What are some of the less than ideal reasons people come to church? People may come to be seen and heard. They may come out of habit, out of superstition, or out of curiosity. Many years ago, a famous preacher named Pastor Henry was out of town so he asked his lesser known brother Thomas to fill the pulpit. Many curiosity seekers had come to hear the famous preacher speak. Therefore, when the brother appeared in the pulpit instead, some people got up and started for the doors. Sensing that they were disappointed because he was substituting for his brother, Thomas raised his hand for silence and announced, “All those who came here this morning to worship Pastor Henry may withdraw from the church; all who came to worship God may remain.”
There may be many reasons why you are here today but the purpose of worship is more important than all the others.
The Israelites didn’t always worship with the right attitude, either. They came to the temple but not always with the proper reverence. For example, when they brought offerings they didn’t bring their best. They brought sick and lame animals. They made vows they didn’t intend to keep.
In Malachi 1:14 God responded to all of this saying “The deceiver is cursed who has an acceptable male in his flock and makes a vow but sacrifices a defective animal to the Lord. For I am a great King,” says the Lord of Armies, “and my name will be feared among the nations.”
It mattered to God how the people came to Him to worship. He demanded that people come before him in a respectful way and He still does. When we come before God in his house He deserves our reverence. There are right ways and wrong ways to worship. This is what the teacher in Ecclesiastes is talking about.
Now, before we get into the text notice that in these 7 verses God is mentioned 6 times which is unusual for Ecclesiastes. This frequency should tell us that this passage is primarily not about how we relate to people but about how we relate to God.
The imperative at the beginning (guard your steps in God’s house) and at the end (fear God) provide the framework for what comes in between.
In between there are four things God tells us about worshipping with reverence.
Firstly, Guard Your Steps
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
When you guard your steps you think about what you’re doing. “Guarding” requires a certain amount of attention and deliberate action. So to guard your steps when you go to the house of God implies a certain amount of care needs to be taken along with an expected reverence.
It’s along the same lines as when Moses was told to take off his shoes near the burning bush. In Exodus 3:5 God told Moses “Do not come closer,” he said. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
It’s not that the ground or the building was holy in and of itself. It was made holy by who was present.
When we gather to worship it is a holy activity because of who we worship. So we should be careful how we approach the house of God. The motive we have and our attitude matter to God.
In John 4:20-23 Jesus spoke about a major change to the place of worship as He was being questioned by a Samaritan woman at the well about the proper place to worship. Samaritan’s had their own temple and didn’t worship in Jerusalem and as a result were looked down upon.
The woman said...
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.”
Most simply “spirit and truth” is understood as the Holy Spirit and the Truth of Jesus. In other words, people will not worship on the basis of location but on the basis of the in-dwelling Holy Spirit and the truth of who Jesus is and what He’s done.
But that doesn’t mean we no longer need to guard our steps. If anything, we have more reason to worship with reverence than before. So how do we do this?
Secondly, Listen to God’s Word
Verse 1 continues. The CSB says...
“Better to approach in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they ignorantly do wrong” (CSB).
The emphasis upon obedience in the CSB is good but I think the ESV is more accurate with the original Hebrew:
“To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil” (ESV).
The Hebrew word for “listen” is “Shema” which is the same word used in Deuteronomy 6:1 “Listen (or hear) Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Of course, obedience is what’s implied when we listen.
When a parent tells his child to listen he means more than just be quiet. But being quiet is a part of it because you can’t listen and talk at the same time.
When Israelites came to the house of God, they gave their offerings in silence out of respect. Then the priest would open the law, read it, and explain it. The people would listen. Then songs were sung in response. Afterwards the priest would pray and then there would be a final concluding blessing on the people.
The “fools” however, brought their sacrifices but not their obedience. In other words, they didn’t come to listen. They had other motives. Duty, fellowship, family, perhaps, but not reverence for who God is and what He had to say.
And it seems they didn’t know any better. They acted out of ignorance. They came to the house of God irreverently and didn’t even realize it, not because they hadn’t been told, but because they didn’t listen.
Listening isn’t just emphasized in the Old Testament.
Jesus repeatedly used the phrase “Let anyone who has ears listen.” (Matt 11:15; 13:9, 43; etc. )
Romans 10:14, 17 says “How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?...So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.”
Can you read the Bible directly? Of course you can but God chooses to often work through preachers. Those with evangelical beliefs are more likely to read some of the Bible everyday but even then it’s less than 50%. Preachers aren’t obsolete yet.
Of course, this puts a great burden on the person explaining God’s word and it helps make a case for expository preaching, a type of preaching that emphasizes God’s words and not man’s opinions. The pulpit isn’t a place for us to share our opinions. It’s not a platform for political agendas. It’s not Comedy Central. It’s a place for us all, including the preacher, to hear what God has to say. It’s a place for us to listen.
And as we listen we worship with reverence.
In Uganda they have a very high reverence for pastors, to the point that I often felt uncomfortable while I was there. It wasn’t that they cared so much about me but they cared about what God said through me.
So, as we worship with reverence we should guard our steps. Which means we should approach worship with a desire to listen and be obedient to God’s words.
Thirdly, Let Your Words Be Few
“Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God.” (Reason:) “God is in heaven and you are on earth”
This point is about prayer because speech made in God’s presence is prayer. Worship is about listening to God’s word and it’s also about prayer but with limits.
How many of us have heard a prayer that sounded more like a speech? The temptation when we pray in public is to use it as an opportunity to push our own agendas instead of God’s. We shouldn’t do this and the reason we’re given is that “God is in heaven and you are on earth.”
See, even though God is personal and able to relate to us He is not like us. We are like Him in some ways but He is far above us. He is in heaven and we are on earth and that great distance between us should be respected when we pray.
We treat kings and queens, presidents and other dignitaries with respect, how much more towards God?
Jesus also taught us to limit our words when we pray. In Matthew 6:7-8 He said, “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.”
And then in the very next verse, Mathew 6:9 “Therefore, you should pray like this: Our Father in heaven...”
As we pray remember that God is in Heaven.
“so let your words be few.”
See, we don’t need to be long winded because our Father knows the things you need before you ask him. Long prayers are especially impressive to people but not so much to God.
What matters is the heart. David, when he prayed shared some really raw emotions. So did Jesus. If it takes a long time to express our feelings then so be it but there’s no need go on and on as if God was impressed by that.
Because of what Jesus has done we have access in one spirit to the Father. Hebrews 10:19 says we have permission to enter boldly in the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus and the Spirit intercedes on our behalf when we don’t know exactly what to say but that doesn’t mean we throw reverence out the window.
I’m not a fan of using “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” when we pray but I appreciate the effort to try and use language that reflects who we’re talking to.
Lots of disrespectful, unnecessary word are like it says in verse 3...
“Just as dreams accompany much labor, so also a fool’s voice comes with many words.”
Many words from a fool’s voice are like dreams alongside labor. Dreams are not real, they are not tangible. Praying with just a bunch of words, and no heart, is foolish.
The first thing we do when we come to God’s house is to listen. The second thing is consider the number of words we use when we pray. We shouldn’t be praying just because we like to hear the sound of our voice. The third thing is to fulfill your vows.
Fourthly, Fulfill Your Vows
“When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it,”
The reason is: “because he does not delight in fools.
God does not delight in fools who don’t keep their promises.
A vow is a promise you make to God usually with a condition. If God does this then I’ll do that. Hannah made a vow in 1 Samuel 1:11 “Making a vow, she pleaded, “Lord of Armies, if you will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.” Hannah fulfilled her vow right away, as soon as Samuel was weened.
But apparently, not all the Israelites fulfilled their vows. They would promise to give an offering if God would heal. God would heal but then would make some excuse why they couldn’t keep their promise.
Ananias and Saphira made this mistake. They vowed to give a certain amount of the sale of their property but then they didn’t. Maybe they intended too or maybe they deliberately trained to deceive. I don’t know. But they withheld what they had promised and paid with their lives. (Acts 5:4, 11).
We make vows before God, too. We make vows in marriage, in baptism, in baby dedications, in church membership. These are formal vows but informally, we make vows too. One of the biggest is “I’ll pray for you.”
Don’t just say things because you think it’s what’s expected of you. What’s the point of that? That’s a waste of words.
Instead, “Fulfill what you vow.”
Making vows are serious, whether formal or informal. “Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.”
Jesus taught about the seriousness of making vows in Matthew 5:33-37. Jesus said “Don’t swear at all...let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, do what you say you’re going to do.
The teacher of Ecclesiastes also emphasizes the seriousness of keeping your promises...
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.”
There is some evidence that when people didn’t pay their vows a priest would come around to remind them. This could be the “messenger” that’s being talked about here. We like to make excuses when we don’t keep our promises.
We might ask “what’s the big deal?” Or as the teacher says...
“Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands?”
The implied answer is because you have lame excuses for why you haven’t kept your promises. God will punish those who don’t fulfill their vows.
Of course, there’s mercy for those who are repentant. But too many people don’t see irreverence toward God as a problem. We don’t see it as a big deal. We make a mistake thinking God doesn’t care.
But God does care. “For many dreams bring futility, so do many words.”
As mentioned before, dreams aren’t real. They have no substance. They are empty and futile. Our worship can be empty and futile too when it’s just a bunch of words.
One of the most hypocritical times during worship can be when we sing. Do we really think about what we’re saying? Hymns are like prayers.
Of course, we aren’t capable of being perfect. Thank God He is merciful.
Some may say I’m making too big a deal. I’m only making as big a deal as God makes. Have you come here to listen today?
The conclusion is: “Therefore, fear God.”
What is fear? It can mean terror or dread but that’s not the way it used in the Old Testament or in other Ecclesiastes passages.
Fear means to revere God. To be in awe of Him. It doesn’t mean we are afraid or terrified of God. Proverbs 1:7 says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It is also the beginning of worship with reverence.
Reverence for God will result in us guarding our steps as we come to worship.
Reverence for God will result in us listening to him through his word
Reverence for God will result in fewer senseless words when we pray.
Reverence for God will result in us keeping our vows made to him and each other