This week’s lesson’s title is “Happy are you, O Israel!”; its theme is the centrality of worship in the experience of the ancient Children of Israel; and its chief point seems to be that worship ought to be God-focused, not self-focused. This last is a view that I wholeheartedly share, as readers of the print edition of Spectrum may remember.  Yet it seems to me that another important point could be drawn from the episodes examined in this week’s lesson and yet receives little attention: the vital importance of worship in building a sense of unity and community among the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It is that which will be my focus in this week’s commentary essay; but in examining worship that promoted one-ness among God’s people, we also find insights into how we, as individuals, should worship.
Readers of the print edition will know that I believe worship has an immensely important role to play in bringing the church together. Analysis of worship’s function in the early Church, as described in the Book of Acts, and of how worship functions sociologically both suggest that worshipping together helps us “become more united. We become more of a community.”  However, we see exactly the same patterns in the Old Testament. This both reinforces my broader conviction, and is also a revealing insight into the religion and society of the ancient Hebrews.
The Sanctuary and its services was the theme of last week’s lesson and of Jim Lorenz’s commentary. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves of the fact that the Sanctuary literally was at the centre of Israelite life during the 40 years in the Wilderness—its centrality was both literal and metaphorical. The Tabernacle, while at Shiloh, and then later the Temple, in Jerusalem, probably were “out of sight, out of mind” for most Israelites for most of the year; yet regular, ritual pilgrimages to Shiloh and “Zion”, both to expiate for sin and to worship God, meant the Sanctuary—whether in the textile-woven Tabernacle, or stone-built Temple—retained its significance and centrality. Functionally, the Sanctuary service (which was figuratively and often really at the heart of Israelite life), worked to strengthen the unity of God’s people on earth, as well as heightening their sense of God’s worthiness (His worth-ship) to be praised.
While the lesson’s chronological focus is on the wilderness period of the Children of Israel, perhaps the strongest example of worship’s capacity to build community is found near the end of the kingdoms period of Hebrew history.
When Hezekiah became king of the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, with its capital in the holy city of Jerusalem, apostasy and idolatry had been so rampant for so many years that the temple was almost never used (II Chron. 29.7). When worship did take place there, it sometimes was idolatrous! For example, the Nehushtan, the bronze image of a serpent that Moses had used in the wilderness as a focus for the healing of snake-bitten Israelites, was stored in the Temple, where it was worshipped and had incense burned to it as a minor deity! (II Ki. 18.4) As this example suggests, the temple had become a dumping ground for all kinds of junk. (II Chron. 29.16) Hezekiah was determined to reintroduce worship of the one true God, according to the rites prescribed in the Mosaic Law. To this end, he had the Nehushtan destroyed and had the priests and Levites clear out and scrub down the Temple. It took seven days of cleaning before the priests felt willing to re-sanctify it and its sacred vessels; and another eight days before the temple was completely clean and ready for public worship. (II Kings 18.4; II Chron. 29.16-19.)
Thus, far from being at the centre of Israelite or Judean life, the Temple had become (to use a wonderful nineteenth-century English expression) a lumber room—a place where unwanted and unusable things, things that get in the way, are conveniently put out of the way. The Sanctuary service was irrelevant, perhaps even largely unknown. It was entirely marginal to the Hebrews of Hezekiah’s day.
Hezekiah changed all that. He reintroduced regular sacrifices and worship services, including the singing of songs of praise by choirs and talented soloists, and music performed by trumpeters, cymbalists and harpists (II Chron. 29.225, 27-28, 30). The king led the people in bowing themselves before the Lord and so enthusiastically did the people respond to the opportunity to worship and to ask forgiveness of sin, that there were not enough priests, and the Levites had to assist, even though normally they were not supposed to take a lead role in sacrifices. (vv. 29, 34.)
Having thus “set in order the service of the house of the Lord” (v. 35), Hezekiah was determined to do more. He decided to celebrate Passover—but more than that, he invited the inhabitants of the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel to come to Jerusalem.
Hezekiah sentto all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel…. the king and the whole assembly ... decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover [which] had not been celebrated … according to what was written. (30.1, 4-5)
Politically, this was provocative, and must have deeply offended Hoshea, the King of Israel. Jeroboam I, founder of the northern kingdom, had instituted worship of golden calf idols, precisely to break his subjects away from the influence of Jerusalem—site both of the Temple, but also of the chief rivals of Israel’s kings. Hoshea, however, probably was in no state to do anything about Hezekiah’s action. He had come to power by murdering the previous king and probably had to worry about internal dissent; furthermore, he ruled a kingdom that was shrinking fast, under pressure from the Assyrian Empire. Already many of its inhabitants had been deported, after persistent Israelite resistance to Assyria. Three years later, the Assyrians were to lay siege to Samaria, the capital of Israel and, after another three years, they were to capture the city. All the remnant of the ten northern tribes were to be deported far to the north; the Samaritans of Jesus’s day were descendants of foreigners brought to Palestine by the Assyrians—this was one reason they were despised by the descendants of the Judean exiles who (unlike their northern counterparts) returned to Jerusalem.
However, while we can recognise that Hezekiah’s action had a political dimension, what is chiefly remarkable about the Judean king’s gesture is that, despite the long centuries of syncretistic and apostate religion in Israel, Hezekiah was entirely lacking the prejudice of the Jews of Jesus’s day. He was passionate about bringing all the descendants of Jacob together in worshipping the one true God. And so, as the scriptures tell us, “couriers went throughout Israel and Judah with letters from the king and from his officials, which read: ‘People of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, that he may return to you who are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.’” (30.6).
Hezekiah knew that, despite the history of Israel, there were bound to be those “who had not bowed the knee to Baal” (or other pagan deities), in his time as well as Elijah’s (I Kings 19.18). And so, his “couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun”. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many “people scorned and ridiculed them. Nevertheless, some from Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem.” (II Chron. 30.10-11.)
The end result was a Passover to remember, as for the first time in generations, representatives of at least six of the Twelve Tribes celebrated God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt. So long had it been since northerners had celebrated Passover at the Temple and according to the stipulated rites that, we are told, “most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves”—they were ritually unclean (30.18). So unfamiliar were they with how the ritual should be conducted, that “a multitude” of them “ate the Passover, contrary to what was written” (ibid.).
Yet whereas God had, as the Lesson reminds us, destroyed Nadab and Abihu, for worshiping God according to their own ritual, not His (Lev. 10.1-11), there was no such punishment for the hapless northerners. Why? We are told that:
Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God … even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people. (II Chron. 30.18)
In other words God acknowledged the people’s intent and not their ignorance.
Nadab and Abihu’s punishment may seem draconian, but they knew better; the folk of Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun who had risked their ruler’s anger by traveling south—traveling to a kingdom which had, in recent years, been a bitter enemy—did not. But they were earnestly and sincerely seeking God. And God, knowing what was in their hearts, honoured them for their desire to worship Him, even though they ignored the rules He had laid down for it. What we bring to worship, then, is more important than how we do it. This is not to say that form does not matter; but it is not what matters most.
So it was that all “the Israelites who were present in Jerusalem celebrated the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with great rejoicing, while the Levites and priests praised the Lord every day with resounding instruments” (30.21). Both Israelites and Judeans gave generous tithes and offerings (II Chron. 31.6). So wonderful was the worship experience that Passover that, after it was finished, the Israelites and Judeans wanted to do it again!
Now, there was no provision in the Mosaic Law for a repeat performance. But again, God was aware of what His people needed and honoured this, rather than insisting on close observance of His Law, because the Law had been instituted to bring the people closer to Him. Now they were wanting that closeness, that unity with him, which would also bring community among the worshippers. Consequently, there was no wondering whether the Law would be broken if the festival were celebrated again. Rather: “The whole assembly … agreed to celebrate the festival seven more days; so for another seven days they celebrated joyfully.” (II Chron. 30.23)
The end result? “All the congregation rejoiced”, as the King James Version puts it; or, as the NIV has it:
The entire assembly of Judah rejoiced, along with … the foreigners who had come from Israel and also those who resided in Judah. There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. The priests and the Levites stood to bless the people, and God heard them, for their prayer reached heaven, his holy dwelling place.
Again, God honoured what His people brought to worship: their desire to honour Him and to be united with Him and each other.
Within four years, most of those northern Israelites who had been present at Jerusalem were dead or had been deported to countries far to the north. Yet thanks to Hezekiah’s willingness to put aside political, or ethnic, hostilities, and his desire for all God’s people to worship their God as He had asked, the people were united, at least to some extent, one last time. And it is important to note they were united by and in communal acts of worship.
To me, this is one of the most important lessons of the Israelite history of worship. It has an extraordinary capacity to unite. Yet because worship is so emotionally and spiritually powerful, it also has a capacity to divide. The model in Scripture, I suggest, is that God would rather we all joined in lauding, honouring and praising Him than that we worship Him separately. If there is any place, anywhere in the world, this Sabbath, where Seventh-day Adventist Christians are refusing to join together in worshipping our Creator and Redeemer, Israelite history has a powerful message for them—come together and “all the congregation can rejoice”—and God will rejoice with us.
- D. Trim, “Liturgical Adventism: towards a theology of worship”, Spectrum 37:4 (Fall 2009), 18-24
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3287