Thursday, March 02, 2006

The tabernacle and the beauty of holiness

Text: Exodus 25-27

The description of the tabernacle's materials and furnishings--from the fine detail of the lampstand to the brightly colored curtains to the tremendous expense of gold--brings to mind the expression found several places in the Writings, "Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Psalm 29:2, 96:9; I Chron. 16:29; cf. II Chron. 20:21) The word translated beauty (had'rat, from hadar) carries the meaning of decorous and ornate splendor. The combination of beauty and holiness found in the tabernacle was an appropriate form for worship of the Lord, as the writer of Psalm 27 put it: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all my days, to gaze upon the beauty (no'am) of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." (v. 4; cf. the use of tabernacle in vv. 5 and 6) The physical structure became both a tabernacle/mishkan for God's presence and a sanctuary/mikdash to exhibit God's holiness, a place to seek him with both joy and awe.

Read Exod. 25:8, "And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell (cf. tabernacle) among them," with Psalm 96:6, "Grandeur and splendor (hadar) are before him, strength and beauty (tiferet) are in his sanctuary."

So far we have seen three words translated beauty: hadar (splendor, decoration), no'am (delight, favor), and tiferet (ornament), all of them descriptive of the tabernacle and of the One whose gift of his presence made the tabernacle a sanctuary.

God's furniture

Doesn’t this formal beauty constitute idolatry?

First, the use of forms in worship does not equal idolatry unless the forms themselves become objects of veneration in place of God.

Second, Solomon prays, "But will God really dwell on the earth? Behold! The heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain you, how much less indeed this House that I have built." (I Kings 8:27) Nevertheless, Solomon builds a temple far more extravagant than the tabernacle described in Exodus, even redundant cherubim where, other scriptures tell us, God "sits enthroned."

Third, Ezekiel decries idolatry more often than any other prophet, with at least 39 references to idols, even idols in the temple (8:10), yet he promotes restoration of the temple service with all its intricate forms.

Today we enter worship through prayers and blessings intentionally patterned after the sacrificial service of the tabernacle and the temple. The purpose now is the same as the purpose then: to draw near to God and stand in awe of his presence, to see his beauty in the recited words and formal rites of the community of Israel.

Psalm 61:5 MT
Let me dwell in your tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

Psalm 141:2
May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.


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