0.1 Overview of Worship in Old Testament Times

When a lot of us Christians think of worship services what comes to mind are church services.  For Catholics it is the Mass.  For others it is a different service, but it is complete with a church, and a pastor or worship leader of some kind, and maybe musicians, and very possibly, communion, and probably a teaching of some kind.  And what worship service would be complete without prayer, and some announcements and some mixing with other believers?  But, in fact, worship started out as a much simpler process, and became more sophisticated over time.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word worship itself comes from the Hebrew word – shachah, which just means to bow. It has the sense of being a servant under a master.  A connection is made between worship (bowing down) in the first of the 10 Commandments:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exo 20:2-6 ESV)

In the middle of the above verses is ” You shall not bow down to them or serve them”.  Servants bow. Servants serve. As Christians we say we serve the living God. We worship him. Worship at its heart in bowing in service.

Today, there are churches, synagogues, mosques in everything from huge cities to small towns all over the world. However, in Old Testament times, it was common for people to worship outdoors, no building required.   Look at this verse from first Kings:

And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, (1Ki 14:22-23 ESV)

“They built for themselves high places and pillars and ashram on every high hill and under every green tree.” It was common for people everywhere including the early Jews to build a shrine, an altar, i.e., a place of worship in the countryside around where they lived.  Obviously, worship wasn’t just something that God’s people did alone, from early on we read that there are many people worshiping many gods around the world at that time.

The earliest worship records in the Old Testament refer to people worshiping outdoors. And by worship, as it could be something as simple as prostrating oneself on the ground with their hands toward heaven, or it could be a sacrifice of some sort, and it could be individually, or in groups.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Gen 8:20 ESV)

This is the first record of an altar in the Old Testament but altars were probably customary by then.  There are records of altars as a religious artifacts in numerous ancient cultures. After Noah was delivered from the flood, he made offerings to the Lord, sacrificing some of the clean animals in a worship service.

However, while not mentioning an altar per se Old Testament Historians postulate that altars were well in use before this. The first animal sacrifice was by God himself in clothing Adam and an altar may have been used there. Altars were used by Cain and Abel in their sacrifices.  Thus altars are in use from the very beginning of man for their use in worship.[i]

Like everything else in the world things get more sophisticated over time. People began worshiping in temples, having dedicated buildings designated as places of worship. Liturgies, rites of services also developed.

For the Israelites, God’s chosen people this transition happened during the Exodus. Specifically, during the giving of the law were in instructions regarding how the Levites, the priest tribe of Israel were to act in regards to offerings, sacrifices, and rituals. Festivals were set up.  Festivals included Passover, Unleavened Bread, the First Sheaf, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Day of Blowing of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and more. And there were instructions to them for rituals during these feasts. 

The law specified worship rules like the people were to come only to the entrance of the tabernacle, the priests would sprinkle blood and so forth. Different sacrifices were ordained for different purposes.

The Law certainly had strict rules regarding everything including worship and the feasts, but we should see that worship was a beautiful thing and feasts were times of celebration that were greatly enjoyed.

The Tabernacle and the Temple talked about next are symbols of the future Christ. The Tabernacle was really a portable Temple. Jesus said he was the gate, he became the access of the people to the Holy of Holies. And Ephesians says that the body of Christ is now the temple.

For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:18-22 ESV)

After Israel entered the Promised Land, the great Temple was built.  The temple was the center of worship in Israel.  The temple was built to specific design and dimensions given by God through Moses and set out in many chapters in the law.

As far as Sabbath worship services there are no biblical records showing the origins of the synagogue.  But we know that they developed over time and became the meeting place on the Sabbath, and other times for the Jews.  Services there resembled Christian church services with readings, sermons, prayers and so forth

[i] The Old Testament, A historical, Theological and Critical Introduction, Richard S. Hess, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids MI, 2016 p. 52

[i] The Old Testament, A historical, Theological and Critical Introduction, Richard S. Hess, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids MI, 2016 p. 52

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