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Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 - "Mind The Gap"

Ecclesiastes - Joy At The End of the Tether  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  45:39
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Religion is meaningless if we do not watch our step with God

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Introduction

I have a mug on my desk from England that has a map of the London Underground (The Tube) on one side, and on the other side has the phrase that has become synonymous with that city’s subway system: “Mind The Gap!” Whenever a train comes into a station, that recorded message repeats over and over to warn passengers about the gap between the platform and the train. The phrase is also painted on the edge of the platforms (and in some stations inlaid into the stone itself). Many of the platforms in the system are curved, while the train cars are (obivously) straight—so there can be as much as a one-foot space between the edge of the platform and the edge of the train! The warning was originally delivered by conductors themselves, but in the 1960’s recordings were made to remind people to watch their step as they boarded or exited the train.
Solomon starts of this chapter with the exact same sentiment: “Watch your step!” Verse 1: “Guard your steps when you go into the house of God”. Throughout this book, Solomon has been laying out the futility of trying to make sense of this world apart from the fear of God—from the ceaseless cycle of the seasons to the futility of entertainment, education or wealth, from the constant parade of birth and death, building and tearing down, peace and war, justice and injustice, righteousness and wickedness, oppression and vindication. In every one of these areas, Solomon always brings us back to the truth that apart from God granting us the ability, we cannot understand or enjoy this life “under the sun”.
Ecclesiastes 2:24–26 ESV
24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 3:12–14 ESV
12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
And so if the answer to understanding and enjoying this futility under the sun comes by honoring God, then it makes sense that people should come to God, right? And that is exactly right, but Solomon is warning here to “Mind the gap”--that is, the gap between our understanding about who God is and what He requires on the one side and God’s own revelation of who He is and what He requires. So just as the physical world around us is meaningless apart from the fear of the LORD and the turmoil of our political, social and economic world is futile apart from the fear of the LORD, so religion and spirituality are meaningless apart from the fear of the LORD. And so Solomon reminds us to “mind the gap” in our understanding of who God is and what He requires. And so what he demonstrates for us in our passage this morning is that
RELIGION is MEANINGLESS if we do not “WATCH our STEP” before God
Look again at the first three verses, and we see the first warning Solomon gives us is to

I. Mind the gap of FOOLISH SACRIFICES (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3)

Ecclesiastes 5:1–3 ESV
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. 2 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.
Solomon says that it is better to come to God to listen to what He has to say than to offer your own opinions—don’t be a fool when you come into God’s presence:
Come to LISTEN , not to LECTURE (v. 1)
When Solomon describes “the sacrifice of fools” here, we need to remember that Solomon has written extensively about the nature of the fool, hasn’t he? Throughout the book of Proverbs, Solomon has repeatedly described the difference between wisdom and folly—
Proverbs 1:7 ESV
7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
And later on in Proverbs, Solomon says
Proverbs 28:26 ESV
26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
The individual who comes into God’s presence confident in his own understanding of who he thinks God is and what he thinks God wants, and doesn’t want to hear what God says is coming to “offer the sacrifice of a fool”.
We also need to remember that when Solomon writes about “coming into the house of God”, he is referring to coming to the Temple that he himself built in Jerusalem (you can read about it in 1 Kings 8). And in his prayer of dedication of the Temple, Solomon made it very clear why the Temple had been built:
1 Kings 8:30 ESV
30 And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
1 Kings 8:34 ESV
34 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you gave to their fathers.
1 Kings 8:36 ESV
36 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.
1 Kings 8:39 ESV
39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind),
1 Kings 8:50 ESV
50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you, and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them
Over and over, Solomon says that the reason that God’s people were to come to the Temple was so that they may have forgiveness for their sin. That they were coming not as equals with God for His blessing and fellowship—they were coming as guilty supplicants for His mercy and grace!
And so putting these two things together, we see what Solomon means when he warns against “the sacrifice of fools”—a self-centered attitude that exalts our own understanding of who we think God should be, a mindset that minimizes our sin before God and His offer of atonement and exalts our own worthiness and self-worth instead. Come into God’s presence with that attitude, Solomon says, and you are a fool.
Watch your step when you come into God’s house—mind the gap of foolish sacrifices. Come to listen to God, not to lecture Him on how wonderful you are (like the Pharisee in Luke 18 who could barely contain his self-satisfaction with how holy he was compared to that wretched tax collector! But which one was offering the sacrifice of fools?)
Solomon goes on to make his point even more clearly in Ecclesiastes 5:2. When you draw near to the house of God,
Come to make much of GOD not YOURSELF (v. 2)
Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV
2 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.
God is in heaven, and you are on earth! Solomon made that point clear when he dedicated the Temple in 1 Kings 8:
1 Kings 8:27 ESV
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
For all the grandeur and splendor and richness of that Temple, Solomon knew that it was nothing compared to the splendor and grandeur of God Himself! Solomon didn’t for a moment think that God could actually be contained by the Temple!
And he aims to get that across in verse 2—another reason to keep your mouth shut when you come into God’s presence is that He is infinitely greater and more worthy of praise than you!
The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it well: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That is why you and I and all things have been created—to glorify God and rejoice in Him for all eternity. But as one commentator noted, there are a distressing number of churches out there that seem to think that it is the other way around—that God’s chief end is to glorify man and enjoy him forever!
The idea that God exists to make much of you, that He just wants you to be happy and healthy, that what really matters in this life is that you get what you want and God just waits around for you to tell Him how He can take care of all your troubles and make you feel even better about yourself—that, beloved, is the sacrifice of fools in God’s presence.
Solomon did not built the grand and imposing Temple edifice in order to make people feel big in God’s presence—quite the opposite, right? He wanted them to realize how great God is, and how small we are! Mind the gap of foolish sacrifices that want to make much of you and less of God and His glory!
Come to listen, not to lecture, come to make much of God, not yourself. And third, Solomon says in verse 3 that we are to
Come for CLARITY, not CONFUSION (v. 3)
Verse 3 says
Ecclesiastes 5:3 ESV
3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
The word for “business” here has the idea of “busy work” or work in a diminished, unproductive capacity. This is a difficult verse to unpack, but I think that what Solomon is trying to get across is an experience that all of us have had at one time or another. Have you ever had a dream where you are trying to get somewhere or trying to accomplish a task or something along those lines, and no matter what you do, you just can’t accomplish what you are trying to do? Your feet stick to the ground, or the house you’re walking through keeps shifting and you can’t find your way, or you’re terribly late for an important appointment but you can’t find the right road to turn onto.
It’s a miserable and unsettling feeling, and you wake up from a dream like that exhausted and unsatisfied—that is what Solomon says it is like when a fool brings their foolishness into God’s presence with their incessant argumentativeness and self-justifications and special pleadings and counter-arguments. Fools who trust their own minds rather than God’s will want to complicate things with “nuance” or “modernizing” the Bible or demonstrating why the latest developments in sociology or philosophy must cause us to re-define and re-interpret what God has clearly revealed in Scripture.
But as Charles Spurgeon so memorably put it:
“I am frequently told that I ought to examine at length the various new views which are so continually presented. I decline the invitation: I can smell them, and that satisfies me. I perceive in them nothing which glorifies God or magnifies Christ, but much that puffs up human nature, and I protest that the smell is enough for me” (Sword & the Trowel; 1877, 81)
God’s Word is clear on what the Gospel is—a fool wants to talk about everything but the Gospel in its simplicity; the wise man brings everything back to the Gospel!
Even religion is meaningless if we do not “watch our step” before God. We must “mind the gap” of foolish sacrifices, and Solomon goes on in verses 5-6 to remind us that we must

II. Mind the gap of FOOLISH VOWS (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

Look at verses 4-6:
Ecclesiastes 5:4–6 ESV
4 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?
In the Old Testament context, a vow was a voluntary promise that a person could make to God in exchange for God granting them their prayer—think of Jacob, who vowed that if God would keep him and provide for him that he would make YHWH his God and give a tenth of all he had (Gen. 28:20-22) . Or Hannah in 1 Samuel who prayed that if God would give her a child she would dedicate him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:11). There are also examples of foolish vows, such as Jephthah in Judges 11 who vowed that if God gave him success in battle that he would offer as a burnt sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to meet him—which turned out to be his only child, his daughter.
In his other book, Solomon writes about making foolish vows,
Proverbs 20:25 ESV
25 It is a snare to say rashly, “It is holy,” and to reflect only after making vows.
Solomon wants us to “mind the gap”—the gap between our attitude towards vows to God and God’s attitude towards those vows. Because what we fail to understand is that
God does not FORGET them (v. 4; cp. Numbers 23:19)
You and I are accustomed to letting each other off the hook when it comes to ill-advised or foolish promises; we live in a fallen and broken world where people go back on their word all the time—and where we will go back on our word from time to time. Think over the past several weeks, and you can probably come up with several instances where you had to go back on your word and the other person let you off the hook (or you let someone else off the hook when they broke their word to you).
We cut each other slack when it comes to foolish or ill-advised vows—but God never does.
Numbers 23:19 ESV
19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
You may not care if your integrity is impugned by going back on your word—but God will never allow His integrity to be called into question. You bind yourself to God by a vow—marriage vows, dedicating your child to God, a covenant of church membership—He will still execute it whether or not you still want to!
God does not forget vows we make to Him, and
God does not NEGOTIATE them (vv. 5-6; cp. Deuteronomy 23:21-23)
Verses 5-6 of Ecclesiastes 5:
Ecclesiastes 5:5–6 ESV
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?
Under the Law of Moses, when a person made a vow at the Tabernacle, a messenger from the Tabernacle (same Hebrew word as angel, which is why the KJV translates it that way) would come to collect the terms of the vow at the appointed time. Solomon says that it is foolish to try to negotiate terms of the vow once the collector has come: “Well, the harvest didn’t go as well as I thought, I shouldn’t have vowed a bushel of grain—will you take a quart instead?”
God does not negotiate vows that you have made with Him—His righteousness and His unchanging character demand that He hold you to the full terms of that vow. You made your marriage vows to Him, but then you discover that you have “fallen out of love” with your spouse, so you tell God, “I know I swore an oath before you, but it’s just not working out—You understand, right God? You just want me to be happy, right?”
You make a solemn oath before God and His people to raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the LORD, and they hit their adolescent years and start dragging their feet about going to church, so you say, “God, I know I made this promise to you for my kids, but it’s just so hard to get them to come to church—we’ll try to get them to come at least once every month. You understand, though, right God?”
You come into fellowship and membership with this church body and read the terms of the membership covenant that we make together— “in the presence of God, angels and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ...” And then start reading through it like a second-rate yellow pages lawyer: “Well, what does regular attendance at all stated services really mean?” “Well, it doesn’t say how often we should ‘maintain family and private devotions’...” “It’s not gossip and backbiting when I talk to my friends about how rotten so-and-so has been to me; it’s true!
It’s better not to vow at all than to make a vow before God and then not follow through with it—you may just want to forget about the vows you make to God, but He will not forget them. Solomon brings in the dream imagery again in verse 7
Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV
7 For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Like a confusing, bewildering and frustrating dream, all of our justifications for not keeping our word to God and our attempts to “lawyer our way out” of what we have promised Him just add up to a great big pile of futile and empty promises before the LORD—the vain and meaningless babbling of foolish vows that God will not let pass. All of your meaningless, broken, empty vows swirl around you like a fever-dream, but “God is the one you must fear!”
All of your religious habits—your attitude in worship, the promises you make to God—are meaningless if you don’t “watch your step” before Him. Mind the gap of foolish sacrifices, mind the gap of foolish vows—and here in verse 7 you are reminded that you can

III. Mend the gap by FEARING GOD (Ecclesiastes 5:7)

A fool offers foolish sacrifices and foolish vows before God because “a fool hates wisdom and instruction”, but the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD”. The fear of God is the way that you mend the gap that exists in your foolish understanding of who God is and what He demands—and it is the only way to please Him:
Ecclesiastes 2:26 ESV
26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
The only way to please God is through Jesus Christ, because only in Him
You have a PERFECT SACRIFICE (Hebrews 10:12-14)
that pleases Him. The only way to bridge the gap that stands between you and God is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice offered once for all before God for your sin:
Hebrews 10:12–14 ESV
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
You can never offer a sacrifice that will bridge the gap between you and God—your own foolish heart can only come up with excuses, special pleadings, self-justifications, arguments over why you’re not really that bad of a sinner. All of those arguments against what God says about your condition are nothing more than a roiling fever-dream of futility, and when you come into the presence of God in worship (and someday when you stand before Him on the Day of Judgment) every one of those arguments will be shown for the hollow, empty words that they are. Your only hope to stand before God on that day is to embrace the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as your only hope, your joy and your treasure!
And when in the fear of God you come to Him clinging to that perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for you, you have the wonderful promise from Ephesians 2:
Ephesians 2:4–7 ESV
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
When you come to God through Jesus Christ, you have a perfect sacrifice that reconciles you to Him forever, and
You have an UNBREAKABLE VOW (Hebrews 6:16-19)
from God Himself to save you! In the book of Hebrews we read
Hebrews 6:16–19 ESV
16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,
You and I make promises, we give our word, we make vows before God—and at best, we keep them imperfectly (and at worst we break them outright). But your hope, Christian, is not that you perfectly keep the vows you make toward God, but that He will perfectly keep His vow to you! The God who cannot lie by allowing a vow to fall to the ground will not let His vow to save you fall to the ground!
And even when you fail Him, even when you break your word to Him and drift away from the commitments you have made to Him, He will not break His promise to you--
2 Timothy 2:11–13 ESV
11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
God keeps His promise to save you, Christian, not because of your ability to keep your vows before Him, but because Jesus Christ sealed God’s vow to save you with His own blood! In His death He atoned for every broken promise you have ever made to Him, every vow before His presence you have trampled, every time you’ve let your integrity crumble like a sand castle at high tide. The only reason the wrath of God has not consumed you for your faithlessness, Christian, is because Jesus already absorbed the wrath of God for all of your broken vows!
And this is not to say that you can just make and break vows however you wish, that it “doesn’t matter” whether you keep your promises to God—just the opposite. When you pledge before God to honor your marriage or raise your children before Him or commit yourself to His Body in church membership, you are not making meaningless, empty promises to God—you are making promises that are sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and to break them is to treat His death on the Cross as a means of your convenience to get out of a promise you don’t want to keep! “Well, Jesus died for me, so I can get away with breaking a promise to Him!” God forbid!
Christian, watch your step when you come into the house of God—do not bring the sacrifices of a fool, but come in the fear of God that rejoices that you have found forgiveness through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Do not make rash and impressive promises of what you will do for God—commit yourself to Him, pledge yourself to Him, but it is better not to vow at all than to have your mouth cut a check that your butt can’t cash! Keep the promises you make to God and to one another—and rest in the promise that God has sworn by His own character to do everything He has promised for you in Jesus Christ!
And if you have come here this morning with foolish words on your lips and foolish promises in your heart, if you have come here thinking that you can offer a sacrifice to please God out of your own goodness or make Him a promise that you have no intention of keeping, God’s Word says to you this morning: “Watch your step—mind the gap between what you think about God and what He has revealed about Himself. Stop despising wisdom and instruction, stop telling yourself you can cut a deal with God that will get you into His good graces.
There is only one sacrifice that can reconcile you to Him (and it’s nothing you have done!) There is only one vow that can bind you to Him for eternity (and it is not a vow you can keep!) The perfect sacrifice, the unbreakable vow, can be for you today! So come—and welcome!—to Jesus Christ!
BENEDICTION
Jude 24–25 ESV
24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

Read Proverbs 1:7 and Proverbs 28:26 again. How does Solomon describe a foolish person in these verses? How does that foolishness affect the way a person relates to God and His commands? Where do you see that kind of foolishness towards God demonstrated today?
What does it mean to “make much of God and not yourself” in worship? How will a typical worship service look if it is primarily geared towards making much of us, versus making much of God? What are the ways you can tell that a worship service is focused on making much of God?
What are some examples of commitments that we make to God in our lives? What does Solomon say here about the consequences of breaking our vows before God? Does the fact that Jesus died to save you make it less important to keep your promises before God or more important? Take some time this week to thank God that He will never break His vow to save you through Christ!
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