Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (text); Matthew 7:21-27
© June 9, 2013 • Download PDF sermon
Most evangelicals also have a very low regard for the church. They question why it is important to be a member of the church. Notice that our text says, “when you go to the house of God,” not “if you go to the house of God.” Going to the house of God on his appointed day of worship is not optional. One so-called “missionary” here even asked, “Does Church save a man? Can we only worship our creator on Sunday Morning?”
Evangelicals reek of the individualistic, anti-ecclesiastical, anti-doctrinal and anti-historical culture of our day. Tell them about the Fourth Commandment, and they will say that the Old Testament doesn’t apply to our Christian life. Tell them about creeds and confessions, and they answer, “My only creed is Christ and the Bible” How noble! How edifying! What can be wrong about these pious statements? What’s wrong with these statements is Biblical illiteracy and outright disobedience to God’s Word, masquerading as deep spirituality.
Today’s Christian spirituality is all about feelings and experience. They find it hard to conceive of the Lord’s Day worship service as a special holy day ordained by Christ himself for the assembly of the saints (Heb 10:24-25). It doesn’t matter that God commands us not to neglect the assembly of the saints on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), ”the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10), as long as we can “worship” in the privacy of our own homes.
What about listening to the preaching of the Word, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, sharing all gifts and things with fellow believers, and corporate prayers (Acts 2:42)? What about submitting to the elders of the church and being accountable to them (Heb 13:17; cf 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim. 5:17)? Are these not commanded in Scriptures, and if they are, can we do them individually, anytime, anyhow and anywhere? How sad that many evangelicals would answer yes.
After searching for meaning in wisdom, pleasure, work and life itself, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes concludes each time: the answer is found in fearing God. Since it is God alone who gives meaning to everything, he turns now in Chapter 5 to how God’s people is to worship him together in the “house of God.” He starts with these words, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
God’s people in the Old Testament referred to the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem as God’s house. So in these verses, the Teacher addresses those who worship God. The pillar of cloud and fire always hovered over the Tabernacle and the Temple, signifying that God dwells there wherever his people dwells. By the cloud and fire, God assured them of his presence.
Our theme today then is, “When You Go to the House of God” The Preacher has three exhortations: first, “Guard Your Steps”; second, ”Draw Near to Listen”; third, “Pay What You Vow.”
“Guard Your Steps”
Why should the people guard their steps when they go to God’s house? We remember Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. While they did not sin, God dwelt with them in the garden. The garden was actually God’s temple, “the garden of God … the holy mountain of God” (Ezek 28:13, 14). After they sinned, Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden because they have become unclean and they defiled God’s holy sanctuary.
When Jacob dreamed of the ladder that went up to heaven, and God repeated to him his covenant with his fathers Abraham and Isaac, he was afraid, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17). So he called the place Bethel, which means “the house of God.”
We also read when Yahweh first met with Moses on Horeb, or Mount Sinai, “the mountain of God.” When Moses saw the burning bush, he wanted to go near it to see why it was not consumed by the fire. But God stopped him, saying, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:1, 5).
Adam, Jacob and Moses all knew that wherever God is, and whatever he touches becomes holy. And unclean sinners will be consumed by God’s holiness if they approach him; no one can see God and live. This is why all of us who come to worship God have to “guard our steps.” We are not to come presumptuously to worship God, because when we come to God, it is only by his invitation, and we stand on holy ground, just as Adam, Jacob and Moses did.
What happens when God’s people come to God without “guarding their steps”? Adam and Eve were driven away! The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, were consumed by fire when they presumed that God would not be offended when they disobeyed a very minor command to use only fire that God has prescribed. One of David’s soldiers, Uzzah, was struck dead instantly the moment he touched the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from falling to the ground. And King Uzziah, proud of his accomplishments, usurped the duty of a priest when he himself went to the Temple to offer incense to the LORD. The LORD struck him with leprosy instantly, and he was a leper for the rest of his life. All of these worshipers were sincere in their worship, but they were disobedient to God’s word!
God was very exact in his commandments to his people on how they were to worship him. At various points in God’s instructions on how Israel is to worship him, the Scriptures would say, “This Moses did; according to all that the LORD commanded him” (Exod 40:16). “The people of Israel did according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses” (Exod 39:32). And just before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, God repeated this very important warning:
Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.” You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way … Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it (Deut 12:30-32).
What do these words remind us of? They remind us of the disobedient worship that is so popular in evangelical churches today. Whatever “creative” schemes they can think of, they add to their worship services. What noble purpose do they serve, except for attracting and entertaining unbelievers. When did the public worship of God on the Lord’s Day cater to serve the needs of pagan goats? Never in the Bible do we read this! But this is exactly what the Israelites did when they made a golden calf to worship, because a cow is an idol-god of Egyptians and Canaanites.
This is exactly what God warned Moses and Israel against, 3,500 years ago: Do not look at the pagan world and what kinds of things they enjoy, and then include them in your worship services so they may come and enjoy themselves in worship.
What’s the Biblical way to “guard our steps” when we come to the worship service? First, we hear God calling us to assemble every Lord’s Day to worship him. Second, we are commanded to purify and consecrate ourselves to God, as the LORD commanded Moses before Mount Sinai, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day.” And the people are not to go near the mountain, or they will die (Exod 19:10-12). Only after the trumpet call are they to go near the mountain.
On the third day, the LORD appeared on his holy mountain in thunder, lightning, earthquake, smoke, and loud trumpet blasts. And the people trembled in fear, but the LORD gave them instructions as to exactly how they are to worship him. After God finished giving his commandments, he made Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders of Israel offer animal sacrifices. Only then did God allow Moses and the elders to go up the mountain.
This then is the worship pattern that we follow in our worship. We begin with God’s call to us to assemble together for worship, and his greeting to us as God’s chosen people. As we gather, we offer prayers in both spoken and sung words that our worship would be pleasing and acceptable before the LORD. After presenting ourselves before God, we consecrate ourselves by offering a prayer of repentance for sins we have committed. We are keenly aware of our sinfulness especially after we hear the Law of the LORD from Scriptures.
We tremble in fear before God because we know that he is a holy and righteous God who judges evildoers like us. But our fear of God is not only because he is able to destroy both body and soul of all human beings in the twinkling of an eye. We fear him in a reverential and honoring way, “Worship the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psa 2:11); and“Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28).
When churches around us come to worship in an irreverent way, dancing, singing hiphop, clapping, shouting, laughing as they do when they come to a TV show or a rock concert, is God pleased? We are to come to worship, with reverence and fear.
Not only us adults, but also our young children are to reverence God in worship. Let us teach them to honor and reverence God by being quiet and orderly, not going in our out of the room during the whole service; by closing their eyes when praying; by listening when God’s Word is being read; and by singing with all their hearts together with the congregation. We are to point out to them that if they were at school and they are not respectful to their teachers, if they did not behave quietly, they will be called to the guidance counselor’s office. How much more are they to honor and respect God in worship, when the Bible is being read, when we pray, when we sing, and when the word of God is being preached?
But just as Israel washed themselves before approaching God, we also know that our sins have been atoned for. Christ washed us when God poured out his wrath on him as he was crucified as our atoning sacrifice. And when we have been forgiven of our sins, we can “draw near to listen.”
“Draw Near to Listen”
In the worship service, God is present and near us. We present our worship, prayers, songs, and thanksgiving to him. Just as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai, we also sit down at his feet to listen to his words. Can you imagine sitting down this morning listening to a sermon of four chapters in Exodus 20-23? Can you imagine sitting down at church from evening till midnight listening to Paul’s sermon? No wonder Eutychus fell down from the window after he dozed off as Paul was preaching!
Puritan preachers preached for two to three hours on Sundays. Today, a 30-minute sermon is considered too long. In this culture, listening is difficult. We come to church with so many distractions in life to think about—jobs, families, events, financial problems, relationship problems.
When we come to church tired from Saturday night activities, it is difficult to listen and pay attention to the service. I publish the sermon title, text and outline two or three days before Sunday. Sometimes, the liturgy is also published with the songs and Scripture readings. All of these so that you can prepare yourself for the worship of God, just as the Puritans did. They prepared their clothes and meals for Sunday by Saturday night. All activities ceased at sundown on Saturday, and they read and study the Scriptures after their evening meal.
The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 117 says that “we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.” What do you do on Saturday nights to prepare for the service? If you spend your Saturday nights with friends until the wee hours of the Lord’s Day morning, how are you going to listen attentively? Like Eutychus, you’ll be dozing off during the service. Do you even think for a moment about the worship of God the next day, or your thoughts are always on the pleasures of your rest day, or on the problems you will be facing the following week?
How can we listen with diligence and attention, when we do not even read the Word of God during the whole week? How much time do we spend watching TV, reading and watching our friends’ Facebook posts, and playing Internet games, compared with reading the Bible and other Christian literature and praying? Are we more interested in what our friends are eating in restaurants and what exotic places they’ve been to, rather than what Ecclesiastes is telling us about the vanity of our life without God?
You may go through the worship service, but is your heart in it? The Preacher has a word for your inattention during the service: a “sacrifice of fools. “ Your words, praises, prayers, even the sacraments, are meaningless if you’re just going through the motions. King Solomon says that the worship that unbelievers perform is “an abomination to the LORD” (Prov 15:8). This is also why the prophet Samuel condemned King Saul because of the king’s disobedience to God’s commands, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). King Saul did not even acknowledge his sin, showing that the Preacher is right when he says that wicked people “do not know that they are doing evil” (Eccl 5:1).
But listening to God’s Word means much more than just plain hearing. It also means obedience.
“Pay What You Vow”
King Solomon says that the worship of the wicked is an abomination to God, “but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him”(Prov 15:8). How are we to make sure that all the words we read, pray and sing in worship are pleasing to God? Only if they all come from the Word of God itself.
Therefore, in worship we are not to say rash or vain words that are not in the Bible. “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God” (verse 2). We tend to commit this sin, especially in times of crisis. We make vows to God, “Lord, if you do this, I promise to do this or that.”
In the book of Judges, there is a story that involves a vow made so carelessly by one of the judges of Israel that ended so tragically. Jephthah the judge asked the LORD for victory against the Ammonites, and when he asked, he vowed that whoever or whatever comes out of his house when he returns from victory, he will offer to God as a burnt offering. Alas! When he returned home, the first one to come out of his house was his very own daughter, his only child. Although it was sinful to sacrifice children, he kept his vow to God (Jgs 11:29-40; cf. Deut. 23:21–23).
The Teacher warns us against making vows hastily like Jephthah. Why? Because God is our Creator in heaven, and we are creatures on earth. God is holy, we are sinful. Therefore, try as we might, we can never do what he does. We can never know what will happen. So unlike God whose Word never fails, we cannot fulfill our promises perfectly.
Do you remember the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11? The couple made a vow to sell a piece of their property and give all the proceeds to the church. But they did not fulfill their vow, and withheld some of the money from the sale, so God struck both of them dead. They did not have to make that vow, but they probably did to show others their pious act of worship. So the Teacher says that it is better not to make a vow if we cannot follow through with it. Because if we can’t fulfill it, God is not pleased with our foolishness. It is a sin when we break our vow (vv 4-6).
Therefore the Teacher says, “let your words be few.” Solomon also says that often, fools and sinners are people of many words but the wise have few words, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov 10:19). He illustrates this truth by comparing a businessman with many tasks who dreams about his work to one who hides his foolishness behind many words (vv 3, 7). Jesus also says this about vain prayers, “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” (Matt 6:7).
Today, we sang three Psalms in our worship service:
As we began our service, we come to the house of God making vows, “I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble” (Psa 66:13-14).
God is pleased when our praises and thanksgiving are from righteous hearts, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (Psa 50:23)
Psalm 76 exhorts us to pay our vows because God is the One who is to be feared with reverence and joy, “Make your vows to the LORD your God and perform them; let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared” (Psa 76:11).
So we are to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God with reverence and joy, and not out of compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). True believers will be “doers of the Word” (Jas 1:22). They are the ones who “guard their steps” when they worship God, “draw near to listen” to God’s Word, and “pay their vows” to God.
You who listen to his words and do them will be wise, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” They will not be shaken by the storms, trials and sufferings in this world of sin (Matt 7:24-27). They will not be like a rudderless ship being swayed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine that blows their way.
Most importantly, we trust the words of our Savior Jesus Christ, our Rock, because he is the only perfect speaker of God’s truth. His words are the words of life. He never spoke with unrighteous anger, even against his enemies. He presents our prayers and vows to his Father in heaven. And he fulfilled all the vows that he made to his Father before the creation of the world to save us his people from sin and God’s wrath: to live a perfectly obedient life, to suffer and die on the cross, and to raise himself from the grave.
Because of his work on the cross, the LORD forgives all our broken vows to him and to our neighbor. We can now draw near to God with confidence, without trembling, unlike the Israelites at Mount Sinai. When we worship, we come to Mount Zion in joy and reverence, worshiping with all his holy saints and angels before a holy God, with Christ as our Mediator. We can now enter the Holy of Holies, heaven itself, because he has brought down the wall of hostility between God and us.