Volume 14, No. 6 (June 2019)
What Matters Most
When Christians think about Old Testament worship, the tendency is to automatically invoke images of the complex system of Israel’s worship centering on its ornate Tabernacle, with its priests, ritual sacrifices and festivals.
While this system was instituted and carried out according to the explicit and detailed commands of God (communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai), we miss God’s deeper design if we focus only on the external, physical trappings of worship in the Old Testament. God always, in the Old Testament as well as the New, gave priority to a person’s heart of worship.
Indeed, adherence to the instructions regarding Tabernacle worship was a crucial way pious Jews would express their heart devotion to God; after all, it would make no sense for an Israelite to claim inner allegiance to and love for Yahweh, but then choose to ignore the ways He commanded to give that attitude public expression.
On the other hand, Old Testament writers, and especially the prophets, make it abundantly clear that merely outward conformity to the requirements without an engaged heart meant nothing to God; in fact such offerings and rituals were detestable to Him:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.” (Amos 5:21-22)
Without the heart’s engagement, conformity to the sacrifices and rituals meant nothing to God. As C. S. Lewis reminds us, it is not as if God “really needed the blood of bulls and goats.” (“On Church Music,” in Christian Reflections, 98)
Jesus, of course, similarly often criticized the Jewish leaders of His day for their reliance on external show and their search for public approbation in the absence of a true heart devotion to God:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-5)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:1-7)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23-28)
The truth of the priority God places on the worship of the heart, even in the Old Testament, can best be demonstrated by letting a large number of passages speak for themselves. (In coming months, we will dig deeper into some selected passages, in both the Old and New Testaments, to see this principle further at work.)
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for Me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for Me.” (Exodus 25:1-2)
“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?” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
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.” (1 Samuel 15:22)
“Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High.” (Psalm 50:7-14)
“The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me.” (Psalm 50:23a)
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 51:16-17)
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 69:30-31)
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! (Psalm 103:1)
O accept the freewill offerings of my mouth, O LORD, and teach me Your ordinances. (Psalm 119:108)
May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering. (Psalm 141:2)
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…” (Isaiah 29:13)
You have planted them, they have also taken root; they grow, they have even produced fruit. You are near to their lips but far from their mind. (Jeremiah 12:2)
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Rend your hearts and not your garments. (Joel 2:13a)
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? (Micah 6:6-8)