The Dangers of Going to Church
In Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, Solomon provides some wise counsel on the matter of worship. His concern is not so much the outward form, but with the inner disposition of the worshipper’s heart and soul. Solomon provides three warnings.
1. Church is no Place for Careless Minds
Solomon begins by considering how the worshipper ought to approach “the house of God”. (v 1). A Christian church is ‘a house of God’. It is a place where people come to meet with God in a special way, and they must not approach carelessly: “Guard your steps when you go.” (v 1) The “house of God” is to be approached thoughtfully, just as someone making their way up a steep mountain path needs to be careful lest they fall and injure themselves.
Worship in church brings us into the presence of the infinite, holy God – not of our equal, or someone like us, but of someone infinitely greater. We come as sinful people into the presence of the holy God, and we can no more be careless about approaching God than we can when approaching a raging inferno. We must never be careless of that fact, especially when we come to worship Him: “...let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29) We must never forget that we have no automatic right to worship God. We can do so only by the mercy of God: “But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down towards your holy temple” (Ps 5:7). And, of course, as the NT reveals, it is only through faith in Christ that God in his mercy will receive us.
In Solomon’s day there was the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps as Solomon watched the worshippers, he knew that many were doing so carelessly and thoughtlessly without a sense of awe and reverence. Consequently, their worship was dead, lifeless, mere formality; people mechanically going through the motions with no thought of who it was they were endeavouring to worship. That is a serious matter: “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, And to be held in reverence by all those around Him.” (Ps 89:7)
Solomon warns us that it is a dangerous thing to go to church – because God assumes that we have come to meet him, and not to trifle with him. We have come, not to insult God by mere lip-service, but to worship him in a way that honours and recognises that he is a God to be feared and held in reverence.
2. Church is no Place for Unrepentant Hearts
In Solomon’s day sacrifices were supposed to be brought by people who were humble and thankful, but it seems that many were merely going through the motions of worship. They foolishly imagined that God would be pleased with their offerings whether or not they were offered with the right attitude. But what God wanted was not an offering from the hands, but one from the heart.
The only thing God would accept was genuine repentance of heart: they were not “to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.” (v 1) The “sacrifice of fools” was what God thought of sacrifices offered mechanically, with no sorrow in the heart over sin. All such empty, dead worship is repugnant to God and He will not accept it, because it comes from unrepentant hearts.
Solomon warns us that taking part in worship is not enough to satisfy God. It is all the “sacrifice of fools”, if it comes from hearts that have not first been broken over sin: “...a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:16-17). There is nothing the unrepentant heart can offer to God in worship that He will accept. The question we must ask ourselves is: “What am I doing in church? Could I be offering to God the sacrifice of fools?”
3. Church is no Place for Rash Promises
If it is dangerous to come to church to worship God, it is no less dangerous to open our mouths when we get there. Solomon was all too aware that many vows could be spoken that the heart had no intention of keeping: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfil it.” (vv 4-5).
A vow in the OT was a voluntary promise made to God to do some particular thing. And God expected it to be kept: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. ... Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.” (Deut 23:21, 23). To make a promise to God, and then fail to keep it, is a matter of the greatest seriousness. That is the action, Solomon says, of a “fool”, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” (v 4)
God has no time for pious words or careless promises. It is foolish to pray that God will make us grow in holiness if we do not want to grow in holiness or to sing that God will have control over our lives if we have no intention of yielding control to him. It is foolish to pray that God will call someone to be a missionary if none of us is willing: “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’” (v 6) God delights in the person “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” (Ps 15:4)
How many people open their mouths in a church service with no thought that they are speaking in the presence of God who expects them to put their words into practice? Perhaps we need to say less and think more about the One into whose presence we come to worship: “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.” (v 7)
So then, church is no place for careless minds, unrepentant hearts, or rash promises. But we must remember that these warnings are not given to stop us coming to church. They are given to challenge and encourage us to come to church ready to offer worship pleasing and acceptable to God.