Worship In The Wilderness
I’ve spent my devotional time for the past couple of months in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, and one of the themes that I’ve noticed stitched within the books is the idea of expected obedience. This theme is played out the most while the Israelites journey through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land.
The Israelites complain about everything. They complain that they don’t have good food, they complain that they don’t have places to rest, and they complain that they have to live as freemen in the wilderness instead of as slaves in Egypt. It gets to be overwhelming, but the final straw is when the people refuse to invade the land God has promised them because they are afraid of its inhabitants. At this point, God declares that no one in this generation will enter the Promised Land and that they will wander in the wilderness for forty years until everyone who doubted God is dead.
It’s a definitive moment in the Old Testament narrative, one that is alluded to in the Psalms and prophets, and it’s a story that I grew up knowing well; but I was struck by something new. While wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the Israelites were expected to keep up the tabernacle worship that God had dictated at Mount Sinai.
Old Testament worship was a lot more taxing than what we consider worship today. There were sacrifices and blood involved, and in addition to that, the Israelites were in the wilderness! They had to move around quite a bit, and whenever they moved camp they had to take the tabernacle with them. This meant taking down the tent, taking down the poles, taking the altar, the basin; it was so intricate that God gives instructions on how to move the tabernacle in the book of Numbers. Talk about setting up and tearing down for worship.
The Israelites lived in this cycle of setting up and tearing down the tabernacle for forty years. That generation never saw the Promised Land, including Moses. God did not renounce his punishment when he saw them worship in the wilderness, and yet they still worshipped him knowing full well that they would never see any fruit in their labor.
I began to wonder, if I was there, could I still worship God knowing that I would never reach the thing I had been hoping for? How well do we worship God in the wilderness?
Today, many people worship God in order to get something. We pray for things when they don’t go the ways we want, we go to church when we feel like we need to “clean up our act,” and we expect worship to be some transcendent experience and consider a church service a failure when we don’t get that spiritual high. We worship God in the wilderness because we expect him to transport us straight to the oasis.
But God didn’t do that for the Israelites. Could you worship God if you knew that prayer was never going to be answered the way you wanted? Could you drive to church when you were certain that you’d never feel that mountaintop experience again?
I’ve been in a bit of a wilderness this past year. I’ve complained and cried. I’ve tried to storm ahead and make a path on my own. And yet God has firmly kept me planted in the wilderness, almost as if to say, “What if things never change, Ben? Will you still worship me?”
Often, when we think we are worshiping God we are actually worshiping the things He promises. I worship God because I want something, even if those are “good” things. I want peace with my family, a good marriage, good relationships, and respect. None of those things are bad, but they are not God. I lose focus of the object of worship for the benefits of being a worshiper.
The Israelites may have never reached the Promised Land, but they did possess something better, the presence of God. God never left the Israelites in the wilderness, even when they complained, and God never leaves us in our wilderness. He is present with us in every hardship, and His presence is the greatest thing we can gain.
And unlike the Israelites, we know that we will reach the Promised Land. We know this because of Christ. His death, burial, and resurrection are signs for what is to come to every person who puts his or her trust in Him. One day, we will be reunited with Christ in a new Jerusalem, the true Promised Land. We will not waste away in the wilderness, but will rest in a land flowing with milk and honey. That is the reason we worship God, whether in a land of plenty or land of need. Let us not lose that hope while we trek in this wilderness, and may we not confuse a temporary oasis as the final resting place.
Ben Johnson is a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary pursuing an MA in theology with a concentration in Church Planting. He is originally from Huntsville, AL, and is a graduate of Samford University. He and his wife reside in Greenville, SC.