Do you know how to pray? Have you ever thought about how God wants you to pray? What we are going to learn from the Teacher today is that there is a right way and a wrong way to pray, especially during worship services.
In this week’s five-part series on Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, the central passage of the entire book, the Teacher is taking us to church. After a caution about empty ritual, the Teacher talks about prayer.
Look at Verse 2. Again, Dorsey’s translation is helpful, “Do not be like [fools]; do not be glib in what you say to God, or hasty in what you promise. Remember, God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”
One commentator explains that in this phrase, we see “the vast distance between God and human beings, and … the need to be quiet before God.” (Longman)
The Teacher is talking about God from a perspective very different from the Christian perspective because he is writing hundreds of years before Jesus was born. I suspect the Teacher would be shocked to learn about the idea that I talked about in the previous post, that Christians’ bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Teacher, very much in line with Old Testament Israelite thinking, sees God differently. God’s presence resided in the Temple, and God was conceived as a being utterly different from humans. Likewise we Christians view God the Father as separate, distinct from us, and transcendent, but we also have an expanded understanding of God the Son, Jesus who took on human flesh and walked among us, and we have the God the Spirit living in us. Therefore, we can learn from the Teacher, and we should consider God as he truly is, in his holiness, his perfection, his love, his justice, and have a present awareness of how amazingly other he is. To consider God that way, we need to be quiet before him. That quietness before him is one way to talk about prayer.
So often our prayers are speedy barrages of words, in which we ask God for all kinds of help. That’s not wrong. God wants to hear from us. But the Teacher provides for us a needed corrective. Our worship should include silent consideration of God. In this, the Quakers have us beaten, because they include silence in their worship. I run past the Quaker meetinghouse in Bird-in-Hand and think about this. At some point I want to visit. This is why Faith Church has held Silent Sundays from time to time over the years. This is also why we need to include more silence in our lives, both individually and corporately when we gather on Sunday mornings for worship. Let’s put a pin in this, as the Teacher will come back to this, and we’ll see what he has to say in a later post in this series.
Instead, as the Teacher continues, what he says next is difficult to interpret. Look at Verse 3: “As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” While it is clear that the Teacher is giving us some proverbial wisdom, what does he mean? Remember that verses 2-3 are about prayer, and the whole section of Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 is about worship, so the meaning of this phrase should make sense when thinking about prayer in gathered worship.
Again the commentator, Tremper Longman, is helpful here. He says, “As one can expect dreams (an uneasy sleep) during the preoccupation that accompanies heavy work, so one can expect to find a fool behind a loquacious speaker. Thus … the point is clearly drawn: only a fool prays a lot.”
Only a fool prays a lot? What? Can the Teacher really be saying that? Aren’t we supposed to pray more, not less? Jesus taught in Luke 18 that we are to pray and not give up. Is Jesus disagreeing with the Teacher? No. Jesus also taught in Matthew 6:7, “When you pray do not keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” While we should be persistent in prayer, but especially when it comes to gathered worship, we should be very observant of our motivations. We should want to avoid making a spectacle of ourselves. That is foolish, the Teacher says, and Jesus agrees.
There is something else that can be very foolish in worship, and we’ll learn what that is in the next post.