Walk prudently 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. Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few.
~ Ecclesiastes 5:1-2~
Nadab and Abihu did not write Ecclesiastes 5:1-2, but given the chance, they would certainly have added their hearty approval to the words. These infamous brothers were struck down by the consuming, holy presence of God for offering up profane (unauthorized) fire before the Lord. You can read about it in Leviticus 10. As bizarre as it may seem, this text has instructed the Church for millennia about how to think about approaching God’s house in worship. If you think we can consign this truth to the dusty annals of the Old Testament, think again. Even though no one (except maybe Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) in the New Covenant came to an end like Nadab and Abihu, the holy God remains a consuming fire to this day (Hebrews 12:29).
Have you ever thought about this when hurrying into church on Sunday, hopefully before the service begins? The Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we need watch our steps when we come to God’s house. We do this by thinking carefully and humbly about the God we have come to meet. By way of the following three questions, I would like to present some basic principles that inform what I believe is a biblical approach to worshipping in God’s house: what are we doing in worship; why do we worship; and how should we engage in worship?
The last year has sparked a new kind of worship war in our nation. Is worship essential or non-essential? Is “livestream” a suitable substitute for being in person? Some governors have even had the audacity to tell their citizens how to worship, one in particular saying “You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers.” So which is it? What are God’s people actually doing in worship? The Word of God answers this question with a simple but profound phrase: in worship, God’s people draw near.
The most devastating consequence of man’s Fall was God’s driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden and away from His holy, life-giving presence (Genesis 3:23-24, cf Psalm 16:11). Mankind has been wandering in spiritual exile ever since. But bless God! He has provided a way for the redeemed to draw near to Him through the blood of Christ in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day! In these times He uniquely provides refreshment for thirsty souls (Psalm 36:8), strength for weary pilgrims (Psalm 84:7), and most notably a foretaste of heavenly glory (Hebrews 12:22-24). It is ultimately irrelevant whether they draw near together in catacombs or cathedrals, shabby buildings or breath-taking structures, fields or prisons. The physical structure is secondary, but drawing near together in physical proximity is absolutely necessary.
The Psalms pulse with desire to draw near to God. Those who dwell in His house are blessed (Psalm 84:4), for they find their deepest desires satisfied (Psalm 27:4). No earthly privilege is worth comparing to approaching this God (Psalm 65:4), and no spiritual judgment is more fearful than being forced to depart from Him (Psalm 139:19, cf Matthew 25:41). In fact, we can identify the fullness of New Covenant blessing by the bold and bloodless entry the Father grants to believers through His Son (Hebrews 10:19-22, cf Ephesians 2:18). Many would count you blessed if you were given an invitation to dine with a governor, or enjoy a private tour of a professional sports facility, or given backstage passes at a great concert; how much greater is the blessing to draw near Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day to the Triune God of glory!
Having drawn near to God, what should we do? Refer back to our words from Ecclesiastes: Solomon teaches us clearly that in God’s house, we draw near to hear. This is one of the great purposes of God’s worship. The great 17th century English preacher Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that to hear God’s Word is to worship Him in two essential ways. First, those who draw near to hear His Word are declaring their dependence upon Him for knowing His mind and the way to eternal life. Sinful man would have never discovered these truths unless God revealed them in His Word and by His Spirit (Psalm 14:2-3; 1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Second, those who draw near to hear must wait for God to bless the Word according to His promise. To hear in this way first requires listening with both the ear and the heart. It also requires listening with patient faith, humbly expecting Him to give us precisely what we need for our growth in spiritual strength and maturity.
This may seem counterintuitive or boring for many in our self-centered age, where self-expression has become the new form of revelation. Yet for those who know the depth of their own need and the glory of their God, it is nothing short of exhilarating. People will pay good money to hear what may happen next in the economy, to get the inside scoop for sports’ commentary, or to stay connected with the latest device to hit the market. What comparison do these fading things have with the Words of eternal life, which flow freely and graciously from the mouth of Jesus Christ (John 6:68; Psalm 45:2)? None at all. This is why faithful Reformed churches throughout history have placed the sound preaching of God’s Word as central in worship. It is not to exalt the preacher, far from it; it is to exalt the One who works through preaching powerfully for His glory (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Why do you worship? Do you go to God’s house for the music? For the fellowship? Do you go to direct your mind away from the burdens of the world? There is a blessed place for these things, but they are all secondary. When you come to God’s house, “Take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18). How do you do this? In his commentary on this passage, J.C. Ryle gives us three directions. First, hear with faith, believing that God’s Word is absolutely and undeniably true. Remember that faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Second, hear with prayer. Ryle wrote, “Here lies the grand defect of the hearing of many. They ask no blessing, and so they have none. The sermon passes through their minds like water through a leaky vessel, and leaves nothing behind.” Finally, listen with reverence. The God of glory looks with unique regard upon those humble souls who tremble at His Word (Isaiah 66:1-2). This brings us to our final principle.
We have considered what we are doing in worship (drawing near) and why we worship (to hear). How then should we engage in worship? The great motivator for avoiding the sacrifice of fools and speaking rashly with our mouths is remembering that “God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” This, dear reader, describes the fear of God. Of course, the word fear is not in our text above, but the concept is clearly present here and throughout Ecclesiastes (5:7, 8:12-13, 12:13). Since many are confused with this term, I would like to discuss briefly what godly fear is and why this ought to fill our worship.
Godly fear is not a slavish terror of God. That kind of fear fills the hearts of His enemies (Exodus 15:16, cf 1 John 4:18) but not His children (Romans 8:15). A true, godly fear, however, consists of two basic components: love for God’s righteousness and reverence for his majesty. God’s people love His righteousness revealed in His Law. The Gospel frees us to do so, since Jesus Christ silenced the condemning thunders of the Law through His death and raised us to newness of life through His resurrection. In union with Him, Christians learn to present themselves to God as being alive from the dead, and their members as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13). The righteousness which they once hated, they now love, because they recognize by grace it is the very character of their Heavenly Father. The second component is reverence for His majesty. God-fearers will think the highest thoughts of God’s glory, assign the greatest weight to His Words, and affix the highest value upon His expressions of kindness to them.
These two currents draw the Christian heart into a true offering up of our worship to the God of heaven. How could it be otherwise? Without the fear of God, worship would become just another optional gathering, rather than the blessed obligation for the believer each week (Hebrews 10:25). A careless, cavalier approach to worship not only robs the worshipper of the blessings he could have otherwise enjoyed, but it dishonors God tremendously. The Lord makes it clear that He does not look first upon appearances, nor the outward actions, but rather the heart. Remember what He says in Isaiah 66:1-2, “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool…But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.” This is the approach to worship that God loves! “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
As the next day of worship approaches and you head to God’s house, I urge you to consider: what are you doing? Are you seeking to draw near to the God of all glory, who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16)? Why are you worshipping? Is it to express yourself or is it to fall on your face before this God, crying out, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:9)? Consider the state of your heart. Is it full of the fear of God or the cares of this world? Come with a heart redeemed by the blood of Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of grace, longing to fellowship with the Father of love. This is what life and worship is like in God’s house.
 Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship: Worship Worthy of God (Orlando, FL: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 147.
 J.C. Ryle, Luke (Vol. 1): Expository Thoughts on the Gospel (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 197.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 ed. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), 9.