Small group Bible study curriculum with lessons by:
Scott Aniol, Tom Ascol, Voddie Baucham, Josh Buice, Costi Hinn, Phil Johnson,
Steven Lawson, John MacArthur, Laramie Minga, Matthew Sikes, Paul Washer, James White
Main Point: God expects people created in his image to come before him reverently.
Main Passage: Ecclesiastes 5:1–7
Memory: “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.” (Ecc 5:1)
It is easy to enter corporate worship with God’s people without giving much thought to what we are doing there. Demands of life—the difficulties, responsibilities, and pleasures of life—can distract us from having the kind of serious thought we ought to have when we come together to worship. Yet, the true worship of the true God is something that each one of us desperately needs.
We were made for worship. We can’t function well in this world without worship. Without worship, we are easily swept along by the currents of this world’s values and ideals. But regularly coming into the presence of God, with the people of God, helps us to see through the mirage of what this world portrays is valuable, right, good, and desirable. Worship reorients us. It refreshes us. It reminds us of who God is and who we are. Worship helps us to remember what life is truly about.
Worship also matters to God. He cares about how we think about him. He cares about what we say and what we do when we come to worship him. In fact, he not only cares about our actions and our words, he also cares about our thoughts, our attitudes, and our demeanor. That’s why he has spoken so clearly in the Bible about worship. He intends for our worship to be regulated by his Word and not by our own whims.
So the Bible prescribes what we are to do when we come before him in worship, and the one overarching requirement that God makes of those who worship him tends to be the one thing that is so often lacking and neglected in modern approaches to worship: reverence. God expects people created in his image to come before him reverently.
That’s what the wise man is saying to us in Ecclesiastes 5:1–7. Up to this point, the author of Ecclesiastes has been giving us reflections on life in this fallen world. He looks at life under the sun as it really is. He acknowledges that he has pursued all sorts of things to try to make sense out of this life. He concludes it’s all vanity, until he remembers God and brings God back into the picture. Then he sees meaning and purpose. Then he sees reality in this fallen world.
But now in chapter 5, having given us some of those reflections, he begins to give us exhortations. He admonishes us repeatedly in this text regarding how we are to approach God in worship. And you can summarize all the admonitions of this passage by simply acknowledging that we are to worship our God reverently.
The author presented four specific admonitions, which if we heed, will lead us to reverent worship.
Be Careful How You Enter into Worship (Ecc 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.
First, be careful how you enter into worship. Remember that it is to the house of God that you are going. We are entering into God’s presence when we come to worship. And so as we do so, we shouldn’t enter into it casually. We shouldn’t go to corporate worship as if we’re just dropping by to say hello to a friend at his house. Rather, we are coming to the place where God has promised to be present.
We Are Entering God’s Presence
In the Old Testament, God promised to manifest his presence in the tabernacle, and then later in the temple. Yet, the construction of both the tabernacle and the temple were designed to limit access to God and to prohibit anyone from entering into his presence casually. In fact, the common Jewish man or woman could not personally enter into the holiest place of the tabernacle or temple for worship. Old Testament Jews could only enter into the holiest place of worship representatively through their high priest. And that high priest could only do that having offered up a goat and taking the blood of that goat with him into the holiest place. And he could only do that one day of the year.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is revealed to be our high priest, and by his life and death and resurrection, he has provided direct access to God for all who turn from sin and trust in him. Those who trust Jesus can enter into God’s presence personally and directly. We’re no longer dependent on a building or any particular location, because collectively, we are God’s building (1 Cor 3:16); we are his temple (2 Cor 6:16). So today, whenever or wherever the Church of Jesus Christ gathers for worship that is where God promises to be present. As Jesus, put it when he was teaching on the church, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mat 18:20).
|“Temple” Language in the New Testament
Eph 2:20–22 “… built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
1 Cor 3:16 “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
2 Cor 6:16 “We are the temple of the living God.”
1 Tim 3:15 “… you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.”
Eph 2:19 “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Heb 10:21 “We have a great high priest over the house of God.”
So, what this means is that when we gather on the Lord’s Day weekly with the church to worship the Lord, we must do so with the awareness that we are entering into the very presence of God— the God who created us, the God who sustains us moment by moment, who keeps our hearts beating and our brains functioning. We are gathering before this God who not only created us, but who through his Son the Lord Jesus has redeemed us. He delivered up the Son of his love to death, so that we, his creatures who had rebelled against him, might be reconciled to him. And as reconciled children, we enter into his presence for worship. This God has granted us an audience, so we must guard our steps as we approach him in worship.
We Come to Hear What God Has to Say
How are we to guard our steps when we approach him? We do that by coming to hear what God has to say to us. As the author says in verse 1,
… to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools.
The offering of sacrifices in the temple in the Old Testament was characterized by silence. The worshiper was quiet. The priest would read from the Law, give an explanation, and pray. The people would respond in songs, and the priest then would pronounce a blessing on them.
Fools however, would go through these motions thoughtlessly. We see in the Old Testament how God upbraids this kind of foolish worship time and again. For example, Malachi 1 presents a description of this type of foolish, thoughtless worship. After the Lord has reminded his people that he intends for his name to be regarded as holy among them, he intends for them to honor him as the true and living God, he says in verse 13,
“But you say ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it,” says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering. “Shall I accept that from your hand?” says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. “For I am a great King,” says the Lord of hosts, “and my name will be feared among the nations.” (Mal 1:13–14)
The worshipers were supposed to offer the best of their flock to the Lord in worship, but instead, they offered him what was convenient. They offered him that which cost them little. And the text says it was the sacrifice of fools—it is evil, even though the worshipers didn’t think they were doing anything evil. Too often, we approach worship as a matter of convenience rather than as a matter of our need to meet with and hear from God.
Have you ever decided just to skip out on worship on the Lord’s Day, because something came up that was better? It’s easy for us to fall into that way of thinking, isn’t it?
We Must Prepare to Meet God
The concern that is expressed in Ecclesiastes goes beyond what we do in times of worship; it also includes the way that we prepare for worship. If we are to enter into worship thoughtfully— reverently—then we must plan and prepare to do that.
Have you ever shown up for worship drowsy or lethargic because you decided there were activities that were more important for you to do on Saturday that would drain you of energy, and you decided that you would rather be lethargic on Sunday than miss out on those activities on Saturday? Have you ever entered into worship thoughtlessly, just because it’s the next thing on your calendar? It’s easy, isn’t it, for us to fall into these patterns? The author of Ecclesiastes is calling us to wake up and to be guarded against that, to be careful how we enter into the presence of the Lord to worship. We come, the text says, to listen—to hear and to heed what God has to say to us as we meet.
This is the very reason that we must emphasize the Word of God in our times of worship. Pastors need to make sure that the services of worship that they lead are rich with the Word of God. Use the Word of God to call people to worship. Let them hear God’s Word read carefully, with preparation and expression, so that the meaning of the text is made plain simply by the reading of it. And let’s not only read the Word, let’s sing the Word, so that the songs that we offer up to God are grounded in God’s Word. Let’s pray the Word, so that we’re not just freewheeling with thoughts that come to our minds as we talk to God, but we’re having our thoughts trained by the Word as we offer up our petitions and praises to him in prayer. Let’s enact the Word in the sacraments that we are given in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, so that the Word of God is portrayed dramatically. Let’s preach the Word, so that we are careful to set forth what God says. We come together knowing that we need to hear from him.
Jesus emphasizes this in the New Testament, nowhere more clearly than in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. In all seven of his letters to the churches he says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” When you gather to worship, do you consider what the Spirit intends to speak? He intends to take the Word and communicate it to listening ears and hearts. Do you pray, “Oh God, give me ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church on this day”?
If we would do that, if we would be careful on Saturday night and Sunday morning to take time and to plead with God that he would give us and all those we’ll gather with ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, it could transform the way that we approach God in worship.
Be careful how you enter into worship.
|Think About It
|1. What are some implications of the fact that the New Testament calls the gathered church “God’s temple” and “God’s household”?
2. What are some practical ways we can come to hear what God has to say when we gather for worship?
3. In what ways have you come to worship thoughtlessly? What can you do to better prepare to meet with God?
Be Careful What You Say in Worship (Ecc 5:2–3)
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.
Second, be careful what you say in worship. From warning us about our attitude and approach, the preacher gets even more specific in verse 2 by warning us about the words we use in worship. We are to be thoughtful and cautious in the words that we speak to God. We are to be careful about speech at all times. Jesus says it very clearly:
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. (Matt 12:36)
James 1:19 says we’re to be slow to speak, quick to listen. Proverbs 10:19 teaches,
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
This care with speech is especially important in what we say to God in worship. We should be thoughtful about how we talk in the presence of God. Jesus instructs us about this specifically with regard to the way that we pray in Matthew 6. He says,
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt 6:7–8)
We need to remember who God is, and remember who we are, as Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” That is not a statement about geography, that is a statement about theology. It is a reminder that God is God and that we are his creatures. He has adopted us into his family, but he is our Father who is in heaven. When we come to the Lord’s presence for worship, we need to be mindful of the fact that we are creatures entering into the presence of the one who created us. We are the redeemed entering into the presence of the one who has redeemed us. Our lives are in his hands.
We’re not doing God a favor when we show up. He grants us an audience. He condescends to us, so we must come before him reverently. We need to be thoughtful. We need to be wise. We need to be careful in what we say to him, what we sing to him, and what is preached in his name.
What this means is that we’re not free to simply wing it when we come to worship. We can’t honor the Lord and enter into worship thoughtlessly, casually, doing what we want, saying what we want.
As verse 3 states,
… for a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
When you let yourself get overwhelmed with business and activity, you provide fuel for daydreaming, for letting your mind drift away from proper thoughts about God. And when you simply multiply your words without thinking, you’re speaking, the text says, with the voice of a fool.
God cares about what we say and do when we come before him in worship. This is a lesson that was painfully made evident to Aaron and the people of Israel on a day that is described for us in Leviticus 10:1–3:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
Nadab and Abihu did not intentionally provoke God; they were simply going to do it the way they had done it before. And so they just casually, according to their own whims, offered up strange fire, and God immediately consumed them before their father’s eyes. We may be tempted to think that God was too harsh. Yet God emphasizes his holiness, his determination to be worshiped as God.
God has not changed his determination on how he is to be worshiped from that day to this. We are to enter into worship carefully. We’re to be careful of what we say in worship.
|Think About It
|1. In what ways do we sometimes speak rashly in worship?
2. What does Leviticus 10:1 mean when it says that Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord?
3. What are some measures we can take to guard what we say in worship?
Be Careful What you Vow in Worship (Ecc 5:4–6)
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?
Third, we are to be careful what we vow in worship. The text says, pay what you vow. This is a reference to the Old Testament law concerning vows found in Deuteronomy 23:21–22:
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.
In other words, keep promises that you make to God. Don’t thoughtlessly declare your loyalties and resolutions to live for him only to forsake those vows later. It’s better not to make a vow to God than to make it and break it. God takes the promises that we make to him seriously, and failure to fulfill what we have promised is sin. If you fail to keep your word that you’ve made to God, then you will be tempted to justify your sin of not keeping your word, thereby compounding your sin in God’s eyes (v. 6).
The Bible doesn’t forbid us from making vows. What it does forbid is us making sinful or thoughtless vows, or using vows and oaths to get out of legitimate responsibilities. That’s what the Pharisees did for which Jesus upbraided them in Mark 7, when they took vows and dedicated all their possessions to God, so their aging parents would just have to fend for themselves. It was a selfish and sinful ploy.
But not all vows were ploys. In the Old Testament, vows would sometimes be made to God as an expression of devotion to him. For example, Hannah vowed if he would give her a son, she would dedicate him to the priestly work. And God heard, and in grace granted her request, and she in faithfulness kept her vow.
|Vows in the Old Testament
Gen 21:34 Abraham swore an oath to Abimelech.
Heb 6:13 God swore an oath to Abraham.
Gen 28:20 Jacob made a vow to the Lord.
1 Sam 1:11 Hannah vowed a vow to the Lord.
2 Chron 15:14 Asa and the people swore an oath to the Lord to reform their worship.
Here’s the point: God desires us to worship him from the heart, to keep the promises that we make to him as his children. This a call for integrity and honesty in worship, to say what we mean, and to mean what we say.
In the first century church, the church of Jerusalem was given a graphic illustration of how seriously God takes this. Many early Christians were selling their lands or possessions and bringing the proceeds to the apostles, so that those who were suffering and impoverished might be cared for. But although Ananias and Sapphira evidently give the full proceeds from their land, they lied and only gave a portion.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,
2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1–6)
Later Sapphira, complicit in the lie, suffered the same fate. God wants integrity in worship. We should not make promises to him that we do not intend to keep.
This includes the songs that we sing. We certainly can voice our aspirations in biblical ways of our determination to live for God, but we should do that with humility, with an understanding of our weakness and dependence upon God’s grace. And when we sing promises to God, we ought to do so reverently; we ought to do so with our hearts crying out that we intend to obey, humbly requesting God’s help.
Do you ever stop to think about some of the things we vow in our songs?
Facing a task unfinished
that drives us to our knees,
a need that, undiminished,
rebukes our slothful ease,
we who rejoice to know thee
renew before thy throne
the solemn pledge we owe thee
to go and make thee known.
—Frank Houghton, 1995
We often sing that thoughtlessly. When you sing that, do you sing that with a prayer? “Oh God, I want my whole life to be laid before you. If you want me to go to some hard place where Jesus has never been known, to live and die and make him known, then send me. Don’t let me grasp anything so tightly that I’m unwilling to go, and make thee known.”
All to Jesus, I surrender.
All to him, I freely give.
I surrender all.
— Judson W. Van DeVenter, 1896
Sometimes we have a hard time surrendering one day a week, yet we sing “I surrender all.”
Take my life and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my silver and my gold;
not a Mite would I withhold.
—Frances Ridley Havergal, 1874
When we sing this, we ought to do so with the prayer, “Oh God, make it so. It is my desire. I want my bank account to be yours. Everything I have comes from you, so as I sing this, I don’t want to sing it thoughtlessly; but I know that I am singing, I am pledging, I am determining to live in a way that I cannot live apart from your grace. Oh God, come, work in me.” We worship the Lord in this way with dependence, and we speak these vows to God with humility, with a determination that our lives really do belong to him.
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It doesn’t mean that we never boldly declare our intentions or make promises in the songs we sing. Rather, it means we should sing like we mean it. Better yet, we should sing because we mean it. By his grace, we will keep it.
|Think About It
|1. What are some ways that we make vows to God when we worship him?
2. What are some songs you regularly sing that include promises to God?
3. As you sing those promises, what are some prayers you can offer that ensure you are singing with humility and dependence upon God to keep those vows?
Be Careful to Fear God in Worship
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Finally, be careful to fear God in worship. In worship, when you let your mind multiply dreams and your lips multiply words, the result is futility and emptiness. Your worship is not being regulated by the Word of God but by your own whims. You approach God on your own terms, rather than his. And worshiping God in this way, Scripture says, is vanity. It is empty and worthless. Why? Because it is not really God we’re worshiping—in reality, we’re worshiping ourselves. We come on our terms, in the way and when we choose. We do what we want.
But God has given us in his Word the rules that are to govern our worship. Jesus said, “God is spirit, those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). We worship God spiritually from the heart, and we worship him in truth, in submission to the Word. We are to do so in accordance with what he has revealed. We do this because he is in heaven, and we are on earth—he is in charge. Or as the preacher puts it in the very end of this passage, God is the one you must fear. Fear God—revere him.
To fear God is nothing other than to remember who he really is, and to remember who we are before him. It is to say with the psalmist:
For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, 7 a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? (Ps 89:6–7)
Scripture refers to the fear of the Lord more than 150 times. It is a major theme in the relationship between our Creator and we his creatures and image bearers. It is the universal duty of all people to fear God.
Psalm 33:8 says,
Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
Yet as Romans 3 reminds us in verses 10 through 18, wickedness abounds in this world because there is no fear of God before their eyes. Why do we have world rulers stand and arrogantly declare that they will do their bidding in this world as if there is no God? Because they have no fear of God. Why do we have a culture that says we must allow everyone to identify themselves any way they choose? There is no fear of God before their eyes. Why do we slaughter 800,000 babies in the womb every year in this nation and have politicians telling us that this is a medical right? It is because there’s no fear of God before their eyes.
But this is not a malady simply in the world; it has washed over our churches, so that we feel very justified to take on any cause in the name of love and justice, and ignore the Word, even twisting the Word for the sake of what we think is just or loving. What’s going on? There is no fear of God before the churches. No wonder in too many of our churches, there is little or nothing that encourages reverence and fear of God. Indeed, too often, the exact opposite is what’s taking place.
Have you ever just stopped to consider what happens when God reveals himself in Scripture? When Isaiah saw the Lord—“Woe is me.” When the Risen Christ appeared to the Apostle John, he fell down like a dead man.
Hebrews 12:28–29 says,
Let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.
How could we ever worship him as we ought to worship? How can we approach this God, who is glorious and fearful? There is only one way: it is the way that he himself has prescribed and provided through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This great, holy, fearful God has delivered up the Son of his love and has placed our sin upon him. He poured out his wrath upon his Son in order that we might be reconciled to him, forgiven of sin, and adopted into his very family, so that we can now call him “Abba”—Father. We know he loves us, but the one who loves us is a consuming fire, and so we worship him with reverence. We worship him with awe.
Throughout history in the Old Testament, God made very plain both the costliness of entering into his presence and the purity required to do so. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, they had to be exiled from the presence of his holiness. They lost their purity. They could no longer abide in the presence of the holy God. The whole reason that the sacrificial system exists in Old Testament Jewish religion is to signify that the only way this holy God can be approached by sinful people is through atonement, a blood sacrifice for their sins. Animals were sacrificed morning and evening, day after day, season after season, festival after festival, year after year, in order to convince people once and for all of this overarching truth: without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins. If we are going to be accepted by this fearful God, somebody has to die for our sins. And Jesus Christ came as the ultimate sacrifice, the one to whom all those Old Testament sacrifices were pointing. He laid down his life as the sin bearer, so that we might come to know this God, be forgiven, be reconciled, be welcomed into his family, and be given a place at his Table. Because of Christ, we can worship in spirit and truth. Because of Christ, we can come to God, and know him in reverence and awe.
Prayer: Our Father, we thank you for your Word. We thank you for revealing yourself to us as the true and living God. We ask that you would come and help us by your Spirit, that we might worship you as we ought. Forgive us, oh God, for the times and the ways that we have thoughtlessly entered into worship. Convict us, turn us, help us, and strengthen us that we might live as a people who know you, declare you, and worship you in spirit and truth with reverence and with awe for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
For Further Study:
Bridges, Jerry. The Joy of Fearing God. Colorado, Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2004.
Hart, D. G., and John R. Muether. With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship. Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2002.
Longman, Tremper, III. The Book of Ecclesiastes. NICOT. Eerdmans, 1998. Martin, Albert N. The Forgotten Fear: Where Have All the God Fearers Gone? Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.