Oppressions are the world’s noise against the worship of God in Christian’s lives. People come to church oftentimes still reverencing the world instead of the Word. Without God’s Word, people are superstitious, consumeristic, and narcissistic. They are contributors to the noise that must be canceled out for there to be awesome worship. Awesome worship is what will cancel out the world’s noisy oppression. Awesome worship acts like headphones that cancel out the world’s noisy flusters. What makes worship this awesome?
“ 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. 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. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 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? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”
Summary of the Text
There is a double inclusio in our text. The first is bookended in 4:1 and 5:8 with oppression. This indicates the worship described in 5:1–7 is negatively a weapon against oppression, or positively a means to a free and godly society. The second inclusio is in 5:1 and 5:7 involving the fear of God. We begin in v.1 with guarding “your steps when you go to the house of God.” We end with v.7 “God is the one you must fear.” Fear of God is what makes worship awesome.
Four admonitions, Three lessons
Solomon gives four admonitions each with a motivational statement and support sometimes proverbial.1 These admonitions lead up to the closing statement and inclusio meaning of the fear of God that makes worship awesome. They form three lessons as follows:
The fear of God in listening makes worship awesome.
The fear of God in praying makes worship awesome.
The fear of God in vowing makes worship awesome.
The Fear of God in Listening Makes Worship Awesome
First, worship is made awesome by whole-hearted listening to God. Solomon admonishes us to guard our steps when we go to the house of God. He both explains what this means and motivates us to it by saying, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (v.1). Guarding our steps means going up to listen to God. In Solomon’s time people would bring God sacrifices that cost them nothing. They were animals that they would stand no great expense to lose. Malachi describes the problem as people promising God their best and then retracting on the promise.
Mal. 1:14 “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.”
Instead of going to hear the instruction of the priest, worshipers came and offered what they wanted to offer and called it worship. Worship was not awesome, but awful.
Far different was the worship that was awesome as Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6, or Moses participated in when God told him to take his sandals off of his feet in Exodus 3. Worship that is awesome is reverent enough to watch our steps. Only a fool approaches God as a man like himself and does not fear.
Now, when Christ came there would no longer be a need for a Temple in Jerusalem, nor for animal sacrifices. Jesus said,
“The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…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.” (John 4:21, 23).
Nonetheless, people still promise to bring their best to God today but offer instead what is a sacrifice of fools before him. Worshiping in spirit and truth does not alleviate the reality of God’s awesome presence, but rather takes that presence seriously. We see this in a few examples. First, in the Shema of Deut. 6:4–5 which reads,
““Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5)
And secondly in the words of Hebrews 12:28–29,
“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, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29)
Also in Romans 12, we read this,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1–2)
So, worship is made awesome by our fear of God in listening with our whole hearts.
The Fear of God in Prayer Makes Worship Awesome
Second, worship is made awesome by our fear of God in prayer. Solomon admonishes us “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God.” He then gives the explanation with a motivation of “for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” He is talking about God’s transcendence. Jesus taught this same thing in Matthew 6:9 when he taught the disciples to pray in contrast to how the hypocrites in the church pray and how the world prays. Jesus said,
“when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by others…when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven…”
Solomon follows this motivation with proverbial support, saying, “for a dream comes with much business [frustration/futility], and a fool’s voice with many words.”
God has of course subjected this world to futility, frustration, that is vanity (cf. Romans 8). He has done this to bring us up to His own breast as George Herbert’s poem the Pulley describes. Our frustrations include that being wordy in prayer. Jesus has certainly changed how near we are to the transcendent God. God indeed is in heaven, but Jesus has brought us near to God. We now have “access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Jesus promises that he will do whatever we ask in His name so that the Father may be glorified in the Son! (John 14:13–14). So, we know that we are to govern our words in prayer by praying the things that please Christ. We have the freedom to approach God as the writer of Hebrews says,
““Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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.”(Hebrews 10:19–22)
Nonetheless, this freedom is the freedom to pray effectively not for our fame like hypocrites, and not futile like the world’s many words, but to pray with faithfulness to what Jesus desires! So, when we pray with the fear of God, worship is awesome.
The Fear of God in Our Vows Makes Worship Awesome
Thirdly, worship is made awesome when we fear God in obedience to what we vow. Solomon gives two admonitions on this lesson point, so it must have great importance. He says in v.4 “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.” This is followed by the motivational words “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and now pay” (v.4). This is keeping with what was likely the background from Malachi 1:14 of people offering lame and useless and therefore foolish sacrifices to the priest messengers. The second admonition is in v.6 “Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake.” And this too is followed by a motivational statement, “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” This teaches that God holds man accountable for not keeping his word. This is then concluded with proverbial support, “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (v.7).
Now, it would be easy to say that Solomon is speaking out of a false view of God. Some may argue because God is a God of grace, we need not fear God like this, but just treat him and speak to him like any other. Specifically, the idea is that if we can’t keep our commitments, then God understands and he will not punish us. But as Sidney Greidanus points out: “there is no contrast between the message of the Teacher and that of the New Testament.”2
Jesus instructed us to fear God (Matthew 10:28), to let all our words be taken seriously before him, not merely words that were sworn on the basis of God’s throne or the gold of the sanctuary (Matthew 5:33–37; 23:16, 18)! Christ elevated the seriousness of words not by denouncing vows, but by saying every word and promise we speak should be on the level of a vow. Positively speaking, Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 prayed and vowed and followed through, together with her husband. Negatively, we have in the same book (1 Samuel) the account of Saul making an unlawful sacrifice (1 Samuel 13:8ff), a rash vow (1 Samuel 14:24ff), and being taught the lesson that “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). This same lesson Jesus taught in Matthew 12:7 when teaching on the true meaning of the Sabbath being violated by the Pharisees’ hypocritical accusations of Jesus. The word obedience is translated “mercy.” Jesus wanted lives that feared God in a way that fulfilled the law and honored Him, not in a way that promoted man-made humanistic rules, tyranny, and oppression in the church. Thus, when you put the fear of God into worship’s vows to God (not man’s rules), worship is made awesome. We make vows today in the church in baptism, marriage, ministry, and in covenanting together as a church. The point is that God takes all of our words seriously, even if we don’t. He is serious about us being obedient to him. When we are obedient to him we will be the most merciful we possibly can be to each other. God will punish us when we do not keep our words. Saul was guilty of fearing man and not God. He did not wait to sacrifice because according to his own words, he feared man more than God and acted. We are to fear God more than man and be steadfastly obeying him. When we fail, we can cast ourselves on the mercy of Christ, but we do not intend to fail, but to walk in faithfulness for the glory of God, because our words are never without consequence.
The fear of God in our listening to God, in our praying to God, and in our vowing to God is what makes worship awesome. Let us not think worship is ever awesome without the fear of God in our every act of worship. The fear of God in divine worship acts as headphones to the world’s blasphemous noise of humanistic worship.3
My first glance at this yielded: imperative, comparison, ground, but Sidney Griedanus was helpful in his notes in helping me see it even more clearly here in Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes.
Sidney Greidanus, p.130. Throughout this sermon, though I have read and used various commentaries and my own studies, Griedanus helped me most in final preparations.
The sermon preached in relation to this text can be found at sermonaudio.com/sermon/125211616327062