A Lively Reverence
Picture two men. One stands in a soaring cathedral. His eyes and mouth are closed. His hands have never leave the back of the pew in front of him. Around him, words are read or sung that speak of God’s transcendent holiness. He registers each truth with a small nod of his head and meaningful assent in his heart. The second man paces back and forth along the side of a low-ceilinged room. Tears flow down his face and his hands punctate his prayers as he pleads with God to save his wife. Occasionally he groans and sinks to his knees as he reaches a place where words are gone but the burden remains.
Question: which man embodies your definition of “reverence”?
The word “reverence” usually brings to mind hushed tones, majestic stillness, and an inward sense of awe. And this is for good biblical reason. Hebrews 12:28 uses “reverence” and “awe” as parallel expression of acceptable worship. Habakkuk 2:20 accompanies the Lord’s arrival in His temple with the command, “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” The very word the New Testament uses for “reverence” carries the idea of caution. To reverence the Lord is to see Him as He truly is such that we are stripped of all presumption and flippancy as we are sobered by the weight of His glory. Refusing the caution of this reverence and continuing to walk in presumption toward the Lord is what cost Uzzah and Ananias their lives. To reverence the Lord, then, is to respond to Him as a His creature, on His terms, in the light of His perfections. That is why reverence is often pictured by prostrating ourselves before the Lord. Bowing before the Lord aligns the posture of our body with the posture of our spirit.
I had never noticed, until my wife pointed it out to me on the ride back from Louisville, that this is not all Scripture has to say about reverence. In a striking passage in Hebrews 5, the author is inviting us to key our own intercession off of Christ’s example. In verse 7 he describes the example of Jesus like this: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” This is a remarkable piece of the Bible’s definition of reverence! Hebrews 5:7 describes the kind of loud cries and tears you would offer in a life or death struggle as “reverence.”
The phrase “to Him who was able to save him from death” is the key to understanding how loud cries and tears can count as reverence. Jesus was reverencing God when He prayed this way because that is the way you pray when you find yourself confronted with death and you see God as your only hope for deliverance. The volume and emotion of Christ’s intercession is in perfect proportion to the seriousness of His situation and the unique, necessary power of God to effect rescue. The implication is that for Jesus (and for us, since He is presented here as our model) to be facing death and not pray to God, yea to not pray to God with significant volume and emotion, would be to dishonor Him. To choose silence in this situation would be out of line with what biblical reverence requires! So reverence can and must include loud cries and tears so far as they are proportionate with the seriousness of our situation and the uniqueness of God to stand in as our Savior.
So the biblical understanding of reverence is much broader and deeper than we might have imagined. It is broader because it can include both awesome silence and loud wailing. It is deeper because it is not our closed eyes or loud cries that determines reverence. What reverence demands in any situation is determined by what God wants. And what He wants is to be made to look in our prayer as uniquely glorious and He truly is. Sometimes that calls for a prostrated, mouth-covering, heart-trembling silence. And other times it calls for a tear-stained, sore-throated crying out.
If we only know one of these ways, there are times and places in our life when we are dishonoring God by being loud when silence is called for, or by being silent when Jesus-like volume is important. May God receive from His church the reverence He deserves.