Rejoice! Celebrate! Those were God’s commands for His people in the Old Testament (for example, Leviticus 23:39-40). Yet I often hear that the Old Testament God is full of wrath and judgment, while Jesus is full of grace and love. I still remember my surprise and pleasure in discovering long ago that the seemingly mean God of the Old Testament told His people to celebrate and rejoice.
But over time something happened to me. In more recent years, I’ve been reading the Old Testament with a heavier heart, seeing the sin and the suffering, missing the joy and the celebration. God’s been working on me in this area.
About a year ago, in my daily Bible reading, I reached the book of Judges with a sense of dread. Ugh. Here comes that book that tells about all the failures of God’s people. They follow Him briefly, they prosper as a result, they turn away from Him in their prosperity, He sends judgment, they cry out to Him in their pain, He rescues them. And then the cycle begins all over again. I’ve been taught that the theme of the whole book is man’s suffering due to his failure to live up to God’s high demands. Pretty depressing.
But last year, for the first time, I saw it a little differently. Yes, the Israelites vacillated between serving God and serving idols. But the stretches of peace, when they were being faithful, were much longer than the times of oppression in judgment for their sin. Looking at the book of Judges as a whole, Israel’s peace and prosperity lasted two to three times as long as their affliction under other nations.
And they always turned back to God. God always rescued them. The relationship was always restored, regardless of how very many times they turned away. Joy always followed the sorrow of repentance. Not so depressing after all.
In the last few months, it seems like everywhere I turn I run into comments on the beauty and joy of Old Testament worship. The richly colored and intricately decorated cloth of the tabernacle, the abundance of sparkling gold and silver and precious gems, the ever-present instruments and voices raised in song. I need to replace my image of the tabernacle and temple as serious places focused solely on bloody sacrifices, with the biblical descriptions of singing and feasting in the presence of the Lord.
What is it that distinguishes this God from the other gods of the time? Neighboring people were sacrificing their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:21) or cutting themselves with swords and spears in hopes of getting Baal’s attention (1 Kings 18:28). They gave to satisfy their gods’ selfish desires. There was no love expressed by those gods. There was no personal relationship.
By contrast, the Old Testament God offers and seeks a living relationship with His people. He understands them and loves them. The name “Israel” means “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:28). Would any other god tolerate such a group? And yet the Lord calls them His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). There’s something special about this God.
Yes, He is a God of judgment. He sets high standards for His people. But the standards are given to guide them into the best possible lives for themselves and the world, not as harsh, random demands. “Keep my commands and you will live” (Proverbs 4:4) isn’t just referring to His willingness to allow them to continue inhabiting this planet if they obey Him. It’s the idea that they will have the most peaceful, satisfying, and fulfilling lives. Why have I been imagining their worship as painful and depressing, recognizing the enormity of their sin without finding any relief?
The animal sacrifices symbolized the seriousness of sin in God’s eyes. Only the shedding of blood (death) could atone for breaking His commands. That was solemn business. God doesn’t take the shedding of blood, even animal blood, lightly. The animals to be sacrificed had to be the most perfect, the most precious livestock the Israelites owned (Leviticus 22:21-22). It had to cost them something. To give less than their best would be a failure to take their sin seriously enough. This is the part of the worship ceremonies that I’ve been focused on. The sorrow for sin, the death, the judgment.
But the Israelites also had God’s promise that if they followed His prescribed rituals for confession and repentance, He would forgive them. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. Clean slate. Fresh start. This God is a God of grace. If His people expressed their faith in His character by confessing and repenting, they could experience a renewed relationship with Him, as if they had never turned away. What relief that would bring! What celebration and joy would naturally follow their sorrow!
Thank You, Father, for correcting this image in my mind. Help me to continue to recall the joy of worshiping You, even in the Old Testament. The beauty of Your places of worship, the praise and celebration expressed through music, the feasting in the community of Your followers, the wonder and awe of knowing that the righteous God has made gracious provision for forgiving sin all through the ages. The joy of a renewed relationship that always follows the sorrow of repentance.