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Extract from: The Road to Revival

1 - Biblical Examples of False (Vain) Worship

In each of the cases discussed below we have a specific statement or demonstration from God that the persons concerned were involved in vain worship. Therefore, we are not left in any doubt about the wrongness of their actions. We shall examine each case in detail before moving on to current application. Let us also be very clear that the charge of vain worship does not automatically imply that the person concerned was lost or "unsaved", nor are we to infer that the person was not trying to worship God. Some were sincere worshippers of God and some were not. But no matter how sincere each one may or may not have been, judgement fell because he was out of the divine order. It does not matter how sincere we are if what we do or believe contradicts God's Word - we are still wrong. Coates quotes an unnamed television personality who said, "we don't need any more sincere people. Politics and the church are full of sincere people and look at the mess we're in as a result. Hitler was sincere, dictators are sincere - but they were all sincerely wrong."


"Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering; but for Cain and his offering He had no regard" (Gen 4.3-5). The Scripture states plainly that God did not accept Cain's offering, making his worship vain, but it leaves us to deduce what was wrong. There are sufficient clues. The whole of Scripture teaches that redemption is through shed blood, all animal sacrifices pointing forward to Christ's offering of himself. This would have been taught to Adam and Eve, for "God made garments of skin" (Gen 3.21) to cover their nakedness after they had sinned. Abel understood this, and therefore brought an atoning sacrifice that was accepted. Cain also knew this, but being "of the evil one" (1 Jn 3.12) he rejected it. He decided that he would approach God on his own terms and that God must be satisfied with that. Read the passage in 1 John very carefully and you will see that the evil deeds predated and precipitated the murder of Abel, who was a faithful witness to the truth (Heb 11.4).

Summary - God rejects as vain worship whatever is not in line with his revealed instructions. Very specifically in this case, any worship that does not honour the God-given way of redemption through the blood is rejected.

Nadab and Abihu

"Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (Lev 10.1-2). God's judgement fell on these two sons of Aaron because they "offered strange fire before the LORD which he had not commanded them". The sacrifices, the priesthood and the tabernacle service were most holy, and this incident shows the seriousness of approaching them with carelessness. In order to understand the nature of their sin it is necessary to go back to Exodus 30.7-9 to define their transgression. "Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it…you shall not offer any strange incense on this altar". Only the High Priest was permitted to burn incense on the golden altar, not his sons, and only at morning and evening, although it was also offered as part of the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev 16.12-13). Furthermore, only a special blend of incense was allowed, a blend that was not to be used for any other purpose (Ex 30.34-38). All other incense offered by other people at other times was strange fire - unacceptable. Compare also Numbers 16, especially v40, where Korah and his followers are consumed by God for presuming to offer incense. What makes the sin of the two priests even more grievous is that they showed no holy fear of God, even when God had just previously manifested himself in such awesome fashion with holy fire consuming the burnt offering (Lev 9.23-24).

From the above we can see that the two priests had intruded into the office of the High Priest. They were priests, but not the High Priest. This office was jealously guarded by God, being symbolic of Christ's mediatory and intercessory role (Heb 5.4-5). So too with us, we are priests, but only Christ is the High Priest. This sin then can also be committed today by anyone who should presume to present themselves before God and man as High Priest and mediator between God and man. Although judgement on such may be delayed, we can be assured from this passage that it will eventually fall. God's promise of maintaining his holiness and the honour due to him remains (Lev 10.3).

But there was more than just that one sin involved. The priests were offering a form of worship that God had not sanctioned; they were not just the wrong people - it was the wrong incense, at the wrong time, offered in the wrong spirit. They were endowing the priest's office with elements of their own choosing instead of adhering to the divine prescription. Paul refers to the same spirit in Col 2.23, where he describes it as will-worship or "self-made religion" that has the "appearance of wisdom". This New Testament passage should alert us to the realisation that this sin can be committed today. It is not something rooted in the obsolete rituals of the Old Testament. We can see it in every age, including our own, as people invent religious practices and adhere to religious traditions that have no Scriptural sanction or foundation. God-ordained worship has as its consequence the revelation of God's power and glory; man-made religion will end in judgement. The chief sin committed here is presumption. This word is defined in Chambers dictionary as, "that which is taken for granted; confidence grounded on something not proved; conduct going beyond proper bounds; acting forwardly or without proper right". Nadab and Abihu had no divine sanction for doing what they did. Indeed, they had a clear divine prohibition, so their worship was vain, for it went beyond proper bounds.

Summary - What to all outward appearances was acceptable worship was vain worship that earned God's judgement, because far from being sanctioned by him it had been specifically prohibited. To thus go ahead in that way was gross presumption.

Hophni and Phinehas, Sons of Eli

"The sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for the men despised the offering of the LORD" (1 Sam 2.12-17). The author does not just call Hophni and Phinehas scoundrels ("sons of Belial") he also gives his two (possibly three) reasons for this judgement. So much for those who say "do not judge"! His first complaint is that "they did not know the LORD" (2.12). This is a valid complaint because they of all people ought to have known him. Their father was a judge and priest in Israel, and they had duties to fulfil in the tabernacle service, but they did not make use of this privilege to press on and discover God, nor did they bow the knee to his law. How close one can be to God yet still be so far away! They had no excuse. The second complaint, which is clearly seen as the worst, was their attitude towards the sacrifice, quoted above (2.17). We know that every sacrifice pointed forwards to the Lord Jesus, and that for that reason God jealously protected its holy character. These two evil men despised the sacrifice, seeing in it nothing more than their own meal ticket. There were specific guidelines in the law as to what portions of the sacrifice the priest could have (Lev 6.8-7.38) but we read here that they ignored that law and helped themselves to whatever they fancied - by force if anyone complained. They were also not careful to first burn God's portion on the altar. This despising of the offering is described as a "very great sin" (2.17). Their third sin was fornication, and that in the tabernacle precincts. At least one of the men was married (4.19), but that was no deterrent. There is doubt about this accusation, for the portion of 2.22 that mentions it is omitted from the Septuagint and from some Hebrew versions. Since therefore the text is suspect it would be wise not to build anything on it.

The tabernacle and temple sacrifices were a forward-looking celebration of Christ's sacrifice, so that partaking of the sacrifice was having communion with God through Christ. This privilege was despised by two completely carnal men who saw the ministry purely as a means of living off other peoples' incomes. This sacrilege made their worship vain.
Summary - The reduction of the holy to the profane is the sin of sacrilege, termed here "a very great sin" and judged accordingly.

Saul, First King of Israel

There are three separate incidents of vain worship in Saul's life that taken together reveal a man who was deeply religious yet at the same time had no conception as to what God really wanted. As a consequence he blundered from one disaster to the next until he fell under God's judgement.

The first event is in 13.8-14. "Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, 'bring to me the burnt offering and the peace offerings'. And he offered the burnt offering. And it came about as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering that behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to bless him. But Samuel said, 'What have you done?' and Saul said, 'because I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, therefore I said, 'now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favour of the LORD'. So I forced myself and offered the burnt offering.' And Samuel said to Saul, 'you have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom shall not endure…because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you". We should note here that Samuel's orders to Saul are called God's commandments. This is because Samuel was God's prophet and speaking under divine inspiration. It is for this reason that we accept the Prophets as well as the Law as the divinely inspired Scriptures of the Old Testament. So too the apostolic utterances of the New Testament were similarly infallible. "When you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also perform its work in you who believe" (1 Thess 2.13). It is incorrect to assume that modern prophets have any similar standing, for we are entitled to judge (and therefore discard) their offerings. "Let two or three prophets speak and let the others pass judgement" (1 Cor 14.29). The suggestion that there are present-day apostles should be rejected, for the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles were foundational (Eph 2.20), and the foundations are complete. We are warned however that there will be false apostles who disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Cor 11.12-15).

Saul had to wait for Samuel to come and sacrifice a burnt offering, but he became impatient. Instead of waiting he made the offering himself, contravening the instruction from God's prophet. The Philistines were threatening to attack and the Israelites were fleeing, causing Saul to be scared because he had not sought God's favour (12). Here he manifests the religious spirit that sees God's favour coming from rituals instead of the obedience that springs from faith. Many today behave similarly, looking to their tithing and their church attendance rather putting their trust in God. Saul therefore forced himself (!) to disobey the prophet and offer the sacrifice. His fear of man and fear of circumstances were bigger than his fear of God, leading him into presumption. To compound his sin he tried to pass off the whole incident as a wonderful example of his piety and prudence, even playing the priest by going out to bless Samuel after making the offering. (The Hebrew word translated "greet" is "barak", which always means "bless" and which is always the action of God's representative (Heb 7.7).) In this act he revealed the nature of the religious man, who thinks sacrifices, rituals and observances are important, while neglecting the one matter of real importance - obedience to what God has said. This is vain worship.

The second incident is found in chapter 14. Saul sought to boost his chances of victory over the Philistines by declaring a day of fasting and sealing it with a curse on the disobedient (24). "The men of Israel were hard pressed on that day, for Saul had put the people under oath saying, 'cursed be the man who eats food before evening, and until I have avenged myself on my enemies". Instead of victory it brought hunger. His son Jonathan did not know of the oath (27) so after (with faith in God and with the help of his armour bearer) winning the victory his father sought, he ate, bringing the curse upon himself. Saul tried to enforce the curse and threatened to kill his victorious son, who was only rescued by the pleas of the people (44-45). There are similarities here to Herod (Mk 6.26) for both men were prepared to kill to keep a foolish word. Once again the religious spirit is seen in Saul, who valued fasting and silly promises above common sense, seeing power in meaningless ritual, even when it contravened the basic law of God (in this instance, "do not kill").

The third manifestation of Saul's empty religion is found in chapter 15. Through Samuel God gave Saul the command to annihilate the Amalekites completely. "I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel…Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (3). This was not a new thing, for the command to destroy Amalek was recorded in the Law. "Therefore it shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget" (Deut 25.19). Samuel the prophet thus confirmed "torah" , for the Law and the Prophets always agree. Saul disobeyed. "And he captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive…Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed. Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel saying, 'I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands" (8-11). See also 26-28 for the expression of God's displeasure. The people balked at obeying God for the simple reason that they saw a lot of potential profit, herds of top class livestock, being thrown away needlessly. Saul either shared their viewpoint or was too scared to stop them. Either way, he was their leader, so he had to take the blame. This of course is why James (3.1) says that teachers will get stricter judgement. If the sheep are ignorant of the Scriptures, blame the shepherds. "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered" (Lk 11.52). See also Jer 23.1-2 and Ezek 34.10.

They worship in vain who worship God their own way, for Samuel's powerful words echo in our hearing still, "has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination as iniquity and idolatry" (22-23).

Summary - Saul desperately wanted to please God, probably because he had a fear of him, a fear stemming from the fact that he did not know him. Hosea's exhortation, "let us press on to know the LORD" (6.3) would have been applicable. Any zeal for God that he had was after the flesh, not trained to follow divine revelation (Rom 10.2). His fear was not great enough to lead him to obedience. He had his own ideas on what was acceptable to God, and God had to be satisfied with that. So Saul worshipped in vain. Replacing obedience with will-worship and self-made religion he incurred God's displeasure and lost a kingdom. His sin was called disobedience, insubordination and rebellion, and equated with witchcraft, idolatry and divination. Can we possibly have a clearer warning?

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