Worship in Old Testament History (Part 9)

THEME: Worship in the Old Testament, 12th in the series 

Volume 7, No. 9 (September 2012)

This month we look at Israel’s worship as the nation goes into exile, and then returns in preparation for the coming of Christ.


a. The Exile

In spite of God’s grace in restoring their nation repeatedly after times of rebellion and idolatry, the spiral continues downward, until finally God sends the Northern, and later the Southern Kingdoms into exile. They had “used the Lord’s name in vain” by turning again and again to false worship.

The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).

God allowed the Temple to be destroyed, and its furnishings and vessels to be carried off to Babylon, because He had no use for this magnificent edifice when it was not filled with the heartfelt praise of the people. Ezekiel in his vision sees the glory of God departing from the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19; 11:22-23).

 b. The Synagogue

While there is not unanimous agreement on the origins of the synagogue system (it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, only in the New as an established system throughout the Roman world), many maintain that it developed during the time of the exile in Babylon. Faced with life without the Temple, the Jews began to gather in smaller groups on a regular basis for fellowship and for worship.

 The synagogue service included:

1)  Recitation of the Shema  (Deuteronomy 6:4): “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” (Other verses from the Torah were later added to the recitation.)

2)  Prayers

3)  Reading from the Torah and commentary (cf. Luke 4:16-27; Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21)

This last item (Scripture reading and exposition) would of course have a major influence on the early church’s worship later on.

c. The Return and Rebuilding (Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai)

 Jeremiah promised the exiles as he wrote to them that God would bring them back after 70 years of captivity:

For thus says the LORD: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10-14).

God allowed them to return as a further sign of His grace and mercy (His hesed); but also even more to vindicate His name:

“Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. . . . So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land’ . . . . 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’” (Ezekiel 36:17-23).

God in looking ahead promised also a New Covenant, a new heart, and to put His Spirit within (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

With the Temple rebuilt, the priesthood and the sacrificial system were reinstituted. Sadly and significantly, however, we never read of the glory of God filling this new Temple as it had the first Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14) and the Tabernacle before it (Exodus 40:34). In fact, the first time we explicitly read again of the glory of God dwelling among the people of Israel is in John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In this verse, as has often been pointed out, the verb translated “dwelt” is related to the Greek word for “tabernacle”: the glory of God now “tabernacles” in a unique way among God’s people in the person of His Son.

While the temple system is restored, yet the weekly synagogue system continued as well as a prominent feature in Jewish life (and in the ministry of Jesus Himself; see Matthew 13:54; Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16-30; John 6:59, etc.). In fact, by the time of the New Testament, there were synagogues in most major cities where Jews had migrated throughout the Roman Empire; as Acts relates, Paul usually started by teaching in the local synagogue when arriving in a new town.

Both worship systems (Temple and Synagogue) will influence the worship of the church: the Temple in the remembrance of Christ’s fulfilling sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, and the Synagogue in the reading and exposition of the Word of God.

 d.  The Extensive Development of Traditions and Legalism

During the “intertestamental period” of some 400 years (after the completion of Malachi) we see a massive expansion of legal requirements attached to the Law of Moses. The party of the Pharisees and others codified and added greatly to the Law’s instructions, until by the time of Jesus an oppressive system of rigid and strict legalism was firmly in place (Matthew 23:4), administered by these self-proclaimed arbiters of legal “righteousness” (Matthew 23:6-7). For instance, they had identified at least forty different activities that were forbidden on the Sabbath.

In the gospels we see Jesus decrying this system, which had made the Sabbath a burden rather than a rest for the people of Israel (Mark 2:27). Jesus likewise criticized the emphasis on minutiae rather than major issues (Matthew 23:23), and the focus on outward conformity rather than heartfelt allegiance to and love for God (Matthew 23:25-27). This latter attitude, Jesus insisted, was the true meaning and fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus applies the words of Isaiah to the Jewish leaders:

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7-9).

Far from enhancing the people’s walk and worship, their man-made “doctrines” interfered with it. Jesus came to lift the burden of the Jewish leaders and replace it with an easier yoke (Matthew 11:28-30).

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