Often when we think of the northern kingdom of Israel we think of false worship and idolatry. Much of this stems from what happened immediately after the kingdom split. When Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, refused to listen to wise counsel, the northern tribes left him and declared Jeroboam as their king. Jeroboam recognized a problem, however: the temple of God was in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was in Judah, and Judah was in Rehoboam’s kingdom.
And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.1 Kings 12:26–31 ESV
To prevent the people of Israel from returning to Jerusalem and therefore to Rehoboam, Jeroboam built two golden calves and declared them to be representations of the gods who brought them out of the land of Egypt. This is the very sin Aaron committed while Moses was on the mountain! (See Exodus 32:1–6.) He also built two temples, one in the south and one in the north.
The temple area in Dan has been studied extensively by archaeologists. The place is known as Tel Dan. Some remarkable and amazing things have been discovered there. In Exodus 29:27-28 and in Leviticus 7:32–33 we read that the priests would receive the right side of sacrifices for food. At Tel Dan they have found many more right-sided bones in the priestly areas and left-sided bones in the common worship areas. This would be expected as the priests would eat their portion in their spaces while worshipers would eat their portions in the more public spaces. Also in the priestly areas were found many toe bones. When an animal was butchered its skin was left attached to the feet of the animal. We know from Leviticus 7:8 that the priests were given the skins of animals (to be made into leather) as part of their compensation, so it makes sense that these bones would be in priestly areas. So-called “altar kit” has been found—tools and implements used in the carrying out of temple duties. Archaeologists even know the side of the altar the priests climbed to offer their sacrifices. They know where the ashes from the altar were dumped after being removed from the altar. These things matched the temple in Jerusalem.
What is remarkable about this is how closely the temple Jeroboam built in the city of Dan matches the temple in Jerusalem. In the law of Moses, the form of worship was given great importance. A quick read of Exodus 25–30 shows the great detail prescribed for the tabernacle and the priests’ garments and the tools used in sacrifice. The details are so important that Moses essentially repeats these details in Exodus 36–40, only instead of prescribing how to make the tabernacle, etc., he describes how they were made.
To sum up, it is remarkable how closely—identically?—the temple in Dan matched the temple in Jerusalem, including the steps the priests would take to offer their sacrifices. The form of worship was the same. They used the same tools, offered the sacrifices in the same way, offered the same animals, even, disposed of the ashes in the same way, compensated the priests in the same way. It was, in nearly every way, worship as God had commanded. Yet God was angry. The prophet Amos delivered God’s message to the northern kingdom of Israel.
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”Amos 5:21–24 ESV
Though it appears they did everything right, or “by the book,” God rejected their feasts and their sacrifices. He despised their assemblies in his name. He rejected their singing and music, no matter how skillfully sung or played. Instead, God calls upon the northern kingdom of Israel to “let justice roll down like waters.”
Their injustice between one another led God to reject their worship altogether. What God rejected is worship that was not reflected in their daily lives. The people would show up at the temple, offer the required sacrifices, participate in the worship proceedings, and then go on their merry way with no real love for God or love for one another. This lack of love was demonstrated by their lack of justice.
Today we have considerably more freedom in form for worship. There is no prescribed clothing, no required tools to be used in the Lord’s Supper, no prescribed building or structure, no specific location for worship. Still, while we gather together on Sunday mornings to worship our God with songs and a shared meal and Scripture reading and prayer and a sermon, if our lives are not also an act of ongoing, daily worship in glad obedience to his commands, then what is God to be pleased with? God is pleased with worship that permeates our daily existence and is demonstrated by how we love one another. Let’s offer to Jesus our very best, both on Sunday mornings and every day of the week. Our lives lived for his glory is the real form of worship God desires.