What is Beautiful Worship?

Beautiful worship creates different mental images for different people. Some will see the finest vestments, artwork and candles and a profusion of colour and goldleaf. They will hear the finest music and perhaps smell wafting incense. Others are thinking of elegant “contemporary” style.  It too involves the “right” clothes, music and imagery. Still others are attracted to something in between that borrows from both. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The standard of beauty is subjective not objective. Yet what standard of beauty does God have when it comes to worship?

It is easy to take our preferred standard of beauty and then consecrate that for the purposes of worship. Yet this leaves us with the holiness of beauty rather than the beauty of holiness. What is it to “worship Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2)? David Dickson comments that the public worship of God was beautiful in the temple “not for timber or stones so much, as because the holy and beautiful means of grace to men, and God’s worship showing forth his glory was there to be found”. Our worship and submission to God is only “sanctified, and made acceptable when it is offered in and through Christ, and in society with His Church represented by the sanctuary, here called the beauty of holiness”.

As Dickson also says “among all God’s works [there is] nothing so beautiful as his ordinances, rightly made use of in His Church”. For God worship is “the beauty of his ornament, he set it in majesty” (Ezekiel 7:20). Yet in the same verse He goes on to complain that the Israelites “made the images of their abominations and of their detestable things” within it. This reminds us of the Second Commandment which forbids worshipping “God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word” (Shorter Catechism, Q51).William Greenhill (1591–1671) was a member of the Westminster Assembly who further explains these words for us. He shows that God defines the standard of beauty for His worship. Whatever He commands is what He considers beautiful in worship, but we mar that beauty when we mix it with our own inventions. It is like the idea that we can add the finishing touches to a priceless and outstanding work of art.

William Greenhill (1591–1671) was a member of the Westminster Assembly who further explains these words for us. He shows that God defines the standard of beauty for His worship. Whatever He commands is what He considers beautiful in worship, but we mar that beauty when we mix it with our own inventions. It is like the idea that we can add the finishing touches to a priceless and outstanding work of art. In God’s eyes, we maintain beautiful worship maintaining what He has appointed. As the Shorter Catechism puts it this is what He also requires in the Second Commandment. Worship is beautiful so long as it is preserved in its purity and entirety. The Second Commandment requires “receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word” (Q52). We must be able to say of whatever we do in worship: “it is beautiful because God has commanded it”.

Beautiful Worship is God-appointed Worship

God is the one who appoints worship and its beauty. He set the ornament and beauty of it. Neither Moses in the tabernacle, nor Solomon in the temple, could prescribe any substantial part or element of ceremonial worship. Even though “wise-hearted” they were only to make what God had commanded in the tabernacle (Exodus 35:10).  Solomon, the wisest of men, “was instructed for the building of the house of God” (2 Chronicles 3:3). The Hebrew is literally “founded”. He had a foundation laid in him by the Spirit of God, before he laid the foundation of the temple, or did any of the work.

What God appoints is an ornament, has beauty and is for glory. Yet if men set up anything in the worship of God, it has no beauty, but blackness, no holiness, but iniquity. God must be worshipped “in the beauty of holiness,” (1 Chronicles 16:29), not in the blackness of iniquity. Men think that ceremonies enhance the worship of God, that pictures, altars, golden vessels make it glorious; but all this is deformity which God has not set up, nor set up for glory.

Beautiful Worship is Deformed by Our Inventions

Images are unwarranted and sinful in God’s worship. Here God complains, that they made images, and set them in the temple. Such is the corruption of man, that he is  ungrateful for and abuses the best mercies. God had set his temple and pure worship amongst them in great beauty, for glory to them, and to Himself. Yet they forgot what a high favour this was. Instead of honouring God in his temple, and preserving his worship entire and pure they brought in the images of their abominations, their detestable things. Thus they blemish their beauty, defile their ornament, and stain their glory.

It was wicked to corrupt themselves with strange, forbidden marriages (Ezra 10:2) ; dealing treacherously with their lawful wives (Malachi 2:15-16) and making a calf to worship (Exodus 32:7-8). Yet it was worse to bring their detestable things into the temple; into God’s presence and ordinances. When they made the calf, Moses was in the mount receiving instructions for worship. Yet they had neither fixed place for worship, nor the way of worship clearly declared to them.

Yet when God had set his temple in Zion, they had a fixed place, a settled way of worship and the most glorious beautiful worship in the world.  Yet they corrupted themselves in this. The majesty of God’s presence there, His glory and commands did not put them in awe. They were not content with what His infinite wisdom had prescribed.  They did not consider the abominable and detestable nature of their images. They were blinded with their own ideas, and hardened with their sins and so they proceeded to corrupt God’s worship. Zephaniah says that they “corrupted all their doings” (Zephaniah 3:7). They were corrupters, “a corrupt spring” (Proverbs 25:26), even when they were dealing with God in matters of religion and their salvation.

Beautiful Worship is Often Undervalued 

God uses the word “but” to reproach the church for being unthankful for the best mercies. He set his temple (the greatest ornament and blessing they could have), but they made images etc.  Nothing exasperates God more than wretched unkindness after great mercies. Psalm 106 numbers up God’s great mercies to them and their ungratefulness. Again and again the word “but” comes in (Psalm 106:7, 11-13). He delivered them, did great things for them; but they provoked him, lusted and murmured.

Ingratitude is kicking the giver (Deuteronomy 32:6-7 & 15). In Isaiah 5:2 God recounts His acts of kindness to the house of Israel. In verse 3, He calls the “inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah,” to judge between Him and His vineyard. God asks men to judge how kind He had been and how ungrateful they had been. He would therefore break down their wall and lay it waste. Men could not avoid seeing the great wrong done to God, and justify him in vindicating Himself.

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