Psalm 122: Worship-Why Do We Do It?

Psalm 122: Worship-Why Do We Do It?

The people of God have been worshipping for a long time. In the earliest days as God began revealing Himself, individuals like Abel and Seth worshipped, families like those of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped together, and the Israelite nation in slavery longed to worship freely. When they finally found their freedom they worshipped as they traveled to the Promised Land via the tabernacle. This lasted until the time that worship became centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD the Jewish nation was forced to worship in synagogues. Christians worshipped there until they were forced out, leading them to worship in homes and later in their own buildings. Regardless of the setting, the people of God have always worshipped.

Psalm 122 is a psalm of ascent for pilgrims going to Jerusalem to worship as required by God three times per year. Following their long, weary, dangerous journey, they arrived in Jerusalem  with great joy. The Psalm begins with the refrain: “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” The Message puts it this way: “When they said, “Let’s go to the house of God,” my heart leaped for joy. And now we’re here, O Jerusalem, inside Jerusalem’s walls!” How is it that people could go to worship with such joy? In the 21st century is it possible that we could find that same joy? The answer to that question is discovered as we consider why we worship.

Worship aligns my heart with the heart of God. Worship satisfies emotionally. The Psalmist declared that he was glad to be called to worship. The Hebrew word for joy (samach) is typically connected with the heart in the Scriptures. Joy reaches to the depths of the very thing that controls who we are, our operating system if you will. The Psalmist’s heart was joy-filled to have arrived in Jerusalem. Why? The pilgrims were called to Jerusalem to feast three times per year. The feasts celebrated the LORD’s activity as Provider and Deliverer, specifically their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Psalm says they were commanded by the LORD to come give thanks and to do it joyfully. It was to be a happy time of remembering all that God had done for them. Worship was designed to make God’s people glad by remembering His mighty deeds.

In addition, worship gave God’s people a sense of security. As the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem they observed its seamless, well-built walls. The Psalmist writes as if an enemy could not breach those walls. Jerusalem was the place where God placed His name, His dwelling place. After a long, hard, and dangerous journey, the walls of Jerusalem spelled security and rest for the pilgrims. Worship in Jerusalem made the people feel secure because God was present there.

Worship satisfies us emotionally because it aligns our hearts with God’s. Without worship our hearts are out of sync. When we come to worship we are reminded that joy and security come from God alone. The clear implication of Psalm 122 is that without worship, we would suffer despair and a deep sense of insecurity.

Many modern worshippers complain that they do not get anything out of worship. Sadly this might reveal that we have wrong expectations or are simply looking for an experience. Blame is often shifted to the preacher or the music for being dull and boring. I wonder though if these types of complaints are born out of a life of everyday idolatry. If throughout the week we fail to find joy and security in God alone, will we look for joy and security from Him on Sunday morning? Or will we look for those in something else like an exciting preacher, a slick worship team, or in an opportunity to connect with people like us? Worship though is intended to be a reminder of what God has already done for us in the Gospel, not some new experience to tickle our fleeting interests.

We come to worship to align our hearts with the heart of God. In worship we find a deep heart joy that comes from delighting in God as our Deliverer. Like Israel, we too were once bound in slavery to sin and Jesus saved us! Inside the invisible walls of the Church, we remember we are under God’s special providential care. Every time we worship, whether in daily personal worship or weekly corporate worship, we have an opportunity to align our heart with God’s by being reminded that real joy and security come from Him alone.

Worship also gathers me into a family. Worship by design is intentionally diverse. Psalm 122 tells us that the 12 tribes of Israel would go up together to worship the LORD. The 12 tribes represented a lot of families and probably a significant number of varying loyalties. Three times per year, Jerusalem became very diverse with these tribes.

Worship takes these diverse parts and gathers them into a complete whole. Those varieties of families and tribes all found unity in Jerusalem as they celebrated one LORD. Worship is what united the 12 tribes of Israel.

This psalm is a wonderful reminder that healthy worship is diverse. In fact, divided, monolithic worship is dysfunctional at best and certainly not healthy. After King Solomon died, his kingdom was divided between his son Rehoboam and another man named Jereboam. The 12 tribes of Israel were divided and Jereboam set up alternate worship sites throughout the northern part of the land. Human divisions developed into a split in God’s family and dysfunctional worship.

Sadly, those same types of divisions exist in the Church today. People often complain that a given church is unfit for their family because no one is like them at the Church and this is cited as a reason for leaving the church. They complain that no one their age, class, or race attend the church. Sometimes the reason is as superficial as the fact that no one likes their given style of worship music.

The people of God are united in their differences because we share one LORD. It is interesting that God made 12 tribes of Israel and not one. Certainly Christians today divide over petty and often sinful reasons. Could it be that, to a degree, the multiple Christian, gospel-preaching denominations are not such a bad thing? Can the people united under one LORD not come together in a unified form in spite of their differences? The variety of races, classes, interests, and gifts that exist in the Church is cause for celebration, not division. Worship gathers me into a diverse family, a family in which I can celebrate differences, unite with those who are different, and get involved in the lives of people who don’t look or act like me. Worship reminds me that I am part of the LORD’s family.

Worship motivates me to work for peace. As I worship, I am forced to take my eyes off myself and turn them outward. The Psalmist commanded Israel to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, was the hope of the Psalmist. Shalom can mean peace, prosperity, wholeness, soundness, completeness, or a flourishing welfare. The word dominates the thoughts of Psalm 122:6-9. The prayers of Israel and its actions were to be unselfish. The writer says that for the sake of his family and friends he would seek what was best for Jerusalem. Worship forced him to turn outward.

Worship also reminds me that the way I get shalom for myself is through seeking it for others. The Psalmist prays that all who love Jerusalem would prosper, that is they would find security, quietness and ease for themselves. Worship teaches me that the way to get peace is to work for it for others.

The hard reality is that self-focus does not lead to shalom for anyone. One of the most oft-cited reasons for skipping corporate worship is the excuse “I’m too busy.” Sadly, this expresses an attitude that says my individual life is more important than that of the collective whole of the Church. My work is more important, my family commitments are more important, my leisure is more important. If we look for shalom in private interests we will certainly find only disappointment and others we will miss the shalom that we might jointly build together. On the path of self-focus, no one finds peace.

Worship gives us a regular opportunity to contribute to the shalom of the whole. We pray for the peace of the Church and seek its good, not just our own. The total shalom of the Church is impossible without all its parts unselfishly working for the collective good of the whole. John Stoughton wrote in 1640,

“They that pray not for the Church of God love not the Church of God…If we do not love it, we will not pray for it; and if we do not pray for it, we do not love it.”

Worship is in fact work that requires real effort. Joseph Irons, writing in the 18th century put it this way:

“I will seek thy good. It is not a cold wish; it is not a careless, loose seeking after it…effort is implied. I will throw my energies into it; my powers, my faculties, my property, my time, my influence, my connections, my family, my house, all that I have under my command shall, as far as I have power to command, and as far as God give me ability to turn them to such a use, be employed in an effort to promote the interests of Zion.”


So, why do we worship? Is there joy to be found in worship? Worship does in fact bring us real and lasting joy because it aligns my heart with the heart of God, gathers me into a family, and motivates me to seek shalom for others. Worship completes us.

For many though, the church experience has not been one of real joy. Church in their minds has let them down. Hypocrisy, gossip, infighting, selfishness, and self-righteous judgmentalism have been more the norm in terms of their church experience. So, those people have learned to look elsewhere to find emotional satisfaction and family. This strangely expresses the reality that everyone worships something because everyone senses their own need for deep joy and shalom-completeness. We modern people look for it in jobs, relationships, sex, power, leisure and host of other idols. These idols never quite deliver though. Instead they lock us into a deep pattern of slavery that leads us to despair, insecurity and a disjointed, dysfunctional self-centered existence. Seeing that both church and idols have often disappointed, how is it that we find joy in worship?

The key to that question lies in verse five of Psalm 122. Joy is in Jerusalem because David’s throne is at the center. There the king would deliver justice for the oppressed. But the Davidic line of kings were just men and could not provide lasting joy and justice for all of us. Without a Deliverer we are all subject to living in deep darkness and despair. Isaiah 9:1-7 describes a baby King from the line of David who would one day bring light into darkness, rejoicing into sorrow, freedom from slavery, a reign of shalom that would never end.

The way of joy, security and peace for us meant Hell for this little child. To bring us peace, on the cross He had to become a man of sorrows acquainted with deepest grief, cut off from His Father’s heart. To bring us joy, security and peace, He had to be rejected by Jerusalem and the 12 tribes of Israel, His family. To bring us joy, security and peace, He had to be stripped of His own sense of shalom.

At the heart of Christian worship today sits a Davidic King enthroned: Jesus Christ. His reign will know no end. Joy is found in worship because in true worship we unite to Jesus Christ. United to Him, my heart is eternally aligned with God and I find cause for great joy. United with Him, I am gathered into the security of an eternal family. United to Him, my heart is free from constantly fighting for my own shalom, free to work for the shalom of another. Worship brings us joy because it reminds us of our union with God and His people. Each day we have a choice: look for joy, security and peace from an idol that never delivers or find real joy, security and peace in worshipping the true and living God through knowing Jesus Christ. Only then will we say, “My heart leaped for joy when they said “Let’s go to the house of God.””

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