The Glory of God, OT style
I grew up in churches where having a conscious awareness of and response to God’s presence during worship services was highly valued. This was referred to as “having God’s glory,” and phrases like “contend for the glory” or even the cringe-worthy “stay under the spout where the glory comes out” were used freely. Having an emotional response in a service was seen as proof of God’s blessing, a vindication of one’s worship style, and essential for personal growth and evangelism.
I appreciate my upbringing, and deeply appreciate experiencing God’s presence during my formative years. But as I’ve grown and learned more, I’ve come to realize that everything we do and believe needs to be filtered through a biblical framework. So I want to take the next few posts to explore what Scripture says about the experience of God’s presence in worship.
The Bible talks quite a bit about God’s glory. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He granted them the visible manifestation of His presence. The Shekinah Glory served to emphasize Jehovah’s genuine existence. Other gods might have temples, priests and worshippers, but only Jehovah could demonstrate His glory in such an unmistakable way. This Shekinah Glory looked like a “fiery, cloudy pillar” (Exodus 13:21-22), and served as a protection and guide for them. Later, when they had built the Tabernacle and the Ark according to His specifications, the Shekinah was centered on the Tabernacle, with the Ark at its center.
Many years later, when Solomon completed the Temple still based on the original plan that God had given for the Tabernacle, God’s glory filled the Temple (2 Chronicles 5). This glory, like the Shekinah in the wilderness, came in response to the people’s careful obedience to God’s specific commands.
Based on Israel’s experience in the wilderness, we teach that God’s glory – the conscious awareness of His presence – comes in response to our careful obedience and is withdrawn when we aren’t careful enough, or not focused on God enough. As the Shekinah came to the Tabernacle and the Temple only when they were completed according to God’s plan, so we must carefully follow God’s plan for how we worship in order to have His glory. As the fiery pillar was a visible indication of God’s presence for Israel, so sensing God’s presence becomes the litmus test of how pleased God is with us.
But we forget the other side of God’s glory in the Old Testament – it taught God’s sovereignty. Sometimes this was a lesson for Israel’s enemies, as both the Egyptians (Exodus 14) and the Philistines (1 Samuel 5) learned only too late. But this was an exception – usually Israel’s enemies were defeated in more conventional ways. The lesson was for mainly Israel itself, and to ignore the warning of the Shekinah brought immediate judgment on Nadab and Abihu, and their families were not even allowed to mourn them (Leviticus 10:1-6). Later, Uzzah’s mistake was met with instant death (2 Samuel 6:7). In fact, throughout the Old Testament, God’s glory brings judgment, not mercy. There is no room for error. In God’s presence, even unintentional mistakes are met with instant, harsh punishment (Exodus 19:12-13).
And when we use Old Testament patterns without filtering them through New Testament teaching, we risk going into error. We think, because God’s glory only came after the people carefully fulfilled all of God’s commands, this indicates that a sense of God’s presence is the reward for careful, maybe even perfect, obedience. When we don’t sense His presence during worship, we assume we are doing something wrong. Maybe we are using the wrong technology, or the wrong instrument, or the wrong Bible version, and so we will not “have His glory” until we find and correct the error. In far too many cases, “we need to have God’s glory” becomes an excuse to argue over our opinions, and to “contend for the glory” becomes spiritual-speak for fighting over musical styles or church programs.
The basic problem is this: the Bible never defines “God’s glory” as a conscious sense of His presence, so we are using the phrase in a non-biblical way. Then we are trying to force the Israel’s Old Testament experience of the Shekinah glory onto our New Testament Christian experience. And it doesn’t fit. Hebrews makes it really clear that it simply doesn’t fit.
I believe that there are three separate aspects of Christian experience that we tend to confuse: the glory of God, an awareness of God, and an experience of God’s presence. Understanding the differences between these, the conditions that they require and the roles that they play in the Christian life, will help clear up what can be a confusing area.