Yesterday, while driving back from running an errand, I noticed that the check engine light in my dashboard did not turn off as it usually does once the engine has started. It was the first time this light had remained illumined, which prompted me to drive directly to my mechanic to have the problem diagnosed. Happily, it turns out that the problem was not a major one and he quickly resolved the matter.
I was thankful that my mechanic had the correct diagnostic tools at his disposal. A solid light on the dashboard was the cause of some alarm and I was clueless as to the cause of the problem. The purpose of the light is not to identify the problem but to alert the driver to the fact that there is, in fact, a problem, which must be properly diagnosed.
A couple of weeks ago, we turned our devotional attention to Psalm 40, where we observed that the devoted heart is not content with mere external shows of worship. There, David observed that the Lord did not find ultimate delight in mere external shows of worship (v. 6). We noted that God is more interested in the heart than in empty ritual.
But we must not think that true heart devotion is entirely divorced from external acts of religion. If we fall into that trap, we run afoul of Psalm 42.
Psalm 42 opens with the writer expressing a thirst for God’s presence. His soul “thirsts for God, for the living God” (v. 2). Crucially, however, he expects to quench that thirst in a particular context: “When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2). His anticipated appearing before God is not an act of private devotion, but of corporate worship. He wishes to gather “with the throng” and to do so “in procession to the house of God” and with “a multitude keeping festival” (vv. 3–4). His thirst will be quenched in the context of corporate worship.
We must recognise how these psalms work together. Psalm 42 does not contradict Psalm 40. It remains true that God is not interested in empty shows of religious worship. However, we learn from Psalm 42 that corporate worship, while not an end in itself, is, in some senses, the check engine light for heart devotion.
While separated from corporate worship, the psalmist’s soul is “cast down” and “in turmoil” within him. But he tells himself to “hope in God” because “I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (v. 5). As the context makes clear, this praising would take place in corporate worship, not in private devotion.
Many interpreters believe that the occasion of this psalm was the deportation to Babylon. Mount Mizar (v. 6) is the last place from which a traveller would catch a glimpse of the Promised Land before heading east toward Babylon. As the psalmist was being dragged off captive to Babylon, he felt “cast down” and “in turmoil” because he would no longer experience the joy of corporate worship. But he looked back to Jerusalem in faith, confident that he would one day again experience the joy of corporate worship with God’s people. The thought of corporate worship filled him with relief and hope.
We learn from this that heartfelt devotion to God must go deeper than mere ritual. We can attend every service, sing every song, listen to every sermon, and partake of every Communion meal and it can all be meaningless.
At the same time, the longing for corporate worship is something of a check engine light for our heart. A devoted heart will desire to meet with God’s people for corporate worship.
Now that opportunity for (limited) gatherings has reopened, how is your desire? Are you content to just stay home week after week, never feeling the tug to register and join an in-person service? There is no doubt legitimate reason for some to remain home, but perhaps others are ignoring the check engine light, which is designed to alert you to a deeper problem. Gathering with God’s people is not the end of devotion to God, but the desire for corporate worship is one tool that God has given to help diagnose the devotion of our heart.
Let’s not ignore the check engine light of our hearts, but instead use the alert to diagnose and address problems that could potentially lead to catastrophe.