After the several mentions of “meaningless” in chapter four, the author seems to be presenting an interlude of worship in chapter five and how it is to be effective. Our worship of the Living God is to be an antidote to the pessimism of life “under the sun” and Solomon gives some warnings concerning our approach to God and how to avoid bringing judgment upon ourselves, thus making the worshiper a fool rather than a positive and effective believer.
He mentions dreams in verse three. Dreams are not often reality unless instigated by God. There are many mentions of dreams in the Bible and most have definite significance for the time. Verse seven notes that “much dreaming and many words are meaningless.” To offer our ‘dreams’ to God along with many words, in the realm of worship, amounts to nothing more than verbal or spiritual doodling. It is the same as texting during a worship service; we come off before God as fools. If we are at all sensitive, this should come off to us as a very damaging and crushing remark.
The problem of vows is also briefly discussed. It is not a common occurrence in our churches today, and it is certainly not a “foxhole vow” that is common in war stories. We often sing the hymn “I Surrender All”, which is a hymn of commitment to Christ, but is often forgotten soon after the benediction. Verse six mentions the danger of such spontaneous pledges. The counsel given is to be silent and not raise the anger of God. It is better to “stand in awe of God” than to make our worship “meaningless”. My grand-father had advice for such times when he said “it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” May this be what Solomon is saying here?
Vows often have an ulterior motive which benefits the one who makes the promise, such as getting out of a jam, receiving recognition for being pious (part of the subject here), or to somehow impress God. Vows begin in the mind, which is why Solomon links it with dreams. He adds two more thoughts stating that “much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.” The book of James is a forceful commentary on words without truth in action.
The Preacher continues his detailed evaluation of life (verse 8), seemingly connecting it with chapter 4:1 where he again observes that there is a hierarchy in this life “under the sun”. We live in a fallen world and are largely ruled by fallen people. This time it is localized to a “district”, perhaps one in which Solomon himself lived. It is as if God does not have a plan for his creatures.
However, the insinuation in the chapter is that God is the final arbiter of all things political, legal, social and spiritual. We are warned not to be surprised at such bureaucratic misuse of power and authority. The one at the top calls most of the shots and all on the ladder take their share of the bounty. The next several verses look at the consequences of those who would build bigger and better barns, only to find out that they will, in the end, take nothing with them. Jesus was careful to point this out in His parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21.
There are many drawbacks to having a lot of money and certainly an equal number of disadvantages to having too little. It almost seems that Solomon has determined that greater problems come from having too much cash, and he points out several defects in the life of those whose possessions are now a burden. Verses ten and eleven list them as creating a covetous and unsatisfied craving for more and the followers it attracts. It is almost like a boxer coming to the ring with a retinue [followers] of hangers-on who all want a “piece of the action”. Psalm 37:16 puts it: “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.”
These illustrations are generalizations but they are keen enough to make the point. Wealth can be a hazard. He implies further that possessions inherently demand a caretaker. You may have a grand estate and caretakers for it all but those who drive by can also see it without having the care for it or the anxiety of losing it all. Greed and materialism do not have any built-in safeguards nor do they provide any satisfaction as to when or how much is enough. We can observe, from the lives of the rich, that money cannot buy happiness, peace, or friends, or many other pursuits.
The case histories continue in following verses. While Solomon is afflicted with insomnia (and perhaps indigestion from too much rich food), the laborer is fast asleep in the bunkhouse every night. The verses mention “a grievous evil” (verse 13 and 16). It is a picture and a sad refrain of what can happen when a person has great riches and operates only “under the sun”. His birth, life and death become a “grievous evil”. His ultimate reward is toiling for the wind, an elusive, invisible and ends in a “crash”.
The conclusion of this bitterness and disappointment is that “All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger” (verse 17). He has deteriorated physically and his character has been tainted by many things that attend the loss of one’s well-being. Wealth is fleeting, and perhaps a more grievous issue may be the involvement of his son and family in his thwarted ambitions.
Solomon, however, does not leave his readers without hope. In verse 18, he notes that God’s plan is good and he does not leave the believer in despair. He points out another aspect of life. This is another instance where he pokes a hole in the canopy that is under the sun and once again reveals the God Who is above the sun. God was not mentioned in the previous several verses.
Solomon notes (in the Jewish Study Bible) “Only this, I have found, is a real good (condition): that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion. Also, whenever a man is given riches and property by God, and is also permitted by Him to enjoy them and to take his portion and get pleasure for his gains; that is a gift of God. For (such a man) will not brood much over the days of his life, because God keeps him busy enjoying himself.” (verses 17-19)
There is no reason for the believer to despair while living (with God) under the sun. This is a more excellent way to live. It is a matter of openness to Him with a readiness to accept what comes our way. We can enjoy life (because that, also, is from God); we can find fulfillment and pleasure in our work; and our hearts can find contentment. Wealth is not condemned. God gives it along with the power to enjoy His abundance. We must not allow wealth to contain us nor rule us. All of this, however, should not be oversimplified. The Bible has a great deal to say about money and wealth and how to manage it. The same can be said of poverty. With God, one is able to treat that properly also.