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Author:Rev. A Veldman
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Southern River
 West Kelmscott
Title:Since our life has been freed from vanity the LORD asks us to live in sincerity before Him.
Text:Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (View)
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading : Eccl. 3,16 - 4,16
Text : Eccl. 5, 1-7
Ps. 122 : 1,2,3
Ps. 119 : 60
Hy. 45 : 3,4 > after baptism (standing)
Ps. 66 : 6
Ps. 19 : 4,6
Ps. 116 : 7,9,10
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

When reading the book Ecclesiastes sometimes one may get the feeling, the author has a very negative outlook on life. Vanities of vanities, all is vanity, grasping for wind. What profit has a man from all his labour in which he toils under the sun. At first reading, it indeed seems to be all very negative.
Yet, beloved, when reading this book a bit more carefully it's not negative at all. For the aim of the Preacher is to show that this vanity fades away when from this often so broken life we direct our eye on high to God in heaven, who - although we cannot always see it like that - never-theless has made everything beautiful in its time. And therefore, the life we live today is not in vain, not in vain when we live it in the Lord. That was the conclusion of the sermon of last week Sunday.

In that sermon I also mentioned that the Preacher, living in the Old Testament era as yet did not have as clear an insight in these things as we as church of the New Testament have it today. He did not yet know about Christ who - by His sacrifice on the cross - redeemed a creation groaning in travail from its bondage to decay, as the apostle Paul writes it in Ch. 8 of his letter to the Romans. That insight the Preacher did not yet have. Nevertheless, he knew that this Redeemer would come. How? Since in the midst of this world, where everything seemed to be in vain, the Preacher saw a temple standing, where on a daily basis sacrifices were brought, which foreshadowed the coming of this Redeemer. Thus, even though living in the time of the OT, the Preacher knew in the same way as we know it today, when life is lived with the Lord it's not in vain.

When life is lived with the Lord - but then one also has to be sincere in this. And that brings us to the text chosen for this morning's sermon, the message of which I have summarized as follows,

To this end in our text the Preacher urges the readers of his book
1) to guard their steps )
2) to heed their words ) before the Lord
3) to keep their vows )

I Our text starts with the words,"Walk prudently when you go to the house of God." The house of God - this was in the Preacher's day the temple, i.e. - as I said it in the introductory words of the sermon - the place where life got meaning again; the place, where God met with His people, proclaiming true life to them.
Well - so the Preachers warns his readers - "Guard your step when you go the house of the LORD." Guard your step - that's what one has to do when walking through difficult terrain, for example through a gorge or climbing a mountain. You will understand that this is not what the Preacher means, as if the road to travel to the temple was a difficult road to walk on. No, the point he wants to make is this: when going to the temple one should realize what he is doing since in the temple you are standing on holy ground. Because of it one cannot go to the temple with-out properly preparing himself for it. That's why the Preacher says, "Guard your step ." Don't go to the temple bringing sacrifices just out of custom. Realize what you are doing. The LORD requires sincerity.
The Preacher comes with this warning since in his day this sincerity was lacking. In Ch. 3, 16 the Preacher writes, "I saw under the sun in the place of judgment wickedness was there. And in the place of righteous-ness iniquity was there." In Ch. 4,1 we read about oppression of the poor. One may wonder why all these things happened among God's people. From the continuation of Ch. 4 we learn that in the day of the Preacher there was a climate of individualism in the same way as we meet it also in today's society. In Ch. 4, 7 & 8 we read, one alone, without companion, tries to enrich himself, everything for him alone. The total opposite of practising the communion of saints as described by the Preacher in the verses 9-12 of this same chapter; a communion where the one helps the other and where together people try to withstand the attacks of the evil one.

Decline in the church! Yet, at the same people faithfully brought their sacrifices to the temple. So what was there to complain? In the same way as it sometimes happens also nowadays, people did not see that in doing so they broke life up in two segments. One segment for the LORD, where they faithfully brought their sacrifices to the temple, so the LORD re-ceived what He required, nothing to complain about. Yet the other seg-ment was the segment of every day life, where God's commandments were no longer honoured.

It's against this dark background, beloved, that you must read the warn-ing of the Preacher in Ch. 5,1, "Guard your step when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil."

I think the message is clear, beloved, also for today. In the chapters 1-4 the Preacher had said, when looking at life no further than just with the physical eye it all seems to be in vain. Yet when you look further, looking at things also with spiritual eyes, you see God's hand; God who made everything beautiful in its time. In faith you may see that life as a gift of God, and once you have seen this, all that you do is no longer in vain. For when you do it in and for the Lord it bears rich fruit. That was the conclu-sion of the sermon of last week Sunday.
But, beloved, this now also involves consequences. For one who in this way has come to understand the rich meaning of life will never serve God just out of custom, like the gentiles do, who offer sacrifices to their idols simply to keep peace with their gods. Beloved, the LORD our God is too holy for this. And therefore, "Guard your steps when go to the house of the LORD."

Translating this in today's terminology we are warned here to realize what we are doing when we go to church on Sunday. Then we too have to guard our steps. For going to church means we as sinful creatures may meet with holy God. Well, then we too do well to prepare ourselves prop-erly for it. If we do so, beloved, then it will not happen that on Saturday evening we feast till early Sunday morning, perhaps go with a hangover to bed, to come in church rather sleepy, or still dull in our mind of drink-ing too much alcohol. That's not serving the LORD in sincerity. Guard your step, says the Preacher.
It's also possible that we go to church because that's what's expected from us. We don't want to come into trouble with the consistory, yet we keep it to a minimum, just once a Sunday. You fulfil your duty, but it doesn't come from the heart. It should not surprise us when sitting in church this way, we don't get much out of a sermon. We leave the church as we came in, not really fed.
Guard your step, realize what you are doing when going to church. For it is the LORD who wants to meet us here, who wants to feed us here with the bread of life. The gospel is proclaimed to us from different angles. Well, this requires proper preparation. It requires that we go to church with a listening ear, an open heart, full of expectation, willing to give our-selves.

In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled," filled with the righteousness Christ has obtained for them.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness, this means you are willing to lis-ten and are also prepared to obey, lest we are only hearers and not doers of the Word. This also means we should not sit in church preoccupied merely with our own ideas and thoughts. For then it so easily happens when hearing something there is straight away that counter voice:
I feel this differently or my situation is different and therefore this does not apply to me. Or: this is too old fashioned, times have changed. The minister doesn't keep up with the times, otherwise he would not have said this.

Realize, beloved, the message of the gospel often opposes our own ideas; ideas which we might find difficult to give up. It's indeed a hard battle for all of us, for me as much as for you beloved, to break with sinful hab-its. At such a moment, it might be hard to accept the message of the gos-pel. Yet, if we do so, we are truly wise. For then we build the house of our life on the rock Jesus Christ, and a more secure foundation one will never be able to find.

"Guard your step when you go the house of the LORD." I think, beloved, there is enough homework here for all of us. To emphasize this warning the Preacher adds, "Draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil." Draw near to hear - this is a warning we meet more often in Scripture, for example in I Sam. 15. In this chapter, we read about King Saul returning victoriously from the bat-tle against the Amalekites. The command of the Lord had been to utterly destroy Amalek. Yet, Saul spared king Agag, and also the best of the sheep, oxen, fatlings and lambs. When he meets Samuel, he says that he kept all this cattle to bring sacrifices to the Lord God in Gilgal. Wasn't that a very pious motive? But then Samuel says, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifices and to heed than the fat of rams." No, this does not mean that sacrifices are not important. Dur-ing the time of the OT it was essential that these sacrifices were brought, but only when this was done in sincerity. They could not replace the obe-dience with the LORD required from His people. The LORD hates it when sacrifices are brought simply in a formalistic manner.
This becomes clear from the prophecies of Isaiah. Again a time during which the Israelites faithfully visited the temple bringing the required sac-rifices, yet also in those days sincerity was lacking. In Isaiah 1 we read about a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers. To these people the LORD says, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me? I have had enough of burnt offering of rams and the fat of fed cat-tle." You trample my courts with futile sacrifices. I cannot endure iniq-uity and the sacred meeting. Cease to do evil, learn to do good.

Well, beloved, the same warning we read in our text, "Draw near to hear rather than to bring the sacrifice of fools." Therefore, "Guard your step when you go to the house of God." The LORD asks sincerity. He hates a formalistic serving of Him. The LORD looks at the heart. Yes, then a multitude of sacrifices cannot cover up the sin in our heart. The LORD loathes such serving of Him.

Translating all this in language for today then the warning in all this is: one can faithfully come to church, but when the heart is not in it, it is a futile sacrifice. Sometimes you hear people coming home from church say, "It didn't do me much this morning." They leave church as they came in. But, beloved, how is this possible when considering: in church you meet your faithful covenant God, who by the preaching of the gospel wants to raise your life above its every-day-vanity. It's here in the church that the fountains of life spring, where life receives meaning again; that life which at times is so hard to cope with. So often through the week we too struggle with the meaning of it all. But then a new week starts again, it's Sunday, we may go to church to be fed with that living Word of our faithful covenant God. And so life receives prospect again. How wonder-fully this is, beloved.

"Guard your foot when you go to the house of the LORD." In very prac-tical terms this means, make sure that your going to church never be-comes just a habit, but instead be glad and rejoice, yes be filled with wonder that every Sunday again you may start a new week with the LORD. Every Sunday here in the church you may listen to the message of salvation in Christ through whom also your life has been freed from van-ity.

II Urging the readers of his book to live in sincerity before the LORD, the Preacher not only warns them to guard their steps, but also to heed their words. In vs. 2 of Ch. 5 he writes, "." The point the Preacher wants to make here is, whenever we draw near to God in prayer we have to realize to whom we are speaking. Know your place, so the Preacher says. Know that you are addressing God who has His throne in the heav-ens. True, through the accomplished work of the Lord Jesus Christ there is connection between God's palace above and the dwelling place of man on earth, in Scripture called God's footstool. Palace over against footstool - in other words God is not your friend, he is your heavenly Father. Well, this should also be reflected in the way we address God.

Having seen the vanity of life, in Ch. 5 the Preacher points to the temple, i.e. the place where this vanity is taken away by the blood of reconcilia-tion. Especially in the temple life received prospect again. But what does the Preacher see now: people entering the temple rushing their prayers just out of routine, prayers which did not come from the heart, but which were offered merely as lip service, and this of all places in the temple. Beloved, that's the background against which we have to read the warn-ing recorded in vs. 2. It's the same warning against which later on also the Lord Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 6,7 & 8, "." With this warning the Lord Jesus does not forbid us to keep asking God for certain things, but with this prohibition He wants to correct the idea that we can impress God with quantity of words. Don't think that simply by the quantity of your words or by making your prayers sounding very piously you will get God on your side. The Lord looks at the heart. And then to God a stumbling prayer might well be of much greater value than a prayer nicely formulated. Ultimately, it's not the words that count but what lives in the heart. As we heard it not so long ago in a sermon on LD 46, basic to our prayer should be childlike reverence and trust.

In vs. 3, continuing his warning against vain prayers, the Preacher says, "." Most likely, in the day of the Preacher this was a common proverb, which in the context of our text is now applied to prayers uttered in vain. It's like a dream says the Preacher. You had a busy and very tiring day. At night when you want to go to sleep your mind cannot find rest. You remain restless even in your sleep. As a result you dream all kind of things. Well, says the Preacher, likewise it is with those vain prayers. You say all sort of things, but you are not really with it. The same thought is expressed by the Preacher in vs. 7, "."

Here we touch again on one of the central issues of the book Ecclesiastes, namely that we must fear God. As I said last week in the sermon, this does not mean that we have to be scared of God, afraid of Him. After all, through Christ God has become our Father. Yet - as it is taught also in LD 46, HC - this should not cause us to think of God's heavenly majesty in an earthly manner. God is our Father, but at the same time also holy God, whom we ought to address with reverence, and not just out of rou-tine.

This too, beloved, is a very timely warning also for us today. For I think we all can identify with situations where, when praying we spoke the words, whilst our thoughts were wandering somewhere else. How easily this happens sometimes, especially when prayer is offered to God just out of routine. For example at night, you go through the motion of closing the day of with the Lord, but is the heart really in it.
Let me try to make this clear in a very practical way. No doubt when closing off another day with the Lord we will also pray that the Lord will forgive us the sins committed that day. But do we really feel sinful at such a moment or is this just a phrase. What I mean is, when at that very moment you would have to mention the sins of that day, how far would you come? Only a couple of sins? The other day in the Catechism class when speaking with my students about this very same issue I said, when you pray for forgiveness of sins tonight just try to mention 10 sins, and this not to give you a real miserable feeling, but to stand the more in awe of God's grace that He will forgive you all those sins.
See, beloved, this enriches prayer and brings us closer to the Lord. Then we don't go just through the motions of asking for forgiveness, but then we confess honestly for the Lord: this went wrong again, there I fell short again, Lord what a mess. O Lord, be merciful to me a sinner. Yes, then realizing that we are indeed allowed to start with a clean sheet, we will marvel the more at the greatness of God's mercy.

This is only one example, I could give more, for example with respect to expressing our thankfulness to God. Again, try to mention the things by name, what you are thankful for. Summarizing, I think the point is clear, the Lord asks of us sincerity also in prayer.
As regards the last part of the text chosen for this morning's sermon, the Preacher says this same sincerity should be there also when we make vows before the Lord.

III In vs. 4 we read, "When you make a vow to God do not delay to pay it." During the time of the OT vows were made, for example, when people were in distress or afflicted. Sometimes people then went to the temple promising the LORD, if Thou wilt help me and take the affliction away I will bring Thee a sacrifice of thankfulness, here in Thy house. In our text the Preacher now warns his readers to be careful in making such a vow. Most likely, concerning himself with all that took place under the sun, the Preacher had seen that also these vows were made very lightly. Again, people were rash with their mouth, quickly making a vow in order to assure themselves of the help of the LORD, but when it came to re-deeming the vow it happened that this was not done. Once delivered from their distress people no longer thought of the LORD. Warning against this practice the Preacher says in vs. 4 & 5a, "." After all, there was no ob-ligation to make a vow. According to the law given by Moses making a vow was a voluntary matter. I may refer here to what it says in Deut. 23, 21-23, "." It's for this reason that the Preacher says, "Better not to vow than to vow and not pay."

In vs. 6 this is worked out further. It reads there, "." From these words we learn: not redeeming one's vow will make God angry, with the result that the work we asked to be favoured by God, will now be destroyed, it was all in vain.

Well, that brings us back to the theme of this morning's sermon. Since the life of God's children has been redeemed from all vanity, they must now also live accordingly, hating all vanity, in particular where it con-cerns the service of the LORD: no vain lip service be it in prayer or in taking vows. Whenever we speak a word before the LORD it should come from the heart. That's why the Preacher concludes this passage say-ing, "But fear God!" Never let your life before the LORD become a mat-ter of formalism, routine, or custom, but always be upright and faithful in serving the LORD. After all, only in this way you may have real assur-ance that your life has been freed from all vanity. For then all that you do is no longer in vain in the Lord.

Fear God and therefore guard your step when you go to the house of the LORD. Be not rash with your mouth, but realize that every word you speak you speak before the LORD and therefore your 'yes' should be 'yes'. Keep your vows; make sure that you do what you promised to the LORD.

Again, translating all this in today's language then as regards these vows, these promises, I may refer here to the vows we made on the day of our profession of faith. On that day we promised the LORD that we would always serve Him from the heart as a living member of His church. Do we indeed do this?
I also think of the vows we made when as husband and wife we spoke our 'I do' on the day we got married, promising the LORD that we would al-ways make our marriage instrumental to the coming of His glorious king-dom. Beloved, let that word which you spoke 'I do' - that's what you promised - let this indeed be an 'I do' through your whole married life, as long as you both shall live. It should be visible in your marriage that you still stand fully behind that promise you made before the LORD even when is 25 or 30 years ago.
I think here also of the 'I do' we spoke at the baptism of our children. We promised the LORD to do our utmost in raising these children in the fear of His Name.

Beloved, one day the LORD will ask us what we have done in fulfilling all these promises, these vows we made before the LORD. May God grant that on that day it will not show up that we made these promises in vain. But instead, let it be so that on that day the LORD will say to us, "Well done, faithful servant, you now may enter the feast of your mas-ter!"

Keep your vows, be not rash with your mouth. I've pointed to certain highlights in our life, when we solemnly said to the LORD 'I do'. But I could also refer to other occasions. Today in church we may feel close to the LORD, we enjoy the sermon. It has really lifted us up. Encouraged in faith we make a new commitment: Lord, from now on it will be different. But then the Monday comes around and sometimes we have already for-gotten what we promised the LORD.

Again I think the message is clear. The LORD asks sincerity. I realize be-cause of sin that sincerity will never be 100 %, but this should not cause us to become slack, as if it does not matter. In Christ our life has been freed from the curse of vanity. Beloved this should now also be visible, not only on Sunday, but also throughout the week. The LORD hates all lip service; He wants our heart, our whole life. He wants sincerity!

May that sincerity be found, beloved, with all of us. Then serving the LORD will never be a burden, but true joy instead. True joy - since my life has been freed from vanity and therefore - as I said it also last week - life is worth living. For then in all that I do I live my life for Christ, for Him who is My Saviour.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2001, Rev. A Veldman

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