God and Worship
The most important thing one can say about worship is that God doesn’t need it. God is the source of all life, beatitude, and joy, the One who is without beginning, who is changeless, and who is never moved by necessity or need. We worship because we need to worship, not because God needs it. God is self-sufficient; He doesn’t need anything.
Though this might be taken for granted by many now, it was not the way the ancients thought. In the ancient Near East, for example, men lived with the gods in a kind of symbiotic relationship—they took care of the gods’ needs, offering sacrifice and tending their temples, and the gods in turn took care of them, blessing their crops, and giving them prosperity and peace. Each needed the other. In fact, in the creation stories of the ancient Near East, the gods created mankind to do the work they no longer wanted to do. And in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh (which contains the story of the Flood also recounted in the Book of Genesis) it is said that when a sacrifice was finally offered again after the Flood, the gods swarmed around it like flies, hungry because no sacrifices were offered during the time of the Flood.
It was otherwise for the God worshipped by Israel and the Christians. The whole notion that God needs our worship and our sacrifices is decisively and derisively dismissed in such works as Psalm 50. In this Psalm, Yahweh1 speaks to his people and declares He does not need their sacrificial animals: “For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is Mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?”
Here God ridicules the idea that He is enriched by sacrifice or that He could need anything from men. The rebuke is wry to the point of sarcasm: if God really wanted meat, He would hardly wait to be served it by Israelite priests! What He really wants from his people is not meat, but gratitude and righteous relationship: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and You shall glorify Me” (vs 14–15).
This demand for righteousness of life is all-important—so much so that if it is lacking, God not only doesn’t need our worship, but more than that, He will not accept it. When Israel practised injustice with the rich grinding the face of the poor, the prophetic rebuke was stunning. God thundered to Israel,
"What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them” (Isa 1:11–14).
One could scarcely get further away from the concept of a divine-human symbiosis that governed notions of religion in the pagan world. Worship is important not because God needs it, but because we do.
Yet our worship must be the offering of a righteous life, a life itself offered in love to God. If we withhold our love from God and turn our backs on him, if we walk in a way He hates and live lives of unrighteousness, our worship is not acceptable to him. In biblical thought, sacrificial worship and ethical living are inseparable, and the former must flow from the latter. Otherwise, our sacrifices will be spurned as the offerings of hypocrisy. They will not result in our drawing close to God and our union with him, but in our condemnation.
This was the consistent message of the prophets:
Has Yahweh as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying Yahweh’s voice? Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice!” “Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? He has showed you, O man, what is good: and what does Yahweh require of you, but to do justice and to love loyalty, and to walk humbly with your God?” (1 Sam 15:22; Mic 6:6, 8).
To worship him truly we must first love him and show our love in humble obedience and righteousness. Otherwise, our worship is a sham.
The name "Yahweh" is used by some to represent the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (meaning four letters) יהוה(Yod Heh Vav Heh). It was considered blasphemous to utter the name of God; therefore, it was only written and never spoken, resulting in the loss of the original pronunciation. It is more common in English-language bibles to represent the Tetragrammaton with the term "LORD" (capitalized). ↩