Rejoice…with Trembling?

Worship includes awe

What defines worship for you?

Many associate worship with the singing time at church, although that’s not the only time and way we worship. But, even within that context, I think many would say they “feel” worshipful when their heart has been touched and they feel warm, cozy, loved, affirmed.

In our church’s reading through Leviticus this week, we came across quite a different worship experience:

The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23b-–24)

It’s not clear in the ESV translation above, but other translations say the people shouted for joy and fell face down.

What was the occasion of this reaction? Israel had left Egypt not long before, where they’d been for 400 years with only oral traditions of their faith, surrounded by pagan religions and cruelty. God was very patient with their grumbling and lack of faith at first. But after several manifestations of His power during the plagues in Egypt, His parting of the Red Sea for their deliverance, His provision of food and water and everything they needed, it sure seemed like they’d start trusting and obeying.

Instead, while He gave His law to Moses on the mountain, the people built a golden calf to worship.

God dealt with their idolatry severely. Now He had them camp for a while to teach them more about who He was and how He wanted to be worshiped. He gave them instructions to build a tabernacle with deeply symbolic accoutrements. He designated the priests and detailed their attire. Now He instituted the sacrificial system by which they could be forgiven, express their dedication, and fellowship with Him.

People had been sacrificing animals since the time of Noah. But now God designated specific rules and rituals that symbolized the coming Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.

In Leviticus 9, the newly inducted priests offered the very first offerings under the new system.

God responded by manifesting His glory and sending fire to consume the offering.

The people responded by shouting for joy and falling on their faces.

I can understand shouting and falling face down. I’d likely be startled out of my wits by such a display. But joy? Shouting for joy and falling face down in awe seem like opposite reactions. But the Greek word for shout here indicates both being overwhelmed and joyful.

In Warren Wiersbe’s short commentary on Leviticus, Be Holy (Leviticus): Becoming “Set Apart” for God, he says of this verse:

The paradoxical response of the people helps us better understand the experience of worship, for they were both joyful and overwhelmed. There was joy in their hearts that the true and living God had deigned to dwell among them and receive their worship, but there was also fear as the people fell on their faces in awe. The two attitudes balance each other. “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2: 11). Paul saw this as a desirable and normal experience in the local assembly (1 Cor. 14: 23–25). If our ministry doesn’t glorify God, then God can’t bless it and use it to help others and win the lost.

“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”

This is not the only time where people fell on their faces in awe in the Bible.

Feeling warm and loved are wonderful parts of our relationship with the Lord. But I think we sometimes miss the awe, or we avoid it because we’d rather feel cozy.

But perhaps a sense of awe generated by a glimpse of God’s glory and power might do our souls better sometimes. Awe would encourage us to avoid sinning against such a holy God. It would assure us that God is more than able to take care of any need we have. It would remind us how small we are. And we would rejoice in His holiness, in His power, His care, and His gracious love to us.

Someone at my college used to say that worship is worth-ship—ascribing to God His worth. The more we come to know Him for who He truly is, the more we can worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Echoing the scene in heaven in Revelation, the last two stanzas of Charles Wesley’s hymn invite is to join in awe-filled worship:

“Salvation to God, who sits on the throne!”
let all cry aloud, and honor the Son;
the praises of Jesus the angels proclaim,
fall down on their faces and worship the Lamb.

Then let us adore and give him his right:
all glory and power, all wisdom and might,
all honor and blessing with angels above
and thanks never ceasing for infinite love.

Worship God with joy and awe

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