iron. My wife used to be unable to do any ironing until way after the children sleep, because the children will want to pull the hot iron down to play. They had no fear of the hot iron. Well, one day it happened. My son was scotched by the hot iron. And since then, my wife had no problem doing ironing when he is awake. You see, he had learnt to fear the hot iron. And it is not an irrational fear. He does need to fear the hot iron when he is near it. Now, at this point of time, he is too young to use the iron, so it is good that he be afraid of the iron and stay far away from it. Now, when he gets a bit older, we will have to teach him: You don’t have to be afraid of the iron; you need to know how to handle it. In a certain sense, he needs to learn how to respect it.

God, of course, cannot be compared to a hot iron, though the Bible does use the metaphor of fire to describe God. But the fear of God is akin to the kind of fear that a growing child should have for a hot iron. Just as the fear of hot irons is based on knowledge, so the fear God must be based on knowledge. Just as a child can be taught to fear the hot iron, so we can be taught to fear God. Just as there is a place for a child to be afraid of the hot iron when he does not know how to handle it, so there is a place for men to be afraid of God unless they approach Him according to the means He has appointed.

But the question is: Why should God be feared? Solomon gives us three reasons in our text.

God is Infinitely Holy

First, we must fear God because He is an infinitely holy God. Solomon brings us to understand this fact without even mentioning the word “holiness.” He says in verse 1: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God….”

An outwardly religious person, we must remember, has no fear of God, though he has a form of religion. Notice how Solomon immediately confronts him to pay more attention to his heart when he attends to the religious services. So he warns him: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God.” That is to say: mind your steps or guard your steps when you go into the house of God. Solomon is not, of course, concerned about the physical steps in entering the house of God. He is concerned, rather, about the attitude by which the worshipper approaches God. He urges him to be mindful and submissive as he attends to worship. In other words, he must come to worship God with a reverent frame of mind. Why so? Because God is a holy God.

Today this call to come for worship with a reverent frame of mind goes to us too. We must realise that whenever we come to church to worship God, that it is not an ordinary meeting or gathering. It is a gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the stated purpose of worshipping the Living and True God. For us to come into the worship hall the same way as we would go into a concert hall or a cinema is simply not right. And it shows, rather, a lack of reverence for God.

Solomon continues: “… and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.”

All through the history of the Church, from the days of Moses to the present day, there are many whose attendance at worship is mechanical, whose worship is simply a matter of duty. So they are quick to go through the motion of offering sacrifices, whether it is animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, or sacrifices of praise in the New Testament. And then in churches where the offering is collected during worship, these are very quick to give. Perhaps giving much to the church helps to silence the voice of conscience within their hearts. But these sacrifices, says Solomon, are “the sacrifice of fools.” These are offered without regards to whether God is pleased to receive them. They are offered selfishly, like when a rich man thrusts a gift at a poor person in order that he may feel good at the thought that he had done a good work by giving to the poor.

But such worship is never accepted of God. You remember how the Lord Jesus taught His disciples that the poor widow, who gave the two mites to God, gave more than all the rich people who gave of their substance (Mk 12:43–44)? When we read the account, we get the sense that the Lord was indicting the rich who were worshipping God with proud hearts, which were drunk with the notion that they were doing God a favour when they gave their tithes. When a worshipper thinks more about himself rather than the holiness and glory of God, then his worship becomes hypocritical and therefore evil.

Solomon therefore exhorts us rather to be more ready to hear than to give. That is to say that we must be more ready to hear and submit ourselves to God and to obey Him than to simply go through the motion of worship. The true worshipper approaches God as an infinitely holy God, whom he knows he cannot approach frivolously according to his wimps and fancies. He knows that he must approach God at God’s own terms. And when he approaches God, he offers sacrifices out of love and reverence for God.

In the same way, the true worshipper, knowing the holiness of God, will not be quick to advise God on what to do, or to judge God as the scribes and the Pharisees judged the Lord Jesus Christ. So Solomon charges us: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God” (v. 2).

Here, again, is a warning for the outwardly religious person: When you come before God, you must not be quick to speak. It is a strange phenomenon that when men come before other men of prestige and rank, that they will generally be silent and speak only when asked to. But from ancient times, many have approached God with disregard and so are slow to listen but quick to speak their minds and express their opinions, or to tell God what to do in their prayers. This is not how we are to approach God, because He is a holy God.

Solomon makes this point clear when he adds: “for [i.e., because] God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (v. 2). “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth”: There is a great distance between God and us. God is infinitely apart from us. He is infinitely holy. He is so holy that even the cherubim, which were created to serve God, covered their eyes and their feet as they cry out unto God: Holy, holy, holy. How can we approach Him with brash familiarity and so be quick to speak. Ought we not rather shut our mouth and exclaim as Isaiah did: “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5)?

Beloved and friends, we must fear God because God is holy. And because God is holy, His worship is sacred. Let us fear God and approach Him as a holy God. Let us therefore repent of our attitude of pride and of any false notion that we are doing God a favour when we come to worship Him week after week. God must be worshipped in fear mingled with sincerity and love because He is holy.

God is Infinitely Just

Secondly, God is to be feared because He is infinitely just. Solomon says:

For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words. When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin… (Ecc 5:3–6a).

Just as the dreams in our sleep are often reflective of the cares we have during the busy day, so when a person says many words without meaning what he says, it is reflective of a foolish heart.

This is especially so, when a person makes vows before God. An outwardly religious person may make vows to God because it is a pious thing to do. They would make vows without any thoughts as to whether they can keep the vows. Neither do they have any intention to keep the vows. But they forget that God is infinitely just.

When a person vows to God, a promise is made to God. Who would dare to break a promise to a king? Yet a king may forget the promise that we make; and the king may have no way to enforce any promises that we make.

But it is not so when we vow to God. God is perfectly just. He remembers our vows, and He requires that we keep them. You see, vows are either made out of thankfulness for mercy received or out of a desire to obtain some specific blessings or favours from God. So Jacob vowed a vow, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee (Gen 28:20–22).

That is to say, he was ready to serve the Lord provided the Lord would bless him.

Now, when a vow is made out of a heart of thanksgiving to an earthly king, we know that the king will not demand of us our vows. But when we make a vow of thanksgiving to God who is perfectly just, we must pay back our vows because otherwise it would indicate insincerity to God and therefore wickedness.

In the same way, when we vow a vow with the desire that God would bless us in some areas, and God hears the vow and gives us the desire of our hearts, then how could we withdraw our vows? If you vowed that you would give your first month’s pay to the Lord if He blesses you with a job; then when the Lord gives you a job, if you fail to keep your vow, you would, firstly, be telling a lie to God; secondly, be ungrateful to God for giving you the job; and thirdly, showing contempt to God. Would not God bring you to justice for this wickedness?

This is why Solomon warns us: “Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.”

Indeed, because God is perfectly just, we will have to account for every of our words, which we speak in this life. This is why Solomon does not only speak about vows, but about words: “For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words” (v. 3), and again “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities” (v. 7).

The Lord Jesus Christ confirms this teaching when He says: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Mt 12:36).

Beloved and friends, fear God because He is a just God. Let none of us think that God is unaware of all that we say and do. God is just. He alone is perfectly just, and He will bring all things to judgment one day.

God is Infinitely Sovereign

Thirdly, we must fear God because He is sovereign. Solomon puts it this way:

Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? (Ecc 5:6).

Notice particularly the phrase: “wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands”? What is Solomon acknowledging in this statement, but that (1) God can be righteously angry against sinners, and (2) that God is able to execute justice.

It is particularly with the knowledge that God is sovereignly able to execute justice, that all men fear God and live with a consciousness of His presence and interest in our lives.

Many of us would have heard messages that touch on the fear of God. And we would have heard repeated many times: “To fear God is not to be afraid of God, but to reverence God.” Well, there is some truth to that saying. But I would suggest to you that that is not the whole truth.

The truth is that we ought to be afraid of God just as Adam and Eve were afraid of God when they sinned against Him. We ought to be afraid of Him because He is holy and hates sin; because He is perfectly just and will punish sin; and because He is sovereign and will punish sin to the magnitude that sin against an infinite God deserves.

And I would submit to you that if you are not afraid of God today, that when you come to the end of your life’s journey, your fear will be beyond anything you can ever imagine in this life. Anyone, who comes to the judgment seat of God without any assurance of God’s love, will no doubt tremble and be frightened with an indescribable fear. The book of Revelation gives us an idea of how fearful it will be in the day of judgement, for it is said:

And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Rev 6:15–17).

But thanks be to God, we need not go to the throne of judgment without any assurance of God’s love. For if you would acknowledge that you are a sinner deserving damnation, and truly believe that God is just if He would punish you with eternal damnation for your sin, then you have great hope. You have great hope because the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that He came to save sinners, and that all who would come unto Him, He will in no wise cast out.

You see, anyone who truly believes that God will call us to judgment one day, and therefore fear the punishment of God, may flee to Christ to be their mediator and advocate. And anyone who has the Lord Jesus Christ as his mediator and advocate needs not be afraid to stand before the Lord on the Day of Judgment.

So beloved and friends, I would ask you: Do you fear the Lord? If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, you ought to fear Him because you can be called to stand before Him at His throne of judgment at any moment. Do you not fear damnation in hell? Have you never felt physical pain? In hell, physical pain will be very greatly intensified. Have you never felt the pain of a guilty conscience? In hell, the pain will be multiplied a million times and will never be quenched. Have you never felt great discomfort when you know that someone dislikes you? In hell, a million eyes will be staring at you with deep hatred and gnashing of teeth. Have you never experience the pain of regret? All the souls in hell would no doubt be full of regret at a lifetime wasted. But worst of all, have you never experienced fear? Every soul in hell would no doubt be wrecked with fear, not only by the devil and his demons and other wretched condemned souls, but by the thought of God who is infinitely holy and just, who hates sin with a perfect hatred.

Flee, therefore, to the Lord Jesus Christ while there is yet time. Forsake your self-righteousness and your sin. Do not excuse yourself by saying that you are too busy to think of religion and of Christ. You will have eternity to regret if you enter into damnation. Seek the Lord while He may be found.

Dearly beloved, you who name the name of Christ, do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your sweet Saviour? You must fear God too, but your fear must be a loving fear of deep reverence and submission to God your heavenly Father. You must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). You must constantly cultivate your inner man and study to ensure that your love for God will constantly be fanned to flames. And you must guard with all your heart against having a form of religion but denying the power thereof. But yours are the promises according to the Covenant of Grace mediated by the Lord Jesus Christ. God has promised that He will never leave you nor forsake you, and He has also promised that all things will work together for good to them that love Him.


We began by noting that, in our text, Solomon is particularly addressing the outwardly religious. I would close by asking if you are outwardly religious? If these things that we have said do not move you; if it does not thrill your soul to contemplate on Christ and His Word; if you are here as a matter of duty rather than love for God, then there is every possibility that you are outwardly religious. If you are so, I will remind you: the God we worship is a holy, just and sovereign God. We must never play games when we come to the worship of God. Our God is a consuming fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Will you not repent of the hardness of your heart and fear thou God? Amen.

J.J. Lim