The Court of God

Author: James Akin


James Akin

I. The Divine Council in Heaven

Jews and Christians are monotheists, meaning that they believe in one God. But there are two kinds of monotheism, which we may call monarchian and solitary. Monarchian monotheism is the belief in one God who oversees a heavenly hierarchy of celestial but non-divine beings (angels or saints), while solitary monotheism is the belief in one God without a heavenly hierarchy. Philosophical deism (the kind of belief possessed by those who assert that there is a God but that he has very little to do with the world) usually teaches solitary monotheism, but biblical theism (the kind of belief possessed by historic Jews and Christians) is definitely monarchian.

This comes out very clearly in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

Micaiah continued, "Therefore hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And Yahweh said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?' One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before Yahweh and said, 'I will entice him.' 'By what means?' Yahweh asked. 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said Yahweh. 'Go and do it.' So now Yahweh has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. Yahweh has decreed disaster for you." (1 Kgs. 22:19-23)

Here Yahweh is presented as a king presiding over his heavenly court with his angelic courtiers attending him. This theme runs throughout the Old and New Testaments, which regularly depict God in this manner. In fact, we are so accustomed to it that we often fail to notice references to it when reading the Bible.

For example, a number of figures referred to in Scripture are depicted as heavenly courtiers and we fail to notice it. Thus in Joshua 5:13-15 we read of the captain of Yahweh's heavenly army:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of Yahweh I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" The commander of Yahweh's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15).

This corresponds to the role of the earthly commander of Israel's army (cf. 1 Sam. 17:55, 1 Kgs. 1:19).

Mark Smith, to whom I am endebted for this insight, also notes:

Similarly, the divine "destroyer," mashit, of Exodus 12:13 and 1 Chronicles 21:15 (cf. Isa. 54:16; Jer. 22:7), may be traced ultimately to the military mashit of 1 Samuel 13:17 and 14:15, perhaps as a class of fighters personified or individualized and secondarily incorporated into the divine realm.1

Elsewhere, we read of the archangel Michael as one of the high princes of Yahweh's court, who is the special angelic patron of Israel before God and against demons:

At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. (Dan. 12:1).

And, in fact, Satan himself has a name meaning "the prosecutor" or "the accuser," and serves as the prosecutor in the divine court. Thus we read of the time he was excluded from heaven at the time of Christ:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down!" (Rev. 12:1, 5, 7-10)

Indeed, we had earlier seen Satan performing this function in the book of Job:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and Satan also came among them. Yahweh said to Satan, "Whence have you come?" Satan answered Yahweh, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." And Yahweh said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?" Then Satan answered Yahweh, "Does Job fear God for nought? Have you not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to thy face." (Job 1:6-11).

This theme of angelic beings monitoring the activities of humans and reporting back to Yahweh itself mirrors the practice of an earthly court sending out spies into the land and reporting back to their king. This is the likely explanation for why angelic beings are referred to in the book of Daniel as "watchers":

"I [Nebuchadnezzar] saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. (Dan. 4:13)

The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men." (Dan. 4:17)

And whereas the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, "Hew down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field; and let him be wet with the dew of heaven; and let his lot be with the beasts of the field, till seven times pass over him" (Dan. 4:23)

We also see the concept of angels as spies appearing in Zechariah:

During the night I had a vision — and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses. I asked, "What are these, my lord?"

The angel who was talking with me answered, "I will show you what they are." Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, "They are the ones Yahweh has sent to go throughout the earth." And they reported to the angel of Yahweh, who was standing among the myrtle trees, "We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace." (Zech. 1:8-11)

Indeed, the very name "angel" (Heb. malak, Gk. angelos) or "messenger" is a divine court term. The idea is of angels as being the messengers sent out from the divine court to carry Yahweh's decrees to his people. In fact, the Hebrew term for angel is from a root meaning "to dispatch as a deputy."

In the New Testament, the imagery of the divine court (and its opposite, ruled by Satan) lies behind Paul's statements:

That through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10)

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Elsewhere Paul tells us that we too will be incorporated into the divine court:

Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Cor. 6:2-3)

This is something that Jesus himself emphasized to the apostles:

You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28-30)

And in the book of Revelation he states:

He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Rev. 3:21)

Indeed, revelation tells us that the saints are already reigning over earth with Christ in heaven:

Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years. (Rev. 20:6).

And humans will retain this place in the divine council in the eternal order:

And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:5)

The divine court imagery of the Bible comes out particularly clearly in reference to the cherubim. In Psalm 18 the cherubim, whose depictions incorporate both human and animal elements, with winged animal bodies, are pictured as the divine steeds, much like a king would ride a warhorse:

In my distress I called upon Yahweh; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire. (Ps. 18:6, 9-12).

The most common presentation of cherubim in the Bible, however, is not as Yahweh's steeds but as his throne-attendants. They are so closely identified with Yahweh's throne that they were even worked into the propitiation lid or kapporeth of the ark of the covenant:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the kapporeth. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the kapporeth shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the kapporeth with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the kapporeth shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the kapporeth on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the kapporeth, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Ex. 25:18-22)

The cherubim are constantly associated with Yahweh's throne in the Old Testament. In fact, in addition to the two cherubim on the kapporeth, when Solomon built the temple he also included two eighteen foot tall, gold-overlayed statues of cherubim in the Holy of Holies along with God's throne, the ark:

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold. (1 Kgs. 6:23-28)

And Ezekiel then sees four cherubim (perhaps based on the two on the kapporeth and the two from the Holy of Holies) attending God's throne in his vision:

Then I looked, and behold, on the firmament that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne. Then the glory of Yahweh went forth from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of Yahweh; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the semblance of human hands. And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the very faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. They went every one straight forward. (Ezek. 10:1, 18-22).

And just as Ezekiel dubs the cherubim to be "living creatures" (cf. 10:20 and several dozen other references in Ezekiel), John sees the four cherubim (combined with elements of Isaiah's seraphim) attending God's throne in Revelation:

And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" (Rev. 4:6-8)

In addition to being closely associated with the throne of Yahweh, the cherubim are also more generally associated with his court, and icons of them are worked into the panels of the Tabernacle, the walls of Solomon's Temple, and the walls of Ezekiel's visionary Temple:

"Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet stuff; with cherubim skillfully worked shall you make them." (Ex. 26:1; cf. other references)

He carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. (1 Kgs. 6:28; cf. other references)

And on all the walls round about in the inner room and the nave were carved likenesses of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Every cherub had two faces: the face of a man toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved on the whole temple round about" (Ezek. 41:17-19; cf. other references)2

The divine court imagery of the Bible also has important implications for our understanding of the temple and the nature of corporate worship.

II. The Divine Council on Earth

We have already mentioned the fact that the ark of the covenant is depicted as the throne (and once his footstool) of God. This is found in numerous passages, for example:

So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. (1 Sam. 4:4)

And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of Yahweh of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. (2 Sam. 6:2)

Then King David rose to his feet and said: "Hear me, my brethren and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, and for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building." (1 Ch. 28:2)

O Yahweh of hosts, God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. (Is. 37:16)

Because the ark served as God's throne/footstool, the place the ark was to be kept—the Holy of Holies—was therefore God's throneroom. This is why the Tabernacle and later the Temple contained icons and statues of the cherubim, God's heavenly courtiers.

The understanding of the Temple as God's court or palace is even more clear when it is remembered that there is no distinctive term for "temple" (the dwelling place or worship center of a god) in Hebrew. The normal Hebrew term rendered "temple" in our English versions (heykal) simply means "house," and can be used for the palace of a king. The other Hebrew term translated "temple" (bayith) also means "house."

The parallelism between the Temple as the palace of God in contrast with the earthly palace of a king comes out especially in 2 Samuel 7:

Now when the king dwelt in his house, and Yahweh had given him rest from all his enemies round about, the king said to Nathan the prophet, "See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of Elohim dwells in a tent." And Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that is in your heart; for Yahweh is with you." But that same night the word of Yahweh came to Nathan, "Go and tell my servant David, `Thus says Yahweh: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"' "(2 Sam. 7:1-7)

The parallelism between the proposed Temple as Yahweh's house and the royal palace as David's house is unmistakable.

This also helps explain God's reluctance to have a Temple built for him. An earthly king needs a palace from which to rule. Without a fixed, established dwelling, a king cannot establish his power over his kingdom; kings do not live a nomadic lifestyle like shepherds in tents. Thus the introduction of the passage begins with the consolidation of David's power—God has granted him rest from all his enemies and has enabled him to build a palace for himself. Thus now that God has consolidated David's power over the land and built David a house, David seeks to thank Yahweh by building him a house.

God agrees to this plan (2 Sam. 7:13), but not before making the point that he has never asked for a house and thus does not need one. Unlike an earthly king, God as the divine king does not have need of an earthly house to consolidate his rule over the land.

This is also likely to convey an implicit attack on the Canaanite deities worshipped by the people David has just conquered or fought off. In Canaanite mythology, the gods did need houses (temples) in order to rule, and a considerable amount of discussion is made of this fact in the Baal cycle, as recorded in the cuneiform tablets unearthed at Ras Shamra.

In the Baal cycle, the sea-god Yam (yam is the word for "sea" in both Hebrew and Ugaritic) needs a house, and the kindly Father-God, El, arranges to have one built for him. However, problems set in:

Consternation broke out among the gods when they learned that Yam was to have his own house which would symbolize his high status among the members of the pantheon. Athtar [the young god of irrigation] hastened to El and urged the father of the gods to prevent this exaltation of Yam. Athtar was disappointed, however . . . Young Athtar had been unable to challenge the might of Yam, but a more effective challenger came in the person of Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility and storms. Accusing Yam of acting in a high-handed manner, Baal called for the destruction of the tyrant . . . Subsequently a furious battle broke out between Baal and Yam. . . . Baal . . . was about to destroy Yam when Athtar rebuked him for taking unfair advantage of a captive. Baal agreed to release Yam, but the contest had assured Baal the place of supremacy. Baal had proved his power but, as yet, he had no house. Without an adequate palace he could not really rule. The faithful Anat took it upon herself to go to El and demand an house for Baal. There were the inevitable delays. Until Baal actually had an house of his own the other gods refused to show him proper respect. To bring the matter to a head, Athirat made a plea on behalf of Baal which El reluctantly accepted. He told Baal to assemble the necessary materials and the workmen proceeded to build the house.3

With this as background for the contemporary ideas of the necessity of gods having temples, it is no surprise that when David offered to build a house for El, El made it absolutely clear before approving the plan that he—unlike Yam and Baal—did not need a house to consolidate his divine power and rule. The house was something with which man might honor God, but not something by which man might help God.

This explains why, after seeming unconcerned with the fact that David and the Israelites were living in houses when he did not have one, Yahweh turns and says in Haggai:

"Thus says Yahweh of hosts: 'This people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of Yahweh.' Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Thus says Yahweh of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says Yahweh. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says Yahweh of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house." And Yahweh stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of Yahweh of hosts, their God. (Hag. 1:2, 4, 7-9, 14)

Here in Haggai, Yahweh insists on having a temple built for himself and indicates that the building of his house is more important than the building of the houses of the Israelites. This is it the reverse of what he indicated to David when David was living in his own "paneled house."

The different religious climate explains the difference in the two passages. In David's day, when the Canaanite divinities (who needed temples to consolidate their power) were popular, God took a nonchalant attitude toward having his own temple, indicating that he didn't need one. But once that message had been communicated and accepted by the Israelites, once they had recognized that Yahweh is the only true God and the Canaanite divinities are all false gods (as was the case in Haggai's day), then God will insist on having a temple built, not because he needs it, but because it is a point of honor.

The understanding of the Temple as Yahweh's earthly palace also plays a role in understanding the theology of sacrifice. In the Bible there are multiple kinds of sacrifices, but they all have in common the idea of giving something to the deity. This reflects the ancient practice of bringing a gift to a man of great importance in order to gain an audience with him and seek his favor. Historian Ramsay MacMullen explains this custom as it was practiced in the ancient world:

The idea that any sort of day-to-day service or perpetual allegiance was owing to divinity had little currency [outside Judeo-Christian circles]. Neither was there the least uneasiness about the self-interested nature of worship. You only made offerings, orprimises of offerings, in order to gain favor from powerful beings. In exactly the same way, very poor people brought very poor little presents to a great man when they came to call—as petitioners, or potential petitioners; so it would be well to insure a kindly hearing in advance.4

This represents a corruption and a distortion of the biblical idea of sacrifice, but it is nevertheless fundamentally sound in its essence—the idea of sacrifices and offerings as presents given to the divinity to obtain his favor. The difference between the pagan and the biblical idea of sacrifice is that there is a perpetual allegiance owed to the divinity, that the sacrifices are mandatory—like tribute given to a ruler—and that God really owns everything and does not need the sacrifices, so to honor him we are giving back to him what he first gave us.

Thus Deuteronomy states:

Three times a year all your males shall appear before Yahweh your God at the place which he will choose: at the feast of unleavened bread, at the feast of weeks, and at the feast of booths. They shall not appear before Yahweh empty-handed. (Deut. 16:16)

And Psalm 50 states:

"I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank offerings to Elohim, fulfill your vows to Elyon, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me." (Ps. 50:8-15)

We can see how the custom of gift giving as a way of gaining audience and favor worked in the Bible:

When Joseph came home, they [his brothers] presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground. (Gen. 43:26)

Saul also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God had touched. But some troublemakers said, "How can this fellow save us?" They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent. (1 Sam. 10:26-27)

Yahweh established the kingdom under his control; and all Judah brought gifts to Jehoshaphat, so that he had great wealth and honor. (2 Ch. 17:5)

Some Philistines brought Jehoshaphat gifts and silver as tribute, and the Arabs brought him flocks: seven thousand seven hundred rams and seven thousand seven hundred goats. (2 Ch. 17:11)

Many brought offerings to Jerusalem for Yahweh and valuable gifts for Hezekiah king of Judah. From then on he was highly regarded by all the nations. (2 Ch. 32:23)

The connection between sacrifices as tribute to God and the idea of giving tribute to a ruler is brought out especially clearly in Malachi:

"A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?" says the Lord Almighty. "It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.

But you ask, `How have we shown contempt for your name?' You place defiled food on my altar.

But you ask, `How have we defiled it?'

By saying that the table of the Lord is contemptible. When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?" says the Lord Almighty. "'Now implore God to be gracious to us.' With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?"—says the Lord Almighty. (Mal. 1:6-9)

Notice the connection between the altar of the Lord and the table of the Lord in this passage. The two concepts are closely linked, and the concept of an altar as the table of the divinity appears regularly in Scripture.

Malachi then prophesies the shutting down of the Jerusalem Temple the table of the Lord that was there and the subsequent promulgation of the Christian sacrifice among the Gentiles at all places under the sun:

"Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you," says the Lord Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the Lord Almighty. "But you profane it by saying of the table of the Lord', 'It is defiled,' and of its food, 'It is contemptible.' And you say, `What a burden!' and you sniff at it contemptuously," says the Lord Almighty.

"When you bring injured, crippled or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?" says the Lord. "Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king," says the Lord Almighty, "and my name is to be feared among the nations. (Mal. 1:10-14)

The idea of an altar as a table is implicit in Psalm 50, where sacrifices were pictured as divine food, though with the risk of being misunderstood as something God needs. It is also assumed in offerings in which part of the sacrifice was given to God by fire (and thus symbolically consumed by him, just as the pouring out of a drink offering symbolized him consuming the drink) and the worshipper was then allowed to eat part of the sacrifice and thus have table fellowship or communion with God by partaking of the generosity of his master's table:

Present your burnt offerings on the altar of Yahweh your God, both the meat and the blood. The blood of your sacrifices must be poured beside the altar of Yahweh your God, but you may eat the meat. (Deut. 12:27)

The idea of the altar as a table is also explicit in Ezekiel:

There was a wooden altar three cubits high and two cubits square; its corners, its base and its sides were of wood. The man said to me, "This is the table that is before Yahweh." (Ezek. 41:22)

It is also contained in Paul's reference to the Eucharistic sacrifice in comparison to the Jewish sacrifices and the pagan sacrifices of his day. It is through the Eucharist that Paul sees the fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy that "the table of the Lord" in Jerusalem will be superceded by the Christian sacrifice and thus the Christian "table of the Lord":

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything?

No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:14, 18-22)

Notice how in this passage Paul places the Jewish Temple sacrifices, the pagan sacrifices, and the Eucharist in the same category—as sacrificial tables in which the people participate by eating the sacrifices and thus holding table fellowship or communion with the divinity.5

Thus not only is the Holy of Holies in the Temple presented to us as God's throne room, but the altar is presented to us as the table in his banquet hall. This depicts the temple to us as the house or palace of the Lord, and indeed the temple is often referred to as "the house of the Lord." It is thus the earthly manifestation of the Lord's court.

Thus by participating in the worship at the Temple, one was participating in the heavenly worship. By singing psalms in the Temple, the Temple choir was adding their voices to the angelic choir worshipping God. Thus the Psalms invoke the angels in heaven, imploring them:

Bless Yahweh, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless Yahweh, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will! (Ps. 103:20-21)

This verse is especially rich in imagery of the divine court since it mentions three (overlapping) types of court members: messengers (angels), soldiers (mighty ones), and servants (ministers). It shows us exhorting all three kinds—heavenly messengers, soldiers, and servants—to worship God with us.

And similarly, Isaiah saw the seraphim singing the Trisagion or Sanctus to God:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isa. 6:1-3)

Revelation depicts this particular prayer as still being part of the divine liturgy in heaven:

Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four presbyters fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." (Rev. 4:8-11)

This is something the Church still prays, whether as the Cherubic Hymn of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Eastern Rites or as the Sanctus of the Mass, where it is brought together with the hosanna cry from Christ's triumphal entry:

Priest: "Now with all the angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven, we sing your unending hymn of praise . . . " People: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

The Mass's description of the Trisagion as God's unending hymn of praise is indeed correct, for Revelation tells us that the living creatures around God's throne never stop saying it, day or night, and that whenever they do say it, the twenty-four presbyters prostrate themselves before God, lay their crowns at his feet, and say their antiphon. Thus the Trisagion is depicted as part of the continual heavenly liturgy, sung antiphonally by choir of living creatures with the response of the choir of presbyters, much like some of the Psalms were designed to be sung by two choirs in the Temple at Jerusalem (cf. especially Ps. 136, which is an antiphonal litany).

The setting of this liturgy is itself worthy of comment. We are told that at the center is the throne of God (4:2), which the Lamb approaches (5:1). Around the throne are the four living creatures (4:6), and around them are the twenty-four presbyters on twenty-four thrones of their own (4:4). Encircling the twenty-four presbyters are hundreds of millions of angels (5:11), and past them is the innumerable multitude of the redeemed (7:9). We thus have a pattern beginning with God and the Lamb at the center, then going to the leaders of the angels (the living creatures), then going to the leaders of the humans (the twenty-four presbyters), then going to the multitude of angels, then going to the great multitude of humans.

We can see this liturgical structure in action in 7:9-8:1 and in 19:1-6.

In the first passage, the great multitude of the redeemed cry out in praise of God (7:10) and "all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God" (7:11), following which the Lamb removes another seal and there is silence (8:1). If we look at the direction in which the vision points our attention, it moves inward from the ring of the redeemed toward the Lamb at the throne.

We see the same movement in the second passage. There the great multitude again cries out to God (19:1), then we move inward to the twenty-four presbyters and the four living creatures who also praise God (19:4), then we move inward to the Lamb: "And from the throne came a voice crying, 'Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great!' (19:5), following which all heaven breaks loose in praise (19:6).

So whereas the first passage the Lamb broke a seal of God's judgment, leading to silence, in the second passage he calls for praise to be given to God in rejoicing, which leads to a deafening roar of praise. Thus in both passages we see an inward liturgical motion of worship, one leading to anticipation in silence, the other leading to consummation in praise.

While we are in the heavenly Temple in John's vision, we also see a number of articles corresponding to those in the earthly Temple. John first sees the heavenly priests6 wearing white vestments (Rev. 4:4), just as those on earth did (Ex. 28:39-43). Then he sees the golden menorah or with its seven lamps (Rev. 4:5), corresponding to the one on earth (Ex. 25:31-37). Then he sees the crystal sea (Rev. 4:6), corresponding to the bronze sea (1 Kgs. 7:23-26). Then he sees the altar of sacrifice, under which are the souls of the martyrs (Rev. 6:9), corresponding to the earthly altar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, under which is the grotto known as the well of souls. Then he sees the altar of incense (Rev. 8:3-5), corresponding to the earthly altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-8). And finally he sees the ark of the covenant (Rev. 11:19), corresponding to the earthly ark (Ex. 25:10-22).

That the earthly Temple should so closely resemble the heavenly Temple is not to be surprised, for God continually stressed the command to make his earthly dwelling reflect the pattern of his heavenly dwelling:

According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. (Ex. 25:9; cf. 25:40, Num. 8:4)

Then David gave Solomon his son the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the kapporeth. All this he made clear by the writing from the hand of Yahweh concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan. (1 Ch. 28:11, 19)

And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, portray the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, and its whole form; and make known to them all its ordinances and all its laws; and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe and perform all its laws and all its ordinances. (Ezek. 43:11)

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain." (Heb. 8:5)

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. (Heb. 9:23)

In the same way, Christians, following the biblical precedent, seek to model their worship after the heavenly liturgy, so their priests wear white vestments during the liturgy and they model their churches after the heavenly temple, with oil lamps or candles corresponding to the seven lamps, with the font corresponding to the crystal sea, with the altar of sacrifice in which or under which are the relics of the martyrs, with incense corresponding to the incense, with icons and statues of angels and saints corresponding to those in heaven, and with the tabernacle containing the Living Bread from Heaven (John 6:32-41), corresponding to the ark which contained the unliving bread from heaven (Heb. 9:4; cf. Ex. 16:4).

Thus in all ways Christians have historically sought to model their earthly worship of God after the heavenly worship of God and to have their worship taken up into and amplified by the latter.


1 Smith, The Early History of God, 10; though I should note that I would disagree with Smith about the idea of mashit being secondarily transferred to heaven if this is taken to mean that the heavenly mashit did not exist before the human concept was applied to it. I should also point out that the term used in 1 Samuel 13:17, 14:15, and 1 Chronicles 21:15 is shachath, the etymological root of the mashit of Exodus 12:13.

2 Incidentally, I was once giving a talk at a parish in New Mexico and a member of the audience asked a question about whether it is okay for Catholics to have statues of saints and angels; as part of my answer, I pointed to the statues and icons of cherubim that God authorized in the Bible, then I pointed to a statue of Michael the Archangel in the back of the church's sanctuary and declared, "If it was okay for them to have statues of angels, it is okay for us to have statues of angels, too!—and also of saints, who are even more worthy of honor than angels for they 'shall judge angels' (1 Cor. 6:3)."

3 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible, 53-54.

4 Christianizing the Roman Empire, 13.

5 Incidentally, the other half of the book of Malachi's prophecy concerning the gentiles is also fulfilled, for Christians have also historically used incense in church, following the biblical model as presented in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation.

6 It is certain that the twenty-four presbyters represent heavenly priests, for they offer incense to God (Rev. 5:8), which anyone versed in the Bible knows that only a ministerial priest is allowed to do (Num. 16), the common priestly people (Ex. 19:6) not being able to do so without incurring divine judgment (Num. 16:16-21, 35). They are called presbyters to represent the New Testament fusion of the office of presbyter with the office of priest, as when Paul states that ministers of Christ have priestly duties (Rom. 15:16). They thus represent the New Testament priestly people (Rev. 1:6) as ministers before God the same way that the Old Testament priestly people (Ex. 19:6) was represented before God by its ministerial priests (Ex. 19:22). There are also twenty-four presbyters in heaven, representing the twenty-four earthly courses of priests (1 Ch. xx).

copyright (c) 1995 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved