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~
Have you ever thought about this text when hurrying into church on Sunday? Solomon reminds us to watch our steps when we enter God’s house. We can do this by thinking carefully and humbly about the God whose presence we seek. With three questions, I would like to present some basic principles to inform a biblical approach to worship in God’s house: what are we doing in worship; why do we worship; and how should we engage in worship?
What are God’s people doing in worship? The Bible answers this question simply and profoundly: in worship, God’s people draw near. The most devastating consequence of man’s Fall was their excommunication from the Garden. Mankind has been wandering in spiritual exile ever since (Genesis 3:23-24). But bless God! He has provided a way for sinners 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 especially a foretaste of heavenly glory (Hebrews 12:22-24). It is irrelevant whether we gather 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 primary.
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 compares to approaching Him (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 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? Ecclesiastes teaches us that in God’s house, we draw near to hear. The venerable 17th century English preacher Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that to hear God’s Word is to worship Him in two essential ways. First, those who hear profess their dependence upon Him for knowing His mind and the way to eternal life. Sinful man can never discover saving truth unless God reveals it 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. To hear in this way requires listening with both ear and heart. It also requires listening with patient faith, humbly expecting Him to give us precisely what we need for growth in spiritual strength and maturity.
This may seem counterintuitive in our self-centered age, where self-expression has become the new form of revelation. Yet for those who know something of 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 or to stay connected with the latest device to hit the market. What comparison do these fading trinkets have with the Words of eternal life, which flow freely and graciously from Jesus Christ (John 6:68; Psalm 45:2)? None at all. For this reason faithful Reformed churches throughout history placed sound preaching of God’s Word in the center of worship. It is not to exalt the preacher, but rather Him who works graciously through preaching for His glory (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Why do you worship? Do you go to God’s house for the music? The fellowship? To find distraction from the burdens of the world? There is a secondary place for these; but when you come to God’s house, be sure first to “Take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18). How do you do this? 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 uniquely upon those humble souls who tremble at His Word (Isaiah 66:1-2).
We have considered what we are doing in worship (drawing near) and why we worship (to hear). How then should we engage in worship? To avoid the sacrifice of fools remember that “God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” This commanded silence flows from the fear of God. While the word fear is not in the text, the concept surely is (cf Eccl 5:7, 8:12-13, 12:13). What, then, is godly fear and why ought this motivate our worship?
Godly fear is not slavish terror of God. That fear fills the hearts of His enemies (Exodus 15:16, cf 1 John 4:18) but not His children (Romans 8:15). A righteous 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 they once hated they now love, for they discover 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 His glory, assign the greatest weight to His Words, and affix the highest value upon His expressions of kindness.
These two currents draw the Christian heart into true worship of the Triune God. Without the fear of God, worship would become just another optional gathering, rather than the blessed obligation for believers each week (Hebrews 10:25). A careless approach to worship not only robs the worshipper of blessings he could have otherwise enjoyed, but it dishonors God tremendously. The Lord does not look first upon appearances, nor outward actions, but upon the heart. “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” (Isaiah 66:1-2). God loves this disposition in worship! “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 approach God’s house, consider: what are you doing? Are you seeking to draw near to the God of glory, who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16)? Why are you worshipping? Is it to express yourself or to fall on your face before 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, sanctified by the gracious Spirit, longing to fellowship with the Father of love. This is how to enter 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.