The Third Commandment
Chapter 13 – Reverent Worship
Perhaps the word most aggressively associated with contemporary worship is “celebration.” We read of “worship celebrations” and “celebrations of worship” so often now that many assume the two words are synonymous. Of course this involves bringing all our festive associations with the word “celebration” into worship. Staid services of the past have been dismissed as cold and lifeless. The primary emotion of worship is said to be joy. Is this a good thing? God does, after all, command us to rejoice
Remember that to worship God is to meet Him and converse with Him. To do this we must frequently speak His Name. We call out to God in prayer and song, and when we read the Bible, we remind one another that this is “the Word of God.” Worship is the one activity of everyone’s week which cannot be accomplished without using His name. In worship we “lift up the name of the LORD.” For this reason we must determine how we are to speak when we use God’s name.
Also remember that the first four Commandments regulate the worship of God. The time has come in this series to turn to the Third Commandment, which is found in Exodus 20:7. In stark language God told us that when we speak His name, we must not do so vainly or inappropriately. This is followed by an ominous warning: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” The intent of these words is to inject instant sobriety into all of our conversations about God. He will not be mocked or trivialized. He will not have His name tied to that which does not glorify Him completely.
So are we to be joyful in worship? Yes, but we are to be much, much more. Worship should primarily be characterized by reverence.
Standing in Awe
The warning in the third commandment is intended to give us pause. We are expected to show extreme caution when lifting up the name of God. To misspeak is to risk His strong displeasure. Certainly, then, there will be a certain degree of fear. Psalm 22:23 expresses the interaction of fear and worship: “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” Those who fear God will also praise and glorify Him. This worshipful fear is further described as “standing in awe of Him.”
To be in awe of something is to be speechless and amazed before it. The rural tourist who stares up with uncomprehending disbelief at a skyscraper is a wonderful picture of awe. He has nothing to say, because he recognizes that he is standing next to something which exceeds even his own imagination. Worshipers are similarly to stand in awe before God.
Awe is not the opposite of joy. In fact, awe is scarcely an emotion in any sense. It is an amazed disposition toward something unexpected. It is an attitude with a restraining effect. When we are in awe, we are quiet – slow to express ourselves, sensing a greatness which far outmatches us. We are guarded, not wanting our own natural excesses to embarrass us before that which amazes us. The worshipper who is in awe may well be joyful, but he will never be casual. He will always restrain himself, naturally reverencing the God who awes him.
The Contemporary Problem
This is the essential problem of what is called “contemporary worship.” Proponents of this complex of stylistic changes in worship insist that they are focused on joy. Whether or not they aim at joy, the target they often hit is casualness. Worship has become just another laid-back gathering in which everyone might feel comfortable.
Part of what has happened is that proponents of contemporary worship have rightly recoiled from the deadness that has overtaken worship in those “mainline” churches which have adopted liberal theology. Certainly the sepulchral hush of such services is more suited to sleep than to the praise of God. Contemporary churches sought to enliven worship by “lightening things up.” Music got louder and modern, standards of dress relaxed, and the overall mood of church became comfortable and conversational.
The straitening solemnity of dead orthodoxy is gone, but with it has passed also the sense of awe and reverence which once enlivened worship in its own way. Meanwhile, in the midst of relaxed, easy-going worshippers, the name of God is lifted up. Is it any surprise when it is misused? God’s warnings about reverence have been ignored too long. Joyless stoicism is not an option for worshipers, but neither is casual nonchalance. Is there no other path?
Reformed churches sometimes stutter in their response to contemporary worship. We know that traditional Reformed worship isn’t really dead, dull, drudgery. We know we shouldn’t bow to the contemporary drift of evangelicalism. But how do we respond?
Part of the problem is an incomplete application of the Regulative Principle. We know that worship is regulated by God’s law, but sometimes we think of this purely as a Second Commandment issue. We may not do anything except that which is commanded in Scripture.
That may answer the skits and dances of the contemporary scene, but the Bible tells us to sing. Who is to say what songs we may sing? Contemporary advocates loudly insist that the Bible doesn’t specify a music style, and Reformed Christians retreat into silence, rightly unwilling to invent new regulations but fining nothing on topic in the Second Commandment.
We must remember that all four Commandments in the First Table of the Law regulate true worship. The First Commandment tells us whom to worship, the Second tells us with what we must worship Him, the Third tells us in what manner He is to be worshiped, and the Fourth tells us when to worship Him. Another way of considering the Second and Third Commandments is that the former regulates the content of worship while the later regulates its style.
Reverence, the mindset which conveys the overpowering awe with which we behold God, is in fact the defining attitude of worship. True joy in the Lord presumes a reverential mindset which is determined not to enjoy oneself, but to glorify God. Reverential joy is also a restrained joy. When we read the Commandment and its attendant warning we are meant to be restrained. We are meant to ponder carefully every word and gesture while worshiping God, being certain not to lift up His name in an unworthy manner. Holy restraint is not only missing from contemporary worship; its absence is the stated goal of many churches!
The struggle for reverence touches every element and many circumstances of worship, but the most strident arguments tend to concern music. As this series continues we will be considering proper music for worship. We must be certain that our songs, the music to which we sing them, and indeed everything we do in worship is done in such a manner as to glorify God and convey the great awe which He should strike in our hearts.