Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
When we think about the Third Commandment, the first thought of most of us, myself included, would be that it is about what word starting with B? BLASPHEMY – the misuse of God’s name. So we are being warned that it is wrong to say ‘God’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ or even ‘OMG’ as an expression of surprise or as a swear word, for example.
Well, the commandment certainly forbids blasphemy but a key concern of the commandment is the truth. And this is because we sinful human beings have a real problem with telling the truth; sometimes we tell outright lies, sometimes we tell half truthes, sometimes we say things without meaning them, and sometimes we make promises that we do not keep.
So to promote and safeguard the truth, God instituted the lawful oath. As we read in Art. 1 of our WCF ch., a lawful oath is when a person “solemnly calls upon God to witness what he asserts or promises.” So whether it be in court or with a promise of some sort, an oath is a very solemn commitment to tell the truth or to keep a vow. And because oaths are to be made in the name of God, the Third Commandment is warning us against the careless or meaningless use of God’s name in oaths. What we say must be truthful and we must do what we have promised, especially when we have made an oath or vow or promise in God’s name. R.C. Sproul says, “The Third Commandment “protects the sanctity of the truth, which is vitally important to human relationships, and doing the truth – keeping our promises.”
Well, you will have noted that keeping vows is addressed in vv4-6 of our passage. But to understand what is said there we have to take into account the context. So let’s begin with a few words about Ecclesiastes as a book.
The one who speaks the words of Ecclesiastes is described in 1:1 as “THE PREACHER, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” And he is usually identified as Solomon. But we will call him ‘the Preacher’ because that is what he calls himself.
The first four chapters of Ecclesiastes have been described by one commentator as “HORIZONTAL MUSINGS . . . the bitter, barren, boring side of life seen through disillusioned eyes.” The Preacher is basically saying that everything is vanity and we all die in the end. And the God he describes in those chapters is a kind of far off, all-powerful being who will Judge everyone.
But as we come to ch. 5, we come to one of those rare but powerful moments in the book when the Preacher switches to the vertical and speaks about what a real relationship with the living Lord looks like. The God in these verses is the God who speaks to us and the God we listen to and speak to in worship.
And in these verses, THE PREACHER PROVIDES VERY STRONG WARNINGS ABOUT FOOLISH WORSHIP.
And we dare not treat this warning like we do the ‘NO WAITING’ SIGN at the airport drop off area. Do you know what I mean? If you are like me, you avoid paying for parking if at all possible. So there are times when I pull up at the drop off are at the agreed time but the person I am picking up is not there yet. So I wait there as long as possible to avoid having to go round again (or pay for parking). But there are signs, aren’t there, that say ‘No waiting!” But lots of other people seem to be waiting there, and surely the person is going to walk out any second (and I don’t want to pay for parking). But eventually I see the security guard walking over, so I move out and go round the roundabout, slowly, and come back to the drop off area again.
Well, these verses in Ecclesiastes are a warning that offering foolish worship will bring serious consequences. If we ignore the ‘No Waiting’ sign at the drop off area, a security guard might walk over and urge us to move along, but v6 explains that when we ignore this warning about foolish worship we anger God who will destroy the work of our hands.
I. So, the warning about foolish worship begins immediately with the first part of v1 and the call to CAREFUL PREPARATION. We read, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
A. The HOUSE OF GOD is the name used throughout the OT for the place where the Lord’s people gathered to worship, which was first the tabernacle and later the temple. So the instruction and warning in this passage has to do with public worship services, which is where we are right now.
B. And we are told to “guard our steps” as we go to worship. So we are not yet at worship; we are approaching God’s house. And there are two things in view here:
1. The first is a general principle that we find throughout Scripture, which is that THERE IS A LINK BETWEEN WHAT WE DO OUT THERE FROM MONDAY TO SATURDAY AND WHAT WE DO IN HERE ON SUNDAY.
a. Several times in ISAIAH, for instance, God tells Israel that He despises their worship because for the rest of the week they rob widows and orphans, oppress all their workers, quarrel and fight, and ignore the plight of the poor and the homeless. In other words, they were hypocrites – what they heard and said in here did not affect what they thought and said and did out there.
b. And we must ASK OURSELVES IF THIS IS TRUE OF US, ALSO. Last Sunday we were reminded about God’s grace to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We were told that the sins we confessed were forgiven in Christ. And we heard instruction about the life of thankful obedience. So have we been doers of the word, as James 1:22 puts it, or was it all forgotten and ignored as we walked out the door?
c. To guard your steps as you go to the house of God means that we view our obedience to God’s Word in private life as part of the way that we prepare to worship God in public.
2. But it also means, AS WE COME TO SATURDAY AND SUNDAY MORNING, that we deliberately think about what we are about to do in the house of God.
a. One paraphrase of this verse says this, “Do not run to the place of worship thoughtlessly, or because it is the fashion to go frequently, but consider the nature of the place and [your] purpose in going.” What goes on in here is so important and solemn and weighty, that we should not just arrive without having given any thought at all to what we are about to do.
b. You boys and girls might remember the account in EXODUS of the time that the people of Israel were to meet God on Mt. Sinai. Did God say, ‘Just turn up as you are. No big deal’? No He did not. He gave them three days warning. He told them to wash all their clothes, He had Moses put a fence up so no one could touch the mountain, because if they did they were to be stoned, including animals even, and He forbade sexual intimacy during those three days, all as part of how the people were to prepare to meet God and hear from Him.
c. And just in case we are thinking that those were OT times, just read HEBREWS 12, which mentions the exact episode in Exodus I have just described as it talks about our even greater responsibility as NT believers to strive for holiness and to prepare for worship than the saints of the OT, because God is still a consuming fire, and because we know who Jesus is and what He came to do.
There should be NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT for Christians than to draw near to Christ with their fellow Christians in public worship. So let me ask you this: How does your preparation for worship compare with how you prepare for a wedding or a graduation ceremony, or for going to AMI stadium or on a fishing trip? Parents, which event would your children see is most important to you from how you prepare for it?
One commentator said, “What a sweet spirit of praise would prevail in our churches if we all arrived … prepared.” “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
II. But as we move on next to the remainder of this passage and the worship service itself, the instruction here is about CONSIDERED PARTICIPATION.
A. And the first thing we read is that “to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.”
1. And the language of this verse reminds us of 1 SAMUEL 15. The prophet Samuel told King Saul to kill all the Amalekites and their animals. However, Saul spared the Amalekite king and some of the animals. And when Samuel asked why, Saul blamed the people and explained that they and he thought it a good idea to spare the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice to the Lord. And this sounded very godly. But do you remember Samuel’s response? He said, “To obey is better than sacrifice … for rebellion is as the sin of divination and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.”
a. Our last Westminster Confession of Faith series sermon was about the Second Commandment and the Regulative Principle of worship, which is that God is to be worshipped only and exactly as He has commanded. So though Saul had done something that seemed good and godly in his eyes, in God’s eyes it was rebellion and presumption. And the consequences were that the kingship was striped from Saul. Thus, there is in this passage a reminder to worship God only and exactly as He has commanded.
b. But there is more: For the interesting thing about Samuel’s words to Saul is that THE HEBREW WORD TRANSLATED AS “OBEY” CAN ALSO BE TRANSLATED AS “HEAR” OR “LISTEN.” And this is because in God’s eyes, listening and obeying are two halves of the same thing; you have not listened to the preaching of the Word when the sound waves have hit your eardrums, you have listened when the word goes into your heart and leads to obedience out of thankfulness for all that Christ has done for you. In this way then, referring to James 1:22 again, we prove ourselves “doers of the word and not hearers only.”
B. But as we move from v2 into the remaining verses, we see that while drawing near to listen in worship is commended, WE ARE WARNED TO BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT OUR SPEAKING. We read, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God … let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”
1. Now this is a GENERAL PRINCIPLE of Scripture that is being applied to worship. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
a. In another congregation I had a young woman as a catechism student who was constantly arguing with her mother. One day she came to catechism and she was very cheerful. So I asked the reason and she said that she and her mother had not had one argument. When I asked her why this was, she replied, I just haven’t spoken to my mother at all. Now, this was obviously not a long term solution. But it does illustrate the truth of this general principle. As James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear [and] slow to speak.”
b. And this is what v3 is about: When our minds are full of business deals or just busy-ness, dreams or even nightmares are pretty much inevitable. Right? Well, in the same way, FOOLISHNESS AND SILENCE DON’T GO TOGETHER. You have probably heard the saying: Better to keep your mouth shut so people are at least not sure if you are an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt! A sad reality is that every time we open our mouths and speak, we dramatically increase the chances of sin.
2. And this principle is true EVEN WITH RESPECT TO WORSHIP. I did some quick calculations and worked out that when you add the votum, the songs, the prayers, and the creed, you end up with around 1500 words that we speak in an average worship service. How many of them do we utter with meaning and sincerity? How many do we utter without any thought? Now, the solution is not to zip it and say nothing; we are not commanded here to be silent. The solution is to grow in our understanding of the importance and significance of divine worship. The solution, as we see in v1, is to come first and foremost to listen to God. And the solution is to pray that the Spirit of Christ would keep us from distraction and help us to mean every word we speak to God in worship.
3. But there is something MORE SPECIFIC in view in this passage than a general warning to carefully consider all our words in worship. And JOB is the perfect illustration of this specific warning. You boys and girls will remember that Job lost all his riches and all his children and then his health. And though Job’s friends were convinced that Job had done some terrible evil to merit this loss, Job knew that this was not the case. And we know that Job’s suffering came about by the activity of the devil who was trying to prove to God that Job trusted in God only because of his wealth and health. But Job did eventually fall into the error of demanding an explanation from God. And the Preacher’s words here in v2 are a fitting summary of how God responded to Job’s demand. Do you remember what God said? In basically said, Who do you think you are, Job, to demand an explanation from me? You forget your place. I am God in heaven and you are a creature on earth. I do not owe you an explanation.
a. I am sure you boys and girls have heard your parents say to you, “Son/daughter, WATCH YOUR TONE OF VOICE!” And that is a good summary of what we are being told in vv2-3, “Son/Daughter of God, watch your tone of voice in worship.” As we have already noted, the first four chapters of Ecclesiastes basically summarize life as bitter, barren, and boring. And I am sure that if we were all honest, everyone of us could testify to the truth of that summary because of particular circumstances at play in our lives today. And though we might not utter the words out loud, in our thoughts we might wish that God would come down and explain Himself; why does He seem so cruel or uncaring? Why doesn’t He do this or not do that?
b. But the Preacher reminds us that “GOD IS IN HEAVEN AND YOU ARE ON EARTH.” Rather than being like Job who demanded an explanation, we should be like Habakkuk who recognized that God’s ways and thoughts were far above his ways and thoughts. And so, he was content to wait, trembling and quivering, for the unfolding of the Lord’s will, all the while rejoicing in the God of his salvation. And the fact is that in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has come down to earth to give a fuller explanation of how He will save His people than the OT saints had. And unlike the Preacher, we know that God will replace this bitter, barren, and boring creation with the new heavens and the new earth, described in Revelation, that will appear at the coming of the Lord Jesus! So we have even less excuse for the ‘wrong tone of voice’ in worship!
4. But lastly, the Preacher gets even more specific in vv4-6 as he speaks about VOWS. And the warning is “pay what you vow.”
a. Now, THE OT SITUATION THAT THE PREACHER HAS IN VIEW would be something like that of a man who comes to the temple with a sacrifice, who asks God to heal his son and promises to give the Lord 30% of his harvest instead of the usual 10%. But while the man’s son is healed, the man delays bringing the 30%, or he says to the priest who reminds him of his vow when he returns to the temple that the priest was mistaken in what he heard or that the man shouldn’t really have made the vow in the first place, which is what v6 describes when it talks about telling the messenger that “it was a mistake.” And thus, the vow is ignored.
b. So now we see WHERE THE WORDS OF THE PREACHER HAVE BEEN LEADING: The person who does not keep the vow that was made did not guard his steps when he went to the house of God, and he did not primarily draw near to listen, and he offered the sacrifice of a fool because he made a rash promise that he was not serious about keeping.
c. And v1 explains that THIS IS EVIL, and v6 that it is sin and that God is angry at the person who does this and will destroy the work of his hands.
Now, this does not necessarily mean being struck dead on the spot. Although that is what happened to Annanias and Sapphira when they lied to the Holy Spirit in Acts 5.
And it doesn’t necessarily mean receiving an instant illness. Although that is what happened to many Corinthian believers when they abused the Lord’s Supper table in 1 Cor. 11.
It might mean that the Lord turns this person’s aspirations for success into dust or that He allows him to prosper but does not allow him to enjoy that prosperity.
Exactly what God does to those who do not keep their vow is God’s business, but this is no idle threat. If you do not pay your vows, God will destroy the work of your hands. That is how seriously God views the vows made in worship.
d. So I trust you can see that we are well and truly in THIRD COMMANDMENT TERRITORY here. What these verses describe is a person who has taken the name of the Lord in vain. He or she has made a vow to God but has not kept it. And the commandment says, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” That is what the Preacher is explaining in these verses. And the third commandment is as binding on you and me today as it was for this man back in the Preacher’s day.
So when you publicly professed faith, you promised “to forsake the world, put to death your old nature, and lead a godly life.” God heard that vow. And you vowed to “honour the office-bearers of the church and, if you should become delinquent in doctrine or life, to submit to their admonition and discipline.” (arrange home visits).
And when you married, you husbands vowed “to love and cherish and lead her … for better or worse … in sickness and health … and to be faithful to her as long as you both shall live,” and you wives vowed “to love and cherish and submit to your husbands in all things lawful … for better or worse … and be faithful to Him as long as you both shall live.” God heard your vows. Have you and are you keeping them?
And those of us who are parents vowed to do all in our power to instruct our children in the truth of the Christian faith and to lead him or her by our example to follow Jesus.” God heard those vows. Are you keeping them?
And those of us who are elders or deacons have made solemn vows to carry out the work of office faithfully, to love the church and all its members, to live a life worthy of our calling. God heard those vows. Did we mean them? Are we striving to keep them?
We cannot say I did not understand what I was committing myself to.
But even in terms of the ordinary language of worship, our ‘Amens,’ whether they be after prayers, or at the end of sermon, or after the doxology are us expressing agreement with what has been said and our committing ourselves to do what the Lord has instructed us to do from His word. And the Lord hears each of our ‘Amens.’
The last verse of the passage, v7, talks about dreams and words increasing and vanity. Our words in worship ought to be considered and sincere. We don’t come here to boast about who we are and what we are going to do, and then demand that God bless our plans, as if we were God and He existed to obey us. No, we exist to obey God and to glorify Him. Thus, “God is the one [we] must fear.”
I trust you can see then that we have much to confess when it comes to foolish worship; we have spoken words without meaning them or being sincere, and we have not kept all our vows and commitments.
This is why we read earlier from Romans 10:9-10. For there we are told that “if you confess with your MOUTH that Jesus is Lord and BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Mouth and heart). We are not saved by being able to offer unfoolish worship; we are saved by confessing and believing that all our sins are forgiven, including Third Commandment sins, through Jesus’ work on the cross
Psalm 130:4 says, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Knowing that our sins are forgiven in Christ sets us free to pursue unfoolish worship. And so, we carefully prepare for worship, and we come first and foremost to listen to God, which means to hear and obey, and we strive to mean all that we say in here and to keep the vows and commitments we make to our Triune God. Amen.