by Dinelle Frankland
In the Old Testament there is no general term for worship. In fact, rather than defining worship, Old Testament writers describe the actions of the people of God as they respond to his work and character.
Most of us would readily point to music as one of these actions. We might also recognize the physical aspects of such a response, and could perhaps describe some of the worship practices of the tabernacle or temple. We may miss, however, some specific commands God bestowed upon the children of Israel that give particular insight into his requirements for appropriate worship, laying the foundation for the early church. These commands can be divided into three broad categories that have implications for the church of the twenty-first century.
God Is Worthy of Praise
The picture of Old Testament worship most of us envision is based primarily upon our interaction with the book of Psalms. There we find that praise is a basic and appropriate response to the God of Israel. Often the directive is in the form of a command (Psalm 103, for example).
Expressions of praise in the Psalms are numerous and varied; they are verbal, physical, or both. Exalt, magnify, glorify, rejoice, bless, and give thanks are only a few of the descriptive verbs that exemplify the heart-felt nature of praise. References to singing and playing musical instruments are abundant. Worshipers are instructed to lift their hands or their heads, to kneel and to rise up, to shout, clap, and dance before the Lord. Some of the physical aspects of worship have been lost in translation. For example, the Hebrew word usually translated “worship” literally meant “to bow down.”
Born out of the everyday lives of their authors, the Psalms encompass the whole of the human condition. Therefore, other responses to God, such as confession and lament, are equally as valid. At least one-third of the Psalms are laments, expressions of honest doubt about God. The beauty of the laments is that all of them, save one (Psalm 88), end with bursts of praise in recognition that God is merciful and in control. Confessions of sin, like those found in Psalm 51, are also frequent and are accompanied by recognition of God’s promise of forgiveness.
A Call to Remember
While praise is a hallmark of Old Testament worship, the command to remember God’s intervention in redeeming the Israelites from Egyptian slavery is equally potent.
For example, in Deuteronomy 26, after they had offered their firstfruits to God, he commanded the Israelites to retell their story (Deuteronomy 26:5-10). Memory for the ancients was active, rather than the cognitive, passive experience it is today. God insisted his children continually interact with the story of the Exodus by reciting it, as illustrated in the passage above, or re-enacting it through prescribed actions.
Worshiping through recitation is found elsewhere. As soon as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and escaped the Egyptians, Miriam led them in a song of remembrance (Exodus 15:1-21). The psalmist recalls the same story when faced with despair (Psalm 77). When the ark of the covenant was rescued from the Philistines, David saw fit to celebrate through a rather lengthy discourse recounting the redemptive purposes of God (1 Chronicles 16:7-36).
The Passover meal is the prime example of re-enactment; today the story is not just told by the Jewish people, it is relived. Parsley dipped in saltwater recalls the tears of the slaves; the shank bone is symbolic of the sacrificial lamb; bitter herbs reflect the affliction of slavery; four glasses of wine represent four stages of the Exodus. Re-enactment is also evident in the celebration of the festivals prescribed by God (see Exodus 23:14-19; 34:22).
This active remembering, also known as “re-presentation,” was a principal concern of Israelite worship. Even as generations became more and more removed from the actual Exodus event, Jews continued to recite and re-present their shared story in order to remain connected to it in a powerful way. In doing so, they praised God for his redemptive work and sustained their faith in his promises. This remembrance also required passing on the story from generation to generation (Deuteronomy 6).
To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice
The Pentateuch says little about music, or even praise, but is permeated with offering and obedience. These responses are at the heart of two significant pillars of Old Testament worship: the sacrificial system and the covenant.
The covenant between Yahweh and Israel reflects the pattern common in the ancient world, designed to maintain peaceful relationships between a lord and his servants. In return for protection from the lord, the servants agreed to complete loyalty to him. In general, a covenant included a statement from the lord identifying himself, the granting of a specific territory, a list of stipulations to keep, a promise of rewards or punishments, a sign of acceptance, and a ceremony that often included a meal. It is not difficult to see how God adopted a similar formula: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:1) identified him; Canaan was the territory; laws written in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy list the stipulations and promises; circumcision was the sign.
Keeping their commitment to the covenant became a formalized part of Israelite worship. One significant ceremony took place at the foot of Mount Sinai. This encounter included a reading of the law and a meal (Exodus 24:1-11). While specific elements have changed with time and culture, these two anchors of gathered worship have remained consistent throughout Christian history.
Sacrifices often accompanied the cutting of a covenant, but they had other purposes as well. Fellowship offerings, for example, were made voluntarily as an expression of thankfulness for God’s intervention, as the result of a vow, or as appreciation for an unexpected blessing (Leviticus 3). Of course, sacrifices made for atonement of sin were also a part of Israel’s regular worship. Both entering the presence of God and being released from the debt of sin depended upon them.
The tabernacle was established in order that God might have a place to dwell among his people (Exodus 25:8). Built exactly as he commanded, it provided the Israelites with a life-sized object lesson concerning both the immanence (nearness) of God, and his transcendence (other-worldliness). The symbolism and beautiful accoutrements of the tabernacle allowed for a plethora of artistic gifts to be used and allowed worship to interact with all human senses and emotions. Interestingly, it was not until David, the skilled musician, built the temple that the use of music became formalized.
Sacrifices alone were of no consequence to God. He required them to be accompanied by a sincere and obedient heart. This is why Abel’s sacrifice was preferred over that of his brother’s (Genesis 4:4, 5) and Nadab and Abihu were struck dead for offering “strange fire” to the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-3). The rebuke by Samuel, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” was the result of Saul’s disobedience (1 Samuel 15).
Perhaps one of the most scathing indictments of worship is found in Isaiah: “’The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:11). In the discourse that follows, sacrifices, incense, festivals, and even prayer, are rebuffed by God. Because they were not accompanied by a life of obedience, holiness, and justice, these offerings had become tiresome to him.
Renewing Our Gatherings
There is an important relationship between the above characteristics of worship and the teachings of the New Testament. Praise, remembrance, covenant, obedience, and sacrifice—all are richly embedded in the life and work of Jesus Christ, the foundations of the early church, the exhortations of the epistle writers, and the promise and symbolism of Revelation.
Unfortunately, many congregations today rely almost entirely upon the element of praise, and specifically, music, when planning Sunday gatherings. The early church, made up primarily of Jews grounded in Old Testament worship, was not so short sighted.
A Sunday gathering that praises God in a myriad of ways, remembers his great redemptive acts, and spurs the body on to good works will look very much like biblical worship.
Dinelle Frankland is Professor of Worship Studies and Associate Dean of Spiritual Formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College.
Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship
by David Peterson
(InterVarsity Press, 1992)
The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship
by John D. Witvliet
His Story, Our Response: What the Bible Says About Worship
by Dinelle Frankland
(College Press, 2008)
Enter His Courts With Praise!
by Andrew E. Hill
Biblical Worship—the Whole Picture
Challenge your congregation (in love) to worship God more fully by incorporating these elements:
• Include regular recitations of God’s redemptive work. This can be done through singing, responsive readings, drama, and so on.
• Study symbolism and develop artistic gifts within your community.
• Consider the use of lament and confession as a means of responding to God. Many times congregations are faced with tragedy and are at a loss to find an appropriate response.
• Embrace active remembering and covenant language for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, including the whole gospel story.
• Regularly visit the whole picture of worship presented in the Old Testament, which includes acts of justice, mercy, and service.