Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 46 : Care with Vows
Eccles 5:4-7 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. 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? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.
Handling the Bible requires a little wisdom. Perhaps that is why in the Middle Ages the Church wasn’t very keen on it being left in the hands of the layman. I would never take that stand but I do encourage people to read the Bible and read it with understanding. Now this is one of those times where we need to realise three things about the text before us. The first thing is that it was written by Solomon from an earthly standpoint, hence the phrase which crops up again and again, “under the sun.” The second thing is that it was written during a phase in his life when he had drifted from God and succumbed to the folly of his foreign wives who worshipped idols. The third thing to note is that the Bible is progressive and so we now have far more revelation through the New Testament than Solomon ever had.
Now I say all this because I am going to make a suggestion that is almost unique in these meditations and it is this: Solomon’s understanding was limited and therefore his teaching is limited and we shouldn’t let it condemn us. It is wrong in its incompleteness!. Having spoken in earlier verses about keeping quiet before God, he does recognise that there will be times when people feel constrained to come before God and make a vow or promise before God. An example of such a vow from the Old Testament would be that of Hannah: “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life.” (1 Sam 1:10,11) In the New Testament there is a reference to a vow that the apostle Paul had made: “Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.” (Acts 18:18). In other words he needed a haircut because probably he had previously made the vow of a Nazirite (see Num 6:1-21) and separated himself off to the Lord for a period. We see a similar reference in Acts 21:22-26.
Now previously Solomon has said, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.” (v.2) so here he adds, “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.” i.e. guard your mouth and don’t make hasty promises before God that you cannot keep, for in so doing you are committing a sin. Look, he says, don’t turn up in the Temple one day and make a vow before the officials there and then later do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Yes, it obviously was a mistake and you shouldn’t have made it if you can’t keep it now but, he says, don’t try and just squeeze out of it now.
Now we come to the part where I believe Solomon is adrift in his old age: “Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” i.e. God will destroy what you do because of your sin. This is only half the story! The whole purpose of the Temple was to provide a place where people could come and meet with God – and especially when they had sinned! A large part of the sacrificial system was about saying sorry to God, of repenting and seeking to put things right as God had decreed.
A chunk of the early chapters of Leviticus is all about coming to God when you have sinned! You came to say sorry; you came to put it right in the prescribed manner. Solomon in his jaded state seems to have forgotten that. The deception of his idolatry seems to have wiped from his mind the big thing that separates off God from his idols. The Lord is holy and will deal with sin and where there is a hard heart that fails to repent, then He will take severe action, but God is primarily a God of redemption! The plan of redemption, we’ve seen before, was in God’s heart before He created the world. He knew people would sin and so He made provision in the Law for that failure to be dealt with. There WAS a way back to God!
Yes, his final words are right, we are to “stand in awe of God” because He is holy and we were not, but both in the Law and the Gospel God has provided for us to come back to Him. So even where there was a foolish vow that would lead to bad things (see Jud 11:30 on) the right way of dealing with it was to acknowledge that the making of it was presumptuous sin and to confess it and seek forgiveness through a sacrifice according to the Law. Today we do it through the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross for us, but the process is ultimately the same: conviction, confession, repentance and cleansing and forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9). If you are rash with you mouth, the way back to God is through the Cross – but there IS a way back! Hallelujah!