Grace Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2020, Pentecost 8A (livestream)
Watch Your Mouth!
“You watch your mouth!”
Ever get that thrown at you? Or maybe some variant like, “Shush!” or “Zip it!” or maybe a long emphatic “Shhhhhh!”
In a slightly more elegant format, that is the principal theme of much of this portion of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet, our teacher/author of this book, frames the advice as applying to the proper attitude for one coming to the Temple, but it becomes clear soon enough that Qohelet considers the advice to be good counsel for pretty much any part of life “under the sun,” to use a favorite phrase.
Part of the background to understanding this emphasis lies in the particular situation of Palestine at the time Qohelet is writing. While much of Hebrew Scripture as compiled in your Bible came about when the land was occupied from the East – kingdoms like Babylon or Persia are often mentioned in those histories – Ecclesiastes appears to have been written much later, possibly as late as 250 years before the birth of Christ. By that time the occupiers of the land were no longer from the East but from the West: Macedonian forces led by no less than Alexander the Great had swept through and conquered the territory probably less than a hundred years before.
If you ever read Greek philosophy or ethics or drama or literature of the classic era, you might have some memory that such tracts did not tend to be brief; the Greeks liked their words, and used them in volume. Qohelet may be reacting to this tendency among those in power in his land, at least in part, in this reaction against the foolishness of words.
At the same time, though, it isn’t as if Qohelet’s concern is unprecedented. Psalm 62, for example, opens with the declaration of the psalmist that “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Psalm 4:4 instructs the hearer, when disturbed or angry, to “ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” In Psalm 81 the Lord laments that the people would not listen, and in Psalm 95 the psalmist pleads “O that today you would listen to his voice!” As much as we are told to sing or to give thanks or to praise God in those psalms, there is clearly also a time for holding our tongues and listening for what God might say.
Verse 2 points to, if not a full-fledged and fully explained reason for such caution of words, a serious motivation. Back in the early days of Saturday Night Live one Chevy Chase, then “hosting” the regular “Weekend Update” segment, became infamous for his opening introduction, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” Qohelet, with a good bit more seriousness and a truckload more substance, does something of the same thing to us: “for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” God is god, and you’re not. So hush.
Qohelet may have had his fill of Greek babblers, but again, his viewpoint sure does resonate with today. We are, at minimum, bombarded with words. To be blunt, we often feel the full force of verse 3: “For dreams (best read as “daydreams” or “fantasies”) come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.” As if that weren’t enough, Qohelet roughly repeats the thought in verse 7 – “With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words…” You don’t have to look or listen very far to find the many words of fools in this world. Such bombardment with words makes it all the harder to listen, but listening is the needful posture to take in the presence of God.
Rashness of words can lead simply to foolishness, to promises or “vows” we cannot possibly keep, or even into outright sin, even the full-fledged provoking of God to anger, as Qohelet puts it. These are all very good reasons to keep your words few, and your listening constant.
Verse 8 begins a section of recapitulation of what has come so far. Verses 8 and 9 touch on injustice again, this time directly aimed at the poor. <sarcasm> This of course never happens today. </sarcasm> Here Qohelet’s theme of the abuse of power is amplified by the idea of competition of power as a multiplier of abuse and provoker of greater injustice, and Qohelet calls out what is in Qohelet’s view the only real purpose for a ruler of any kind: “a plowed field,” in other words the full functioning and fertility of the land and the people that work it and live in it. No other reason for a king or any other ruler to rule. And yet, we end up with a torrent of foolish words, and rampant injustice.
The rest of this chapter continues to recapitulate themes from the book so far, and even into chapter 6 the review continues, to the point of verses 10-12, which some manuscripts of Ecclesiastes actually have marked as the halfway point of the book. Indeed, at this halfway point our theme for today is restated; human beings “are not able to dispute with those who are stronger” – a raggedly translated indirect reference to God – and “the more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better?” What’s the point of all your talk? What good are you doing? How are you creating anything but, to use Qohelet’s favorite phrase, “vanity, and a chasing after wind?”
The advice Qohelet gives rather testily here doesn’t just have precedent in Hebrew scripture; it also resonates with Jesus’s words in the gospel of Matthew. Indeed, Jesus gives here three different illustrations of this same principle:
- Don’t make big noise about your almsgiving – the wonderful phrase “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is a particularly catching description of the humility with which one should come before God with an offering;
- Don’t show off when praying – a few street-corner preachers could get in trouble here (note that both of these get the follow-up instruction about doing the respective deeds in secret, and being rewarded by “your Father who sees in secret“;
- And finally, don’t pile up a bunch of words to sound important, as if you think God will listen more because you blather so much. (Interesting that Matthew records Jesus as teaching the disciples not to pile up the empty words “as the Gentiles do” – even under Roman rule Greek culture remained quite prominent in Jesus’s time.) God knows what you need before you even ask.
And in case you didn’t recognize the lead-in, the next thing that happens in Matthew 6 after this passage is that Jesus teaches the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, itself a model of concise and humble address to God. Qohelet’s council to “let your words be few” echoes in one of the signature moments of the gospels. Not bad for a book that almost didn’t make it into the biblical canon.
Guard your steps before God. Let your words be few, before God and otherwise. Enjoy what God gives, and don’t go grasping after excess (which might also mean there’s more for everybody). I wouldn’t call it a life plan, necessarily, but it’s not the worst foundation to build upon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind (GtG #169); Let Words Be Few