If there is any overriding biblical truth that must circumscribe every worship practice, it is that worship is all about God and not about us. The inspired Preacher issues an imperative for worship that sums up our duty and should protect us from unduly elevating self and personal preference.
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:1–2)
God is in heaven, and we are on earth. But amazingly while we are on the earth, the Lord invites us into His presence. Being in the presence of God is a privilege that ought to overwhelm us and create within us a sense of caution and reverent submission. “Keeping the foot” simply means to guard the steps, to be careful about conduct, to exercise personal restraint. As Moses removed his shoes before the burning bush and Joshua his before the Captain of the Lord’s host, so must every worshipper recognize that the place of worship is a holy place. As we become increasingly conscious that biblical worship brings us into the holy presence of God, we must become increasingly cautious that we do nothing to offend that holy presence.
How we act in God’s presence is important. David’s initial encounter with the Ark of the Covenant—the visible token of God’s presence—remains a vivid lesson of this sobering fact (2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13). David, the man after God’s own heart, planned to retrieve the Ark from Kirjath-jearim, where it had been exiled for over fifty years, and to restore it to its deserved place of preeminence. Notwithstanding his concern for God’s honor and glory, his fervent zeal succumbed to carelessness with tragic consequence. Although his desire was good and his motive was pure, his disregard of God’s order displeased the Lord he thought he was honoring. It is not sufficient to claim a worthy purpose and proper spirit without conforming as well to the clear mandates of God’s word. Many Christians desire the right things, but are lax in the modes used to achieve those desires. Methods of worship and service do indeed matter: Uzzah’s corpse testifies to that.
Happily, David learned the lesson, and his second attempt to exalt the Lord’s presence was “according to the word of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 15:15). The results were wonderfully different. My guess is that the lesson David learned early in his reign contributed at least in part to his becoming the sweet psalmist, whose inspired songs set the standard and provided so many patterns for proper worship. Significantly, one of the most sublime imperatives to worship that he issued links the logic and manner of worship: “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2). The logic of worship is simply that God deserves it. Attention belongs to all His infinite assets; His infinite worth is the mandate for worship. Bowing down before the Lord in the beauty of holiness is the manner in which worship must occur. The expression the beauty of holiness is certainly suggestive. Although its exact meaning can be debated, the sense differs little whether the word beauty is an abstract concept or a concrete thing. Whether we are to worship with holy splendor or to worship dressed in the holy attire befitting priests, it is obvious that behavior and appearance in the place of worship is to be holy, distinct from the normal and mundane. At the very least, bringing the world into the holy place defies what worship is all about. To recognize the Lord’s infinitely august person, His infinitely attractive perfections, and His infinitely awesome works demands that the finite creature bow submissively. Acceptable worship flows from the true knowledge of God and follows His revealed will. Worship is holy service rendered to the Lord, not an occasion adapted to the likes and dislikes of would-be worshippers.
Not only must outward practices of worship follow the instruction of Scripture, but so must the attitude of the worshipper conform to God’s demands. The Lord Jesus Himself highlighted this mandate when He unveiled the formula for worship during His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Like so many before and since, she defined worship externally in terms of place. In essence, she said, “We do it here—they do it there; we’re right—they’re wrong.” In a profoundly simple yet weighty response, Christ explained, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). As simple as this statement is, it has been open to various interpretations. Although some argue that “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit and that “spirit and truth” are independent elements of worship procedure, I would suggest that the reference is to man’s spirit and that spirit and truth should be united to designate one essential thought. The Scripture makes it abundantly clear that worship must be both spiritual and according to truth, but Christ is teaching here that worship’s sum and substance is internal, not external. Most likely the expression in spirit and in truth is a literary device called hendiadys. Literally meaning “one through two,” this figure occurs when two words connected by the conjunction “and” refer to one principal idea. Although the English translation repeats the preposition before both words, it actually occurs only once in the Greek text (in spirit and truth). Taken together, the words imply the necessity of worshipping with a truthful spirit. In other words, biblical worship is directed to God with a sincere heart. Both elements are essential. Insincere worship directed to God is unacceptable. Sincere worship directed to any other than God is unacceptable. The “beauty of holiness” factor, however, means that even sincere worship directed to God in the wrong way is unacceptable.*
*Barrett, M. P. V. (2006). The Beauty of Holiness: A Guide to Biblical Worship (3–6). Greenville, South Carolina; Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ambassador International.