STUDY 15: GOD’S GOODNESS IN THE WORSHIP OF ISRAEL

© Rosemary Bardsley 2023

[Note: This study barely skims the surface of the truths it mentions.]

In this study about God’s goodness expressed in the worship of Israel, we are looking at the question: ‘What insights does the formal, ritual worship of Israel give us into the goodness of God?’

We have already looked at the goodness of God in the Psalms, where we saw that ‘goodness’ is seen both in terms of God’s essential nature as ‘good’, and also in terms of the ‘good’ that he has done and still does.

We will now look at the goodness of God in the formal worship, the formal way of approaching and acknowledging God, prescribed for Israel in the Law of Moses. We will see that this was good not only for those ancient Israelites. It also points ahead to Jesus Christ. It is full of prophetic physical symbols revealing in advance, albeit in shadow form, the grand reality that we now know as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where God’s goodness is most powerfully demonstrated.

A. THE TABERNACLE [AND LATER TEMPLE]

Several chapters of Exodus are devoted to describing the tabernacle and its furnishings and to reporting its making and construction (Exodus 25 – 27, 30, 36 – 40). Most of the other references to the tabernacle are in Leviticus and Numbers. The tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s temple, which incorporated most of the symbolic elements of the tabernacle. It is this symbolism embedded in the tabernacle that reveals and displays the goodness of God. Both the tabernacle and later the temple were central to the formal worship prescribed by God for Israel.

A.1 God is good: he is present with us
The truth that God is with us is part of his goodness, but because we are sinners it is not possible for us to survive in the real, visible presence of God (Exodus 19:12; 33:20). In his mercy, in his goodness, God provided the Israelites with the Tabernacle as a visible symbol of his real presence with them. Within the tabernacle, God’s presence was specifically symbolised by the inner room called ‘the Most Holy Place’. In their journeys in the wilderness his presence was also evident in the pillar of cloud/fire that hovered above the tabernacle.

A.2 God is good: he is holy
This is evident in the splendour hidden inside of the Tabernacle, but also in the curtain, embroidered with cherubim, that sectioned off the Most Holy Place, prohibiting all human entry, except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. This deliberate prohibition (which began in Genesis 3:24, where cherubim also enforced the prohibition) was necessary because of human sinfulness; but it was also yet another evidence of God’s goodness, by which he protected the Israelites from destruction that would have fallen upon them had they entered his presence.

A.3 God is good: he is merciful
Within the Most Holy Place, the Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets of stone on which God’s law was inscribed, the requirements of the covenant which the Israelites persistently broke. But, revealing the merciful goodness of God, the lid of the Ark was called ‘the mercy seat’ – ‘the atonement cover’. There, once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest sprinkled blood to atone for the sins of the people.

Outside, in the courtyard of the tabernacle, was the bronze altar, where daily, weekly, monthly and annual sacrifices were offered by the priests to make atonement for sin, and where anyone could bring a sacrifice for the priests to offer on their behalf because of their sins. See section C below.

A.4 God is good: he is light
In the Holy Place, was a golden lampstand with seven individual lamps that were kept burning all the time, constantly symbolising the truth that God is light.

A.5 God is good: he is the sustainer of life
In the Ark of the Covenant was a golden pot of the manna that God provided for the sustenance of the Israelites for forty years (Hebrews 9:4). In the Holy Place, opposite the lampstand, was a table on which were placed twelve loaves of bread.

Note that in this, and all of the above, those who know Jesus Christ can see a deep aspect of the goodness of God that the Israelites could not see: we see Jesus. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus, the bread of life, through whom we live forever; Jesus, the light of the world, who has shone the truth of God into our dark ignorance; Jesus, through whose blood we receive mercy and atonement; Jesus, who by his death, ripped down the prohibitive curtain, gaining for us permanent, present, uninhibited access to God.

And beyond, into the new heaven and the new earth, all of these elements of the goodness of God are present, not in symbol form as they are here in the tabernacle, but in their glorious reality: God and the Lamb dwelling in the midst of his people, never again to be separated; the tree of life, permanently accessible and available; the light of God’s presence illuminating everything; the Bride of Christ, dressed forever in the white robes of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

A.5 God is good: he hears the prayers of his people
Also in the Holy Place, immediately adjacent to the Ark of the Covenant/Mercy Seat that was on the other side of the curtain, was the golden incense altar. There the priests prayed to God on behalf of the Israelites. The incense burned there symbolised their prayers.

Again, those who know Christ are assured of the goodness of God: he hears the prayers of his suffering people, he treasures their prayers, he stores them up, pending the day when he will respond by pouring out his justice on those who afflicted them (Revelation 5:8; 6:9 -11; 8:3 – 5).

Thus the physical tabernacle and its physical furnishings proclaim the goodness of God: to the Israelites back then, to us today through the Gospel of Christ on which it was patterned (see Hebrews 8:5), and pointing us on into the limitless, glorious future in the presence of God forever, beyond the return of Christ.

 

B. IN THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES

The whole tribe of Levi was set apart to serve God on behalf of the other eleven tribes.

The priests were the descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was from the tribe of Levi. They represented the Israelites before God: offering sacrifices on the bronze altar in the courtyard, and, in the Holy Place, offering prayers, keeping the lampstand burning always, and keeping fresh bread on the table. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place, to make atonement.

All of this could be done by the priests only after appropriate cleansing (provided for by God in water in the bronze basin immediately outside the Holy Place), appropriate sacrifices for their own sins, and only when wearing specific clothing mandated and designed by God. God in his goodness ordained for the priests everything necessary for them to effectively carry out the responsibilities he demanded of them.

The priests and the roles they fulfilled point ahead to Jesus Christ, our great high priest – the ultimate expression of the goodness of God. Jesus, our perfect representative, has entered the real presence of God in heaven itself, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood, by which he has made, once-for-all-time, atonement for our sins. He remains in the presence of God as our representative mediator; his presence there is our guarantee of permanent, present, uninhibited access to the Father. [Read Hebrews 4:14 – 10:18.]

The Levites (all the descendants of Levi except the descendants of Aaron) filled several practical roles within the Tabernacle, its courtyard, and its surroundings. They served both the priests and the people, and in doing so served God. Their responsibilities were allocated by clan (Numbers 3 – 4), and included:

The practical care of the Tabernacle curtains and coverings.

The practical care of the furnishings of the Tabernacle – the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and various lesser articles. [This could be done only after the priests had covered everything, so that it could not be seen.]

The practical care of framework of the tabernacle and everything that held the framework together.

In addition, whenever the Israelites set up camp, the tents of the Levites were positioned between the other tribes and the Tabernacle. The Levites thus formed a buffer between the carelessness and presumptuousness of the sinful people and their holy God, so that his wrath would not break out upon them (see Numbers 1:53; 2:17).

Although the New Testament does not refer to this ‘buffer’ role of the Levites, it is yet another aspect of the Old Testament that has its ultimate reality in Jesus Christ: he stands between us and the wrath of God, which, but for him, could break out upon us and our ever-present sinfulness at any moment.

The goodness of God demonstrated in both the priests and the Levites meant that although they were sinners, the Israelites could (1) through the representative mediation/intercession of the Priests still approach God and receive the forgiveness of sins; and (2) through the presence of the Levites, positioned between them and the tabernacle, be protected from the ever-present wrath of God that could break out in a moment if they trespassed into the Tabernacle and its surrounds.

 

C. IN THE FESTIVALS AND RITUALS OF ISRAEL

Here also, the words ‘good’ and ‘goodness’ are not used in the descriptions of the various rituals and festivals of Israel. But all of them exist only because of God’s goodness and of the good that he does. These rituals and festivals are expressions and reminders of God’s goodness.

C.1 The Passover – Exodus 11 and 12; Leviticus 23:4 – 8; Numbers 9:1 – 14; Deuteronomy 16:1 – 8
The Passover festival, and the associated week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, was an annual reminder (Exodus 12:25 – 27; Deuteronomy 16:3b), of what happened on the last night the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and of how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

This protection, this exclusion from death, when all other firstborn in Egypt perished, followed by the miraculous deliverance of the Exodus, was clear evidence of the goodness of God towards Israel. They were the recipients of his underserved favour, his grace.

C.2 The Sabbath – Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12
The Sabbath was a weekly reminder of the completed, good work of God, a reminder of dependence on God for both their physical existence and, more importantly, their spiritual identity as his people. It was God’s work, not theirs, that made them his people.

C.3 The sacrifices – Leviticus 1 – 7
God knew that the Israelites would disobey the covenant commands. In his goodness and mercy, he provided rituals through which they could acknowledge their sin and restore their relationship with God.

So we find that the two key significances of the sacrifices were making atonement for sin – Leviticus 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7, 30; 7:7; and ‘fellowship’, that is the re-establishment of peace with God – Leviticus 3:1, 3, 6, 9; 4:10, 26, 31, 35; 6:12; 7:11, 13, 14, 18, 20, 21, 29, 32 – 34, 37. A third element in the sacrifices was thankfulness to God – 7:12 – 15.

These sacrifices were acceptable to God, and accomplished God’s good purpose, only if they were offered from a believing heart. The rituals, without heart involvement, were useless. Indeed, they were worse than useless; they were offensive to God; they were an insult to his goodness and grace. See Isaiah 1:11 – 15.

C.4 Annual feast days
C.4.1 Firstfruits/Feast of Weeks/Pentecost – Leviticus 23:9 – 22; Deuteronomy 16:9 - 12
The Firstfruits, at the beginning of the harvest, was immediately after Passover. Pentecost, a joyful feast at the end of the harvest, was fifty days later. Both commemorated God’s goodness in providing the harvest.

C.4.2 The Feast of Trumpets – Leviticus 23:23 – 25; Nehemiah 8:1 – 12
Celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (which the Jews believed was the first of the months, the New Year), the Feast of Trumpets was a joyful commemoration of the greatness of God.

C.4.3 The Day of Atonement – Leviticus16:1 – 34; 23:26 – 32
God’s goodness is evident in his provision of this solemn day on which atonement was made for all the sins of the Israelites.

C.4.4 The Feast of Tabernacles – Leviticus 23:33 – 43; Deuteronomy 16:13 – 15
This feast was a time of rejoicing before God reminding generations of Israelites that God had brought them out of Egypt.

C.5 The Christ-centred significance of these rituals and feasts
Although each of the above rituals and feasts themselves testified to and reminded the people of the goodness of God, their deeper purpose was to symbolically predict and anticipate the coming of the incarnate Son of God. God, in his goodness gave these rituals and feasts to prepare people for the coming of his Son, who is the real meaning, the real thing ... while all of these are mere copies, shadows that gain their ultimate significance not from themselves, but from Jesus Christ.

The Passover pointed ahead to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, by whose death we are saved – 1Corinthians 5:7 – ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.’ This truth was expressed by Christ at the last supper – the last predictive Passover. He took the Passover bread, he took the Passover cup, and said ‘Take and eat; this is my body. ... This is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:26, 28).

The religious festivals and Sabbath: Paul states in Colossians 2:16, 17 that religious festivals and the Sabbath are ‘a shadow of the things to come: the reality, however, is found in Christ.’ See also Hebrews 3 & 4.

The sacrifices and the Day of Atonement: all point to the one, once-for-all sacrifice of the body of Christ (Hebrews 9:1 – 10:18), that, unlike the old sacrifices, accomplishes permanent forgiveness of all sins and cleanses the conscience.

 

REVIEW QUESTIONS
How has your understanding of the goodness of God been enriched by looking at these rituals of Israel?

 

What aspect of Israel’s formal worship has impacted you most with the goodness of God?

 

How has your understanding of Jesus Christ been deepened?

 

See the Hebrews studies for additional insights.