Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is a vapor; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:1-7
If there is anything that is truly American, it is “freedom of speech.” Today there are very high-level court cases about exactly what is “protected speech.” I am thankful for the freedom to speak truth to power, dissent from the social obsession du jour, and most of all, grateful for the freedom to preach and teach the Word of God. Many of us are aware, however, that “freedom of speech” has been wildly misunderstood to allow speech for which the one uttering it should be protected from the responsibilities and consequences that follow.
Solomon knows about temple worship. In fact, he built the temple! Remembering that wisdom literature is for the training of kings, he offers an arresting warning in the passage above. This has to do with words. Speech here has enormous responsibilities. It is critical that you know your place before God: “God is in heaven and you are on earth.” It is critical that you know your place with God’s people: “Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake.”
Solomon is revealing that our speech tells the truth about us. Our words may justify or vindicate us. This helps make sense of Matthew 11:19, where Jesus says, “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Your deeds prove your words, or as the KJV put it, “But wisdom is justified by her children.” Put another way, you bring forth your words and Jesus makes clear: “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Solomon is not some collector of random moral advice. He’s just talked in chapter 4 about the need for human companionship and the alienation of working only for oneself out of envy and rivalry (all a vapor!). So now he’s still promoting the community of faith, and he knows it won’t last anytime at all if we don’t get our speech right: speech before God and speech with each other. The Apostle Paul deals too many times to be counted in his writings with the destruction that comes from human speech. Thus Solomon offers four admonitions:
Guard your steps.
Do not be hasty with your mouth.
When you vow a vow, do not delay keeping it.
Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.
No wonder he urges that few words are one of the signs of the wise: “Therefore let your words be few.”
Words matter and the freedom to utter them does not mean that we should say just anything. Wisdom dictates, in fact, that we should utter few of them. Jesus knows when to speak and when to remain silent. We hang on every one of His words in large part because there are so few of them. He is often ridiculed for not speaking up for Himself. But He’s the wisdom of God, the King of kings. He was never rash with His mouth, and the vows He made, He kept. And it is by those vows we are saved. And that’s the gospel.
Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.