I’d say that one of the major areas in which Evangelical churches lack discernment is the area of worship. We do not have a well-considered biblical understanding of worship. We either just follow our own tradition, kind of what the church did as we grew up; follow our preferences, this is what I like and what blesses me; or follow the culture, this is what will attract people and fill the seats. I went through seven years of theological training to become a pastor, and I don’t think I spent even one class period discussing a real theological understanding of worship. Which is weird, because that’s kind of one of the big things we do as a church - we are worshippers.
Which brings us to chapter 5. For the first time in this book he is going to address us directly and instruct us what to do. Up until now he’s been describing life, making observations; and now begins prescribing to us how are to live, giving us instruction. And he begins with worship.
We Are to Approach God in Reverence
Eccl. 5:1 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.
“Guard your steps” meaning, keep careful watch on how you approach God in worship. Solomon speaks of approaching the house of God, in his days first referring to the Temple in Jerusalem, yet suggesting even to us that he is speaking of our corporate worship, and so we would not be wrong to first consider how we approach God in our corporate worship as we gather as a church. We are to keep careful watch on how we approach God in worship. Many do not. Many do not even pause to consider how they approach God in worship.
To be ignorant of how to approach God in worship (they do not know that they are doing evil) is to offer what Solomon calls the “sacrifice of fools”. What is the sacrifice of fools? Well we have some vivid illustrations in the Bible of the sacrifice of fools, and of the God’s displeasure in it.
The sacrifice of fools is to offer unauthorized fire before the Lord, as Nahab and Abinu did in Leviticus 10. We don’t know exactly how their fire was unauthorized, only that it was not according to God’s instruction, and that God caused the fire to flare up and consume them.
The sacrifice of fools is to move the the ark of the covenant around on an ox-cart, as Uzzah and Ahio did in 2 Samuel 6. In the midst most who were present must have thought was an amazing experience of worship, the ark inevitably teetered, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it and also was struck down for his foolish and irreverent treatment of the Lord’s Holy things.
The sacrifice of fools is the coming together of the church around a community meal and not waiting for one another and taking all the good food and all the good places to sit before the others arise, causing hurt and division in the body, like they did in 1 Corinthians 11, so that the apostle Paul said “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.”
How about some from our own day?
The sacrifice of fools would be to construct our worship services around the preferences of the world around us rather than around the ordinances that God has prescribed in his word. There was actually a movement among evangelicals to do this very thing, to poll people around the church as to what forms their worship should take. Now, let’s be clear, there are cultural forms our worship services will take (like music styles and projection technologies), and some of those forms can and will change as the culture changes, but if our first thought is always to how we can be more relevant in our form, and not to continually ask ourselves what has God prescribed we will be leading people into making the sacrifice of fools.
The sacrifice of fools would be to come into worship and centre it around myself and my needs and my preferences rather than seeking God and his desires. This is spiritual narcissism:
Many (of we) modern evangelicals seem to think that the purpose of a church service is to entertain, exhilarate, and energize. Some of us go to church, not so much to worship God, to stand in awe of His grace to us in Christ, to stir up our affections for Him but rather to consume, sit back, fancy the musical experience and apply the self-help advice we gleaned during the sermon. The pastor is expected to be to be clean-cut, non-offensive and smooth, the musicians to be talented and contemporary, the congregation to be good-looking, middle-class, look and act like you (homogenous unit principle). A great majority of us appear to actually select our churches, not by the sound and dynamic preaching of the Scriptures, but by these outward considerations alone! Some newspapers have even begun to go around and rate churches on these externals as one would a local restaurant. There you have it, a worship of consumerism - In other words this new mentality we have embraced is none other than the worship of self. Then we self-righteously attack those who differ from us, who do not use the seeker sensitive model, and lose sight of the fact that the worst enemy is, more often than not, the person we see in the mirror.
After you’ve narrowed it down and found a local church which preaches the word and faithfully administers the sacraments I don’t contend that there are other valid secondary considerations, but we must be faithful to God in maintaining that worship is in no way a form of diversionary entertainment. A church that is self-congratulatory has become a questionable fellowship because the function of the service has gone from the Scriptural command to worship God to the idolatrous worship of itself. God should be central to worship, not you ... that is, He should be the central focus in our song, proclamation of the word and in the administering of the sacraments. Self-focused, self-absorbed psychological sessions whose main purpose is to generate good feelings about ourselves is idolatry, a breach of the first/second commandments. This tragic lapse into consumerism is devouring the Church and making mincemeat of our local assemblies. Instead of finding the service meaningful and God-glorifying, centering in the Trinity and especially the person and work of Christ, many spend their time asking themselves what they got out of it. Rather, we need to be asking ourselves, “Was God glorified in our time of corporate worship today?”
The sacrifice of fools would be to only follow or obey the parts of the Bible that fit with my likes and causes and ignore or omit the parts of God’s word that make me uncomfortable. Our worship of God is to be centred around His words, not our own. We are “to draw near to listen”, rather than to speak. Verses 3-4 say this in many different ways: 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 idea here is not that you shouldn’t say a word when you enter into God’s presence, we are told in the New Testament to sing to each other with songs and hymns and spiritual songs and to teach one another and instruct one another and to consider how we might spur one another on to love and good works. But the main principle behind all of our speaking and listening and keeping our mouths shut is this: God is in heaven and you are on earth.
And so brothers and sisters, we are to take consideration for how we are to approach God in worship, personally and as a church:
Call to Worship: In the call to worship, our worship leader usually reads a Psalm or a short passage of scripture, calling the congregation together to come in from the welcome lounge and take note that we are drawing near to the Lord together. We usually sing one song at this time, generally a song of hymn that exalts God up in our midst, or prepares us to worship Him in the rest of the service.
Scripture Reading and Confession: As we approach God, the aim of our worship service is to see Him in His holiness, which in turn exposes ourselves and our sins before him. And so we do our Scripture Reading and our Prayers of Confession, which include both corporate confession (prayers we do together) and private confession - a time of silence for you to bring your own sins to the Lord. I always end the time of confession with Scripture assuring the forgiveness of sins to all who in sincerity confess their sins to the Lord.
Prayers and Offering: Next, we pray and take up the offering, sharing what we have to meet the ongoing needs of the church and of our missionaries. We do not believe that the offering of the church is to sole target of the believer’s charity, as Christ calls us to live generous lives, meeting the needs to those around us in and outside of the church. However, as brothers and sisters committed to one another in this church family, we do our part to meet the needs of the body. We will not emotionally or spiritually manipulate anyone into giving; however, we expect everyone to do their part as the Lord enables them, and as Hebrews says, “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
The Ministry of the Word: After that, I usually preach around a 40-minute sermon, usually through a book of the Bible, but sometimes through a topical series. During the Protestant reformation, the ministry of the Word became central to worship, as we gather around the word of God - what is of utmost importance is what God is saying to us. Here is what I try to do in my preaching - to explain the meaning of the word of God, and to explore the significance of what the word of God is saying to us, and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God come in the flesh and the one of whom, by who and for who the scriptures speak.
Celebration: we structure our service so that our main time of celebration in singing together is set as a response to the Word of God, and Christ who has been exalted in the Word. We’re not seeking to use the music to manipulate our emotions, but having our affections stirred up by the Word of God and the grace of the gospel, our hope is that the redeemed will burst forth in joy and the lost would be moved to repentance by the word and the praises of God’s people
The Ministry of the Table: we close every worship service with the Lord’s supper, proclaiming each week that it is not by any virtue in us that we gather, no good in us that we place our hope, but in the finished work of Christ.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of why we worship as we do: here’s how you personally can prepare you steps.
Before Coming to Church: Get a good nights sleep. If you’re not a morning person, get things ready the night before. Wake up on time so you’re not rushed. Take some time and pray for the service and for the brothers and sisters. Ask God to reveal to you who may need special encouragement that day.
During Service: Be engaged. Pray the prayers and read the scripture together. Pray that God might be your first thought. During the sermon, actively listen. Follow along. Take notes. Write down questions. During our time of singing - sing!
Afterward: Church doesn’t end when we say amen - in fact, that’s when body life begins. Greet newcomers, try to meet someone new, don’t immediately cluster into your friend group. Pray with one another, make plans to get together during the week, invite new people to your small group.
We Are To Respond to God in Sincerity: The second prescription the Solomon gives us regards our response to God:
Eccl. 5:4 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.
Temple vows were a common feature of Old Testament worship and involved promises to consecrate such things as sacrifices or money to God in return for granting a request in prayer. This wasn’t an attempt to bribe or bargain with God, but as a thanksgiving offering to God once the prayer had been answered. Apparently, a messenger from the Temple would record the vow and when he came to collect, the temptation was to avoid fulfilling the vow once the prayer had been answered and say it had been a mistake.
Solomon’s insistence here is not that we should refrain from making any such vows, but that we should be careful when we make them that we make them in sincerity and keep them in integrity. The most clear illustration of this is in the New Testament one of the first episodes recorded about the early church in Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira had made it clear that they intended to give the full amount of a sale of their property to the church, but after having sold the property, they held back some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves. Now it is clear that their sin wasn’t in how much they gave - the apostle Peter says that the field was theirs to give or to keep. Their sin was lying about how much they gave and not keeping their word. And God struck them dead for their insincerity. In the New Testament!
Now that seems today like an overreaction. God killed them? For lying? What is that about? I would suggest that God meant to establish in to the early church and the church follow - and that is this: hypocrisy (presenting yourself one way and living another) and deception will not be tolerated among God’s people. And this is the message the church received: Acts 5:11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
The greatest danger to the witness of the church is a lack of integrity among us. Brennon Manning said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
We Are To Approach God Through His Son
This leads us to the final and most significant point, How are we to approach God? Well, here we have to understand that Solomon is not saying that it is enough to approach God in reverence and sincerity. Because behind this text is the entire scope of Scripture that tells us something that we already know: that all of our efforts to approach God rightly will fail. God knows that all of our efforts will fail, and thus he has provided the means through which we can approach him in worship. In Solomon’s day, one could only approach God at the temple through an elaborate system of sacrifice conducted by a priest standing between the worshipper and God. This system served to teach the Jewish people about the reality of their sin, the consequence of their sin - sin leads to death, and the cleansing of their sin through an appropriate sacrifice made by the rightly ordained priest on behalf of the sinner. Sin, Death, Substitutionary Sacrifice, Cleansing; Sin, Death, Substitutionary Sacrifice, Cleansing; for 1000 years, Sin, Death, Substitutionary Sacrifice, Cleansing.
Yet this entire system was to prepare them for the Saviour to come, who would be both priest and sacrifice - the perfect mediator standing between man and God for He was at once man and God, and the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, having been crucified on our behalf, the lamb who was slain. He was witnessed to have resurrected from the dead back to life, and after teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God, he was taken up into heaven where he still lives as our High Priest. It is Jesus Christ who has opened up heaven to us, that we might approach God in worship:
Heb. 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The book of Hebrews, concludes: Hebrews 13:15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Amen, all of our worship, all of our praise, all or our reverence and sincerity is only effective and effectual through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice he has made on our behalf. Forgiveness of sins and new life in the Spirit are offered to all who will receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, by faith. If you do not know Jesus Christ, I appeal to you today that you may turn from your self-worship and your sin-worship, and turn to Christ. Put your hope in him. Place your trust in him.