Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
I was moved by these words not long ago, for I believe it to be both a sentiment that lifts our eyes to heaven, and also a challenge that will shake even the most sincere and faithful worshiper. The psalmist knew this also, which is why the elegant opening line is quickly followed by the admonition for the earth to tremble before the presence of the Almighty. In Hebrew poetry couplets interpret one another, and that is what is intended with this verse. To worship is to come into the presence, and to come into the presence is to be found quivering before a great intensity.
Together these two lines form an imperative verse: it is a command to come and worship, but not to make the mistake of Cain and offer whatever is most convenient and self-satisfying. In worship we come before the divine presence, and we enter into holiness – something we might wish for, but that we can never truly achieve for ourselves. Images of holiness are quite unsettling, for they make us aware of the chasm that lies between humanity and its Creator. From our vantage point holiness, among other things, is otherness.
Whenever humanity catches a glimpse of divinity, in dramatic outpourings or whispered prayers, we are left trembling, for this is the natural state of the world. Angels must always quiet the composure of those they greet, offering assurances that all is well. Those who worship are summoned to this reality on their own, to join all of creation in finding their proper posture before the throne. This is a challenge that, if we truly understood what was being asked of us, will leave us, at first, trembling.
It has become commonplace for the church to gather in worship, though centered around style and genre and performance and convenience. And these are equally applied across the whole of our gatherings, with unsophisticated and uncouth critique of all things, masked with the thin veil of self-centered spiritual speak. We think little of our coming together as an assembly of the saints, for that sounds overly pious, and we'd rather not have to change our lifestyles to accommodate a few moments with others.
And so, I am afraid, we have lost the sense of beauty in our worship, in spite of how masterful the music, how elegant the space, or how mystifying the message. We have lost the sense of beauty when we decided that our lives would be acceptable as they are, because we think that's all that God ever wanted from us in the first place. Yet, sanctification is not a burden but a delight, for although we might rejoice in knowing that our Creator meets us where we are, there is no hint given to us that he would not take us on a transformative journey.
When we find ourselves attending an elegant affair, we make every effort to dress for it. We collectively frown on those who show up at a wedding in poor attire, for we believe that it takes away from the beauty of the moment, and that everyone ought to respect the sacredness of this event. At the same time, for us to worship is to enter into a splendrous moment, and we should all approach with the best of ourselves – and who we are working to become in him – not a casual and callous whatever-I've-thrown-together offering. (And do not mistake this to be a discussion about dress codes.)
The psalmist has called us to offer our worship in a beautiful place – namely, from the holiness that exists in the presence of the Almighty. We are to come in his holiness, and not our own. We have no holiness – the word itself connotes an otherness that we do not have, nor can we muster for ourselves. This is why he does not delight in sacrifice, but in a contrite heart that will approach him humbly and dependent, shaking like a leaf floating on the winds of eternity.
Those that enter from this place will find the grace, peace, strength, and love that they need to walk forward. It is when we brazenly walk into the sanctuary of his presence that our lives declare that we are good enough on our own. And we offer a half-hearted worship that reflects our self-righteous ugliness, instead of a worship that has been transformed by his holiness. There is no beauty when we turn aside from his truth; there is no splendor in playing games with his Spirit.
All the earth is challenged to tremble before the holiness of the Creator, and this invokes a terrifying image to those who consider the weight of this image. And yet, all the earth is summoned to come and worship – to approach the Almighty, humbly and awestruck, but expectant and trusting that those who come with pure hearts will be welcome into this place of splendor. This is what he wants from us, after we have put away our own righteousness, piety, and achievement. To be people who come with clean hands and innocent hearts, whose worship cannot be defined or contained by a few moments on a Sunday morning, and yet who are very glad when they hear: let us go to the house of the Lord and let us worship in the splendor of his holiness.