The portion of Ecclesiastes we’re going to discuss today has to do with worship. The setting, according to verse 1, is “the house of God.” Our main responsibility according to the Preacher is that we should be quiet and listen and be very careful with our words, particularly any vows or promises we might make to God.
Here the words of Solomon…
1 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. 2 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. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. 4 When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 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? 7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Ray Stedman thinks the overall lesson here is “let God be God.” That is an important approach to life, but here the focus is a little more specific. How are we to “let God be God” in our worship?
How are we to act when we come to “the house of God”? Have you ever thought about that?
Of all the activities in which Solomon had sought satisfaction, we Christians may wonder why Solomon has not thought much about his relationship to God, his worship. Here he does and shows that even the act of worship can be in vain. Even in the house of God we can act like fools. In fact, as Zack Eswine says, the preacher is reminding us that “church people are often a motley crew.”
But like Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 said, we are made for community. Podcasts, video sermons and chat rooms won’t really fill the need we have to be together and support one another.
Apparently both Solomon and the people he was writing to still had a desire to appear before God in his house. He is giving them instructions on the right way to approach God. Even though he doesn’t address heart issues (like Jesus did in Matthew 15:8), the instructions he gives reflect a right-hearted approach.
The initial instruction is to “guard your steps.” Some versions say “Prudently walk…” This is a call to reflect upon your approach to God, not just to run into his house without reflecting on your life and your ways, and most especially your heart condition.
Historically God has certainly taken seriously how we treat His house. As Zack Eswine says, “Church under the sun warrants caution. Even church that worships God as the Bible reveals him” (Recovering Eden, p. 147).
In the days of Solomon, “the house of God” would have been the temple in Jerusalem, but what he says applies to any sacred place (like the church, today) that is set aside for the worship of God. As we go to worship, the Preacher is telling us to watch our step! There is a right way and a wrong way to enter the courts of thanksgiving and the gates of praise.
I believe this command means that we should look to preparing ourselves before we go to worship. “Fruitful and acceptable worship begins before it begins” says Alexander Maclaren. In other words, much of our worship takes place before we arrive at the house of God.
R. C. Sproul, in an article entitled “Prepare Your Heart for Worship” reminds us of how God set the stage for worship back when He gave His law to Israel.
In Exodus 19 God called the people to prepare to come into His presence, or near His presence, but not actually onto the mountain where He would speak to Moses. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’” (Ex. 19:10–11). God wanted the people of Israel, before they came near to Him, to get ready to come near to Him, to prepare themselves for an encounter with Him.
God gave Israel two days to prepare themselves. He required them to be consecrated and to wash their clothes.
Part of our preparation for worship ought to be reminding ourselves of who God is—the holy, sovereign Lord. In our passage Solomon reminds them “God is in heaven and you are on earth” (v. 2) and that the appropriate attitude towards God is to “fear” Him (v. 7). Turning again to Exodus 19, we read in verse 16:
Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
When the trumpet sounded and the moment arrived for the people of Israel to draw near to God, every person in the camp trembled. Unfortunately, few people respond to God in worship like that anymore. Many have forgotten how to tremble before Him, for they do not regard Him as holy. How different their response would be if they could see Him as He revealed Himself to the Israelites:
“And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now, Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. (Ex. 19:17-18)
Over and over again God invited the people, “Come near to Me.” But that invitation was balanced by what God said following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy.” We are commanded by God to come into His presence—to come near to Him. Not only that, we may come boldly into His presence, as Hebrews 4:16 makes clear. But there is a difference between coming boldly into the presence of God and coming arrogantly. When we come boldly into His presence and draw near to Him, we must always remember that we are to regard Him as holy. We must hold God in utmost respect. It is not a trivial thing to come into the presence of God.
We can prepare our hearts by confessing our sins, reconciling with others (Matthew 5:23-24), thinking big thoughts about God and reminding ourselves how great He is and how great His love is for us.
Ask yourself before you enter church this week: Have I prepared my heart? What do I need to do to get my heart ready to meet with God and hear His Word?
So Solomon is trying to get us to pay attention to how we come to God’s house to worship Him.
According to Derek Kidner, these instructions are for “the well-meaning person who likes a good sing and turns up cheerfully enough to church; but who listens with half an ear, and never quite gets round to what he has volunteered to do for God” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 52).
And that is what we see happening here in this passages—people talking instead of listening and people making vows they either don’t intend to keep, or don’t realize how hard it will be to keep them. Either way, they fail to fulfill their promises to God.
The right way to approach God in worship is to come with our ears wide-open. Instead of offering to God the “sacrifice of fools” we are to “draw near to listen.” Our first priority at church is not to speak or sing, but to listen.
James seems to have been dealing with a similar situation when he says…
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
I think the anger James was speaking of, in particular, is the anger someone has when they are confronted by God’s Word. Sometimes we bow up and resist what God is trying to say to us and we argue instead of listen. So James says we need to “be quick to hear, slow to speak.”
Although the speaking here in Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem to be defensive arguing, it is “evil” because their making promises to God also circumvents simple obedience. The force of the end of verse 1 is that people who go in talking and not listening are not even aware of the evil they do.
“Such a man has forgotten where and who he is; above all, who God is. The reiterated word fool(s) is scathing, for to be casual with God is an evil (1), a sin (6) and a provocation which will not go unpunished (6b)” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 53).
The Preacher uses harsh language to condemn people who fail to pay attention. Instead of offering God a sacrifice of praise, they offer him “the sacrifice of fools.” If they hear God’s message at all, they do not receive it by faith, and therefore they are not saved (see Hebrews 4:2). Whatever sacrifices they offer are insincere. Such hypocrisy is not just foolish, it is also evil. Remember, the Preacher is talking about people in the church. Yet they have so little understanding of who God is or what it means to worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) that they do not even realize that what they are doing is wicked.
This statement at the end of verse 1 reminds us why some of our neighbors may never come to church. We can do some terrible things in the garb of God. Certainly the Pharisees did. They drove people away from God. The problem is not with the church, per se, but with the hearts of the people in the church.
The Preacher is admonishing us to “listen,” a word that has a double force in Hebrew, indicating that it goes beyond merely hearing to paying close attention and obeying. In Hebrew, it is understood that if you’ve actually heard a command, you would obey it. Obedience is not optional.
We must listen to the truth about ourselves, so that our lives can change. Jim Dethmer, at one time a pastor in Timonium, Maryland, once said, “Our lives begin to change when we tell the truth about ourselves and receive the truth about ourselves.”
The Preacher assumes that when people go to the house of God, there will be something for them to hear. That “something” is the Word of the living God. The house of God is a place for the reading and the preaching of the Word of God.
Although there is nothing specifically mentioned here about “preaching” or “teaching,” that is the normal way that God communicates to us. That is why preaching and teaching were vitally important in the apostolic church, so that the early church was “devoted to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and the apostles prioritized prayer and the teaching of God’s Word as their vital responsibilities (Acts 6:4).
Paul reminds us how important the preaching of the Word is in Romans 10:
“faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17; cf. Acts 10:33).
So, the second set of questions we need to ask ourselves as we prepare for worship are: Am I ready to listen to the voice of God? Is my heart open to spiritual instruction? Are my ears attentive to the message I will hear from the Bible?
The third area of concern for worship is making false promises to God, making vows that we do not intend to keep.
The Preacher is concerned not only with how we listen, but also with how we speak. His first exhortation was to listen up. His second exhortation — which pertains primarily to prayer — is to watch what we say:
2 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.
We are rash in our words all the time. We speak out of turn, speak before knowing what we’re talking about, or we speak in anger. But Solomon is focused upon the rash words we speak “before God.”
Now, there is a sense in which every word we speak is “before God.” He knows every word I’m going to speak even before it is on my tongue (Psalm 139:4) and will hold me accountable for every careless word (Matthew 12:36-37). The ability to control our tongues is a key indicator of true spirituality, according to James (James 3:2).
But here in Ecclesiastes 5 Solomon is focusing upon words we use in worship, either in singing or praying. It is in that context that we make vows (vv. 5-6) before God, telling him what we will do for him. “The sacrifice of fools” in view (v. 1) is a rash vow, as is clear from what follows.
These verses are not necessarily speaking against preaching, praying or singing. It’s not like we have to be brief in anything we say in God’s house. Most particularly, what Solomon is dealing with are those who make promises to God—either in the words they sing or pray—but then fail to keep them.
I like the way Zack Eswine describes it:
The Preacher names something further for us too. Foolery loves religious talk. Fools possess a religion of the unstoppable mouth. Foolish churchgoers have little tolerance for quiet. They always chatter. The Preacher describes “a fool’s voice with many words” (Eccl. 5:3). These clueless performers multiply god-talk, as if God is impressed with what they say, and as if their salvation resides in their ability to vacuum up every floor just by pushing their speech back and forth over it.
Furthermore, foolish churchgoers assume that what they think and feel is synonymous with what God thinks and feels. If they think it, they must say it. If they feel it, they must receive it by means of orality. Dreams, those day and night imaginings and goals, are always from God and never indicative of something potentially illusory within them. These are first-draft people, living daily on unmeditated speech. Patience is a nuisance. Taking time to think is a waste of time. Plans must be made. Visions enacted. Great things must be done quickly. For them, haste, constant talk, and busying oneself identify the hallmarks of those who should be in church (Eccl. 5:2-3) (Recovering Eden, p. 152)
Foolish churchgoers make hasty promises, then excuses for not keeping them. They received applause for their big speech, but when the applause is gone, there is little motivation to follow through. The Preacher tells us to guard our steps when we come to church because if we are not careful we can be foolish, even evil.
Solomon is telling us that God knows what is going on. He sees through our boasts and our promises. He knows our heart. Also, Solomon reinforces that the presence of foolish people using God’s name does not necessarily imply the absence of the genuine work of God.
“Yes, some church folks are spiritually deaf, disdaining patience, unacquainted with waiting, and arrogant regarding the importance they ascribe to their own thoughts, feelings, imaginations, and excuses. Self-absorbed, they are clueless regarding the evil they inflict on their neighbors. In fact, without the grace of Jesus, none of us would be rescued from such foolery. But instead of quitting the house of God, the Preacher has something else in mind” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, pp. 153-154).
Back in verse 1 Solomon had said “when you go into the house of God,” indicating that this was to be a certain, continuous practice. Solomon is pointing out the, almost imperceptible, change that happens to us by regular appearances in the house of God. More time, more practice, more opportunities to learn, begin to change us.
Cultivating a regular habit, a daily rhythm or weekly rhythm, is important. “The pattern establishes a way of life–a way that we use time to keep coming back to something that matters” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 155).
Secondly, we go in order to quiet our tongues and open our ears and hearts to the message God wants to communicate to us. Wise churchgoing requires practicing humility.
Under it all, we need to remember that this is God’s house, and “He is in heaven and you are on earth,” illustrating his majesty and authority over us. We dare come into God’s house and tell Him what to do!?!
This is a great verse for putting us in our place.
God is in Heaven; he is the eternal Deity who made the entire universe. We are on earth; we are mortal beings, limited in time and space. There is a vast distance between the finite and the infinite.