Previous article in this series: November 15, 2011, p. 92.
And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.
Recall that in this series of articles we are to cover three great principles of public worship. In the previous two articles we saw that Scripture teaches that public corporate worship is the covenantal assembly gathered before the face of Jehovah God. In this article and the one that follows we see how that covenantal meeting is carried out, namely, as a dialogue between God and His people. God speaks, and His people respond. When we come to meet God face to face in the covenantal assembly, we do not just sit there before God. Rather, God brings us into fellowship in worship, so that there is a back and forth communication between God and His people.
A Covenantal Principle
This principle, called the dialogical principle, arises out of the nature of the covenant of grace itself. The covenant is a bond of structured fellowship between God and His people, a fellowship where God has bound Himself to His church in sovereign grace and says to them, “I am your God and you are My people.” It is a fellowship where God and His own interact with one another, where there is an actual relationship of communion and love.
We see this covenant relationship in the record of Scripture. All of the Word of God is a history of the covenant. And as such it is the history of a dialogue—God’s interaction with His church. This dialogical principle, then, is not only a principle of worship but, more broadly, it is the principle of Christianity generally. Covenant history as recorded in the Word of God is God speaking or acting, and His people responding to Him and His truth verbally and in their lives. Sometimes that response is sin and sometimes it is obedience and worship. Nonetheless, it is a history of covenantal dialogue.
This is the covenant relationship yet today. There is communication, a dialogue between God and His people. It is impossible to have a relationship of friendship with no communication. There must be a sharing of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Therefore, covenant life is communicating life. It is that for the individual Christian in his day to day existence. The Christian reads God’s Word as God’s Word to him. Its promises are God speaking to him. Its commands are commands to him. The Christian prays to God in response to His Word. He speaks to God of his cares, his joys, his sorrows. He lives his days as a life of dialogue before the face of God.
It is no wonder, then, that this becomes the way in which the special meeting of God and His people is carried out. Public worship is a covenantal assembly, and that meeting with God is carried out as the life of the covenant itself is carried out. In this meeting, God tells us we are His beloved. He speaks to us directly of His mighty acts and gracious promises. And as His people assembled we respond to Him in prayer and song and praise. This is a Reformed and biblical worship service. It has God speaking to us and His people responding to Him, so that there is an actual covenant life being lived out in the worship service.
This dialogue is always initiated by the sovereign God. God is sovereign in all of salvation, and therefore also in the highest experience of our salvation—the dialogue of worship. It is He who calls us to worship and it is He who engages His people in this communion and fellowship. Even in worship our speaking to God is always a response to Him speaking to us. The dialogue is not between two equal parties. God is the God of heaven and earth, majestic and glorious. And we know our place, safely in His arms, yet sinful creatures of the dust before Him.
A Principle That Speaks to the Uniqueness of Jehovah God
The fact that God calls us into this dialogue and engages us in holy conversation tells us how unique Jehovah is. There is no god like the triune God of heaven and earth. The false gods of false religions are impersonal deities. The only relationship between the false gods and their worshipers is one in which the worshiper attempts to appease the god by his worship. Worship in these religions (just think of Islam) is based upon terror. Worship is offered in order to get something, not simply to celebrate the god and his relationship with his people. The worshiper comes only on the basis of law, never on the basis of gospel. There is never peace, never assurance. There is no covenant, no dialogue, no true communion. How can there be? Part of the way “sin” is dealt with by these gods is by the payment of worship.
But this God, the only true God, the God of heaven and earth, is a relating God of grace. He is the God who has opened the way for communion by offering His Son upon the cross, so that in Christ His people are spotless before Him and His justice is satisfied. In this way He has opened the way for a different kind of worship than is found in the natural religions of men. We don’t have to come to worship to earn something with our God. We come because Christ has earned all already. We come because He loved His people so much that He took away all barriers once and for all, and opened the way for a life of relationship, faith, trust, reverential awe, and dialogue. He is a personal God, a God who communes with the people He loves, and does what it takes to open the way for that communion.
This unique and true God we experience in the public worship of the church. We come to fellowship with Him and to adore Him and to celebrate that He is the covenant-keeping God. In worship He speaks to us of what He has done and what He is doing. And hearing His law and gospel, we are reminded of His grace, brought back into the security of the gospel, and then respond with adoration and thanksgiving.
Scriptural Proof for the Dialogical Principle of Worship
We have said that the dialogical principle arises out of the covenant generally. Therefore when we look at worship in covenant history we would expect to find God’s people carrying out this dialogue with respect to their worship. And that is in fact what we do find. The record of worship in Scripture is that of God’s people responding in praise to God’s speaking, or acting on behalf of His people.
There are many instances of this, but let’s look at a few key passages, restricting ourselves to the Old Testament. First, Genesis 8:15ff., which is a record of the first worship of God after the world had been destroyed by the flood. After the waters recede, God tells Noah to exit the ark. Genesis 8:15-16, “And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee.” Noah exits the ark thankful for God’s mighty act in delivering him and his family.
Noah then responds in verse 20. “And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” Noah, with his family around him (which at this point was the church), worships Jehovah God publicly in response to the deliverance He had provided. Then God, receiving Noah’s worship, Himself responds (in His heart) in the next verse, Genesis 8:21: “And the Lord smelled a sweet savor; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake.” And then He responds to Noah directly in the next few verses by speaking to Noah promises and commands. This whole event is a covenantal meeting in dialogue. God acts to save Noah. Noah responds in worship. God speaks to Noah.
Another passage that highlights this dialogue in worship is Genesis 12:7-8.¹ In this passage Abram is worshiping God with his family and his 318 servants after God brings him to Canaan. At the beginning of chapter 12 God told Abram to gather his tribe and leave his own country to go to a land God would show him. In verse 7 Abram is in the land of Canaan and there God speaks to him. “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land.'” Abram immediately responds to that promise of God in the next part of verse 7: “And there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him.” Here Abram is offering personal worship to God in response to God speaking to him His promises. And then in verse 8 Abram responds by gathering a public worship service. “And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.” That phrase, “called upon the name of the Lord,” indicates that Abram this time held a more formal public worship with his family and servants.² Again, therefore, you have God acting and speaking., and His people responding to Him in praise. There is a principle, already in Genesis, that worship is in response to God’s acting and speaking.
Moving forward to the temple worship in Israel, II Chronicles 29:27-28 gives us an example of dialogical worship in the nation of Israel. This passage concerns a time when Israel is a kingdom, and official public corporate worship is a regular part of life. David was the one responsible for setting up the worship services of the church held in the temple, even formulating the order of worship. David, however, was never allowed to build the temple and institute temple worship; that was left to those who followed. In the passage, Hezekiah has restored Davidic temple worship to the nation. In examining the temple worship recorded, we see the dialogical principle in a way that is most instructive for us. For here, God’s people are not responding to God speaking directly to them in visions or appearances. Rather, at this time in Israel’s history God’s people are responding to what God says and does and commands to be performed in His Word, and worship is given in response to that. In this way, Israel’s worship is similar to ours today.
And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt offering upon the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.
God acted and spoke in the sacrifices He commanded in His Word, and the people began immediately to respond to what God was doing in the sacrifice with praise and worship. There is here an example of institutionalized dialogue, where God’s promises are recounted in the sacrifice, and the people respond in worship. This takes place in the actual worship service of the temple. It is an embodiment of the dialogical principle in the order of worship.