Worship "before the Lord"...

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“And David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet" (2 Sam. 6:14-15).

There with all Israel gathered round, the King dances before the Lord. The people are shouting and the trumpets blasting. The linen ephod David wore was the apparel of the priests—but they did not wear it when they were performing their official duties. The linen ephod was worn to denote the priestly character of the wearer, so David as the head of a priestly nation honors the Lord by wearing the linen ephod. More important than what this linen ephod looked like was the fact that David set aside the kingly apparel he may have been used to wearing and with simple dress humbled himself. It may be that this was a loin-cloth or something quite scanty, but it could be this ephod was more elaborate; a sort of waistcoat with shoulder pieces and a belt of sorts, somewhat like that of the high-priest described in Exodus 28:6-14.

The whole scene looked like this: 1) the singers and players were in three companies in front of the procession; 2) next came Chenaniah, the captain of the ark bearers; 3) two door keepers followed him; 4) the priests with the trumpets were immediately before or after the ark; 5) two more doorkeepers followed them; 6) the king with the elders and captains followed them; 7) then the multitudes followed or surrounded the whole procession. Music is before and behind the Ark …and there is David in the midst of the leaders of Israel and the whole nation wearing the linen ephod and dancing; as it says, "before the Lord."

Picking up the passage in verse 16, we read of Michal—David’s wife—and her reaction to David’s efforts. First notice that Michal is referred to as the daughter of Saul, not the wife of David. In her perverse reaction to David, Michal has taken on the profane characteristics of her father and so her father’s name is invoked. Next notice in the same verse that it says Michal is looking out of the window....

She has not joined the procession and the worship of God that is taking place. She remains cut-off, casting judgment on the participants. It says Michal “saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” You can imagine her thinking in her bitter heart: “How dare David make a fool of himself! How dare my husband go among the people without his kingly robes! How dare my husband leap like a fool and look like a common idiot! How will he retain any dignity or rule after this?” We will see that her despising heart turns into harsh words to her husband.

Verse 17: The ark is brought to Jerusalem and they set it in its place in the tent. Following this David offers burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. He gives thanks to God for the arrival of the Ark. After the offerings he blesses the people and distributes a meal to them. They fellowship together and then depart for their homes…many of which would be a long way off.

Now David leaves the Ark in the tent and goes home “to bless his household.” I imagine he had it in his heart to speak of the glories of God, to give a testimony to God’s goodness, to lead his family in worshipping God, even after he had expended his energy dancing before God. But Michal meets him even before he reaches the gate. She says, “How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!” She gives words to the contempt that she felt for David in her heart. Out of her wicked heart her mouth spoke wicked words.

David’s serious words follow Michal’s sarcasm and his words are the focal point of the text. His first words (verse 21) are “Before the Lord!” Before the Lord I did what I did! Before the Lord I danced. Before the Lord I played. Before the Lord I humbled myself and before the Lord I worshipped. We’ll return to David’s words in a moment, but I think it helpful at this point to work through our objections to using this passage as an example of how we are to worship the Lord.

One objection I have heard is this: David and Israel were celebrating a national victory so joy was appropriate. Yes, this was a national celebration—the ark was being brought to its rightful place in the King’s city and the King calls the nation to rejoice. But, why is joy or exuberance allowed in this sort of victory but it does not have a place in our worship? Think of the exuberance of praise God receives by the glories of His creation! God created a universe filled with the amazingly wonderful glories, all to sing His praises: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God!” (Psalm 19:1). And we think stoic expressions and silent lips bring glory to God in our worship! This idea that joy was appropriate for a national victory celebration while not being appropriate for the worship of the Lord turns things on their head. It reserves the height of our feelings for things other than God. And it completely ignores David’s glorious explanation to Michal. Michal spewed her venom against her husband saying he disgraced himself before the nation. David responds saying no, you’ve got it all wrong. Before the Lord I played! What David was doing was not national celebration. It was worship of the Lord God.

Another objection is perhaps the one most easy to deal with: many say this passage does not give us a picture of corporate worship so it cannot be applied to corporate worship. They say David’s exuberance was an isolated, individual expression. This is obviously false. All Israel was gathered together. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 15 says: “And David assembled all Israel to Jerusalem to bring up the ark of the Lord to its place which he had prepared for it.” The king calls all the people together and they heed his words and assemble. Then David offers burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord (verse 17-18). The Levites are performing their God-ordained role in leading the people in worshiping God with music. They move the Ark, and after all this David pronounces a benediction—he blesses the people in the name of the Lord of Hosts (verse 18). Then, beyond this, they enjoy a fellowship meal together: “…he distributed to all the people, to all the multitude of Israel, both to men and women, a cake of bread and one of dates and one of raisins to each one” (verse 19). Could anything be more corporate than this? The whole nation of Israel is praising God while gathered around the Lord’s mercy seat, the Ark. This is corporate worship.

Another objection that removes this passage from applying to our worship services is the observation that those who do not know the Lord can express themselves in exuberance; that exuberant celebration in worship can be faked, so we should not do it. This objection is just bad logic. The wrong use of a thing never negates its proper use. Every good thing can be used for evil. Sex before marriage is fornication and leads to death, but sex in marriage is glorious, showing forth Christ’s love for His Bride, the Church, and leads to life. Wine is intoxicating and leads to drunkenness, but wine also gladdens the heart of man. Loud music and clanging percussion accompany drug induced orgies, but loud music and clanging percussion also accompany the descending of God’s Shekinah glory in the Temple.

You and I are very happy to heap the most exuberant praises upon the things of this world we love most, so how is it that we believe it more holy to stifle emotion and exuberance toward the One we love more than anything or anyone else, our loving Heavenly Father? When I was dating my wife, we were absolutely gaga for one another. The Lord brought this beautiful, talented woman into my life …and what did I do? I wrote her poetry, I talked about her, I walked down hall after hall of practice rooms in the school of music looking for her though I only had seconds to spend with her, my heart leapt when I saw her, we referred to each other with the most disgustingly sappy nicknames, and on and on. The one we love most we praise most exuberantly. Only a moment’s reflection on Who God is, what He has done for us, and the glories He has in store for us should lead us to love and worship Him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength! How is it that God does not top my list of things I have praised most intensely in my life? He has commanded us to love him with our whole heart, soul, and strength. So why no tears, no raised hands, no loud singing? And yes, why no dancing?

Others object, saying our worship must reflect our theology and exuberance in worship matches Charismatic—not Reformed—theology. To my mind, this objection is tragic. The Lord condemned Israel for their liturgical rigor and adherence to forms: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13). For three years in St. Louis, I was taught that Covenant Renewal liturgy would help our hearts come closer to God. I was told the great thing about liturgical worship is that it forces you to do that which you might not want to do—and in doing it you might just find your heart makes it along. In other words, as you come into worship, don't worry about your heart; let the liturgy lead your heart where it needs to be. But dear brothers, that approach to worship encourages sloth. It taps into everything about me that is lazy. After three years, not only was I dry as a bone, but I was not really concerned about it as long as I continued to perform the ritual, to do the outward elements of worship. This is backwards. I was honoring God with my lips while my heart was far from Him. Our hearts must grow; love for God must grow; we must seek him whole-heartedly, giving Him the first fruits of our time and energy. This is what pleases Him in worship, just as David’s devotion and zeal pleased Him.

If Reformed theology must reject heart religion and exuberant expression, frankly I want nothing to do with it. If our doctrine does not lead to heart religion and living faith, it cannot be Biblical doctrine because true doctrine always leads beyond hearing to doing, right? It if is the doctrine of Scripture, Reformed theology should be the very thing that inspires us to be zealous and to honor God with exuberant praise. The fact that God has chosen us based on no merit of our own leaves no room to boast except in the cross of Christ. That the sovereign God has placed His love upon an unworthy, unlovely, and utterly sinful people should lead to the deepest joy and the greatest praises. It should make our feet dance and our tongues shout praises and our eyes well up with tears as our minds are filled with meditations on His immense glories. As David said to Michal: “Before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore I will celebrate before the Lord. I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes, but with the maids of whom you have spoken, with them I will be distinguished.”

David acknowledges the sovereign God’s choice of him above the wicked Saul, Michal’s father. Because of this choice, because God has acted, David says he will celebrate. Because God has done this, David says he will be more lightly esteemed, he will be humbled even more before the people. It is all God’s doing, I am nothing on my own but a wretched sinner. In other words, it is exactly because David realizes his smallness that He is able to truly worship God. Michal wants him to remain exulted, large, kingly …but to do that would be vanity and exclude him from the worship of God. David’s humility and heart—His love for the Lord and delight in His mercy—makes him leap before the Ark.

Notice how the passage ends: “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” In his sermon on this text, John Calvin says, "Well, in conclusion, it says God condemned the pride of Michal when he rendered her sterile for the rest of her life. ...God made her sterile...."1 God judged Michal for her profane outburst. David was right to dance before the Ark in a linen ephod. There was no impropriety, no obscenity before God, no unrighteousness. Had there been, God would have dealt with David as He did the first time they attempted to move the Ark and His wrath burst out against Uzzah and Ahio so they died (2 Samuel 6). It’s astonishing to me, but there have been times when I have found myself hoping this passage would read that way—times I have wished I could do a choose-your-own-adventure sort of scenario and pick a different ending. In other words, times I found my heart aligning itself with Michal. How heinous my sin!

How often I have despised those who raise hands in worship and shout “amens” and “hallelujahs," those who weep before the Lord and those who sing descants, move as they sing, take copious amounts of notes during the sermons, and quietly pray in the sanctuary while others are hob-knobbing around the Narthex and Fellowship hall before worship. To my shame I have often judged those who pray without ceasing and those who constantly share their faith, those who worship as a family every day. The list could go on but here’s what I have realized: the problem is not the exuberance I see in other’s faith. The problem is my own cold, wicked, and lazy heart. I am the problem—not those who stand in the presence of God as they worship. Their worship is a rebuke to me.

Remember, David says to Michal “Before the Lord!” These words are like throwing gasoline on fire! It was before the Lord that I danced. It was not a show. It was not to parade my moves. It was before the Lord! This is the goal of our worship: to come into the sanctuary and have hearts so warmed towards God that we can make the same proclamation as David “before the Lord.”

Again I say, the problem is our hearts before the Lord. The problem is not the music. It is not the percussion, the guitars, the organ, the style of the one preaching the Word, the fancy microphone, or our attire. It is not the ratio of old songs to new songs. Once I cut through my preferences, I see the problem is my cold heart, my lack of love for the Lord, my utter laziness when it comes to worshipping God. I have been exuberant about many things in my life—sports, national events, politics, and family—but somehow I have constructed for myself a theology that forbids my expressing myself in worship. Whether it was high liturgy, skepticism about emotions, regulative principle principles, a lauding of modesty and good order, or adherence to intellectual forms of music, I have come to see that my pride erected these strategies to hide my laziness and lack of warmth toward God. The strategies cloaked my faithless inhibitions. They justified my preferences.

Again, the prophet Isaiah speaks God's condemnation: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Ask yourself: Is this the case or you? Why would Scripture be full of exhortations for us to love the Lord God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength unless we tended toward the opposite? Why so many statements about the waywardness of our devotion and hearts? Why so much talk about the heart—the seat of our affections?

Because God cares about the heart!!!  We are so much like Michal, aren’t we? And because of this we will be as barren as Michal whether spiritually or physically.

David’s motivation in dancing before the Ark was the glory of God. And though the Word of God tells us Michal despised David in her heart, we know she really despised God Himself. Again, John Calvin says:

“We see here that this wretch [Michal] had nothing in her but pride, under the excuse that she was the daughter of the king. And (as I have already said) one evil thus produces another. While she saw her husband humbled with all the people, out of pride she began dishonoring and despising God and him whom she ought to have honored. For what could she have done to carry out her duty to David? At the very least, she could have accompanied him, and even if she had no reverence for him, she should still have shown the honor that she owed to God. Instead, this diseased carcass was there at the window, to find fault in others, and make fun of those who are faithfully employing themselves in the service of God—who desired not only that he be adored by them, but by all the people. This was the source of David’s motivation and devotion. The very reason why this envenomed tongue and ‘sack full of poison’ despised her husband in her heart and disdained him was precisely that he wanted to worship God in purity.”

How close I have been to Michal. How sick have I been in my judgments. How cold I have been to the Lord! We are called to be like David—given over to the Lord, filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, overcome by the grace of God in our lives.

Everywhere we look in Scripture the praise of God is exuberant, glorious, loud and lively. This being the case, I find it tragic how subdued our worship is, and that we have made subdued worship a principle of Reformed doctrine and practice. Look at Moses and Miriam, look at the tabernacle, look at the Temple, read the psalms, look at the early church and the extraordinary things that were happening, look at the end of the Ages and the picture we have in the book of Revelations of worship in heaven. Exuberance and joy and delight in God are the very center.

We must seek God, asking Him to warm our hearts. We must pray that all we do in our worship will enable us to say, “Before the Lord!” Stoicism is not proper “Before the Lord.” God is looking for hearts like David’s.

“When it comes to magnifying God, must we water it down; must we maintain our dignity out of fear that we will abase ourselves too much?” (Calvin) Let us abase ourselves before God—though others perceive it as immaturity, impiety, emotionalism, whatever. But, to do so, our hearts must be fully devoted to the Lord. We must pray that He increase our love for His Son so we may come to understand what He has done for us on the cross—and hopefully we will find ourselves dancing before the Lord.

  • 1. John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel (Chapters 1-13).

Andrew Dionne is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Spartanburg, SC. He and his wife Sarah have six children. Read more from Andrew here.