By Eric C. Wheeler and Dave Palcsak

Is it possible to worship and serve God in vain? No committed servant of the Lord wants to feel as if their sincere efforts on His behalf have been fruitless. This is completely understandable. But as believers, we are required to go by what God says and abide by His Word regardless of man’s traditions, or for that matter, our own feelings. Take a look at these words from Jesus: “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Elsewhere Jesus tells a religious woman who genuinely desired to worship God that He is “seeking TRUE worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). By stating this, Jesus clearly indicates that FALSE worshippers existed who were NOT worshipping God in spirit and in truth, therefore, their worship was illegitimate and futile. This presents a rather troubling question. Is it really possible to worship God in vain and serve Him in futility? The Bible’s answer to this question is – absolutely! Unfortunately, worshipping God in vain is more common than we might think.

Jesus identifies for us the root cause of worshipping God and serving Him in vain. Quite simply, it is failing to follow what is written in the Bible, and instead, holding on to the traditions and teachings of men. Notice what He says:

In vain you worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. Laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men… All too well you set aside the commandments of God, that you may keep your tradition – thus making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down” (Mark 7:7-13).

Because you have rejected the Word of the Lord, He also has rejected you…” (I Sam. 15:23).

When men reject God’s Word in order to keep their own traditions and teachings, it’s idolatry. Putting what WE THINK and FEEL higher than what God says or commands IS rebellion and idolatry. Notice what God declared when King Saul foolishly did this:

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices [a form of “praise and worship”] as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the Word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king” (I Sam. 15:22-23).

Later, King Saul’s successor, King David – whom the Bible described as a man after God’s own heart – had to learn this valuable lesson too. He, along with the elders of Israel, joyously decided that they wanted God’s Presence to be permanently among them (by bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the City of David). They excitedly decided to build a brand-new cart to transport it. They eagerly assembled and commissioned the best “praise and worship” band they could find. They joyfully sang and danced before the Lord with great gladness and glee – worshipping Him and praising His holy name as they sought to transport the Ark into the city. But God didn’t care about their praise or their worship. He had no regard for their sincere intentions and joyful celebration, or their heartfelt songs of praise to Him. Look at what the Scripture clearly states: “Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah [who was merely trying to keep the Ark from falling off of the cart as they were transporting it], and God struck him there for his error, and he died there by the Ark of God” (II Sam. 6:7). Notice that David and the people were sincerely and zealously trying to worship God. But He didn’t appear to care, nor did He have any respect or regard for their praise and worship! Why?

For that answer, let’s carefully examine these Bible verses to see why God wasn’t pleased with their worship and what the fatal problem was:

David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the congregation of Israel, ‘If it seems good to you, and if it is of the Lord our God, let us send out to our brethren everywhere who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them to the priests and Levites who are in the cities and their common-lands, that they may gather together to us; and let us bring the Ark of our God back to us’… Then all the congregation said that they would do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the peopleThen David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets(I Chron. 13:1-8).

Notice that David and the elders didn’t consult God – they consulted each other! They looked to men and what men thought – and whatever was “right in the eyes of the people.” They did not consult the Word of God to see how God had ordained things; rather they relied on their own ideas and methods (“man’s traditions and teachings”). In fact, Scripture emphatically states that this is why God was angry with them and why He had “rained on their parade” (so to speak): “For because you [priests and Levites] did not do it right [transport the Ark of God as He had instructed in His Word] the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us because we did not consult Him about how to do it the prescribed way [as He had commanded in His Word] (I Chron. 15:13). It didn’t matter that they had zeal, passion, and the best of intentions. It didn’t matter to God that they had wonderful praise and worship songs, great singers, musicians, nice-looking robes and the support of ALL the people. God simply did not care!  If it isn’t done the way He commanded and prescribed in His Word – the Bible, then He has NO regard for it. IT IS IN VAIN!

Scripture says that “there is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). This principle is so important to God that He repeats it twice as a clear warning to us. Yet, many Christians today aren’t listening. They are not taking His admonitions and warnings seriously. The Bible says that “David feared God that day,” and he became angry with God because he didn’t understand why He had broken out against them in their sincere worship of Him (II Sam. 6:8-9; I Chron. 13:11-12). Even though David was a man after God’s own heart, he too needed to learn to respect and revere God’s Word, and to carefully obey God’s written instructions in our worship of Him. In their religious excitement and zeal, David and the rest of the well-meaning Israelites did not initially understand the seriousness of God’s Word, and how it justly trumps all of man’s traditions, feelings, and best of intentions.

Three months later, David, as leader and king, came to realize and understand the hard truth that failing to consult the Lord by looking into His Word was the reason that God had angrily broken out against them. As it’s written: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge; and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. But fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10).

Many churches today are doing and teaching things that are not Biblical. They cling to traditions and doctrines of men. God will soon “rain on their parades” and “visit their joyous celebrations” in judgement – for NOT consulting His Word regarding the right way to worship and approach Him. They are teaching falsehoods and traditions that have no Biblical basis, but which may SEEM right, religious, and appropriate to them and others. God is not going to endure these serious infractions of His Word much longer. Remember Nadab and Abihu – Aaron’s sons (Lev. 10:1-11)? They died before the Lord for their biblical errancy and ignorant irreverence! Even though God had specifically chosen them to serve as His priests (Exod. 24:1); and allowed them to personally see His glory and to eat and drink before Him (Exod. 24:9-11); he still killed them for not carefully following His dictated instructions! Judgement is coming soon. Are we ready? Or are we serving God in vain by worshipping Him according to the traditions and teachings of men, or by what WE think is right? Read your Bible and learn how to worship God in spirit (with your heart) and in truth (according to His Word – John 17:17). Every single day, keep the Word of God in your mind and in your heart so that you may not sin against Him (Psa. 119:11). God is not going to hold us guiltless if we don’t know or don’t follow His Word. We all have Bibles available to us and are therefore without excuse.

When David and the Israelites learned this difficult, yet valuable, lesson through the unfortunate death of Uzzah, they sought God’s Word on properly transporting the Ark. They discovered that it was to be transported on the shoulders of the Levites, and not on a man-made cart. After they did this, God began to help and bless them as they moved the Ark once again. Notice this: “So David, the elders of Israel, and the captains over thousands went to bring up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from the house of Obed-Edom with joy. And so it was, God helped the Levites who bore the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord… Thus, all Israel brought up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets and with cymbals, making music with stringed instruments and harps” (I Chron. 15:25-28). When the Israelites acted in accordance to God’s written Word – He actually HELPED THEM! If we want God to honor our praise and worship, we must first honor Him by doing it His way, according to His Word – the Bible! Otherwise, as the Word shows, we will anger Him in our worship, and in our meetings. For He has said, “I take no pleasure in your gatherings and in your sacred assemblies. I wish someone would just shut the doors [of your church], so that you would not kindle fire on My altar IN VAIN (see Isa. 1:10-15; Mal. 1:10).


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