Saturday, January 11, 2020

Time and Chance (18)

The “house of God”. What does that mean exactly? When you see the expression in your Bible, it does not always mean precisely the same thing, though all its uses have a common element.

When Jacob first coins the expression in Genesis, he is referring to what he saw in a vision while camped about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. He dreamed of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, on which the angels of God traveled up and down, and the Lord standing above it, speaking to him. He concluded he had slept on the doorstep of God’s heavenly dwelling, and he called the place Bethel, which means “house of God”.

The Tent of Meeting and the Temple

When the expression reappears in Judges, it means the tabernacle or tent of meeting that Moses had constructed in the wilderness according to directions given him by God. The tabernacle began to be referred to as a “house” once it settled at a fixed location for a long period. It was the one earthly place where God was said to dwell, in the midst of his people. During the period of the Judges it stayed mostly in Shiloh, where rabbinic tradition claims it rested for 369 years. The “house” was Israel’s established gathering center for worship, as distinct from worshiping on the “high places”, which was a practice that evolved from imitation of the local Canaanites.

In Chronicles and most of the Psalms, “house of God” means first the tabernacle, then Solomon’s temple. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it means the much less impressive, rebuilt temple constructed by Israelites returning from exile.

Interestingly, Herod’s temple in the gospels is never referred to as the “house of God”.

The Household of God

In the New Testament epistles, “house of God” is better understood as meaning “household”, and refers to the church, and not just when it is formally gathered. When Paul writes to Timothy about how to behave in the “household of God ... a pillar and buttress of the truth,” it is evident his instructions involve much more than just church meetings. He was telling Timothy how people should behave whenever we interact with our fellow believers. The “house of God” in the New Testament need not involve a building at all. It is a spiritual reality, not a physical one.

However, in our study of Ecclesiastes, we must recognize that the Preacher cannot have had any notion of this latter, spiritual manifestation of God’s house. His references to it are all literal and physical.

What all references to “house of God” throughout scripture have in common is gathering. Men can relate to God as individuals. We can pray and sing and read the God’s word and believe all on our own. But when we speak of the house of God, we are speaking of the place God has chosen to meet with his gathered people, whether it is in the hearts of a little group in a basement somewhere today, or in the golden opulence of Solomon’s temple.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3  Take Care When You Worship

Better Watch Your Step

The Preacher has changed subjects once again as we begin Ecclesiastes 5:
“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. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”
Just as the location and nature of the house of God have changed over the centuries, so what went on there has changed too. Thus, when the Preacher speaks of the “house of God” in Ecclesiastes, let’s get it out of our heads that he was talking about sitting through a similar routine to the one we have developed in modern evangelical churches, which primarily consists of introductory congregational singing followed by listening to lengthy teaching of the written word of God.

Public teaching and expository preaching did not have anything like the dominant place in Israelite worship 3,000 years ago which they enjoy among evangelical Christians today, often occupying more than half the time Christians devote to gathering together. And we can be most confident the notion of a conversational Bible study, in which all sorts of uninformed opinions about the meaning of the word of God are aired, never crossed anyone’s mind when the Preacher was writing. The priests taught the Law, of course, but it is fairly obvious this passage in Ecclesiastes was not written merely to warn against the occasional shoddy performance on the part of priests and Levites (the words “go to” are our first clue).

Religion in its Various Forms

The prominence of other forms of religious expression three thousand years ago may well be related to the fact that there was far less of God’s written word to exposit or even read publicly. Only a fraction of our modern Bibles had been written. Israel had the Law, perhaps a few psalms and some wisdom literature, and maybe some writings considered semi-sacred at that time, such as a rough draft of the book of Job. These existed in the form of handwritten scrolls rather than printed books and were quite rare. The first synagogues, along with all the study, teaching and debate about the meaning of the Law that went with them, did not even begin to appear until the Babylonian Exile, roughly 400 years after the Preacher wrote.

Thus, when the Preacher says, “Be not rash with your mouth,” he is not addressing evangelical platform speakers, though they might be wise to heed the advice regardless. He’s not even really talking about how we interpret the word of God or teach it to others in open Bible studies, youth groups and Sunday School classes. That simply wasn’t a big part of either the tabernacle or temple service. In the “house of God”, be it tabernacle or temple, the average man’s voice was probably only heard when leading the congregation in prayer, or perhaps praying informally on the temple grounds, or when making a vow before the priest, or offering a sacrifice at the altar.

Solomon’s Moral Authority

When Solomon inaugurated his temple, he prayed before the people. That prayer can be read at a natural pace in slightly under five minutes. As one of the wisest men in the history of our world, and, at the time, in fellowship with his God, it is reasonable to concede that he probably prayed very well indeed, but even Solomon watched his step when he went to the house of God. He did not pray frivolously or self-indulgently. He did not run on too long, since he knew that “when words are many, transgression is not absent.” His prayer was not all about him, unlike the Pharisee in the Lord’s parable. He did not make showy offerings under false pretenses like Ananias and Sapphira. Thus, his advice to “let your words be few” comes with moral authority and good sense.

Other Witnesses

It is also consistent with the later writers of scripture. James speaks of the dangers of the tongue in teaching, but the principle of guarding our lips and recognizing the danger of foolish prattle in the presence of God applies to everything a Christian does in public. Jesus spoke in Matthew of the Gentiles, who “heap up empty phrases, for they think that they will be heard for their many words,” and the hypocrites, who “stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” All of that is futile and counterproductive, not to mention insulting to God.

Care in one’s speech is good at all times, but it is of paramount importance in the “house of God”, where judgment begins. Where even two or three true “brothers” gather, judgment is never far away. The things we do among the people of God draw his special attention. Coming to worship without appropriate self-examination and loving recognition of the rest of the “household” can be cause for God to discipline his children in this life.

Much Business

The Preacher’s final statement here (he will say more about vows later), is this: “For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.” This is best understood as a standard proverbial form restating what he has told us in Proverbs. We might read it like this: “Just as much activity inevitably produces dreaming, so many words will inevitably produce foolish statements.”

Who could argue?

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