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Worship as Listening and Responding (Bible Study)

We look in vain for any passage of Scripture that gives us the precise order of worship, rules for the practice of worship, or simple instructions that say, "THIS is the way worship must be!" Unfortunately, this has led some to believe that it doesn't matter how we structure worship, as though it's only a matter of personal preference or local custom.

Lesson 9                     See all lessons
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-12
 

Introduction 

However, though we are not given a precise order of worship, the Bible does show us a number of worship experiences through which we can learn much.

Nehemiah 8 is one of those instances.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah should be taken as a unit. Both composed about 440-430 BC, they deal with the restoration of Israel to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. The time of captivity was painful for the Israelites, not the least of which was the regret and embarrassment that Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. The Israelites were allowed to begin returning under the reign of Cyrus (559-530 BC) with the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, and they began rebuilding the walls of the city and eventually the temple. The first seven chapters of Nehemiah record Nehemiah's efforts, plans and success in rebuilding the wall of the city in record time (see Nehemiah 6:15) with great cooperation from the people (see Nehemiah 3) despite serious opposition (see Nehemiah 4 and 6).

When the work was completed and the returned exiles realized that this work had "been done with the help of our God" (6:16), they were called together in a community-wide time of worship, recorded in chapter 8. While we are not given all the details of what this time of worship involved, the account is full enough to give us excellent insight into the nature of Christian worship.

However, we must be careful not to read it only as an Old Testament event. Remember that the church you and I are part of today is a New Testament church. We know about the promises of God were fulfilled in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. We should read Nehemiah 8 through New Testament glasses, remembering that we are in a position to see and participate in the fullness of God's salvation plan in Jesus Christ.

The Actions of Worship 

With Bible in hand, step into this story and note what happened there. Many of the actions that occurred might be missed if not read carefully. Note each of these actions in your Bible or a photocopy of this passage by highlighting, underlining or circling them.

1. They assembled (8:1-3).

Previously the returned exiles had been busily at work in different locations on the city walls, but now they were "settled in their towns" (7:73). They came together in the square before the Water Gate. Typically, women did not participate in assemblies like this, but here the men, women and children are included (see verses 2 and 3).

2. They brought out the Book of the Law of Moses (8:1).

These sacred writings were considered the Word from God that had come to and through Moses. Undoubtedly in the form of a scroll, this "book" was sacred and was presented to the entire assembly. It was the record of God's acts and promises as well as his requirements for holy living.

3. Ezra read aloud (8:3-5).

There were no pew Bibles, nor did each family have access to their own copy. It is likely they had rarely had opportunity to hear this book read while in captivity. So Ezra the priest stood before the assembly on a raised platform (8:4) and read it aloud. He read not just a brief portion but from "daybreak until noon" (8:3).

4. They listened attentively (8:3, 5).

The words make us think of people whose hearts are parched for hearing words from their Lord. Their listening was attentive, while they stood (8:5), for five or six hours (8:3). And remember, this was an assembly of men, women, and all who could understand (which obviously includes children who were beginning to understand)!

5. The people responded (8:6).

This was by no means a passive crowd. You can't be passive when you stand and listen attentively for five or six hours! When Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, they all lifted their hands (a symbol of praise and prayer), said "Amen, Amen!" ( a solemn formal assertion of agreement) and "bowed down and worshiped with their faces to the ground" (an act of awe and submission before God). These listeners knew that when God speaks he watches for a response from us.

6. The Levites instructed them (8:7-9).

While Ezra began with the reading, he was assisted by the Levites in "making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (8:8). Explanation and application is a necessary supplement to reading. So preaching follows the Scripture reading. We can only wonder here how this was done. Perhaps, it was through small groups, personal conversations, or additional public presentations.

7. They gave offerings (8:10, 12).

During the periods of instruction, they were informed of the proper responses. They were apparently weeping (8:9), perhaps in repentance or emotion at hearing the Word of God again. But they were told there were additional responses called for, one of which was to share with "those who have nothing prepared" (8:10) and to "send portions of food" to others (8:12). Here we see the beginning of offerings of gratitude and benevolence.

8. They celebrated (8:10-12).

As they continued to hear the instructions, their weeping turned to celebration. Nehemiah told them to focus on the joy of the Lord, called it a sacred day in which grieving was not necessary, and sent them away to eat and drink with great joy. When they heard the Word of the Lord, they obviously experienced his acceptance and felt the renewal of his covenant promises.

Dialog-Action 

What makes this passage so helpful and valuable for us is that it's a story in which we find God and his people in worshipful conversation together. It's a divine-human dialog, and we are privileged to step into the scene and listen.

God does actually speak to his people through his Word, and we can expect that he does the same for us. When the Law of God is read by Ezra, it is the voice of God that is coming through to his people. When the Levites take time and effort to explain and clarify it, the people better understand the message of God.

It is actually possible for us to speak to God through our words and actions. And he listens! He is not distant and uninterested in our responses. He listens for our responses even more eagerly than we listen for his voice. Our responses take on a variety of expressions. We have tears, we lift our hands in prayer and praise, we say "Amen" in agreement, we bring offerings, and we celebrate in various ways. In the Psalms our celebration often takes the form of song. And in all of it, we are speaking to God. These are not words and actions for our sake. They are responses to God.

It's one of the marvelous mysteries of the Christian religion that God and his people can carry on a conversation together! And it's the wonderful reality of Christian worship that we can have dialog with God. The very essence of Christian worship is this conversation with God.

We need clear thinking on this matter today. For some, any event that is religious or inspiring is "worship." But according to the examples of the Bible, Christian worship is when God and his people are in conversation together—God speaks and his children respond.

We suggest this tool to aid your understanding of this. Arrows can indicate which of the actions of worship indicate that God is speaking to us, and which actions of worship indicate that we are responding to and speaking to God. A "down" arrow [↓] means God is speaking to us; an "up" arrow [↑] means we are speaking to God. There are also times when we speak to one another in fellowship and these can be represented by horizontal arrows (↔). If you look carefully at a sample order of worship, you might see something like this:

            (↓) The Call to Worship
            (↑) Our Song of Praise
            (↓) God's Greeting
            (↔) We Greet One Another
            (↓) The Call to Confession
            (↑) Our Prayer of Confession
            (↓) The Assurance of God's Pardon
            (↑) Our Song of Thanksgiving
            (↓) God's Call to Grateful Living, etc.

We encourage you to assess one of your recent worship sheets in this manner. Try to draw one of the arrows alongside each of the items in the worship service.

Tips for the Discussion Leader 

In this lesson we are dealing with the very heart and soul of what Christian worship is, but we are approaching it inductively. That is, instead of beginning with a definition of worship, we look at an Old Testament story and live into its actions so that we are able to draw some conclusions on the basis of the story. We'll do the same next month when we consider Joshua 24 and find that worship involves "covenant renewal." Remember, again, in these discussions that we are a New Testament church, and our worship is to be filled with confidence through the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

We suggest you spend some time with the Nehemiah story and attempt to understand what happened there. Have someone in the group explain the historical background of this event and what Israel 's captivity involved. Each member of the group should either have a Bible with them or a print-out of this portion of chapter 8 so specific verses and statements can be examined. It would also be helpful to have copies of the order of worship from the previous Sunday morning available.

Discussion Starters 

1. Look at the exercise above of the arrows beside each line of a worship sheet. Could you do that with your church's order of worship from last Sunday morning? Is it clear who is speaking and to whom? Does the group agree on which arrows belong on each line? Are any items unclear or confusing? (We suggested this also in Lesson 3. Is it easier now to identify the action? Have you made any changes in your order of worship to reflect a greater balance in the dialog?)

2. Is there a balance or rhythm between the times God is speaking and the times we are speaking? Is one more numerous than the other? Is that OK, or are they out of balance?

3. Look at each of the songs of worship this past Sunday morning. What is the direction of each song? Which are we singing to God? Are we singing some to each other? Are there songs through which God speaks to us even though we're doing the singing? Do you think worshipers are aware of that?

4. As you think about the role of the worship leader, particularly the pastor, you will discover that at different times in a worship service the leader serves in different capacities. When does the worship leader speak for God to us? And when does the worship leader speak for us to God?

5. Is this concept of worship-as-conversation-or-dialog-with-God new to you, or have you been familiar with it? Does your congregation think of worship this way? Is there a need for greater explanation or instruction in your congregation on this matter? How could that best be done?

Further Reading
Authentic Worship In a Changing Culture (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1987), especially "The Enduring Themes of Biblical Worship", pp. 37-49.

Lesson 10
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