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"MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 17, 2013"

FROM ECCLESIASTES 5:1-7

This week we return to our series of messages from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  This book was written by a former Israelite king, who was wealthy and had experienced all the pleasures this life has to offer.  He repeatedly heralds the message that nothing in this world can provide ultimate fulfillment or satisfaction.  They are all “vanity.”  Pursuing wisdom fails, the pleasures of the flesh fail, having wealth fails and our work or careers fail to give satisfaction.  They are all dry wells.  Much of Ecclesiastes is written from a secular point of view—“life under the sun” without God in the picture.  Our text this morning in chapter five is however a radical departure from that secular perspective.  No, this man who calls himself Qohelet or “the Preacher” is doing just that. He’s preaching.  The topic of this brief message is—how to approach corporate worship with the right heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 says, “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.” The basic message here is:  Our hearts must be prepared for corporate worship if they are to honor God.  It’s important for us to remember that when Qohelet refers to the “house of God” he means—the house where God dwells--the Jerusalem temple.  This was the place of formal public worship.  The church building in which we sit is obviously not “the house of God” in the same way as the temple.  Nevertheless because he is speaking of public, corporate worship, this text remains applicable to the corporate worship of the church.  A church building is not the material, earthly headquarters for God, but it is a space that has been set apart by God’s people to come and worship him.

This text is especially relevant today given the seismic shift that corporate evangelical worship has undergone in the past 30 years. Today, if you wandered into many evangelical worship services and were asked to describe what you observed, you might describe it using words like: casual, comfortable, chatty, chipper, busy, professional, clever and at times, even cute.[1]  Though this is especially pronounced today, this is not a new concern for the church.  Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist Preacher wrote more than 150 years ago, “An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord…The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view of winning them…” If the devil was hinting to the church to offer entertainment a century and a half ago, today he is shouting with a bull horn and much of the church has bought into his message.  How are we to think about this trend in worship prevalent in so many churches? 

It’s a big question, but this text in Ecclesiastes is very helpful in sorting out some of the issues. Just the phrase, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God,” is instructive in this context.  The idea is that as we approach corporate worship we are to be careful in how we approach God. There is a degree of preparation for worship implied there. The phrase implies that we must be careful, intentional, reverential, even cautious in the way we are told to approach corporate worship.  If we are to be intentional, reverential and cautious as we approach worship, that alone disqualifies, “cute, casual, comfortable, chatty and chipper.”  There’s no need to “guard your steps" as you approach corporate worship if the atmosphere is casual.  You don’t need to exercise any caution to be chatty or comfortable. 

Before we get any further into the text, in order to lay a foundation for what the text teaches, we need to address a question that bears on this issue of guarding your steps for worship.  As we’ll see, the required heart attitude required for worship throughout this passage is one of reverence and awe for God.  The question is—Since Jesus came, many changes have occurred in worship—the place, the day and the manifold and vastly differing cultural expressions of worship. Is this Old Testament reverence still required for our corporate worship service?  More specifically, if our understanding of the temple has shifted from being a physical structure in Jerusalem to a metaphor for our bodies or the church, does that diminish the importance of being reverential in our corporate worship?  Reverence as it’s used in the New Testament means caution or fear (not in the sense of being terrified), but the experience of a sense of deep and profound respect for God.  This is a vitally important question today, because in many places, reverence and awe for God in corporate worship has vanished.  If you’re cracking jokes in the pulpit or yelling across the auditorium before worship to get someone’s attention, or I daresay--wiping cappuccino foam off your face—reverence will be lacking. 

Let’s see what has changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament and what has NOT changed.  First, the level of intimacy the average believer can have with God has greatly increased because of Jesus.  Very seldom is the term “Father” used in the Old Testament to describe how an individual Jew relates to God. God was the Father of Israel, but he is almost never portrayed as the Father of an individual. That kind of intimacy and profound identification with God would not have felt appropriate to God-fearing, Old Testament Jews.  By sharp contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus teaches his disciples to address God as “our Father in heaven.”  For the believer, the understanding of the God of the universe as our Father is so prevalent in the New Testament, J.I. Packer says, “Father is the Christian name for God.”

Those in Christ can enjoy a much higher level of intimacy with God than the average Old Testament saint.  A second change between the Old and New Testament is--the concept of worship broadens considerably in the much of the New Testament.  The word for “worship” in the much of the New Testament means to sacrificially live before God in all areas of life.  We are to be living sacrifices, worshipping God through everything we do.  When we wash dishes or play with our children, those are to be offered up to God as acts of worship.  In the New Testament, the notion of worship takes in all of life.  Those are two big differences between Old Testament and New Testament worship.

What hasn’t changed is God.  Malachi tells us that God never changes.  Hebrews 12:28-29 in the New Testament says, “28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.  The word for “worship” there is the one used more broadly for everything we do in life.  The message is—because we’ve received a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we should be grateful and in that gratitude offer our lives to God in reverence and awe because he is a consuming fire.  When the New Testament broadens the understanding of worship to all of life, reverence is not excluded.  It means that we should live all of life in response to God’s goodness and that gratitude is expressed with a persistent attitude of reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.”  Reverence is not discarded in the New Testament, it’s expanded to apply to our attitude toward God in every context and that certainly includes corporate worship.

Also, although New Testament believers relate to God with greater intimacy, that doesn’t imply that within that intimacy, reverence decreases.   “Intimacy” and “reverence” are not mutually exclusive terms.   Almost no one was more personally intimate with Jesus than John the apostle. In the upper room, John 13:23 tells us, “23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus.”  The literal wording is—he was reclining “in the bosom” of Jesus. That phrase is important because John uses it in John 1:18 where he says of Jesus, “18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, (literally, “in the bosom of the Father”) he has made him known.”  D.A. Carson comments that “John sees himself in a relationship with Jesus that is analogous to Jesus’ relationship with the Father.[2] —That’s intimacy!  Yet when that same intimately-known disciple is reunited with the risen ascended Christ in Revelation chapter one, he is so stunned by his glory that he “fell at his feet as though dead.”  That’s reverence!  The New Testament describes a reverential or holy intimacy with God. 

This doesn’t imply that joy is not present.  Our joy in worship is to be vibrant.  Psalm 66 says, “1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!”  Psalm 81 says, “1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob!”  That’s Old Testament worship.  Surely we have deeper joy in Christ than Old Testament worshippers.  Intimacy and joy however do not exclude reverence and awe—those are not opposed to each other.  The cross represents God’s grace and kindness and mercy in sending his Son to save us.  At the same time, it also represents God’s holiness and justice and wrath because the cross is where a holy God poured down his wrath for sin upon Jesus in order to punish our sins when he became sin for us.  If the cross brings together both God’s love AND God’s holiness, then shouldn’t our corporate worship--rooted in the cross--likewise manifest both intimacy and reverence?  Worship to God that is not reverential and filled with awe betrays the meaning of the cross.

Now, let’s move on to the rest of the text.  We know this text tells us to go prepared for corporate worship, but what does that mean?  I see two marks of a prepared heart for worship here.  First is: We must go to corporate worship primarily to listen to God, not engage in thoughtless and superficial speech toward him or about him. This notion permeates this text. The second half of verse one says, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools for they do not know that they are doing evil.”  When we gather, we worship through song and prayer and by cheerfully offering our gifts to God.  But the fundamental way in which we worship–as this text indicates—is by listening…to the reading and preaching of God’s Word.  David writes in Psalm 40:6,6 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear…” 

Some may have a hard time staying focused when the Word is read or preached.  My mind wanders during the message.”  Part of what preparing for worship does is to greatly increase your capacity to focus.  If you prepare your heart for worship through the Word by getting up early enough to renew your mind in the Word of God, it will be much easier to focus when you get here.  On the other hand, if you fill your mind with the newspaper or other media on Saturday night and Sunday morning, of course our minds will wander because—by soaking our heads in the things of this world, we’ve conditioned them to wander from the Word of God.  Likewise, if we lay the kids clothes out the night before and do other things that reduce the distraction in our homes on Sunday morning; our focus can be much more acute.  When a believer prepares for worship in those kinds of ways, they’re practicing contemporary forms of “guarding their steps”

Those are all very reasonable measures to take in order to hear a Word from the Lord of the universe on Sunday morning.  You’d probably prepare more intensely than that to spend 10 minutes alone with your favorite celebrity or politician.  God will give us “open ears” to his Word as we prepare for worship.  Qohelet tells us not only to be ready to listen, he also tells us to limit our speech.  In verse two he says, “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.  This is only common sense.  You can’t listen if you’re speaking.  James 1:19 says much the same thing, “19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;”

Jesus also reflects this in Matthew chapter six as he teaches on prayer.  7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  It’s not the number of words we speak or pray or sing that matters to God, but the truth and sincerity of them.  It’s when we’re thoughtlessly droning on to or about God--when we aren’t thinking about what we’re saying or singing that we sin.  It’s sobering to think that as we sing a hymn or praise song--if we’re not thinking about what we’re singing, but just mindlessly mouthing words, this is what the Preacher calls “a sacrifice of fools.”  That is—words that are spoken without due attention or thought. 

It’s ironic that it’s not only possible, but in fact easy to sin against God as we seek to worship him.  When we don’t think about what we’re singing or saying or praying in worship, we’re sinning against God. There’s a good example of this in Mark chapter nine.  2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.”

This is a classic case of someone—Peter, defiling a sacred moment by running off at the mouth.  He is well intentioned, but he’s thoughtless and his foolish suggestion implies that Jesus be placed on the same level as Moses and Elijah.  He was frightened and felt he had to say something.  He didn’t—God said he needed to listen—as commanded here in Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher repeats this truth in verse three.  3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.” Here, he compares two cause and effect relationships.  A busy day, full of stress and activities can cause us to dream as we subconsciously process the day’s activities.  Just as a busy day can make us dream, so also do many words make us sound like fools.

This word is for all of us, but especially to those who are given to much speech.  Highly verbose people need to remember that its quality, not quantity.  It’s sincerity, not verbosity.  Come to corporate worship first--to listen.  A second mark of having a prepared heart for worship is in verses 4-7.  The preacher says, “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.  The truth here for us is—“We must be careful to follow through with the commitments we make to God in corporate worship.” In the Old Testament, people would go to the temple and frequently make vows to God.  These were mostly vows to make certain sacrifices or offer certain gifts or ministries to God in exchange for a blessing from him.  Hannah vowed that if God blessed her with a son, she would give him to God.  She fulfilled her vow when she brought Samuel to the temple.

Today, we don’t give many vows in corporate worship—(though those who dedicated their babies a few minutes ago offered several vows to God.)  Verse five says that God is so concerned that we fulfill what we vow, he would rather we not make a vow at all than to vow and break it.  Verse six says, “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?   Apparently during this time in Israel, if a person allowed their mouth to “lead them into sin” by breaking a vow, there was a person who acted as something like “the vow police.”  This is “the messenger” here and he brought whatever influence he had to compel worshippers to fulfill their vows. Verse seven is very difficult even to translate—“For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity...”  Given the context, this probably means something like--vows made when many words are spoken are probably not worth the air it took to breathe them out.  You don’t enter into vows lightly.  We can apply this to wedding vows and baby dedications, but the principle extends even further.  When we sing a hymn or praise chorus, the lyrics we sing are often written as verbal commitments to God.  Jesus says in Matthew 12:36 says, “36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”  That includes words we sing too.

A.W. Tozer said, “Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them.”  When we sing a lyric in church and it’s a statement of commitment like, “I surrender all,” those are not empty words.  I don’t remember programming into worship “I Surrender All” because it makes everyone a liar.  It’s alright to sing those kind of songs…if you sing them as a prayer—“God I want to surrender all to you, so please hear this song as my prayer to you.”  That’s fine.  The same thing is true when we sing words like, “You are my all in all.”  We must think about the words carefully enough to sing those as prayers—as the desires of our hearts because if Jesus was really our all in all, our lives would look very different.  Two statement Jesus made apply here.  In John 4 at the well with the Samaritan women, he says, “23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.  If we’re to worship God in Spirit and in truth, we must be truthful in what we sing.  Slightly different is Mark 7:6 where Jesus says, “…Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;” That’s a call for heartfelt worship--not mechanically or robotically coming in and just mouthing words—or listening to the praise team.  It implies that we prepare our hearts for worship.  If our hearts are warmed to God when we come in here, our worship will have the ring of truth to it.

So, how are we to respond to this?  Two points of application—Fear God and believe the gospel.  The Preacher concludes his treatment with one of the requirements for God-honoring, corporate worship.  He says, but God is the one you must fear.”  We must fear God. The reason for this and the reason why we must not be hasty with our words is in verse two.  “…for God is in heaven and you are on earth.  That hasn’t changed either.  His point is--there is an immeasurable distance separating us as finite, sinful begins from an infinite, holy God. Think about God as Creator to make this come alive.  Discover and think of things like—there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way and there are more than 100 billion galaxies.  That comes out to something like a billion trillion total stars and he’s got a name for every one of them.  A pinhead-sized speck of DNA has enough genetic information stored in it that, if it was transferred to book form, it would be enough to fill a stack of books from here to the moon 500 times.  God does that! 

When we come to worship and are casual or careless in our approach to God or seek out worship that’s cute or chatty, what we’re really communicating is—we don’t really understand who God is because that kind of so-called worship in completely inconsistent with the Creator/creature relationship.  In Malachi chapter one, the priests were being careless in their sacrificial offerings to God and God tells them the reason this is such an abominable sin is because, [v.14] “For I am a great King, says the Lord of Hosts and my name will be feared among the nations.”  He’s saying—“Your careless approach to your worship of me is a denial of who I am.  I’m not some little tribal deity—I’m the Lord of the Universe—all the nations will come and bow down before me.”  How does “the great King, “the Lord of Hosts” appreciate cute, clever or chatty words in church on Sunday?  We must by God’s grace develop a fear of God by reading texts that bring to mind truths like--our God is a consuming fire.

Second, we must preach the gospel to ourselves.  After a message that calls us to be careful in our preparation for worship, the natural tendency is to become so self-conscious about how imperfect our worship is, that we just don’t worship at all.  It’s good to be reminded of what God expects in worship, but the gospel must be woven into those expectations.  That is—we must know that our imperfect worship is accepted by the Father because of the perfect worship offered by the Son.[3]  Nothing we offer to God is perfect and undefiled—we’re fallen.  Our soiled fingers always leave a stain.  But Hebrews 10:19 tells us in light of our forgiven sins, “19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,” [v.22] “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  What that means is that if we are truthful and heartfelt in our worship, God passes our imperfect words and expressions of worship through the filter of his Son’s blood which makes it acceptable to him—it’s as much a delight to him as the worship of Jesus is.  That’s amazing!

Philip Ryken writes, “When we know that even our worship is forgiven, then we approach God with joyful confidence.  Rather than saying,If I worship the right way, then God will accept me,” we say, “I am already accepted through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and now it is my privilege to worship God the way he wants to be worshipped.”  Jesus says in John chapter four, “the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”  Hebrews 4 exhorts believers that because Jesus is a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, [v.16] “16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  None of that changes the fact that “God is in heaven and you are on earth.  He remains Almighty God, Creator of the heavens and earth, but through Christ he has brought us near to himself so that we can know him not only in reverence, but also in intimacy--we can worship him all the time through our separated lives, not just Sunday morning.  May God give us the grace to praise God for his unspeakable gift! 


[1] Most of this description is taken from: Ibrnb.com/articles 1/?p=145

[2] Carson, D.A. “The Gospel According to John” Pillar series, p. 473.

[3] Ryken, Philip, Ecclesiastes—Preach the Word series, p. 122.

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