I have spent many hours wondering and studying, trying to come to the essence of what worship means. I have heard many opinions, often expressed with the words, "Well, what it means to me is...". I have never felt that those statements held the truth, at least not the whole truth. I cannot say that I have arrived at an answer as yet, and I still contend with this question.
In many stories in the Bible, God's people are engaged in worship. We see many more examples of this in the Old Testament than in the New, and one story in particular stood out for me. The story of Ezra.
In the story told by Ezra, a group of exiled Israelites have been commissioned by King Cyrus of Persia to return from their captivity to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of God which had been destroyed some 50-60 years earlier. They began by building an altar and returning to the practice of making burnt offerings to God as He had prescribed to Moses. Then they set about gathering the materials for rebuilding the temple, and of course, as when building any house, they started with the foundation.
We pick up the story here, in Ezra chapter 3:10-13
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, "For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel." And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
I can only imagine this scene, but it seems to begin as one of high ceremony and great reverence. Eventually, the ceremony broke into a fanfare of shouting praise to God. What a glorious time that must have been. But the story doesn't end there.
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
In this scene, I can feel the anguish of the old men; all the regrets over past mistakes that had led to exile. They remembered the splendor of Solomon's Temple containing riches beyond measure and unparalleled beauty.
I can also sense the unbridled joy of the younger generation who only knew that what was once lost, now was found. Captivity was behind them, and a new life spread out before them.
These are the same emotions that exist when we are stirred by the Spirit to accept the gift of salvation. The same emotions which grip our hearts as we struggle toward repentance. The same emotions that well up when we contemplate the promise of joy everlasting.
How easy it is to regret our past, but Jesus wiped that all away on the Cross. The altar for our atonement was at the foot of the cross of Christ. God's offering on our behalf was His son Jesus; the living stone, who being cast aside, became the cornerstone of our faith...our foundation. The people of Israel toiled to rebuild the temple foundation, yet we have only to accept a gift to stand firmly upon ours. The good news of salvation is the foundation on which everything that follows rests. I think this is also the foundation for worship. No matter the past, the pain, the regret, no matter the mistakes or the shortcomings, no matter how well we understand the gift just now, it is upon that gift we stand to worship.
Perhaps Ezra paints a picture of the quintessential worship experience...those who would weep and those who would rejoice gather together before God, the weeping and the rejoicing both attended to by a loving Savior who's "steadfast love endures forever".
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.