Worship and the Majesty of God


Psalm 93:1-5

I once heard Dr. J.I. Packer say that Psalm 93 was John Calvin’s “favorite psalm.” I don’t know how he knows that but Dr. Packer is a formidable and reliable scholar so you can take it to the bank that Psalm 93 was John Calvin’s “favorite psalm.” Whether that means Calvin didn’t like the other psalms as much, I can’t say! Psalm 93 is a psalm that celebrates the majesty and sovereignty of God. In it we are reminded that God’s kingdom will never fall; he is far mightier than his enemies; and will dwell in his holy habitation forever. [Hakham, ii, 379] The psalm is full of anthropomorphisms because we have no other way of describing God except in terms that are familiar to us, that are within our mental reach. In himself God is too far above us for us to comprehend. Hence the Lord “is robed in majesty,” “has put on strength as his belt,” and “his throne is established from of old.”

Text Comment

v.2       The point being made is that the living God is eternal.

v.4       Here the point is that the great powers we observe in nature speak of the still far greater power of the living God who made and controls them. Think of the recent tsunamis in Asia and their terrible power. They are wholly inadequate pictures of God’s power. Christian readers immediately think of the Lord Jesus stilling the tempest on the Sea of Galilee by the mere utterance of his voice.

v.5       The last verse is somewhat surprising in its change of focus. God’s decrees are here, of course, are his commandments, his laws. Here we read that Yahweh’s rule over his people is as fully as reliable and stable as his rule over the forces of nature. As his work of creation will not fail, so his commandments have proven to be sure and trustworthy whether in the reward that comes to those who obey them or in the judgment that befalls those who do not. [Tate, 480-481]

The psalm we have read is simply a somewhat longer form of the exclamation we read in Rev. 19:6:

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.”

That is the meaning of Psalm 93! You are, of course, well aware of how emphatically Holy Scripture teaches us to acknowledge the majesty, to fear the holiness, to hold our hands over our mouths before the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God.  We are told that God’s glory is such that no human being has ever seen it or ever will, because the fiery furnace of that glory would consume a mere human being. Do most American Christians reckon with this? They will never see God, if by “see” is meant the actual visual perception of the Almighty. God is too far beyond them even to see! But is this the God of the American evangelical imagination?

“God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” [1 Tim. 6:15-16]

That was Paul’s God; is it ours? Is our God the “consuming fire” of Hebrews 12:28-29, before whom we must worship with reverence and awe? Is our God the one who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light? Is he the one whose ministers are flames of fire, the winds his messengers, his mighty arm a power before which no authority in heaven or earth can stand? Augustine once said, “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God.” [Sermon 117.5] But the fact of the matter is that this is not the way most evangelical Christians think about God, much less the culture as a whole.

The incomprehensibility of God, his majesty, his otherness, and, especially his moral majesty, his holiness, are increasingly alien elements in the modern view of God. This is the reason why the modern world has emptied its life of serious moral purpose. There is no fear of God before its eyes. Such purpose requires the conviction that reality itself is moral, deeply and profoundly moral, but that conviction absolutely depends upon a living sense that the God who defines reality is himself holy, and holy in such a way as to impart his moral nature to his creation. But that understanding of God’s holiness depends upon something else: God’s majesty, his otherness, his ontological glory, that is the glory of his person and his divine life.

And it is this that is increasingly absent from the evangelical mind. It is this that explains why sin and grace have become increasingly empty terms in evangelical discourse. I think you will recognize this if you listen carefully to the way the term is being used nowadays. Sin is everywhere nowadays simply self-defeating behavior and grace is more and more simply leniency, the feel-good pat on the head that one gets from a cheerful uncle. What else could such terms as sin and grace mean if they are divorced from a God of high majesty, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, who is angry with the wicked every day, and who will by no means clear the guilty? What else can “sin” be or mean if it is not first and foremost an offense committed against the holiness of the living God? What do sin and grace mean if increasingly the prospect of eternal judgment is either actually denied by evangelical Christians or largely ignored in favor of the immediate and temporal advantages that one can realize through the Christian faith? Hell has not simply disappeared from Christian preaching, it has increasingly disappeared from the Christian mind. But, if it has, that mind can scarcely remain a Christian mind at all, for the prospect of divine judgment is a presupposition of virtually everything in the Christian faith. The majestic holiness of God is the very cornerstone of the Christian faith and as it recedes farther and farther into the far recesses of the church’s memory, what is left of the church’s confession sounds less and less like biblical Christianity and more and more like a religious form of our modern culture.

The God of contemporary Christianity is indeed a God to love, but he is not a God to fear and that must finally mean that he won’t be loved either. This is because, in the final analysis, it is God’s holiness, his majesty, his otherness that, in the Bible, gives the divine love its glory and power and draws our love after it. God’s majesty is what makes God’s love infinite and thrilling and surprising! Without its terrible majesty, God’s love must eventually become just one love among others that brighten our lives from time to time, a predictable love, even love we can take for granted.

Now, is this true? Is the evangelical Christian world really losing its grip on God of majesty and glory and holiness and wrath revealed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture? Oh, yes; it is true. Hardly a truer thing could be said of this culture and of the Christian church within this culture than that increasingly “there is no fear of God before their eyes,” the very way the Apostle Paul describes the unbelieving world in general in Romans 3. Every survey of Christian opinion, every observation of Christian behavior confirms it.

I can bear my own witness to this trend. I have found in my dealings with people that it is now common, no matter whether they are professing Christians, that they are worried about anything and everything except whether the Almighty approves of their behavior. I have heard recently of several more cases in which Christians are suing for divorce without biblical grounds. It is perfectly obvious that they don’t really think about God’s Word or God’s Law, that they don’t really fear that they may be offending the Almighty, that he might punish them for their blithe indifference to his will, and that they do not consider that, if it came to that, years more in a miserable marriage is nothing to be compared to facing the wrath of God on the judgment day, which the Bible repeated warns us will be the fate of those who flaunt God’s law, no matter their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. “Depart from me, I never knew you,” Jesus will say to them, “because you did not do the will of my heavenly Father.” Or as the Lord Jesus himself once put it, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matt. 10:28]

More than once I have told a person who is flaunting God’s law in his or her life, is treating God as a servant, standing by to give his blessing on command, rather than an absolute Master whose will must be the rule of our lives; I say I have said to him or to her as he or she left my office, “One last piece of advice. Don’t imagine that you will be able to use the excuses you have given me on the Judgment Day. The Lord will not hear them and your attempting to use them will only greatly increase the offense you have already committed against his Majesty.” They look back at me with blank stares or with scarcely disguised contempt. They do not fear God and dislike me for telling me they should!

Fact is, people in immense numbers are sure that God will ignore their faults, the choices they made that violated his revealed will, the indifference they showed to his commandments and many of these are professing Christians. They can’t imagine that God would really want them to be unhappy or that he would hold it against them that they acted in the interests of what they took to be their own welfare. And why do they think this? Because their view of God is effectively a projection of their own wishes and desires, just what the 19th century German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, argued was the nature of all human thinking about God. God, Feuerbach said, was just a human projection, our imaginations taking human characteristics and blowing them up and making an imaginary being out of them. Such a god gives us comfort and a sense of security. A god of our own invention is as Karl Marx put it our opium. But only such a god as one created in our imagination, a god we ourselves have made after our own image, the sort of being we would like him to be: powerful to be sure, but only when we need that power for our protection or our healing, kindly, forgiving, generally undemanding, allowing us to show our allegiance in comparatively simple and inexpensive ways, but always there in times of fear or danger or need. The god of human projection is a god who exists largely for us, rather than the other way round. Feuerbach was exactly right: the God of most people, even of a great many so-called Christians, is a God of their own imagination.

But the living God, Almighty God, the God who is revealed to us in the pages of the Word of God and in the life of Jesus Christ, His Son is not such a God. He is a God who does what pleases him, not us, in heaven and in earth. He is a God of wrath, a God of unrelenting demand, a God of judgment and of punishment, as well as a God of mercy and love. He is a God whose ways are far above our ways and past finding out, and a God who does not consider himself under obligation to explain himself to his creatures. “Who are you, O Man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” He is a God who expects his children to obey no matter how punishingly difficult that obedience may prove to be. Who can read Holy Scripture and not admit that this too is as surely the living God as the God of boundless love and tender grace?

Now, why has the biblical image of God faded so noticeably in recent years? There are a number of reasons. Human beings, even believing human beings have always had difficulty facing squarely the majesty of God. We are afraid of such a God because of our sin and because of our creatureliness and what we fear we typically ignore. So we subtly remake our view of God,  hardly knowing what we are doing, to make him a God more comfortable and less fearsome. What is more, our culture is a man-worshipping one and high thoughts of God are always difficult to maintain when man is the center of attention. More than that, there is the sinister effect of the theory of evolution that has, as it must, drawn the creator and the creation closer together rather than maintain the absolute antithesis between them as the Scripture teaches us to do. God, such as he is, in the theory of evolution, does not stand high above creation as its Maker and Ruler, but stands within creation, almost if not actually a part of it.

Another factor in our case is that recent Christian theology itself has strongly emphasized the immanence of God, his nearness to us, at the expense of his transcendence and majesty, and that emphasis has filtered into the preaching of the church. A preacher doesn’t always have to preach on the majesty or the wrath or the holiness of God, but if he never does, or almost never, the congregation can be forgiven for failing to maintain those features in their understanding of God. Any number of studies has demonstrated the tectonic shift in Christian preaching that has occurred over the past generation, a move away from the great themes of God, man, salvation, and judgment to more comfortable and unthreatening sermons that deal with how to obtain success in life and relationships. One of the demonstrations of how alien these manifestly and emphatically biblical emphases have become – the holiness and majesty of God, the reality of divine wrath, the prospect of eternal judgment, the absolute sovereignty of the Almighty – is that books that protest against their disappearance, such as the excellent four-volume series by David Wells very quickly appear on the remainder lists of booksellers. Wells’ is a voice crying in the wilderness and so is everyone else who argues in public that the church is losing her grip on the truth altogether because she is losing a biblical conception of God himself. No one cares and no one cares to hear it.

But there is a more important reason still why the living God of Holy Scripture, the God of transcendent majesty who is, in fact, the one and only God, is disappearing from the Christian mind. He does not appear in Christian worship. From that ritual in which the great convictions of biblical reality are nurtured and impressed upon the soul the transcendence of God has been systematically removed.

Every change that has been made to our evangelical worship is a step away from the experience of God’s glory and majesty and a step toward a God who is all immanence, nearness, and likeness to human beings.

The corporate confession of sin has been widely removed from the liturgy of evangelical worship and the result is that the congregation does not any longer confess that it has sinned against God and that they are in great need of his forgiveness and so God’s people do not beg that he be merciful to them as sinners. Absent such a confession the impression left is that meeting with God is like meeting with any other friend and that worship is virtually the fellowship of equals. The sense of the congregation as supplicants addressing the Almighty has been lost.

That loss is exacerbated by the absence of significant posture on the part of the congregation. No matter a congregation’s theory of worship, presumably they think the Lord is present in some way, shape, or form. At least they think they are singing their songs to God, as many of those songs have the form of direct address. But they don’t behave as if they were in the presence of Almighty God. They don’t appear to be humble before him, or seem to hallow his presence; they don’t even seem to be particularly respectful. They have no sense because they are never taught that Christian congregations have always knelt or stood precisely because they are coram Deo, in the very presence of the living God and so it is only right that they demonstrate their reverence accordingly. And if there is no appearance of reverence, it cannot be long before actual reverence disappears as well.

The same may be said of the music of Christian worship in our time. The changes here too are all in the same direction. There are many wonderful hymns from the Christian ages that express the Lord’s affectionate interest in his children, his mercy toward them as sinners, his concern for their lives as his children, his sympathy with them in their trials. There are a great many excellent and time-honored hymns that describe the sacrifice our Savior made for us and our salvation. All of that is as it should be. The church must continue heartily to sing that large part of her faith. But alongside those hymns have been others, many others, that express the more transcendent aspects of the Christian faith, that traded in the wrath and judgment of God, his majesty as the sovereign of all men and nations, and the mystery of his ways, so far above us as God is. But these hymns are not being sung any longer, or are being such much less frequently. If Amazing Grace is still sung, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending, Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders, and Crown Him with Many Crowns are not. Even Holy, Holy, Holy and A Mighty Fortress is our God are falling out of use. That would be a tragedy even if they were being replaced by like texts set to appropriate music, but they are not being replaced. A certain, very specific class of Christian hymns, hymns with a particular theme and ethos, have simply disappeared from the singing of the modern American church, and it was those hymns through the church’s history that powerfully and emotionally and thrillingly kept fresh in the church’s consciousness the majesty and transcendence of her God.

And in like manner the change of instruments is now regularly adding to this shift in the impression made by singing in worship. A guitar is a beautiful instrument, and may well have a place in the singing of the church. But no army ever marched to battle behind a guitarist. No great king made his entrance to the music of a guitar. to a guitar. But many armies marched and many kings have arrived to the music of pipes and trumpets and drums or the fanfare of a full orchestra. The reason, by the way, Mozart referred to the organ as the king of instruments was precisely because it could reproduce so many of those sounds all by itself! Majesty and insupportable glory, divine wrath and coming judgment, a God to be feared as well as to be loved, such things are not well represented or conveyed artistically by a praise band.

No future Milton, writing some as yet unimagined Il Penseroso, is likely to write such lines as these about the bass guitar.

There let the pealing Organ blow
To the full voic’d Choir below,
In Service high and Anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.

You may forget that modern, contemporary music as a movement of music into the high worship of the church on the Lord’s Day is a contribution of the “Jesus Movement.” The “Jesus Movement” was a revival that broke out in counter-culture communities of American young people; the “hippie” culture. It eventually spread to almost all American youth but it was defined by its counter-culture base. Organs were regarded in such circles as the music of “the Man,” the music of people over 30 whom you couldn’t trust. The guitar was the music of the counter-culture, the rebellion, the anti-authoritarian strain among American youth in the 60’ and the 70’s. They weren’t thinking, of course, of the classical guitar, but of the guitar they associated with the music of rock and roll. Nothing wrong with that instrument, to be sure, but who can deny that the switch to it represented more than simply a change of instrument?

Soft rock and folk, the genre of contemporary worship music, are not the music of the apocalyptic events of the second coming and the catastrophe of the last judgment; nor are they the musical idiom of a divine rule that embraces the tsunami, the earthquake, and the hurricane, as well as every famine, every plague, and every war in the history of mankind. Again, take note of the fact that all the changes that have taken place, that have now established themselves as the new norm in evangelical Christian worship, point in the same direction: to an immanent tender God and away from the God whom no man has seen or can see, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the God of transcendent majesty and absolute rule. Am I right about that or can you give me an example of a feature of this new music and worship that has highlighted the nature of God as a consuming fire?

The effect of these changes is now so systemic and uncontroversial that even our sanctuaries are reflecting a different view of God. Theater seating, lower ceilings, the disappearance of liturgical windows or liturgical light, and the liturgical separation of the congregation from the east end of the church have all contributed to a place that does not draw the attention of the worshipping heart upward and does not contribute anything to the sense that when it is before God a congregation is doing something utterly different than what it does the rest of the week. Indeed, in many of our churches nowadays, it is not immediately obvious that one has entered a room designed for no other purpose but divine worship. No one would mistake the purpose of Christian sanctuaries that have been built in every kind of style throughout history. The architecture expressed the purpose of the building, whether it was a gothic cathedral, a Romanesque church, an Anglican parish church, a colonial sanctuary, or even a modern church that was built with the intention that it be a Christian house of worship. It was a sanctuary, a house of worship as anyone could see; a place for a congregation to meet with God.

It is nowadays thought to be an advance to be able to play basketball as well as conduct divine worship in the same space. How practical and, indeed, sometimes necessary, to be sure. We Americans are practical and it saves money and we Americans care about saving money. Who can deny that it is sometimes necessary for a congregation to begin its life in a gymnasium or a cafeteria or a school room or, for that matter, someone’s living room. But basketball and worship are, in fact, hugely different activities requiring the architecture to contribute to very different states of mind and heart. The entire Bible bears its witness to the importance of the outward embodiment of invisible realities, whether in the metaphors used to describe God – throne, height, light, the mighty arm – in the pillar of fire and cloud in the wilderness, or in the tabernacle and temple in which magnificence and size were used to cultivate the worshipper’s sense of the greatness of the God he had come to worship. Ezekiel did not see God on a basketball court but seated upon a sapphire throne and John did not fall down in a supermarket before the figure of the exalted Lord Christ whose head was white, whose eyes were like a flame of fire, whose feet were like burnished bronze, and whose voice was like the roar of many waters. Anyone who has ever found himself or herself overwhelmed and awestruck simply walking into the cathedral of Chartres or Westminster Abbey and looking up knows not only that architecture can cultivate the graces of worship but that the effects it produces are precisely those that relate to the greatness of God.

How sad and how dangerous that what the 12th century abbot Suger said about the gothic church of St. Denis, is unlikely to be said about almost any of the new churches created out of business park properties or school cafeterias or gymnasiums:

“When – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God…worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial…it seems to me…that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an [analogical] manner.” [Cited in J.F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 29-30]

That would not be of any consequence if we were talking merely about taste, but we are talking about the systematic removal of one of the few forces powerful enough to counter-act the diminishment of the biblical character of the living God in the Christian mind. And so on with other features of a Christian sanctuary. For example, a Plexiglas pulpit in the middle of a stage certainly suits 21st century American culture, whether it communicates the majesty of the Word of God is another question entirely. A minister in a casual shirt and Birkenstocks may well make folk feel comfortable and unthreatened, but whether anyone is likely to identify the spoken word of that minister with the very voice of the Almighty is another question entirely.

Do you see? All the changes tend to the same direction, the same diminishment of the congregation’s sense of the authority, the majesty, and the unbearable glory of Almighty God.  There aren’t a few changes in Christian worship that enhance our sense of the greatness of God; every change diminishes that sense. But the church’s worship is the last bastion of that glory in human hearts. If it is lost there it must be lost everywhere.

In other words, we must worship God in that way that communicates to us and to all present and to the world around us that the God whom we serve transcends our understanding, is possessed of unimaginable power and holiness, is clothed in immeasurable might and majesty, and whose throne, surrounded by hosts of angels and men, was established from of old and will last through eternal years.

The God we worship, brothers and sisters, when we gather in this sanctuary is the God who is in the heavens; who does all that he pleases Throughout the vast reaches of this universe, distant in measures we can compute but cannot take in, he exercises his rule with an iron will. He is the God before whom all mankind stands as a mere breath; before whom the nations are a drop in the bucket, whose greatness is unsearchable, who will not give his glory or praise to another. This is the true and living God and if we are not worshipping the glory of his holy name than we are not worshipping the true and living God.