I experience much disquiet at the way in which my mind can wander during worship services. My thoughts ought to be on what the preacher is saying in prayer or preaching, but they become so readily distracted. Unnecessary movement among other worshippers breaks my concentration; and I lapse into banal thoughts about trivial, everyday concerns. I find it easy to sing hymns merely for the tune or the enjoyment of singing in a group rather than in order to worship God. It is shameful to have to confess it, but my ‘worship’ can be a travesty.
It is not for want of trying to understand the profound depth of the psalmist’s exhortation: ‘Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!’ (Psalm 96:9) — quoted in John Samuel Monsell’s memorable hymn of that title. The lexicons amplify the original meaning of ‘beauty of holiness’ as ‘a splendid ornament, comeliness, excellency or honour’.
H. C. Leupold translates the phrase as: ‘worship the Lord in holy array’. A sublime concept! Our Lord explained to the Samaritan woman that those who worship God ‘must worship him in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24).
How, then, can we fulfil this requirement and live up to what worship really ought to be? This will never be easy, but I believe we can help ourselves by considering what is actually taking place in a worship service. Consider, in particular, the central activities of Scripture reading, preaching and prayer.
We should be in expectation every time the Scriptures are read. Why? Because we are listening to the very Word of the living God. Peter assures us that ‘prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). David confirms this truth: ‘The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and his word was on my tongue’ (2 Samuel 23:2).
The same is true of New Testament Scripture. Paul declares: ‘These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches’ (1 Corinthians 2:13).
If we truly believe this to be the case, we shall listen with rapt attention desiring to hear what God has to say. We will listen with the prophet who vowed: ‘I will stand my watch … and watch to see what he will say to me and what I will answer when I am reproved’ (Habakkuk 2:1). Like him also, we will fear before God’s word, for the Lord has said: ‘On this one I will look, on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word’ (Isaiah 66:2).
A second major component of our public worship is preaching. Properly undertaken, preaching is not the delivery of an erudite lecture, nor the virtuoso performance of an orator. It is God’s ordained means to bring lost souls to himself and to nurture believers in their most holy faith (see 1 Corinthians 1:21 and 2 Timothy 4:2).
The apostle Paul repeatedly affirms that he was appointed by God to do one thing — preach the gospel. The heavy responsibility he felt is exemplified in his letter to Timothy. The final words of the soon-to-be-martyred apostle were: ‘Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2). He wrote elsewhere: ‘necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me, if I do not preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:16). And what did he preach? The unsearchable riches of Christ, he replies (Ephesians 3:8).
Preaching is out of fashion today but our souls still need it as our bodies need daily food. One of the surest signs of grace in a believer’s heart is an appetite for the preached word, for therein Christ is revealed and glorified.
Public prayer is also part of spiritual worship. Paul requested the prayers of the young churches he had been used by God to establish. He wrote to the Thessalonians: ‘Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course and be glorified’ (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
Again, in his letter to the Ephesians, he commands Christians to equip themselves with a full suit of spiritual armour — armour forged by God (Ephesians 6:10-18). But this armour is ineffective unless we are ‘praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit’.
Ministers of the gospel are appointed by God. As they prayerfully wait upon the Holy Spirit and preach from the Scriptures, they bring a message from ‘the throne room of heaven’.
Hendriksen notes that ‘the most conspicuously offensive weapon’ is ‘the sword of the Spirit’ which is the Word of God. It was first spoken by God and now his servants proclaim it. The apostle exhorts us to pray for the ministry of the Word that the Holy Spirit might apply it effectually to the hearts and minds of the hearers.
Finally, a further consideration must surely whet our appetite for prayer. When we pray we ‘come boldly to throne of grace’ (Hebrews 4:16). This is an enormous privilege and ought to be our greatest joy. In prayer, we commune with the king and with the high priest of our confession.
Surely, the recollection of all these things constitutes a powerful motivation to worship God in spirit and in truth. It is just the motivation I need in my battle with distracting thoughts, but it should take us far beyond that!
As Hendriksen further comments: ‘Worship which is worth the name … operates in the realm of truth: clear and definite knowledge of God derived from his special revelation … rendering such homage to God that the entire heart enters into the act and … doing this in full harmony with the truth of God in his revealed word’.
As the worship service — hymns, Scripture reading, prayers and sermon — is fashioned by the Holy Spirit into an integrated message to my soul, I (with all God’s people) will be enabled to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’.