Volume 14, No. 7 (July 2019)
The Principle at Work
Further Old Testament Examples
/After the entry of sin into the human race through the Fall in Genesis 3, the very next chapter relates the first murder, of Abel by his brother Cain (and it takes place in the context of worship: worship has already been corrupted; cf. Romans 1:25):
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. . . . . And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (4:3-5,8)
It is a common interpretation that God accepted Abel’s gift rather than Cain’s because Abel brought an animal sacrifice, whereas Cain brought a gift of grain. However, in the Mosaic Law grain offerings were often commanded by God Himself (e.g., Exodus 29:41; Leviticus 6:14, 23:13; Numbers 28:9; etc.), so this seems too facile of an explanation.
The writer of Hebrews in fact definitively tells us why Abel’s offering was accepted rather than Cain’s:
BY FAITH Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. (11:4a)
It was the faith in Abel’s heart that made his offering “more acceptable.” As Dan Block has put it: “It is the worshiper that makes the offering acceptable, not vice versa.”
The Sacrificial System
As mentioned last month, the pomp and ceremony (and blood) of the sacrificial system is normally what we think of first when it comes to Old Testament worship. And indeed it was a vast and complex system to which Israel was to adhere. But, as seen last month in a plethora of passages, God’s always places priority on the heart of the worshiper.
The way an Old Testament believer expressed his heart devotion to God was by faithfully striving to live up to the ritual requirements of the Law. However, it is clear from the prophets (cf. Amos 5:21, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies”) (and, later, from Jesus’ excoriating of the Pharisees) that mere external conformity to the requirements without it being the expression of a sincere heart of worship was (and is) loathsome to God. As C. S. Lewis puts it, it is not as if God “really needed the blood of bulls and goats. . . . All our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention” (“On Church Music,” 99).
“God is not happy with worship that merely ‘goes through the motions’—worship that is formally correct but empty of a heart that is eager to love and praise Him. . . . What the Lord wants are servants whose words evidence the true state of their hearts. He desires authentic heart devotion and reverence, not mere outward conformity to His regulations.” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/worship-heart/)
“It is a striking phenomenon that the Psalms, the hymnody of the sanctuary, so seldom refer to the sacrificial cultus [system of worship]. When the Psalms refer to sacrifice, it is almost always the sacrifice made by praise and thanksgiving.” (Richard C. Leonard, “Old Testament Vocabulary of Worship,” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship I, 8 )
Psalm 63 carries the superscription: “A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” This is usually thought to be referring to the time when David’s son Absalom rebelled against him, and David had to flee for his life into the desert (2 Samuel 15). This “dry and weary land where there is no water” David sees as a picture of a life without God. His “soul thirsts for God” (v.1). He is saying in effect: “What I really need out here in the desert is not water; I need God!”
We have in this psalm a remarkable expression of worship; for, as Perowne points out, in spite of David’s dire circumstances there is not one word of petition in the entire psalm—only praise. This is possible because David considers that the Lord’s “steadfast love is better than life” (v. 3). Spurgeon points out that “there was no desert in his heart, though there was a desert around him.” The flower of David’s faith blooms and flourishes in spite of his circumstances and his surroundings. Surely this kind of perspective was one reason God considered David “a man after God’s own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14)
There is another remarkable aspect of David’s praise in the wilderness. Being far away from Jerusalem and from the tabernacle, there was no way he could fulfill ANY of the external requirements of the Old Covenant system. Yet instinctively David knew that he could still approach God in worship, because he knew “You are My God” (v.1). He doesn’t seek to perform a religious or ceremonial duty, but opens his heart to God, thirsts and yearns for Him, praises and worships Him from his heart.
Similarly David, at his moment of deepest contrition after his sin with Bathsheba had been exposed, knows what the Lord really desires from him:
For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
You will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite HEART, O God, You will not despise. (51:16-17)
One more remarkable example of the priority God places on internal worship is found in the account of Hezekiah’s reforms in 2 Chronicles 29-31:
Thus Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God. (31:20)
An important part of these reforms was the reinstituting of the Passover after decades of neglect. This Hezekiah and the people undertook with great enthusiasm; so much so, in fact, that:
a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. (30:18a)
Hezekiah asks God to forgive their rashness in the light of their heart’s intention to honor the Lord by celebrating the Passover, though not according to the Mosaic prescriptions for ritual cleansing beforehand:
For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” (30:18b-19)
God obviously valued the intention of “everyone who sets his heart to seek God” more than the ritual cleansing that the Law itself prescribed!
And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. (30:20)