The Object of the Christian’s Desire in Worship

John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) had been a prominent leader of the evangelical party within the Church of Scotland, when in 1768 he became the president of the College of New Jersey, at Princeton. Numbered among his students were President James Madison, ten cabinet members, twelve state governors, sixty congressmen and three Supreme Court justices. He himself served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782, and was the only minister of the gospel among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1789 he had a significant role at the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.

“And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.” Exodus 33:18.

These are the words of an Old Testament saint; of that Moses who as a servant was faithful over all the house of God. True piety is the same in substance in all ages, and points at one thing as its center and its rest, the knowledge and enjoyment of God. In the preceding verses, Moses had been employed in earnest prayer and intercession for the people of Israel. He had met with success and acceptance in these requests; for it is said, in the fourteenth verse: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” And in the seventeenth: “And the Lord said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken; for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.” The condescension of a gracious God, though it satisfies, does not extinguish the desires of his saints, but rather makes them more ardent and importunate; for he immediately adds, in the words of the text, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.” It is highly probable, from what follows, that this desire included more than was proper for the present state; yet such a discovery as was possible, or could be useful to him, is graciously promised: “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee; and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.”

My dear brethren, it is our distinguished privilege that we have daily unmolested access to the house and ordinances of God. We ought to rejoice that we have so many clear and express promises of the divine presence in New Testament worship. But what cause have we to be ashamed, that we are so exceeding prone to stop short in the threshold, to content ourselves with the mere form, instead of earnestly breathing after real, inward, and sensible communion with God. I have therefore chosen this subject, in the view of that solemn ordinance, the Lord’s Supper, where we have a sensible representation of Christ crucified, the great mean of our access to God, that we may serve him, on that occasion particularly, and the remaining part of our lives habitually, in spirit and in truth. And, oh, that we may have daily more experience of the sweetness and benefit of his service on earth! and may daily long more for that time when we shall serve him in a manner infinitely more perfect and joyful in his temple above!

In discoursing on this subject, I propose, in dependence on divine strength, I. To explain what is the object of a saint’s desire, when he saith, in the words of Moses, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.” II. To improve the subject — particularly by pointing out what is the most proper preparation for such a discovery.

First then, I am to explain what is the object of a saint’s desire when he saith, in the words of Moses, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.” It is very probable, from the passage following the text, which I have read, that Moses had some regard to the sensible appearance which, in that dispensation, did often accompany or notify the immediate presence of the angel of the covenant. He desired, probably, to be strengthened for beholding steadfastly the Shechinah, or bright and luminous cloud which sometimes appeared over the tabernacle, and, by its glorious luster, tended to affect the mind with a sense of the power and sovereignty of the Lord Jehovah. But this, surely, was not all; for this, in itself, was only a subsidiary mean, which served to carry their views to the real and spiritual glory of God. To the last, therefore, we shall confine our attention, as to what the gospel particularly opens to us, and what believers are enabled by faith to apprehend.

When Christians, then, desire to see the glory of God, it seems chiefly to imply the following things. 1. They desire to see the glory of an eternal, independent God; they desire to see the only living and true God in his own inherent excellence and infinite perfection. God is the source and sum of all excellence; or, in the language of the Psalmist, “the perfection of beauty.” Every thing noble or beautiful in the creature is only a faint ray from the fullness of the Creator’s glory. Therefore he is the proper object of the highest esteem and most profound veneration of every reasonable creature. The vision and fruition of God constitute the employment and happiness of heaven: and even here, while they are in preparation for the higher house, the saints desire such a discovery of the divine glory as their condition will admit of, and take pleasure in contemplating his nature as revealed to them both in his word and in his works. They dwell with adoring wonder on all his attributes, which are boundless and unsearchable: the immensity of his being, who fills heaven and earth with his presence, who seeth in secret, and from whom the thickest darkness cannot cover us; his irresistible power, “who spake, and it was done, who commanded and it stood fast”, who called this great universe out of nothing into being, “who doth in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth whatever seems good unto him”; his infinite holiness and purity, with whom “evil cannot dwell, nor sinners stand in his presence, who looketh to the moon, and it shineth not, to the stars, and they are not pure in his sight”; his infinite wisdom, “who worketh all things according to his will, who bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought, and makes the devices of the people of none effect”; his boundless goodness, which fills the earth and flows in plenteous streams to all the creatures of his power.

But perhaps some are saying, what is there extraordinary or peculiar in all this? is it not clearly revealed in the word of God? can any Christian be ignorant of it? If Moses in that early dispensation desired a discovery of the divine perfections, nothing of that kind is wanting to us, who, since the fullness of time, have so complete a revelation in the New Testament. But, my brethren, I must beg of you to observe these two things:

1. That there is in the fullness of the Godhead an infinite and endless variety even for the employment of our intellectual powers. Well might Zophar, in the book of Job, say, Job 11:7-9: “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know? the measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.”

2. That the real and proper knowledge of the glory of God is by inward and spiritual illumination. The holy scriptures themselves, however clear a discovery they contain of the nature of God, are no better than a sealed book to many even of the greatest comprehension of mind. It is one thing to think and speak and reason on the perfections of God as an object of science, and another to glorify him as God, or to have a deep and awful impression of him upon our hearts. Real believers will know this by experience. A discovery of the glory of God is not to inform them of a truth which they never heard before, but to give lively, penetrating views of the meaning and importance of those truths of which they had perhaps heard and spoken times without number. Sometimes one word spoken of the Eternal, the Almighty, the Holy One, will be carried home upon the conscience and heart with such irresistible force, as to shew them more of God than ever they had seen before. O what a difference is there between the way in which we use the same words in prayer or praise, at one time and at another! None but downright atheists will deny the omniscience and omnipresence of God; but how far is this general acknowledgment from that overwhelming sense of his presence which believers have sometimes in his worship in public or in secret. What a new sense of God’s presence had Jacob at Bethel, when he said, Gen. 28:16-17: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not: and he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” What a sense of God’s presence had Hagar, Gen. 16:13, when “she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me; for she said, have I also here looked after him that seeth me?” Or Job, when he expresses himself thus, Job 42:5-6: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

I shall only farther observe that it plainly appears that this discovery of the glory of God belongs only to his own people. Wicked men are said in scripture to be such as know not God. They are also described a little differently, as not having God in all their thoughts; not but that wicked men may have a general or customary belief in the being and perfections of God, but because they have not that intimate sense of his presence, that discovery of the glory and amiableness of his perfections, which is peculiar to his own children. Even the natural perfections of God, his power and wisdom, cannot be beheld with such veneration by any as by those who are sensible of their obligations to serve him. But above all, the glory of his infinite holiness and justice can never be seen, but by those who desire to submit to it; nor the glory of his infinite mercy, but by those who see themselves indebted to it. This leads me to observe,

2. That the believer desires to see the glory of a gracious and reconciled God, not only infinitely glorious in himself, but infinitely merciful to him. This view ought never to be separated from the former. Take away the divine mercy, and the luster of his other perfections is too strong for us to behold. The power, wisdom, holiness and justice of God, separated from his mercy, speak nothing but unmixed terror to the guilty. It is very probable that there was something in the desire of Moses, in the text, according to his own view, ignorant and unadvised; but God granted his request only in such a way as could be useful to him. When he says, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory,” the answer is in the following terms, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee; and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.” And again, it is said in the following chapter, verses 6-7: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”

We may also see that in the whole dispensation of divine grace to men, God is represented as coming under a peculiar relation to them; and they are called not only to serve him as God, but to trust in him as their God. Every hearer must be sensible how essential this is to a believer’s desire of seeing the glory of God. He cannot consider him as God over all, without at the same time remembering that he is one with whom he hath to do. There is also a necessity here peculiar to ourselves. The holy angels consider him as their maker and their happiness; but the children of Adam must consider not only his goodness to the innocent but his mercy to the guilty. This glory of God shines brightly, and shines only in the face of Jesus Christ. God, we are told, “dwelleth in light which no man can approach unto. No man hath seen God at any time; but the only begotten of the Father, he hath declared him.” In this wonderful dispensation, indeed, all the perfections of God are found united; but above all, “Grace and mercy shine and reign through righteousness, by Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Here I must add, that the believer not only desires to see the glory of God’s mercy in general, as displayed in the gospel, in which he may have a share, but to take an appropriating view of it, as what he hath a clear right and title to call his own. Doubtless the mercy of God is published, offering salvation to the chief of sinners. It is their duty to accept of it; it is their interest to cleave to it. But they are many times deterred by what they see in God; they are many times discouraged by what they feel in themselves, and are afraid to assert their title to so great a blessing. But when by the Holy Spirit they are enabled to see the infinite price paid for their redemption in the cross of Christ; when they see the riches of divine grace in the cross of Christ; when they hear the urgent invitations to them to believe in the cross of Christ; when they are enabled freely to renounce and quit hold of every other claim; when their hearts are sweetly constrained by the bonds of their Redeemer’s love; they can then look upon God as their reconciled Father through him who hath made peace by the blood of his cross, and say unto him, My Lord! and my God! What an endearing view is this of the divine glory, and what ineffable satisfaction springs from it to the soul! What an unspeakable consolation to those who have been wounded in their spirits, and grieved in their minds, when they are enabled to apply the encouraging promises of the holy scriptures! Isa. 1:18: “Come, now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Isa. 43:25: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions, for mine own sake; and will not remember thy sins.” Isa. 44:22: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins. Return unto me, for I have redeemed thee.”

3. The believer desires to see the glory of God as an all-sufficient God. This is a necessary view of God, as the support and happiness of the creature, as well as the strength and consolation of the sinner.

My brethren, man was made for living upon God; forgetting this, he first went astray from him. Self-sufficiency, and a delusive sense of independence, is inseparable from a sinful state. Conviction levels a blow at the foundation of this mistake. Serious consideration shews us how insufficient we are for our own happiness. Daily experience discovers the inherent vanity of all created comforts in themselves, and as separated from God. When the penitent returns to God, he not only returns from the service of other masters to him as his rightful Lord; but forsakes all forbidden joys, and cleaves to God as his happiness, and rests in him as his portion. Does not this appear from the uniform language of scripture, with regard to both parts of the covenant? what belongs to God, and what belongs to man. See the tenor of an early promise to the father of the faithful, Gen. 15:1: “Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” Multitudes of others are of the same import.

The power and providence of God in behalf of his people are largely and beautifully described in the ninety-first Psalm. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust. His truth shall be thy shield and buckler, etc.” II Cor. 6:27: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” On the other hand, the invitation or exhortation to return is ordinarily pressed from the profit of the change, Isa. 55:1: “Ho, every one that thirsteth! come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat, yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And, to name no more passages, when God came to establish the faith of Abraham in his promise, he says, Gen. 17:1: “I am the almighty,” or, as it ought to be translated, the all-sufficient God, “walk before me, and be thou perfect.” Now, believers desire to see the glory of God as all-sufficient; and all discoveries of this nature are attended with unspeakable complacence and satisfaction. They see the glory of an infinite God as theirs, and rejoice in the richness of their portion. Wearied with separated disappointments, and deeply convinced of the vanity of the creature, they rest in him, as able to give them complete happiness; happiness that will never change! happiness that will never be exhausted! He that hath chosen God as his portion, hath, as our Saviour beautifully expresseth it, made “choice of that good part, which cannot be taken away from him.”

My brethren, we are now come to the very substance of practical religion. The glory of an all-sufficient God appears as more than a balance to all that pretends to rival him in our affections, to all that we are called to give up for his sake. When the believer sees the fullness of God, then his anxiety, and distressing fears of every kind, are at an end. Does he want provision? “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” Does he want friends? God is able to make his enemies to be at peace with him. Does he want any outward comfort? God is able to procure it, or make him happy without it. Not to mention particulars, the triumph of faith, in this view, is to attain an absolute and unconditional resignation to the will of God, with a firm persuasion that he is able to make all things work together for our good, and willing to bestow every thing that is for our real interest. It is to say with the prophet, Hab. 3:17: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines, the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

I shall only add, that the divine all-sufficiency is to be considered as regarding our sanctification as well as comfort. What distress does not the Christian often suffer from the treachery of his own heart, and from the power of surrounding temptations? Covered with shame for his past unsteadfastness, convinced by experience of his own weakness, he hath no other refugee but in God. And what courage does he derive from the fullness of divine perfection, the greatness of divine power, and the faithfulness of the divine promise? “My grace shall be sufficient for thee, and my strength shall be made perfect in weakness.” He then says, with the Psalmist, Ps. 71:16: “I will go in the strength of the Lord God: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only.”

II. I proceed now, in the last place, to make some practical improvement of what hath been said. And, 1st, Let us admire the divine condescension, in admitting his saints to a discovery of his glory. Solomon says, with very great propriety, in the language of astonishment: “But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth?” The same ought to be, nay, the same certainly are, the sentiments of every real believer. But let us remember what has been hinted at above, that our access to God, and our communion with him, is, and only can be, through the Mediator of the new covenant, in whom we have access by faith unto God.

2dly, Let me beseech you to try yourselves, whether this ever hath been your attainment, and whether it is your sincere desire? Do you know, in any measure, what it is to see the glory of the true God? Hath he appeared before you in terrible majesty? Have your very souls been made to bow down before him, and to give him the glory that is justly due to his name? Have you seen the glory of a reconciled God? Have you chosen him in Christ as your portion? Have you devoted yourselves without reserve to his disposal? Again, have you seen the glory of an all-sufficient God? Surely I speak to many who have seen the vanity of the creature. Probably you have tasted a little of the sufferings of a sinful state. Where did you seek your consolation? where do you find your support? Have you learned the holy and happy art of pouring out your souls to God? Have you felt the sweetness of it? And have you said, with the Psalmist, “Return unto thy rest, O my soul! for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee”? Is it your earnest desire to see the glory of God? Can you say with the Psalmist, Ps. 63:1-2: “O God! thou art my God, early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee; my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is, to see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.”

3dly, I will now proceed to exhort you, in the most earnest manner, to diligence in seeking after real communion with God in his instituted worship. How highly are we favoured with light and liberty? how little are many sensible of their privileges? I have often, on such occasions, put you in mind of the fatal effects of a heartless, customary, formal worship: it is provoking to God, pernicious to others, hardening to the heart, and ruining to the soul. Were but a society of those Protestants abroad, who are lying under persecution, to enjoy the season which we now enjoy, what an edge would be upon their spirits? what a sense of gratitude in their hearts? what fire and zeal in their affections? Strange, indeed, that public prosperity should be so stupefying, and the approach of eternity to every individual should not be awakening, while the young and strong are hurried off the stage, while every day is bringing us nearer to our last, while every ordinance is adding to our charge, that we should not desire to see the glory of God in his sanctuary here, that it may be the earnest of our future inheritance, and prepare us for his immediate presence hereafter.

Suffer me to speak a few words to those that are young. God is my witness, that their welfare is at my heart. Perhaps you will think what hath been said hardly applicable to you. The desire of Moses, the man of God, intimate communion and fellowship with God, the attainment of ripe and experienced Christians; all this, you will say, is unsuitable to me: nay, perhaps, by a bastard humility you will say, to expect it would be presumption in me. But you are greatly deceived; there are none who have more gracious invitations to come to God than young sinners: there are none who have greater reason to expect nearness to God than young saints. Do you not read that God revealed himself to Samuel the child, when he neglected Eli the old prophet? Besides I would recommend earnestness and affection to you, not only for your greater profit, but to prevent your apostacy. A little religion is very hard to hold; it is like a lamp which is hardly lighted, which the least breath of wind will extinguish, or a tree that is but newly planted, which a rude thrust will overturn. Unless you make God and his service your hearty choice, you will not carry it long as your burden, but will be soon tempted to throw it down. Be concerned, therefore, I beseech you, to attend on his instituted worship, not in a careless and formal manner, but let the “desire of your souls be to his name, and the remembrance of him.”

I shall now conclude the subject, by offering, to those who would see the glory of God, a few directions, as to the best preparation for such a discovery.

1. If you would see the glory of God in his sanctuary, be serious in self-examination, and in the renunciation of all known sin. Holiness is an essential attribute of the divine nature; and therefore he must be worshipped in the beauty of holiness. Thus the Psalmist resolved with himself, Ps. 26:6: “I will wash mine hands in innocence, so will I compass thine altar, O Lord!” It is true, none who have knowledge of the corruption of their own hearts can reasonably hope to be perfectly free from sin in the present life: yet a real Christian will have it, as the object of his daily study, to “cleanse himself from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, that he may perfect holiness in the fear of God.” It was sin that first rendered us unfit for communion with God; and therefore our recovery of this happy privilege will be but in proportion to our sanctification. To bring sinful dispositions, indulged and still suffered in the heart, to the worship of God, and to expect acceptance in such a state, is implied blasphemy and the greatest dishonour we can possibly do to him.

2. In order to see the glory of God, you must be clothed with humility. No disposition is more essentially necessary to a Christian at all times, but more especially when he makes an immediate approach to God in his worship, Isa. 66:2: “For all those things hath mine hand made; and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” And indeed, how can we consider the nature of that God whom we worship, and our own sinful and miserable estate, without being struck with a sense of the necessity of deep humility and self-abasement in our intercourse with him? It is particularly to be noticed that self-abasement, and even self-abhorrence, is the immediate effect of a sense of the divine presence. See to this purpose, Isa. 6:1-5: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple: above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory! And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me; for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” See also Job 42:5-6: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Let us endeavour therefore to be truly and inwardly humble. Let us remember the grace of redemption, what guilty criminals we were, before unmerited mercy and sovereign love found out a way for our recovery. Happy they, where humility arises from a real exercise of soul! How difficult, how rare a thing, is true humility! How easy is it to use modest and submissive expressions, compared to attaining a truly humble and mortified state of mind? May almighty God by his power make us humble; and do thou, O blessed Jesus “cast down every high thought, and lofty imagination that exalteth itself against thee.”

3. In the last place, if you desire to see the glory of God be fervent in preparatory prayer: if there is any blessing that requires importunity and wrestling with God, surely this high and happy privilege of communion with him in his house must be of that kind. And, I think, we are warranted to say that in the divine government there are some blessings that require more importunity than others. See a remarkable passage, Mark 9:28-29: “And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, why could not we cast him out? and he said unto them, this kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” If some devils were so obstinate in their possession, that the same degree of faith and fervour, which prevailed over others, could not cast them out, must not the same thing hold, from analogy, with respect to other mercies? and how justly are indifferent, lukewarm worshippers denied that blessing which they so lightly esteem? Let me therefore earnestly beseech every serious person not to restrain prayer before God, but to repeat and urge the plea, that he would be graciously present with us; that he would pour down his Spirit from on high, and make us to know to our happy experience “that a day in his courts is better than a thousand; and that it is better to be door-keepers in the house of God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”