Recently, I began reading in I Samuel where battle lines were drawn between the Philistines and Israel at a place called Ebenezer. My mind drifted as I first thought of an old Hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing; and, then the famous Dickens’ tale, A Christmas Carol with its colorful character Ebenezer Scrooge. Quickly, I moved on to the word Ebenezer, itself; I discovered that it is a Hebrew word meaning “Stone of Help.” Over the next few chapters the word appears twice more, I Samuel 5:1; 7:12. These four chapters bracket as a unit around the word Ebenezer.
In I Samuel 7, Israel finally seeks the Lord’s help. Samuel instructs the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart… put away the foreign gods…direct your heart to the Lord… serve him only….he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” I Samuel 7:3. After years of anguish, Samuel’s message is met with affirmation; the people put away their idols to serve God. Samuel calls for a great convocation and pledges to pray on the people’s behalf, when they gather. The Philistines learn of the great gathering and plan to attack Israel while they worship. I Samuel7: 5-14 presents the story.
Israel in sorrow and fasting seek God; repent of their sin; and, just as Samuel offers the burnt offering of atonement, the Philistine attack. Wham! God delivers a counter attack creating confusion not seen since the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. In response to God’s great victory over the enemy, Samuel takes a boulder from the battleground and sets it up as a memorial pillar for future generations to remember God’s help over their enemy. The Bible notes, “The hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” I Samuel 7:13
This account might simply be a story, unless we recognize it as a chapter in the greater story of God and His redemption. As we think of Ebenezer, it points us to the greater Stone, evoking worship to Christ. I Peter 2:4-5 calls true believers to draw near the Living Stone – to be formed into the people of God, the Church. Although many stumble over Him as “a rock of offence,” we rejoice, for we do not stumble; He is our sure foundation. With the enthusiasm of victory let us worship Him now, knowing that our praises to the very “rock of help,” will sustain us until we someday worship Him, face to face.
John 4:24 tells us, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” In my early years as a Christian, I thought worship was simply singing the hymns before hearing the Sunday morning message. The old hymns are full of truth and insight I had never considered. The Spirit would help me understand truths written in the hymns by men hundreds of years ago. It always amazes me God’s truth never changes. But I will be honest, I sometimes felt as though it was drudgery getting through some of those old hymns before hearing the message.
Through the years, a couple that attended our church opened my eyes to the idea that worship service on Sunday morning is a primer to place me in the correct spirit before hearing the message. In other words, if I did Sunday morning worship in spirit and truth, my heart would be open to hear God’s word from the message given that morning. This new understanding greatly helped.
As the years went past, I would find myself worshiping God in ways I never considered worship – quiet times, alone. Being an early riser, many times I am outside in the morning looking at the stars and trying to consider just how big God’s universe really is – I can’t fathom the idea. I find myself singing the words of the old hymn, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed….. then sings my soul my savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art.” I am worshiping in truth and spirit.
Other times I could be driving down the road and hear a Christian song on the radio that would about melt my heart. The song “I Could Only Imagine” tears me up every time I hear it. I do my best to sing along, but the Holy Spirit has hold of my heart, and my babbling is worshiping in truth and in spirit.
All this to say, for me, worshiping in truth and spirit can and does happen for me on Sunday mornings. But I also find that when I am quiet and alone the Spirit speaks to my heart (seeing the stars, hearing a special song on the radio, etc…) I find myself worshiping God in truth and spirit. I find myself out of the picture and my focus on the God who loves me. How Great Thou Art.
In ministry I have often been asked the question: “What am I supposed to think when I sing?” or “I see other people getting into worship, how do I get that?” I’d like to offer a few thoughts to direct each of us in our growth as worshippers.
Worship is more than singing
We all know this, but it can so easily creep into our practice that we somehow think passion or enjoyment of music is worship, while delight in studying the Word and prayer is only a mental exercise. To measure one’s heart for the Lord purely by their Sunday morning singing doesn’t give the full picture. Music moves us, it’s the language of the heart. Therefore, it may feel more worshipful than “eating or drinking” (1 Cor 10:31), but it isn’t. As children of God who know what’s been done for us and given to us, we ought to approach every breath, task, spiritual discipline, hobby, and relationship with a heart full of joy and head full of truth. These daily moments then are worship moments. When this is the trajectory of life you are easily moved by truth read, preached, and sung. Your Sunday AM congregational singing then is only part of your expressions of worship. The Bible calls you and I to make melody in our hearts (Eph 5:19) … even when the sound coming out of our mouth isn’t all that melodious.
Engage the mind, Express the heart
Think about what you’re singing. Don’t let the self-centered culture of worship music win in your heart. Don’t give in to these: “it’s too loud, where are the drums, why are we still singing this hymn, why aren’t we singing this hymn, I can’t hear the music – turn it up”. None of these have anything to do with worshiping … strike that – they reveal exactly what you think about worship – that it’s all about me. And when it’s about you, you’re not reflecting on the lyrics pointing you to the character of God, and you’re not choosing to express joy, sorrow, gratitude, or praise. Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength requires being totally engaged mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. What that looks like will be as different as we are all different. Don’t compare yourself. Don’t think expressive singing must mean engaged mind nor that “low energy” singing means a disengaged mind. Engage your mind and express your heart … both Sunday morning and every morning … and do it all to the glory of God!
Exodus 14 records God’s miraculous defeat of the Egyptians. Exodus 15 records the Israelites response to God’s work; how Moses, Aaron and Miriam lead the people of Israel in a song of worship-filled praise. We know the story. The Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea with only the manifest presence of God shielding them from the enemy. Then, God miraculously divided the sea, allowing His People to pass over to safety. As the Egyptians pursued them, God clogged the chariot wheels and while they were in confusion, God reversed the wall of water to drown the enemy. We often stop there but the story does not end there. God’s awesome saving work is followed immediately by a worship anthem, written by Moses, praising God for His special mercy to them, at their time of desperate need.
The ancient song does not speak of Moses’ or Aaron’s work to save the Israelites. Instead the Song speaks of God’s redeeming work for His people. Upon victory Moses, the human leader, directs the people’s praise to their great God, Israel’s rightful leader; and, His so great a salvation. Verse 2 exclaims “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him.” Verse 11 asks a rhetorical question “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” The answer is: God cannot be compared; there are none like Him – The Egyptians certainly were no match. The ancient hymn closes with, “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
God showed His gracious mercy and compassion and Moses led the people, immediately, in a song of praise. We can only imagine the ancient song as it was first sung, but when God works a good work in us let us not be like that generation who sang with feelings and emotion but walk away unchanged.
Indeed, our hearts should resonate with Moses’s action but not the people’s activity. When God shows His mercy and compassion towards us we should immediately offer Him our praise. Let us not focus on ourselves, our feelings or our insights but let our heart’s cry go to Him and Him, alone. Let our hearts respond in worship-filled praise as He changes us for His Glory.
What if worship wasn’t intended to be only a Sunday thing? What if Thursday worship was just as valuable? These 5 principles are some of what has become fundamental to me and has challenged me to worship well. Maybe it will challenge you to be a better worshipper, even on Thursday!
- Everyone worships. Really! Pagan, Hindu, hardened drug addict or self proclaimed moral atheist are all worshippers of one thing or another. Led astray by his or her own rebellious hearts, every human being stands in awe of something. And he worships. The big question is not “are you a worshipper?” but “who do you worship?” It’s not easy to see what we worship, because…
- Worship is done in the secret of the heart. There is no blood test that proves out the idols of your heart. But that doesn’t mean we are left alone. The Hound of Heaven is jealous for you. In time the word of God and the Spirit of God will reveal what you love the most. And then in life…
- How you respond to pressure reveals who you worship. Yes, it’s in the most difficult days that my heart is exposed. In my fits of anger and retreat from friends I begin to see what I love the most. Is this painful? Yes. But it is good! With help from a friend the worship of my functional little gods can be exposed and the work of the cross has rich fertile soil in which to grow. Oh friends…
- Repentance is the normal and sweet response for worshippers of God. Because we know the One who loves us most and loves us best is right there in our midst we can joyfully repent. When we do, the riches of heaven are ours – forgiveness, identity, adoption, cleansing, and more. This is the sweetness of worship as we linger and bathe in the gospel! And then we realize…
- Only worshippers of God are truly free. Free to do what we ought. We now can freely choose the option of obedience and love. No longer under the weight of trying to save ourselves we get to express our delight in the work of Jesus in our everyday.
Enjoy worship today! (Romans 12:1)