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Biblical Foundations of Worship Sample Resource

The Sense of Awe in Biblical Worship

When the Lord God is encountered in glory and majesty—high, holy, and lifted up—the worshiper is filled with a sense of awe and experiences an abandonment of self in the divine presence.

The biblical words for worship mean, literally, to bow, bend the knee, fall prostrate—gestures of awe and self-negation, the creature’s recognition of the surpassing majesty and worth of his or her Creator. Worship ascribes glory to God; it occurs when the vision of his glory is conveyed to the worshiper, evoking the response of fear and trembling before the holy radiance. True worship lays bare the “great gulf fixed” between the divine and the human, the sacred and the profane, king and subject, covenant giver and covenant people—and then moves toward the bridging of that gap through the gracious initiative of the Holy One.The Scriptures set the pattern for worship at this level of intensity in the covenant ceremony on Mt. Sinai; in the Psalms; and in the testimony of visionaries like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator. Indeed, Scripture is permeated with a reverential awe before the majesty of God. He is high and lifted up; the splendor of his being fills the sanctuary, as the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy!” (Isaiah 6:1–4). Ten thousand times ten thousand serve him, ascribing to him wisdom, blessing, power, honor, dominion (Revelation 5:11–13). The earth melts at the thunder of his voice (Psalm 46:6). The mighty wind rushes before him (Acts 2:2), the sea roars, the trees clap their hands at his coming (Psalm 96:11–13). “In His temple everything says, ‘Glory!’ ” (Psalm 29:9). The worshiper trembles before God’s judgments, confessing his or her nothingness before the consuming fire of God’s wrath—then, paradoxically, receives absolution by means of that same devouring flame and, by that same thundering voice, his commission as the instrument of divine purpose (Isaiah 6:5–10).

In these biblical examples of the worshiper’s encounter with the living God, we see that the awesome manifestation of God’s presence exposes the insignificance of the worshiper. Isaiah cries out, “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined!” at the manifestation of the Most High (Isaiah 6:5). Moses is told, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Confronted with the miraculous revelation of the Son of God, Peter exclaims, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). The apostle Paul was “caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4). John the Revelator turns suddenly about, to fall as a dead man before the Ancient of Days, whose eyes were flames of fire, whose face was radiant like the sun, who was dead and is alive forevermore (Revelation 1:12–18).

At the same time, there is an abandon in biblical worship, a reflection of the worshiper’s overwhelming compulsion to respond to the holy. Miriam, with her timbrel, leads the women of Israel in dance at the joy of deliverance from their Egyptian pursuers (Exodus 15:20–21). King David loses his royal dignity dancing before the ark of God, to the disgust of his unresponsive wife Michal (2 Samuel 6:14–16). The Psalms describe tumultuous, exuberant worship, punctuated by shouting (Psalms 47:1; 100:1), clapping (Psalm 47:1), dancing (Psalms 149:3; 150:4), and festal processions (Psalm 68:24). Jesus “rejoices greatly,” or literally dances, in the Spirit when his disciples report the results of their preaching of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:21); he tells his disciples to dance or leap for joy when persecution comes (Luke 6:23). Jesus himself receives the impulsive adoration of many, including the woman who breaks open a flask of expensive perfume and anoints his feet, kissing them and wiping them with her hair (Luke 7:36–38). Filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the assembled followers of Jesus break forth in other tongues (Acts 2:4), a practice continued in the worship of the New Testament church (1 Corinthians 14). The elders of the Revelation to John fall impulsively on their faces and worship before the throne of God (Revelation 11:16; 19:4). Such abandon, a departure from the decorum of “normal” conduct, is the response of the worshiper to the compelling presence of that which is of supreme value and worth, the awesome presence of the Creator.