Ecclesiastes 5: What is the nature of true worship?

Solomon has identified many of the problems that we face in life today – the meaninglessness of it all – and he has shown that all of our solutions don't bring real meaning. He had visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the travellers' way and the palace.

Now, in Ecclesiastes 5: 1-7, he comes to the temple, but instead of simply saying 'God is the answer' he notes that worship is often meaningless. He observes the religious and notices that for all their religious ritual, sacrifices and vows it does not appear to make any real difference. Their acts of worship were insincere and hypocritical. I wonder if that is not the major problem in today's church as well.

What is true worship?John-Mark Kuznietsov/Unsplash

We are to guard our steps in the house of God, which means 'watch how we worship'. We are not used to this at all. The common view is as long as we are worshipping God, what does it matter how we do it? We tend to think of worship as a matter of taste, style and culture. But the Bible regards it as the most important thing we can do and is far more concerned about what God thinks of our worship, than what we think.

1. The Worship of Fools
a. Fools rush in: Solomon speaks of those who rush into the house of God. The whole structure and architecture of the temple spoke of God's inaccessibility except by sacrifice. They forget that 'God is in heaven' – that he is glorious and that there is a vast difference between him and human beings.

A casual approach to God, while it may have the appearance of worship, in fact does a great deal of harm. People are called fools not because they are deliberately coming and doing something wicked, but because they think they are doing good. They are well-meaning, but that is not good enough.

'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men' (Matthew 15: 8-9). 'The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him' (Proverbs 15:8).

 b. Fools don't listen: Here there is hastiness in prayer. Is prayer ever a bad thing? Yes – when we do not consider who we are praying to.

'A dream comes when there are many cares, and many words mark the speech of a fool' (Ecclesiastes 5:3.

Just as a human has dreams (sleepless nights) when they have many responsibilities – so these responsibilities may also lead to careless words. Not just in prayer but in promises – to God. The dreaming refers to daydreaming, casualness, thoughtlessness in approaching God.

'When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong' (Isaiah 1:15-16).

So how do we worship God? How do we approach God?

2. True Worship
In John 4:23 Jesus tells us what true worship is. God is spirit and he seeks those who will worship him in spirit and in truth. This includes heartfelt sincerity but it also includes being thoughtful and attentive.

a. True worshippers use their minds: What we think about God will determine how we worship him. This is what the fear of God means. It is also a theme that runs through the book. 'So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind' (1 Corinthians 14:15).

b. True worshippers listen to God: We must be prepared to listen to the word of God. How are you going to know how or who to worship? Through the word. 'But Samuel replied: "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams"' (1 Samuel 15:22).

Our attitude must be 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,' not 'Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking.' I'll hear what God the Lord will speak.

We are to pray. It does not mean that we are not to pray long prayers – but we are not to do so for a show nor because we think that the longer we pray the more God is likely to reward us. 'And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words' (Matthew 6:7) . We are to take prayer seriously. We are to ask the Lord – teach us to pray'. We need more collective and thoughtful prayer.

We are to pray from the heart. The author of A Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan, wrote: 'In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.'

We are to make vows – sometimes they were made in desperation, some times for great need. '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. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. 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' (Deuteronomy 23:21-23).

When we respond to the Word of God we are making vows. We are to do so thoughtfully, carefully, whole heartedly. And we must fulfill them – do you have unfulfilled vows? We are to take them as seriously as we do our marriage vows. 'Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfil them; let all the neighbouring lands bring gifts to the One to be feared' (Psalm 76:11). How much of our worship is a lie to God?

c. True worship is Christ-centred: Christ tells us that the centre of worship is longer in Jerusalem at the temple. It is now him. Through Jesus we worship. He is our Great High Priest, our Mediator, our Sacrifice, our Hope, our Joy, our Peace, our Saviour. Listen to Jesus and about Jesus. Everything has to be based on him. Christless worship is Godless worship. We are to bring our sacrifices to God – We do not offer animal sacrifices because Jesus is our sacrifice. He is the one who was sacrificed for us. But we are still to bring an offering. We offer:

Our Bodies and Minds: 'Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will' (Romans 12:1-2).

Praise: 'Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased' (Hebrews 13:15-16).

Money: 'I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God' (Philippians 4:18) .

People won to the Saviour: ' be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (Romans 15:16.)

A broken heart: 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise' (Psalm 51:17).

Dare we begin there and ask the Lord to break us so that we might truly seek and worship him? Or are we unwilling to move out of our comfort zone? Do we not trust him enough to know that he will forgive because of who he is, not what we have made him to be, or what we have done? It is possible to worship God in this life. It is possible for our worship to be meaningful. It is what God wants – do we?

David Robertson is associate director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea