While on a recent vacation, I attended a worship service in which the pastor was laboring fervently to get those of us in the congregation to express how “excited” we were to be there. In his mind, as in the minds of many Christians today, worship ought to be characterized by an atmosphere of visible “excitement” such as one would experience at a sporting event or birthday party.
The second Psalm gives us a quite different yet fascinating description of the attitude of true worship: in v. 11, David admonishes the rebellious rulers of the earth to “worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (NAS). The worship of God is to be characterized both by joy and by fear. This might strike us as a rather strange combination of emotions: how can one experience both joy and fear at the same time? Does not fear cancel out the very possibility of true joy?
But this is one of those frequent occasions in which the Biblical conception and the modern cultural conception of the same idea are dramatically at odds with one another. Joy in our world today is often equated with mere levity, reduced to lightheartedness, mistaken for outward “excitement.” It is a shallow, momentary emotion. True, Biblical joy is very different.
In Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès, the main character, is rebuked by his father for failing to be light-hearted and merry at his own betrothal feast. “‘The fact is,’ said Dantès, ‘at the present moment I am too happy to be gay.’” Even Dumas recognized that times of deepest joy are often also times of profound gravity, too serious to be trivialized by mere levity. Two of the deepest joys that I have ever experienced — my wedding and the birth of my daughter — were also occasions of deepest solemnity for me.
So it is, Psalm 2:11 teaches us, with the joy of worship. The joy we ought to experience before the very presence of God Himself is too profound to be “light-hearted.” Building off of the original meaning of the Hebrew word for God’s “glory” (literally, “heaviness” or “weightiness”), Dr. Michael Horton argues, “If we are worshiping the God of Abraham and Jesus, the style of that worship will necessarily be ‘weighty’ or ‘heavy.’ And it is not that God’s glory is merely one attribute, or that it is exclusively identified with God’s holiness, justice, majesty, and power. God is glorious in his love, mercy, and tenderness as well. Thus, Biblical worship entails the recognition that even when we are joyfully extolling God’s nearness and kindness to us, it is always a weighty nearness and a heavy kindness that we admire.” This true, reverent joy of worship, Horton concludes, is something far different from and far deeper than the “peculiarly sentimental American view of joy” (A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship, p. 166).
The second psalm itself gives us ample reason both to rejoice and to tremble before the presence of God. When all the nations of the earth muster and unite their armies in a futile attempt to cast off the rule of God once and for all, this mighty God feels so unthreatened that He laughs (vv. 1-4). All this God must do to throw these rebels into sheer panic is speak (v. 5). A mere spark of this God’s righteous anger is all it would take utterly to destroy His enemies (v. 12). And this very same God is the God before whom we come every time we gather for worship. As Hebrews 12:28-29 reminds us, because God is still “a consuming fire,” for our worship of Him to be deemed “acceptable,” it must be offered “with reverence and awe” (ESV).
And yet such holy fear in no way excludes true joy in His worship; for, as Psalm 2 also informs us, the one who kisses God’s Son, submitting to His rule and taking refuge from God’s wrath in Him, is truly and supremely “blessed” (v. 12). So far are joy and fear from being incompatible with one another, it is only those who first learn to tremble at God’s wrath who can truly rejoice in His love. God is both just and merciful, both great and good, both transcendent and immanent; and He is therefore both to be feared and to be rejoiced in. The attitude that is required of us in worship is a joyful reverence and a reverent joy, a joy far deeper and far more lasting than the shallow, momentary, glib “excitement” that our culture and many of our churches often confuse with joy. And it is not something that can be manufactured or manipulated out of people: it arises only in response to an awareness of the character of the God we are worshiping. Alluding to the special mixture used for the incense offered in the Tabernacle, Charles Spurgeon described this combination of joy and fear in worship as “a sacred compound, yielding a sweet smell, and,” he adds, “we must see to it that we burn no other upon the altar” (The Treasury of David, on Psalm 12:11).
~ Pastor Jason