When Christians think of worship, images of the Sunday morning worship service come to view, with singing, praying, giving, preaching, and sharing the sacrament.
Study is perhaps something that is done in preparation for worship, but could Christians ever conceive of study, itself, as an act of worship, even the highest form of worship? When we analyze this concept, however, we begin to understand that intensive study of the Word of God is the most reliable way in which God can speak to us and cause us to understand his will and his ways.
Even the most intense and profound subjective experiences must be judged by the written Word of God (II Peter 1:16-19). Study of the Word of God, then, with a view toward doing the Word, is an act of submission to the divine will, the essence of true worship. When we pray, we speak with God; when we study, God speaks to us.
For many centuries study has been at the very heart of the Jewish experience, so much so that much of Judaism has considered study as the highest form of worship. Humbly submitting oneself to the wisdom of God revealed in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures) was viewed as worship, which literally meant to “prostrate oneself” before the Eternal. The Hebrew word for worship, dg”s] (segad), means to “bow down or do obeisance to,” and it has the connotation of total submission to a superior (as the king). The Greek translation of this word, proskunevw (proskunéo), is even more graphic, meaning to “kiss as a dog licking its master’s hand.”
The decision to study God’s Word in order to do His Word is a meaningful act of submission and reverence–in short, it is worship. Study carried out with this motive is the very essence of Jewish learning.
This is not study in order to understand; it is study in order to do. Abraham Joshua Heschel encapsulated this Jewish approach to study by saying that the Greeks study in order to understand while the Hebrews study in order to revere. God’s Word and ways are ineffable: only by doing them does one understand them.
Study of God’s Word in order to mold one’s lifestyle to that Word is also worship in the truest sense of the English word worship, which means to “ascribe worth to.” When we fully submit our lives to God’s Word, when we study what he has said with complete devotion and intensity, we do, indeed, ascribe worth to him: we worship him.
Synagogal Life Reveals the Model
The importance which the Jewish community attaches to study is reflected in the life of the synagogue, the focal point of the Jewish experience since the time of the Babylonian captivity. The word synagogue is from the Greek word sunagoghv (sunagoge), which was used by the Septuagint scholars to translate the Hebrew hd;[e (Eda), the word which referred to the meeting of the congregation of Israel. The word synagogue was also used to translate d[e/m (moed), which meant “an appointed place of meeting” (Psalm 74:8).
In ancient times the synagogue was probably the assembly of the people in homes for social interaction, for prayer, and for study. Later, these meetings were housed in buildings designed specifically for such use, which took on the name of the meetings, themselves, and were called synagogues.
The synagogue has had three traditional functions which were manifest in the names given to it: Beit Knesset (House of Assembly or Meeting Place), Beit Tefillah, (House of Prayer), and Beit Midrash (House of Study or Learning).
The synagogue was a place where the Jewish people assembled for the interaction of their collective lives. It was probably first a simple meeting (knesset) place of the people or their gathering for the dispensing of justice (din) through the rabbinical court. Then it became a place for corporate prayer (tefillah), which requires a minyan (quorum) of ten men, underscoring the Jewish mindset that salvation and interaction with the Divine is a collective, not individualistic exercise. Over time, however, the emphasis came more and more to be on the assembly of the people to study, learn, or investigate (midrash) the Torah. A Beit Midrash was most often attached to the synagogue, and the functions of both tended to overlap. Eventually, the Beit Midrash came to be viewed as more sacred than the rest of the synagogue.
The continuing recognition of the synagogue as a house of study is seen in the fact that many Jews today prefer the Yiddish term shul over the term synagogue to identify their place of meeting. Shul literally means school and probably is related to the Latin schola, from which we get the words scholar and scholastic.
A Holistic World View
The traditional importance that the Jewish people have placed upon education is based in Judaism’s holistic view of life. Jews have long viewed all of life as a continuum in which each part of the human experience shares equal importance with every other aspect of life. Jews do not embrace the bifurcated dualism that much of the Gentile world has espoused.
There is no such thing as a dichotomy between the spiritual and the material aspects of life, as in neo-Platonism or Eastern Monism. All of life is spiritual and good. Yahweh is the Creator of all things, and he declared all the things that he had created to be “good” and “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This Jewish holistic view of life is encapsulated in Paul’s declaration: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself . . .” (Romans 14:14).
Satan never has and never will create anything! He has and always will, however, attempt to pollute everything that God has created for the good of man. God created everything good and set parameters for man’s enjoyment of the good that he had created. Satan, however, has successfully enticed men to go beyond God’s set limits and to commit sin with virtually everything that God has created, including the grace and the Word of God (Jude 4).
Because of their holistic view of life, Jews do not make a vast distinction between “spiritual” and “secular” knowledge, for all knowledge is from God and is designed for the human good.
“There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding” (Job 32:8).
All knowledge is the product of divine inspiration, often received by men as a “flash of insight.” Most of the great inventions and discoveries of history have not been merely the product of accumulated empirical evidence. They have come as a flash of inspiration. Both spiritual understanding and secular knowledge come from the “inspiration” or breath of the Almighty.
If all of life is sacred, then both traditional “spiritual” and “secular” knowledge have relative importance to man. For the Jewish people, there can be no withdrawal from society into monasticism or asceticism that denies the “secular” or material through constant self-abnegation in order to elevate the “spiritual.” Gentiles, on the other hand, have thought that nearness to God was measured by withdrawal from the world.
The neo-Platonists who Hellenized the earliest church took their cue from Greek philosophy, which declared that the spiritual good had become entrapped in the material evil. Official Christendom, seeking escape from the material world, concentrated its erudition on the spiritual to the neglect of the natural and cloistered what knowledge it had among a sterile elite, denying it to the “secular” world. This philosophy of education plunged the Western world into the Dark Ages of human ignorance, superstition, disease, and depravity.
The religions that spring from Eastern Monism sought escape into nothingness as the ultimate experience that could be produced by meditation and separation from the material. There was, therefore, no thought of improvement of the human scene. The only hope was escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Is it any wonder, then, that the nations which feature this philosophy suffer a profound toll in human suffering and environmental, social, and economic disaster.
For the Jews, on the other hand, the way to be close to God is not withdrawal from the world but involvement in the “nitty-gritty” now and now, taking the knowledge and wisdom that one has acquired and using it to improve the human situation. Man is not on some mindless treadmill of fatalism, a “good” spirit trapped in an “evil” body and in an “evil” world. All of life is to be celebrated to its fullest and is to be dedicated to God and his service.
The Spirit of Improvement
Continual improvement in the earth is the goal of Judaism, as man works in partnership with God for the improvement of his environment–physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. This is, no doubt, the reason that so many Jews have chosen professions which deal with health and welfare. When one understands this holistic approach to life, he cannot have one set of ethics for the “spiritual realm” and another for the “secular realm.” He cannot abuse his environment, his society, his government, or his religion.
Jewish emphasis on education, then, is based on the philosophy of continuing self-improvement and the improvement of the world around us. And, that emphasis has produced some of the greatest accomplishments in virtually all fields of learning, as Jews have led the way in the betterment of the human race.
This dedication to improvement of the human lot is in context of God’s command to Adam and Eve to “subdue the earth.” This is an ongoing work that is generational and universal.
Working in concert with God is such a massive job that no one person or no one generation can ever accomplish his plan. Working continually to improve is the essence of the spirit of perfection which is enjoined upon believers. “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” is the command of Jesus. This perfection is not the achievement of some plateau or apex; it is the continual walking with God to make improvement, which requires continual study.
The spirit of improvement is the factor that has contributed to the value which Judaism has traditionally placed on education. It is reflected in the Jewish view that the role of man in the earth is to be the same as it was in the beginning of creation: the keeper of the garden. Jews believe that God has called man into a partnership with himself to work at improvement of the planet to which man has been assigned.
If continual improvement is to be made by each succeeding generation, then the knowledge acquired in each generation must be passed on to the next. This was one of the primary reasons for which Yahweh had chosen Abraham, the first Hebrew, in the beginning: “For I know [Abraham], that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment” (Genesis 18:19). Jewish perspectives on learning, then, involve both the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.
The word education comes to us from the Latin ex ducere, which means to be led out. It is a simple fact that learning leads us out of ignorance, out of darkness, out of superstition, out of misery, out of suffering.
While all of Europe was being decimated by the Black Plague, Jews were spared because they had the knowledge to “be clean, and change your garments” (Genesis 35:2) and to keep their homes free of rodents and the attendant fleas that spread the plague. While Gentile women have been afflicted with high instances of uterine cancer, Jewish women have largely been spared because of the circumcision of Jewish men and abstinence from sexual intercourse during the woman’s time of niddah (forbidden), beginning with the onset of menses and continuing for seven days after its conclusion. While the Gentile world has been dominated by superstitions founded in false religions that produced a pantheon of gods or worshipped an impersonal force, the Jews have enjoyed the freedom and fulfillment of worshipping the God who is one and who can be approached as Avenu, Malkenu (our Father, our King).
While the world and the church knew that the earth was flat, Christopher Columbus, with the support of the Jewish community, set out toward the east by sailing westward because he knew that “the Lord sitteth upon the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22). And, the list goes on and on.
Learning the wisdom of God leads us out of darkness and into his marvelous light.
Training Up Children
The importance of educating children is also seen in Solomon’s dictum in Proverbs 22:6:
“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
This text has often been misinterpreted to mean that if one trains his child in the knowledge of God, the child will never depart from that understanding in his adult life. The true meaning, however, is that parents are responsible for training their children in the discipline to which the child is inclined.
How many parents have forced their children to be educated according to their own preferences and have consequently enslaved their children to professions that they despise? It is the responsibility of parents to discern the interests of their children at as early an age as possible and then to see that the child is educated to the greatest degree possible to facilitate his performance in that field of endeavor in which he is interested.
This truth is seen in the responsibility incumbent upon every Jewish father to teach his children both Torah and a means of livelihood. The home is the center for spiritual growth and the primary source of life training.
The acquisition of secular knowledge, then, when subordinated to learning the Word of God, is also an act of worship. It is a response to the commandment of God that man should “work six days a week.”
In this context, work is also worship, another concept that is foreign to the Christian mind because of the influence of neo-Platonic thought. Indeed, the Hebrew word abodah means both “work” and “worship.” There is no such thing as a menial job. All work that is done in obedience to the commandments of God is an act of worship and, therefore, of import.
Study For Approval Before God
The importance of studying the Word of God is seen in Paul’s instructions to Timothy: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. . . . from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 2:15; 3:15-17).
Intense study is necessary to avoid the shame of inaccurately interpreting God’s Word.
This is in keeping with David’s description of the righteous man: “His delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2) The meditation to which David refers is not Eastern Monism’s meditation that seeks to focus the energy of the mind on the third eye in the center of the forehead (where the pituitary gland is located) so as to achieve the understanding of one’s inherent deity. It is the repeating over and over again (like the rumination of a cow) the words of God until one so ingests the Word that it becomes a part of the very fiber of his being.
This is the vision that keeps God’s people from casting off restraint: “He that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Proverbs 29:18). Without the prophetic vision of the Word of God, people perish. With the understanding of rightly-divided Holy Scripture, one can be taught, corrected, and instructed in righteousness, thereby becoming mature (perfect) and be completely equipped unto all good works. It is then that the light of God’s Word can shine through him so that men may see his good works and glorify the Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
Study is indeed the highest form of worship, for it is our subjection of our human reason to a conscious act of our human will to believe what God has said that manifests the faith that is credited to us for righteousness.
When we believe God and act on our faith, we receive the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. When we study God’s Word with a view toward obeying it, we become wholly submissive to God and can then walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. In such a state, there is no condemnation to us, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed us from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1, 2).
O that men everywhere would seek the Lord and worship before him in the beauty of his holiness, studying his Word and his ways!
From the Author John D. Garr, Ph.D.
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