Glenn Sunshine

Exploring Worship: Part Five, Worship in the Old Testament


Glenn Sunshine

So far in this series, we have looked at a number of tensions that exist in our approaches to worship. We turn now to specific biblical teachings and examples of worship, starting with worship in the Old Testament.

Why Christians Should Study Old Testament Worship

Before we begin, however, we need to consider why worship under the Old Covenant is relevant to New Covenant worship. While it is certainly true that many elements of Old Testament worship have been fulfilled by Christ, such as the sacrificial system and some and possibly all of the Feasts, that does not make everything we see in the Old Testament obsolete. Consider, for example, Heb. 8:3-5:

 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

While the main point of this passage is that Jesus is superior to the Aaronic priesthood of the Old Covenant, note what it says about the priests and offerings (both of which were types of Christ) and the Tabernacle itself: they are a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. Since they point to the eternal realities of Heaven, they can continue to teach us about worship here on Earth.

Sacrifices, Feasts, and Tithes

As Christians, when we think about Old Covenant worship, we naturally turn our minds to the sacrificial system and the various kinds of ceremonial washings that provided ritual purity, which in the ancient world was closely associated with holiness. At the same time, however, in the Old Testament holiness goes well beyond ritual purity to moral purity based on the character of God himself. In light of this, these washings and sacrifices could not “perfect the conscience of the worshipper” (Heb. 9:9-10) or deal definitively with the problem of sin. As the author of Hebrews tells us, these things foreshadowed Christ, who provides us with the perfect sacrifice that we need to deal with sin and with washing of regeneration (pictured in baptism), and thus giving us true holiness in him rather than a merely external ritual purity.

But Old Testament worship included many things beyond sacrifices. The Feasts of ancient Israel for the most part were not focused on sin offerings, but rather on thanksgiving for present and past blessings. Thus, Passover celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, Sukkot (Tabernacles or Booths) God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness, Purim God’s deliverance of the Jews from Haman’s plot, and Hanukkah the cleansing of the Temple under the Maccabees during the Intertestamental period. Shavuot (Weeks or Pentecost) celebrates the first fruits of the wheat harvest and commemorates the giving of the Torah.

The Feasts show that celebrating the great things God has done in history and his on-going blessings to us are an important part of worship.  An interesting aspect of this is the provisions for the second tithe. Every year, people were to bring in 10% of their produce to provide for the priests. On the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of a seven-year cycle, Israel was to set aside a second tithe that was to be spent on a party. People were free to convert the tithe into cash (adding 20% to it) and then spend it on whatever they want, including beer, wine, or strong drink (Deut. 14:22-27), to enjoy in celebration of God’s goodness. With this tithe, the Israelites were also to “remember” the Levites, including them in the celebration since they had no land of their own. In the third and sixth years, the “third tithe” was to be given completely to the poor.

Tabernacle and Temple

The Tabernacle itself, as a shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, reflected the beauty of Heaven. It had to be made according to a careful pattern given by God to Moses (Heb. 8:5), but God gifted an artist named Bezalel with the skills to build it. (It is significant that the first person described in Scripture as being filled with the Spirit was an artist, Exod. 31:1-4). The worship space was filled with beauty and color, gold and silver and precious stones, as is fitting for a picture of Heaven.

When we move from the Tabernacle to the Temple, we see that the layout was based on the Tabernacle and it was filled with beauty and much of it covered with gold. But along with the visual beauty, we also see a tremendous expansion of liturgy and particularly of music. David, himself a musician and songwriter, made provisions for building the Temple and organizing the worship. Along with appointing Levites to oversee the construction and to be gatekeepers, he set aside 4,000 Levites—a little over 10% of the tribe—to be Temple musicians to “offer praise to the LORD with the instruments that [he had] made for praise” (1 Chron. 23:5).

1 Chron. 25 gives more details about the leaders of these Temple musicians. They came from the descendants of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun.  These men or their descendants are all mentioned in the Psalter: Asaph wrote twelve Psalms (50, 73-83) Hemen wrote Ps. 88; and Jeduthun is the choir director in Ps. 62. They also prophesied with lyres, harps, and cymbals (1 Chron. 25:1). Asaph’s sons prophesied with the lyre under his direction, and Asaph himself prophesied under the direction of the king (1 Chron. 25:2-3). Hemen was the king’s seer (another word for prophet), and he directed his sons in music “with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God” (1 Chron. 25:5-6).

From these descriptions, we can glean a number of insights into the Temple worship. Along with the sacrificial system, the Sabbaths and festivals, and the various ritual cleansings, music was an important part of Old Covenant worship. The music included choirs and singing as well as instrumental music. The instrumental music was closely connected to prophesy—something we can see elsewhere in Scripture. For example, when Saul was appointed king by Samuel, he was told that as he returned home he would meet “a group of prophets … with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying” (1 Sam. 10:5.

The Synagogue

Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of Judah went into exile in Babylon, a new approach to worship was necessary. During this period, the synagogue developed as a place where the Torah was read and prayers were said (or sung) to God. It is possible that a lectionary was developed during this period that would take the congregation through the Torah in one year. After the exile, in Palestine, a three-year lectionary was developed. Both were in use within Judaism, and thus the early church in imitation of Jewish tradition developed one- and three-year lectionaries as well. The Psalms were the backbone of the prayers both in the Temple and in the synagogues; this also continued to be an important influence from Judaism on the early church.

Although the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is one of the most contentious issues in Christian theology, it seems clear that we can learn a number of things from Old Covenant worship. Celebration and music are important, as are giving alms and the reading of Scripture; further, the Psalms are an important component of prayer, giving us a vocabulary (and permission) to express our deepest needs and longings to God and to offer Him praise and thanks. These are all elements we need to incorporate into our worship.

In the next article, we will look more closely at worship in the New Testament and the early church.


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Have a Follow-up Question?

Want to dig deeper?

If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.


Short Courses

Related Content