The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.A Call to Reverence
The subject is now changed. Up to this time we have had Coheleth's view of life given with much graphic force and vividness. We have seen his world—a mere card-house of a world, well painted and wonderfully gilded, yet cold and full of discontent, with "Vanity of vanities" written in boldest letters over its portals. Now Coheleth turns to a higher theme. Yet, though the subject has changed, there is no change in the main principle. Coheleth is still talking about vanity, insincerity, and unsatisfactoriness; his strong point is that we may turn the sanctuary itself into an unreality; that the outside world may absorb the sacred enclosure, and that prayer itself may be turned into a mere trick of words. Let us get the Preacher's notion of the house of God:—
"Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil" (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
We are here called to reverence and solidity of character in the place of prayer. Do not be giddy, flippant, and impiously merry in the sacred place. Do not go to talk, but to listen, and be sure to leave all foolishness outside. "Be more ready to hear than to talk." Do not go to the house of God to teach, but to learn. Listen for the coming of the Holy One. Let no vulgar voice throw the spell of its rude music upon you, but open your ear toward heaven and wait patiently for God. Into these modern words may we throw the advice of the Preacher. This is the code of proper behaviour for the sanctuary. The house of God is not a debating club, nor is it an academy of science, much less is it a place of mere entertainment; there is an altar there and a holy revelation, and the omniscient God, and the very air is full of watching and helping spirits. "This is none other than the house of God." Let a man go into the holy place boisterously, self-sufficiently, hot from some vexatious debate, or worried by worldly memories, and he will scare away the spirit of the place; but let him go penitently, simple in purpose, conscious of need, with a heart full of expectation and tender desire towards God, and the poorest music will swell into grand anthems, and the simplest discourse will glow as with fire from heaven. "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoe from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." "Keep thy foot:" put off thy sandals from off thy feet. "The captain of the Lord's host said unto Joshua: Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy." So there is a right way for the foot in the sanctuary. Is there a more unseemly sight than that of irreverent tramplers in the house of God? Are there not many who defile the floor of the house, nor care how their feet injure the very woodwork of God's place of rest? Reverence is the first element of worship. Everything of the nature of restlessness or fretfulness in connection with the services of the sanctuary is to be most solemnly deprecated. "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord." "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." The presence of such a spirit in the worshipper will be a guarantee of reverence, simplicity, and intensest earnestness. Flippancy can hear nothing in all the music of revelation, or in all the sacrifice of song. Its ear is full of vulgar noise, and its eye is on the outlook for objects that can entertain or amuse. Flippancy is an offence in the house of God, and should be scourged out of it, not only because of what it is in itself, but because of its mischievous influence upon the young and the devout. Distinctions must be drawn between place and place. There is common ground upon which all the usual engagements of life can be conducted, but beyond that line there is a sanctuary in which men should tread cautiously, and into which they should look reverently, and where they should listen with profoundest awe, because the only voice to be heard in the sacred place is the voice of God and truth.
"Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few" (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
We have not known the proper place of Silence in the worship of God. We have unduly magnified the eloquence of man, and waited for the opening of human lips rather than for the opening of the gate of heaven. Why should there not be a few moments' silence in every service? Think of a great congregation with bowed heads silently praying for the coming of the divine kingdom, patiently and lovingly expecting the baptism of the Holy Ghost! Would not the sight please him who looks upon the heart and delights in the expectation of his people? Instead of that what is too often seen? Love of excitement, impatient waiting for a favourite preacher, discontent if the pulpit idol falls short of his own mark. This is not worship; it is indeed little better than blasphemy; there is no supreme love of God in it; it is a Sunday gallop through a religious picture gallery—spiritual dissipation thinly disguised by decorous habit. Even when we take part in the worship of God vocally, we should criticise the words we speak lest they convey false meanings to ourselves or to listening heaven. Men may tell lies in hymn and psalm. At the same time it is possible for men to use the noblest forms of adoration, confession, and supplication, and for each worshipper to attach his own meaning to the holy terms he is employing, so that God may know the exact meaning of the worshipper's heart. Even in our prayer and praise we may suggest unworthy doubts in the form of asking questions in reverent terms. The psalmist confessed his own infirmity in this direction; he said: "Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?" Then he remembered that he was but revealing his own infirmity, rather than correctly describing the divine relation to the human race. An instance is given in the New Testament, in which rashness was quietly condemned by Jesus Christ The suppliant woman said: "Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said: Ye know not what ye ask." Coheleth says, "Let thy words be few." This is not to be taken literally, as if the words were to be numbered and not to exceed so many. The spirit condemned is the spirit of talkativeness, talking for talking's sake—mere intellectual flippancy. A prayer may be long in time yet short in quality; that is to say, so long as the heart can really and lovingly talk to God, even if a whole night be spent in prayer it shall be reckoned but as the lapse of a moment. When men speak merely for speaking's sake they do not pray. "When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."
"When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better it is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay" (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5).
How few men have any adequate idea of the extent of the sin of breaking vows! We should be astounded if we knew all that can be said respecting this iniquity. The immorality of nominal Christians in this particular is simply prodigious; so much so that a signature is of no value, a promise is but idle breath, a vow is but a word spoken in heat and allowed to cool into a lie. The Bible insists upon every vow being performed, even though, in some instances, the purpose of it may be to the hurt of the man who is bound by its terms. "That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt vow and perform." "I will pay thee my vows, which my lips have uttered, and my mouth hath spoken, when I was in trouble." "Thy vows are upon me, O God: I will render praises unto thee." If all the vows which we have spoken could be now fulfilled, how great would be the result! Life should be rich with vows: they throw a glad solemnity over us; they come before us as hindrances when we would go in forbidden directions; they are voices that whisper in the wind; they are appeals to our best strength. It is after all but a mean thing to say that we will refrain from making vows; such a condition is not the joy of liberty, it is not the dignity of discipline; it is looseness, license, wildness, selfishness. Throw the discipline of a vow upon passion: build altars all along the line of life's journey, and let those who come after us see how we have prayed, and how we have turned our vows into holy deeds. "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth." This was Old Testament morality in the matter of words. Is there any righteousness superior to that in all the writings of subsequent revelation? Words are not mere sounds or terms or symbols; they are pledges, vows, oaths, unwritten obligations, and no man is to be trusted who can make light of his own word, or speak so lightly as really not to convey the meaning of his heart. "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee. But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee. That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform; even a free will offering, according as thou hast vowed unto the Lord thy God, which thou hast promised with thy mouth." There is one vow which every soul is called upon to make, and that is to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. If we do not vow in one direction it may be because we are anxious to vow in another—that is to say, if we do not vow in prayer it may be that we may take larger license to sin. A very careful distinction should be made here by the spiritual student. Not to vow may be not to incur responsibility; at the same time, abstinence from vowing in an upward and heavenly direction may be a kind of negative vow to enjoy larger moral freedom from religious restraint. Let a man examine himself and be honest in his decisions upon this great subject. Coheleth says, in this fourth verse, God "hath no pleasure in fools," nor ought we to have. Fools are the burdens of society; fools have no right in the sanctuary. It does not follow that a man who is merely ignorant is a fool; this is a folly of the heart; it is moral lunacy; many a man who is almost a genius in mere intellect is the veriest fool in conscience, in sensibility, and in honour of soul.
Coheleth would make out that the sanctuary is wider than the mere walls of the nominal house:—
"If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they" (Ecclesiastes 5:8).
We are cautioned against drawing religious conclusions from what is merely seen by the eye. The world has a side upon which "Atheism" seems to be plainly written. There are scenes which are positively irreligious. Events happen which seem to have no law; rugged, tragic, destructive events; but the Preacher says, There is more than you see—there is an Eye looking through the cloud—there is a Judge who will do right. Do not distress yourselves about things you cannot control. We may tear ourselves to pieces by taking upon us the consideration of questions too high for us. If we be moved, will God be without sensation? If we cannot look on without rising anger, can the Judge of the whole earth look on without just indignation? "For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him." Throughout the whole Scripture we have seen how the Lord espouses the cause of righteousness, and sets himself in eternal hostility against the wicked. Early in the book we become accustomed to such an announcement as this: "The cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them." The outside of the sanctuary is not an unholy place. God's light of common day is not a tainted thing on which no benediction has been pronounced. God's air is not polluted breath. It is the joy of the Christian to believe that the whole earth is a consecrated place, and that God's purpose is to scourge evil out of it and to fill the whole world with his glory.
"Moreover the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field" (Ecclesiastes 5:9).
The profound lesson taught by these words is that where there is profit there ought to be religion. God has surrounded men with religious ministers that are not religiously named. All nature is meant to teach the unity, the majesty, and the bountifulness of God. The growing field is to be a kind of secular sanctuary in which men are to see the handiwork of the beneficent Father. The earth is for all: the humblest man is to find in it a standing-place for life and a resting-place in death. The earth is not to be held by great monopolists, but is to be considered the universal property of the human family. "The king himself is served by the field." There are lines upon which all men are one. We are all guests at one table in the largest sense. Royalty cannot do without agriculture, no more can the poorest human creature who begs a brother of the earth to give him leave to toil. It does us good now and again to get back to those common lines, that we may realise the unity of human nature, and feel how true it is that the prayer which suits all lips is the prayer of Jesus Christ, beginning "Our Father, which art in heaven." We are to be careful not to demand more of the field than we can profitably and beneficially use. We may love silver until we cannot be satisfied with it, and may desire abundance until increase fails to gratify. As hunger has its limits, so ought abundance to be set within boundaries marked by reason and justice. "They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." The cautions addressed to rich men in the Bible are most poignant and numerous. "Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire." All these matters, however, do not come within the region of mere instruction; they are rather connected with the realm of pure spirituality. No miser was ever converted by lecturing. Probably, no covetous man was ever made to see the error of his ways merely through didactic philosophy. We can only be right in these lower matters as we are right with God. When we enter into the pureness of his Spirit, and the all-bountifulness of his heart, we shall know that the earth is for all, and that "the king himself is served by the field," because he is a man first and a king afterwards. To this happy issue, social revolutions of a violent kind contribute next to nothing. Right understandings as to properties and profits and social relations can only come through a wise and loving apprehension of the relation sustained by Jesus Christ to the whole human family. In the meantime there are great compensations to be enjoyed by all honest souls:—
"The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12).
Many a man who has not the proprietor's parchment has the poet's appreciation of the landscape. Men should be more anxious to discover the compensations than to dwell upon the deficiencies and discomforts of life. Coheleth was not slow to notice many sore evils amongst those who seemed to have all the earth at their command; beyond all men he could see behind the scenes and fix his eye attentively upon the worm which was gnawing the root of the stoutest tree. The Preacher saw a sore evil in the fact that "riches" are "kept for the owners thereof to their hurt." Another sore evil he saw in the son rising to scatter the wealth of the father. And yet another sore evil he beheld, in that a man came into the world with nothing and with nothing went out of it, as if he had laboured for the wind and found no profit in all the storm. "Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him." "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." He who enters into the spirit of this philosophy and bows himself under the influence of this sublime resignation can never be poor. His song is: "Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." Christianity rids us of the sophism that increase of possessions is increase of life. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." Even the psalmist had a foretaste of this great blessedness when he exclaimed: "Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased."
Almighty God, thou dost see us as we are; there is nothing hidden from thine eye. Thou knowest how far our spirit and our posture are one: we cannot hide the discrepancies between our ceremonies and our truest desires from the Living Eyes. All things show themselves to thee in their reality. Thou God seest us through and through: we cannot hide anything from thee; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee. Thou knowest the thought before it is a speech—yea, thou knowest the motive in its earliest motion, in the deepest recesses of the soul. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; yet it is the best thing. Thou knowest our frame, thou rememberest that we are dust; thou dost not expect more from us than our poor strength can give. It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Thy compassions fail not. Thou seest every upward look; thou hearest every sigh that has in it the solemnity of prayer. Thou dost watch us in our best moments as well as in our worst, and thou knowest the gold that is to be found in all the mixture of our character. Thou dost separate the chaff from the wheat: the wheat thou dost retain, the chaff thou wilt commit to the wind. It is, therefore, better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Judge us, O God, and spare us! If thy judgment come through our petition, it shall not be solely judgment: in it there shall be mercy and pity and anxious love, a father's desire to discover, even amidst ruins, some trace of filial attachment and childlike love. We put ourselves into thy hands, not for the judgment of the law, but for the consideration of mercy. God be merciful unto us sinners! The Lord hear us wherein we desire his pity, and let him multiply it upon us until our sins be swallowed up in the appointed way through Jesus Christ, Son of man, Son of God, Lamb of God, Saviour of the world. Amen.