Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 44 : Right Worship
Eccles 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
Before we think much about this verse we first need to confront a major change between the times of the Old and New Covenants. In Solomon’s day he had the Temple to go to for meeting with God. He had just built it, and it became the central focus for worship in the land. The Temple was ‘the house of God’. But now of course that Temple and subsequent temples have been destroyed and there is no temple in Jerusalem. More than that, the teaching of the New Testament is that WE are the temple of the Lord (see 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21) so contrary to much popular thought our church buildings are NOT the house of God – we are.
Solomon’s warning was to be careful when you went into the Temple. Unlike, say a modern cathedral the temple wasn’t a place for beautiful singing and inspiring liturgy, it was a place for offering incense and sacrifices and both were forms of worship, although the latter also involved a coming to put things right between God and man. Far more than modern religious buildings, the Temple was primarily a place where lives were put right with God through sacrifices and by affirming love for God by burning incense.
Now in the light of the description that I have just given Solomon’s exhortation to go in to listen, seems rather strange. In what follows Solomon is going to consider speaking before God and particularly uttering vows before God (which would have been accompanied by a sacrifice). We’ll consider this more in the meditations to come, but the problem with vows is that they are so often given in order to try to persuade God to perform in some way. An example of this is the silly vow that Jephthah made in Judges: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judg 11:30,31) This ended with him foolishly sacrificing his daughter which was not what God wanted. Jephthah was so unsure of God’s love and God’s good intentions for Israel, that he felt he had to ‘bribe’ God with his blatant, over-zealous commitment.
But this is the thing, we don’t need to bribe God, we don’t need to ‘get Him on our side’; He already is! When we find individuals praying in the Bible so often they rehearse the truth before they ask for whatever it is. A good example of this is the apostles praying in Acts 4:24-31 where they declare what God has said, then what has happened and put it in the context of the divine will and then, and only then, asked for God to move. In those cases they are declaring the truth as an act of faith. That is a very different thing from trying to get God on your side.
No, says Solomon, rather than going in to the Temple and uttering meaningless words and offering meaningless sacrifices, you would do far better to go in and simply listen. Listen? Yes. Have you ever been into a church building or cathedral in the absence of people and just listened in the silence? As you look in awe you sense something of the greatness of God. As the Israelite would have gone into the great Temple they would have seen the altars for offering incense and sacrifices and seen the great curtain at the end behind which was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where God was said to reside. There in the near presence of the Almighty, if the individual would just stand still and listen in silence, they would know the truth. They were sinners in the presence of a Holy God and they had to make sure they put their lives right with Him.
I wonder sometimes how much modern Sunday Services come under the same corrective words of Solomon. In so many ‘churches’ we know exactly what is going to happen, in general terms at least. We know there is going to be singing and there will be prayers uttered and the Bible read and expounded. It is all very predictable and unfortunately predictability so often linked with familiarity which, the saying goes, breeds contempt. Solomon’s ‘sacrifice of fools’ simply means doing something because it is expected, not because you are inspired to do it or need to do it. How many of our actions on a Sunday morning are born out of loving desire for God? How many are born out of a need to put things right with God? How many are born out of an awesome sense of reverence? Even in so-called ‘free churches’ the predictability is just the same.
Put aside Sunday mornings which aren’t very good at doing this anyway, how often do we sit still and listen to the Lord? Oh, we say, I pray and read my Bible. Yes, but how often do we sit still and just let Him speak to us? Living in this noisy and hectic world today, it is not easy to sit quietly and let God speak to us. If you are like me, our minds are full of things to do, places to go, people to see. There are worries and concerns and all these things are like a background noise that makes it difficult to listen to the Lord. Then when He does speak, we wonder was it Him or was I making it up. Time and experience are primary learning ingredients here. You’ve just got to do it and learn to discern His voice. Do we prefer to pour out shopping-list prayers or listen to God? I know which is easier, but it’s not the best.