Provisions for Worship in the Desert

We’ve all been there. It’s the new year and our plan to read through the Scriptures is blowing full steam ahead. But suddenly, something happens: we reach Exodus 20 and the Law “proper,” full of seemingly obscure commands for cleansing fungal infections and slaughtering various animals, and our fervor for reading the Word often drains. To top it off, the Law begins with a lengthy description of the tabernacle, the ark, the altar, and other articles of worship – something for which many of us (including myself) are grateful for the helpful pictures found in study Bibles. Moses is given specific instructions on how to build God’s dwelling place on earth, where God and man may meet in holy communion. In Exodus 25:1-9, God tells Moses what building and crafting materials he is to collect from the people. The ark of the covenant is to be overlaid in pure gold, the high priest’s robes are to contain precious jewels representing the twelve tribes, the altar is to be coated in bronze, even the poles used for transportation are to be made of the finest wood. The tabernacle is to be a shining display of God’s glory among his people.

But weren’t the Israelites dwelling in the desert as nomads? Where would they have acquired all this wealth? The answer is found a few chapters back in Exodus 3.

Before the Lord hurled his many plagues against the Egyptians, he spoke to Moses in the burning bush, declaring freedom and redemption for Israel. Once he finishes giving his instructions to Moses, God gives a final promise: “And I will give these people such favor with the Egyptians that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Each woman will ask her neighbor and any woman staying in her house for silver and gold jewelry, and clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters. So you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex 3:21-22 CSB). And that brings us to this key point: God provides the means by which his people are to worship him. Pastor and theologian David Peterson is helpful here when he posits, “[T]he worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.” [1]

The Lord was always aware of the broken state of the Israelites, not just from the elements of the world, but also from their sin, and yet he always provided deliverance for those whom he called to worship him.

God’s desire in rescuing his people from slavery was for them to worship him in the land he promised to their forefather Abraham. For them to do so in the way he commanded, God had to provide the resources they needed to construct the tent and its furnishings. As Pharaoh begs the Israelites to leave after the death of the firstborn, they take with them the fortunes of Egypt. Those once in bondage now carry the wealth of nations, yet not for themselves, but for the glory of God.

Even then, God knew that as the Israelites camped around Sinai they would misuse the gold and make an idol, and still he allowed Moses to intercede on their behalf (Ex 32). He knew they would rebel against his chosen leader leading to punishment by the venom of asps, and still he provided deliverance through the bronze serpent (Num 21). He knew they would reject his commands to drive out the Canaanites, and still he gave them the land in the end (Num 13-14, Josh 13). He knew they would sojourn for 40 years in a barren land, and still he provided manna from heaven and water from rocks (Ex 16). He knew kings would swoop in to attack the weakened and helpless Israelites, and still he provided victory in battle (Ex 17). The Lord was always aware of the broken state of the Israelites, not just from the elements of the world, but also from their sin, and yet he always provided deliverance for those whom he called to worship him.

Jesus reminded his hearers that, “everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). Just like the Israelites, and apart from Christ, we are bound by our depravity, held fast in the chains of evil and transgression. God provided the means for the Israelites to escape the bondage of their sin through the sacrificial system. But God also knew that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4), and so he sent Jesus to die “once for all time when he offered up himself” (Heb 7:27). Through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ now mediates on behalf of his people, providing entrance into the most holy place before God (Heb 4:14-16). Just like the once enslaved Israelites who were freed, carrying with them the riches of the Egyptians, we today are freed from sin by the blood of Christ as he invites us into the presence of God and the riches of his glorious grace (Eph 1:7-8).

God does not need humanity to worship him, but he does desire a relationship with his creation, and so we have the privilege of witnessing the glory of the Lord through his Son, the God-man Jesus Christ. “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him” (John 4:23). Even then, our direct access to God the Father is provided through the mediation of Christ. Though our pews are not made of bronze nor our PAR 58 light fixtures coated in gold, God has still given his church what she needs to glorify him: the provider in the sinful desert of the soul, Jesus Christ.

[1] . David Peterson, Engaging with God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 20.

Austin Collins serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Liz currently lead worship at Harrison Hills Baptist Church in Lanesville, IN, while he pursues his Master of Divinity in Worship Leadership at Southern Seminary.