Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Worship in “Circumstances of Destitution”

In his comments on Psalm 63.2, Calvin makes his characteristic distinctions and connections between external and internal, outward ceremony and inward pietysignum and res.1 For Calvin, “devotional exercises” are of great use and value, and should not be neglected; but David gives evidence that the true worship of God, which is spiritual, can occur even when those are taken away. Though we “need such helps to devotion” as are found in “the instituted worship of God,” David in the wilderness proves that God can sustain us in contemplation of himself even when such things are ripped from us by “tyrannical power.”

The thought of the banishment of institutional worship may be hard for many believers in the US to imagine, though it will be much easier for believers in other parts of the world. But for Calvin that is, in a way, a case in extremis of something that is universally true for all believers:2 for instance, we are only permitted one baptism, and yet we are to recollect it and reflect upon it through our whole lives. We walk by faith, not by sight; and when “the symbols of holy things are taken out of our sight,” God still answers to faith. If we cannot imagine zeal for God in the absence of ceremonies, we are, Calvin says, “ignorant and superstitious persons.”

2. Thus in the sanctuary, etc. It is apparent, as already hinted, that God was ever in his thoughts, though wandering in the wilderness under such circumstances of destitution. The particle thus is emphatic. Even when so situated, in a wild and hideous solitude, where the very horrors of the place were enough to have distracted his meditations, he exercised himself in beholding the power and glory of God, just as if he had been in the sanctuary. Formerly, when it was in his power to wait upon the tabernacle, he was far from neglecting that part of the instituted worship of God. He was well aware that he needed such helps to devotion. But now, when shut out, in the providence of God, from any such privilege, he shows, by the delight which he took in spiritual views of God, that his was not a mind engrossed with the symbols, or mere outward ceremonial of religion. He gives evidence how much he had profited by the devotional exercises enjoined under that dispensation. It is noticeable of ignorant and superstitious persons, that they seem full of zeal and fervor so long as they come in contact with the ceremonies of religion, while their seriousness evaporates immediately upon these being withdrawn. David, on the contrary, when these were removed, continued to retain them in his recollection, and rise, through their assistance, to fervent aspirations after God. We may learn by this, when deprived at any time of the outward means of grace, to direct the eye of our faith to God in the worst circumstances, and not to forget him whenever the symbols of holy things are taken out of our sight. The great truth, for example, of our spiritual regeneration, though but once represented to us in baptism, should remain fixed in our minds through our whole life, (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:26.) The mystical union subsisting between Christ and his members should be matter of reflection, not only when we sit at the Lord’s table, but at all other times. Or suppose that the Lord’s Supper, and other means of advancing our spiritual welfare, were taken from us by an exercise of tyrannical power, it does not follow that our minds should ever cease to be occupied with the contemplation of God. The expression, So have I beheld thee to see, etc., indicates the earnestness with which he was intent upon the object, directing his whole meditation to this, that he might see the power and glory of God, of which there was a reflection in the sanctuary.

  1. See also here and here.
  2. This is not to say that the extreme case is not difficult beyond what most of us can fathom; I believe that it is.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.