“Praise God in the great congregation, the LORD in the assembly of Israel”
- Psalm 68:26
“We shall assemble on the mountain, we shall assemble at the throne, with humble hearts into his presence we bring an offering of song”
- Twila Paris
“We Shall Assemble” is one of our favorite songs. While resonating with many disciples, some ask, “Does this song speak of a meaningful reality?” The Edification paradigm asserts that these types of songs are misleading in the Christian assembly because they introduce a Jewish understanding in the mindset of contemporary believers. This poisons a truly spiritual understanding of worship (according to that, in my opinion, misguided view).
Alternately, we believe that we do come “into his presence” in the gathering of the people of God. The theology of presence in the Hebrew Scriptures provides a partial ground for so thinking. The New Testament authors draw on this theology and thus Christian assemblies share some continuity with the gatherings of their spiritual ancestors. A Christian theology of the assembly, then, begin with Israel’s understanding of assemblies as sacred space.
Presence in the Garden
In the beginning the Triune God created the heavens and the earth. On the earth God cultivated a paradise tailored for those fashioned in his own image. The garden was a place of abundance and harmonious relationships. In Eden shalom characterized the relationships within all God’s created order. Humans and animals; male and female; and human and divine all shared holy relationships. So wonderful was this place that Ezekiel even called it “the garden of God” (31:8-9).
This garden was the original holy place. Frequently biblical writers describe creation in architectural imagery. The imagery paints the picture of a palatial temple with the effect that the whole of creation is the holy dwelling place of God with his creatures. In Job, the Lord speaks out of the whirlwind and asks (Job 38:4-6, 8, 10, 22)
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know …
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone …
Who shut up the sea behind doors …
When I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place …
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail? (38: 4-6, 8, 10, 22)
Elsewhere, the Old Testament speaks of the foundations of the earth (Ps 18:15; 82:5; 102:25; 104:5; Pr. 8:29; Isa 51:13,16; 2 Sam 22:8,16; Zech 12:1; cf. 2 Sam 22:8), the pillars of the cosmos (1 Sam 2:8; Job 9:6; Ps 75:3; Job 26:11), heavens’ windows (Gen 7:11; 8:2; Isa 24:18; Mal 3:10; 2 Kgs 7:2; Ps 104:2), a canopy/tent (Isa 40:12,22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jer 10:12; 31:37; 32:17; 51:15; Amos 9:6; Zech 12:1; Job 9:8; Ps 102:25), and storehouses (Deut 28:12; Jer 10:13; 50:25; 51:16; cf. Ps 33:7; 135:7). The Lord declares “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” (Isa. 66:1).
To what do these images refer? Cornerstones, doors, bars, storehouses, pillars, canopy – they all describe the common experience of Israel. In the Ancient Near East these words were understood as a temple or palace (temple and palace are the same Hebrew word, hekal). God had already fashioned a temple with its own garden when he created the heavens and the earth. The created cosmos is his sanctuary.
Life in the garden was life in the presence of God who dwelt within his temple. Just as Adam and Eve were naked before each other they were also unhindered in their relationship with God. No barrier existed to a free relationship with the Creator. There were no holy places, temples, or altars in Eden—there was no need for such. The original couple lived in the temple palace of the King. Indeed, they were made his co-regents; humans were crowned with glory and honor as they were given dominion over the earth. They lived within the royal palace as benevolent stewards of the King’s creation.
Rebelling against the Creator, Adam and Eve, were driven from the sacred space of Eden. Genesis 3 narrates the vandalism of God’s shalom and the desecration of his temple. Once Adam and Eve were as free as children in the home of their Father, but now they felt the terror of the Holy One. The first couple was banished from God’s holy communion, exiled from the temple of God—from the paradise of his presence. They were exiled from the temple of God—from the paradise of his presence.
Recovering Presence at Sinai
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from God’s sacred space did not mean the end of humanity’s connection with God. Yahweh graciously provided a way back into his presence. God pursued the expelled to draw them back into communion with him. Calling Abraham out of the paganism of his native Ur, God intended to restore the intimacy of the garden. He promised (Gen 12:2-3):
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you
I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
In light of Yahweh’s gracious promises it is not surprising that when Abram arrived
in the promised land, he worshipped. When the Lord appeared to Abram and renewed the promise of grace, Abram built an altar to commemorate the experience of God’s holy presence (12:7). Throughout his journey Abraham continually built altars to God—at Bethel (Gen 12:8; 13:4), Hebron (13:18) and Moriah (22:9). Building these altars was analogous to planting a flag and reclaiming the land for the Lord. The altar of sacrifice carved out a space where God and humans could once again come together in communion. They were a little bit of Eden in the fallen world.
But the patriarchal altar was only an ad hoc solution to the problem of our living outside the sphere of God’s holy presence. Scripture narrates how Yahweh moves progressively closer to his goal of restoring the loss of sacred space in his world. God does not intend to bless only a single human with his fellowship but a community of people. As the plot thickens we learn that Pharaoh, not the Lord, who is the Unmoved Mover. Though sin has vandalized the shalom of God’s creation, God is deeply involved in redeeming his world. He heard the cries of the suffering slaves in Egypt and moved to redeem them (Ex 2:23b-25)
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham … God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
The Exodus is not simply a tale of the great escape of Israel from Egyptian slavery. The goal of God’s redemption was not mere liberty but rather a life of worshipful communion with Yahweh (3:12). The Exodus story does not conclude with the defeat of the self-absorbed Pharaoh but with the Tabernacle being filled with the glorious presence of God in the heart of Israel. The Exodus is a journey, borne personally by Yahweh, into the divine presence. This movement is seen in God’s own speech to Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex 19: 4-6)
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’
wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice
and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the
peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly
kingdom and a holy nation.
This text is laden with theological weight for Israelite faith. In highly personal terms Yahweh claims the initiative: “I did;” “I bore you;” “I brought you to myself.” Israel’s journey was one beyond redemption to communion, a journey to life in the presence of God. Israel’s vocation is also revealed here. Israel will live a sanctified life before the Lord. Her very existence is a living sacrifice. Israel is not called to a mere devotional attitude toward the Lord but to be a kingdom of priests. All the people of God, not just the Levites, are priests. Israel is set apart (sanctified) from the world for a specific purpose. This phrase, kingdom of priests, indicates Israel’s unique role to exist for the sake of the world—to be a blessing to all peoples. They exist in the world to declare God’s praise (Isa 43:21; cf. Eph 4:12). Israel’s purpose is to ultimately lead the world into the praise of Yahweh. Israel is on display before the nations as a demonstration of what it means to experience the holy presence of God as restored shalom.
They not only lead nations into his praise they are themselves the praise of God in the world. They are a people dedicated to holy life and gathered worship. Moses’ initial charge was to lead the Hebrews into the wilderness so they could “sacrifice to the LORD our God” (Ex 3:18). Yahweh’s plea to Pharaoh was “let my son go, so he may worship me” (4:23; cf. 12:27). God intends to lead Israel to himself—to bring them into his presence. Ultimately, he brings them to the mountain.
When God carried Israel on eagles’ wings to himself, he gathered them before his mountain in what the Torah calls the “day of assembly” (Ex 19-24; Deut 4:40; 9:10; 18:16; cf. Acts 7:38). On that day Israel meets her God (Ex 19:17) in a way she never had before. Here the people gather before the mountain and they experience a transforming numinous encounter with the One who redeemed them. On the third day thunder, lighting and a thick cloud descended upon the mountain (Ex 19:16-17). No one was to violate God’s holy presence upon pain of death (Ex. 19:12-13). Israel is shaken physically, mentally and spiritually by this encounter with the Holy One of Israel. But it was not a negative experience.
This coming before God is not a danger from which to escape but a joy to approach as nearly as possible. Thus when the Lord invites redeemed Israel to be his kingdom of priests and his holy nation, they embrace the covenant (Ex 19:7-8). The Torah integrates the whole of life into this kingdom. Every moment and every aspect of their lives was lived out before the presence of the Lord. The covenant stipulations, summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), provide the outlines for a holy life lived in community with a holy God.
Yet God’s redemptive goal had not been reached. He sought a restoration of Eden’s intimacy. Holiness and obedience were the traits of those who were privileged to enter God’s holy presence (cf. Pss 15, 24). The goal of holiness is not self-fulfillment as if holiness is its own raison d’etre. Rather, holiness—accomplished by divine forgiveness and transformative power—conditions our ability “see” God, to experience his presence. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
Exodus 24 is the climax of the “day of assembly” that founded Israel. This text makes profound claims of what it means to gather as the people of God in his presence. The narrative recalls Yahweh’s promise in 3:12 that Moses and Israel would worship on the mountain. Divine presence is crucial to understanding the experience of God among the gathered people in Exodus 24. Yahweh had promised repeatedly to “come down” to deliver his people (Ex 3:8). He promised his presence “with” Moses and Israel during the Exodus (Ex 3:12; 13:18-22). He promised to make his dwelling, not on the mountain, but among the people (Ex 15:17). Later in the narrative the Lord threatens to remove his presence in the wake of the gross breach of covenant loyalty in the fashioning of the golden calf (Ex 33:3, 14-15). Ultimately Yahweh makes his dwelling with Israel in the tabernacle. The imagery of the tabernacle recalls the world as it was intended to be—it is a microcosm of creation (Ps 78:69) 
He built his sanctuary like the
like the earth, which he
has founded forever.
The dedication of the tabernacle occurs on the new year’s day (Ex 40:2,17) which commemorates the day of creation in Israel’s festival calendar. The Exodus’ goal is the renewal of Eden’s intimate fellowship. In essence the tabernacle is a renewed earth, a little heaven on earth, where the divine presence dwells. That presence is the center of life for the people of God (Ex 29:43, 45-46)
I will meet with the Israelites there [at the tent of meeting], and it shall be
sanctified by my glory; I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar;
Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. I will
dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know
that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of
Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God.
Yahweh promises his presence among the Israelites evocative of the lost privileges of Eden. God “will put [his] dwelling place” within Israel and he will “walk among” them. They will be God’s people and he will be their God (Lev 26:11-13). This theme of divine presence bursts forth in the gathering depicted in Exodus 24.
Israel gathers in the presence of the Lord so that he may “bless” them (Ex 20:24). This theme of divine presence bursts forth in the gathering depicted in Ex. 24: 1-11.
Exodus 24:1-11 is arranged in chiastic structure. This highlights emphasis of the text.
A Moses and the elders are invited into the sacred presence (24:1-2)
B Words of the covenant are spoken with affirmation by people (24:3)
C Words are written down by Moses (24:4a)
D Sacrificial ceremony (24:4-6b)
C’ Words are read by Moses (24:7a)
B’ Words of the Lord are spoken with affirmation by people (24:7b-8)
A’ Moses and elders ascend to worship and eat in the presence of God (24:9-11)
Three themes dominate this passage. First, the passage begins and ends with the invitation and then the experience of divine presence. Second, the word of the Lord both spoken and written is shared. Third, both altar and table are present.
Through this assembly/Gathering Israel sees her God and her place with in the world. Moses proclaims the word of God to the congregation. The congregation, exhibiting a unity of heart, responds through faithful affirmation, “everything the LORD has commanded we will do” (24:3). After this service of the word Moses led Israel to the sacrificial altar. First, he sacrificed whole burnt offerings. The whole burnt offering was an acknowledgement of the destructiveness of human sin and divine atonement (Lev. 1). It dedicated of whole of life to God just as all the animal was given to the Lord. Second, Moses led the gathered people in a peace offering. This sacrifice testifies that God has restored their well being—they are holy before the Lord and are at rest in him. In the fellowship offering only the fat portion is burned upon the altar (Lev 3:16) while the rest of the animal is eaten by the people. What is offered to God is symbolically understood as “food” consumed by Yahweh (Lev 3:11) and the people sit at God’s table. Finally, Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders of Israel, as representatives of the people, ascend the mountain to eat and drink in God’s presence (24:9-11).
What happens when Moses and his congregation of elders reach the top of the mountain is quite shocking! Exodus reads 24:9-11 (NIV):
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went
up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like sapphire,
clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders
of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
The astounding statement “they saw God” is not stated once but twice. The translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek found this so unpalatable they interpreted the text so that it read “and they saw the place where the God of Israel stood” (LXX). What happened that day, while the people gathered, was something that was beyond description.
The text captures the unbelievable truth that God’s holiness did not consume these humans who came into his presence. Earlier Israel was warned to not even touch the mountain of God but now this assembly “sees God” and no harm comes. Instead of death Israel found joy, friendship and a meal. The meal was the remainder of the fellowship offering that Moses brought. He led Israel to the table of God to enjoy fellowship with him and with each other.
This assembly echoes Eden. Adam and Eve were not afraid of God and neither were Moses and the elders. Sin that had raped the garden of its shalom has been removed through the altar (atonement). This expiation allowed the restoration of peace and harmony. God’s gracious provision created sacred space in which the Lord and his people could commune in a way not experienced since expulsion from the garden.
Exodus 24 was corporate or communal worship. On the great day of assembly Israel heard the word of God and sacramentally encountered God at the table. Assembled before the face of God, Israel embraced and understood her vocation in the world. That “day of assembly” was a sacramental encounter that molded, shaped and under girded Israel’s life of worship before Yahweh. The gathered people experienced anew the blessed shalom that was lost in the garden. The assembly “saw God” and in seeing God they saw the world that Yahweh intended and promises to restore. Through assembly, Israel’s vision was corrected and their role in the world became clearer.
The theology of Exodus 24 extends into the new covenant. This very text set the tone for Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Jesus’ describes of the cup as the “blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24) alludes to Exodus 24:8. Bread symbolizes the presence of the Lord (Ex 25:23-30; Lev 24:1-9). The cup recalls covenant and sacrifice. Just as Moses and the congregation ate the fellowship offering in the presence of God, so Paul asserts that Christians likewise enjoy the real presence of the risen Christ while eating at his table (1 Cor 10:14-22). Thus the sacramental encounter enjoyed by Israel at the table on the mountain is shared by Christians today as we gather in assembly around the table of God.
The preacher in Hebrews also uses the backdrop of the great day of assembly in Exodus 19-24 to exhort his own congregation. Hebrews 9:15-22 presents the work of Christ to the gathered saints as the basis of a new and better covenant. Significantly, like Jesus, quotes Exodus 24:8, “this is the blood of the covenant.” Thus Jesus’ inauguration of the better covenant is proclaimed with the language of Exodus 24.
Exodus 24 also echoes in the biblical visions of the eschatological banquet that celebrates the restoration of God’s shalom. Isaiah foresees a time of great joy once again on the mountain of God (25:6-8)
On this mountain the LORD Almighty
will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats
and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe
away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people
from all the earth.
These images find fulfillment in the wedding supper of the Lamb and the continued worship of the gathered people of God before the throne of grace. The picture in Revelation is once again of a people assembled on a “mountain great and high” (21:3, 10) with twelve stones representative of the people of God (21:14) basking in the wonderful shalom of God’s presence. The “day of assembly” in Exodus 24 anticipated the ultimate day when God would restore shalom to his creation and feast with his saints at his table on his mountain.
Israel’s sacramental encounter with the creator and redeemer of the world left them a changed people. The day of assembly testifies to God’s deep and abiding commitment to share his presence with his community. The day of assembly makes it clear that corporate worship was necessary for Israel’s vocation in the world—for their very being. The themes of that great day—divine presence, proclamation of the word, table, vocational identity, community—remain significant for the church and ultimately for the assembled people of God in the new heavens and new earth.
Presence and the People
The “day of assembly,” culminating in intimate fellowship with God, was not intended only for the elite. Moses and the elders represented the kingdom of priests as a whole. God sought communion with all his people. Leviticus 9 highlights this point and is another text that shares the nature of assembly. The narrative describes the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the Levitical priesthood. On that day Israel gathered to anticipate the descent of Yahweh’s glory. The text can be outlined in this manner,
I. Glory of the Lord Promised (vv. 1-5)
II. People assemble in anticipation of the Lord’s appearing (vv. 5-6)
III. Preparation for divine appearing through atonement (vv. 7-21)
A. through the sin offering (vv. 8-12)
A. through the burnt offering (vv. 13-17)
B. through the wellbeing offering (vv. 18-21)
IV. Aaron blesses the assembly (v.22)
V. The glory of the Lord appears (vv. 22-24)
On the eighth day of preparation (the first day of the week), Moses summons Aaron and the elders to come “before the Lord” (9:2). Israel gathered at the tent of meeting “before the Lord” (9:4). Aaron leads the “entire assembly” (9:5) in sacrificial worship as he “draws near the altar” (Lev 9:8). Aaron offers the major sacrifices—burnt offering, sin and fellowship—on behalf of the people to God. Sacrifice sanctifies Israel so that “LORD will appear to you” today (9:4,6). God is coming to be with his people. Moses assures the people that everyone in the assembly will share the in that blessing.
After the fellowship offering Aaron pronounces a blessing upon the congregation (9:22). Confirming the blessing pronounced upon the gathered people of God, the Lord came among his people in a powerful way (9:23b-24)
When they came out [of the tent], they blessed the people; and the
glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from
the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the
fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted
for joy and fell facedown.
The appearance of God’s glory is greeted with shouts of joy. Encountering God demanded, by its very nature, human response. The joyous occasion reminds us of the experience on the mountain in Exodus 24. But shouting is not the only worship response of the assembled people. The people “fell on their faces” (9:24). God’s majestic holiness is acknowledged with their whole being. The whole person—body and soul—responds to God’s presence. As Moses and the elders ate in the presence of the Lord so now all Israel eats at the table—and God signals his communion with them by “consuming” the sacrifice on the altar. Israel now basks in his glorious presence.
Leviticus 9 highlights the character of Old Testament worship. Rather than being empty formalism or heartless ritual the Torah reveals the focus of corporate worship—the people of God coming face to face with the One who carried them on eagles’ wings to himself. Encountering this God as a gathered people is a joyous, satisfying, edifying and missional (vocational) experience.
Centuries later a Preacher would exhort a disheartened congregation to find renewal by “draw[ing] near” God’s throne with confidence (Heb 4:16; 10:1, 22). The preacher believes the assembly has renewing qualities precisely because it is God, through Jesus, we come to “see.”
More in our Next ... For More see A Gathered People by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton & Bobby Valentine
 Twila Paris, “We Shall Assemble,” in Songs of Faith and Praise, ed. Alton H. Howard (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1994), c.v. 718.
 Ervin Bishop, “The Christian Assembly – 5,” Firm Foundation 90.32 (August 7, 1973), 503. The actual example given by Bishop is the song “The Lord is in His Holy Temple.” Mike Root cites the same song as an example, Spilt Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1992), 49. The understanding of the "Jewish" or "Old Testament view" is in this perspective seriously flawed and caricatured as legalism, formalism, external and lacking the "spiritual." This perspective is, in my opinion, flawed to the core.
 New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 1: 1026-1031.
 On creation as temple see Rikki Watts, “Making Sense of Genesis 1,” available online at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/6-02Watts.html; See also G. J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1986): 19-25.
 Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001), 20.
 Thomas W. Mann, The Book of the Torah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 78-80.
 Terence E. Fretheim, “Because the Whole Earth is Mine: Theme and Narrative in Exodus,” Interpretation 50 (July 1996), 231
 Cf. Donald Gowan’s Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 26-40.
 David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 34. N. M. Sarna observes that ch. 19 and 24 form a structural inclusio, cf. N. M. Sarna, Exodus: Torah Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 150,
 In Exodus 3:12 the Hebrew word is abad while 24:1 uses histahawa. The thematic connections between these texts reveal that Moses did not see a sharp dichotomy between abad and histahawa that some maintain.
 See Ralph W. Klien, “Back to the Future: The Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus,” Interpretation 50 (July 1996): 264-276; Eric E. Elnes, “Creation and Tabernacle: The Priestly Writer’s “Environmentalism,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 16 (1994): 144-155; Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 128-131
 John W. Hilber, “Theology of Worship in Exodus 24,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39.2 (June 1996), 179.
 John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table, (Orange, CA: New Leaf Books, 2002), 32.
 Longmann III, Immanuel in Our Place, 81-82.
 I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 43.
 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.