Old Testament Worship

          Man was created to worship God. Though, “of himself, man does not know how to worship God, yet he longs to worship.”1 When we think of worship in the Old Testament, what comes to mind? We are commonly reminded of the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel, Noah, and Abraham, the Tabernacle and later the Temple worship with its ever present occurrence of sacrifices, and the annual feasts. The practice of worship in the Old Testament was twofold: pre-Mosaic and Mosaic. Even though we are without a written statement recorded for our benefit, it appears that even in the pre-Mosaic period God had defined the practice of worship for the people. We can see this manifest itself in the sacrifices of Abel, Noah,and Abraham, and by the priest Melchizedek. With the establishment of the Mosaic Law, came new forms and modes of worship to God: the Tabernacle was instituted, specific rules for sacrifices were introduced, and annual feasts were to be observed. At the behest of King David, worship was further expanded at the Tabernacle to include singing, musical instruments, and continual ministry before the Ark among others. During exile in Babylon, the Jewish people gave rise to the idea of the Synagogue to fulfill their spiritual needs. It was a place to read and discuss the sacred texts, to sing, and to pray, much of what our current system of what a church “worship service” is modeled after today. It then developed into a communal center of social, cultural, and even commercial life of the people.2 Yet through all the changes to the modes and forms of worship, only the worship which comes from the heart has remained both constant and relevant. Patrick Miller states, “One of the things the church can learn from the Old Testament when placed in the larger context of Christian worship is that the forms of worship are not crucial in themselves. One comes to this conclusion not because forms were of no importance in ancient Israel, but because the history of worship has shown us that hardly any form or order is essential and permanent.”3 By examining the twofold practice of worship in the Old Testament, we can get a better understanding of how the people were commanded to worship, and by examining the context of their hearts, we can better understand what made that worship acceptable to God.

          The word worship is derived from the Old English weorthscipe, with weorth, meaning “worth” and scipe, meaning “ship” or a condition.4 However, the anglicized word worship, fails to grasp the true meaning of the idea in the Hebrew text. Several Hebrew words defined as worship actually translate: to prostrate oneself, kiss toward, serve, and service.5 Using these definitions for worship, we can look at a few examples during the Old Testament time period.

          In the pre-Mosaic era, we are given examples of people worshipping God through animal sacrifices. In his paper “Worship in the Old Testament,” Toyozo Nakarai points out that the origin of worship, while not known, “may be fear of God, love of God, or service to God, or all three of them; and worship was often accompanied by sacrifice, and then a communal meal.”6 While there isn’t a written command for how they were to worship, it can be argued that the command may have been given to Cain and Abel since “by faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” and “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”7 In order for Abel to offer his sacrifice in a way that was pleasing to God, he had to have heard the instruction from God and thereby obey it. Noah and Abraham also worshiped God in the same manner. After the water was dried up from the land, Noah and the animals went out from the ark and he offered a sacrifice to the Lord. Without instruction from God, Noah built an altar and offered up burnt offerings. Likewise, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to God as he requested.

          Apart from the sacrifices, we also read about a man named Melchizedek. While little is known about Melchizedek, he is mentioned as being the king of Salem and priest of God Most High. Here again we have no knowledge of God appointing a priest in the pre-Mosaic time period, yet we read of him serving in that office and delivering blessings to Abram and praising God for delivering Abram from his enemies. It wasn’t until the Mosaic Law was established that a new form of worship with priests from the tribe of Levi was introduced.

          Mosaic worship is recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This new way of worship was a physical approach meant solely for the descendants of Israel to pave the way for Jesus, the Messiah. At the time that God gave Moses the Law on Mt. Sinai, he also laid out the way he was to be worshiped.8 Mosaic worship was geographical location being centered around the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, where it stood for nearly 600 years until its replacement by the Temple built by King Solomon. Tabernacle worship was established wherein the appointed priests from the tribe of Levi were to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. The people were also instructed to observe annual feasts and the Sabbath day was established as a day of rest for the people, not a day of worship. “These are the basic guidelines for Israel’s worship. But within these broad guidelines there is considerable freedom, and the history of Israelite worship shows that freedom and change.”9 David is a prime example as one of the orchestrators of that change.

          One of the great writers of the Psalms, known for his praise and worship of God, David burned in his desire to worship God. Known as a man after God’s own heart, David introduced a variety of additional forms of worship to the Tabernacle set up by Moses. Certain Levites were appointed to be singers, to minister before the Ark of the Covenant continually, to record, and to play musical instruments within the Tabernacle, as well as many others. What David made apparent was that the forms and modes of worship were not the crucial aspect of proper worship before the Lord. “The determination of proper and improper worship depends upon its reflection of the right understanding of God and his claims upon those who worship.”10 The reflections of David’s heart that we see in the Psalms set a precedent for the basis of acceptable worship. The structure was then replaced for a time by the Temple built by King Solomon before the people were taken away into captivity.

          During the exile of Israel into Babylon captivity, the people actively sought out a way to worship God, which lead to the establishment of the Synagogue. Known as the bet ha-keneset, or ‘The House of Assembly’, the Synagogue is known as the Jewish house of worship. A man made form of worship, the Synagogue helped to supplement their desire to serve God without the benefit of the temple. After the return from Babylon, Synagogues remained engrained in the Jewish culture so that by the time of Jesus they were found in nearly every city. More than a religious center, it was customary for Jewish boys at the time to be schooled at home by their fathers and in the local synagogue since this is where the sacred texts were kept.11 They learned to read and write using scripture as their curriculum, since easily accessible books in that day and age were a rarity. While the Law of Moses did not direct weekly worship assemblies, the people attended these assemblies for study of the Torah, to hear God’s word read and to pray.12

Ancient Ruins of Synagogue at Bar’am[Image Source]

          Although the forms and modes are important to worship God properly, they should not nullify the true focus of the worshipper. True worship encompasses both heart (spirit) and form (truth), but it is the heart that manifests itself in works. Strange fire was offered before the Lord by Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. By doing so, they violated God’s command of how the fire was to be offered. God commanded the fire to consume them and they died in their sin. Nadab and Abihu willfully disregarded God’s instruction. They sought their own selfish desire and disrespect for God. It is for this reason that they were punished. The prophet Amos made this clear when he spoke to the people in what had become vain worship:

“I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them…Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.”13

The prophet Isaiah also makes mention of God’s disapproval of the people’s worship:

“’To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats…I cannot endure the iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates…”14

          Thus Amos and Isaiah are proclaiming that the proper worship of God “requires an active concern for justice and its preservation, for right living and harmony and equity in the social order. Without such no forms of worship are valid.”15 Worshiping God by merely going through the motions is of no use to the worshipper or to God himself. The Old Testament time and time again points out the importance of serving God with your whole heart.

          Despite the differences in the modes and forms, the underlying concept of Old Testament worship is the same – that of worship from the heart. In its basic core, the Old Testament stands united in its service to God, through praise, glory and honor, trust, fear and respect for the father and creator of all things. Although God may have made his wishes known, the people of the pre-Mosaic era were compelled to honor God and glorified him through sacrifices before any known command to do so. Mosaic worship, with its changes and additions by David, continued to give honor to God for what he had done and continued to do for his people while laying out a path for the coming Messiah. The establishment of the Synagogue, while not a part of God instructed worship, worked to keep the flame burning inside the people while in captivity. Even through all this, we see that the people still strayed from God’s will and at the rebuke of the prophets, proclaimed their forms of worship to be detestable and worthless before God. Thus for worship to be pleasing to God, it must be done in spirit and truth, following God’s law with the whole heart – this being its central and most important theme.


1 Kevin J. Conner, The Tabernacle of David, Portland, Oregon: City Bible Publishing, 1976, 151.
2 Brian de Breffny, The Synagogue, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1978, 8.
3 Patrick D. Miller, “Him only shall you serve”: reflections on the meaning of Old Testament worship,” Andover Newton Quarterly 11, no. 3 (January 1, 1971): 139-149, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2012), 139.
4 Owen Olbricht, Worship, Life’s Greatest Moments, Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 2003, 11.
5 Ibid, 12.
6 Toyozo W. Nakarai, “Worship in the Old Testament,” Encounter 34, no. 4 (September 1, 1973): 282-286, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2012), 286.
7 “Hebrews 11:4, Romans 10:17 (NKJV),” Biblegateway.com, accessed Sept 26, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
8 John Drane, Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible, England: Lion Hudson plc, 1998, 158.
9 Patrick D. Miller, “Him only shall you serve”: reflections on the meaning of Old Testament worship,” Andover Newton Quarterly 11, no. 3 (January 1, 1971): 139-149, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2012), 144.
10 Ibid, 145.
11 Jeffrey Hays, “Jesus’s Life, Teachings, Disciples, Miracles and Life in the Time of Jesus,” Facts and Details, last modified March 2011, http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=1423&catid=55&subcatid=352.
12 Brian de Breffny, The Synagogue, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1978, 8.
13 “Amos 5:21-23 (NKJV),” Biblegateway.com, accessed Sept 26, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
14 “Isaiah 1:10-17 (NKJV),” Biblegateway.com, accessed Sept 26, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
15 Patrick D. Miller, “Him only shall you serve”: reflections on the meaning of Old Testament worship,” Andover Newton Quarterly 11, no. 3 (January 1, 1971): 139-149, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 13, 2012), 147.

Author: Olivia

I am a mom and a homeschooling teacher of two little ones. I am also a Biblical Studies major with a hobby in Creation Science. I love to research Biblical topics and how science and the Bible live in harmony with each other. I learn beside my children when we read, build, and explore with the help of our glorious classroom - God's green Earth!

4 thoughts on “Old Testament Worship”

  1. Dear Mam,

    I’m Mr. Thomas, from India. I’m serving God as a worship leader in Theological seminar and in Nepali Church. I was preparing the notes on Praise and worship to teach my student in college and I’m blessed by your solid materials here. Its really wonderful and blessed. May God continually bless you and shine His face upon you all the days of your life.
    Warmly in Christ
    Pastor Thomas

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