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. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
So in chapter 4, the Preacher addressed the way in which a purely secular life—that is, a life apart from God—leads to isolation and loneliness. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we dedicate our lives to worldly success and increasing riches with no thoughts of God or eternity, it doesn’t matter whether the whole world is clamoring to be near us, we will inevitably feel a sense of isolation in our souls. By its very nature, a secular life is a self-centered existence. Paul told Timothy that “people will be lovers of self…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” So the secular, godless person may have many so-called friends, but they’re usually a means to an end. And at the end of the day when their friends have gone home and their heads hit the pillow, they’re left with nothing but deep longings for companionship, someone to share their lives with.
The Preacher made it clear that companionship is a good thing. There is nothing negative he could say about it even when he was evaluating only life under the sun. All of the secular world may be vanity, but companionship is still a wonderful thing. “Two are better than one,” he said. Of course, there can be such a thing as a bad friendship. Or, to put it another way, there are some people you shouldn’t be friends with. For instance, Proverbs 22 says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger…lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” First Corinthians 15 says, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Later, Paul wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has
Of course, there can be such a thing as a bad friendship. Or, to put it another way, there are some people you shouldn’t be friends with. For instance, Proverbs 22 says, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger…lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” First Corinthians 15 says, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Later, Paul wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” So there are exceptions to the rule. Not every friendship is a good thing. But in general, companionship makes life a little easier, a little brighter.
There’s just one problem. No human friendship can solve the fundamental problems we face in this vain world. Friends and family do make life easier, but they’re not total remedies because they’re subjected to the same vanity we are. The problem is that we’re all bound by time. Ultimately, we all die, which according to Ecclesiastes is the very reason why all is vanity, all is meaningless. Without permanence, what real meaning can anything have? If everything has an expiration date, can it possibly have value? Furthermore, what good are your friends? They’re living within the fleeting vapor of time just like you. So now what? What could possibly restore our hope at this point?
Chapter 5 takes an interesting turn. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Preacher begins talking about—well, religion, I suppose. He says, “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.”
This is not the first time the Preacher directed our attention to God. He’s already told us that it is God and God alone who gives our lives joy and pleasure. These things do not inherently come from material possessions or worldly success. They are gifts from God. Do you remember what he said in chapter 3? “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” God is the one who provides genuine satisfaction in the things we do and the things we own.
So in chapter 3, we’re told that God gives us joy. In chapter 4, we’re told (albeit indirectly) that we need a better form of companionship. Our human friends just aren’t enough to solve our human problems. In short, the Preacher has led us right back to God. He’s the friend we need for several reasons. First of all, he exists outside of time, so he doesn’t have the same limitations as our human friends. Second, he is sovereign. He’s the one who controls time. And third, he’s the only one who can give our lives meaning.
But now we’re left with a small dilemma: How can we, finite creatures, approach Almighty God? How do we seek his help and friendship? How do we go to him? After all, it doesn’t seem quite as simple as—let’s say—calling up a friend on the phone. How do we approach God?
Well, here it is: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” The first thing the Preacher makes apparent is that it is, in fact, possible to approach God. But we have to be careful. We are talking about the God of heaven. He the supreme Ruler and Judge. He is our Creator and Lord. We cannot go to him in the same casual manner we would any ol’ friend.
The expression “guard your steps” implies that we have prepared ourselves to approach the house of God and that we are doing so with a reverential demeanor. Some of us were talking last week about how the temple priests would tie a rope around themselves when they went into the holy place. (That’s not in the Bible, by the way. But several Jewish writers have described the practice.) You see, God’s instructions for entering the holy place in the tabernacle and later the temple were very strict. And if one of the rules were broken, God could strike the priest dead in the middle of his service. The work in the holy place was very serious business. It was not something to be taken lightly. So they’d tie a rope around the priest and if something should happen to him, they could pull his body out. I wonder if that’s why people got concerned in Luke 1 when Zechariah took so long to come out. As it turned out, he was in there having a conversation with an angel. But I imagine a few people were probably afraid that he was dead.
Now, we are prompted to ask another question here. How do we approach the house of God when there is no house of God? I think we all understand that “house of God” is a reference to the temple. When Jesus stormed into the temple to drive out the merchants and the moneychangers, he said, “Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” On several occasions, he referred to the temple in Jerusalem as his Father’s house or the house of God because it was the place of God’s presence. It was the one location on earth where God’s presence literally abided.
I guess you see the problem. In the first half of the first century, Christ prophesied that the temple would be destroyed. Then, forty years later that prophecy became a reality when the Romans finally conquered Jerusalem, reducing the temple to a pile of rubble. So now what? If there is no temple, where do we go to find God?
Well, Jesus gave us a hint in John chapter 4. He was speaking to a Samaritan woman who asked him about the proper place of worship. For centuries the Jews and Samaritans disagreed about the legitimate temple. The Samaritans claimed it was the one their ancestors built while the Jews believed it was the temple in Jerusalem. (The Jews were right, by the way.) But Jesus had something rather surprising to say about it. He said, “Woman, believe me, 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.” In other words, there is coming a time when there will be no central place of worship. In short, you can worship anywhere so long as you do so in spirit and truth.
On the day Christ was crucified, the veil that separated the people from the holy place was ripped in two. A few decades later, the walls of the temple came crashing down at the hands of the Romans. No longer was God’s presence contained within that building. No longer was there anything standing between God and his people.
So where is he? If there is no geographic location where he can be found, where do we go? What do we do?
That leads us to an interesting analogy Paul made when writing his first letter to the Corinthians. In the sixth chapter, he was rebuking the church for sexual immorality. He was making an argument that you shouldn’t use your body to commit sin. Rather, he said, “Glorify God in your body.” And here’s why: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” I’m sure you’ve heard countless references to that verse. “Your body’s a temple,” they say. “Treat it right.” They usually cite that verse to make a case against tattoos or maybe a case for healthy living. I won’t argue with them necessarily, but that’s not quite what Paul had in mind. The implications are much bigger than that. The significance of the temple was not its architecture or its exterior; its significance was God. What made the temple distinct was that it was the dwelling place of God here on earth. And so Paul points out that since the days of the temple, our bodies are the dwelling place of God.
Just think about that for a moment. We don’t have to trek across the globe to a building in Jerusalem to be in the presence of God where we would still separated from him because of the strict limitations set on the holy place. No, we can be in God’s presence anywhere because the believer himself (or herself) is the temple of God. He now dwells within us, not a thousand miles away from here. Every step you take, every thought that passes through your mind, every interaction you have—God is with you, always. So when the Preacher says go to the house of God, we’re already there. We can approach him at work, at school, in a dedicated building for worship, in our living rooms, in the car, at the local coffeeshop—absolutely anywhere. It is a privilege that God’s people for many years did not have. But under the new covenant through Jesus Christ, we can approach God’s throne of grace anytime, anywhere without the need of a priest or an animal sacrifice or even a designated building. If you want to speak to God, all you have to do is pray. And if you want to hear God speak to you, all you have to do is open his Word and read.
Now, having said that, we still don’t want to approach God with casual indifference. He is still the sovereign Ruler of the universe, and we are still sinners. So what the Preacher said here is still applicable: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
I’ve heard it said that you should pray to God as though you’re talking to your best friend. Just turn to him and say, “Hey, God,” and proceed to pray. I have mixed feelings about that advice. On one hand, God is our friend. He is our greatest friend. Proverbs 18:24 says of him, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” I believe this opening passage here in Ecclesiastes 5 comes on the heels of chapter 4 for a reason. There is little doubt in my mind that the Preacher knew that he had left his audience wondering, “If secularism leads to isolation and human companionship is insufficient, where do we go?” And his answer is, we go to God. He is our friend, and the only friend who can provide a remedy for the problems of time and death.
However, he is still God. He’s the same God whom Moses begged to see his glory, and God answered, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” In these sinful bodies, we cannot stand fully exposed to the glory of God. It would kill us. That’s why all Isaiah could say when he stood before the throne of God was, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King.” He thought his life was over in that moment. Surely, no sinner can stand before God and live.
So, on the other hand, we should still approach God with fear and reverence. That’s why we usually bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray. I’ve known people who refused to stand up when they pray. They will always kneel on the floor. I’ve even known some who will lay flat on the ground, face down whenever they pray. None of that is necessary. The Bible doesn’t say that we have to close our eyes or bow our heads. It certainly doesn’t teach that our prayers have to be fancy or eloquent like we often hear in public prayers. But there should still be reverence in our hearts.
Just consider the way Christ taught us to pray. In Matthew 6, he said, “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” He didn’t start his prayer with “Hey, Dad.” No, it was “Our Father in heaven.” Though it was a simple prayer with simple words, he exalted God from the very start of it. Then, he said, “Hallowed be your name.” To say his name is hallowed is to say his name should be treated with the highest honor. It is a name set apart as holy.
So guard your steps when you approach God. Pray without ceasing. Study the Scriptures. And do it all with fear and reverence, not half-hearted indifference.
The Preacher continued, “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.”
The contrast here is between sincere, prepared believers versus fools who are perhaps doing all the right things, but without guarding their steps. The wise person draws near, ready to listen. They are not approaching God for self-serving reasons. They want to hear from him. They’re like Mary who couldn’t pull herself away from the feet of Jesus long enough to help her sister, Martha, in the kitchen. She was too fixed on Christ and what he had to say. Now compare someone like Mary with, let’s say, the Pharisees. At one point during his ministry, Jesus addressed the Pharisees and said, “You hypocrites…This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” They weren’t doing much more than going through the motions of religious activities. And worse yet, they were ignorant of that fact. They believed themselves to be the holiest people on the planet while turning up their noses at the tax collectors and harlots who sincerely knew God and worshiped him.
Now compare someone like Mary with, let’s say, the Pharisees. At one point during his ministry, Jesus addressed the Pharisees and said, “You hypocrites…This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” They weren’t doing much more than going through the motions of religious activities. And worse yet, they were ignorant of that fact. They believed themselves to be the holiest people on the planet while turning up their noses at the tax collectors and harlots who sincerely knew God and worshiped him.
Verse 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.”
Again, the Preacher stresses the way in which we are to guard our steps and not approach God haphazardly. I don’t want to belabor the point, but notice the contrast he makes here. God is in heaven while we’re all the way down here on this pitiful earth full of injustice and oppression. Wickedness runs wild. As Isaiah said, we are a people with unclean lips. So when we stand “before God,” as the Preacher said, we need to be careful not to have a hasty, impatient spirit. Approach him slowly with focus.
You know, since the start of the new year, I’ve made it my custom to start each day with prayer and Bible reading. I told myself that I’ll always get up extra early if I have to, but I need to start my mornings with God. So I go into my office and I do nothing for maybe thirty minutes but pray and read. It’s time that I’ve devoted exclusively to my personal communion with God. Now you may have another approach. You might set aside some time in the evening before bed. You may do it another way. But I strongly encourage you to make time where you do nothing but pray and read. It’s just too important to casually toss into your busy schedule here or there only when you have a few free minutes. No, make the time. Strip away all distractions. Guard your steps and approach the house of God. Let me remind you of something Paul said in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” We need that on a daily basis.
Look at verse 3: “For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”
By dream, he’s not referring to those creative visions you have at night while you’re sleeping. He’s talking about trifles, the meaningless things that consume our thoughts so often. And the busier we get, the more likely we are to distract ourselves with trivial things. How many of you have a constant to-do list running through your head? You’re always thinking, “I need to do this. I need to do that. I have this other thing that needs to get done.” And it never stops. As soon as you check one item off the list, you think of something else to add.
Well, according to the Preacher, that’s getting in the way of the most important relationship you can possibly have, which is silly when you think about it. Our friendship with God is what ultimately saves us from the fleeting vapor of time and death. So it makes no sense for us to get so overwhelmed by the vanities of life—things that will never last—that we allow them to come between us and God. Our dreams, our trifles (the result of our busyness) are hindering our approach to God. It’s precisely what leads the fool to vainly offer sacrifices without preparing his heart or actually communing with God in the process. The fool says a lot of words, but he’s not listening. He’s merely offering the sacrifice of fools and doesn’t even realize that’s what he’s doing.
Now, along the lines of preparing ourselves to worship or to go to God, the Preacher turns his attention to vows paid in the temple. Verse 4: “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.”
So we have a couple of guidelines here. First of all, if you make a vow to God, pay it promptly. Second, never make a vow and not pay it. It seems rather straightforward, right? But I suppose some examples would help.
It’s hard to read this passage and not think of Ananias and Sapphira. In Acts chapter 5, the church was selling their possessions and giving the profits to the apostles to be distributed among the poor. And along come Ananias and his wife, Sapphira. They did the same as everyone else. They sold what they had, originally intending to give it all to the apostles. But they changed their minds in the last minute and decided to keep some of that money for themselves. Long story short, God judged them for breaking their vow and they fell over dead. Now to be clear, their sin was not in keeping some of the money. At no time did God or the apostles command the church to give away everything. In fact, Peter said to Ananias, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” In other words, he could have done with it whatever he wanted. But he and his wife had made a vow to God. At some point they promised to sell their property and give it all to the church. But, of course, they broke that promise.
You see, the vows we make are voluntary. We don’t have to make them necessarily. So it is utterly foolish to make promises within our hearts that we don’t intend to keep. And even if we intend to keep them but later change our minds—well, don’t. Remember, your body is God’s temple. He resides in you. The vows you make in your heart are not altogether private. God hears them. He knows them. So if you make a vow, you better keep it.
Look at verse 5 again: “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.” I think we can occasionally fall into the bad habit of making promises to God as almost a form of bribery, especially in times of distress. We’ll say something like, “God, if you help me with this problem, then I promise to—oh, I don’t know—go to church every Sunday. I promise to pray more. I promise to help people in need more.” Whatever the promise, we’re basically bribing God to get what we want. You know, Jacob tried that. Even after God spoke to him in a dream, he woke up and said, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” I guess it’s not surprising then that his next encounter with God was a wrestling match. You can read about it in Genesis 32.
Clearly, God does not take vows lightly. James said, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Don’t tempt God with broken vows. Don’t let your mouth lead you into sin. Don’t tell the priest’s messenger—I assume Solomon was referring to the messengers who went back and forth between the people and the priests in the temple—don’t tell the messenger you promise to make some offering and later claim it was a mistake. God knows better.
Now to pull out and look at this lesson more broadly, what the Preacher is really talking about is, again, a careless approach to God. Whether we’re offering prayers or making promises, our carelessness, lack of reverence, distracted minds, lip service—it all warrants God’s anger and judgment. And we can’t just pretend like our casual indifference to God is not that big of deal. It’s a huge deal. Look again at verse 7: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity.” Put another way, we can worship all we want, but if we’ve not guarded our steps and prepared our hearts, then even our worship is part of the secular world’s fleeting vanity.
So what’s the solution? “But God is the one you must fear.” The passage comes full circle. If you want to guard your steps and listen rather than offer the sacrifice of fools, then fear God. He’s not only the remedy for vain worship, he’s also the remedy for isolation and loneliness, and ultimately time and death. As Solomon said in the first chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
Preached at Joy Christian Church (Benson, NC) on January 29, 2017