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Listen to Good Advice - a study of Ecclesiastes 4-5

Wisdom is futile if you don't heed it.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 4:13-5:7

Solomon identifies two more things that are futile: a leader who fails to listen to wise counsel, and a worshiper who thinks he can bargain with God. Rather, we should lead well and worship rightly for one reason only: because it's the right thing to do. We will have the opportunity to investigate some other pieces of "life advice" as we study.

Getting Started: Things to Think About:

What's the Best Advice You Didn't Take?

I am of an age where I listened to Alanis Morrisette in college (she's a year older than I am, and she's still touring; didn't think I would learn that in researching Ecclesiastes!). Her big radio song in College Station was "Ironic" (which was ironic for not being about irony), which included this line in the chorus: "It's the good advice you just didn't take."

So, what's the best advice you didn't take? I've had this discussion with a few different groups, and it usually comes around to one of three big topics:

  1. Financial advice

  2. Relationship advice

  3. Career advice

(To be sure, that's not everything I've heard. Plenty of folk have lamented events/classes/habits that they were advised to engage but didn't.)

I can't count the number of people I know who were given advice to invest in Apple back in the late 90s but didn't. And the whole relationship advice thing? Let's just say that there's a lot of regret out there about how we treated someone else. And wow, jobs. I had a lot of friends in college who ignored the advice of their career counselors and really wish they hadn't.

So how about you? What's some advice you failed to take that, looking back, you wish you had?

(You can flip that around and accomplish the same thing: what's some advice you gave to a friend that they failed to take? This is usually the area that hurts more because you could see where things were going, but they couldn't.)

(Note: we're going to talk about "life advice" at the end, so don't worry about focusing on that here at the beginning!)

And that gets us into this week's big idea -- wisdom is futile if you don't heed it.

This Week's Big Idea: Ecclesiastes's Complicated Relationship with Wisdom

If you looked closely at my outline for Ecclesiastes, you might have noticed this strange combination of headings:

  • Wisdom is futile (1:12-18)

  • Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  • Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

How does that work? That doesn't make any sense!

So let's back up a little bit and remember that Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, was also the author of Proverbs, which we studied a little while back. Here is a list of all of those lessons:

Obviously, Proverbs covers a lot more than that, but that's what we talked about. If I were to try to summarize that in just a few lines, here's what I would come up with:

  1. True wisdom is rooted in humble obedience to God.

  2. People must make a choice to live wisely.

  3. A wise person is loyal and faithful.

  4. A wise person speaks clearly and truthfully.

  5. A wise person pursues wisdom more than anything else.

So there you go. That seems like very wise advice from a very wise leader! So, what happened to Solomon between writing Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? Here's a passage we touched on a few weeks ago:

16 I said to myself, “See, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” 17 I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind.
18 For with much wisdom is much sorrow; as knowledge increases, grief increases.

Yikes! Can that possibly be the same man?

Yes, and when you dig in to these two books together, they paint a very important picture for every human to understand.

You might remember when we introduced Proverbs that there are three kinds of wisdom. (We talked about this again when we went through Job:

  1. The "what" -- how to use a skill.

  2. The "how" -- how best to live.

  3. The "why" -- life's biggest questions.

Proverbs focuses on that second kind of wisdom. And Ecclesiastes, when it is at its best, does as well. It's when Solomon forgets himself that he runs into trouble.

Look back at verse 16: *I* have amassed wisdom . . . *my mind* has thoroughly grasped wisdom. Solomon believed that he had all of the answers, but when he was faced with life's biggest questions, his answers failed. The book of Ecclesiastes is proof.

So that's part 1 of this complicated relationship:

(1) expecting human wisdom to adequately answer life's biggest questions is futile.

But then let's poke ahead to this week's lesson to introduce part 2 of this complicated relationship. Verse 13 of this week's passage gets right to it: Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings.

In life, what kind of wisdom is futile? The wisdom that you don't pay attention to.

Those of you who are teachers and counselors can understand the emotions Solomon is experiencing. He has poured his wisdom into many young men (i.e. in Proverbs), and I assume that many of them have not paid attention to it. From Solomon's perspective, all of his efforts have been wasted -- futile.

So that's part 2 of this complicated relationship:

(2) having all the wisdom in the world but not heeding it is futile.

Does that explanation make sense? Wisdom is necessary for a healthy life, but wisdom is only as valuable as it is applied, and it is only as accurate as it is connected with God's Word.


Where We Are in Ecclesiastes

I've already hinted at the outline of the book.

  1. Everything is futile (1:1-11)

  2. Wisdom is futile (1:12-18)

  3. Pleasures are futile (2:1-11)

  4. Folly is futile (2:12-16)

  5. Toil is futile (2:17-26)

  6. Time is futile (3:1-22)

  7. Relationships are futile (4:1-12)

  8. Advancement is futile (4:13-16)

  9. Vows are futile (5:1-7)

  10. Riches are futile (5:8-6:12)

  11. Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  12. Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)

  13. Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)

  14. Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

  15. Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)

  16. Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)

  17. Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)

I like how Lifeway has combined these passages. It puts the emphasis on the wisdom that was ignored. And that makes it easier to flesh out the meaning of these sections:

  • Advancement is futile if you forget where you came from.

  • Vows are futile if you don't keep them.

In last week's passage (turn, turn, turn), Solomon ended with a wistfully hopeful note: it is futile for humans to try to know the future, so we should enjoy the present and trust God with the future. But immediately after, Solomon starts thinking about the future again. And he realizes that though we know that death waits for us all, no one knows what happens after death. "So, maybe everything I'm saying is futile anyway. Maybe God doesn't bring righteous judgment to all people. We don't know."

And because Solomon has slipped back into his reliance on human wisdom, he immediately goes into a tailspin, observing the futility of life. Oppression sucks the meaning and value out of human life. Envy sucks the purpose out of human life. Loneliness sucks the joy out of human life. And all around, I see oppression and envy and loneliness. What's the point?

And that brings us to this week's passage.


Part 1: When Leading (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)

13 Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. 14 For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. 15 I saw all the living, who move about under the sun, follow a second youth who succeeds him. 16 There is no limit to all the people who were before them, yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

It's actually not important if Solomon had a "real world scenario" in mind. Think of this more as a proverb in the Jesus sense -- the narrative just makes the story easier to remember and the point easier to discern.

Let me attempt to break this down:

  • Vv. 13-14: There was an old king who had grown up in poverty and probably debtor's prison and ascended to the throne. Those details establish that he must have done something right to become king (no primogeniture for him, unlike the kings in Israel/Judah). But later in life, he stopped listening to his counselors. The implication is that he turned into a bad king.

Solomon cared a great deal about being a good king. He asked God for wisdom, after all (1 Ki 3:9). But we all know stories about leaders who started well but didn't finish well. In fact, there are stories like that in the Bible! What causes a leader to leave the habits that made him a good leader at the beginning? The answer to that question goes a long way toward identifying what Solomon found futile.

  • V. 16: Who is the "second youth"? The Hebrew is not at all clear about this, but I think we're supposed to assume that this "second youth" is the "poor but wise youth" from v. 13. We're not told anything about the end of the previous king's reign -- if he died, if there was a revolution, anything. And that's not Solomon's concern. Eventually, a new, wise king emerges on the scene.

With this detail, Solomon reinforces the indomitable passage of time. Kings come and kings go. People who loved one king will eventually have to follow another king. As we said last week, it is futile to resist the passage of time.

  • V. 17: Eventually, the second, wiser ruler will be forgotten. The Hebrew is a bit vague here, too. "The people who were before" could refer to the people living in the land, or it could refer to previous generations who followed previous kings. Because I believe that "those who come later" refers to future generations, I assume that "those who were before" refers to previous generations.

I'm not exactly sure why Solomon brought attention to the "previous generations" unless he's doubling down on his "passage of time" image. No matter what, his point is clear: eventually a future generation will forget all about a previous king. If he did good, they won't care. If he did bad, they won't care.

I don't entirely agree with Solomon, but I live in a different world than he did. Let's think about the main differences: libraries and internet. I can quickly call up details about any king or president and even look at approval ratings.

But . . . I don't have a personal investment in what I learned, and I think that might be what Solomon is saying.

Do an informal survey of your group. Ask them about the pros and cons of these presidents, and also ask them what kind of personal attachment they have to the president:

  • Bill Clinton

  • Ronald Regan

  • Richard Nixon

  • Franklin Roosevelt

  • William Taft

  • Rutherford Hayes

  • Abraham Lincoln

  • Millard Fillmore

It doesn't take long before my knowledge of those presidencies is purely academic. I have opinions about how their policies affected the growth of the nation, but I don't have strong feelings about the man. And lets be honest, my knowledge of Taft and Hayes and Fillmore is a great big nothing. Presidents of the United States, and I have no idea what they did in office.

[By the way, let me clarify that throughout this lesson, I'm talking about taking good advice, not just any 'ol advice.]

Lifeway is correct in that the practical application of this verse is that we should always listen to [good] advice when we are a leader. But Solomon already said this elsewhere:

  • The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel. Prov 12:15

  • Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed. Prov 15:22

I don't think that was Solomon's main purpose for this parable. Rather, I think he was warning us that pursuing power for power's sake is futile. Eventually, you will lose that power. And eventually, everyone will forget you.

But the proper use of power is irreplaceable for human history! Remember what we said last week -- if everybody decided to stop planting, or having babies, or building houses, the human race would go extinct. These things, no matter how mundane they seem "in the great scheme of things", this is how life happens and continues.

Perhaps the wise sage Leslie Nielsen said it better than he was given credit: "Maybe the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans."

We need leaders who care about their people. We need leaders who do the right thing even when it seems futile. They don't need to lead for leadership's sake -- they need to lead because God has put them in that position. "Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this." -- Esther 4:14


Aside: More Proverbs on Wise Leadership

Solomon cared a lot about being a good king.

  • Prov 28:6 Better the poor person who lives with integrity than the rich one who distorts right and wrong.

  • Prov 29:12 If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials will be wicked.

  • Prov 19:20 Listen to counsel and receive instruction so that you may be wise later in life.

  • Prov 20:18 Finalize plans with counsel, and wage war with sound guidance.

  • Prov 13:10 Arrogance leads to nothing but strife, but wisdom is gained by those who take advice.

  • Prov 24:6 for you should [only] wage war with sound guidance— victory comes with many counselors.

  • Prov 12:15 A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise.

That's why I think his main point in Ecclesiastes is about power for power's sake.


Part 2: When Worshiping (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3)

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. 2 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. 3 Just as dreams accompany much labor, so also a fool’s voice comes with many words.

These verses were used by Matt Redman in the praise song "Let My Words Be Few". The song doesn't really roll off the tongue, and most importantly, it has a whole lot of words in it. Like, a lot of words. So, not the best messenger of Solomon's point.

I believe Solomon is very clear in what he's saying. But what are we supposed to do with it? We certainly aren't very silent in our Sunday morning worship services. In fact, I do what I can to get us to lift our voices together more, not less.

Are we doing Sunday worship wrong?

Well, that depends. Let's compare two important Bible verses:

  • Matt 6:7: When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.

  • Col 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Do you see it? We are supposed to lift our voices in praise of God. Indeed, God alone is worthy of our praise. His praise is our highest calling.

But that's not always why people go to church, is it? (Or in Solomon's phrase, "the house of God".)

I remember going with a group of friends to a Texas A&M midweek worship meeting called "Breakaway" as a freshman. (This is an actual picture of what it's grown into.)

I wasn't a Christian, but I had done enough church stuff to know what was going on, and I wanted to impress them, so I was always the first one to stand up, and once I figured out a song I was the loudest one to sing. I believe that's what Solomon is warning against.

"Do not be hasty to speak" -- don't say things to God that you don't really mean. Don't make promises you don't intend to keep. Don't try to bargain with God. God knows your heart. Trying to fool God with your empty words is futile.

Luke 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Have you ever been that person? How do you guard against it?

Let me settle down on verse 3 because it's odd. "Dreams accompany much labor" could mean a number of things. (1) It could refer to the daydreams that go along with great ambition. (2) It could refer to the nightmares that come with working too much. (3) It could refer to wishful thinking about when you don't have to work any more. (4) It could be as simple as when you work a whole bunch, you get tired and need to sleep.

Obviously, its meaning has something to do with the second half of the verse. A literal translation would be "the words of a fool come with many words". It's supposed to be funny. And it probably means "the vows of a fool". In other words, get a fool to talk long enough, and he'll eventually make a really stupid vow. Assuming that to be the proper meaning, that doesn't help us understand the first half of the verse at all. Any of the four options could be made to work.

(Note: Solomon mentions "dreams" again in the next passage, but I don't think that meaning is the same as this one. One of the leader resources claims that this was a popular proverb in the day, which would make sense, but I haven't been able to verify that.)

(By the way -- don't search for "Proverbs about dreams"; you'll just get "a dream is a wish your heart makes". Over and over and over.)

The point is clear, though -- put a fool in church long enough, and he'll say something he doesn't believe.

Let's not be that fool.


Part 3: When Promising (Ecclesiastes 5:4-7)

4 When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it. 6 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? 7 For many dreams bring futility; so do many words. Therefore, fear God.

This obviously continues the previous verses, and it would probably be best to consider them one big point.

Certainly, this advice applies to all vows, not just vows made to God. But Solomon is specifically talking about vows made to God in worship. And this is a topic discussed frequently in the Pentateuch:

Deut 23:21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to keep it, because he will require it of you, and it will be counted against you as sin. 22 But if you refrain from making a vow, it will not be counted against you as sin. 23 Be careful to do whatever comes from your lips, because you have freely vowed what you promised to the Lord your God."

(For "vow" as a verb, see also Lev 27:8; Num 6:21; 30:11; Ps 76:12; Ps 132:2; Jonah 2:10; Mal 1:14. For "vow" as a noun, see Num 30:3; Deut 12:11; 23:19; Ps 61:6; Isa 19:12; Nah 2:1. The point is that it was a "freewill" offering or promise; a Jew was not required to make it.)

Don't mess around with promises to God.

Solomon brings up an interesting historical tidbit. It seems that people used vows in the temple in the same way that we might use a notary public today. "Did you really say this?" "Yes, here's my signature." And so Solomon had officials in the temple listening to such vows, and then they would follow up to make sure that the vow was followed through (see Lev 27:14-15).

This is probably in the background of Jesus' very famous statement:

Matt 5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, 'You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.

Jesus was citing Lev 19:12; Num 30:2; and Deut 23:21 (which I noted above). We've talked about this before -- Jesus is not saying that a Christian cannot take an oath (i.e. "I swear to tell the truth"). Instead, He's saying this:

  1. There's no need to make an oath to God because He already knows if you intend to keep it or not.

  2. There's no need to make an oath to another person if you're doing so to try to prove that you're really, truly, telling the truth, cross my heart and hope to die.

No! Just tell the truth all the time. And resolve to do the things you know God wants you to do.

Remember that Temple religion was a little different. Those were pre-Jesus/pre-Holy Spirit days. It was a commandment-style approach to a relationship with God ("do this/don't do that"). The purpose? To prove to us all that we can't live up to God's standard and we need a Savior. So, Solomon was just talking about behaviors that were normal in his day.

But if you think about it, are we all that different today? "Deathbed prayers"? "Foxhole prayers"? Peer-pressure prayers?

Let's not do any of that. Let's take God seriously ("fear God").

  • V. 7: words and dreams have this in common: they accomplish nothing on their own.

In summary, never forget where you came from and who you are -- you were a sinner, and now you're saved by grace. If you keep that always in mind, you'll never let power or authority go to your head. You'll never fail to take God and His worship seriously.

This is one of the simpler passages to understand that we've had in a while. Also one of the harder to live by.


Aside: The Best Life Advice

I believe that this week's passage has a narrow scope:

  • Pursuing power for power's sake is futile.

  • Attempting to bargain with God is futile.

But the way Lifeway frames the passage opens up a tremendous topic of discussion. What's the best life advice you would give to a younger person today?

If you Google "best life advice", you will be inundated with secular motivational quotes (cat posters, you might say). I challenge you to come up with something more meaningful and biblical than a cat poster!

But the amazing thing about people reflecting on life is they begin to say things the Bible said, even if they don't realize it. Here are some common refrains of "life advice":

  • Learn to forgive

  • Be content, but don't be satisfied

  • Never stop growing/learning

  • Treat people how you want to be treated

  • Find a mentor

  • Be wise with money

  • Prioritize your family

I've never talked to someone who rejected those ideas. They're all totally biblical. So here's my challenge to everyone:

Identify some "life advice" that's very important to you. Find a way to share that advice with someone younger than you.

And yes, I'm assuming that your advice will be biblical. I feel very good about that assumption.


Closing Thoughts: Solomon's Successors

Let's see how Solomon's successors did in following all of his advice.

  • Rehoboam (17 yrs) - lots of idolatry during his reign

  • Abijah (3 yrs)

  • Asa (41 yrs) - mostly a good king but allied himself with Damascus, threw a prophet in prison, and sought physicians to heal the foot disease that killed him (not God)

  • Jehoshaphat (25 yrs) - good Godfearing king

  • Jehoram (8 yrs) - killed his brothers, was opposed by Elijah

  • Ahaziah (1 yr) - advised by family to ally with Israel only to be caught up in a rebellion and civil war

  • Athaliah (6 yrs) (Ahaziah's mother) - claimed the throne and executed everyone with a claim to it; wholeheartedly embraced the worship of Ba'al

  • Joash (40 yrs) - the hidden grandson of Athaliah, raised to king during a coup, ordered the temple rebuilt, later in life listened to friends rather than priests, even executed a prophet and was assassinated in retaliation

  • Amaziah (29 yrs) - initially listened to God's prophets, earning military victory, but inflated his ego and then ignored God's prophets, bringing great defeat and eventually assassination

  • Uzziah (52 yrs) - started well, and then defied priests orders and offered incense in the temple, leading to leprosy and isolation until his death

  • Jotham (16 yrs) - mostly listened to the prophets (Isaiah, Micah), but corruption entered the latter part of his reign

  • Ahaz (16 yrs) - a wicked king who completely abandoned Yahweh

  • Hezekiah (29 yrs) - a good king who restored the temple and listened to the prophets, miraculously preserving Judah, only to boast of his wealth to Babylon near the end of his life, securing the eventual exile to Babylon

  • Manasseh (55 yrs) - worshiped foreign gods and oppressed God's prophets

  • Amon (2 yrs) - assassinated

  • Josiah (31 yrs) - a good king who ignored God's advice and opposed the traveling Egyptian army which killed him

  • Jehoahaz (3 mos) - deposed by the Egyptians who controlled the land

  • Jehoiakim (11 yrs) - puppet king who ignored Jeremiah

  • Jehoiachin (3 mos) - deposed by the conquering Babylonians

  • Zedekiah (11 yrs) - puppet king who ignored Jeremiah

There's a mixed bag for you. Unsurprisingly, no king wholeheartedly followed Yahweh for his entire reign. All of them eventually listened to bad advice from someone other than God's priest or prophet. And in each instance, something bad eventually happened.

Skimming through the history of Judah's kings, I am tempted to join with Solomon in saying "this is all futile". And yet God still used that line to bring about Jesus.


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