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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Serve God Acceptably with Reverence and Godly Fear
Text:Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 34 - The God of Abraham Praise
Psalter 214 - Reminders from Israel's History (Stanzas 3-7)
Psalter 109 - Personal Devotion to God
TH 172 - Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Life under the sun is hard. God has cursed the earth. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat of all your labors until you die. Work will be hard. Relationships will be hard. Life is frustrating - and that’s the theme of Ecclesiastes. And we’ve seen the effects of sin under the sun. There’s oppression, hard work, loneliness, and change. We sin against others; others sin against us. There’s deep disappointment. We don’t need to be convinced that life is broken. This past week, an elder and I spoke about disappointments in life and in our conversation we concluded that if we don’t know how broken life is - we certainly will by the time we’re 50. 

But the problem with us is this: when we go through trials of life, we misbehave and react in sin. When there’s oppression, we retaliate sinfully. When there’s exhausting work, we despair. When there are relationship problems, we gossip and slander. We justify our misbehavior. I’m so lonely, I deserve this. I’m so angry, I’ll show him. I’m so disadvantaged, they owe me. Why can’t I misbehave? And this was Solomon’s concern in this part of Ecclesiastes. He was bothered by how people have failed to honor and reverence God as they go through life’s brokenness. He was concerned that believers make promises to follow God but anyhow sin when the going gets tough. He was also concerned that we promise God to do something in exchange of his help - but don’t keep our promises. As verse 7 says, talk is cheap. That’s a vanity under the sun that bothered him. It’s ironic isn’t it? We’re so concerned how unjust life is under the sun to us - but how unjustly we’ve treated God is a great vanity too.

We’re all weak. God has saved us, given us manna on earth, water from the rock, even quail; he’s led us with his Word, but we still don’t trust him. Israel even wanted to return to Egypt. Not 40 days after receiving the law, they committed idolatry. When we face trials, we forget God. We complain of injustice; but we commit them against God. We don’t honor him or serve him acceptably.

And so Solomon reminds us in this passage with 2 rebukes. Firstly, we have dishonored a fearsome God. Secondly, let us serve God with reverence and godly fear.

Firstly, he rebukes us because we have dishonored a fearsome God. It all starts in verse 1 when Solomon considered the worship of God. He had considered achievements, seasons of life, injustice, and dark clouds. Now, he looked at religious life. He says, “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.” When Solomon saw what happened in his kingdom, he was troubled. There was a vain and vexing thing that was happening. The people had dishonored God by treating him contemptibly. He described a situation where they were going to the temple to worship, but instead of listening to God and giving him what he wanted, they offered the sacrifice of fools. In other words, their religious life was dishonorable - evil even. And they didn’t even consider that God was displeased and dishonored by it. And this was dangerous.

Solomon told them to guard their steps when they went to the temple. In the Old Testament, the temple was the focal point of worship. But why did they have to guard their steps? The temple wasn’t dangerous was it? Wasn’t it a place of refuge? Guarding steps meant danger! Was God dangerous? Yes - he’s fearsome - and this is something we forget. You see, worship is only safe when we worship a domesticated God - a God only of love, mercy, pardon, ease, and forgiveness; a God who doesn’t punish sin, a God who’s like a grandfather. A chinchai God. But that’s not the God of Ecclesiastes, nor the God of the Scriptures. God is not domesticated. The God we serve is dangerous. Verse 6 even says that this God can get angry with what you say - “wherefore should God be angry at thy voice.” Verse 7 says that we are to fear God. We see this throughout the Bible.

When Moses saw the burning bush at Sinai, he was told by God to remove his sandals because the ground was holy. When Israel met God at Sinai, they prepared for 3 days. They weren’t supposed to touch the foot of the mountain; a barrier was even placed between them and the mountain to protect them. When God spoke, lightning and fire blackened the mountain. The people trembled. When Moses asked to see God’s face; God said he couldn’t see God’s glory and live. When Isaiah had his vision, he saw Christ sitting on the throne. But the angels surrounding the throne who had 3 pairs of wings; 1 pair covered their eyes, 1 pair covered their bodies, and with 1 pair, they flew. They couldn’t look at Christ! God’s a fearsome God. Now, we can understand this in the Old Testament. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not change. In the New Testament, we also see it. When Christ was on the Mount of Transfiguration, his face and clothes gleamed and the disciples were filled with fear. And when Christ comes at his second coming, he will be riding a white horse, with all his armies behind him, and in his mouth will be a sword. With that sword, he will destroy his enemies and rule with an iron scepter. Revelation says he’ll conquer them in wrath. God is a fearsome God. As Hebrews 12 says - we must serve him acceptably in reverence and godly fear because he’s a consuming fire. They had to guard their steps because God is not the kind of domesticated God that we want to worship based on our imagination. Why?

It’s because God’s people had dishonored him by their service - by offering what Solomon called the sacrifice of fools. Yes, this can be done by the way we worship. We know the story of Nadab and Abihu. They were Aaron’s sons, and they worshiped God incorrectly - in a way he had never commanded. They offered unauthorized fire. This displeased God and he struck them down dead. He’s not a tame God. He is fearsome to those who dishonor him. And Reformed folk, when we think of dishonorable worship we immediately think of the wrong form or wrong way of worship. But the kind of dishonorable service that Solomon was concerned about in his day was not about form, but something altogether more common. In fact, it’s a much worse common! Reformed folk are so concerned about the outward purity of worship, but we’re just as guilty of what people in Solomon’s day were doing - taking God lightly. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira brought money to the apostles. But they lied about how much. Their form was right, but they took God lightly. And God struck them dead. In verse 6, we’re told that God can destroy all we’ve achieved. They took him lightly. They didn’t fear him. They thought he was a domesticated God. And they were wrong.

And in Solomon’s day, he saw how people were taking God lightly by making promises but not keeping them. Verse 2 - “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” Now, according to context, Solomon has spoken about the frustrations of life - like oppression, hard work, loneliness, injustice, and difficult seasons of life. These things can and do drive us over the edge. When we can’t accept life’s messiness, and get desperate, we make desperate promises to God. While we are serious when we make them, we are quick to forget. 

Lord, please heal my daughter of illness, if you do, I will serve you. Lord, please save my job, if you do, I promise to give back to you. Or we bargain - Lord, send me a spouse, if not, why not this unbeliever? And all of these rash and hasty vows show our weakness and faithlessness. The Hebrew word for “rash” can be translated anxious. We make vows anxiously. We’re consumed by problems and out of desperation, we ask God to help, to deliver us. And we promise God to do this or that when he delivers us. But when we’re delivered… These are promises made from fear not faith. They’re also hasty. The Hebrew word translated “hasty” means impetuous. We just want things our way now. But Solomon reminded them - God’s in heaven, we’re on earth. We’re small, he’s great. The earth is limited, heaven is infinite. God has a purpose. But we’re like Job - we’re anxious and impatient. So Solomon rebuked them for dishonoring God by taking a fearsome God lightly.

But he issues a second rebuke - serve God with reverence and godly fear. Verse 4 says that God has no pleasure in fools. If fools do not fear God - as Proverbs says, therefore, let us revere God - serve him. How? Don’t break your vows. Yes, there are some vows which are so rash and foolish, that if we kept them, the consequences are horrifying. Like Jephthah - Lord, help me win the battle - if you do, I’ll sacrifice the first thing I see when I return home. God’s people can sometimes make very rash vows. But if they’re not sinful, if they’re right; we must not break them - even if they are made in desperation. There are times when people come to regret certain promises they made. So how do they react? I didn’t mean it. I know I made a vow to serve God - but I can’t now. Verse 6 says, “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error.” Solomon rebuked them - don’t break your vows. Don’t sin by excusing yourself - telling the angel that the promise you made was a mistake. The word “angel” refers to the temple messenger - the one who communicates to God, meaning the priest. You see, in Israel, a man might come into the temple and make a vow. And he makes it to the priest. He might say, “Lord, if you heal my son, I will give to you 30 percent of this year’s harvest instead of the usual 10.” But when he got what he wanted, he may have told the priest who received his vow, “I made a mistake.” For many of us, we think - this is not what I signed up for. I didn’t know being a Christian would be so hard. I didn’t know that as a member of the church, I’d have responsibilities. That I’d be called upon to do my part. I didn’t know that when I became a Christian, I had to forsake all else. I think I made a mistake. 

Solomon said, don’t forsake your promise. Why? Verse 6 - If you say you won’t keep your vow, God is angered. God takes our promises seriously. He’s in heaven, the fearsome God, an all consuming fire. When we break our promises, it shows we don’t fear Him. We’ve domesticated him in our minds. We’ve forgotten accounts like Ananias and Sapphira. We think these things don’t happen anymore. But verse 6 also says that in his anger at our excuses or justifications, God may remove the work of our hands. 

And dearly beloved, while accounts like Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira, seem incredulous to us that they could happen today; many of us have experienced another kind of chastisement - the leanness of soul. Because we have forgotten our promise to be content, we have lusted and hungered for that job or person. God may allow us to have it. And we’ll have leanness of soul. When Elimelech and Naomi refused to remain in Bethlehem and be chastised by the famine; they left to live in Moab, a cursed land. God didn’t stop them. Elimelech died. His sons died. Naomi was left destitute. God may give us what we want, and bring leanness into our souls. Let’s not pretend we don’t know that God requires us to keep our promises. But God is gracious even in leanness. He sends it to us that we would return to him. In her destitution, Naomi returned to Judah. In his destitution, the prodigal son returned to his father. But in each of these cases, they experienced the leanness of soul. God is not a tame God.

Therefore, keep your vows. Verse 4 - “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.” What promises have you made? Keep them. Hannah made a desperate but calculated and serious vow. Lord, give me a child, and he will serve you all the days in the temple. She knew the holiness of God. And when she had a child, after he was weaned, she gave him to the service of God. Her vow was accompanied by faith and reverence.

Dearly beloved - the promises you have made to God, defer not to pay them. As church members, what did you promise at your baptism or confession of faith? What will you who are contemplating membership promise God? “Hast thou taken a firm resolution always to lead a Christian life; to forsake the world and its evil lusts, as is becoming the members of Christ and his Church; and to submit thyself to all Christian admonitions?” How did you answer? How must you answer? Yes! So keep them! 

When temptations come, don’t give yourself over to them; don’t let discouragement overwhelm you; don’t ghost your elders or friends. Are you at odds with one another? Forbear. Forgive. Seek forgiveness. Do good. How are you serving one another in church? How are you involved in extending God’s kingdom? Don’t let your vows be vain. Solomon concludes this section in verse 7 which says, “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God.” I like this rendition - “much talk is cheap - like daydreaming - fear God.” 

What are some applications for us? We’ve made quite a lot already. But let me consolidate them. Firstly, we need a mindset reset. In our tradition - for lack of a better word - we have a reverence for God - especially in our form of worship. We desire to exalt him, worship him rightly - with our psalms and biblical hymns. We’re fastidious in getting things right, having the right doctrines, but missing the point. Do we fear God? Now, I said reset instead of change because I believe we have the mindset. This is why while our worship may reflect the form of reverence, we may not have the express desire to live carefully for him - to live in awe - that he is a consuming fire - that he’s not domesticated. May our form of worship and our hearts be right.

Secondly, we need humbling. We’re selfish. We’re more concerned with the injustices done to us - our oppression, our seasons of life, our disappointments in work and relationships. But how about what we do to God? In past weeks, you have resonated with the preaching - yeah, life is unjust; but will you resonate with today’s preaching? Yeah, I have treated God unjustly. I’ve domesticated him. Do you acknowledge that you don’t fear God as you should and that’s a very big vanity? That you’re more concerned for you than for him? And perhaps you feel his displeasure today. You experience leanness. What must you do?

Thirdly, we need a greater resolve. Verse 1 said the people didn’t even consider it evil they dishonored God. If you have dishonored him, get right. You have vowed to live righteously, so pursue holiness. Some of you may be deep in sin now. Remember that you’re never too far in a sin. You can always get out before it gets worse. Some of you may be at odds with one another. You can reconcile. You can forgive. Or perhaps you need to seek forgiveness. After all, you are in the body of Christ. Perhaps you are experiencing leanness of soul. God is gracious even now to call to you to repent. And why should we not? 

Fourthly, never forget what Christ has done. Dearly beloved, God is not a domesticated God. He is fearsome - and that’s why we serve him acceptably with reverence and godly fear - he’s a consuming fire. But that fire does not come upon us to destroy us. Christ has already faced that fire. He has gone before us with his blood into the temple of God, holy and just, to represent us. He has fulfilled all his vows before God. As we sang in Psalter 109, or Psalm 40 - Christ delighted to do God’s will - he kept his vows. And that is why we have not come to that mountain that has been darkened with fire - with loud thunderings. Christ has hushed those thunderings. Instead, we have come to Mount Zion - the city of the living God - the heavenly Jerusalem. Where Christ and all his angels are - where the souls of men have been made perfect. You are privileged, dearly beloved. Privileged to be loved by God. And while he does not destroy you with his fire, he may be purging you now, to purify you. Why? That you would live as one of those whose souls have been cleansed. If you are weary and tired because life is messy on earth and you have been cumbered by much sin - and you think to yourself - how can God accept me - I’ve broken so many of his laws, the promises I have made to him - I’m so dirty and so weak and unfaithful to God. I’ve focused more on my injustices rather than how I’ve been unjust to him - remember this - Hebrews 12:3 - “…consider him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself, so you won’t be be wearied and faint in your hearts.” He was faithful for us, so that we may not be weary, rash, hasty, or faint. Let us be faithful.

Sermon Outline:

1. We Have Dishonored a Fearsome God.

    A. God is fearsome

    B. Dishonoring God by Taking Him Lightly

2. Let Us Serve God with Reverence and Godly Fear

    A. Don’t break your vows

    B. Keep your vows

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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