This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of the Beeson magazine.
Christian readers have a spiritual intuition about worship in the Old Testament. On the one hand, we immediately recognize that Israel’s tabernacle/temple worship is not for the church to practice, but on the other hand we see that traditional Christian worship reflects in many ways the practice and perspective of worship in Israel. What confounds us is the form of worship that Israel practiced. It is strange to us but was common in the ancient Near East. Formal worship at the holy sanctuary required a choreography of a complex drama with moving and interconnecting parts. Daniel Block observes that worship services today may include drama in worship, but in Israel’s worship, drama was an act of worship. The choreography by both mystery and imagery, when rightly understood and performed, expressed profound theological thought, and it elicited deep spiritual devotion.
God demanded holiness in one’s character and one’s purity in worship. “You (Israel) are to be holy to Me because I, Yahweh, am holy, and I have set youapart from the nations to be Mine” (Lev 20:26). Israel’s sacred fellowship with God was an exception among the religions of the ancient Near East. “For what great nation is there that has a god near to it as the LORD our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today?” (Deut 4:7- 8). Although the Lord was a national deity, he was also the personal deity of everyone under his lordship, regardless of social class. He was “near” and approachable on a personal basis.
Life as Worship
The national life of “covenant” (a solemn mutual agreement) under God forged the formal relationship between God and his people (Ex 20; 24:7-8). His “Presence” extended to the whole of Israel’s camp.
“For the LORD your God walks throughout your camp to protect you and deliver your enemies to you; so your encampments must be holy…” (Deut23:14). Worship then was a lifestyle, a perpetual awareness that God was present. Since there was no separation between secular and religious authority, such as the Western world makes, all of life was the regulations of covenant.
Worship in Music
The primary features of worship’s drama were the worshiper, the worship offering, the worship mediator (priest) and the response of the Lord. Mandatory times, such as sabbath, and places, such as the temple, were vital aspects for conducting acceptable worship. Ceremonial temple worship involved music performed by singers and musicians, accompanying the prayers and praises of compositions (Ps 30:1; 68:1, 5, 26). Antiphonal singing (Ps 120; 121), liturgy (Ps 136) and dance (Ps 150:4) were performance that created the atmosphere of loud, enthusiastic, creative and skillful praises (Ps 33:1-3). The connection between God’s holy presence and sacred music in temple worship was captured in Psalm 22: “But You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (v. 3). Songs of thanksgiving and praise were a daily, even hourly, feature of temple services. There was a range of tone, from confessional lament to praise and thanksgiving.
Orchestration included percussion (cymbals and timbres), wind (trumpets, horns, flutes and pipes) and strings (lyres, harps, strings and lutes) (1Chron 16:37-42; 23:30; Neh 11:23). An example of ritual and music together was the “Songs of Ascents” that pilgrims sang on the way to Jerusalem’s temple at festival assemblies (Ps 120-34; Is 30:29). It was unimaginable to participate in temple services without a prominent musical feature.
Sacred music and periods of spiritual renewal in Israel often occurred together. The entrance of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem under David’s supervision is an example (1 Chron 15:16-22; 16:4-6).
Others included the dedication of the temple by Solomon (2 Chron 7), the rebuilding of the post-exilic foundation of the temple (Ezek 3:10-11), and Nehemiah’s dedication of Jerusalem’s walls (Neh 13:27-47). Reformation movements, too, included the return of music in temple service, as in the reforms of Hezekiah (2 Chron 29:25-30) and Josiah (2 Chron 35:15). But music played a significant role in the worship of Israel long before the golden era of Jerusalem’s temple. For example, “The Song of the Sea” was Moses’ memorial to deliverance from Pharaoh’s armies (Ex 15:1-19; cf. Judg 5).
Yet, Old Testament worship was not complete unless it had its fullest meaning and realization in the Christian revelation. This is because the nature of Old Testament practices was intrinsically lacking—yes, a compass indicator pointing toward the magnetic north but not the true north itself. Worship anchored in covenant and holy living portended the person and work of Jesus Christ and the spiritual benefits we Christians have received. The essentials to acceptable worship in Israel’s covenant relationship with God have not changed, however. We discovered that authentic worship occurred only when it was a person’s heartfelt submission to the Lord, recognizing him as sole Creator and Covenant-Lord. Deuteronomy’s Shema expressed it best: “Listen, Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is One. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5). The objective was to experience spiritual relationship at both an individual and communal level that only God could achieve on behalf of Israel’s loyal subjects by his sacred presence. This we enjoy now through Jesus and through him exclusively. Adam Johnson commentson the significance of the Old Testament temple and the atonement by Jesus: “This standpoint also offers far more resources to the church for integrating the doctrine ofthe Holy Spirit within that of the atonement, for it is the Spirit’s indwelling in Christ by which he is the new temple, and it is through the repetition of this fact by the indwelling of the Spirit in believers that they are made to be part of this temple."
Kenneth A. Mathews is recently-retired professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School and author of Genesis 1–11:26 and Genesis 11:27–50:26 in the New American Commentary series.
This article is an excerpt from Worship, Tradition, and Engagement: Essays in Honor of Timothy George. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 271.
Adam Johnson, “The Temple Framework of the Atonement,” JETS 54 (2011), 236.