There is a strange passage at the end of Judges chapter 12 about a man named Jephthah who made a foolish vow to the Lord. According to the text, he was preparing for a significant battle against the Ammonites. As part of his preparation he made a vow that he would offer the first thing that greeted him when he returned victorious from battle as a burnt offering. Little did he know the first thing to greet him upon his return would be his only child, a virgin daughter. In my opinion it was a foolish vow because it was his attempt to strike a bargain with God, and it was even more foolish for him to make good on his promise.
I don’t know if the Preacher had this story in mind when he wrote the words of Ecclesiastes 5, but the story of Jephthah certainly fits the criteria. Let’s look at the text:
As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God. Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few. Too much activity gives you restless dreams; too many words make you a fool. When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it. Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, NLT)
There are two strong warnings in the text. The first is to guard your tongue when you enter the presence of God. God does want to hear from his children, but the words we speak to him should be purposeful and carefully selected. So how do we know what to say and what not to say? I think the clue is found in the opening sentence where the reader is directed to be a listener first. Think of it as reading the instructions before beginning the assembly process. If we will commit to listen to God before we speak to God we can avoid a lot of the frustration we experience in life. I know I’ve been guilty of thinking of big things I could do “for God” without asking him first if that was even on his radar. And once I had constructed the great dream of the great accomplishment, I couldn’t help but tell God about all of the big things I was going to do for him instead of “keeping my ears open and my mouth shut.” When we take the initiative to do big things in God’s name we are subject to disappointment. God has promised to underwrite his will, but has not made the same promise for our will, no matter how righteous it appears.
The second warning in the text is to avoid making rash promises to God without first counting the cost. Again, there is nothing wrong with making commitments to God. But the commitments we make to God cannot be in the context of bargaining or making deals with God. The temptation to bargain with God can be strong, whether it’s a battle we’re facing (like Jephthah), or some other challenge we face where we are trying to manipulate God for a guaranteed outcome. Some of those challenges may be financial or related to the physical health of ourselves or a loved one. There are things we want to happen as well as things we don’t want to happen. The template prayer goes something like this — “Lord, if you’ll (fill in the blank), then I promise to (fill in the blank). To make those types of promises sets oneself up for failure, frustration, and ultimately disappointment with God because he didn’t “perform” like we wanted.
Qoheleth wants us to listen first, speak second, and above all else, make commitments to God without selfish, manipulative motives. That’s what it means to “fear God instead.”