Kids provide the best stories! Seven-year-old Matthew has always been eager to try new foods. So one dinner his grandma served roast beef accompanied by an unfamiliar side dish. Curious, Matthew asked what it was. “Horseradish,” she replied. Everyone around the table cautioned Matthew about what horseradish is like. But he ignored them, piled some on his plate, then scooped it up with his spoon and took it all in with one swallow. Seconds later, his face contorted in shock as he gasped, “Which part of the horse is it?”
Ruby J. Cleroux, Vauxhall, Alberta. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”
We get ourselves in trouble when we talk more than listen, when we value our own opinion more than coming to learn. And in this week’s passage as we continue our series in Ecclesiastes, Solomon challenges us to come before the Lord humbly and teachable. If you would, please open your Bible or Bible app to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, chapter five.
Away with consumer Christianity
There is a common tendency to rate worship services. It is natural to look for a church that only confirms what you already believe. It is typical that people leave a church as soon as they hear something that challenges long-held opinions. You need to know up front that this week’s passage is a direct confrontation of consumer Christianity, of bringing our consumer mindset into our faith. Open your Bible or Bible app to Ecclesiastes chapter 5 for this challenging warning.
While you’re turning there, a reminder of who wrote this: ancient Israel’s king Solomon, son of David. Where David wanted to build the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon is the one who did it. The Temple drew admirers from nations far and wide, as they came to admire the beautiful architecture with clerestory windows, massive stone pillars, gold, bronze, ornately carved exotic woods, amazing choirs, and elaborately dressed priests. All of your senses would have been engaged: touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight.
And yet even in that first generation able to come before God in that amazing place, worshipers began to approach God flippantly, disrespectfully, superficially. And so in Ecclesiastes, where most of the time Solomon laments life “under the sun,” meaning life apart from God, in this chapter he has to turn his attention to coming to God in a manner that is no different than those who are rushing through life without God.
Led by the Holy Spirit, Solomon lays before us two revelations, along with the appropriate response to each of those revelations. If you want to take notes, here’s the first revelation and response. When you make the choice to get up and come here to worship God; when you crack open your Bible to read God’s Word; and when you get down on your knees to pray to God, remember this revelation and right response:
- God is speaking—so I will listen intently.
The revelation is that when we come to church, to reading the Bible, or to prayer, God is speaking. The appropriate response, then, is to talk less and listen more. Listen intently for how the Holy Spirit is trying to break through to me, what he’s saying to us together as a local church. Here’s how Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes 5:1…
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.
Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools,
who do not know that they do wrong.”
Solomon in effect nails a big bold warning sign at the entrance into the Temple: Caution: God inside.
When our daughter went on a school trip to Greece and Italy a year ago, she noted that when the Sistine Chapel was crowded with tourists, a curator at the chapel was completely ineffective in attempting to get everyone to quiet down and let that place of worship do what it was designed to do—make space for worshipers to hear God, to come with quiet reverence before the One represented in all of that artwork.
By contrast, when my wife and I visited that same chapel years ago, we got in line long before it opened, walked briskly through the Vatican museum, and were able to be in the Sistine Chapel without a crowd. I laid on the floor and quietly took it all in. Being quiet and listening was the only appropriate response to God who inspired the art before us.
Solomon contrasts that with fools whom he apparently observed strolling into the Temple as casually as if it was the local farmer’s market, talk-talk-talking the whole time, oblivious to Who was in that place and why that place was there. That’s ‘the sacrifice of fools’ he speaks of, that they just don’t stop spouting their opinions in the place of worship. They’re so full of themselves that they don’t even know they’re doing wrong.
Of course what Solomon observed 3,000 years ago still happens today. Like people back then, we like to hear ourselves talk. A writer for the old TV series The Simpsons notes that “Talking is like drinking a great Cabernet. Listening is like doing squats … Listening is like reading a corporate report. Talking is like eating a cinnamon bun.” What vivid imagery!
And so he suggests, “Take this simple test: After your next long conversation with someone, estimate what percentage of it you spent talking. Be honest.” He continues, “No, you’re already underestimating. How do I know? Because it’s more fun to talk than to listen.” It’s much more fun to talk than to listen. But when we come before God, Solomon cautions, “Draw near to listen…” Come listening for wisdom. Listen for insight, for a blind spot to come into view, for a lousy attitude to be pointed out. Listen for what the Lord wants to affirm in you. And listen just as eagerly for correction, rebuke, a change in perspective.
Rob Lazebnik, “It’s True: You Talk Too Much,” The Wall Street Journal (10-4-13)
I have a music teacher friend who periodically took high school student groups to Europe. Without fail, he witnessed the same phenomenon every year. Hopping off the bus in, say, Paris, students would be talking, laughing, being loud as they walked up to the main entrance of Notre Dame Cathedral.
But as soon as they walked through the main doors, without a word of instruction from Brad, all talking ceased. Heads craned upward, jaws dropped, and they felt what Solomon commends: Wonder. Worship. Right-sizing of themselves in light of the One represented in the architecture before them. The only appropriate response was to stop jabbering…and listen. As Psalm 46 and Habakkuk chapter 2 remind us…
“Be still, and know that I am God…
The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.”
Psalm 46:10; Habakkuk 2:20
Can this good come from the pandemic?
Would you wonder with me? Is it possible that maybe, something good that can come from the pandemic is that we slow down to be quiet before God more often? This spring we interviewed a couple in NYC who caught COVID-19: they were clear that since getting sick made them slow down, that’s something they want to keep moving forward.
But the reason Solomon writes this is because it doesn’t happen automatically. As much 3,000 years ago as today, we need this revelation that when we come before the Lord, He is speaking. The New Testament expands on this in Hebrews and 2 Timothy, telling us…
“The word of God is alive and active.
Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit,
joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.
Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account…
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Hebrews 4:12-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Three of the most fundamental beliefs of Jews and Christians throughout history
are that God exists, God is communicating with us, and God is at work among us.
His Word—the Scriptures—are the primary way God shows himself alive and active in people’s lives. So we want to be careful to be less like tourists missing God in the Sistine Chapel. We want to be more like high school students quieting ourselves in the presence of One so very different from us.
A friend of mine recently had to undergo cancer surgery. God’s Word is intended to work like a top-notch surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through our defenses and laying us open to his good work of making us more like Christ.
Are we listening?
But we have a problem. And it’s one we’re typically blind to. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s as old as Solomon. Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with what you already believe. It’s the tendency to automatically dismiss anything that challenges what we believe. And you need to know that confirmation bias is strongest when it comes to deeply held beliefs.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this in his book Life Together. Bonhoeffer was from Germany but teaching in America when his homeland came under the sway of Adolph Hitler. He saw his countrymen hearing what they wanted to hear from the Third Reich. They wanted a stronger economy, and Jews served as an easy scapegoat. They wanted national pride, and the Third Reich offered that in spades. Many Germans became deaf to their confirmation bias. And so Bonhoeffer went back. Fully understanding the risk, he returned to Germany during Hitler’s hold on popular imagination. Bonhoeffer tried to get through to his countrymen—and touched on the need to listen better, both to people and to the Lord. Bonhoeffer writes…
“Christians…so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others…They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.
But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.
This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), pages 97-8
So if constant talking and spouting opinions is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life; if confirmation bias blinds us to God correcting our skewed perspectives and opinions; then I have to ask: when is the last time you changed a belief or practice in light of God’s Word? Is everything you believe about God, people, race, politics, money, sex, and power the same as, say, five or ten years back?
Or can you point to specific issues and convictions where you have changed in light of the light of God’s Word on that issue? In an era marked by proud boasting of every position across the board on any given issue, are your views coming under the influence and reshaping of Scripture? Or as Solomon might ask, are we listening when we come before the Lord?
So…as we gather for church like this; when we open the Bible to read; when we bow our heads to pray…
Let’s be sure to take this first revelation and response to heart: God is speaking (there’s the revelation)—so let’s listen intently (there’s the right response). “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools…”
Solomon continues with a second revelation and right response. Here they are:
- God is listening—so I will keep my commitments faithfully.
“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool…
Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.
When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.
It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.
Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.
And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’
Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?””
God is in heaven, and we are on earth. So let our words be few. Don’t rush past this. Sit in it. The God of the universe, the One who is vaster than the Milky Way and familiar with the smallest quarks, the Master Designer of everything, the One before whom angels hush in silence, is listening right now for you, for what is on your heart and mind. You have an audience with the King over all Presidents and prime ministers and kings. And yet far more than a first-time parent listens for their infant crying out at night, God who is in heaven, is also near as you call on him.
The image here that God is in heaven and we are on earth emphasizes not distance, but perspective. From where you and I stand, all we can see is the moment. That’s all we get to see. God is seated above it all, well able to lead us through trouble and stress and hardship and temptation and sin and failure. He is listening. So come.
And come understanding that you don’t have to bring a torrent of words. Your prayer is no less powerful when it’s brief. Jesus lambasted religious hypocrites who went on and on in long prayers aimed at impressing others.
A friend in college told how her Dad became a Christian well into his parenting years and went to his first-ever prayer meeting. Everyone sat in a circle and when it was time to pray, the man to his right started…and it sounded like he was never going to bring the plane in for a landing. Then the person to that man’s right prayed, just as long and just as filled with showing off. All the way around the circle that’s how it went, until at long last it was his turn to pray. Well, he had been getting madder and madder all this time, so his first public prayer was to spit out in anger, “Lord, thank you for these men who know so much!”
Dwight Moody had some fun with this as well. Moody noted that…
“Some men’s prayers need to be cut short at both ends and set on fire in the middle!”
So “Let your words be few,” advises wise old Solomon, who could have out-talked anyone in Jerusalem. The smartest guy in the room understood that when we come to pray, there’s no inherent value in rambling. God is already listening.
John Bunyan, author of the great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, added that…
“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart.”
Let me ask you: what’s on your heart lately? What’s weighing you down? What worries you? What makes your blood boil or leaves you deeply discouraged? Bring all of that before the Lord in prayer. As the apostle Peter urges us in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Lift up your worries, and receive his peace. God is listening.
What Solomon goes after here is the caution that whatever commitments we make to the Lord, it’s crucial to keep them, to follow through. Both the Old and New Testaments give us examples of people making voluntary commitments to the Lord, and then doing what they promised. Commitments help us to put feet on our faith.
Some churches invite members to make a financial commitment near the start of a new ministry year, as a help to the church budgeting their ministry. In our movement, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, we sometimes invite members to make a faith commitment to how much you will give to international missions in the year ahead. Do you have to? Not at all. Making a written commitment can help us to follow through on what the Lord puts on our hearts. Solomon’s caution is against either making a promise to God with no intention of keeping it, or of making a promise to God but delaying in doing what you said.
Kind of like the story of the businessman who was late for an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking space. As he frantically circled the block, he got so desperate that he decided to pray. Looking up toward heaven, he said, “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking space, I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I’ll tithe. I’ll volunteer. I’ll invite others to church. I’ll be the best neighbor possible.” Miraculously, a parking space appeared. To which the guy looked up again and said, “Never mind. I found one.”
We can’t manipulate God. We certainly never fool God. We have nothing to barter with, no power over God. Our prayers should never be, “God, I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me.” Instead, let’s simply come before the Lord with humble hearts and an economy of words, trusting that He will do what is ultimately best for us and for those we pray for. That’s it. No need to make it too complicated. No need to make extra promises as though they’ll convince God to go the extra mile. He’s already listening. So what commitments we make, let’s be sure to keep.
I want to end on an extremely practical note, because I think that’s where Solomon is trying to lead us. Right now is the most unsteady time of our lives for many of us, for many of our neighbors, for many around the world. Let’s not rush past that.
And so if there was ever a time when making and keeping our promises matters, it’s now. For all the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, economy, politics and more, if we will stick together, we can make it through anything. There’s a commitment worth making and keeping—that I will have your back and you will have mine, and we will have each other’s backs together as yChurch.
I love how Lewis Smedes speaks of this, saying, “Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough, because they promised once to see it through. They stick to ‘lost causes.’ They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make.” Smedes continues, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”
That is not too strong a claim. Listen to how Smedes concludes, and we will conclude with this:
“What a marvelous thing a promise is!
When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay.
When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”
Lewis Smedes, “The Power of Promises,” A Chorus of Witnesses, (Eerdmans, 1994)
I thank God for the people who made the commitment to show and tell me about Jesus when I was far from God as a 19-year-old. I thank God for parents who stuck with their marriage vows through sickness and health, including my Mom’s significant struggles with mental illness. I thank God for fellow parents who promised before God to raise their kids to know and love Jesus, and they’re doing it, day in and day out. And I pray to God that we will be the kind of church that makes and keeps the most important commitments to the Lord and to one another. Again, we can handle anything so long as we face it together. Toward that end, let’s pray.
Our Father in heaven, we thank you that in your wisdom, the Jerusalem Temple was only for a time, and that now your Church is everywhere. Where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, he said, he’s here in our midst. We are in your presence right now. So we commit ourselves to listening to you. Unstop our ears from anything that keeps us from hearing what the Spirit is saying to us. Move us, we pray, to keep our commitments when they get tested, when we feel impatient or frustrated or wounded or wronged.
Father, we thank you for sending Jesus to show us what a life of joyful commitment to you and one another can look like. Make us more like him, we pray, asking these things for your glory and for our good. — Amen!