Theology Thursday | Worship in the Old Testament

In the beginning, there was worship | God as Initiator of Worship 

The foundation of worship begins alongside the beginning of the human race during the creation account described in the first chapter of Genesis. In Worship: Adoration and Action, Yoshiaki Hattori suggests the cornerstone of all theological concepts must begin with the relationship between God the Creator, and his created humans. Hattori notes as human beings it is our responsibility to keep a right relationship with God, and we are to pay service to our creator. The concept of paying service to God, immediately suggests that worship must be active and as well suggests that worship is a response to some other action or being. However it is important to note that because God created the earth, and created humanity, that God Himself initiated the interaction between God and man. At the very dawn of creation, God enabled the interaction between God and man. With this in mind, Hattori argues, “If worship embraces the basic attitude of human response to the Creator-God, the original beauty of the responding relationship in that act of worship can be seen even before the fall” (22).  Thus, at creation worship in its purist form, was a human response to the divine provision, initiated by God. In Genesis 3, humans broke their relationship with God through their disobedience of God’s sole command. Through eating the forbidden fruit, humans began a pattern of responding to their own desires rather than responding to God’s provision, disconnecting the human race from the relationship that God intended to have with the people He created in His own image.


Because of their fall from perfect communion with God, humanity needed a new way to respond and give service to God. While the sacrificial system was not yet established, the lives of Cain and Abel, and their offering to God in Genesis 4 suggests the notion of sacrifice as a practice of worship offering to God. In addition, in Genesis 22, Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. The word worship appears in Genesis 22, prior to Abraham building the altar on which the sacrifice is to be made:

“Then Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you (ESV).”

Hattori notes that the Hebrew word translated to worship in this verse, is the verb sahah, which means ‘to bow down’ or ‘to prostrate’ (23). The Hebrew translation indicates that worship cannot be passive, but must be active. Interestingly enough once again the call to worship is one that is initiated by God. In the garden man did not choose to dwell with God, likewise in the case of Abraham man did not initiate the offering of Isaac as a sacrifice to God. His willingness to offer Isaac is an act of obedience to the task initiated by God. His obedient response to God’s divine initiative is thus, an act of reverential worship to God.

The Tabernacle  

It has been established through a brief examination of the garden and of Abraham, that God is active in initiating our worship of Him. His involvement in establishing worship becomes even more apparent in the book of Exodus, through the giving of the Ten Commandments, as well as the establishment of the Tabernacle as the place where the people would come to meet with God. Exodus 25-31 gives great detail as to the structure and components of the Tabernacle, along with the set of laws established for worship within the tabernacle. The physical structure and comprehension of the rules regarding the structure of the tabernacle at their most basic level remain critical to understanding worship in the context of today. The tabernacle consisted of two pertinent areas: the holy place, and the holy of holies. Within the holy place was the outer court of the tabernacle. Exodus 27 gives direction for an altar of acacia wood to be built. Hattori suggests that the presence of the altar served as a reminder to the people of Israel that sacrifice was required in order to commune with God. The sacrificial system, which began to take its form in Genesis, is now seen as a necessary means of worship. Regulations for sacrifice as worship have now been further established and ordained by God. In Exodus 20:24, before the instruction on the tabernacle, God sets parameters on the appropriate use of an altar:

“An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you (ESV).”

Not only does God set the guideline for acceptable God honoring sacrifice, He once again regards that as a result of the acceptable sacrifice, that ‘[He] will come to you and bless you.’ Further adding to the reality that God’s presence is vital in our worship. Separating the holy place from the holy of holies was a dividing veil (Exod. 30:5). It is essential to be aware of the fact that only the God ordained high priest was permitted to enter into the holy of holies. While this only provides only a brief glance at the make-up of the tabernacle, it establishes once more that God is facilitating worship. He is providing his people a means to approach Him and to follow Him, through the giving of the Law, and the establishment of the tabernacle, where the people could gather together and meet with God. Hattari attests that the giving of the Law and the regulation of the tabernacle provided the Israelites with a set of guidelines or steps that make possible the pursuit of holiness. This pursuit involved first to refrain from uncleanness or impurity, second to seek justice and observe God sanctioned rules and feasts, and third, if a person falters in either the first or second regard, holiness can only be reclaimed through God ordained sacrifices. The approach to holiness must come through the stipulations designed and regulated by God.


Along with the institution of the tabernacle came the ordained high priesthood which is first established in Exodus 28:1, where God sets apart the line of Aaron from the rest of the people, therein establishing the ordained priesthood as being a Levite from the line of Aaron. The significance of the priesthood in regards to worship lies greatly in the fact that the priest is the ordained mediator between God and man. The book of Leviticus goes into great detail the role of the high priest. The high priest was the sole person granted permission to enter the holy of holies, and was only permitted to do so once a year in order to atone for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). On the Day of Atonement the high priest would enter the holy of holies and would perform sin sacrifices for his own sins of he and his family, in addition for the sins of the people. The details for the sacrificial rules for atonement are much more in depth, but for the sake of keeping the focus on worship, it is more pertinent to consider the fact it is the priest alone who is able to approach God, and once more only permitted to enter on the Day of Atonement:

“and the Lord said to Moses, Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat (Lev. 16:2) (ESV).”

With the establishment of the Day of Atonement, and of the Levitical priesthood, the people do not have direct access to God. The high priest is the only person given the opportunity to meet with God, therefore in regards to sacrificial atonement for sin, one major element of sacrificial worship must be mediated by the Levitical high priest.

The Tabernacle and the priesthood provided the conceptual beginning of a center of worship, and a person set apart by God, to lead the people in the pursuit of holiness. The true center of worship is established with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem during Solomon’s rule over Israel.

The Temple 

1 Kings 5 describes the beginning of the building of the house of worship, which would also include a holy place and most holy place. In 1 Kings 8:10, the Glory of the Lord filled the temple. Thus the structure of Israelite worship would remain as God had initially ordained. The people would use the temple as their house of worship because that was where God dwelled. The temple would remain the center of worship until 587-586 BC upon the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people of Israel from their land when Judah was besieged by Babylon led by Nebuchadnezzar. The destruction of the temple did not mean however that worship could no longer exist, in actuality the prophet Ezekiel proclaims that though the temple may no longer exist that does not mean that God no longer meets with His people.

“Therefore say, thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone (ESV, Ezekiel 11-16).”

Indicating that the sanctuary will continue to exist wherever God is present further establishes the fact the presence of God is critical in worship. The temple would later be restored once again under the reign of Haggai, who wished to restore the center of worship, and encourage the Israelites to pursue holiness, because true worshippers of God are to be holy in all aspects of life.

Looking ahead

Throughout the Old Testament worship is initiated and facilitated by God. Worship occurred because God required it, ordained it, and met with his people through it. However the people of God continued to fail in their pursuit of holiness. Adam and Eve lived in perfect communion with God, but chose to rebel. God provides freedom for the Israelites out of slavery, and still they continued in rebellion against their deliverer. The concept of worship and how God facilitates our worship takes on similar but fulfilled forms with the arrival of Jesus, God incarnate in the New Testament, which we’ll explore next week.

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