During the year, and certainly during the season of Epiphany, we sing JSB Monsell’s hymn,
‘Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ (Rejoice & Sing 187).
What isn’t usually known is that Monsell wrote the hymn for the Fourth Sunday after Easter. However, it fits so right for the Sundays after Christmas. The words are inspired by a passage of scripture, 1 Chronicles, Chapter 16, Verse 29, which itself is a gathering together of verses from Psalms 105 and 96.
The scripture passages suggest that the singing, or perhaps reciting, of the psalms was on the occasion of a thanksgiving service at the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in the time of David. Psalm 96 certainly is a hymn celebrating God’s greatness and power, and calling the people to worship him. And the references to gold and incense in Monsell’s first verse allude to the Visit of the Magi.
But where does the ‘holiness’ come in? In scripture ‘holiness’ refers to something or someone, “separated-out’ or ‘withdrawn’ [from the rest of things or the people] because it, the object, or the individual, has a divine quality which is part of the nature of God.
This holy God of ours desires to fellowship with humans who are not in a right relationship with God and living in an imperfect world, a world not as God would have it be. To come into a right relationship with God and make the world perfect God cannot become less holy, the people must become more holy. This becoming ‘more holy’ is known as ‘sanctification’. ‘Sanctification’? Consecrated, dedicated, blessed. Once gained, holiness may be lessened by becoming ‘unclean’ or acting/used in ways that God has forbidden.
Scholars tell us that there are levels of holiness.
- The first is the dedication of an object or person to God for God’s use. This did not mean for use by God in the literal sense but that the object or person was available for use for/by God through the people of God.
- A higher level of holiness was given to an object or person God actually used, so that something of the divine remained after use.
- The highest level was the object or person having ‘the presence’ of God.
It is not too difficult to appreciate the hymn writer Monsell’s words, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” in terms of the three levels detailed above.
- God wanted his followers to be holy. The command to be holy was for all people.
- The anointing of priests – priesthood of all believers, prophets, kings marks them as not just dedicated to God, but chosen by him for his service. A people blessed by a gift of the Holy Spirit to serve their God.
- Various objects, places, and times associated with worship of God were considered holy.
- Special days of religious observance were all considered holy.
- Wherever you are and find God that place is holy.
- Whatever you use to come close to God is holy.
- Whoever brings you close to God is holy and your holiness is enhanced.
The New Testament thinking about holiness is founded on that of the Old Testament. God is still seen as being holy and requiring those who serve him shares that quality. Gentiles as well as Jews could become part of God’s people. Those who accepted the invitation were called “saints”: they are sanctified – consecrated, dedicated, blessed – by the Holy Spirit when they believe in Jesus.
Come then as a people of a holy God, a holy people, a people chosen by God, charged with using objects, places and times, which reveal God to the people, enabling the people to find God and cause God’s presence to be felt in them, to bring them to be a holy people. Hearts filled and anxious to:
“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
Acknowledgement with thanks for the inspiration and information: ‘Companion to Rejoice & Sing’ published by Canterbury Press, Norwich; and, ‘Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible’ published by William Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge.,