Worshiping the Lord
This week’s memory text gives us insight into the Hebrews’ worship practices and how their gratitude toward God had overflowed in praise to Him. In 515 b.c. they celebrated the dedication of the new temple (Ezra 6:15–18), and then, about 60 years later, the people celebrated the dedication of Jerusalem’s completed wall (Neh. 6:15–7:3; 12:27 onward).
Following the listing of genealogies in Nehemiah 11 and 12, the author transitions to the time they celebrated the dedication of the city wall. It was customary for the nation to dedicate things to God: the temple, a city wall, or even houses and public buildings. Such a dedication was thoughtfully prepared and was accompanied with singing, music, feasting, sacrifices, rejoicing, merriment, and the purification of the people. David established the practice of sacrifices during a dedication, and afterward Israel’s leaders followed his example, starting with Solomon when he brought the ark into the temple (1 Kings 8:5).
This week we will look at how they worshiped the Lord during this time and see things that we, who worship the same Lord, can apply to ourselves.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, December 7.
The Israelite nation had commissioned a specific class of the Levites to be singers and musicians for the temple services. God directed the practice and gave instructions for the service, as the temple worship was to be beautiful and professionally performed.
King David had organized this practice into a more elaborate and magnificent system than had previously been done. Therefore, the descendants of Asaph, whom David had appointed as the leader of worship in the temple, were still designated as “the singers in charge of the service of the house of God” (Neh. 11:22, NKJV).
The singers were Levites and, therefore, officially assigned to the temple. Thus, providing music for the temple services was their paid job. During the time of King David, a full-fledged music academy was organized, which he supervised. It had teachers and students, young and old, who worked in shifts in the temple, providing music. Some were instrumentalists, others singers, yet others took care of the instruments and the garments used for the services. What was the purpose of such a professional organization? It served to develop talent and the vision of excellence in worship. Excellence must always be a goal in worship. Praises must come from the heart and be expressed in the best way so that people will be spiritually uplifted. One can assume that those musicians and singers who served in the temple were carefully selected to lead the worship service.
After the Scriptures talk about the dedication of the wall, and then the gathering of the singers, the next verse, Nehemiah 12:30, talks about purification. “Then the priests and Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, the gates, and the wall” (NKJV).
The Hebrew root word for “purified,” thr, means “to be clean, to be pure,” and it is used in many contexts in the Old Testament, including those with the idea of being morally pure and clean before God.
The temple and its services were crucial components of the religion of ancient Israel. But the temple and its services were a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. And that end, of course, was to lead the people into a saving relationship with their covenant God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to know His cleansing power in their lives. And it’s the knowledge of what God has done, what the Lord has saved us from, that leads us to love Him and to worship Him. That’s one reason the ancient Israelites recounted over and over what God had done in their past. It helped them to know the goodness and love of the Lord, which was central to the joy and thanksgiving that was to permeate their worship experience. For us today, the experience and appreciation of forgiveness for sin should come out of gratitude to God and lasting joy. Then it is easy to praise the Lord and express appreciation for the beauty of His character. And what greater revelation of God’s character can we have than seeing Jesus on the cross, bearing the punishment for our sins so we don’t have to bear that punishment ourselves?
Part of the worship service in Nehemiah’s time was creating two thanksgiving choirs that walked around Jerusalem singing, accompanied by instruments. They started in the same place and then split off, each going in a different direction around the walls of the city. One group was led by Ezra, who was at the front, and the other group had Nehemiah at the back. The two choirs met up once again at the Valley Gate and from there proceeded into the temple. Priests who blew the trumpets complemented each procession. Once the choirs entered the temple, they stood facing each other. It was an excellently organized procession and worship service. To answer why music is such an important part of the celebration and worship service, we have to look at its meaning in the context of the temple. Music in the temple was not a concert that people came to enjoy, like going to listen to Beethoven’s fourth symphony being performed at a concert hall. Rather, as the musicians sang and played the instruments, the people bowed in prayer. It was part of their worship.
The central act of the temple and worship concerned sacrifices, itself a rather unpleasant action. After all, what were they doing but slicing the throats of innocent animals? The playing of such beautiful music, in many ways, besides just lifting the people’s thoughts heavenward, helped make the whole worship experience more pleasant.
Both on earth and in heaven, music is part of the worship experience. Notice that in the above verses the singing is all about what the Lord has done for His people, including giving them victory “over the beast” (after all, how else would they have gotten that victory?). It’s praise to God for His acts of salvation.
Sacrifices were the most essential aspect of worship during the time of the temple. Several different sacrifices were used, either for the promise of forgiveness or to express the joy of fellowship and gratitude to God. Sacrifices provided the substance for worship, as they reminded the worshipers of the truth of God and who He is, and pointed to the Promised Seed, the Messiah, who would sacrifice His life for them, because He is the Lamb of God.
Notice, too, how many times the idea of joy and rejoicing appears in Nehemiah 12:43 alone. That is, amid the reverence, and perhaps the godly fear that the people experienced in their worship service (after all, the killing of an animal for their sins was a solemn thing), there was joy and rejoicing, as well. When we approach God, it must be in awe and reverence, as well as with rejoicing. Psalm 95 demonstrates that a true act of adoration involves a summons to sing, shout joyfully, and make music to celebrate God (Ps. 95:1), as well as to bow down and kneel before the Lord (Ps. 95:6). Striving to achieve a balance between joy and reverence is crucial for adoring, praising, and worshiping our Creator.
“The intercession of Christ in man’s behalf in the sanctuary above is as essential to the plan of salvation as was His death upon the cross. By His death He began that work which after His resurrection He ascended to complete in heaven. We must by faith enter within the veil, ‘whither the forerunner is for us entered.’ Hebrews 6:20.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 489.
Again, though the people back then certainly didn’t have the light that we have today, they understood enough to know that the work of the Levites, who alone could minister in the temple, was so important. They were excited that the work of God would be done through them.
The nation had been spending time with God in reading His Word, praying, worshiping, and rededicating themselves to Him. Amid all this they realized that the ministries of the temple had been neglected and needed to be restored. Now that these were established again, the people rejoiced over the important work the Levites would be doing on their behalf. God impressed the nation that the ministries of the temple were part of His design for worship.
Unfortunately, ministers, teachers of the Word, and musicians are often taken for granted. Even during the time of Nehemiah, the support of the Levites was sometimes strong and sometimes very weak. The Levites had to go back to other work many times in order to provide for their families, because the people stopped giving tithes and offerings.
Without tithes and offerings, there is no organized worldwide church. If we want our ministries to continue, we must be committed to supporting our ministers by monetary contributions as well as verbal appreciation. The church may never be perfect, but that shouldn’t undermine our giving to God so that His work can continue around the world.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Growing Up Into Christ,” pp. 67–75, in Steps to Christ.
“The cross of Christ will be the science and the song of the redeemed through all eternity. In Christ glorified they will behold Christ crucified. Never will it be forgotten that He whose power created and upheld the unnumbered worlds through the vast realms of space, the Beloved of God, the Majesty of heaven, He whom cherub and shining seraph delighted to adore—humbled Himself to uplift fallen man; that He bore the guilt and shame of sin, and the hiding of His Father’s face, till the woes of a lost world broke His heart and crushed out His life on Calvary’s cross. That the Maker of all worlds, the Arbiter of all destinies, should lay aside His glory and humiliate Himself from love to man will ever excite the wonder and adoration of the universe. As the nations of the saved look upon their Redeemer and behold the eternal glory of the Father shining in His countenance; as they behold His throne, which is from everlasting to everlasting, and know that His kingdom is to have no end, they break forth in rapturous song: ‘Worthy, worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His own most precious blood!’ ”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 651, 652.