Vanity in Religion: 1. Thoughtlessness
Ecclesiastes 5:1
Keep your foot when you go to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools…

From secular life the Preacher turns to religious. He has sought in many quarters for peace and satisfaction, but has found none. Royal palaces, huts where poor men lie, cells of philosophers, banqueting-halls, are all alike, if not all equally, infested by vanities which poison pleasure and add to the burden of care. But surely in the house of God, where men seek to disengage their thoughts from things that are seen and temporal, and to fix them upon things that are unseen and eternal, where they endeavor to establish and maintain communion with their Creator, one may count upon finding a haven of refuge for the soul from vanity and care. But here, too, he perceives that, by thoughtlessness, formalism, and insincerity, the purpose for which worship was instituted, and the blessings it may secure, are in danger of being defeated and nullified. But a change is manifest in the tone in which he reproves these faults. He lays down the whip of the satirist, he suppresses the fierce indignation which the sight of these new follies might have excited within him, and with sober earnestness exhorts his hearers to forsake the faults which separate between them and God, and hinder the ascent of their prayers to him and. the descent of his blessings upon them. His feelings of reverence, and his conviction that in obedience to God and in communion with him peace and satisfaction may be found, forbid his saying of genuine religion that it is "vanity and vexation of spirit." So far as the spirit of his exhortation is concerned, it is applicable to all forms of worship, but we find some difficulty in ascertaining the kind of scene which was in his mind's eye when he spoke of "the house of God." If we are convinced that it is Solomon speaking in his own person, we know that he must refer to the stately building which he erected for the service of God in Jerusalem; and we understand from his words that he is not depreciating the offering of sacrifices, but is giving the admonition so often on the lips of the prophets, that the external act without accompanying devotion and love of righteousness, is in vain (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 1:8, 9; Proverbs 21:3; Isaiah 1:11-17; Jeremiah 7:22, 23; Mark 12:33). But if we have here the utterance of a later writer, may there not be a reference to the synagogue service, in which the reading of the Word of God and exposition of its meaning were the principal religious exercises employed? May not the writer be understood as affirming "that a diligent listening to the teaching imparted in the synagogue is of more real value than the 'sacrifices' offered up in the temple by 'fools'"? The answer we give is determined by the opinion we form as to the date of the book. But even if we are unable to decide this point, the exhortation before us will lose none of its significance and weight. The underlying truth is the same, whether the primary reference be to the gorgeous ritual of the temple, or to the simple, unadorned services of the synagogue, which in later times furnished the pattern for Christian worship. The first fault against which the Preacher would have his hearers be on their guard is that of thoughtlessness - entering the house of God inconsiderately (ver. 1). The form in which the admonition is expressed is probably intended to remind his readers of the Divine command to Moses in the desert when he drew near to the bush that burned with fire: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5; cf. also Joshua 5:15).

I. Our first duty in entering the house of God is, therefore, TO BE REVERENT BOTH IN MANNER AND IN SPIRIT. The outward expression of this feeling, whatever form, according to the custom of our time, or country, or Church, it may take, is to be an indication of the frame of mind in which we enter upon the service of God. It is true that there may be a reverent manner without devoutness of spirit, but it is equally true that there cannot be devoutness of spirit without reverence of manner. The true frame of mind is that which springs from a due sense of the solemnity attaching to the house of God, and of the purpose for which we assemble in it. It is not superstition, but genuine religious sentiment, that would lead us to be mindful of the fact that it is no common ground which is enclosed by the sacred walls; that it is here that we meet with him whom "the heaven of heavens cannot contain." Though we are at all times in his presence, his house is the place in which we entreat him to manifest himself to his congregated people. Yet, though we know that- the place and the purpose of our frequenting it are of the most holy and solemn nature, it is only by a strong effort that we can maintain the frame of mind we should be in when we wait upon God in his house. It is only by resolutely determining so to do that we can control our wandering thoughts, suppress frivolous and sinful imaginations, and divest ourselves of the secular cares and anxieties which occupy only too much of our attention in the world outside the sanctuary.

II. Our second great duty is THAT OF OBEDIENCE TO THE DIVINE LAW; "for to draw near to hearken is better than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they know not that they do evil" (Revised Version). Not only should there be reverence of manner and spirit in the presence of God, but a desire to know what he requires from us, and a disposition to render it. Love of holiness, and endeavors to exemplify it, are essential to all true service of God. By hearkening is evidently meant an attitude of mind which leads directly to obedience to the words spoken, to repentance and amendment when faults are reproved, and to a love and practice of the virtues commended. In the Epistle of James (1. 19-25) we have an inspired commentary upon this precept in the Book of 'Ecclesiastes. The Christian teacher enforces the same lesson, and depicts the contrast between the "forgetful hearer" and the'" doer of the Word." The one is like a man looking for a moment into a mirror, and going on his way, and speedily forgetting what he looked like; the other is like a man who uses the revelation the mirror gives him of himself, to correct what in him is faulty. The latter returns again and again to examine himself in the faithful glass, for the purpose of removing those stains which it may show are upon him. This reverence of manner and spirit and this love of righteousness alone give value to worship; omission of them through thoughtlessness is a positive offence against God. - J.W.

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

WEB: Guard your steps when you go to God's house; for to draw near to listen is better than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they don't know that they do evil.

The Temple and the Worshippers
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