Since Ecclesiastes 3:16, the Preacher’s assault on the vanity of humanism’s cultural labors towards a messianic social-order has been at the forefront. He has covered their failed attempts of justice, the sinful nature of man outside of God’s covenant destroying societies at every level, and the political fickleness of looking to the civil government for societal salvation.
The Preacher, in Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, responds to these observations with a positive injunction. As is common in the construction of this book, the Preacher moves the subject of his teaching from autonomous man to covenant-man. There is another clue that we are shifting from the vanity of men-in-rebellion to men-in-submission — his exhortation for building a godly social order opposes the “solutions” of humanism found in Ecclesiastes 4:13-16. He points to God’s revelation as it can only deal with the sinfulness of the heart of man, yet it is wholly ignored by the various “city planners” of the City of Man.
Submission to God
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.
- Ecclesiastes 5:1
What the Preacher is concerned with is the ethical-system that the Israelites choose to submit to. Ethics tell us what to do and not do, when to do them, how to do them, etc. Our ethic tells us what is good and evil, just and unjust. The source of that ethic reveals our god.
First of all, the Preacher begins with a call to be self-governed under God. This phrase often connotes keeping from evil and obeying His commandments (Job 23:11; Psalm 119:101). Israel is to willfully avoid and repent of sin, but also to move towards conformity to the Law. However, even our self-government depends on God’s grace, as He also guards our steps (1 Samuel 2:9; Psalm 121:3; Proverbs 3:26). The Preacher summons Israel to trust and obedience.
More than worship
Second, the call isn’t just to prepare for “worship.” The Temple was an aspect of Israel’s worship, but the Feast of Booths is closest to gathered worship in the New Covenant. Phillip Kayser writes,
First, the Booth of David was not a substitute Tabernacle for the ceremonial law. The two entities were different on many levels…the architecture was quite different, with the Booth of David being a one roomed meeting place where the Ark of the Covenant was visible and the Tabernacle of Moses being divided up into outer, holy place, and most holy place, and the Ark of the Covenant never being visible. People went to the Tabernacle of Moses in Gibeon to perform their sacrifices, and they went to the Booth of David in Jerusalem to worship much like they would in a synagogue. The priests continued to minister at the Tabernacle of Moses in Gibeon while the synagogue Levites ministered side-by-side with the majority Gentile officers of Obed-Edom and his brethren. In short, the Booth of David contained the temple worship stripped of all its ceremonial law just as the New Covenant church is worship stripped of the ceremonial law. The Booth of David was equivalent to the Old Testament synagogue…
Second, the extremely unusual features of the Booth of David…were authorized by God in order to foreshadow the New Testament church. Both Amos 9 and Acts 15 use the Tabernacle of David as a type of New Covenant worship, where Jew and Gentile together are able to worship God. Never do the prophets or the New Testament Scriptures liken the church to “mount Moriah.” Rather they liken the church to mount Zion where the Booth of David was. The psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 is particularly powerful in describing Jew and Gentile worshipping side-by-side in New Testament times. So though this Booth of David functioned like a large synagogue, it was different from most synagogues in that it had Gentiles who were “adopted” to be Levites (and thus prefigured New Covenant pastors) and it had Jews and Gentiles coming boldly before the throne of grace (and thus prefiguring our New Covenant privileges). In commenting on the Jew-Gentile issue in Acts 15, James says that the New Testament church is a rebuilding of the Booth of David. Whatever role the other synagogues or temple might have to the New Testament church, James is explicit about the fact that the New Testament church corresponds closely to the Booth of David. The Booth of David removed all ceremonial furniture and functions of the Tabernacle of Moses leaving only the “throne of grace” (the Ark of the Covenant) – exactly as we have in the New Covenant church (Heb. 4:16).
- Phillip Kayser, Musical Instruments in Worship, Kindle Loc. 324-343.
There is more to worship, even in the Old Testament, than the work going on in the Temple. A call to the “Temple” cannot be equated with corporate worship. To understand what precisely the emphasis of a text is, especially in “Wisdom Literature,” we have to consider the context. This moves us to our next point.
Listening to God’s revelation
Third, the purpose of “going to the house of God.” Many places are referred to as God’s house, such as a place where God reveals Himself (Genesis 28:17, 22), the tabernacle (Exodus 23:19), and various other sanctuaries (Judges 18:31). Up to this point, the Preacher has been showing the vanity (uselessness) of the humanistic wisdom of the surrounding nations, while also upholding Solomonic-wisdom founded on God’s revelation.
The Preacher is focusing on the pedagogical nature of the “house of God.” As we mentioned in the previous paragraph, the descriptor “house of God” is used for places of God’s revealing Himself, and that includes the Tabernacle and Temple.
The Temple contained copies of God’s Law. It was where God’s wrath was satisfied (propitiation), and his people forgiven through the taking of one’s sin and placing it upon another (substitutionary atonement). God’s covenantal protection, seen in the time of wilderness, was symbolized in the two pillars known as Boaz and Jachin (1 Kings 7:13-22, 41-42). There was also a reminder of God’s purifying them, and the rest of the world through God’s blessing their obedience (Genesis 22:18), in the Bowl/Sea of Laver (1 Kings 7:23-26; 2 Chronicles 4:2-5). Going to the “house of God” re-enforces everything the Preacher has taught so far. We need God’s revelation to show us what is fruitful work (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26), provide a blueprint for social-orders (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), that we need Him to purify and straighten out our crooked nature (Ecclesiastes 1:15), and that God’s Kingdom and people will prevail even through difficult times (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22). The “house of God” preached a physical sermon for the life of the world.
Why must Israel be self-governed, or self-controlled, when “coming” for God’s instruction? Being wise in our own eyes when we approach God and His Word can blind us to life-giving truth (Proverbs 12:15; 26:12; 1 Corinthians 3:18). When learning from God’s revelation, a person must be self-governed as they are more accountable for failing to obey the wisdom taught (Luke 12:47-48).
The denial of orthopraxy
The Preacher moves to the sacrifice of the fool. Thankfully, we are not left guessing as to the type of sacrifice. He identifies it clearly as the זָ֑בַח (zabah) of the fool. The zabah was an offering in which specified parts of the offering were eaten later (Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:15-21, peace offering). Not only was the act of sacrifice regulated, but also the eating that followed (what, when, and how).
The Preacher, being a defender of God’s revelation (Scripture), ethics (Law), and Solomonic-wisdom (applying the previous two), would in no way attack the peace offering by calling it foolish. What rendered their zabah a “sacrifice of fools?” It was the ethical behavior that followed. This point becomes more apparent when you consider what comes next in the verse, but is often made ambiguous by translations. Michael A. Eaton, in his commentary on Leviticus, helpfully writes,
The Hebrew of this last phrase is difficult; it literally reads ‘they do not know to do evil’. Ginsburg takes it to mean that ‘they (who obey) know not how to do evil’, but the subject seems to be the fool. Barton reads ‘they do not know except to do evil’, but it is unlikely that there is any ellipsis of ‘except’. More likely the last clause is one of result (‘… and so they do wrong’, Leupold), of time (‘… when they do wrong’, Berkeley), or of attendant circumstances (‘… in doing wrong’); the difference is small, the last is the best attested grammatically.
- Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries Vol. 18, pp N/A (OliveTree Edition).
I agree with Eaton in that the clearer rendering is “…to offer the sacrifice of fools in doing wrong.” This reading flows perfectly from the ethical focus the Preacher has been pushing forward since Ecclesiastes 3:16 till now.
This “doing wrong,” or evil, could be an actual abuse of the peace offering. We see it in the sons of Eli, who kept the best for themselves and coerced offerors into their scheme (1 Samuel 2:12-36). These actions earned them God’s scathing estimation of “sons of Belial,” or “sons of worthlessness.” Similar to the sins of the sons of Eli, and Eli himself because he ate of their “dirty” gains, we have the abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).
The “sacrifice of fools” is seen in Proverbs 7, which speaks of the adulterous woman who represents the seductive nature of foolishness and its unethical fruit. The woman grabs a young man in a dark street. The woman grabs him and starts by saying she just finished offering “sacrifices” (zabah). The woman’s wickedness is highlighted by pairing her sacrifice with lawlessness, and the man’s foolishness is highlighted in falling for her advances with their veneer of righteousness. Maturity, and discernment empowered by Solomonic-wisdom, would have seen through both the unethical nature and nauseating virtue signaling.
This “sacrifice of fools” goes well beyond the immediate context of the peace offering. Lawless living renders the sacrifices/feastings/peace offerings worthless. Their appeals for peace via sacrifice, and prayers, do not ascend to God as a pleasing aroma (Proverbs 15:8). Without the ethical boundaries set by God in his statutes, which allow for peace, sacrifices (zabah) are more worthless than eating stale bread (Proverbs 17:1). Establishing God’s justice in our jurisdictions, and living righteously by obeying God’s commands, is more valuable than peace offerings (Proverbs 21:3).
Preacher’s point is clear. The answer to creating a social-order that lasts is submission to God’s revelation, which includes His provision of grace and regeneration, as well as His Law. James, the brother of Jesus, says,
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
- James 3:13
The priority of godly living
The emphasis of the Preacher’s teaching, as well as the other places we have looked in Scripture, was not only crucial for Israel during a time ripe for compromise, but also for us today.
First, we have submitted justice and righteousness to our peace offering (Proverbs 21:3). It usually happens in circles that have a high estimation of the sacraments, elements, or Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Out of the two, the Lord’s Supper reaches the heights of abuse. Many will call the Lord’s Supper the summation, or pinnacle, of gathered worship. This view is even more extreme for those holding that “gathered worship” in the institutional church as the crescendo of the Christian life.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians, who were abusing the Lord’s Supper, goes against this thinking (1 Corinthians 11:12-34). The focus wasn’t so much that the Lord’s Supper was taken inappropriately, but that the ethical behavior towards one another rendered the Lord’s Supper a punishment (weakness, illness, and death; in agreement with the curses of Deuteronomy 28).
The Apostle’s answer to those who partake of the Supper in an unethical manner is threefold. For a time, do not practice the Lord’s Supper in its proper context, the agape feast. Next, measure your “worthiness” before participating in communion. Are you treating Christ’s Body (the church) ethically, for whom was Christ’s body broken and blood shed? Finally, if your private judgment has found that your obedience is wanting, then you must keep yourself back from partaking.
This passage re-enforces what the Old Testament teaches. An otherwise good and beneficial ordinance is rendered a “sacrifice of fools” and judgment by our obedience to establish “justice” and practice “righteousness.” To submit the domain of obedience in the Christian life under the “sacraments” (in importance) is to practice a sort of sacerdotalism, or sacramental-autonomy.
Second, just as it is wrong for a “peace offering” to take supremacy over the ethical-judicial calling God placed on covenant-man, it is equally erroneous to make going to “the temple” all-encompassing for the Christian life. I mention going to “the temple” in the sense that the institutional church is seen as the first principle of Christianity.
Many equivocate the Kingdom of God with the church(es), not the whole world, as the field in which the Church (God’s people) fulfills the dominion mandate, cultural mandate, or Great Commission. To make this error is to preoccupy ourselves with contingent issues, orient us inwardly, and neuter the drive and impetus Scripture wishes us to have with bringing the world under the easy yoke of Christ through Spirit-empowered word-and-deed discipleship.
Stephen C. Perks rightly places institutional churches as subordinate to the Church’s (God’s people) mission to “teach the nations,”
We are called as a Church, a Christian community, to transform our nation (Mt. 28:18–20), and this is one important part of that calling because we are called to preach the gospel and heal the sick (Mt. 10:7–8; Lk. 9:2; 10:19; Mk 3:14–15).
Without the Church as a whole being involved in such initiatives very little can be accomplished because the system we are up against is massive and well-organised. The Church—i.e. The whole community of Christians, including but not limited to the institutional Church—needs to act together in order to provide the financial, organisational, moral and social momentum necessary to get such projects started and keep them running. It is the failure of the Western Church as a whole not only to act in this way but even to think in these broad terms that has hamstrung her witness to the world and continues to make her irrelevant to the lives of most people in the modern world. People do not look to God for the necessities of life, they look to secular humanism’s chief idol, the secular State. And the Church is no longer a prophetic voice to the nation, no longer rebukes the nation for its idolatry, no longer teaches the people to look to God for these things; indeed the Church on the whole condones this idolatry.
- Stephen C. Perks, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, pp 249.
The same author, when talking about a similar subject in his book, Common-Law Wives and Concubines, writes,
Now, I am not denying the fact that there is an institutional aspect to the Church’s life, nor am I saying that there is no place for ritual at all or that there should be no public Christian cultus. There must always be an expression of corporate public worship in the Church’s life and this will inevitably constitute some form of cultus. I am not denying the validity of the public Christian cultus therefore. But I am saying that this should not provide the paradigm for our understanding of the function of the Church, nor should it define the Church. But because it often does define the Church, I am saying that the balance is wrong, that the cultus has been elevated, at the expense of other priorities, to a status that is not validated by the New Testament. The New Testament presents the Church as a community of faith acting in the whole of life, one aspect of which is corporate worship, the public cultus. The focus of the New Testament is not on the cultic activity of the Church, but on the kingdom of God, which functions across the whole spectrum of human life and society. I am not denying the validity of the Christian cultus therefore, but I am saying that it has been misunderstood and incorrectly modelled on the paradigm of the Temple cultus and that the Church has been incorrectly defined by such cultic activity rather than as a community of people sharing the same faith and structuring their lives and community around God’s word. As a result we have much ritual (much that is not necessary) but little real community, which I think characterised the New Testament Church far more than it does modern Western Churches.
- Stephen C. Perks, Common-Law Wives and Concubines, pp 184-185.
With the force of Scripture’s focus on ethical living within God’s covenant, and Perk’s clarifying our current issue without it, we have a clear point laid before us. Making the Church’s — God’s people called out of the ecclesia of Satan, (City of Man) and into the ecclesia of Christ (City of God) — most important activity the function of a single institution is hamstringing Christ’s total authority in every sphere.
Third, the churches of the New Testament are not modeled after the temple. Steve Schlissel writes,
The New Testament is beyond clear in teaching that the organizational model for the worshipping communities called “churches” was the synagogue, not the Temple. This is recognized and acknowledged in every standard work on Presbyterianism. For example, John Macpherson, in his excellent volume, Presbyterianism, writes: “In general, the Christian forms of worship were modeled on those of the Jewish synagogue, and so where any customs in worship or office in the Christian church are spoken of without explanation, we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment.” And, “the earliest Christian congregations . . . in Palestine were for some time known as Christian synagogues.”
In saying that our model is the synagogue, we do not overlook temple-like features metaphorically ascribed to the church and/or its service. These are many. Yet these apply to, and are found ascribed to, individual Christians as well. But when we look for the organizational and liturgical antecedents of the church, we find them in the synagogue. (Looking to the Temple, especially for the latter, we remind you, is precisely the error of Rome.)
This point is crucial in fighting the tendency of Christians to offer the “sacrifice of fools.” Churches, understood as New Testament synagogues must take their rightful place. They are a God-ordained tool for dominion. Their main objectives are not tight liturgies, although being orderly is commanded (1 Corinthian 14:40). This orderliness is not on the precedence of regulated worship for liturgical sake, but for the reason of not allowing people’s spiritual gifts to oppress the gatherings edifying nature. Again, the meeting is chiefly ethical.
Teaching and training is the role of synagogue-churches. We meet, learn God’s Word and how to apply it in our everyday lives, partake of the Agape Feast and Lord’s Supper, and go out to execute the will of our Lord on the equally important six other days a week. This synagogue model also matches up with the content of the Epistles. Those letters were read when the saints gathered, and most of their collective content had to do with their 24/7 obedience to God’s Law, and very little has to do with the machinations of church gatherings.
The institutional churches are a subordinate-but-commanded tool of the Church for the total mission given to it by her Lord – i.e. the baptizing and teaching of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) and obedience of faith (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
Wisdom is not vague
We pray for wisdom, seek wisdom, teach about wisdom, and encourage others to practice wisdom. However, wisdom is hardly defined. In this particular usage, we wield the word as something immensely practical, but those of us neglect to put a sharp edge on our admonishment. We give a stick and say, “Cut down this forest.”
Everything we have covered in looking into this verse, as well as our time spent previously in Ecclesiastes, reminds us that we are to obey God’s commands. Consider the following brief points. First, when we look at the Psalms, judgment is called on wickedness and lawlessness, and protection and blessing promised for righteousness and obedience. Second, Proverbs, a book designed to impart wisdom, gives little snapshots of applying God’s revealed ethical system, His commandments. Third, Song of Songs, following the masterful exegesis of Calvin Seerveld, is a book where a Shulamite woman stays faithful to the ethical boundaries of God’s Law. She will not betray her beloved after being kidnapped and kept in Solomon’s harem. Fourth, Job is about a Gentile ruler to the covenantal God of Scripture and was righteous in two senses. He obeyed God’s commands and sought His grace (giving of sacrifices for sins). The main story’s focus is on justice, as his three friends (lesser magistrates) try to make Job confess his guilt of sinning and take responsibility for all the tragedies in the land. They did so by using good theology with misguided intent.
As we can see, Ecclesiastes alone doesn’t make ethics a primary focus over “cultus” functions (without neglecting them), so does the rest of wisdom literature. Regarding the point at hand, the wisdom they provide is very concrete. We receive direction about handling ungracious people and lazy people, living under wicked rulers, training children, being a husband or wife, how to theologically interpret God’s providence and respond accordingly, men conspiring to deal out evil, etc. We, those who teach the Bible, must go beyond vague encouragement to be wise. Not only must we give philosophical-theological frameworks for developing a worldview, but we must also give concrete applications of God’s Word for the daily grind, like the wisdom offered in Scripture.
Learning from God to live for Him
Just like the Preacher is admonishing Israel, we must turn to God’s revelation for the blueprint to build communities, and later whole societies, that are both just in relationships and righteous in character. As it was with Israel, many see the appeal of pragmatism, using the tools and methodologies to achieve what we might identify as good ends. Kelley writes,
It was a period when the Hellenistic culture was spreading rapidly over the ancient Near East, absorbing all in its pathway. The distinctness of the covenant people from the nations was in danger of effacement. At the center of the Preacher’s concern stood the question of the final authority over conduct and belief. To a great extent Israel still practiced the forms of godly devotion at the temple, but its attitude there was increasingly taking on the characteristics of heathen customs. This can be seen from the Preacher’s staunch warning concerning offering “the sacrifice of fools.” It refers to a sort of noisy ostentation before God (quick with the mouth; hasty in the heart) that manifests an unwillingness to submit to His word. Such irreverence displays a self-centeredness that readily imitates the pagan consciousness in its attempt to manipulate its gods for self-serving ends. The Preacher means that, in the covenant, obedience to God must take precedence over everything. Man must come before God to hear and receive, not to demand or explain.
- Michael W. Kelley, The Burden of God: Studies in Wisdom and Civilization From the Book of Ecclesiastes, pp 96.
If we act on the temptation to submit to the way of other gods, we may end up pursuing false peace and render our Christianity a “sacrifice of fools.”