God – More than Religion?
Introduction: We have a strong drive for finding purpose in life in order to live life.
Someone who has purpose is able to endure almost any and every circumstance in life. At the same time, one of the most deadly things in life is the threat of purposelessness.
Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who lived through World War II. He survived hell on earth in the concentration camps. Reading stories about this time, we cannot even grasp the pain and darkness experienced there. If there ever was a place so low, surely it was then and there. But what has astonished me is not just what happened to people, but even more so what people can survive and still live. How? Through the horrible and dehumanizing experience of his years of the concentration camp, Frankl noticed that the key to overcoming circumstances was purpose. He concluded: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. Those who did not lose their sense of purpose and meaning in life were able to survive much longer than those who had lost their way.”
Purpose is key to surviving and thriving. We all want meaning and purpose in our lives. Something to live for. Something to overcome. Something to strive for.
We recognize this in our hearts and so we try to discover meaning though any numbers of methods. We try to find a purpose or a goal to live for. We might try beauty or money or sex or power or work. We might try relationships or family or fame. Thus, we try to fill this hole of meaning and purpose in our hearts.
But the struggle that I experience in my own life and have heard others express as well is that so much is not enough.
The pursuit of Solomon in Ecclesiastes is finding meaning, and he finds it in God.
Similarly, in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s main pursuit is meaning and his main frustration is meaninglessness. He observes life and everything that life has to offer, and every time, he becomes frustrated with his conclusion: impossible. Nothing is enough. It is all vanity and a striving after the wind. Just like grasping and holding on to the wind, holding on to meaning seems impossible.
That is until we get to chapter five. Then we suddenly find a change in tone. In the first five chapters of the book and in many chapters following, all that Solomon does is observe life and conclude that it is not enough. Yet, in the beginning of chapter five, Solomon does something different. Instead of despairing observations, he offers advice. He has found a purpose, a goal, a pursuit, that is enough and that is God. Solomon’s answer in this void of life is fear God, but he shares even more with us. He shares how to approach God. How we should come before God. And as we will see as we study today’s text together, when he talks of God, he means something much more grand, much bigger than mere religion.
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. 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 messenger4 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.
Understanding the setting and context: the worship of the Israelites.
Before we can continue to explore this text further, we first need to take a step back to understand the context. What was going on here at the time? The audience Solomon was writing to are the people of God, the Israelites. For them, to go to the house of God meant to worship. The temple or the house of God is where you met with God, and came for prayer, and offered your worship and sacrifices to God, and found direction for life. This was not something simple or something to take lightly. There were many guidelines and directions on how to worship God in the temple, which you will find if you read the first five books of the Bible. Every year, they would thus make the journey from wherever they were living to the house of God. This was done no matter how far away they lived or how much time the trip would cost. And this was reason for celebration! It was a joyful occasion during which they celebrated, because they were going to the house of God! Many of the Psalm were written as Songs of Ascent, meaning they were meant to sing as the Israelites were on the way to the temple. They were pilgrim songs, and they show that the worship started when people set out to visit the temple. Furthermore, it was a time of fellowship, because you would travel together with friends and family. It was a time of singing! Because you were going to meet with God! And so the whole context of this passage is the people of God worshipping God. Like we are gathered here today to do as well.
It is at this point that Solomon interjects and gives a warning in verse one:
Verse one: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
1. Reverent worship is mindful of the object of worship.
Go to the house of God. Approach God. However, when you go, how should you go? Guarding your steps. Don’t just go carelessly, but be aware, he urges. Go joyfully, but don’t go mindlessly. Why? Because you are not just going anywhere. You are going to the house of God! Realize who you are approaching. You are approaching God. And not just any God, but this whole passage emphasizes God as holy and righteous.
To us, the words holy and righteous might be a bit vague. A. W. Tozer wrote a really short, but powerful little book called The Knowledge of the Holy, and when he talks about God’s holiness, he says that this is something that is so beautiful and beyond our understanding! It refers to God being “the absolute quintessence of moral excellence and infinitely perfect in righteousness, purity, rectitude, and incomprehensible holiness.”
What would your attitude be when you approach a person of high renown and impeccable character? Someone in high position and with much respect? Would you think twice about how you approached this person? And now imagine God who is God, “the absolute quintessence of moral excellence and infinitely perfect in righteousness, purity, rectitude, and incomprehensible holiness”. If you were approaching a God like that, what would your response be? Would you imagine that He deserves worship due His position? That people approach Him mindful of their position and in awe of who He is and His holiness and power and majesty?
Yes! A Holy God deserves reverent worship. So Solomon’s first advise is mindfulness. When you go to worship God, when you pray to God, when you talk with God and spend time in His presence, whether it be here with other believers or during your week or even at work, be mindful of who you are worshipping, who you are talking with, and in whose presence you find yourself. Meditate on God and who He is.
Transition: Because only with that mindset, we will be in the right position to continue well into worship. That takes us to Solomon’s second piece of advice. Because now we find ourselves at the door of the temple. At the door of worship. And the Israelites, the people of God, they went to the temple to worship by offering sacrifices. So now, when the people of God have come prepared and mindful that they are approaching the temple of God, how does Solomon say we should engage? How should we sacrifice? Read verses 1b-3 with me:
“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.”
2. Reverent worship involves listening to obey.
There are two attitudes here in this picture: that of the reverent worshipper and that of the fool. And it’s applied to you. To the listener. Be a reverent worshipper and not a foolish one. And what is the difference? The reverent worshipper approaches God to listen. The attitude is: God tell me more! Tell me, here I am, I want to hear you! The word “listen” in this text has a deeper meaning then to just passively sit and hear information. The word “listen” in this text means to listen to be actively engaged in our communication with the Lord, and not just to store it up in ourselves, but to then go out and do something with it. Listen so that we can hear from Him the direction He lays on our hearts to go, and then to do something with that. So to listen is to listen to obey. And that is the sacrifice that God wants.
Then there is the sacrifice of fools. In contrast to the former, the sacrifice of fools is a sacrifice of empty words, whereby there is much talk but little listening and no obedience. No follow through.
So what Solomon here is urging his listeners is, once you are in God’s presence and talking with God, listen first, then do. Listen to God and obey, do not utter empty words and aspirations.
But why does this even matter? Every time he comes back to this: He warns the fool: because of who you are worshipping, because of who you are approaching: God. And then knowing who He is and recognizing who you are. Verse two thereby says: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth…” Throughout Ecclesiastes, this theme has been repeated. God is above the sun, we see below the sun. God is in heaven, we are on earth. What does this mean? Two things. One, it refers back to the holiness and incredibleness of God. We are not God; He is. We are here and He is there. He reigns is glory and majesty. There is a difference between who He is and who we are.
But along with this there is something else. Something beautiful! We live on earth. We have a limited perspective. We cannot make sense of life and everything that falls under that sometimes. Perhaps you cannot see the point of a broken relationship. Of your current work situation. Of the financial problems you are facing or whatever your situation might be. The temptation thereby becomes to fix things ourselves. Because obviously God does not have it under control and could use our help.
However, when we approach God with our plans and our input and when we don’t start by listening to obey, we are the ones being foolish. For God is above the sun, and He sees the whole picture! And if that is true and if we truly believe this, would it not be foolish to speak many words and provide God with the plan, instead of going to Him to listen and obey and follow Him in His thoughts and plans? To go with the attitude of listening and the intention to obey, even when we cannot make sense of everything and life seems out of control?
We can only worship rightly when we recognize who we are worshipping. Because only when we recognize and believe what the Bible says about God are we set free to trust Him. Most of our problems are from not understanding who God is! And I see this myself. Most of the time that I fear or doubt or have trouble trusting is because I forget. And, in these moments, I have to tell myself, if I truly believe what the Bible says is true about God, then it would not make sense not to reverently worship and trust God. To worship by listening and live in obedience to God, because God knows and sees and holds the whole picture and the whole future.
3. Reverent worship requires following through on promises made to God.
Transition: So we are encouraged to travel to worship, to approach worship mindful of who we worship. Mindful of God. And when we approach the door of the temple, when we approach God in worship, we are encouraged to come to listen and obey. And all of this, because of who God is and the perspective He has on life. Then in these moments, our hearts and our attention is captured by God and we stand amazed at who He is. In light of that and as we have come to worship in this way, how can we not be moved into reverent worship! And when we are in awe of Him and in worship to Him, how can we not be stirred to action, wanting to express our love and awe for Him!
Perhaps you have experienced such moments in your life? Moments in which you then proclaim, Lord, if this is true and I know it is, then I promise to give money to your cause, to be more loving to my significant other, to be a more honest individual at work, to forgive my friend, or to ask my friend for forgiveness. Or out of emotions of desperation, you might ask, Lord, I know you are God. I know you can help me. If you take care of this financial tangle I’m in, then, once I’m set free, I will give over 10% of my money to Your causes. If you help me figure out which direction to go in life and what to live for, I will live my life for you. If you find me a spouse, then I promise we will serve you in your church.
And that is also exactly what happened with Israelites, because they would go to the temple, as we described, and, in going to the temple and in sacrificing to the Lord, individuals would be moved to make a vow, whereby he would promise God: “If you do this for me, then I will sacrifice that for you.” These vows were always voluntary and often they were emotional, and frequently the specific act promised was a sacrifice.
Then they would leave the temple and life would continue. However, they made this promise to God, and so a few moments later, a few days or months later, the time would come to follow through on the promise. However, sacrifices always cost and sometimes they cost more than we want to sacrifice. So what would happen, was that the people would take advantage of a little detail in the law. For there was a little clause in the law that made an exception for vows that were made unintentionally or that were sinful. So the people would go to the priest when it came time to sacrifice, and try to get out of the sacrifice by saying, well, I did not actually mean what I said. It was an unintentional promise.
And Solomon addresses this very strongly in verses 4-6:
“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?”
The warning is clear and simple. Be mindful of what you vow to God. And when you make a vow to God, do it. If you do not follow through, you are not obeying God and therefore you sin. Don’t sin.
Sin seems a bit of a strong word to use here, right? Why would not following through on a promise be a sin? In our world and in our experience, people go back on their words and promises all the time! And we have grown to accept that, even though we do not always like that. So is it not a bit harsh to call this sin?
And once again, the answer to the question is God. It’s recognizing who you are promising to. You’re making the vow to God, and God always keeps his promises. Not only that, he desires that his people imitate his moral character. He thereby is our standard, and whenever we fall short of that standard, we sin. That is the definition of sin: falling short of perfection, of God.
So Solomon’s warning to his audience is: be careful what you vow. Be careful what you promise. And when you do make a promise, do it! Why? Because of who God is. Because He is a holy God who deserves reverent worship, which includes following through on the promises made to Him.
That brings us to the point, which Solomon emphasizes over and over: the foundation for our worship is God, and He now concludes with:
“God is the one you must fear.”
Viktor Frankl observed that purpose and meaning is critical to human survival and flourishing. You need something to live for in order to fully rejoice in the joys of life and to conquer the challenges of life. Solomon’s answer to life and meaning and purpose is God. And we discover this truth when we discover God. In the Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer says: “The man who comes to a right belief about God is relieved of ten thousand temporal problems.” We have seen how God is a holy and reverent God. And that he is above and we are below. That He has the perspective and control of life that we lack. And in this, that our foundation could not be more secure and safe than built on Him. That there is no object more worthy of our focus in life and worship than Him.
And in discovering God, in realizing who He is, the result is two-fold. Because not only do we find Him worthy as the focus for our life and worship, but we also realize that a God like that deserves to be worshipped reverently. So we draw near to God, recognizing who we are approaching with the intention to worship Him reverently.
Yet, as beautiful as all of this sounds to us, as much as we might want to worship God reverently because of who He is, what do we do with all those moments where we did not worship reverently? Perhaps those moments, in which we have been moved to action and we promise God something, but in which we have not followed through. What do we do with that then? And what about times in which we have prayed, and we have offered up a lot of thoughts and we have offered up our plans and intentions, but we forgot to listen to what God is making and has made clear to us? Or the many moments and times, when we worship without mindfulness of God and who He is? Perhaps you regret the times where you have not been moved to draw near to God, let alone approach Him mindfully.
4. God – more than religion
The only thing that keeps us from despair when we fail, which we do and will, is that God is more than mere religion. In religion, the focus is on activities. In religion, we recognize that we owe God, or some being, out there something. However, we also believe that if we worship rightly and follow all the rules, then He’ll have to accept us. In this, religion starts with the activities which then lead to the object of worship. However, the problem then becomes that when we fail in our doings, in our worship, we fail to reach God.
However, the Gospel and this text tells us that the foundation of worship is not the activities but the object of worship. Fear God. In this, God becomes both our motivator and our enabler in worship. Because recognizing who God is drives us to reverent worship. However, in this, God knows, and we know, that we have not and will not always succeed. We will not always approach God mindful of who He is. We will not always remember to listen to Him. We will not always obey and follow through on our promises. So He provided the solution in this. While we cannot provide the perfect and consistent worship sacrifice, he provided the perfect sacrifice in Christ:
“He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Jesus Christ fulfilled the requirements of the perfect worship sacrifice. He met the conditions required. He fulfilled the reverent worship that our Holy God deserves. So, in this, we are set free from despair. Because the requirements have already been met. This does not mean that our worship does not matter anymore and we do not approach Him in reverent worship. No. It means that now, when you go back to that foundation of worship – recognizing who God is – you can be driven in worship, but also set free to worship, because God is not only your motivator, but also your enabler by fulfilling the conditions that you could never meet.
And that is what makes worshipping God much greater than mere religion, because religion starts with the activities. Failure in the doings means failure in reaching God. However, worshipping God starts with God. Is enabled through God. And ends with God. He is our object deserving of our reverent worship, because of who He is, and He is also our enabler who fulfilled for us the reverent worship due Him.
Perhaps, you are here today and much of what I have been sharing this evening is new to you. Perhaps everything that I have described is interesting, but none of it has been experiential to you, because you do not even know what it means to be in a relationship with Christ and to worship Him. But it resonates with you. It makes sense. Or perhaps you just want to know more. If that is you, please come to someone here – Dietrich, Nico, and I are always available to talk further about anything that has been said – and find out more about God who can provide the meaning and purpose for your life.
Or perhaps you are here and recognize God, holy and righteous, and are challenged to worship Him reverently. Don’t let this reminder from Solomon drift by you, but take time this week to approach God, to listen and obey, to follow through on your promises. Perhaps even today in our time together, you have been motivated to action. Take the warning of the text, follow through because of who you are worshipping! If you want community and support in this process, please also talk to one of the leaders here, because, at Journey Church, we have lunch and dinner groups, which are there to drive and push us and hold us accountable in our worship of God.
C.S. Lewis said: “The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.” So let’s strive towards our goal, our meaning, and our purpose, and reverently worship a holy God together.