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10. Characteristics of Acceptable Worship

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On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God. Standing on the stairs were the Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Kenani—who called with loud voices to the LORD their God. And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you…
Nehemiah 9

What are characteristics of acceptable worship, worship that God desires and honors?

In Nehemiah 1-6, the focus is the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, and, in Nehemiah 8-12, the focus is the spiritual revival in Israel. Nehemiah, with the help of Ezra and the Levites, began to rebuild the people of God. In Nehemiah 9, we learn a great deal about worship specifically. On the 24th day of the same month that the Israelites celebrated the feast of booths in Nehemiah 8, the Israelites gathered together for a day of national repentance and worship.

In John 4:23, Jesus said this: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

The reality that God the Father is seeking worshipers who worship in spirit and truth, implies that there is both a wrong and right way to worship God. In fact, we see the importance of proper worship early on in Scripture. Cain and Abel both brought offerings before the Lord but Cain’s was rejected (Gen 4).

Similarly, we see rejected worship throughout much of Israel’s history. God derailed Israel for their fasting in the book of Isaiah and said that it would not be accepted. He shared their unrighteous complaints and then answered them. In Isaiah 58:3-4 it says:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Israel noticed that their fasting was unprofitable and they asked, “What good is it?” God rebuked them and said that the type of worship they were offering was unacceptable. How could they be living in quarreling and strife and expect their offering to be accepted by God? God said their voices (i.e. their prayer and worship) would not even be heard by him. In Malachi 1, God rejected the offerings of the priests because they were offering the lame and the blind, instead of offering a lamb without blemish.

Many people in the church have the same dilemma. They recognize that their devotions aren’t profitable, the church services they attend aren’t alive, and they wonder why it is so. Sometimes the problem is that their worship has been rejected by God.

As we consider this reality, we must ask the question, “How can we have a worship that is acceptable to God?” Jesus said God is seeking proper worship; he looks for it.

In this text, we learn characteristics of acceptable worship by looking at the revival that happened in Israel. This is especially important for leaders, as they seek to guide people in a worship that is pleasing to God and edifying for them.

Big Question: What characteristics of acceptable worship can we discern from Nehemiah 9, and how can we apply these characteristics to our spiritual lives?

Acceptable Worship Includes Preparation

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners
Nehemiah 9:1-2

We cannot but notice that the Israelites prepared for worship. Clearly, they did not just fall out of bed and head to service, as often happens in church today. Many Christians give no thought to preparation for worship, small group, or even daily devotions. No wonder many people leave these activities saying, “I didn’t get anything out of that.”

Why does this happen? It happens in part because most believers don’t prepare for worship. As demonstrated in the Parable of the Sowers (Matt 13), nothing is wrong with the seed of the Word sown in worship; the problem is with the ground of our hearts. Therefore, as with farming, the ground of our hearts must be cultivated to worship God. An unprepared worship is an unacceptable worship.

Observation Question: How did Israel prepare for worship in verses 1 and 2?

1. They prepared for worship by fasting.

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.
Nehemiah 9:1

This meant they neglected eating food for some period of time before they came to worship. Fasting is never given as a command in the New Testament, but it is given as an expectation. Christ said to his disciples, “When you fast, do not look somber like the hypocrites…” (Matt 6:15). Also, when John’s disciples asked why Christ’s disciples didn’t fast, Jesus replied that when he was taken away, they would fast (Matt 9:15). It seems that God expects each of us to fast in some form or another. Fasting is meant to help focus our heart, mind, and spirit on God by neglecting some great priority in our lives. Fasting doesn’t necessarily have to be food; it can be anything that demands a tremendous amount of our time, focus, or energy.

Some of the greatest ways we can fast may be giving up time on the Internet, Facebook, TV, hobbies, etc. Even Scripture condones married couples fasting from the practice of physical intimacy to focus on prayer. Paul said this in 1 Corinthians 7:5, “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” The KJV actually translates it “that ye may give yourself to fasting and prayer.”

There is often a need to fast in order to prepare for worship because our hearts are so prone to be divided, distracted, and hard. For example, for a season of my life, I made a covenant that I wouldn’t do anything before I got into the Word in the morning. This included getting on the Internet, studying, eating, or anything else.

I remember being in seminary and on Saturdays sometimes I would stay in the bed till one pm, not because I was tired, but just because I didn’t want to read the Bible. I had decided to fast from everything else before I spent time in the Word of God and prayer as a discipline. I made that commitment while I was in college, and I stayed with it for many years. I still practice it but just not as legalistically. This is a form of fasting, letting go of something else to focus on God.

Jesus said we should consider fasting with anything that we consider a treasure in our lives. Look at what he said in Matthew 6:19-21:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus said not to store up treasures on the earth, not because they are sin, but because they have a tendency to steal our hearts away from God. He said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This is something we must consider with such things as our phones, Internet, cable television, hobbies, etc. We must ask ourselves, “What is my treasure?” because it is our treasures that have the ability to quench our worship, as they steal our hearts away from God.

For some, this may mean giving up certain treasures all together. That’s what Christ demanded of the rich man (Matt 19:21). He was called to sell all his riches and follow Christ. For others it may mean to practice rigorous discipline with those treasures in order to protect their hearts. In 1 Corinthians 7:31, Paul said that those who use the things of this world should not be “engrossed in them.”

For some, a fast could be as simple as going to bed early so that they can have time with God in the morning. That would mean neglecting time given to other things in order to prepare one’s mind and body to seek God the next day. This can be a form of fasting.

Application Question: What are some other practical ways we can fast to prepare for worship?

2. They prepared for worship by mourning as they put on sackcloth and dust.

On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.
Nehemiah 9:1

Again this seems to be something they did before coming to the service; they put on sackcloth, which is a cheap, uncomfortable type of clothing, and put dust on their heads. Obviously, the sackcloth and dust was meant to be a picture of their hearts before God. This practice was associated with mourning and would typically be done at funerals. In this case, the Israelites were mourning over their sins and the neglect of the law.

Essentially, they prepared their hearts for worship by mourning over sin in their personal lives and that of the community. Mourning is not only preparation for worship, it is part of worship. Look at how Isaiah responded when he saw God in Isaiah 6:5: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’.”

The natural reaction for a person who truly sees God will be mourning. When Peter encountered Christ he fell down and cried, “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). We mourn because our sin and the sin of our communities appear so ugly, as we look at God’s beauty and perfect righteousness. Mourning is a part of worship because it is the natural response of meditating on God, who is perfect.

In fact, Scripture declares that God blesses those who mourn. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4). God blesses those who mourn over their own sin and the sin of the world. With Isaiah, God comforted him by forgiving his sin and, soon after, calling him to the ministry of prophet (cf. Isaiah 6).

Application Question: How do we prepare to worship by mourning?

  • Mourning comes from genuine contemplation on God.

Isaiah mourned as he saw God. He said, “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’” (Isaiah 6:5).

It is clear that Israel was contemplating God, even before coming to public worship. They came with hearts that had been looking at God, which revealed their sinful condition. Therefore, they dressed with sackcloth and dust. In the same way, we must prepare our hearts for worship by contemplating God and his holiness.

  • Mourning comes from genuine contemplation of the human condition.

Mourning happens not only when we look at God but also by contemplating the human condition in view of God. It means to look at ourselves and society in comparison to God’s character and revealed will. Man was made in the image of God, and therefore, any time we fail to practice God’s commands, we are sinning. Isaiah’s time with God drew him to mourn over his condition and that of his people. It showed him their need for God’s grace. In Nehemiah 8, Israel listened to the Word of God read and taught for six hours and while listening they wept because of their sin (v. 9).

We cannot truly worship God unless we know how much we desperately need him. Contemplation of God and the human condition prepares us to draw near him for his grace and mercy (cf. Heb 4:16). Many are not prepared for worship because they have not properly contemplated the human condition and their need.

I think we see this struggle often in small groups. At the end or beginning of many small groups there is a time of sharing praises and prayer requests. However, often during these times many will have nothing to share. They won’t have a prayer request, and they won’t have any praises. This aspect of worship only comes when we have contemplated God and the human condition. Without this contemplation, many show up before God without any expectation—any faith in him to do something—and without anything really to offer. They come to church or small group not really seeking God for anything or seeking to give God anything, and therefore, many times, they leave without anything. Similarly, Christ said he couldn’t do very many miracles in his hometown because they had so little faith (cf. Matt 13:58). Often, it is the same in our corporate worship.

Contemplation of the human condition will typically bring praise or mourning. Praise, when we see God moving and transforming people. Mourning, as we see how far we fall short. Contemplation of God and the human condition is needed for us to truly worship.

When I was young, I used to show up to church with no preparation; the concept of preparing for worship never dawned on me. I thought only pastors, teachers, and the worship teams prepared. However, I began to realize that what I received from God on Sundays or in a small group was often proportional to my preparation. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled” (Matt 5:6). The only people who are hungry are the ones who have contemplated God and their condition, which reveals their needs. And it is those people who God fills during worship. They come to church with an expectation because they recognize their great need and that of their community, and therefore, God satisfies their hunger.

What else did Israel do in preparation for worship?

3. They prepared for worship by separating themselves from all foreigners.

Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners.
Nehemiah 9:1-2

Why did Israel separate from the foreigners? They separated, in part, because the foreign nations were leading them into sin. God called the nation of Israel to separate from the Canaanites because of their sexual immorality, false worship, and lack of morals. If they were not living separately, they would be tempted to intermarry, worship their gods, and be drawn into all types of sin. Yes, they were still called to be a light to the nations, but, in order to do that, they needed to be separate from anything that might contaminate (cf. James 1:27). That is why the nation of Israel initially fell under Solomon. Solomon married many foreign wives who influenced him to take their gods, and his stumble brought the judgment of God on Israel and eventually the exile. When Israel separated from the foreigners before worship, it was a protection from temptation and a consecration of themselves to God alone.

In a similar way, God calls the church to be separate from the world (cf. 2 Cor 6:17). He has established it as a necessary aspect of true worship. James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” A religion that is not separate is a worship that is not acceptable to God. This must be our necessary practice as well.

A person trying to live for God and walk with the world is a “double-minded man.” James 1:7-8 says that this person will receive nothing from God. We must be single minded because it is the “pure in heart” who will see God (Matt 5:8).

In what ways is God calling you to separate in order to better worship him? In what ways is he calling you to be different from the world in order to have more intimacy with him?

If we are going to worship God, we must prepare through fasting, mourning, and separating, and we must lead others to do the same. An unprepared worship is an unacceptable worship.

Application Question: What are some other practical ways to prepare for daily worship? In what ways is God challenging you to be more prepared to come into his presence?

Acceptable Worship Includes Confession of Sin

The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
Nehemiah 9:2

The next thing we see is that when the Israelites came together, they stood and confessed their sin and the iniquities of their fathers. Confession is also a necessary aspect of acceptable worship.

Interpretation Question: Why is confession of sin so important in worship?

1. Confession of sin is important for worship because sin hinders the reception of the Word of God.

It must be noticed that this prayer of confession was offered right before hearing the Word of God. Nehemiah 9:2-3 says,

Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day

This was an ideal place because sin always affects our ability to receive God’s Word. Listen to what James 1:21 says: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”

It says get rid of all moral filth and evil and humbly accept the word planted in you. James says getting rid of sin must come before the Word of God is received. For the believers James was ministering to, the Word of God was already present. He said, “accept the word planted in you.” As in the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13), the seed was in the soil, but it was not producing any fruit. Most believers know what God’s Word says; however, it has no effect on their lives. They are not being changed by it. They have not truly accepted the Word planted in them.

How do we remedy this? One of the ways is by confessing our sins and turning away from them. This is necessary for us to truly accept the Word of God. If we have unconfessed sins in our lives, it will choke the Word and keep it from being fruitful. Matthew 13:22 says, “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” In the example of the thorny ground, worry and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the Word and made it unfruitful. Worry is sin because it essentially says, “God, I don’t trust you.” Wealth is deceptive because it has a tendency to draw people into trusting it over God and pursuing it over God. It also has a tendency to deceive people into pride (cf. 1 Tim 6:17), once again creating a lack of dependence upon God. Sin chokes the Word of God and makes it unfruitful.

It has been said, “Sin will either keep you out of the Word of God or the Word of God will keep you out of sin.” It’s one or the other. When you find the Word of God decreasing in your life, sin will increase. When the Word of God is increasing in your life, sin, by necessity, will decrease. They always affect one another.

Peter says the exact same thing as James:

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.
1 Peter 2:1-2

We must rid ourselves of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander in order for us to even crave the milk of the Word of God. If you don’t desire it, you won’t eat it. Part of true worship is confession of sin because it enables us to desire, receive, and produce fruit from the Word of God.

2. Confession of sin is important to worship because it will hinder our prayer life.

Listen to what David said: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18).

Many people have ineffective worship because they have not confessed and turned away from their sin. This not only quenches the effectiveness of the Word of God but it also quenches the effectiveness of prayer.

Interpretation Question: Why did the Israelites confess the iniquities of their fathers?

Israel confessed the sins of their fathers because they were in part under God’s judgment because of their sins. Look at Exodus 20:4-6:

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

It says God punishes the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation but shows love to a thousand generations of those who love God. This does not teach that God will judge children for the sins of the fathers, as made clear by other Scriptures (cf. Deut 24:16). However, it does teach that we are affected by both the sins and righteousness of those who came before us. We see this in Adam’s sin as it was passed down generationally. We see it in Christ’s righteousness and how we receive life through his act of righteousness. We see this in the Abrahamic covenant as God promises to bless both Abraham’s physical and spiritual seed, which we are a part of.

Exodus 20 teaches that generational curses get passed down from our fathers as well as generational blessings. The sins of the fathers will often follow the sons for generations, prompting God’s judgment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Abraham lied about his wife being his sister in Egypt and Gerar (cf. Gen 13, 20) and then Isaac did the same thing (Gen 26). Our shortcomings often get passed from generation to generation bringing God’s judgment on those generations. Although many had returned from the exile, Israel was still suffering from the sin and consequences of previous generations.

It is for this reason that Israel confessed not only their sins but also their fathers’. Their fathers were idolaters and unfaithful to God, and they, the sons and daughters, had done the same thing and reaped the same harvest of discipline.

Application Question: Should Christians still confess the sins of others today? Is there Scriptural support for this?

Scripture clearly teaches that it is good and proper to pray for and confess the sins of others. Even though much of the church has gotten away from this practice, it is clearly a biblical doctrine.

How else do we see this in Scripture? Listen to what Samuel said:

The people all said to Samuel, “Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.”… As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.
1 Samuel 12:19, 23

When Israel sinned by asking for a king, Samuel said he would not sin by ceasing to pray for the people. The context of this praying is for Israel’s forgiveness as seen by their request in verse 19. Similarly, it is a sin for us to not pray for our nation, to not pray for forgiveness and grace over our church.

In addition, we are clearly commanded in the Lord’s Prayer to ask for forgiveness for others’ sins (Matt 6:12). It does not say “forgive my sin,” it says “forgive us ‘our’ sins” (Matt 6:12). Similarly, Jesus prayed for his persecutors, “Forgive them Lord for they know not what they do.” We should do the same.

Therefore, we must see that proper worship includes confession of our sin and the sin of others. As a priestly nation, we bring the sins of the world before God and seek his forgiveness and grace (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). We do this both because Scripture teaches us to pray this way and also because we are affected by the sins of others. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, almost died because of the sins of his neighbors in Sodom. In Genesis 18, Abraham petitioned for God’s mercy on the nation.

This is especially important for leaders. Leaders will often need to lead people to repentance over sin and that of their nations and communities.

Application Question: How is God calling you to get rid of any sins so you can more effectively worship him? Are there any national, church, familial, or individual sins you feel impressed to intercede over?

Acceptable Worship Includes Hearing and Responding to the Word of God

While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.
Nehemiah 9:3

The next thing they did was read from the book of the law for one-fourth of the day. The day is probably referring to daylight hours. Therefore, Israel read from Scripture for three hours, then for another three hours they confessed and worshipped.1 The reading of Scripture was probably intermingled with teaching, as seen in the previous chapter (cf. Neh 8:3, 7).

Hear we see the priority given to the Word of God in this service. It was read for three hours, and after, they responded with more confession of sins and worship to God. This is important to hear because we have a tendency to hear the Word of God on Sunday and then quickly leave and go about our business.

Often in our services, very little time is given to actually reflect and respond to the Word of God in prayer. The preacher preaches and closes in prayer, we sing a quick hymn and the service is over. However, I think it is a very healthy practice to have time to respond to God, right after the Word of God has been given. This was the principle behind the “altar call,” which many churches have discarded. It is wise to take time to meditate and respond to what God has spoken, even if only through an extended time of corporate prayer and worship.

With that said, I think the main principle we should take from this text is the need to hear and respond to the Word of God as a part of our worship. Listen to what James says:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
James 1:22-23

James commanded the church to not merely listen to the Word of God but to put it into practice. He said the person who simply listens and doesn’t respond is deceived.

What does he mean by deceived? In the context of the book of James, it means to be deceived about their salvation. In James 2:17, he said, “faith without works is dead.” A person who merely listens to the Word of God is not truly born again. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 7:24-29. He said the person who heard his words but didn’t obey them, was like a person who built his house on a foundation of sand, and when the storm came, the house was destroyed (cf. Matt 7:21-23).

James went on to describe hearing the Word and not doing it as a person looking in a mirror and seeing the problems but going away without doing anything about it. This person’s worship is pointless. Yet, many people do this each Sunday and every time they hear or study the Word of God. Their worship is pointless. It doesn’t change their lives at all.

However, James declared the blessing of God on the person who hears the Word and responds. He said: “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).

This person will be blessed by God. Blessing has to do with approval and favor. When people respond to the Word of God as Israel did, with true confession of sin and worship, it is worship God approves of and blesses. Praise the Lord!

Leaders must continually call their people to hear and respond to God’s Word. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31). Only those who live and abide in Christ’s words are truly saved. Therefore, leaders must also warn those they lead of the tendency towards self-deception. It is possible to be a hearer and not a doer and be deceived about one’s faith.

Application Question: How can churches similarly give greater honor to the Word of God in our services and also an opportunity to respond? How is God challenging you to be both a hearer and a doer of God’s Word?

Acceptable Worship Includes the Leadership of Righteous Leaders

And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up, and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.
Nehemiah 9:5

In this text, it says that the Levites led Israel in the worship of God. In the law, God had commanded that a certain tribe should lead the worship of Israel, the tribe of Levi. Within the tribe of Levi, the priests came from the lineage of Aaron who also led specific acts of worship at the temple. Levites were given commands on how to keep themselves holy in order to approach the Lord and lead in worship (Lev 10). They were commanded to be holy and to lead the people in holiness. If the Levites were not holy, it would have drawn the people away from God instead of towards him. It is the same for our spiritual leaders.

Scripture teaches that leaders cannot positively affect people without having holy lives. Remember what Paul said to Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). If leaders don’t have a right life and right doctrine, they will not save the hearers; they will, in fact, destroy them. Acceptable worship includes righteous leaders.

In fact, the requirements for leaders in the New Testament have nothing to do with race, ethnicity or tribe; the requirements are primarily righteous character traits. Take a look at the requirements for an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-3:

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

The qualifications for an overseer are primarily character traits—they are to be above reproach, the husband of one wife (a one-woman man), self-controlled, hospitable (a lover of strangers), etc. They are to be people with godly character. Other than the requirements of them being male and apt to teach, the other requirements are all character traits. Therefore, worship must be led by godly leaders.

When God called someone to write the hymnal of Israel—the Psalms—he called a godly leader named David. Acceptable worship is led by godly leaders. We can have little to no doubt that the Levites leading the worship of Israel were godly as well.

Application Question: Why else is it important for the leaders to be holy and righteous?

Listen to what James 5:16 says: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

While encouraging the church to bring their sick to the elders for prayer, James said, “the prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective.” When a righteous man or woman prays, the power of God moves.

Similarly, when the leadership of the church is ungodly and unrighteous, then it removes the power and blessing of God. We saw this with Israel while Christ was on the earth. The spiritual leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were ungodly. Consequently, they led the people away from God with both their teachings and their actions. Ultimately, this brought the judgment of God.

In the Old Testament, God often rebuked the spiritual leaders of Israel for their corruption and leading Israel astray. Listen to what he said through Jeremiah:

“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the LORD.
Jeremiah 6:13 -15

Jeremiah said the prophets and the priests both practiced sin and that God was going to judge both them and the people. They were still worshiping God, but their worship was not acceptable. The leaders were leading them into sin. A characteristic of acceptable worship is having godly leaders.

Jesus said, “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matthew 10:25). It is our leaders who set the ceiling for our development. If a leader is ungodly, then he will hinder the worship and development of a congregation. But, when a leader is righteous and growing, he sets the standard for the congregation’s development.

A characteristic of acceptable worship is the leadership of godly leaders. When the church is under God’s judgment, you will typically find ungodly people in leadership. Isaiah 3:1-7 describes how, when God judges a people, he removes godly leaders and gives them the leaders they deserve. Consider what it says:

See now, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, is about to take from Jerusalem and Judah both supply and support: all supplies of food and all supplies of water, the hero and warrior, the judge and prophet, the soothsayer and elder, the captain of fifty and man of rank, the counselor, skilled craftsman and clever enchanter. I will make boys their officials; mere children will govern them. People will oppress each other—man against man, neighbor against neighbor. The young will rise up against the old, the base against the honorable. A man will seize one of his brothers at his father’s home, and say, “You have a cloak, you be our leader; take charge of this heap of ruins!” But in that day he will cry out, “I have no remedy. I have no food or clothing in my house; do not make me the leader of the people.”
Isaiah 3:1-7

Godly leadership is an important aspect of worship and receiving God’s blessing. In this text, the Levites, those chosen by God to prepare themselves uniquely for worship, were called to lead the people in praising God. Similarly, the leadership of the church should be people of character in order to receive and dispense the blessing of God.

This is a reminder for us, as leaders, to cultivate holy lives so we can lead people in righteousness and not bring God’s judgment. But also, it is a reminder for us to help raise up other godly leaders so that people can be led into true worship.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen the leadership of a church or ministry affect its worship either negatively or positively?

Acceptable Worship Includes God-Centered Prayer

After the Israelites had heard the Word of God for ¼ of the day, they confessed and prayed for another ¼ of the day. During this confession, the Levites led them in the longest prayer written in the entire Bible.2 In this prayer, we see characteristics that should be implemented in every prayer as we worship God. Acceptable worship is God-centered, as we will see throughout this prayer.

Interpretation Question: What can we learn about prayer through Israel’s prayer?

1. God-centered prayer primarily exalts and honors God.

As we look at the prayer of the Israelites, we should notice how God-centered it was. Look at the first eight verses of the prayer:

You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. “You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous. “You saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take. “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.
Nehemiah 9:6 -14

One cannot but notice the repetition of “you” in only the first eight verses, referring to God. I counted over twenty in the first eight verses of this prayer. In verses 6-14, the content is primarily about honoring God and remembering his works. This is the same thing Christ taught us to do in the Lord’s Prayer. Remember what he said in Matthew 6:9: ”This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.’”

When Jesus said we should pray “Hallowed be your name,” he was saying that we should prioritize glorifying and worshiping God in our prayers. One’s name in ancient Israel was a reflection of a person’s character. That is what Israel focused on in their prayer. They said, “You alone are Lord…You give life…You sent miraculous signs…You gave them regulations.” The Levites led Israel in exalting God and his works in prayer, and the focus of our prayers should be the same.

Whatever we do first shows our priority. For many our prayer life simply shows how we are the priority of our lives. Our prayers are primarily about ourselves. Listen to what James said: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).

James says selfish prayers will not be answered for they care nothing about God and his will. That is the prayer life of many people. Prayer should glorify and exalt God’s name and his characteristics.

2. God-centered prayer remembers God’s works with thanksgiving.

Part of worship is thanksgiving and that is exactly what we see in the longest prayer in the Bible. Israel recounted many of God’s blessings. They declared how God provided for them throughout history by making a covenant with Abraham (9:7), delivering them from Egypt through miraculous signs (10), giving them laws on Mount Sinai (13), etc.

In our prayers, we should also take time to recount God’s faithfulness and his works with thanksgiving. Look at what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

In order for us to give thanks in all circumstances, we must contemplate God’s grace in everything that has happened. Prayer should not only glorify God’s name—his characteristics, it should recount his faithful works with thanksgiving.

3. God-centered prayer offers continual confession of sin to God.

In this prayer they confess both the sins of their fathers and also their sins (9:26). But notice that they had already confessed their sins in verse 2. They confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers, and then they read for one-fourth of the day. They then confessed again and spent time in worship. This prayer by the leaders is probably a description of how they confessed their sins for one-fourth of the day. It is clear that the Israelites were continually confessing their sins before God, and this must be true of us as we worship God as well. Look at some of their confession:

“But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies.
Nehemiah 9:26

Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.
Nehemiah 9:37

As mentioned before, in viewing God we cannot but see how great our sins are. We saw this with Isaiah when he saw God. He confessed both his sin and that of his people (Isaiah 6).

Similarly, confession is a natural part of worship to God as we are sinners in need of grace. We must not just confess, but we must confess continually because we sin so often and so do those around us.

4. God-centered prayer should often be done corporately.

Nehemiah 9:5 says,

And the Levites—Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah—said: “Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.” “Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.”

We see the leaders leading in corporate prayer. They called for everybody to stand and praise God and then led them into corporate prayer. Remember, tremendous power is in this kind of prayer. Christ said, “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).

When two or more agree, Jesus says, the Father moves. There is a power in corporate prayer that we should not neglect. We should commonly bring our prayer requests before one another and pray in agreement for God to move.

In 1 Timothy 2, Paul was giving a description of how the house of God should be run (cf. 1 Tim 3:15), and it included corporate prayer. First Timothy 2:1-3 says,

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior

When the body of Christ gathers together, there should be corporate prayer.

5. God-centered prayer is biblical.

Another practical principle we can learn from Israel’s prayer is how biblical it was. It is a biblical prayer recounting the Lord’s past faithfulness and their sin. It recounts God’s works and promises in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, Kings, etc.

When you look at many of the prayers of Scripture, you will find how biblical they are. When Jonah is in the belly of the whale in Jonah 2, much of what he prayed came from the Psalms. Jesus, while he was being crucified, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which is Psalm 22. And also, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” which is Psalm 31.

In prayer we should use the Bible, because when we praying God’s words, we can be confident that we are praying in line with the Spirit and the will of God. Much prayer is awry because it is not in line with the revelation of God’s Word.

Jesus said this: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14).When Jesus promises to answer every prayer prayed in his name, he was not promising that if we tacked his name on every request that it would be answered. He was talking about praying things that are in line with his character, as revealed in the term “name.” The primary way we do this is by praying what he has said in his Word. Our prayers should be full of the Word of God and full of theology. We see this throughout Israel’s prayer.

Prayer that is full of Scripture and in line with what Scripture says is acceptable worship. Godly leaders must lead their people in God-centered prayer as the Levites did. Selfish prayers will not be answered, but prayers that honor God and seek his will, will be honored.

Application Question: In what ways does looking at the longest prayer in the Bible encourage you in your prayer life? What aspects of this prayer do you commonly neglect?

Conclusion

As we look at Israel and the continual revival happening in the nation, we learn a lot about worship that pleases God. What are aspects of acceptable worship, worship that our God seeks and desires? How can we as leaders, lead our people into acceptable worship?

  1. Acceptable worship includes preparation. We need to prepare our spiritual sacrifices so that they may be received by God.
  2. Acceptable worship includes confession. Sin will hinder our worship, and therefore, we must continually confess before God.
  3. Acceptable worship includes hearing and responding to the Word of God. God blesses those who hear and do his Word.
  4. Acceptable worship includes righteous leaders. Leadership affects our worship. Our leaders must be godly.
  5. Acceptable worship includes God-centered prayer. Selfish prayers are not acceptable to God (cf. James 4:3). Prayer is primarily to honor God and to get his will done on the earth.

Application Question: In what ways is God challenging you to offer worship that is acceptable to him?


1 MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed., p. 671). Nashville, TN: Word Pub.

2 Guzik, D. (n.d.). Nehemiah Overview - David Guzik Commentary on the Bible. retrieved 1/9/15, from http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/guz/view.cgi?bk=15&ch=9

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