In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.
Over the course of studying this passage, I’ve tossed around various ideas about how to present it. Like many do with Ecclesiastes as a whole, I considered the wisdom of beginning with the ending, so that we might have the proper perspective over the whole text. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Such an approach may be more systematic in leaving no stone unturned, but it also loses some of the potency of the poetry. I’ve heard it said that art is like a frog: you can dissect it into its individual parts, but doing so will kill the frog. I pray then that God will guide our discourse as I endeavor to present the text in its poetic structure.
GUARDING YOUR STEPS // VERSES 1-7
We begin with the matter of how to worship God properly. Let us break the commands issued within these verses down to five imperatives: 1) guard your steps, 2) draw near to listen, 3) avoid the sacrifice of fools, 4) avoid rash and hasty words, and 5) pay your vow.
Guarding Your Steps (v. 1)
The first imperative is a warning for us to guard our steps when approaching God’s house. What does he mean by this? Throughout the Bible, walking is a metaphor for living. And it’s a fitting comparison. As the feet move so does the body. The Scriptures, therefore, repeatedly encourage us to walk down the path of righteousness and wisdom, while avoiding the way of wickedness and folly. Of course, Jesus capitalizes on this metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount by describing a narrow road and gate that lead to life and a broad road and gate that lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). The point then is that the steps you take (and where you take them) have much to say about the condition of your heart.
Solomon’s call for guarding your steps whenever you approach God is really a plea for you to consider the condition of your heart. Where have your feet been lately? What does that say about your walk with God and the condition of your heart? These are important questions to ask before approaching God. After all, God is mysteriously awe-striking and deserving of reverential fear. He is so much greater than us that we must always approach Him with the utmost reverence.
However, what does this mean for us under the New Covenant? Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we are to boldly approach God’s throne. Does that not contradict with this verse in Ecclesiastes? I believe that one of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is that we place little value on Old Testament thought. We tend to think that God used to be vengeful and angry, but now because of Jesus, He is loving and kind. We treat God as if He has changed personalities. But that is not the case! The God that we serve today is the same God that Solomon wrote about here. Instead of treating God like He is bipolar, we must understand that God is still worthy our highest reverence. He is still infinitely greater and more majestic than we can ever imagine. The only difference between us and Solomon is that because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice we can now come before God, as His children, without fear that He will reject us. We should still approach in reverence, but we also know now that we come before Him in the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Draw Near to Listen (v. 1)
Next, Solomon tells us that it is better to come to God for listening “than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” These two form a contrasting couplet, but let us focus first on the positive command. Listening is crucial whenever we draw near to God because listening involves yielding. As I listen to someone, I am surrendering over a portion of myself and my time in order to know them more. In this way, listening validates worth. By listening, I declare that you are worth my time and attention. My focus shifts off of myself and onto you. This explains then why speaking to someone who listens is truly life-giving.
But if humans who are made in God’s image are worth listening to, how much more God Himself? The point here is not that God does not care what you have to say to Him. Scripture repeatedly makes clear that the opposite is true. But we should deeply care about listening to what God is saying and make every effort to listen to Him.
Unfortunately, we often fail to listen to God’s voice. We are like the people to whom God sent Isaiah, who “keep on hearing, but do not understand” (Isaiah 6:9). God’s Word often goes in one ear and out the other without us having truly listened to any of it. Because of this propensity, God often prefaces His declarations with the word “hear.” By default, we are fools who like the sound of our own voices and who don’t care what God has to say. John Piper describes this heart well: “Many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered” (6). We will delight in meeting with God so long as the meeting is centered around us.
But God is God, not us. We desperately need to hear His voice far more than He needs to hear ours. His ways are higher than our ways, and His plans are greater than our plans. Why would we not take advantage of listening to Him?
Of course, this listening is done primarily through God’s Word. As we read the Scriptures, God Himself speaks. Sadly, the rigidness of our private devotions can often hinder this joy. Too often, we can lock ourselves into a pattern of spending so many minutes reading Scripture and so many minutes in prayer. We do this in order to have a dialogue with God. But how many conversations actually work like that? That pattern is more like a debate than a dialogue. Real conversations have more natural flows in them. And we can interact with Scripture in the same way. Instead of rigidly dividing a time for reading Scripture and for prayer, why not mingle prayer into Bible reading? First, this makes our prayers naturally more biblical. Second, it provides a better environment for conversation to flow. Perhaps one day you have much on your heart, so two or three verses lead you into fifteen minutes of pouring your heart out to God. But the next day a different sort of heaviness is upon you, so you simply open the Word, praying, “God speak, and I will listen.” Both are beautiful forms of communion with God.
Avoid the Sacrifice of Fools (v. 1)
Next Solomon encourages us to avoid offering the sacrifice of fools, which are evil in the sight of God. What exactly is the sacrifice of a fool? I believe they are the kind of sacrifices described in Isaiah 1:12-17:
When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Unlike the person who humbly comes before God to listen, the fool’s sacrifices to God are all about himself. He is trying to buy God’s favor with his sacrifices, which in the end becomes a form of self-improvement rather than worship. Mike Cosper captures this idea well:
Likewise, any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail too. A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home. (45)
Furthermore, I think that this kind of selfish sacrifice typically comes in one of two forms. First, fools can offer the sacrifice of good works with a wrong heart. The Christian is called to do everything to the glory of God, but often we can do good works for our own benefit. Sometimes we want to look good before others, while other times we just want to feel better about ourselves. Both are sinful motives. Second, fools can offer the sacrifice of right belief without good works. Such was the case with the recipients of the passage of Isaiah above. They knew all the religious actions to take, but they failed to do good to those around them. Their theology didn’t lead them in compassion for the world around them.
If you notice, both of these sacrifices fail to account for the whole of a person. One has the actions without the head and heart, while the other has the head without actions or the heart. Fools think that they can separate out our lives. They think that they can give God their lives without giving Him their heart. Or that they can give Him their head without giving Him their hands. But we are holistic creatures, who are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Everything we have is from God and must be for Him. This is why overeating doesn’t just bloat our stomachs it dulls our spirit. This is why few things are more spiritually healing than good food and good drink shared with good friends. Fools think that they can compartmentalize God, while the wise know that even our daily food and drink are for His glory and our good.
Religious devotion is a meaningless vanity without communion with God.
Avoid Rash and Hasty Words (v. 2)
This verse builds upon the concluding thought of verse 1. In our relationship with God, are we the ones that do all of the talking? Do we ever give God the opportunity to say anything to us? Solomon’s thought is very straightforward: God is bigger, smarter, wiser, and all around more awesome than you, so you should probably listen to what He has to say more than you tell Him what you think. It is my personal belief that we should all memorize these two verses because they are so counter to our nature. We want to be the ones doing all the talking. We want to be the ones that set the grounds in our relationship. But that’s all foolish. It’s foolish to come before God with many words. James 1:19 echoes this thought: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When you approach God, make it about God, not yourself. Be quick to listen to Him, and slow to share your opinion.
Of course, this does not mean that our prayers should be dishonest towards God. Praying dishonest prayers that we think God wants to hear is another sacrifice of fools. In doing so, we attempt to deceive God. But He is in heaven, and we are on earth. The cosmos is held together by His might, and He knows all things. Why then would we try to bring anything to Him other than our honesty? Indeed, letting our words be few is not permitting dishonesty; rather, it is calling us to slow down and understand the weight of speaking to God.
Refrain: The Business of Dreams and Many Words (vv. 3)
Obviously, these refrains are quite important since they are repeated twice, but they are quite difficult to interpret. What exactly does Solomon mean when by dreams? How are the vanity of dreams and many words connected to the rest of this passage? Barrick suggests that as vanities they are meaningless distractions in our life that keep us from true worship. Akin offers that since dreams during sleep after a hard day’s work, these are the works and words that we use to impress God. Moore thinks that words and dreams are cheap; God wants our hearts.
I think, similarly, that the dreams and words of a fool are centered upon himself. Chasing after the dreams in his head provides much business to attend to, but they are mere fantasies with no substance. Likewise, his many words might sound impressive at first, but they too are vanities. With the business of dreams and the fluff of many words, a fool becomes wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). He becomes fixated upon himself.
Pay Your Vow (vv. 4-6)
Have you ever attempted to barter with God? We say things like, “God, if you just let me find the one, I promise I will be happy and serve you with my whole heart” or “if you give me a million dollars, I promise to give half to my church!” These appear to be facetious examples, but are they not true to our character? We often have an “if you… then I will…” mentality. We make rash vows to God all the time. Our three-thousand-year-old philosopher tells us that this is not such a good idea. We make promises to God in haste, and should God actually give us what we want, we flake out in fulfilling our vows. Solomon says that this is foolish, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” We just discussed that God is far greater than ourselves and we should approach Him with fear, so it would make sense that we should keep any promises that we make to Him. He says plainly, “pay what you vow.” If there is anyone that you should avoid lying to, it’s God. In fact, Solomon says that it would be much better to just, like the previous verses say, keep your mouth shut before God than to make promises that you won’t keep. Jesus gives us this same message in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to make any vows because we don’t know if we will be able to fulfill them. Instead, let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no (Matthew 5:37). We are to be a people that fulfill our word.
We must be careful with the words that we say because an unfulfilled vow to God is sin. How true is this that our mouth tends to lead us into sin! The king of Israel also warns that God will not accept the excuse that we made the vow as a mistake and that there will be consequences for us lying to God. Next, Solomon issues the same warning as in verse 3. If there is one lesson to learn quickly when studying the Scripture, it is that God does not repeat Himself needlessly. Since this repetition is here, we must assume that we definitely need to take its words to heart. Here is the thought: words become meaningless when they don’t have actions to back them up. Stop presenting verbal fluff. Fear God. Worship Him with a lifestyle of reverence and intentional actions.
Refrain: The Vanity of Dreams and Many Words (v. 7)
Dreams and many words are vanity because we are terrible at judging what we truly need. We have all sorts of dreams and desires that we long to see fulfilled, but we rarely pause to consider how beneficial or damaging they might be. God, of course, does not yield to our desires, which causes many to question His goodness. How can a God who is all powerful and completely good withhold pleasure from me? Surely His goodness or omnipotence is lacking, right? Wrong. God is our Father who sees things far clearer than we can. Consider my one-year-old daughter, who just today saw her mom painting some shelves outside and decided that she also wanted to play with some paint. For most one-year-olds tasting forms a significant component of playing, and our daughter is no different. In that moment, being a loving father meant withholding a desire from her. Forbidding her from eating the toxins in paint is an act of love that she doesn’t yet understand; therefore, she perceives that I am limiting her freedom.
The reality is that we need limits. We need boundaries. We need a heavenly Father who loves us enough slap our hand when we reach for things that can harm us or, more accurately, things that we use to hurt ourselves. Paint itself is not harmful when used properly, but the toxins within can kill if ingested. Likewise, wealth itself is not sinful, but when clutched by immature hands, it often is. Sex was designed by God to foster intimacy between a husband and a wife, but many use it to drag the decaying carcass of intimacy across the floor of self-gratification. Because of this, there are times when God giving us what we want is like handing a toddler a steak knife. In short, God’s refusal to fulfill your dreams may, in fact, be one of His greatest graces upon you.
FEARING GOD // VERSE 7
Thus far, we have addressed five commands regarding how we ought to worship, but now the Preacher will address why we should worship God in those ways. He does this by summarizing the commands above and pointing us to the fear of the LORD.
The Preacher concludes these verses with a marvelous conclusion, which ties together the whole of the text. In many ways, this is final phrase is foreshadowing how Ecclesiastes’ epilogue will enlighten the entire book as well.
If the root problem with in our worship is that we are too focused upon our own dreams and words, then fearing God is the alternative. In fact, the fear of God is the reasoning behind the five imperatives in verses 1-6. Because God is worth fearing, we guard our steps when we approach Him, we draw near to listen to Him, we avoid the sacrifices of fools, we avoid uttering rash and hasty words, and we pay whatever we vow to Him. Each of these can only be properly motivated by first possessing a fear of the LORD.
But why is the fear of the LORD necessary? Fearing God simply comes from understanding that God is God. To know God is to fear Him. He is holy. He is unique and in a class all unto Himself. It is only right and proper to have a healthy fear of Him, and only utter foolishness fails to do so. We fear God by simply acknowledging that He is God, and seeing God as God can only result in living a God-centered, not self-centered, life. The knowing and fearing God smashes self-aggrandizement into bits by pointing us to the magnitude of His glorious worth. All of our pretty words and lavish dreams are particles of dust compared to snow-capped mountains of His sovereign decrees.
But fearing God is not just proper; it is also practical. As humans, we were created to fear the awesome might of the LORD, so when we fail to fear God, other fears take root within the heart. Consider the rise of fear, anxiety, and depression within our society which coincides with the decline of those holding to the Christian faith. Fear of terrorism. Fear of disease. Fear of collapsed economies. Fear of isolation. Fear of people. The list can (and does) go on without end. We fear these things because we fail to fear God. After all, the fear of God is exclusive. We cannot have a proper view of God, while continuing to fear other things. Understanding God’s greatness and His love for us must cast all other fears aside. Why fear the uncertain future when the One who stands sovereign over time is our Father? Why fear death when it ushers us into eternal life with our Savior? Why fear the temporal opinion of others when God’s evaluation of us is eternal? There is an exclusivity to fearing God. By properly revering Him, we realize that all else pales in comparison.
The fear of God is as good as it is exclusive. The fear of Him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) is the same fear that enables us to say as in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The Christian’s cry against the fears and anxieties of the world is “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? Our heavenly Father desires our good, so we are most benefitted by shifting our focus from self and onto God. Our greatest happiness is only found through our trembling pursuit of God. He is the supreme Treasure but not all desire to look upon Him, as Owen warns:
Not all who desire to go to heaven are fit and ready for it. Some are not only unworthy of it and excluded from it because of unforgiven sin; they are not prepared for it. Should they be admitted, they would never enjoy it. All of us naturally regard ourselves as fit for eternal glory. But few of us have any idea of how unfit we really are, because we have had no experience of that glory of Christ which is in heaven. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they want to be or not. It is to be received only by faith. But fallen man is incapable of believing. Music cannot please a deaf man, nor can colours impress a blind man. A fish would not thank you for taking it out of the sea and putting it on dry land under the blazing sun! Neither would an unregenerate sinner welcome the thought of living for ever in the blazing glory of Christ. (p. 7-8)
Indeed, everyone will one day fear God, but there will be two distinct kinds of fear. Those who have not beheld the glory of Christ by faith will be cower before Him, while those who by faith have tasted and seen that the LORD is good will rejoice in awestruck wonder. Because God is God, He will be feared. Let us earnestly seek the second kind of fear. Let us tremble that the One who authored quantum mechanics, photosynthesis, and platypuses is the same God who died in humiliation on the cross to rescue us from our sin. Let us quake that Holy of Holies has become our Father by adopting us as sons and daughters.