When God’s people gather for worship, we know that the most important part of the experience is what happens inside of us, in our hearts. The outside (how we look, how we sound, our posture, the order of service) is not what matters most. But let us remember that God does value things like ceremony, symbolism, and drama when those elements cause His people to make fresh commitments to Him. The special service of commitment that Israel experienced in today’s chapter was like that: it involved symbols, visual media, choreography, and a dramatic call-and-response script.
Just before the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Moses gathered them at a place called Mt. Ebal for a unique time of worship that was focused on God’s Law. The key phrase in the chapter is found in verses 9-10: “You are the people of God…you shall therefore obey Him.”
In preparation for worship, or rather as a part of it, they were to find large stones, set them up where they could be seen, and then paint over them so that they could be written on. The entire Law of God would be inscribed on the stones, making them like a sort of billboard and serving the same purpose as the screens in modern worship centers. Everyone could see the Law written on them “very plainly” (v.8).
With this visual media in place, the service would begin with a time of offering sacrifices to God on a special altar of natural rocks — burnt offerings and peace offerings would be made by the Levites, leading up to a special meal that would be enjoyed by the congregation. These things would be done in a very joyful way and would surely have inspired a time of celebrative singing and rejoicing (v.7), all in view of the large stones bearing the words of the Law.
This time of praise transitioned to a ceremony of commitment as the people were quieted (v.9) and told to take their places: six of the twelve tribes on one ridge, Mt. Gerizim, and six on the opposite ridge, Mt. Ebal. To the twelve tribes the Levites shouted twelve statements that summarized the behavior demanded by the Law. These declarations included their worship (v.15), family life (v.16), property rights (v.17), treatment of those with disabilities (v.18), justice for those who are most vulnerable (v.19), standards for sexual normalcy (v.20-23 — interesting, isn’t it, that one-third of these statements were made to protect the sexual integrity of Israel), and the sanctity of human life (v.24-25). The final statement in verse 26 covered the entirety of the Law and urged obedience to it: “Confirm the words of this law by doing them.”
After each of these statements the whole nation was to shout a one-word response of commitment: “Amen!” I am sure that scene was never forgotten by those who saw and heard it, especially the little children. That word, amayn in Hebrew (pronounced very much like our English word), means “sure, certain, trustworthy, true.” It was a word of affirmation used to state Israel’s agreement that God would not bless the sins that were stated. By saying “Amen” they were pledging to live their lives God’s way — or suffer the consequences.
In the way you speak and act and relate to others today, make your life a loud “Amen!” to the Word of God.