A Healthy Fear
Passage: Ecclesiastes 5:1–5:7
A Healthy Fear
May 4th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. A Frightful Sermon
On July 8th, 1741, a Massachusetts minister by the name of Jonathan Edwards delivered to his congregation what would become the most well-known sermon ever preached on American soil.
As he spoke in his typical manner, with a calm voice and quiet demeanor, the picture his words were painting began to affect those who listened. According to one witness, the sense of fear evoked among those listening was so evident that Edwards had to stop and silence the congregation so he could finished.
The first time I heard this sermon, entitled, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", the first time I heard it was in of all places, my 11th grade English class at a public High School.
It was included in an anthology of American literature and as we read portions of it in class, one could sense the effect this sermon was having even then, on the students who were reading and listening. Something like dread was palpable.
While "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is described by many people as a "fire and brimstone" kind of sermon (which I don't think it is in the way that some think of that phrase), it does contain a picture of God that is in some ways foreign to our modern conceptions of Him.
In many places today, inspiring fear in a congregation would indicate something went horribly wrong, that something unbiblical, or unloving was said. Now, while that could be true, we must ask, is fear ever an acceptable goal?
Turn with me this morning to Ecclesiastes 5. As we return to our ongoing study of this book, I would like to focus today on verses 1-7. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (page )
II. The Passage: "Guard Your Steps" (5:1-7)
Since we have not talked about this book since March, let me remind all of us that Ecclesiastes is a unique book in the Bible in that it describes a man ‘s reflections and meditations on the purpose of human existence.
We as the readers are allowed to walk with this man we're calling the Teacher as he wrestles with why things are the way they are. In the face of human evil, tragedy, suffering, and death, he sometimes concludes that life is completely pointless.
But he also points us to God and to the fact that there are certain truths about God that we must cling to if we are to make the most of our time on the earth.
This morning, as we come to chapter 5, we come to our first passage that explicitly directs us back to certain aspects of Israelite worship. Listen to the advice that the Teacher gives us here in light of what he's observed and what he believes about God:
A. Guarding Our Perspective in Worship (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.
Let's stop right there. Right away we see that the Teacher gives us a clear instruction in verse 1, an instruction that will be unpacked in the next six verses: "Guard your steps when you go the house of God."
Now we know that the house of God probably refers to the Temple of the God of Israel that was in Jerusalem. The reference here to bring sacrifices confirms that. And we know that the Temple was central in the worship of the Hebrew people. But what does it mean to "guard our steps"?
Is he talking about shielding our shoes? Is he talking about protecting our path? Does he not his readers to be followed when they go the Temple? Is he saying cover your tracks?
No, when he says "guard you steps" he is advising his readers to be careful about the way they approach God in worship. Now, when we talk about worship, I'd like us to see that word in all of its bigness. We sometimes get hung up on worship as something primarily done on Sunday mornings and/or something primarily about music.
And while we do worship on Sundays and do worship through music, God's word tells us that worship should be a 24-7 kind of thing. Worship is lifting God up as we bow down; it's a heart response to God, in whatever we do, whether that's in our decisions, our prayers, our offerings, our service; whether we are thanking God, or rejoicing in Him, or praising Him, or simply obeying Him. It's all worship!
And even though the worship here is described in the context of the Temple, the Teacher is speaking to the heart.
The first thing the Teacher encourages us to do here when it comes to worship is to guard our perspective in worship. He is calling us to be careful about how we think about our worship. Notice how he describes the right perspective and the wrong perspective in the second sentence of verse 1.
Draw near to listen [not] to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Now, what exactly does that mean? Well, if there's a contrast here (and there is), and if the fool's sacrifice is evil, and if it is done in ignorance, then wouldn't coming to "listen" mean that we come humbly, in order to understand, in light of the truth?
Just as it is today, the Teacher knew it was easy for an Israelite to come to the Temple with their heart and mind disengaged in order to simply do what was expected of them. There was no thoughtful consideration of what they were doing and who they were worshiping. There was simply casual carelessness.
But the Teacher warns us: Guard you steps! Guard your perspective. When you approach God in prayer or praise, in service or in song, in attitude or action, thinking about what you are doing. More specifically, think about the One you are approaching.
When it comes to your life of worship, are you careful or casual?
B. Guarding Our Prayers in Worship (5:2, 3)
Look at how the Teacher continues to unpack this idea. Listen as he gets specific in terms of living this out. Verse 2:
2 ï»¿ 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.
Well, very clearly we see here that the Teacher is instructing us to come with a right understanding of who God is. He reminds his readers that "God is in heaven and you are on earth". And that simple but powerful truth should affect everything, including their mouths.
Proverbs 10 reminds us that, When there are ï»¿ï»¿many words, transgression is unavoidable, but ï»¿ï»¿he who restrains his lips is wise. (Proverbs 10:19)
Now the point here is not that our prayers need to be a certain size. The point is that our prayers should be shaped by a careful consideration of who God is. When you know who God is, you will not be running off at the mouth in prayer.
Notice as well the first half of verse 3, "For a dream comes with much business". I think what the Teacher is saying here is that when you live in dreams, when you live disconnected from reality, there is not quietness and humility; there is frenzy. And part of that frenzy is a multitude of words.
Remember how he speaks to the heart here as the source of our words: Don't be rash...don't be hasty. Slow down, think about what you are saying in light of who are speaking to. So what the Teacher is doing here is encouraging us to guard our prayers in worship. To give careful consideration to how we speak to God.
C. Guarding Our Promises in Worship: (5:4-6)
But look at how the Teacher gives us yet another example of this in verses 4 through 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 youï»¿ into sin, and do not say before the messengerï»¿ that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?
So once again the Teacher is telling his readers to guard their steps as they come to God. This time, he is specifically calling them to guard their promises in worship.
The practice described here is making vows, saying to God, "If you bless me with this or that, I will use it for your honor, or I will give it back to you, or I will do this or that." Now, making vows was not wrong. But God's law did warn Israelites about this practice. We read this in Deuteronomy 23:
21 "If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:21-23)
This law is probably what the Teacher has in mind here in Ecclesiastes 5. But once again, what we see here is the Teacher responding to thoughtlessness in worship. Worship that does not seriously consider the One we stand before. Worship that is casual and careless.
If you make a commitment or a promise before God, then honor that promise. Because God is God, the Teacher tells his readers that there will be consequences for that kind of careless worship.
III. Faith, Forgiveness, and The Fear of God (5:7)
Now, obviously, there is a flow to what the Teacher is saying here, and it's all connected back to this call to guard our steps. But it's only when we get to the end of the passage, in verse 7, that the motivation for this kind of careful consideration is spelled out. The Teacher writes:
7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity;ï»¿ but God is the one you must fear.
Did you see that key word here, that key word from the book of Ecclesiastes? It's the word "vanity". It's a word that means empty, or meaningless or pointless. The author begins this whole book by saying "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." Or we might translate it this way, "Completely pointless, everything is pointless."
So once again we the Teacher warning us about behavior that is ultimately futile or pointless. He says, "When you are living in a dream-world, and your mouth is always on because you love the sound of you voice, your many plans and your many words will get you nowhere. What you are doing is pointless."
And what you are doing indicates that you lack something crucial: you lack the fear of God.
That is where the Teacher brings it in verse 7: God is the one you must fear.
Remember what he's already told us about God: verse 2, "God is in heaven and you are earth." Verse 3: God can destroy everything you've worked for.
Yeah, if this is the kind of God we are approaching in worship, then fear sounds like an appropriate response; it seems in light of this passage that the fear of God is a biblical motivation.
The Teacher seems to be saying, "If you truly feared God, you would not come in ignorance, or rashly or in haste; you would not come carelessly and casually."
But wait. Maybe this is just an Old Testament kind of thing. Maybe fear was how God wanted to motivate people back then. Maybe all of that has changed with Jesus.
Well listen to just a small selection of verses from the New Testament that teach us something about fearing God:
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:31)
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13)
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (II Corinthians 5:11)
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (II Corinthians 7:1)
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile... (I Peter 1:17)
Very clearly, the "fear of God" is not simply an OT kind of thing. We simply have a hard time reconciling fear of God with love for God in light of Jesus.
If the Teacher here in Ecclesiastes 5 is cautioning his readers about careless worship in light of who God is and what God could do to them, how do we make sense of that if we belong to God through Jesus Christ; if we have been forgiven because of the cross of Christ and now walk in grace?
Can you really wake up in the morning and be motivated by God's incomparable love for you, and at the same time, still fear Him? Well the answer is simply, "yes". We must. Let me try to explain the relationship between these truths.
What if we were to imagine God primarily as a huge, swirling tempest of fire? Now, if you knew that such a God was perfectly just, that He hated sin, and that this Fiery Tempest judged sin by consuming the guilty, how would you feel if were brought into his presence, knowing that He knew everything about you, even the secret things? The fiery nature of God would have you trembling in your boots, wouldn't it; you would be filled with sheer dread.
But what if, from the midst of that fire, this God spoke to you and said, "Do not be afraid. I have given my Son for you, to make you my own. You are my child. Upon you I have set my love." How would you feel then? Would you stand in His presence with a different attitude? Absolutely. But your Father is still a being of fire. God does not change. He didn't all of a sudden turn into a big fluffy teddy bear.
Even though you were the object of His affection, you wouldn't simply walk up now and give him a big hug. Even though you were adopted in grace, you wouldn't then adopt a casual and careless attitude in the presence of this God, would you?
Well, this is not a hypothetical. God's word reminds us in the NT, that "since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our "God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:28)
Even if a firefighter is equipped with the latest and greatest fire protection and fire suppression equipment, he or she must learn to have a healthy fear of fire, right?
This same tension is expressed well in C.S. Lewis's classic story, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When the four children come, for the first time, to meet Aslan the Lion, the king of Narnia, they encounter a similar tension. We read:
"But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn't know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then found they couldn't look at him and went all trembly."
We struggle today with this, don't we? When we think of God as some kind of glorified life coach, or as a heavenly genie who is there simply to meet our needs, when we believe that science has explained most everything there is to explain or when our intellectual knowledge of the Bible causes us to make God safe because we've figured him out, when we our view of consequences fails to extend beyond this mortal life, or when our definition of love is informed by our culture more than it is by God's word, we will always struggle with fearing God as we should.
Brothers and sisters, friends, please listen. The words of the Teacher here are just as relevant for us today as they were for the first readers of Ecclesiastes because God does not change. We must still guard our steps when we come to worship.
And remember, worship should take place in all we do, not just on Sunday mornings. As we live and choose and give and speak and feel we have opportunities to come to God in worship. And when we do, we must still come to God with a right view of who He is. We must approach him, not casually or carelessly, but with a healthy fear.
But because of Jesus, we also come with an assurance of God's love. Unlike the first readers of this book, we can come with a confidence of God's forgiveness if we have personally received God's mercy through Jesus Christ.
Have you truly received the grace of God through Christ? Have you truly been freed to fear God as a forgiven son, and not as a condemned enemy?
Remember apart from Christ, we can, as the author of Hebrews puts it, we can have nothing "but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:27)
That was the kind of fear that Jonathan Edward's sermon was producing. And that fear is good if it drives us to God.
But with Christ, we can love and fear God in truth through the Spirit of God who dwells in us. In grace, we can guard our steps when we come to God because of what God himself has revealed through Jesus Christ.
How will your worship be different this week? How will the remainder of our worship together be different in light of what we've seen?
Let's ask God to help us live in light of these things.