Sunday, February 15, 2004

A Recall to Worship

by Jason S

Joshua 8:34-35 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.
II Chronicles 20:4,13 And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the LORD: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD... And all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children.
Joel 2:16 Gather the children, and those that suck the breasts

Few of us can remember it I am sure, but it was not until we were well into the twentieth century that one of the greatest modern church schisms occurred. It did not take place at Princeton, it didn’t involve Herman Hoeksema, and it had nothing to do with womens’ ordination. We do not remember it because it was slow and subtle, because there was no infighting, and no new churches constituted. We do not remember it even though it remains to this day because it was done seemingly in good wisdom and prudence, though the sort of prudence our forefathers spilt their blood to destroy. It only takes a good look to see that the church today has greatly fallen and is predominantly unfaithful. Our situation is indeed quite similar to that of the church in the day of the prophet Joel.

In our text the prophet Joel has been exhorting the people to open their eyes and to see the wrath of God that has been being poured out against them for their unfaithfulness. He pleads with them to behold the judgement they have received and to perceive the great judgement to come on account of their gross idolatries. The Prophet commands the people at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to repent and to turn from their wickedness, to mourn and fast and to assemble together for public repentance and the worship of God. It is in this context that we read in verses 15 through 17 of Joel chapter 2:

Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Sanctify a fast,
Call a solemn assembly:
Gather the people,
Sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children, and those that suck the breasts:
Let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber,
And the bride out of her closet.
Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD,
Weep between the porch and the altar,
And let them say, “Spare thy people, O LORD,
And give not thine heritage to reproach,
That the heathen should rule over them:
Wherefore should they say among the people,
‘Where is their God?’”
This passage echoes the call to repentance and worship in several of the previous verses. Here the LORD prescribes for us how we should repent. He commands our coming together, and teaches His people how to cry out to Him in humility. In our backslidden age this passage, indeed all of Joel, would serve greatly for us to find how we may return to God, beg of His mercy, and again follow Him. There is much here we need desperately to take heed to, but here we shall deal particularly with what the Prophet speaks concerning the assembling of the people, that portion of the passage which I believe should point us toward the healing of that wound of schism of which I spoke earlier. We should see that the public worship of God is for His people, that is, all of His people.
Verse 16 is a strange and foreign sounding instruction to our ears in our age of day cares, nannies, and church nurseries. Certainly it seems quite ridiculous and contrary to what contemporary wisdom teaches us. But as the LORD commands, and as I will contend, even infants and sucklings must be brought into the sacred assembly. Indeed casting the children out of worship is a serious sin of which we must repent and is that long unnoticed schism that we must seek to repair.

We read the LORD’s command to the people regarding children in public worship, in verse 16 of our text. We read here what God instructed the people and required of them, after they had strayed from Him for some time, after a period of unfaithfulness, when He called them back to Him, back to the right and pure worship of God. In verse 16 we read where God says, “Gather the children, and those that suck the breasts,” He says this with the purpose that the little ones would join the entire congregation in the public repentance and worship. The LORD wants the children to be present when they repent from their past sins and wanderings from Him. He requires that the children be there as the people praise and worship Him after a time of widespread infidelity. The LORD clearly does not have in mind that they should “gather the children” only to have them escorted to a private tent to have them out of the way. God does not intend that the children should be ‘gathered’ in order that they be brought to some other place where they will not be a nuisance or disturbance to the congregation. No, on the contrary, the passage is clear that the babes and infants are to be incorporated in the assembly of all the people. God is clear that he wants even these littlest children attending the public call to repentance and worship. The LORD does not command this for no reason, He does not command it because he is mocking the people. He is not taunting them as to say “gather the children to worship me though it will be of no use. No, God commands this for a clear and good reason.
We should only have to turn to verse 14 of chapter 1 to see this that it is the LORD’s will that all of the people of His church come together into His holy worship. We read there in this passage which is prior to our text, in Joel chapter 1 verse 14, where God says to Joel “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and ALL the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD.” When the LORD says all inhabitants He means All inhabitants. Throughout the old testament, particularly at the time of Moses when the people of Israel were to enter into the Promised Land, God command them to destroy all the inhabitants of the heathen nations. When the LORD requires that His people destroy all the inhabitants of the heathen nations He includes all of their citizens even down to the smallest of infants. Such as we see in Numbers 33 and in 1 Samuel 15 where we read: “Ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you” and “Utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” This is because these were the children of heathens and pagans, and they had been dedicated the false gods and idols of the wicked. These children were defiled by the wickedness of their parents and were not sanctified as God’s people. But the children of believers on the other hand, who God is calling to worship with His people, are His children. They are a part of His people and they are members of His covenant, and therefore He requires that they join with the rest of the inhabitants in His worship. God nowhere commands or even allows that the covenant children should be shut out, removed, and ostracized from the rest of the congregation in the solemn worship. Much on the contrary, He is most desirous and is pleased that the children of the covenant should take part in the public praises and ordinances.
We see this in the Psalms where the Psalmist in a parallel passage, praises the LORD saying, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength.” In this passage the Psalmist uses the same two Hebrew words for “babes” and “sucklings” that Joel uses in our text. This is not a matter of coincidence. We should see here that the Lord is showing us that He calls to worship the same as those that He has appointed to praise Him. God has instilled the ability both in the hearts and the mouths of these children to praise Him and join His people in worship. When perhaps sometimes we become annoyed and angered with the crying and noises of these small children during public worship, we should be most ashamed of ourselves for these sinful attitudes. For, God has said that out of the mouth of babes and sucklings He has ordained praise. This is a part of the very reason why God calls the children along with the rest of His people into the public worship of Him.
When we baptize our children we swear ourselves to this. We vow that we will train them up in the right and pure worship of God. We are given in Scripture the promise of the Gospel to us and our children. In Acts we read, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Rightly we understand that this promise is sealed in baptism, and there the promise is applied to our children. Having grafted our children into the Covenant of Christ, it is then our duty to instruct them according to God’s Word. In our church’s baptismal form for infants this promise and duty is explicitly stated. It reads: “Since, then, baptism has come into the place of circumcision, the children should be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant; and as they grow the parents shall be bound to give them further instruction in these things.” Again it is asked of the parents bringing their children for baptism in the third vow of the baptismal form: “Do you promise and intend to instruct these children, as soon as they are able to understand, in the aforesaid doctrine, and cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of your power?” How soon is it that a child understands enough to begin instruction? Let me only ask how soon is it that you begin to teach you children to speak? Would you wait until they are able to sit still or until they are 7 or8 years old? Indeed how will the understand enough to read if they are not first taught to speak? Likewise, how will they learn true doctrine if they have not been taught to practice it in the assembly of the congregation? Is not the true and pure public worship of God one of the most important things for a child to be instructed and trained in? Why then, should we think that the LORD would have us to seal the promise to our children in baptism, but not also wish that they who He calls should partake in the promises of the Holy Spirit in sacred worship as well with the rest of the church? Certainly God is not pleased, but rather provoked to wrath, when it is that the children given to Him in baptism and made to take part in His covenant and sealed in His promises, should be ushered out of the hearing of His Word. This is a terrible and scandalous thing that we should mistreat God’s covenant in this way.
Has the LORD commanded and we should not obey? Has He said “gather” and we should not gather? Surely not! The Most High has decreed that we should “gather the children and the infants” and so it is our duty unto Him, our most gracious God. He has given a gracious and loving commandment to gather and assemble the children to worship, one which will raise our children up in the truth and knowledge and in the love and fear of Him, the Most High God. Should we neglect this duty? Should we depart from it and treat it as though it were a ridiculous commandment to be disregarded. In no way! Should we be guilty of tearing apart the body of Christ for the sake of our ‘convenience’, or because of our own laziness? By no means! We should not rend the body of Christ in two be separating the children we consider to be noisome from us ‘mature’ saints who are able to understand the things of public worship. No, rather we should heed the call of our Saviour when He says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” We should listen especially when He gives His reason for calling the children unto himself, for He says, “for of such is the kingdom of God.” Who do we think we are to so meddle with God’s business as to separate His people? Who will we think ourselves to divide the kingdom of God by removing our children, dear covenant members, from the holy assembly merely on account of our luxury? Let us instead consider God’s command and the souls of our children. Let us not allow our children to be cast aside on our account. Let us not allow them to run headlong into the flames of hell because of our sinful failure and lack of diligence in bringing them into the public worship of God.

Having set forth the principle from our Scripture passage: that children, even infants and babes, belong in the public worship of God, There will remain some people, with certain questions and objections that will undoubtedly be raised. Some are only fools who despise God’s counsel, but there are many who sincerely seek to do God’s will, who because of the spirit of the age will have certain questions arise in their minds. We should be prepared to answer these from the highest authority of God’s Word and set aside any vain or false opinions we might have, that we might honor God as he has prescribed. Let us ask ourselves first which type of person we are, and then let us set out to reason from scripture rather than the lusts of our flesh.
For the honest inquirer I will address the natural questions that often occur. The first question that will surely be kindled is the same as that of every child. Just as when our own children begin to be able to speak they inquisitively ask us of everything “why?” so too do we as children question our heavenly Father when he commands us. “Why?,” we ask. “Why ought our children to be in public worship?” “What is our child able to get out of it?” “How can they benefit?” We assume that since babies and small children apparently do not understand or comprehend much they will not profit from being in the midst of the worship of God. By such assumptions we reveal a great deal more about our own childishness and naivete about the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit and the great Gospel. We forget that which Paul had said in Romans 10:17 “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We fail to think that it is by such hearing of the Word of God preached by his ministers that faith will be fed in our children. We often are either puzzled or we just giggle our modernist giggle when read of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb for joy at the presence of Mary the would be mother of our Lord. I suppose we think that it is silly to imagine a pre-born child expressing such an act of faith. Or else we think it only a special work of the Holy Spirit in that prophet. But is this not the same Holy Spirit that works in us and our children to produce faith? Should we imagine that our children are yet too ignorant to be affected by the Word of God? We are quick to forget how still and dead we were when the Holy Spirit regenerated us to spiritual life. What understanding may we boast of in preparing our own hearts for the Gospel? Can we say we were well studied and learned in words and language? I assure you, we did not give the Holy Spirit any aid by having attained such great an achievement. Had we mastered reason and logic so as to best be able to perceive the truth? Certainly the Word of God worked on our hearts in spite of these things if anything. No, these are clearly not the case, and such we would remember if we were not so quick to forget that the Lord chooses the foolish things to shame the wise and the lowly things to cast down the haughty from their proud seats. As our Lord Jesus says in Matthew 11 “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” Thus we should be reminded that it is particularly to children, and those like unto them, that God has delivered his glorious Gospel unto.

When pondering of what use it is for children to be in worship we are quick to think that they cannot get much from it because the do not understand. But for this reason do we keep from talking to our children when they are yet too young to seemingly comprehend? Nonsense! I have never seen parents scolded for being so “foolish” as to speak in the presence of and even to their babies and children. Yet why do parents do such things as speak to their children and hold them up so as to walk? Because we know that it is thereby, being immersed in speech and activity, that children learn these things for themselves. In fact it is well understood that it is in these early years that children learn these things best. As important as walking and talking are, how much more important is it for your children to learn to worship the Holy God properly. It is by such example and practice that the Lord instructs us to teach our children his precepts. As it is written in Deuteronomy 6: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” If children were impressed with these things at an early age how great a gift would this be to them. The treasures that would be stored up in them would be immeasurable. Surely by lovingly and rightly gathering and instructing their children in the proper practice of public worship fathers fulfill one of the greatest parts of their duties, as where Paul instructs in Ephesians, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” What use will all other things be if children are not properly taught to worship God aright? Is there any other practice in all of the Christian life of which it could be more beneficially said “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” For, true worship, belonging to the first table of the Law, is the foundation of the Christians relationship to God on which all other matters of Christian holiness must stand.

As I have pointed out earlier it is out of the mouths of babes and infants that the Lord has ordained praise. For this reason also it is that God would have our children to be in his public worship. The worship of these little ones is dear to him and is worthy of his special order. In reforming Geneva, John Calvin thought it proper that special instruction in the schools should be given to the children to teach them to sing the Psalms. This was so that in the public worship their voices of enthusiasm might rise above those of the adults, so as to inspire them to sing their praises loudly as well. I can imagine that those who scorned the praises of these children would have been rebuked in the same manner as our Lord did in Matthew 21, where it is recorded, “when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

Thirdly your child’s presence in the congregation teaches them that they are part of a greater covenant community, it teaches the congregation as well to regard them as a covenant member.
“But,” you ask, “does not my child crying or otherwise cause more problems than good?” I answer: Certainly not! If we think such we undervalue the blessings and lessons that come thereby. Such behavior should teach you and the assembly at least these three things: First, you should learn to make it your duty to discipline your child in a godly manner that they might behave properly in the holy worship of God. Second, you must learn compassion to comfort you child when necessary, also we as Christians should learn to be loving neighbors, offering to help burdened mothers during worship. Thirdly, we as a congregation must learn to be a tuned to crying children who often remind us when they cry out during prayer or the sermon that we ought too to cry for our miseries and failures. We should also be reminded at the voices of those small ones of our covenant duties and take a moment to pray for that child and their parents.
There are several more questions that you may have, I am sure, but I think you will find that with prayer these answers should give us strength to remove all other obstacles as we seek to be faithful to God.

We face a long road before us on the way to returning to faithfulness to our faithful God. As we are taught in Joel this will only happen as we recognize our unfaithfulness and its consequences. As we learn this we must follow God’s instructions: “Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” Let us take that first step on that road and bring our children back into worship.

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