By Reverend Hughes Oliphant Old, D. Théol.
Worship in Scripture does have a certain flow to it, a certain logical progression. One place we see this with particular clarity is the story of Isaiah’s call. It happened in the Temple in the year that King Uzziah died. Suddenly, Isaiah became aware of God’s presence. He saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and His train filled the Temple. He heard the angelic hosts singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3, KJV).
We know from other places in the Bible that the services of the Temple began with hymns of praise. Psalm 100 tells us to, “Come into His presence with singing”and “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.” For the great feast days of Israel, as for the solemn assemblies of worship on the Lord’s Day, the flow of worship ordinarily begins with hymns of praise.
Isaiah then tells us that when he became aware that he was in the presence of God, he became aware of his unworthiness. “Woe is me! I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5, KJV). Sometimes, of course, our worship is in the midst of trouble. Instead of hymns of praise, we come together to cry before the Lord (Joel 1:1-2). Many of the psalms are songs of lamentation such as Psalm 6, Psalm 42, Psalm 51 or Psalm 102. It is our very nature that we are creatures of need and our worship should reflect that. So many people come to church weighed down with troubles; and if our worship is to be realistic, it must connect with these frustrations.
After having laid out his burden and the burdens of his people, Isaiah received a word of grace from God. An angel came and touched his lips with a purifying coal from the altar. “Lo,…thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isa. 6:7, KJV). As we find it in the New Testament, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn.1:9, KJV). It is essential to our worship that we proclaim the promise of redemption by reading and preaching the Scriptures during worship.
But not only do we hear God’s Word in our worship, we receive a sign of God’s grace. For Isaiah that sign was the glowing coal which touched his lips. For us as Christians, that sign is the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. That sacred food is the seal of the promises proclaimed in the reading and preaching of the Scriptures.
We notice, however, that worship does not end here. God called Isaiah into His service and Isaiah offers himself to that service. “Here am I; send me” (Isa. 6:8, KJV). The flow of worship should reach its high point with the setting forth of God’s grace; but, then, it should move on to service. It may be the service of intercessory prayer, as we find it in the prayer meeting found in Acts 4:29, the service of giving alms for the poor, or the support of diaconal work. This dedication to God’s service, on the other hand, might be expressed in a song of thanksgiving or a prayer, offering ourselves to God. As the Apostle Paul put it, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Ro.12:1-2, KJV). The flow of worship should move from the proclamation of the mercies of God to the service of a dedicated life.
Also, we should not overlook the word of hope which concludes Isaiah’s vision. It is the promise that there is the Holy Seed (Isa. 6:13). Christians have understood this as a promise that the Christ, the Seed of David, will at last establish His kingdom, which will prevail. As I see it, the service of the Lord’s Day should conclude with an eye to the heavenly worship of the New Jerusalem as we find it in Revelation. It was when John was in the Spirit, on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), that God opened up to him a vision of the same worship Isaiah saw in his vision.
It is finally here that we receive the benediction. “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24-26, KJV). The benediction reminds us that ultimately, God’s glory will overcome all the forces of evil. The benediction is appropriately entwined with praise as we find it in Revelation 4 and 5. “Holy, Holy, Holy,”… “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power.” The flow of our worship finally empties into the everlasting worship before the throne of God.
Reverend Hughes Oliphant Old, D. Théol., was the Dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, SC.