THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 9th in the series
Volume 7, No. 6 (June 2012)
This month we look at worship issues in the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history, beginning with the conquest of the land.
5. PRE-EXILIC ISRAEL
a. The conquest of the land
1) Purity of worship was the central issue in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land.
“One thing is clear about the conquest: the point was pure worship. God’s objective was not that Israel would be the only people that worshiped Him. His point was to insure that He was the only god that they worshiped.” (Steven Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” 40)
2) God repeatedly warns the people of the dangers of idolatry and false worship
“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, he likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day. . . . You shall go over and take possession of that good land. Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deuteronomy 4:15-20,21-24)
It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and He destroy you from off the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 6:13-15)
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, or they would turn away your sons from following Me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and He would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)
Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The LORD your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the LORD your God promised you. Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day. For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as He promised you. Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you.
“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until He has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that He has given to you.” (Joshua 23:4-16)
3) God through Moses and then Joshua warned the people not to think that their special status as a nation came from anything special inherent in them; but rather because God had sovereignly and unconditionally bestowed his special love upon them.
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)
“Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that He may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)
For the LORD will not forsake His people, for His great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for Himself. (1 Samuel 12:22)
4) Of course, the people of Israel in their pride often forgot that perspective and looked with disdain upon the gentile nations. And the dangers of idolatry that they were warned against would be fully realized, as idolatry would often find a foothold in Israel because of the people’s failure to completely clear the land of pagans and the influence of their worship.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Will you defile yourselves after the manner of your fathers and go whoring after their detestable things? When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you.” (Ezekiel 20:30-31)
b. Cycles of true worship and idolatry
In fact, the next centuries of Israel’s history—through the historical books of Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, right up until the time of the exile—basically consisted of continuing up-and-down cycles of obedience and disobedience, blessing and judgment—always connected to their worship. The oft-repeated pattern went like this:
- The people worshiped god faithfully, and God would grant them victory, prosperity and success as a nation.
- Eventually the people (usually led by their king) would fall into idolatry and false worship (often through religious influences from within or without the land, including through different kings’ foreign wives [e.g., Solomon]).
- In response God would judge/discipline the nation by bringing them military defeat and/or other hardships.
- Finally the people would repent and humbly turn back to god, reinstituting pure worship and adherence to the mosaic law.
- In response God would receive their worship, forgive them, and again bring them victory and success.
Before too long idolatry would once again creep in, and the cycle would start over as above. It should be noted that God’s judgment on his people was always with the goal of bringing them to repentance and winning them back, so that he could restore their fortunes. Eventually the idolatry gets so bad that he sends his people into exile (both the northern, and later the southern, kingdoms); but even then god will restore his people from their captivity in Babylon.
The nation of israel was to be a unique worshiping people (Isaiah 43:20-21), who would demonstrate and exemplify true worship before the nations that. As discussed last month, they would be a testimony to God’s greatness both in their obedience (which brought God’s special blessings) and in their disobedience (when the nations could see God’s holy discipline on His own people for the sake of His name).
The cycles make it clear: