The study of a character in Holy Scripture can be very rewarding, since New Testament principles are thereby clothed with illustrations of a practical nature. Lesser known characters often demand a detailed reading and collation of many passages of Scripture, in order to ascertain the basic historical facts surrounding them; on these facts, the New Testament interpretations can then be hinged.
The Old Testament circumstances surrounding the development of Asaph provide a basis for a study of the subject of individual exercise unto worship. In the Old Testament, worship was essentially expressed by sacrifice and by song; such types and shadows merely show God’s foreknowledge of better things in Christ. Both sacrifice and song were types, but worship today copies neither; they are summed up in the New Testament phrase ‘the sacrifice of praise’, Heb. 13. 15.
The theme of song was almost absent in the time of Moses. T will sing unto the Lord’, Exod. 15. 1, initiated the redemption song, which will also become the song of the Lamb in a future day. Rev. 15. 3. But then the law came in, and true song was almost stifled; the song of the heart was replaced by ceremony and formality. Legality now of any kind diminishes the capacity of the heart for true worship.
King David was the first to have an exercise for the true song. God was seeking more than a Moses – He was seeking a heart that would be attuned to sanctuary worship, one after His own heart, Acts 13. 22. David was exercised about many things – the ark, the house and the song; others followed David, but he initiated these ideas. The Spirit’s estimation of David was that he was the ‘sweet psalmist of Israel’, whilst David in humility said ‘The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue’, 2 Sam. 23. 2.
We must have a right perspective regarding the Levitical service introduced by the Lord through Moses and David respectively. Moses was concerned with wilderness service, David with the heavenly service of grace on Zion. Under Moses, the three Levitical families, Kohath, Merari and Gershon, Num. 4, each had their in dividual work; this would correspond to the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. 8-10, where the distribution is ‘to every man severally as he will’. All saints are embraced in this distribution; see Rom. 12. 3; Eph. 4. 7; 1 Pet. 4.10. A lower age limit of thirty was placed on these Levites, implying maturity for service, Num. 4. 47. But under David, all the families were represented in the service of song, 1 Chron. 25. 1-8, the lower age limit being now twenty, 23. 27. The lesson we learn is that the possession of spiritual gift and the exercise of worship are two different things. All saints are chosen for the latter, regardless of gift; one does not have to be a preacher in order to worship. At the same time, there is a danger that pre-occupation with Levitical service saint-ward may tend to exclude the service of song God-ward. This latter is more important, since the former takes colour from it. Hence the Lord chooses all to worship, but only some to any particular form of service. Athough many seek to accomplish this or that service, yet it sometimes seems that some brethren whom the Lord has appeared to equip are not exercised practically about leading the saints openly in worship.
In 1 Chronicles 25. 6-7, the sons of Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were ‘separated to the service’, v. 1. Asaph means one who gathers, Jeduthun choir of praise, Heman faithful. This forms a suitable description of a gathering of believers, for example, as on the Lord’s Day. The counterpart of their service is ‘singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord’, Eph. 5.19; it does not really correspond to the vocal exercise of hymn singing. But it may be asked, since all are called to worship – which is not a gift – whence comes the ability to worship? None is experienced from the beginning; we start, and continue to make progress.
illustrates the means whereby God fitted this chosen vessel, enabling him to worship ‘in spirit and in truth’.
The first stage. 1 Chronicles 15 records the first occasion of song; the time was suitable since most of David’s battles were over, and the ark was to have rest on mount Zion. At first, the singers could only use cymbals of brass, v. 19; others were more expert than they. Chenaniah was ‘instructed about the song’; he was skilful, and was the ‘master of the song’, vv. 22, 27. Asaph came under his influence; he was a young man willing to learn and to enter into the worship of others. But the song was not left to the ablest only; it was divided amongst ‘as well the small as the great, the teacher as the scholar’, 1 Chron. 25. 8. It is not God’s will to leave worship only to the teachers in the assembly. Young scholars take note: You also may be the mouthpiece of the assembly; it is with one mouth that God is glorified, Rom. 15. 6. In the house of the Lord, the trumpeters and singers were as one to make one sound, 2 Chron. 5. 13. Teachers take note: this spiritual activity of Chenaniah fitted him for more mundane tasks; he was put over the ‘outward business’ in Israel, 1 Chron. 26. 29.
The second stage. In 1 Chronicles 16. 7, David delivered to Asaph one of his psalms to praise the Lord. This speaks of the ability of Asaph to enter into and to use the open worship of others. Asaph, in his development, learnt the right material to be presented in worship. Today, chosen worshippers must know the right material in Christ for worship as, for example, when we partake of the Lord’s supper. This psalm, vv. 8-36, consists of a mosaic of extracts from Psalms 105, 96 and 106, but the trials of Egypt and the sins of this life occurring in these Psalms are omitted. These subjects would not be suitable for worship, and we should seek to learn from the Word of God and by listening to godly brethren as to what is suitable for worship.
The third stage. A sharp distinction now arises between the three chosen singers. Asaph the chief, v. 5, is left before the ark on Zion, v. 37, but the others are left before the arkless tabernacle at Gibeon, v. 41. Asaph may speak of young believers developing to appreciate the exalted, heavenly position of Christ ‘continually’, v. 37. The others may portray those who do not appreciate nor rise to these spiritual heights. The same distinction is drawn by the Lord in John 4. 21 and 23 respectively.
The fourth stage. Asaph has finally matured, and so on his own initiative he is able to compose the eleven Psalms 73-83. He has developed from receiving to producing. Today, this would correspond to a matured ability to lead the assembly in praise. Of course, we can only produce from the heart what is there already. Are our minds filled with worldly things, or are they stored with treasure suitable for heaven? If the latter, then it will be true that ‘the Spirit of the Lord spake by me’, 2 Sam. 23. 2; the Lord provides and the Lord leads in worship. Readers will notice that this fourth stage rests on the A.V. rendering ‘of Asaph’ (rather than the alternative rendering ‘for Asaph’) in the titles of these eleven Psalms.
Not every believer now enjoys the liberty of the Spirit in worship. The outward expression of worship can be dead when it is based solely upon tradition rather than allowing the Spirit to have His way. Moreover, this expression of worship may consistently be left to a few older brethren, or the assembly may rely too heavily on ready-made hymns rather than on the inner promptings of the Spirit. Are we self-satisfied with our capacity to worship? Is there not room for exercise, correction and instruction, following the example of Asaph? May the Lord encourage us all to evidence such continual spiritual development as exhibited by this character; young brethren would then be exercised to lead audibly or worship inaudibly as directed by the Spirit, and sisters would feel their hearts drawn closer to the Lord. Worship would then be sweeter until we see Him face to face.