Therefore, Fear God

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Better to approach in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they ignorantly do wrong. Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. Just as dreams accompany much labor, so also a fool’s voice comes with many words. When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth bring guilt on you, and do not say in the presence of the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands? For many dreams bring futility, so do many words. Therefore, fear God.
— Ecclesiastes 5:1-7
Either this section was editorially patched into the text from a different source, or one must assume that Qohelet, for all his radical views, does not doubt the presence of an omniscient God.
— Robert Alter

As we have seen the many ways in which the teacher can be pessimistic about the realities of the world around him, we move into this passage, highlighting the reverence that God deserves in light of humanity’s fickle behavior. The author of Ecclesiastes has been through trial and pain, his words of “wisdom” consistently reflecting his experiences. This little section in chapter five causes us to stop and reflect, to consider the larger context of the book, and to ask the question always worth asking: why?

While we see that either being wise or being foolish are both completely meaningless in and of themselves, over and over again in the words of every chapter, knowing this is Qohelet’s foundation helps to give us extra grip on handling these seven verses. Following the similar verbiage from Deuteronomy 23:21-23, both books coming from a shared history, these verses could be testimony themselves of watching those on the “inside” continuously “act a fool.”

But the fool in church does not know that his words about God are spoken in vain. He does not know that to take God’s name in vain has little to do with four-letter words and more to do with professing to follow God while our lives show that we know nothing truly of his character.
— Zack Eswine

The paradox in fearing God and knowing Him as friend can seem to come across as either/or, a sort of black and white, but these are not and should not be diametrically opposed. Yet, we tend to fly from one end of the spectrum to the other, overcorrecting and reacting to anything and everything with all or nothing. I haven’t yet read Jen Pollock Michel’s newest book, Surprised by Paradox, but her most recent article at Christianity Today helped me wrestle with this even more:

When I encounter places of seeming paralysis in my own life—when either and or seem to bind my hands—I have to rediscover that God, infinitely creative in his own nature, is suggesting infinitely more creative possibilities than I can consider.
— Jen Pollock Michel

We read words like these in Scripture and damn ourselves, probably rightfully so. As a teenager, I made so many vows foolishly before God, begging for that one guy or whatever else you can think of and promising my forever faithful fire in exchange. While it’s laughable now to think of my impassioned asks, I do similar things in seemingly more appropriate adult ways, spewing thoughtless words out not only to God, but also to others. Much of even this comes out of a reaction to the way I felt in Church growing up, fearing God in a way that really meant acting in step with rigid rules and regulations. No matter which direction on the slippery sliding scale, I fall off.

Jesus, with His wisdom and Ecclesiastic sounding words, shares similar proverbs in the Sermon on the Mount. He, too, has seen the callousness of those who call themselves “insiders.”

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.
Therefore, you should pray like this:
Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.
— Matthew 6:1-15

The chapter finishes with some of our favorite words to throw out, like, “for where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” and, “do not worry about your life—seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.” These words bleed the similar helplessness I feel when given instruction I know that even my best vows won’t live up to. Yet, they also recenter the narrative of our lives to be in orbit around the better thing, in which following, all else falls into place.

When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, the grey matter in our life is worth wrestling through. When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, we find that wisdom has its place in what feels so meaningless. When knowing and loving Jesus comes first, we consider our actions not simply as a reaction, interrogating our deep seeded beliefs until what is true about Christ defines what is next. And, when knowing and loving Jesus comes first, even my failures as a known fool are found covered, worth found in a righteousness not of ourselves.

Therefore, fear God. Boldly.