Guard Your Steps
Several years ago, Carolyn was coming into church on a rainy Sunday morning. She had on heels, a nice dress, and a coat. In a flash—for that’s how these things happen—she found herself face down on the wet sidewalk. A young man pushing a stroller nearby saw her fall and rushed to her aid, anxious that she might have hurt herself. Carolyn laughingly assured him that she was fine, and he offered his arm to help her up. Pulling together her umbrella, her purse, and her dignity, Carolyn walked the few remaining steps into church very carefully.
Here in Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon tells us to walk carefully into church: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God” (Eccles. 5:1). It isn’t high heels or slippery sidewalks Solomon is concerned about; he is warning us to watch our words and our hearts on our way into church. Do not rush into the church service, he exhorts us. While we are to work industriously, we must come to church cautiously. That’s because, when we come to the house of God—in Solomon’s day, the temple, and in our time, the church—we are coming into the presence of God.
Learning to Tread Carefully
Imagine that you were given an audience with the [royalty]. You would no doubt arrive early—in fact, that’s one of many rules of protocol. You would walk carefully toward the queen, being sure to have practiced your curtsy. And you would never turn your back on her on your way out. These guidelines and more you would carefully follow. Contrast that with the way we often casually cruise into God’s presence each week. Maybe you got up late, and instead of a shower, you pulled your hair into a messy bun. During church your mind wanders to conversations you hope to have during fellowship time (I wonder how her vacation went?) or to what you are going to have for lunch (Deli sandwich or a fresh salad?). Maybe you rush out as soon as church is over to watch a sporting event or take an afternoon nap.
Solomon knows the slapdash way we are tempted to go to the house of God, the place where we have been called together to worship. Here he warns us to proceed with the utmost caution. You are coming into the presence of the Holy One. Guard your steps, or else you may slip. Be very careful when you come into God’s glorious presence. “Guard your steps” is Solomon’s way of picturing the fact that we need to guard the way or the manner in which we come to worship (Eccles. 5:1). In short, he says, we should be quick to listen and slow to speak in the presence of God.
First, he says: we must be quick to listen to 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” (Eccles. 5:1). To point out what is “better” is Solomon’s favorite way of telling us how to truly live. Here he tells us that it is way better to listen in church than to be fools.
You see, when we come to church, we draw near to God himself. It is true that we come to sing praises to God too, but even more importantly, we come to listen to God’s word preached. We come to listen to the words that God himself has “breathed out” (2 Tim. 3:16). His words are not hevel like our words; Scripture contains the sure, eternal, authoritative, and unchanging words of God. And on Sunday mornings, God has appointed the preacher as his spokesman to deliver his words to his people. Solomon, “the Preacher,” urges us to listen up.
Listening, of the biblical kind, requires preparation and application. We prepare for all kinds of things the night before to get the children off to school or to get to work on time or to get a jump-start on a big house project. How much more should we prepare to draw near and listen to God? The young people in Puritan pastor Richard Baxter’s church apparently spent three hours together on Saturday evening, just to prepare their hearts for Sunday morning!1 Your preparation need not take three hours, but consider: How can you prepare your heart and your home for church?
You are coming into the presence of the Holy One. Guard your steps, or else you may slip.
Preparation begins with prayer. Pray that God would help you to draw near to him, to listen to his word, to hear his voice, and to receive grace to obey. Prayerfully review the past week: Is there any unconfessed sin in your heart, or any person with whom you need to be reconciled? Consider needs and requests for the week to come. When your heart is prepared to draw near to God, your thoughts will wander less and focus more on God’s word. And if your church publishes the sermon text ahead of time, read and familiarize yourself with the passage. Practical preparation also aids your ability to listen well during church. Making plans the night before to get to church on time (or even a few minutes early) means you won’t be so flustered and distracted when church starts. You will be on the edge of your seat, eager to listen to God.
But listening doesn’t end with the preacher’s closing prayer. Proper listening in Scripture does not occur until we obey what we hear. And so, instead of rushing out of church and into your week, take some time on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning to review the sermon and ask the Lord: What is one way I can listen by obeying this week?
Check Your (Sinful) Attitude at the Door
Next, Solomon piles up the imperatives about taming the tongue in church. Not only should we be quick to listen, we should be slow to speak:
Be not rash with your mouth. (Eccles. 5:2)
Nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God. (Eccles. 5:2)
Therefore let your words be few. (Eccles. 5:2)
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it. (Eccles. 5:4)
Let not your mouth lead you into sin. (Eccles. 5:6)
Scripture is replete with warnings about the tongue, but here Solomon tells us to be especially careful when it comes to the worship of God.To guard our “steps” (Eccles. 5:1) before we enter church means that we must guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23) and also guard our mouths (Prov. 21:23). We must not enter church having allowed sinful attitudes to enter our hearts, such as bitterness toward a fellow church member or selfish ambition for attention from others. We must not set foot in the church building without first setting a guard over our mouths from speaking words of pride, anger, criticism, or slander.
Think about the “words of [your] mouth and the meditation of [your] heart” at church last week (Ps. 19:14). Were they pleasing to God? How quickly did you drift from a focus on God to what so-and-so was wearing? How many of your words before and after church were hastily spoken and from an unruly heart? How free did you feel to criticize your pastor’s sermon or complain about church leadership? Sadly, instead of being slow to speak, we are all more likely to be quick to speak, quick to complain, and quick to judge even (and sometimes especially) in church.
We are quick to speak (with authority) about what we think God is (or is not) doing. Quick to express an opinion about what another mom should or shouldn’t do with her children. Quick to question and complain. Quick to criticize. We may dismiss hasty words and thoughts as harmless, but Solomon says they can be dangerous; so guard your steps by guarding your speech when you go to church.
- J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 241.
Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre are the authors of True Life: Practical Wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is consistent with the rest of Scripture in its explanation that true wisdom is to fear God even when we cannot see all that God is doing.
Ultimately, the local church makes visible what is invisible, and reflects in words and deeds the kingdom life that is to come.
As much as a church does facilitate and organize relationships and practices, the church is more than a means to an end, a utilitarian resource for an individual Christian’s needs.
Why is the local church so important and essential for our spiritual growth as Christians—especially in the time of COVID-19?