For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship
A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess
Block, Daniel I. For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014. xix + 410 pp. Hardback, $28.00. ISBN 9780801026980.
Block opens his work with a justification for the use of the Old Testament (his “First Testament”) in the study of Christian worship, just as the Psalms are used. He disputes the easy dichotomies that are sometimes made between the spiritual and the physical aspects of worship. The tendency to condemn the physical aspect of worship as replaced entirely by an inward attitude misses the nature of the Hebrew and Greek terms for worship (which include bowing down before God), overreacts to the some Roman Catholic abuses, and fails to appreciated the integration of the physical and attitudinal in the manner in which God created us in his image.
Block considers the various names by which God is called. Although I would not agree that the personal name of God, often rendered Yahweh, is necessarily based on an imperfect verbal form, his choice of Exod. 34:6-7 as a place where the meaning of the name is attached to the same positive aspects of God (faithful, patient, forgiving, merciful, holy, etc.) as found in the New Testament. Indeed, Exodus 19-24 reveal aspects of God such as calling Israel to worship him and to serve his mission to the world. While the New Testament revelation of God is a Trinitarian one, Block insists that no one in the Bible ever addresses the Holy Spirit or worships him. He has a useful note on p. 50 that summarizes the work of the Spirit in the New Testament. At this point Block also begins his book-length critique of the lyrics of some modern music. It strikes this reviewer that nothing in the Bible forbids addressing the Holy Spirit in prayers, and that, while the critique of music in this generation is worthwhile reflecting upon, it is not significantly different from the critique of Christian music in the previous generation or indeed in every generation. The wide diversity of Christian music makes it inevitable that some will be of great value and some will not. Block assists us with identifying some of the “weeds.” Without doubt the focus on Jesus Christ as the center of Christian worship remains true in the New Testament and should be no less the case today.
Turning to what he refers to as the subject of worship, Block considers the cosmos and Eden as early models types of temples or places to meet God. He reviews the offerings of Cain and Abel and other examples of worship in the early chapters of Genesis. Moving to the legal directions for cleanness and uncleanness in people in Leviticus 12 and 15, Block argues the odd distinction that “discharges thought to emerge spontaneously from within the body” are what make them unclean; as opposed to nosebleeds, paper cuts, etc. I suspect it has more to do with the connection with life and the consequent wasting of some of this life giving fluid. A better discussion is his study of Psalm 24 for the proper preparation of the worshipper. The prophets, like the legal collections, call for ethical obedience to go hand in hand with any cultic service. Block traces this into the New Testament with Jesus and his followers following self-sacrifice rather than self-service. Finally, in Revelation 19:7-8, the bride’s preparation for her marriage with the Lamb, echoes these sentiments with subsequent verses relating righteous acts of the saints to the bride’s fine linen.
The ethical dimension of worship is rooted in the Decalog. The Book of the Covenant, the Holiness legislation of Leviticus 17-26, and a large part of Deuteronomy witness to the development of this legislation. In particular, Block finds in Leviticus 19 evidence that piety consists in actions for God, for others, and for the environment. He is certainly correct that the circumcised heart of Deuteronomy “represents a disposition that has ceased resisting the will of YHWH and is soft and sensitive toward him” (p. 106). He is less satisfying in identifying a double entendre in “stiff necked” and its relation to male sexuality.
It is in the chapter on family values that the extent of the meaning of worship becomes evident. As fathers and mothers, and others, fulfill their roles, they worship God. Block is an ardent complementarian. Thus he concludes that Israelite society must have been patriarchal as well as patrilineal and patrilocal. Most of what is identified as evidence for the male headship (p. 118 n 16) can be attributed to the patrilineal nature of the society. Because name and land inheritance passed through the male side of the couple does not make the society patriarchal. That patriarchy did occur is no doubt true; but this is hardly the same as saying it was the divine will for Israel. There are multiple assertions here that could be disputed. Intact marriages may aid in “producing ‘godly offspring’” but they are not a prerequisite (nor does Malachi 2:15 state this). Deuteronomy 24:1-4 may prevent victimization of a divorced woman by her first husband; but it could also concern collusion where marriage is used (with the second husband) to gain profit for the couple. The assertion that “the offices of king, governor, priest, elder, judge, and general were reserved for men only” (p. 123) is not substantiated. Kings and priests were hereditary offices and (as might be expected) followed patrilineal descent. The Bible nowhere limits governors and elders to males (where is the normative reading of Scripture?). Deborah was certainly a judge and a general. She is described as “judging” Israel in Judges 4:4. Further, she is responsible for villagers joining the battle (5:7) and, with Barak, allies with the princes of Issachar. The decision to exclude Deborah from the roles the Bible gives her is special pleading, which, if applied to all the judges, would eliminate most of them.
I like Block’s use of the term, “means of grace,” to describe the ordinances of worship. They do not save but they do provide a blessed encounter with God. In Israel, circumcision fulfilled this role for males. It was also subject to similar misunderstandings as a means of salvation. While baptism is associated with repentance and faith, the washing with water on the Day of Atonement served as a transition between sacred and profane, where the high priest bathed at the beginning and the end of his work on that day. The remainder of the chapter provides insights balancing the various views on baptism and discussing the Lord’s Supper in the Bible and Christianity.
Block has an important discussion of the use of Scripture in worship. He begins with the use of Torah in the Old Testament and then moves to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. His emphasis on reading full texts of Scripture in modern worship is a welcome and important point, if a bit overstated in at least some Evangelical churches.
Block presents the picture of supplicants spreading out raised hands to God, but not for the purpose of praise. He finds the example of David seated before God to be exceptional (2 Samuel 7:18). He presents Moses as the great example of an intercessor, referring to the texts of Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9. Intercessory prayer is significant. Although immutable in character (p. 203), God relents when people repent or the righteous intercede. Solomon’s prayer of 1 Kings 8 praises God and places prayer at the center of worship. God hears the cries of Israelites and of foreigners. Block also notes Nehemiah 9 and the people’s repentance as a corporate prayer. For Block, Christian prayer is the verbal act of submission and homage to God. It takes many forms and serves a variety of functions.
For the matter of song, Block turns to the often overlooked song of Deuteronomy 32 that Moses desired Israel to learn as a witness regarding their covenant with God and his grace. While Block does discuss the musical accompaniment in the temple he makes the important, though previously emphasized (e.g., Israel Knohl) point, that the instructions for the Tabernacle and sacrifices do not mention music. Block emphasizes the words of any music that is used in worship; that it must be doctrinally correct, express gratitude, and bind us together with one another and Christ. Block condemns the equation of worship with music, entertainment, and praise songs. Block comments on p. 238, “No one in the First Testament ever tells God, ‘I love you’.” This is surprising in light of Psalm 18:1, correctly translated in the NIV as, “I love you, LORD, my strength.”
Block’s all-too brief review of the backgrounds to biblical sacrifice discusses the Mesopotamian system but ignores the evidence from the geographically and culturally closer West Semitic world. There sacrifice is also used for the forgiveness of offenses and sins. The role of the burnt offering involves celebrating God’s presence (p. 252). It may also involve pleasing and appeasing God, an important aspect of which is the unique burning of the entire flesh and fat of the animal and thereby symbolizing total dedication to God. Block provides good insights on the role of Christ’s sacrifice as something that could be applied to Old Testament saints as well as those of the New Testament and after. Block’s observations on the tithe make clear that it was given in a sense of gratitude and include a tithe every three years that was set apart for the poor in one’s region. In the New Testament Block compares Isaiah 53 and discussion of its fulfillment in Christ as well as the Lamb who is God in Revelation.
In the Old Testament Block finds what he terms, the drama of worship, in the Sabbath, the observation of which pre-dated the Decalog (Exodus 12:15-20). As a sign of the covenant and a test of Israel’s faith and love of all those in its care, daily work was suspended. Jesus rejected the detailed laws on Sabbath observation that had been created, but Block believes that Paul and the apostles endorsed the Sabbath by their silence on any change in this part of the law and by occasional allusions to a week (1 Corinthians 16:2). Beginning with Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, Block notes how Sunday became the day of rest for Christians. It also becomes a statement of Christian commitment and of faith. Block goes on to discuss the other Jewish festivals and their relevance for the Christian church today.
Block considers the places where people have met with God. He surveys the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, and the development of Herod’s temple; as well as later church buildings and architecture. Along the way there are visits to Jewish synagogues and Amish meeting places. The effect is to emphasize the connection with God and that the emphasis should be there rather than toward musicians or other people. Block also decries national symbols as something that threatens to come between God and the people.
For an example of leaders in worship, Block begins with Jacob and his burial of images at Shechem followed by his leading in corporate worship at Bethel. Elders procure Passover lambs (Exodus 12:21-28) while a pre-Aaronic group of priests lead in worship in Exodus 19:22-24. Moses is the chief worship leader, however, until the anointing of the priests in Leviticus 8-9. The Levitical priests carry the ark, stand before Yahweh, bless the people and retain custody of the Torah (p 337). The Levitical towns dispersed them across Israel to provide pastoral care, according to Block (p. 338). However, the one role outside the altar that priest were given is the teaching of the Torah (Leviticus 10:11). During the Monarchy (not surprisingly) kings emerge as do prophets. He contrasts David, Solomon, and Josiah with Jeroboam I and the indicted leadership of the postexilic community. Ezra, nevertheless, represents the model scribe who studies, applies the Word, and teaches it. He turns to the New Testament and reviews the work of apostles, deacons, elders, bishops, and pastors. Although I cannot affirm his patricentric and virtually exclusive male gender emphasis as assumed for almost all these offices (apparently a few women might be deacons, p. 353), Block’s conclusions to this chapter are worthy of note. Worship leaders offer themselves to God entirely. They emphasize God’s glory in the conduct and performance. They work to communicate the Word of God and deflect from themselves. Worship leaders walk with the Christian community and engage them in directing them to worship. Finally, and foremost, worship leaders focus on Christ.
Appendices on doxologies in the New Testament, hymnic passages in Paul, and excerpts from early Christian literature on worship are followed by a bibliography, and then by subject, Scripture, and author indices.
Overall this is a great book to engage in the multi-faceted meaning of worship. Although I have my criticisms, I would draw heavily from this work if teaching a course on the subject of biblical and Christian worship.
Richard S. Hess, PhD
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages