This is an edited version of a sermon on Ecclesiastes 5v1-7 preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge:
On our church notice board there is a quotation from the atheist biologist and campaigner Richard Dawkins. It is a shortened version of a now quite famous quotation from his 1995 book, River out of Eden, A Darwinian view of Life:
‘In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.’
We of course are not an atheist church. The reason we have put that up is to invite people to think.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes, the Philosopher-King, sometimes sounds like an atheist with his repeated refrain about the meaninglessness of life: ‘Vanities of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’
But actually he isn’t an atheist, as our passage from Ecclesiastes 5 makes clear. He is a worshipping Old Testament believer in the Lord God Almighty, the sovereign creator of heaven and earth and the God who revealed his character and purposes for his chosen people, the people of Israel, in the Law of Moses.
‘Stand in awe of God’ (Ecclesiastes 5v7 –NIV) is the Teacher’s message. We won’t find Richard Dawkins saying that. It’s a message we as God’s New Testament people need to hear as much as his Old Testament people did. Certainly, we are privileged as Christian people, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, to be invited to ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’, as the New Testament write to the Hebrews urges (Hebrews 4v16). But we need to be mindful that the God we are privileged to approach because of the atoning blood shed by our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross is ‘a consuming fire’, as the Hebrews writer also makes clear (Hebrews 12v29).
‘Stand awe of God.’ It is a message sinful humanity needs to hear because in our sinfulness we are all too inclined to presume on God. And it’s presumption that the Teacher warns against.
As we’ve seen, the Teacher is describing a fallen world, a world under God’s righteous curse, and this is a world in which things can and do go wrong. It’s his rigorously biblical understanding of the fallen nature of the world that accounts for the Teacher’s realism about what life can be like. ‘And I saw something else under the sun:’ the Teacher related in chapter 3, ‘In the place of judgement – wickedness was there, In the place of justice, wickedness was there’ (Ecclesiastes 3v16).
Life can be like that in this fallen world. Life can be unfair. The wicked can and do prosper. Those who are responsible for upholding righteousness can fail. That’s the world in which we live as Christians until God renews it, a fallen world.
That’s the world in which we need to resist the temptation to presume on God: ‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong’ (Ecclesiastes 5v1).
‘The house of God’ here is the Jerusalem Temple, the Temple King Solomon built. So we know that the Teacher is a worshipper himself and if he was Solomon he in fact built this house of God.
And as a worshipper of the one true God, the Teacher accepts the authority of the Lord’s written Word in the Bible. The Teacher refers to the Law of Moses in our passage. ‘When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow’ (Ecclesiastes 5v4). This rule about Israelite vows is found in Numbers 30v2: ‘When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.’
So, the Teacher assumes the authority of the Law of Moses, as set out in the first five books of the Bible. The Teacher accepts biblical authority.
The God sinful people are to stand in awe of is the God of the Bible.
And the Teacher warns against arrogance, presumption, in the way people treat this God, the awesome God of the Bible, the creator and ruler of the universe: ‘Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in his heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words’ (Ecclesiastes 5v2-3).
What does presumption look like? ‘If I do my bit for God, turn up to church, say my prayers, give to the Red Cross, he’ll look after me. He’s that kind of chap. I’ll be all right when my number comes up.’
That’s presumption. We are sinful people who can approach God only if something is done about our sin. We can approach God only if he allows us to – through and only through, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, the ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ the Lord Jesus Christ made on the Cross for the sins of the whole world.
We stand in awe of God when by God’s grace we realise that.