Worship in Old Testament History (Part 5)

THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 8th in the series 

Volume 7, No. 5 (May 2012)

This month we look at the worship implications of the Mosaic Covenant and the Law.


It is crucial to recognize that the Law was not a way of salvation for the nation of Israel; rather the sacrifices and other requirements of the Law were be to be the response of an already redeemed people. This is clear in Exodus 20, when God prefaces His giving of the Ten Commandments with the foundational reminder that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (v. 2). Then and only then does He begin with the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (v. 3). God had redeemed the people out of Egypt by His own initiative in an act of grace. The Law provided a way of maintaining and, when necessary, restoring one’s fellowship with God; it was an instrument of God’s continued gracious attitude of loyal love towards His covenant people. That attitude was expressed throughout the Old Testament with the rich Hebrew word hesed (loyal love, lovingkindness); see Exodus 34:6-7; Psalm 145:8.

The liturgies of Israel were God-given ordinances of grace, witnesses to grace. The sacrifice of lambs and bulls and goats were not ways of placating an angry God, currying favor with God as in the pagan worship of the Baali. They were God-given covenantal witnesses to grace—that the God who alone could wipe out their sins would be gracious. (James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, 60).

Israel could draw near to God in his holiness only because of His gracious initiative and provision. (David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, 30).

a. What God promised

1) A unique presence among His people

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34)

2) A unique relationship with His people

“I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:12)

The phrase “The Lord our God” occurs 440 times in the Old Testament!

b. What God asked in return: their WORSHIP

1) Exclusive worship

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7)

The first four of the Ten Commandments dealt with worship, with one’s vertical relationship to God: 1. No other gods 2. No idols or images for worship 3. Treat God’s Name as holy, use it only in a worship sense 4. Set aside a special day for rest and worship. This first group Jesus summarized as expressing the “greatest commandment,” to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37).

Commandments 5 through 10 dealt with the people’s horizontal relationship with one another, summarized by Jesus by quoting Leviticus 19:18 as expressing the second greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

2) Word-oriented worship

“Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!’ Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord.” (Exodus 24:3-4)

“It was a word-oriented worship, and ‘all the Lord’s words and the laws’ were told to the people by Moses. Then there was the response of the people to the Lord’s words and laws (Exodus 24:3). . . . In this corporate worship, then, Gods people are to be instructed by the word of God, and to confirm their covenantal relationship to God by their response in word and offering.” Yoshiaki Hattori, “Theology of Worship in the Old Testament” in Worship: Adoration and Action, ed. D.A. Carson, 29)

David Peterson defines worship in Engaging with God as “essentially an engagement with Him on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible” (p. 20). Worship in Israel was to be defined and guided by God’s spoken and written Word.

3) Lifestyle worship

“Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’” (Exodus 19:5-6). “Such terminology suggests that the engagement with God at Sinai was to inaugurate a total-life pattern of service or worship for the nation. . . . They were chosen to demonstrate what it meant to live under the direct rule of God.” (Peterson, Engaging with God, 28)

Israel’s national life was to be an expression of worship and obedience. (Later most of their kings would lead them astray in this regard.) For example, caring for the poor and widows in their midst was part of their national calling.

4) Ritual worship (the Tabernacle/Temple)

Standing in the center of the camp it symbolized the presence of God in Israel. It symbolized the divinely appointed means by which sinful man could approach God, of otherwise unapproachable holiness, ineffable majesty, perfect unity. (J. Thomson, “Tabernacle,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, 510)

The tabernacle was to stand in the centre of the camp and provide the means by which all of life was to be related to God. . . . In concrete form it expressed the truth that human beings could not come into his presence on their own terms.” (Peterson, Engaging with God, 32)

Stephen Westerholm (in his article on the “Tabernacle” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) suggests that the Tabernacle spoke of the nature of God in the following ways:

a) The grandeur of the tabernacle (and later of the temple) reflected God’s majesty.
b) The limited access of the inner courts reflected God’s holiness.
c) The sacrificial system itself spoke of God’s sovereignty: that man could only approach God on His terms.
d) The provisions of sacrifices for sin showed God’s grace.
e) God’s commitment to dwell in the midst of His people, in spite of their sin, demonstrated His loyal love (hesed).

Another question presents itself. One might well ask: Why did God make the Old Testament system of approach so complex? In Exodus and especially Leviticus one finds chapter upon chapter of painstaking detail about time, place, dress, preparation, the nature and conditions of the sacrifices, etc. Why so complicated? Why so much detail? Some possible reasons:

a) To speak of the greatness of God

“[Walter] Bruggemann has helped me to understand why so much detail is rehearsed in the text on the tabernacle [in Exodus]: The [writer] knows that hosting the Holy One is no small, trivial, or casual undertaking. . . . This corpus of text on presence requires that interpretation not neglect the demanding reality of YHWH’s holiness (in An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination)” (Blog post: Christopher Benson, http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel, Friday, February 5, 2010)

b) To emphasize the seriousness of sin, making the approach to God some exceedingly risky and costly.

Even with the sacrifices, the people as a whole had to stay outside the Tabernacle; only the priests could go into the Holy Place, and only the High Priest could enter the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement. This exclusion speaks to the separation from God that sin entails, and makes the access into God’s presence won by Christ the most revolutionary aspect of New Testament faith (Hebrews 10:19-22).

c) To test the people’s obedience, and hence show their heart.

The primary way an Old Testament saint expressed a heart of devotion to God was by faithfully adhering to God’s instructions for ceremonial observances and sacrifices. On the other hand, merely external adherence without a heart of devotion was meaningless to God; that’s why later in the prophets God would express His hatred of the activities of the priests, because the inner reality was lacking (Amos 5:21; Matthew 23:23-28).

d) To build frustration and an expectation of a more permanent solution for sin.

In spite of the people’s glibly confident initial response to the Law (“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do,” Exodus 24:3. Of course, the results over the long term were not nearly so positive. The New Testament stresses that the Law itself was good, (“The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” Romans 7:12), but necessarily incomplete and temporary (“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near,” Hebrews 10:1). And so God promises through Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Thus Paul can call the Law “our guardian until Christ came” (Galatians 3:24).

5) Testimony worship

God’s plan was simple: God would make His name great and then Israel could make His name known. (Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” 42)

God intended for the nation’s life and worship to be a testimony to the surrounding nations: a testimony to His greatness. God would bear witness to His glory and nature, through Israel’s obedience OR disobedience.

a) In obedience

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. . . . Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. . . . And he will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you. . . . You shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.” (Deuteronomy 28:1-14)

If Israel worshiped God faithfully and exclusively, He promised to bless them as a nation, provide for them abundantly, give them victory and expand their borders. And this would be a powerful testimony of how would bless a nation that fears and serves Him: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” (Psalm 98:1-3; see also Psalm 57:9; 67; 86:8-10; 108:3; 117; 145:10-12)

b) In disobedience

Israel was told repeatedly that God would destroy them just as swiftly [as the nations they were to displace] if they turned away from His worship to other gods.” (Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” 40)

“But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. . . . The LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. . . . The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. . . . The LORD will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you away. . . . All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. . . . “ (Deuteronomy 32:15-68)

When the nation turned to false worship, God would bring hardship, defeat and judgment (even exile). But even this would be a testimony to the nations: that the God of Israel was so holy that He would judge even His own people when they turned away from Him:

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate My holiness before their eyes. . . . It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 32:22-23, 32)

As went the worship of Israel, so went the nation’s fate. Either way, the nation would give testimony to the glory and holiness of God.

6) Typological worship

In old Israel, as in Israel to this day, the great central act of Jewish worship took place on the Day of Atonement, the yom kippur. That was the day in the year which gathered up the worship of every other day. On that day an offering was made which gathered up all the other offerings made daily in the sanctuary, and on that day the worship of all Israel was led by one man, the high priest. Think for a moment of the symbolism of that day. The high priest stands before the people as their divinely appointed representa-tive, bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh, their brother, in solidarity with the people he represents. All that he does, he does in their name; this is symbolized by the fact that he bears their names engraved on his breastplate and shoulders as a memorial before God (Ex. 39:7). He consecrates himself for this ministry by certain liturgical acts of washing and sacrifice. Then comes the great moment when he takes an animal, lays his hands on the victim and vicariously confesses the sins of all Israel in an act of vicarious penitence acknowledging the just judgments of God; when the victim is immolated as a symbol of God’s judgment, he takes the blood of the vessel, ascends into the Holy of Holies, and there vicariously intercedes for all Israel that God will remember his covenant promises and graciously forgive. He then returns to the waiting people outside with the Aaronic blessing of peace.

The New Testament writers saw this is a foreshadowing of the ministry of Christ, who comes from God to be the true Priest, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, in solidarity with all humanity, all races, all colors, bearing on his divine heart the names, the needs, the sorrows, the injustices of all nations, to offer that worship, that obedience, that life of love to the Father which we cannot offer. In our Lord’s high priestly prayer, where He intercedes for His people, he says, “For them I sanctify Myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17: 19)—the One for the Many. “Both the One who makes men holy and those are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11). Jesus’ whole life of prayer and obedience and love, His whole life in the Spirit, is His self-consecration for us, for He offers, not an animal, but Himself in death that He might be the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, saying Amen in our humanity to the just judgments of God, not to appease an angry God to condition Him into being gracious, but in perfect acknowledgment of the love of God for the sinful world— to seal God’s covenant purposes for humanity by His blood. (James B. Torrance, “Christ in Our Place” in A Passion for Christ, 44-45)

2 thoughts on “Worship in Old Testament History (Part 5)”

  1. thank you so much for this site. I look at worship in churches this days and it pains my heart, as there is no reverence, no fear of God. May the Lord forgive us and teach that we may truly worship

  2. This is insightful theological theses of the old testament worship in contrast to the new testament worship. And emphasis the most important of the new testament worship because of the Mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ. God richly increase your knowledge to the understanding and interpretations of His holy words.

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