Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God; to draw near to hearken is better than to give the sacrifice of fools; for they consider not that they do evil. Be not be rash with thy mouth, and let not thy heart be hasty to utter anything before God. (Eccl.5:1-2, Koren Jerusalem Bible)
What does it mean to “guard your foot”? Further, what is the “sacrifice of fools”?
The idiom in our culture to “watch your step” is common, but we must ask, “from what?” What are God’s people suppose to be doing here? Are there sacred objects which one must avoid stepping on? Did the Israelites of antiquity not have proper footwear? Were they supposed to stare at their feet as they walked into the Temple? Were their feet at risk of being attacked if they didn’t “guard them”? These are all strange ideas, but they illustrate our relationship with the language of the Bible, and the fact that we commonly fail to ask questions of the text; questions which would help us better understand the meaning.
Both phrases are ambiguous. Many times we read the Bible and come across phrases or images like these and, lacking the historical or biblical context which we need to truly understand their meaning, we invent one that seems to make sense, and then we keep reading. Before we know it, we are engaging in Bible interpretation based on the rubric of assumption rather than careful analysis, and only because our brain has “filled in for us” the missing information so that we can keep reading uninterrupted.
The Talmud speaks of these phrases, and explains them thoroughly. Therefore, this is where we will turn first to better understand their meaning.
What is the meaning of that which is written: “Guard your foot” when you go to the house of God?…It means: When you enter the house of the Lord, guard yourself from transgression, and if you commit a transgression, bring a sacrifice before Me in atonement. The verse continues: “And draw near and listen to the words of the wise, who, if they commit a transgression, they bring a sacrifice and repent. He interprets the next part of the verse: “It is better than when fools give sacrifices,” that one should not act like the fools who commit a transgression and bring a sacrifice but do not repent…With regard to those individuals, The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: They cannot distinguish between good and evil and yet they bring a sacrifice before me? (Talmud, Berakhot, 23a, Steinsaltz Edition)
When we consider the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, we see a terrifying sequence. They…
…sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price…and bringing a portion of it…laid it at the apostles feet…(Acts 5:2)
Looks fairly straightforward, right? An act of charity before the whole congregation. How is it wrong that they kept back some of the money for themselves before bringing the offering? Don’t we do this sort of thing all the time?
Remember, the Talmud stated that “fools who commit a transgression and bring a sacrifice but do not repent”. So, the sacrifice of fools, is a sacrifice which is brought without a repentance from sin. Peter declares the judgement upon them:
“Ananais, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?…Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”(Acts 5:3-4)
The incident has a direct parallel in scripture. While Ananais and Sapphira were struck down for a presumptuous sin before the whole assembly at the dawn of the Christ-following sect, remember that on the very day that the Tabernacle in the wilderness was dedicated, two of Aaron’s sons were struck down in similar fashion:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the precense of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.'” (Lev.10:1-3)
The parallels are rich and numerous. Not only did these people die at a public event, which celebrated the beginning of something important, but they died in similar fashion, on the spot. Notice that Aaron’s sons were consumed for bringing forth an offering which “the LORD had not commanded them.” (The “fire” in Leviticus is parallel to the “fire” of the spirit of God in Acts). In the same way, Ananais and Sapphira were not “commanded” to sell their property. They made what appeared to be a sacrificial freewill offering but in fact it was a show for the sake of the eyes of people. They were not transparent or careful of transgression.
Interestingly, in the Leviticus worship system of sacrifices, there is no prescribed sacrifice for presumptuous (intentional) sins. For that, there is only repentance.
But this parallel still does not fully satisfy the inquisitive mind who looks at the concept of “guarding your foot” and “the sacrifice of fools”. So, they transgressed…why were they killed? And how is either situation a representation of terrible sin? They didn’t murder anyone. There was no fornication. No idol worship. Why the harsh decree? The answer, is in the context. There was a profaning of holy space, before God’s people, by presumed leaders. Because of their position in the assembly, which in each case had been purified and was in unity, the sin of presumption and deception brought forth death. We know that the unity of the believers was an issue in the event in Acts, because it declares this openly in chapter four:
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. (Acts 4:32)
The Talmud continues in its explanation of our opening passage in Ecclesiastes, giving further and deeper insight into this difficult concept. It explains that the portion of the verse which reads: “when fools offer sacrifices, as they know not to do evil” means that, “although they are bringing an offering, they believe that the sin had no effect, as the sacrifice fixes everything.“ (Tosefot on Ecclesiastes 5). It should be noted by readers today that sacrifices in the Temple were financially costly.
So, to reword that, it means that the sacrifice of fools is to make a show of service or deed or offering, thinking that their deeds compensate for a lack of repenting from sin. This individual is foolish in that they think that they can atone for their evil deeds by doing good deeds. This is foolish because the Bible tells us that the penalty for sin is death. Life comes by repenting and receiving grace, not by earning favor through works. Our works are meritorious when they are born out of love, devotion and worship of a loving God, not as a form of self-justification, while ignoring the evil within. It’s a fundamental error of character and of misunderstanding who God is. Consider a similar scene, though less traumatic:
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” (Acts 8:20-23)
In the days of the apostles, it was not uncommon for Gentiles to give money to Jews in order for sacrifices to be offered on their behalf. Simon, in the story in Acts, apparently thought that Peter had the power to retrieve the gift of the Holy Spirit for him through purchasing it, as though Peter was a merchant and this gift was for sale. Simon was a sorcerer, who sold “spiritual parlor tricks” to gain a following. When he became a believer, he needed to learn some things about how God really worked. Perhaps this is why God gave him the grace to live after his sin, while Ananais and his wife, who were Jews, should have known better. After all, like Nadab and Abihu, they had been instructed in the difference between holy and unholy, clean and unclean. It is unlikely that Simon had. He offered a “sacrifice” (brought money) of “fools”, in that, as the Talmud explains, “(fools) do not know evil; they know not if and when their actions are evil.
At any rate, that is our look at the phrase “the sacrifice of fools”. Now, let’s look at the concept of “guarding your foot”.
The Talmud claims that the phrase “guard your foot” is actually used in this passage of Ecclesiastes as a euphemism for defecation, related to the story of Ehud, “a left-handed man” and a judge of Israel. Ehud was charged with the task of being the “holy hit man of God”. It says of him that he fashioned for himself a “sword which had two edges” (a double-edged sword). He approaches Eglon while the man is alone in the “cool room”, meaning he is in one of the multiple chambers of the bath house, and the one which typically is associated with relieving oneself. Ehud extends his left hand to Eglon to help the man rise, and when Eglon extends his hand, Ehud draws a sword, which was hidden and plunges it deep into Eglon’s belly and then locks the doors to the room and makes his escape.
When Eglon’s servants went looking for him, they found the chamber of his bath house locked and surmised:
Behold, the doors of the roof chamber were locked; and they said, “He is only covering his feet in the cool room.” They waited until they became anxious; but behold, they did not open the doors of the roof chamber. Therefore they took the key and opened them, and behold, their master had fallen to the floor (the earth) dead. (Judg.3:24-25)
The picture in this passage now provides an electrifying context to the passage in Ecclesiastes to “Guard thy foot when thou goest to the house of God...”.
When you drop your pants to relieve yourself, multiple things are happening. For one thing, you are naked and exposed. Secondly, your feet are covered and you are vulnerable; you can’t really move. Third, you are in a state of ritual defilement. In this state, you cannot pray or approach God in holy space, according to the Law.
So the euphemism is deeply meaningful in this context. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 5:1 in context of Judges 3, with the understanding of “Guard your foot” (or “guard your steps” as many translations render it) as “covering your feet as one who relieves himself”.
What we see is that it is a sin to enter the house of God in a defiled state, especially when the person is portraying themselves as ritually pure and, further, is bringing forth a sacrifice. This is, then, the sacrifice of fools: presumption of holiness while in a state of defilement, as though God does not see. “Guard your foot” references the fact that all things are “naked before Him”.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (Heb.4:12-13)
Another aspect of this should be mentioned. We should not “dump” on God’s people and call it an offering. Many times in our churches, people become emotionally stirred up and just “have to share something”. They have a “word” or a so-called “prophecy”, yet many times it’s just a worked-up agenda or an opportunity to “take a dump” and get something “off their chest”. Some words and prayers are simply not appropriate in a congregational setting. For instance, it’s one thing to lift up a need of someone else for corporate prayer. It is another thing to detail the specifics of the sin that the member of the community may be engaged in, shaming them needlessly before the assembly, in the guise of “prayer”. This is merely one example of this principle, but lack of order in the assembly, or gathering, of believers is a big issue to God. Paul addressed it directly:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself…For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep (have died). But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. (1 Cor.11:27-32)
God searches out the hearts of men. If we presume to deceive his people, He will expose it. He will first do this with the “double-edged sword” of the word, and if we don’t allow God’s touch to bring us to repentance, the “gall of bitterness” will bring us to a bitter end indeed.