Topic: Expository Passage: Ecclesiastes 5:1-9
Good morning! Please turn to the book of Ecclesiastes 5:1-9.
Pastor Kit and I were talking this past week about how churches with similar doctrine can still feel so different. This is no secret, but Sunday morning worship at Life Point is very different than Sunday worship at most of the other churches! Why? Are we just trying to be weird? No, we have a philosophy of worship that drives our practices. You can find that philosophy statement on our website, if you’re interested. Among other things, we believe that worship should be reverent. Today, we’re going to study a passage that addresses reverence in worship from a different perspective—an Old Testament Jewish perspective. Even though the context is different than ours, there is still a lot for us to learn from this passage.
Let’s begin by reading Ecclesiastes 5:1-9.
TRANSITION: Did you notice that at the end of today’s text, there were two verses that didn’t seem to go with the others? It’s hard to know what to do with these verses, because they don’t really go with the next passage, either. So, for the sake of convenience, we’ll look at them this morning, before we get to the rest of our lesson. These verses seem to deal with corruption in government.
Corruption in government
Specifically, the nature of the problem is that government officials are perverting justice in order to oppress the poor. This is not a new topic for Solomon. He said a lot about oppression and injustice at the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4. However, in this verse, Solomon gives a new command. What’s the new command? (“Do not marvel.”) Solomon says, “Don’t be amazed.” In other words, corruption shouldn’t surprise us. In fact, we ought to expect it. There’s a big corruption story in the news right now, isn’t there? With the Mueller indictments that took place on Monday. Of course, the media can’t stop talking about this story. But from a biblical perspective, these kinds of stories shouldn’t amaze us. Why should Christians expect corruption? For one thing, the Bible teaches that everyone is a sinner. But Solomon also points out that government itself, with its multiple layers and complexity, is a seedbed for corruption. Solomon says, “Do not marvel; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them.” There are different ways to take that phrase, but I take it as a negative statement about the potential for corruption within government. Now, comparatively-speaking, we’ve got a good government. But even with all of our checks and balances, there are ways for sinful people to leverage power in order to benefit themselves at the expense of others. That’s just the way it is.
So, with that said, should we do away with government? Maybe we’d be better served to get rid of it completely! Of course, that’s not the answer, either, as v. 9 points out. Verse 9 is extremely difficult to translate. But to the best of my knowledge, Solomon is making a point to counterbalance what he just said in v. 8. Verse 8 is about corruption in government; v. 9 is about the benefits of government. I’ll read you the ESV translation of vv. 8-9 in order to help you see what I’m saying. It says, “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.” And then I’ll follow that up with a paragraph written by a commentator named Duane Garrett. He says, “Although the Teacher recognizes the corruption and abuse inherent in any political system (v. 8), he is not an anarchist. The king, who by metonymy represents the entire government, is on balance an advantage rather than a liability to the nation. The example that makes this point is agriculture. In an anarchic society no boundaries or property rights can be maintained, access to wells and other common resources cannot be fairly regulated, aqueducts and dikes will not be kept in good repair, and no organized resistance to ravaging armies can be offered. In short, the agricultural economy will collapse. Government may be evil, but it is a necessary evil.”
So once again in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon presents two counterbalancing truths. On the one hand, corrupt politicians are an inevitable fact of life. But on the other hand, society cannot flourish law and order! So government, like so many other things in life, is, as Duane Garrett puts it, “a necessary evil.” So how can we apply these principles? First, as Psalm 146:3 puts it, “Don’t put your trust in princes.” If you place your hopes for the future in one particular candidate or party, you are setting yourself up for disappointment! But on the other hand, submit to government, and be grateful for it. As much as you may dislike the way politics are going in this country, the United States (and even California!) are still good gifts from God, for which we ought to be thankful. Third, pray for your politicians. One of the hazards of their job is the temptation that comes with power. So pray that God would keep your politicians from corruption so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, as Paul says. Finally, we ought to recognize that our government was set up with these principles in mind. The checks and balances within our political system were designed to keep any one person or agency from having too much power, while still giving the government the authority it needs in order to promote peace and prosperity. So we ought to be particularly thankful to live in America and for the heritage we enjoy. Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments about that?
TRANSITION: Now I’d like to get into the main topic we’re going to discuss today, which has to do with reverence in worship. In vv. 1-8, Solomon contrasts the foolish worshipper with the reverent worshipper, and in doing so, he gives some instructions about how to worship God reverently. So how do we worship God reverently? #1, “Be careful” (v. 1).
The first part of this verse could literally be translated, “Keep your feet according to which you walk towards the house of God.” “Keep your feet,” or, as we might say, “Watch your step” is a metaphor that has to do with one’s demeanor and preparedness when entering the temple. In order to be wise, an Israelite needed to live a holy life and approach God thoughtfully. Solomon is using the same metaphor that he used in Proverbs 4, when he said, “Ponder the path of your feet, And let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; Remove your foot from evil.” The reverent worshipper is careful.
But not the foolish worshipper! This man goes through all of the motions, including offering sacrifices; and yet, in doing so, his heart is not right before God. Turn with me to Isaiah 1:10-18. In this passage, we see an example of what Solomon may be referring to when he talks about “the sacrifice of fools” (Isa 1:10-18). God says, “I have had enough of burnt offerings! Stop bringing futile sacrifices, and instead, deal with your sin!” Let’s go back to Ecclesiastes 5. The foolish worshipper in Ecclesiastes 5 does not heed commands like those found in Isaiah 1. In fact, not only does he not heed them, he doesn’t even consider them! The last part of v. 1 says that foolish worshipper doesn’t even know that he does evil! He just goes through the motions and assumes that God is pleased.
What was your manner in approaching church today? Did you take time to clear away distractions in the hours leading up to the service? Or did you continue to distract yourself right up until the time that you walked through the doors? Did you carefully repent of sin last week? Or are you naively expecting God to accept your praise, despite blatant sin in your life? In order to worship God reverently, you must first of all be careful.
TRANSITION: But second, in order to worship God reverently, you must learn to listen quietly. The reverent worshipper is “quick to hear and slow to speak,” whereas the foolish worshipper is liberal with words.
Why does the reverent worshipper draw near to the temple, according to v. 1? (“to listen”) The reverent worshipper comes to hear from God. For him, the worship experience is not primarily about what he gives to God, it’s about what God gives to Him. This man knows that he is a sinner, lacking in wisdom, desperately dependent upon the life-giving words of God. So he approaches the temple with an eagerness to hear what God has to say. But not only does he listen, he also obeys. This verse reminds me of James 1, which says that believers are to be swift to hear and slow to speak and that we are to receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save our souls. James goes on to say that we are to be doers of the word, and not hearers only. So the reverent worshipper listens and obeys.
But not only does he listen, he also exercises caution in prayer. He is not hasty with words (v. 2). Jesus warned His disciples about the danger of “vain repetitions,” and His model prayer is very short. You see, when talking with our friends, we may babble on carelessly, but when speaking with the God of the universe, we ought to be careful. We’re currently teaching our girls to sit quietly and listen when there are adult guests at the table. But if it’s proper for children to measure their words when speaking with adults, how much more should we measure our words when speaking with God? Of course, we don’t want to become imbalanced here. The New Testament says that God is my father, which means that I can also approach Him freely! And yet, that familiarity must still be balanced with deep respect. Are there any questions or comments about the idea of the reverent worshipper listening quietly?
As opposed to the reverent worshipper, the fool does not measure his words. In or out of the temple, he is characterized by loose lips, and that gets him into trouble (v. 3). This is another verse that’s difficult to interpret. The first line seems to imply that people dream a lot on nights after they’ve had a busy, stressful day. Therefore, you could say that their activity, or busyness, causes them to dream. In the same way, foolishness leads to many words. Or maybe even better, if you talk a lot, you’re bound to say something foolish. Commentator H.C. Leupold said it this way. He said, “No matter who it is that speaks, if he speaks much, he shall presently make a fool of himself just as surely as persons who fret over a multitude of things fall into dreams at night.” I hope that makes sense. But even if it doesn’t, the overriding message of this verse is clear: foolish people can’t stop talking. Listen to what Proverbs says about people who talk too much. “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov 10:19). “A fool has no delight in understanding, But in expressing his own heart” (Prov 18:2). “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue, Keeps his soul from troubles” (Prov 21:23). “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (Prov 17:28). David prayed, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.” But the fool won’t pray that prayer, so gets himself in trouble.
TRANSITION: Why does the reverent worshipper measure his words, whereas the foolish worshipper talks a lot? In other words, what’s the motivation behind their actions? I believe that the answer is that the reverent worshipper is humble, whereas the foolish worshipper is proud. So, how to be a reverent worshipper? #3: know your place.
Know your place.
Have you ever met someone who can’t stop talking because he’s arrogant, and he values his own opinion? I have a friend who was once like that. But I knew he had turned a corner when he got noticeably better at listening. You see, it wasn’t just that he had become a better conversationalist. He was actually growing in humility.
The wise worshipper measures his words because he’s humble (v. 2). Have you ever observed someone who didn’t know his place? Maybe he thought he was big stuff, and when he talked, he came across that way to his superiors. What happens to people who don’t know their place? (They get put in their place! And that’s not pleasant!) The reverent worshipper knows his place before God. He’s humble. And because of that, he focuses more on listening to God than on speaking to Him. And when he does open his mouth to pray, he does so with reverence.
TRANSITION: So, how to be a wise worshipper? #1, be careful; #2, listen quietly; #3: know your place; and #4: keep your vows. The reverent worshipper keeps his vows, but the foolish worshipper breaks them (vv. 4-7).
Keep your vows.
These verses might seem foreign to us, because vows don’t play a very significant role in our worship as New Testament believers. However, the Old Testament actually has a lot to say about vows! Leviticus 27 and Numbers 30 are two entire chapters dedicated to the regulation of vows in ancient Israel. Numbers 6 is another chapter that is dedicated to a specific type of vow—the Nazarite vow. Also, besides these instances, there are numerous other passages in the Law that contain commands concerning vows or vow offerings. We can also think of Old Testament stories that involve vows. Can you think of any? Jacob made a vow to God when He appeared to him at Bethel. God made a vow to Abraham in Genesis 15. We have the story of Jephthah’s rash vow in Judges 11. And Hannah vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the LORD. In particular, Solomon seems to borrow from Deuteronomy 23 when he writes this passage (Deut 23:21-23). This passage emphasizes the fact that that vows were voluntary. No one was forcing you to make a vow; but once you made it, you better keep it. Does that all make sense? Are there any questions about what it means to make a vow to the LORD? By the way, there are still contexts in which we make vows to the Lord today? What are some of those contexts? (marriage, military duty, legal testimony, etc.)
Turn back to Ecclesiastes 5. Solomon makes the same point that we saw in the Deuteronomy passage here in v. 5. He says, “Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.” So the first step to keeping your vows to the Lord is to be careful what you vow. Proverbs 20:25 says, “It is a snare for a man to devote rashly something as holy, And afterward to reconsider his vows.” This ties back in to what we said earlier about the importance of measuring your words and not talking too much. Make sure you don’t make a promise to God that you’re unable or unwilling to keep. Step #2 is determine to keep your promises. Do not delay. Pay what you have vowed. Promises to God are not to be broken. Verse 6 gives an example of how a foolish worshipper may try to weasel out of a vow (v. 6). The word “messenger” in this context seems to refer either to the priest himself or to a messenger sent on his behalf. The foolish worshipper tries to say to this messenger that his vow was a mistake. Perhaps he tries to pass it off as an unintentional sin so that he only has to give up one lamb to make it right. But God is not amused, is he? How does God respond to the foolish worshipper’s excuse? (He is angry, and he destroys the work of his hands.) God is not happy with us when we take our promises to Him lightly.
So how do we apply this passage? First, be careful what you promise to God. Don’t say, “God, if you get me out of this situation, I promise to ______,” unless you really intend to do it! Because God is a real person, and He expects you to keep the promises you make to Him. Second, we ought to be careful what we ask people to promise before God. For instance, I’m not fan of, say, camp invitations in which junior highers or even high schoolers are encouraged to promise God that they will become a pastor or a missionary. Those types of decisions should not be made lightly. Third, take your vows to God very seriously. Those vows you took on your wedding day were not just a formality. You were promising God to do those things. Fourth, if for some reason, you find yourself in a position in which you have made a vow that was sinful, you are not obligated to keep that vow. Jephthah was not obligated to sacrifice his daughter (whether he actually did so or not). Finally, we ought to remember that because of Christ, there is grace for promise-breakers. Breaking a vow to God is serious, but it isn’t an unforgivable sin! If you’d like to study more about what the Bible says about vows, I found a great resource by R.C. Sproul on this subject last week. Let me know, and I can either send you a link to that website, or maybe even print some things out for you. Are there any questions or comments about how we as Christians should apply these verses on vows?
I’d like to close by considering v. 7. (v. 7). The first part of this verse seems to be returning to the same connection we found in v. 3 between dreams and many words. But the second half of the verse becomes crystal clear: “Fear God.” This is the first place in Ecclesiastes where we get a glimpse of Solomon’s ultimate conclusion: “Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.” The message of this passage is the same as the message of Proverbs: to be wise is to fear God. What does it mean to fear God? One commentator summed it up this way. He said, “Fear of God describes an attitude of holy reverence toward God and a creaturely openness to being instructed by Him.” Fearing God involves everything we’ve talked about today: it involves being careful, listening to him, respecting him, and keeping your promises to Him. If that sounds like an impossible task, it is, apart from grace. That’s why we need Jesus. But praise God that if we’ve received Christ as Savior, then with His help, we can do this! And not only are we able to fear God, but what we find that to do so is to be happy and blessed.