Worship in Old Testament History (Part 1)

THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 4th in the series 

Volume 7, No. 1 (January 2012)

For the next several months we will survey the practice and themes of worship found in Israel’s history as recorded in the pages of the Old Testament. As Steven Hawthorne points out:

The Bible is the astounding drama of God’s love drawing the worship of the nations. . . . God reveals his glory to all peoples so that he may receive glory from all creation. This double dimension of glory can help make sense out of an apparent jumble of ancient stories. (Steven C. Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory”)

1.  The Beginning Period (Genesis 1–11)

a.  Creation

In the beginning, there was worship. . . .  According to the Bible, the relationshipbetween God the sovereign Creator and the human beings created in his image is the foundation upon which all theological concepts rests.  As beings created by God, men and women are to respond to him, to pay Him due service. (Y. Hattori, “Theology of Worship in the Old Testament,” in Worship: Adoration and Action, p. 21)

b.  The Fall

The main issue in the fall was a decision about worship (see my articles “The Gospel: A Call to Worldwide Worship” and “False and True Worship in Romans 1”). This is clear from Paul’s “theological commentary on Genesis 3” in Romans 1:18-25. Genesis 3 tells us what happened; Romans 1 tell us what it means:

Paul began the body of his letter by emphasizing that at the root of the sin which has led to the current revelation of God’s wrath (1.18) lies humanity’s refusal to glorify and thank the God to whom they know they are accountable (1.21). To “glorify” and to “give thanks” is essentially to worship, as the terrible “exchange” in 1.23 and 1.25 confirms. The result of turning away from God did not mean an end to worship per se. As a result of withholding praise and thanks, the focus of human worship shifted from the glory of the Creator to images of his creatures, from the truth of God to the lie of idolatry. They “worshipped” and “served” the creature instead of the Creator (1.25).  (Michael B. Thompson, “Romans 12.1-2 and Paul’s Vision for Worship.” In A Vision for the Church, ed. Markus Bockmuehl & Michael B. Thompson. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997, 124)

The glory of creation and the glory of God are as different as the love poem and the love, the painting and the landscape, the ring and the marriage. It would be a great folly and a great tragedy if man loved his wedding band more than he loved his bride. But that is what Romans 1:19-23 says has happened. Human beings have fallen in love with the echo of God’s excellency in creation and lost the ability to hear the incomparable original shout of love. (John Piper, The Pleasures of God, 85)

The essence of sin is the belittling God’s glory. (John Piper, The Pleasures of God, 158)

   c.  Cain and Abel (Genesis 4): the first murder centers around worship

  1. Worship involved sacrifice: whether this was revealed to them directly by God, or transmitted through their parents, we are not told.
  2. The important thing is not whether the worship is acceptable to them, but whether it is acceptable to God.
  3. There has been much debate about why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God, and not Cain’s. One common explanation is that only Abel brought a blood sacrifice; but grain offerings were later provided for and even commanded later in the Mosaic law, so they were certainly not unacceptable to the Lord. The writer of Hebrews gives us the needed perspective: “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain.” It was Abel’s faith that made his offering acceptable rather than his brother’s. Daniel I. Block has spoken insightfully to the way God works: “We think that it is the sacrifice that makes the person acceptable to God; but actually it is the person that makes the sacrifice acceptable.” God is always more interested in the heart of the worshiper than in the particular offering (or song, or musical style) he brings (see Worship Notes 6.10). “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). John Witvliet likes to point out that it is more emblematic of Baal worship for us to think that we can drum up the right ceremony or ritual or song set that will somehow force God’s hand or make Him “show up.”

  d.  The Godly Line

To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). (See Worship Notes 6.9 on this concept.)

    e.   The Flood: result of further rebellion against God (refusal to worship Him)

Noah’s first act after leaving the ark is an act of worship: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20).

    f.    The Tower of Babel: more rebellion

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4)


  • Genesis 12:2  God to Abraham: “ will . . . make your name great
  • calling on the name of the Lord 


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