A.W. Tozer began his book The Knowledge of the Holy with this profound statement, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason, the gravest question before the church is always God himself.”
We see the truth of this statement demonstrated in Israel’s worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32. God had explicitly stated in the second commandment that they were never to confine Him to an image or worship any image. Why was this such a big deal? Because the moment they made an image of Him, they would minimize His holiness. No longer would He be the God who is high and lifted up and distinct from His creation, instead He would become a god of their imagining. As they bent and moulded God to their own image, their make-shift worship ceremony at the foot of Sinai quickly turned into blatant immorality and idolatry.
Tozer was right. Our view of God is the most important thing about us. So the question that stands before all of us is – how great is your God? The greater your vision of God, the greater the fuel for the fires of worship; the lower your vision of God, the more your worship will flicker and fade. Isaiah 6 puts before us a high and lofty view of our God that serves as a much-needed reminder of His worthiness and our unworthiness before Him.
Renewing the Vision of God’s Worthiness
Isaiah’s vision takes us into the very courtroom of God, where our attention is immediately drawn to the most incredible of God’s creatures – the Seraphim, whose name means ‘the burning ones’. Though possessing a degree of glory on their own, even they cannot look upon God, and so with two wings they continually shield their gaze from the brilliance of God’s splendour, with two they cover their feet acknowledging their unworthiness as creatures, and with two they fly.
This shielded glimpse at the glory before them inspires these angels to incessant worship. In the thousands upon thousands of years they have hovered before the throne, this glory has never become dull, the infinite worth of the one before them ensures there is always more beauty to behold and more wonder to experience.
Worship at its core is a response to worthiness, the very word worship is a shortened version of the old English phrase ‘worth-ship.’ When we become gripped by the intrinsic worth of something, it overflows in expressions of devotion. God has created us in such a way that when our hearts become captivated, our tongue bursts out in joyful praise, our pockets open up to eagerly give, and our hands diligently serve. True worship is not something contrived but a natural response to worthiness.
Renewing the Vision of Our Unworthiness
In response to this majestic scene, Isaiah falls flat on his face and cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Seeing the transcendent and Holy One before him overwhelms him with a sense of his own unworthiness and sinfulness. John Owen wisely stated, “He that hath slight thoughts of sin never had great thoughts of God.”
What a stark contrast to Israel and their golden calf, and what a contrast in response – before the calf, Israel falls down in drunkenness and sin, before the true God Isaiah falls down in awe and unworthiness. A low view of God will cause you to bend and shape Him to your desires, and a high view of God will cause you to bend and shape your desires to His.
Perhaps this is what Adam and Eve lost sight of in the garden when Satan put forth that devastating lie, “If you eat of this, you will become like God.” Sin’s most delirious deception is to exalt ourselves to think we are more like God, all the while making God more like us. This is the folly of idolatry – we exchange worship of the creator for the creature, the infinite for the finite, the flawless for the flawed (Romans 1:18). The more we lose sight of the infinite separation between us and the Holy One, the more the weeds of entitlement multiply, leaving little soil for the precious flowers of true worship.
But if we were left here it could only lead to despair. How can those of unclean lips sing anything worthy of this King of glory? Even our highest thoughts are too low for Him, our finest melodies are off-key, our greatest gifts are mere trinkets. Why would we even assume that God would listen to us, and then actually delight in what He hears?
The Unworthy Made Worthy
We read on of a burning coal that a Seraphim brings from the throne, and in Isaiah’s prostrate fear he hears these words of assurance, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah would not dare to even lift His gaze to God’s throne, but God provides a way for Him as a beautiful foreshadowing of what He would do for Israel, and ultimately for all His people through the New Covenant.
God must initiate. We cannot. When Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire before the Lord they were consumed (Leviticus 10), likewise when Uzzah reached out his hand to keep the ark of God from stumbling he was struck dead by the Lord (1 Chron. 13). But now we see the reverse – God reaches out to man with a coal from His presence, and instead of being destroyed he is purified. We must be made holy by the Holy One – only those set apart by God can stand before Him. There is a weightiness to God’s glory that ought to keep us from frivolous, half-hearted worship.
This side of the cross we know in far greater clarity the atonement that Isaiah knew in part. The King has come down from his throne to cleanse us, to fully and finally bridge the gap between our unworthiness and His worthiness. Through His death Christ has torn the veil that long separated man from the blazing glory of God’s presence, and through His resurrection and ascension He stands our Great High Priest, making it possible for all believers to enter God’s presence with confidence (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The Heavenly Vision
The hymn we now know as ‘Turn your Eyes Upon Jesus, was originally titled, “The Heavenly Vision.” Its well-known chorus was inspired by a few lines in a tract that said, “Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him.” And therein lies the remedy for weak and wayward worship – to look and look at His glory in the Gospel, and through this heavenly vision to remind ourselves time and time again of the great worth of our God, our unworthiness before Him, and what He has done to bridge the infinite gap.
Five Suggestions for Renewing the Heavenly Vision in Corporate Worship
- Choose songs that exalt in the Trinity, reflect on our need, and rejoice in the Gospel. Alongside the tried and true hymns, there are many ministries producing sound and scriptural songs for our generation – Sovereign Grace, The Getty’s, and Indelible Grace to name a few. Grace Community Church has published a hymnal entitled ‘Hymns of Grace’ which serves as a great resource.
- Have worship leaders read a Scripture that draws the congregations focus to the heavenly vision. This can be especially impactful when the passage connects with the song following it. For examples of passages that lift up God’s worthiness and our unworthiness (see Psalm 90, Isaiah 40, Colossians 1:15-23, Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:1-10).
- Pray in a way that reflects our stance before God during the worship service. Psalm 8 serves as a great inspiration for this mentality.
- Look into liturgies from the past. We can learn much from the reformers and puritans who seem to have had a clearer view of the heavenly vision. A recently published volume titled, “Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present” has provided these in an easily accessible format.
- Cultivate an awe of God through personal reading, prayer, and meditation. The church needs more worship leaders and pastors who like Moses come down from the mountain with a glimmer the glory of God radiating from their faces (2 Corinthians 3:7-18).
May we gain and our people gain the vision that Samuel Rutherford and many others once had, “the very dust that fall’s from Christ’s feet, His old ragged clothes, His knotty and black cross, are sweeter to me than king’s golden crowns, and their time-eaten pleasures. I should be a liar and a false witness if I would not give my Lord Jesus a fair testimonial with my whole soul. My word, I know, will not heighten Him, he needs not such props under his feet to raise his glory high. But oh that I could raise him the height of heaven, and the breadth and length of ten heavens, in the estimation of all his young lovers! For we have all shapen Christ but too narrow and too short, and formed conceptions of his love, in our conceit, very unworthy of it. Oh that men were taken and catched with his beauty and fairness! They would give over playing with idols, in which there is not half room for the love of one soul to satisfy itself.”