Does It Matter How We Worship God?
“RELIGION is deeply rooted in human nature.” So says Professor Alister Hardy in the book The Spiritual Nature of Man. The results of a recent survey appear to support this conclusion. It found that about 86 percent of the world’s population profess some form of religious affiliation.
The survey also found that the believers belong to 19 major religions and that those who claim to be Christians belong to an astonishing 37,000 different denominations. Does this not make you wonder if all these different ways of worship are equally acceptable to God? In fact, does it matter how we worship him?
In this vital issue, it stands to reason that we cannot simply go by personal feelings or opinions. Logically, we need to find out what God’s own view is on the matter. For this we should turn to God’s Word, the Bible. Why? Because Jesus Christ himself said in prayer to God: “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) And the faithful apostle Paul testified: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight.”
The Bible shows that not all worship is acceptable to God. We find historical examples of forms of worship that were acceptable to God and those that were rejected by him. By carefully examining such examples, we can learn what we must do and must not do in order for our worship to be pleasing to God.
An Ancient Example
Through the prophet Moses, Jehovah God gave the Israelites a set of laws that taught them how to worship God acceptably. When the people did what those laws, commonly called the Mosaic Law, required, they were accepted by God as his people and were blessed by him. (Exodus 19:5, 6) In spite of such favor from God, however, the nation of Israel did not hold fast to the form of worship that was acceptable to him. Time and again, they turned their backs on Jehovah and followed the religious practices of the inhabitants of the land around them.
In the days of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the seventh century B.C.E., many Israelites ignored God’s Law and cultivated intimate association with people of the surrounding nations. By following their customs and participating in their festivals, the Israelites were practicing a mixed religion. Many of the Israelites were saying: “Let us become like the nations, like the families of the lands, in ministering to wood and stone.” (Ezekiel 20:32; Jeremiah 2:28) They professed to worship Jehovah God, but at the same time, they venerated “dungy idols,” even sacrificing their sons to them.
Archaeologists call this form of worship religious syncretism, simultaneous worship of various gods. Or they simply refer to it as folk, or popular, religion. Today, many people feel that in our pluralistic society, we should be broad-minded in all things, including religion. Hence, they feel that there is nothing wrong with worshipping God in any way they please. Is that really so? Is it simply a matter of being tolerant and liberal? Consider some features of the popular religion practiced by the unfaithful Israelites, and see what those practices led to.
Israel’s Form of Mixed Worship
The centers for the mixed worship of the Israelites were “the high places,” or local shrines equipped with altars, incense stands, sacred stone pillars, and sacred poles, apparently wooden symbols of Asherah, a Canaanite goddess of fertility. There were many such centers in Judah. Second Kings 23:5, 8 mentions “high places in the cities of Judah and the surroundings of Jerusalem, . . . from Geba [northern border] as far as Beer-sheba [southern border].”
At these high places, the Israelites made “sacrificial smoke to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations of the zodiac and to all the army of the heavens.” They had houses for “male temple prostitutes . . . in the house of Jehovah” and offered their children “through the fire to Molech.”
Archaeologists have found hundreds of terra-cotta figurines in Jerusalem and Judah, mainly in the ruins of private homes. Most were depictions of a nude female with exaggerated breasts. Scholars identify these figurines with the fertility goddesses Ashtoreth and Asherah. The figurines are believed to have been “talismans abetting conception and childbirth.”
How did the Israelites view these local centers for mixed worship? Professor Ephraim Stern of Hebrew University observed that many of these high places were probably “dedicated to Yahweh [Jehovah].” Inscriptions found at archaeological sites seem to support this view. For example, one says, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah,” and another says, “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and by his asherah!”
These examples illustrate how the Israelites compromised by mixing the pure worship of Jehovah God with shameful pagan practices. The result was moral degradation and spiritual darkness. How did God view this form of compromised worship?
God’s Reaction to Mixed Worship
God expressed his indignation and denunciation of the Israelites’ debased form of worship through his prophet Ezekiel, saying: “In all your dwelling places the very cities will become devastated and the high places themselves will become desolated, in order that they may lie devastated and your altars may lie desolated and be actually broken and your dungy idols may be actually made to cease and your incense stands cut down and your works wiped out.” (Ezekiel 6:6) There is no doubt that Jehovah viewed such worship as totally unacceptable and rejected it.
Jehovah God foretold how the devastation would take place. “Here I am sending . . . Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will devote them to destruction . . . And all this land must become a devastated place.” (Jeremiah 25:9-11) True to those words, in 607 B.C.E., the Babylonians came against Jerusalem and completely destroyed the city and its temple.
Regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, Professor Stern, quoted above, notes that the archaeological remains “are a clear reflection of the biblical sources (2 Kings 25:8; 2 Chronicles 36:18-19) describing the destruction, burning, and collapse of houses and walls.” He further observes: “The archaeological evidence for this phase in Jerusalem’s history . . . can be counted among the most dramatic at any biblical site.”
What Lesson for Us?
The major lesson for us is that God does not accept worship that attempts to mix Bible-based teachings with dogmas, traditions, or rituals of other religions. This is a lesson that the apostle Paul clearly took to heart. He was brought up a Jewish Pharisee, educated and trained in the law of the sect. When he finally learned and accepted that Jesus was the promised Messiah, what did he do? “What things were gains to me, these I have considered loss on account of the Christ,” he said. He abandoned his former ways and became a devoted follower of Christ.
As a traveling missionary, Paul was well-acquainted with the religious practices and philosophical scruples of diverse people. Thus, to the Christians in Corinth, he wrote: “What sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols? . . . ‘Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’; ‘and I will take you in.’”
Realizing that it does matter to God how we worship him, we may ask ourselves: ‘What kind of worship does God approve? How can I draw close to God? And what should I personally do to worship God in an acceptable way?’
Jehovah’s Witnesses are happy to help you find answers to these and other Bible-related questions. We invite you to contact the Witnesses at the local Kingdom Hall or to write to the publishers of this magazine to request a free Bible study at a time and place convenient to you.
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An ancient shrine for idol worship, Tel Arad, Israel
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Ashtoreth figurines from ancient Judean homes
Photograph © Israel Museum, Jerusalem; courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority