Reverence

I was intending this week to make an attempt at writing an brief exposition on “Led by The Spirit” as taught by Paul in Galatians. But then while I was on my Saturday bike ride I started thinking about the topic of reverence, so I decided to write about that instead.

Reverence is a pervasive idea in Christianity, but often not rightly understood or applied. Perennial and obvious examples of erroneous reverence can be found in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, such as the reverence of icons. But the fallacious application of reverence is not limited to those groups. Reverend means one who receive reverence, that is, “worthy of adoration or reverence” and where do we see the word Reverend used? As the dictionary says, “This word is commonly given as a title of respect to ecclesiastics. A clergyman is styled the reverend; a dean, the very reverend; a bishop, the right reverend; an archbishop, the most reverend.” And if reverence is defined as “Profound respect and esteem mingled with fear and affection, as for a holy being or place; the disposition to revere; veneration” the question arises, is the appellation of reverend and reverence proper for the servants and shepherds of God’s flock?

That is a particular question, worthy of study, but answering that singular question isn’t my purpose today. What I was thinking about on my bicycle ride was the general attitude and ideas which people have about reverence (the reverence for people and icons being only manifestations of the deeper attitude of hearts).

Reverence, as relating to God, is right and necessary in a Christian’s life. Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodoxes, Lutherans–whoever would apply reverence to persons, places, or things, would all attempt to tie it back to reverence for God. But even if we wipe all of those additions off the board and say that reverence is due to God alone, there still remains the question of what manifests reverence towards God.

The issue of music is an easy and superficial example of where people come into conflict over this question. Some people say it isn’t reverent to have musical instruments in church. Some people say only certain instruments are reverent. And then people say only certain types of music are reverent. For example, someone born in 1930 might say that organ music is reverent, but guitar music is common. Church music should be slow and quiet, this person might say, because that fosters a “reverent” attitude.

Now, why is this so? Are cymbals not reverent? Are horns not reverent? Someone born in the 1930’s would likely be appalled at the ideas of cymbals or horns in church–the environment would not be quiet or “reverent” according to their standards. But, as anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows, horns and cymbals were used in Old Testament worship. God, apparently, didn’t find them lacking in reverence, and the people of God had no grand organs to accompany the singers then.

Someone born in the 1960’s would likely find guitar music appropriate and would expect the atmosphere to be more upbeat and “rejoicing.” Someone born in the 1980’s would likely expect electric guitars, drums, and a rousing “worship team.” The point here is not to sort out the “reverent standard” from among these various sensibilities, but to point out how among people there is such a changing standard of reverent. Continue back through the generations and you will keep finding “reverent” behavior defined as something different.

We have then, two different issues: That which men think is reverent, and that which God considers reverent. Reverent among men is defined by that which is considered acceptable or proper. But reverence in the eyes of God transcends the sensibilities of men. Consider two instances from the life of David. When David brought the ark to Jerusalem we read,

Now King David was told, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God.” So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

[. . .]

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.

(2 Samuel 6:12-16,20-23)

And earlier we read when they first attempted to bring up the ark to Jerusalem,

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

(2 Samuel 6:3-7)

It is interesting to consider these two incidences. In the case of Uzzah he did something which would seem quite reasonable and even a reverent act (he was, after all, trying to keep the ark from falling over into the dirt) and yet God judged it as an irreverent act. David, on the other hand, is singing and dancing, disrobing like some common vulgar fellow, and carrying on with all sorts of musical instruments. Michal didn’t approve, and you can be sure David wouldn’t have passed the standards for reverent behavior for today’s clergymen, either. No sir, everyone knows you don’t revere the Lord by carrying on like some vulgar fellow. Yet, David met with the approval of God for his actions, and Michal, for her attitude, was judged!

Anyone who would consider themselves wise on matters of reverent and appropriate behavior would do well to consider these passages. You will find people everywhere opining on what is reverent as if they were granted some special word from the Lord when a sober analysis reveals that the attitude and standard they have is much the same as Michal. They are concerned about the outward. Since when did God come down and invent the organ and tells us that nice slow hymns sung in a somber tone was His idea of reverent? He didn’t, of course. It took awhile for the organ to come around and that particular method is simply what appears reverent to people of a particular time, place, and sensibilities.

Now, I don’t have anything against the organ and I don’t have anything against old time hymns. If past generations have been caught up in their man centered ideas of reverence, one could lay equal charge against this present age. One could say this present generation is in rebellion against the hypocrisy of their fore-bearers with their superficial definitions of reverence. Instead of those rules and regulations instituted by men, today anything goes. Today God is a God who tries to fit in. He is a God who wants to make the audience comfortable, to accommodate their busy schedules, and to make people feel good. Past and present–all stand condemned.

But this isn’t really about what musical instruments we use, (if any) how we sing, or what songs we sing. At this juncture we need to ask, “What is true reverence?”

To begin answering that question, we need to look at what reverence is not. A good place to start is Uzzah’s death.

Why did Uzzah die?

Because he touched the ark.

Why did he touch the ark?

Because the oxen stumbled and he reached out to steady the ark.

Oxen? But the Law commanded that Levites were to carry the ark on poles (Exodus 25:12-15, Deuteronomy 10:8). David and the whole company with him had disobeyed the Lord’s command by putting the ark on a cart pulled by oxen. In their disregard for the Lord’s command they showed a lack of reverence that was typified in Uzzah’s act. They had all disobeyed, and with an holy God that disobedience and lack of reverence meant they all deserved to die. David understood this, for we read, “David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, ‘How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?’” (2 Samuel 6:9) The act of God reminded David that with an all holy God the least infraction was deserving of death and David, aware of his own many failings, was afraid to bring God near.

I’m sure David and his company didn’t set out to disobey God’s command. They probably didn’t have the equipment on hand for carrying the ark, or the proper Levites weren’t in the area. They were glad to have the ark back and they wanted to get it up to Jerusalem quickly. It was expedient and convenient to bring the ark up in the cart and surely God would understand. But that attitude of disregard for strict obedience to what God had commanded embodied the very heart of irreverence. The same continues on to this very day. We don’t have an ark that must be carried on poles by Levites, but we have the instruction and commands of God. He has told us how we ought to live and conduct ourselves in all things, and what do we do? We cut corners. Oh, I don’t have to be that honest at work–it’s more efficient this way, and God will understand. Or, I don’t have to be that forgiving–it’s so hard and God will understand. Or any number of other ways in our own private life or in our conduct with others. At home, at work, and in fellowship with other believers, we don’t look to live in strict obedience to God but rather in the way of convenience and the path of least resistance. We compromise, try to fit in with the world’s standards, then justify and excuse our “little” failings and thereby show irreverence and contempt for a most holy God.

Reverence isn’t something you put on when you walk into church. It isn’t an atmosphere that is created by the right songs or the right music. True reverence is a way of life and it ought to be manifested in everything you do. It isn’t a relation to men, or an act you do before men. It is a relation to God and what you do before Him. If irreverence is manifested in disobedience, then reverence for God is manifested in obedience. We can see that when David finally did bring the ark up to Jerusalem in the proper manner.

In David’s failed first attempt to bring the ark up to Jerusalem he was reminded that God was most holy. Then when the ark was left with Obed-Edom and Obed-Edom was blessed by the Lord, David was reminded that God was holy but also merciful and we can come before Him and rejoice before Him because He is merciful. We revere the Lord by obeying him, but we also recognize (as David did) that we can’t obey such a holy God by our own might, and so we rejoice when He, in His mercy, draws near to us and lifts us up just as David was lifted up to be king, and God condescended (if I may use the word) to draw near in Jerusalem.

If we truly love Him, then we truly hear Him, and if we hear Him then we obey Him, and if we obey Him then we revere Him.

Men look at appearances, but God looks at the heart.

Reverence as defined by men is man-centered instead of God-centered. In the Pharisaical heart of men, they have turned it around. Reverence becomes the exaltation of self–it is a work of man and his self-righteousness. Consider: all the acts of reverence defined by men through the ages–whether in church or regular life–are acts which they are capable of accomplishing and so can demonstrate before men their righteousness and ability to fulfill their duty to God. By such outward demonstrations of “reverence” men win the approval and praise of men.

But Godly reverence is a recognition of the surpassing holiness of God, our inability to properly revere such a holy God by our own efforts, and a rejoicing in His mercy to draw near to us and lift us up, covering over our sins and making us able by His power. The reverence of fleshly man puffs up, it confirms his own dignity, standing, and self-worth. But true reverence humbles. The words of David ought to be our own, when he says,

“It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

We also, like David, were chosen. We were chosen to be God’s children, members of His household and heirs in His kingdom. It is before the Lord we will celebrate, revering Him, whatever men may think. But we should also take the second half of David’s statement on our lips, “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” Are you ready to become even more undignified? Are you ready to be humiliated in your own eyes? Yes, that is reverence for God. Take it to heart. Don’t expect the approval or praise of man for true reverence. Don’t expect their awe, don’t even expect their recognition of that reverence. Our example is Christ Jesus who gave the ultimate demonstration of reverence–obedience to God unto death on the cross. The Son of God, crucified and reviled–the most undignified and humiliated. Nobody saw the reverence there, it is only by faith we see it. And we are called to take up our cross and follow him, undignified and humiliated before men, reverent before God.

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What is reverent musical worship is a point of great contention in churches. Some churches hold fast to one standard, others to another, and many more split over which it should be. In the face of such controversy people are always looking for someone to settle the matter, so perhaps you were unhappy I didn’t present a position on which method of musical worship everyone should follow. But if you have understood what I have said about reverence then you understand the entire argument over defining reverence by that which seems important to men (for God has said nothing about organs or guitars), completely misses the truth. In this entire argument men are trying to make Law where God has given Grace.

Then, you say, is it a free for all? Certainly not. As Paul instructs us, everything we do in the gathering of believers should be for the edification and strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians chapter 14). Therefore, with matters such as musical worship where precise direction has not been given, the real question that needs to be asked about musical worship is whether it is edifying to the church. That is the guide Paul has given for such matters. But that discussion will have to wait for another time.

And how do we determine what is edifying and strengthening, you ask. We come to understand that as we are led by the Spirit, being equipped to build one another up, and to understand what God’s will is. All this comes about by the work of God from within us, flowing outward, not the imposition of something from without. But that, also, will have to be left for a discussion another time.

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