When we read the Old Testament, it’s rather easy to see the emphasis upon worship. From Genesis onward, the focus is upon man’s relationship with God through the means that God has prescribed. For instance, in Genesis 4, both Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God. Though we find no explicit command for them to do this, we do find the implicit sacrifice that God makes in killing animals to clothe Adam and Eve in the skins. Yes, these early sacrifices point forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but that is not all there is to say on the matter. These sacrifices also convey that God has regulated how man is to approach him, again pointing forward to Christ.
As the drama unfolds, the emphasis on worship in the Old Testament increases. From Noah, Abraham, and Jacob to the Israelite desire to be released from bondage in Egypt so that they may “go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God’” the worship of God is front and center. Just prior to the Israelite release from captivity, we may note that God prescribed the first observance of Passover, which would play an integral part in their worship. Again, of course, this element of worship was pointing forward to the culminating Passover sacrifice of God’s spotless, sinless Lamb, His Son Jesus.
As God would have it, the Israelite exodus from Egypt would afford them the opportunity to receive instructions in their worship, first in the giving of the commandments to Moses on Sinai and then the pattern of the tabernacle given to Moses, from which he was not to deviate. As we know, throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we have explicitly laid down for us the regulation of worship for the people of God in Israel. There are also examples of how not to worship. One infamous example occurs before God has even given the people His law where the people had Aaron fashion for them a golden calf. Aaron, acting as priest and representative of God to the people, declares of the calf, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” He then builds an altar and declares that their will be a feast. A god, altar, and feast. What Aaron led the people in was nothing less than syncretistic worship, a recurring problem for the Israelite people. Briefly, syncretism, as it relates to worship, is the combination of the true with the false. In our case here, the works of the true God in delivering His people from bondage was ascribed to the false god, the golden calf. Yes the people had a tangible representation of God to worship, which they had fashioned in the image of a creature, but this only heightened the false worship. God never prescribed for them worship in this manner, in fact as they would see in the First Commandment, it was strictly forbidden. Which by the way brings up an interesting note, one could make a valid argument that the first 4 commandments all have to do with proper worship of God.
There are other individual examples of false worship, for example in Leviticus 10:1 (see also Numbers 26:61).
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.Leviticus 10:1-2
Given this very brief overview of the Torah, throughout the remainder of Israel’s history, captured in 1&2 Kings/1&2 Chronicles, we see repeated displays of false worship, syncretism being chief among them, i.e. taking what God had prescribed and adding to it elements of human invention or rank paganism. With the arrival of the God-sent prophets, each to a man are calling the people out of false worship and back to the true worship of God. In fact, one could make a strong argument that the entire message of the prophets, including the judgment to come, was concerned with correcting the Israelite worship practices.
We cannot help but see the emphasis on God-prescribed worship in the Old Testament, from the external elements of priest, sacrifice, tabernacle/temple, to the various days/Sabbaths/feasts/festivals, all concerning how man relates to God in worship. It is front and center and there are grave, deadly even, consequences for altering what God has prescribed and ascribing worship to anything other than what He has commanded.
In the next post, we’ll overview how this God-prescribed worship has transitioned to the New Covenant and suggest a reason why it has been so neglected.