Imperfect and unimpressive churchgoers are all that there are.
The Teacher’s observations regarding life “East of Eden” might lead some to believe that there’s nothing worth living for. Might as well face the music and end your life now before your eyes ingest more carnage and corruption. A facile reading of Ecclesiastes contributes to such an interpretation of the text, seemingly condoning a cynical view of the world in which nothing matters. (Ecc 7:1) The assertions found in chapters 4 and 5, however, upset this understanding while also speaking in realistic terms about the vanities of life in “once-Eden.”
In Ecclesiastes 4:9–12, our Teacher outright affirms the significance of community, writing, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.” (Ecc 4:9–10) The point driven home here is that it’s better to have little with company than a lot with no one at all. (Ecc 4:11–12) Those who are more interested in propping themselves up punt on the fellowship for which we were made. We are communal souls. All the ups and downs, distresses and delights of relationships here in “once-Eden” ought not to make us suppress the community and fellowship for which we were made. Rather, as he’s been observing, authentic relationships with those around us, our neighbors, is much of why we’re still here in this filthy, fractured world of “once-Eden.” Accordingly, as is evident in Ecclesiastes 5:1–7, despite its blemishes (and there are many), we were made for church.
A truth about the “Genesis 3” church.
The church of God “under the sun” isn’t immune to the fallenness and brokenness that plagues our world. Simply going to church doesn’t make you invulnerable to the world’s griefs. For this reason, our Teacher warns, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” (Ecc 5:1) “Church under the sun warrants caution.”1 The unfortunate reality of the “Genesis 3” church is that it can be a hurtful place. It might surprise some to hear that confession from a pastor but that’s the God’s honest truth. I’ll go ahead and say it: sometimes the church sucks. What I’ve found to be true is that if you’re in the church long enough, you’ll get hurt by it. Churchfolk are often messy and mean people, with no small amount of judgment, gossip, and hypocrisy spilling from their lips. “Guard your steps,” then, so you don’t get entangled by the unsavory side of God’s bride.
This unsettling reality often engenders questions as to the purpose and legitimacy of church in our lives. What’s the point, many surmise, of involving and investing myself in another broken community? Reading the Teacher’s words might spark similar inquiries in your own mind. Why do I go to church in the first place? Is it to feel more spiritual? Is it because you’re coerced to by your parents? Or are you afraid of what your peers might think of you if you don’t? Don’t get me wrong, I love the church, but even I have to stop and ask myself the same questions. But while these queries have some level of individual legitimacy, they more precisely reveal our false beliefs and misconceptions about what the church is “under the sun.”
Some approach the idea of church and are oddly surprised to find sinners there. But sinners are all that there are. As such, we recognize that foolishness and folly exists in every gathering and in every facet of “once-Eden,” yes, including churches. But even still, as the Teacher maintains, don’t take the house of God lightly. Don’t neglect this assembly of likeminded folk. The inference being, that it’s better to belong to an imperfect church than to none at all.
A truth about attendance.
Our Teacher’s choice of words is significant, as he refers to churchgoing not as a matter of “if” but “when.” “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God” (Ecc 5:1), as if suggesting that the church is the exception to the rule of vanity. In fact, we ought to get used to the camaraderie of “once-Eden” congregations as that’s one of the few carry overs in New Eden. The grace that we share in church gives us glimpses into eternity. As we commune with those who are hurting, with fellow broken citizens of “once-Eden,” we’re made to experience a taste of glory. Attending and being a part of a church community is what retools our vain activities into eternal arrangements.
The fallacies of church attendance arise, though, as we fail to realize what the church is for: a place for sinners to be shown their need of a Savior. The community of church is undone when we think we attend that place and are, thereby, dazzling anyone, let alone God the Father. Coming to this congregation with hasty words and a language that strives to ensure that you have everything together disintegrates the occasion for a community gathering like the church in the first place. Coming to church to “impress” God and neighbor ruins what this fellowship is for. It’s not a sanctuary for put-together saints, but as Francis Spufford puts it, it’s the “headquarters for the league of the guilty.”
Come to church, then, unimpressively. Come knowing who you are. “Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” (Ecc 5:2) The axiom found in verse 2 — “God is in heaven and you are on earth” — seems simplistic but it’s actually a profoundly constructed humbling statement that realigns our focus. God’s in the heavens and we’re on the earth. God is God and you are not. He is everything big and strong and infinite, existing outside of time. Man is everything weak and small and finite, enslaved to time. Therefore, it’s impossible for you to impress God with your religiosity.
A truth about activity.
The Teacher’s next remark regarding God’s house “under the sun” concerns what those in his house are doing. These verses serve as a continued censure to those who are working to impress God with their church activities.
Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God . . . When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it. (Ecc 5:2, 4–5)
The reminder, here, is to be careful what you vow to do in the house of God. It is a perilous enterprise to vow to do something and then not fulfill it. (Ecc 5:6) I’m reminded of the days of summer camp and all the “decisions for Jesus” that are often made and left there. The surreal spiritual highs of camp life are soon strangled by the ebbs and flows everyday life. The same often goes for church and the resolutions made there, too. Our Teacher saw an increasing number of churchgoers vowing and promising things in the church without any actual interest in fulfilling them. As if there was some spiritual competition happening and the most “resolutions for God” wins. But you can’t “level-up” by doubling-down on the vows you make in church. Precisely because the church isn’t a club for competing saints. It’s a community for sinners — a refuge for those who know they’re bad to come and learn about the One who is good for them. The religion of the gospel isn’t about impressing God with remarkable acts of service and devotion. It’s about humbly, obediently, and faithfully tending to our God-given lot and life.
Our attendance in the church of “once-Eden” must be accompanied by attentiveness and activity, both of which are borne out of a stilled soul. When the Teacher cautions to not delay in fulfilling what you vow in God’s house (Ecc 5:4), he’s not urging for more rash decisions. Rather, he’s encouraging a determined and deliberate response to flow out of the good news in which we steep while in the church. Don’t let your conversations and commitments stay within the four walls of the auditorium. Don’t be hasty with what you promise to do in God’s house. Too much hasty religious talk produces nothing but good dreams and ideas without much good activity. (Ecc 5:3, 6–7) “Fools possess a religion of the unstoppable mouth.”2 Fools talk more about the idea of loving their neighbor without actually loving them.
A truth about awe.
The faithful activity of churchgoers is propagated by a right view of Creator and creature. It’s precipitated by a right awe God. (Ecc 5:7; 12:13) “When awe of God has captured your heart,” says Paul Tripp, “ministry will fill your schedule.”3 The church of God “under the sun” isn’t a futile institution. For as much grief that permeates its walls, God’s preacher tells us that his house isn’t defined by its vanity. It’s the place where we go to realign our hearts back to eternity. Church reminds us that God hasn’t left us stranded “under the sun.” Rather, through Christ, he chose to dwell with us, tabernacling with us in the midst of all our wreckage and rebellion. (Jn 1:14) Christ is the promise of God’s ongoing presence for the church in the world. “The house of God reminds us that God has not abandoned the raging world to a life without witness to himself.”4
In God’s sanctuary, our busy minds are quieted in the stillness and silence of Jesus’s passion and death. In this place, the words of the gospel are spoken. Here, we are dispossessed of our cancerous, competitive spirits. Here, the fetters of the flashy and the spectacular are loosed in the quiet consideration of God’s ordinary service. Here, we are shepherded to rest from all our labors after “more,” to find pasture in Jesus’s enoughness. (Mt 11:28–30)
Zack Eswine, Rediscovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2014), 147.
Paul Tripp, Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 155.