IMPORTANT THEMES in Old Testament Worship (conclusion)

THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 2nd in a series

Volume 6, No. 10 (October 2011)

5. Worship of the Heart (Spiritual Sacrifices)

Usually when we think of Old Testament worship, our minds go immediately to the complex ritual system of ceremonies and sacrifices commanded by the Mosaic Law. However, Richard Leonard makes this startling observation about the book of Psalms:

It is a striking phenomenon that the Psalms, the hymnody of the sanctuary, so seldom refer to the sacrificial cultus [system of worship]. When the Psalms refer to sacrifice, it is almost always the sacrifice made by praise and thanksgiving. (Richard C. Leonard, “Old Testament Vocabulary of Worship,” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship I, 8 )

It is clear from the texts below (and many others) that God’s priority always (in both the Old and the New Testaments) is the worship of the heart. 

  •  Deuteronomy 10:12  “Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD  your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
  • 1 Samuel 16:7  “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”
  • 1 Samuel 15:22  Samuel said, “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.
  • Psalm 22:3  Yet You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.   [“with the expression the Old Testament characteristically draws out the inner meaning of its visible institutions. . .  God’s earthly throne or palace is not in the Temple but in the hearts of His People and on their lips.” (Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 106)] 
  • Psalm 40:6  “Sacrifice and meal offering you have not desired; my ears You have opened; burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.”
  • Psalm 50:13-14  Shall I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High.
  • Psalm 51:16-17  For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
  • Psalm 69:30-31  I will praise the name of God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it will please the LORD better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs.
  • Psalm 103:1  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!
  • Psalm 141:2  May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.
  • Isaiah 29:13  Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote . . .” 
  • Hosea 6:6  “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”                                 
  • Joel 2:13a  Tear your hearts and not your garments.
  • Micah 6:6-8  With what shall I come to the LORD and  bow myself before the God on high?  Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
  • Matthew 9:13  “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  
  • Matthew 15:8-9 “‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”    
  • Mark 12:33  “and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 
  • Luke 18:11-14  “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
  • Luke 21:1-3  Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and He saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.”
  • John 4:21, 24  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 
  • Hebrews 10:5-9   Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.”
  • Hebrews 13:15  Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.
  • 1 Peter 2:5 You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

A particularly poignant example of this emphasis found in Psalm 63. David is in the wilderness, on the run for his life because of his son Absalom’s rebellion against him. Being in the desert and far from Jerusalem and the Tabernacle, there is no way that David can fulfill any of the Law’s commands regarding worship. Yet he instinctively understands his personal relationship with God (“O God, You are my God,” v. 1) and turns to God in profound praise. (In fact, as Perowne points out, there is no word of petition in the entire Psalm—only praise.) 

One more remarkable example of the priority God places on internal worship is found in the account of Hezekiah’s reforms and reinstitution of the Passover celebration in 2 Chronicles 30:

And they slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the second month. . . .  The priests threw the blood that they received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves. Therefore the Levites had to slaughter the Passover lamb for everyone who was not clean, to consecrate it to the LORD. For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. (2 Chronicles 30:15, 17-20)

God obviously valued the intention of “everyone who sets his heart to seek God” more than the ritual cleansing that the Law itself prescribed!

Don Carson gives us a helpful perspective on the different outworkings of heart worship under the two Covenants:

The way wholly loving God works out under the old covenant is in heartfelt obedience to the terms of that covenant and that includes the primary place given to the cultus [sacrificial system]; and the implications of this outworking include distinctions between the holy and the common, between holy space and common space, between holy time and common time, between holy food and common food.

The way wholly loving God works out under the new covenant is in heartfelt obedience to the terms of that covenant; and here the language of the cultus has been transmuted to all of life, with the implication, not so much of a desacralization of space and time and food, as with a sacralization of all space and all time and all food. (Don Carson, Worship by the Book, 40)

The way an Old Testament believer expressed his heart devotion to God was by faithfully striving to live up to the ritual requirements of the Law. However, it is clear from the prophets (and from Jesus’ excoriating of the Pharisees) that mere external conformity to the requirements without it being the expression of a sincere heart was (and is) loathsome to God. As C. S. Lewis puts it, it is not as if God “really needed the blood of bulls and goats. . . . All our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention” (“On Church Music,” 99).

The obvious implication for us to recognize that God is far more concerned with our heart than with the form of our worship!

(For more on this theme, see Worship Notes 1.11)

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