Worship entails being aware of and responding to God’s glorious and holy presence. Various narratives from Israel’s history emphasise this point. The holy of holies, with the real presence of God in the midst of His people, symbolises this aspect of worship for those who now worship God in Spirit and in truth. What Christians, aware of their own sinfulness, add to this worship is their entering God’s glorious and holy presence through the Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator and intercessor of our faith.
A Sinful People and a Holy God
God’s purpose for Israel in the Old Testament narrative is to make of her a holy people for himself. Moses was to tell the Israelites,
Exodus 6:6-8 'I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'"
Israel would be released from slavery in Egypt for three reasons:
1. God had earlier established a covenant with the Patriarchs and promised them the land of Canaan;
2. Israel was treated as slaves in Egypt and would be freed from their burdens;
3. God wished to make Israel into a people for Himself.
Tied to the first point is the history of the people of Canaan. God does not take their land away from them until their sins have reached a tipping point. For example, God says to Abram that his descendants ‘shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete’ (Gen. 15.16). God warns Israel not to sin like the Canaanites, who were vomited out of the land for their wickedness (Lev. 18.25).
The second point does not stand on its own: Israel’s liberation from Egypt is, at the same time, a matter of God forming Israel into a nation under His own rule. The story of the exodus does not lend itself to a liberation theology without it also being a subjugation story of Israel under God’s Law: the exodus from Egypt is equally a story of the Law at Sinai. If the first point on its own could lend itself to an Apartheid theology—God choosing a particular people without regard for others—the second point on its own could lend itself to a Liberation Theology—God being on the side of the slaves, marginalized, and poor. Yet neither theology is correct, and the correction comes most especially when one realizes point three: Israel is to live according to God’s Law or else be destroyed just as the Canaanites, and they are to be liberated from the oppression of Egypt in order to live under God’s Law.
Moreover, Israel’s relationship to the land is essentially one of never securing the right to possess it. They do not take the land during the time of the Patriarchs because they haven’t the numbers and because the wickedness of the Canaanites as a whole—unlike Sodom and Gomorrah—has not yet reached its zenith. Israel is held off in the wilderness from entering the promised land for forty years because of its own sinfulness. It enters the promised land as a holy people, led by the angel of the Lord to conquer the sinful Canaanites. However, they fail to do so precisely because of their own sinfulness. We might be inclined to read the story of the conquering of Canaan from the perspective of justice: how could God possibly destroy a people and let one nation depose another from its home territory? The Biblical story, however, should be read in terms of Israel’s failures. Israel fails to enter the land for forty years because of its own sinfulness. The Canaanites are vomited out of the land for their gross iniquities. The Israelites fail to cleanse the land and instead take on the wickedness of the Canaanites (a story powerfully illustrated in the repetition of Sodom’s sin by the town of Gibeah, Joshua 19). Moreover, they are ultimately thrown out of the land, taken into exile, because of their wickedness: what God does with the Canaanites he does with His own people, and for the same reason: sin. The story of Israel, therefore, is not of a holy nation that replaces an unholy nation. It is rather the story of a nation that never lives up to the holiness God requires and that is ultimately judged just as the other nations.
In the historical records of the Middle East, one will find rulers bragging of their great victories, the glorious reigns of their rulers generation after generation. Remarkably, and uniquely, the record of Israel’s kings in the Biblical historical records is one of God’s just punishment for repeated misrule and sinfulness. Even the sins of the greatest Israelite king, David, are recounted. What people have ever told their story with such awareness of their own sins? Israel’s history is the history of a people uniquely aware of their own sinfulness before a holy God.
God’s Decision to Dwell Amidst a Sinful People
The remarkable part of all this, however, is that God chooses to dwell amongst this sinful people. The theological understanding of this appears in Exodus 33. In this remarkable chapter, following on the story of the sinfulness of Israel in worshiping their golden calf idol and breaking the Ten Commandments, God offers Israel the land of Canaan without his presence:
Exodus 33:3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."
God essentially says that He will fulfill His promise to the patriarchs but let Israel become just one of the nations—not a chosen, special people for Himself. He warns Israel that, if He were to go with them, He in His holiness would consume them (Ex. 33.5). But Moses responds by saying that, if God’s presence does not go with His people, He should not send them into the land of Canaan (Ex. 33.15). Through the negotiations, God agrees to go with Israel.
God’s presence in Israel remains problematic: He is a holy God dwelling in the midst of a sinful people. 1 Samuel 3 tells the remarkable story of Israel bringing the ark of the covenant to the front line of battle against the Philistines in the hopes that God would fight for them. Instead, the Philistines overthrow the Israelites and capture the ark. Yet the ark is a problem for them, toppling their own god’s statue, Dagon, and either killing or giving the population of Ashdod and Ekron tumors (1 Sam. 5). Another 70 persons were killed in Beth-shemesh when the ark is taken there, and the people ask, ‘Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?’ (1 Sam. 6.20).
Samuel, as God’s appointed prophet over Israel, then helps Israel prepare for God’s presence among them. He calls on them to put away their foreign gods, direct their hearts to the LORD, and to serve Him alone (1 Sam. 7.3). Subsequently, however, the place where God’s presence dwells in Israel, Shiloh, is devastated due to the people’s sinfulness. Jeremiah remembers this:
Jeremiah 7:12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.
King David later has the ark of the Lord taken to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6; 1 Chr. 15), and it is eventually placed in the Holy of Holies of the Temple that King Solomon builds (1 Kings 8; 2 Chr. 5). The presence of the Lord in the Temple, however, departs in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10). God’s people are themselves exiled from the land and await the return of God’s Spirit to restore them from exile and to renew them in righteousness (Isaiah 59.20-21; Ezek. 36.26-27; 37.14; cf. Jer. 31.31-33). Ezekiel concludes with a vision of a restored Jerusalem that is called, ‘YHWH is There’ (Ezek. 48.35, my translation).
Worship in the Presence of a Holy God
This history of God’s holy presence among a sinful people is captured well in Isaiah 6, where the prophet appears before God in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Before God’s glorious presence, Isaiah is made aware of his own sinfulness and that of the people of Israel:
Isaiah 6:1-7 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."
Significance of Israel’s Narratives for Christian Worship
For the Christian, who can look back to the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross and the ripping of the Temple curtain separating humanity from so holy a God as He whose presence is in the most Holy Place, the shout of ‘Woe’ is replaced with the praise of ‘Hallelujah!’ Christ has made it possible to enter the presence of God without fear. Anticipating this work of Jesus, Zechariah says of the baby Jesus in the Temple,
Luke 1:68-79 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
The author of Hebrews makes this point by contrasting the first covenant with that established by Jesus:
Hebrews 9:11-14 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, as we read in 1 Timothy and Hebrews:
1 Timothy 2:5-6 or there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself a ransom for all-- this was attested at the right time.
Hebrews 8:6 But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.
Hebrews 9:15 or this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. (Cf.Heb. 12.24)
Isaiah spoke of a coming suffering servant who would intercede for sinners because he ‘bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’ (Is. 53.12). Jesus both died for us and has been raised to the right hand of God, where He intercedes for us (Rom. 8.34). Jesus, says the author of Hebrews, permanently holds the office of priest to intercede for and save those who approach God through Him (Heb. 7.25).
In worship, therefore, we come before a holy God even though sinners. We do not presume to do so without approaching Him through our mediator and intercessor, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has made a way possible to come before God—the way of the cross. He died for our sins, taking on himself the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.6). As Paul writes of Jesus,
Titus 2:14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
No worship service should be without an awareness of God’s holiness, and no worship service should be without a deep appreciation that Jesus has removed our sin through his own blood shed for us.
Worship that replaces the Lord’s Table in the middle of the room with something else, such as a band of musicians, is likely worship that elevates human talent above an awareness of the holiness of God and the sacrifice of Jesus to enable us to enter into God’s presence. Worship that is more about the music and the preacher’s rhetorical abilities is likely not the worship that takes one into God’s presence with thanksgiving and praise. Worship that has no space for quiet reflection, confession of sins, and seeking God will likely not experience God’s presence in all His glory and honour, grace and mercy. Worship must reverently lead us into God’s holy presence with thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, our Saviour, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12.2).