God’s Special Presence in Public Worship

William Attersoll (d. 1640),
A Commentary on the Book of Numbers,
pp. 455-458. [1]

And when Moses was gone into the Tabernacle of the Congregation to speak with Him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and He spake unto him.” (Numbers 7:89)

We may note that Moses went into the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle signifies his Church. There is God to be spoken unto. The doctrine is this: God is present in a special manner in places set apart for his worship. True it is that He is everywhere; the heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool [Isa. 66:1; Acts 7:49]; howbeit wheresoever his Church and people are assembled, He is present with his Spirit, with his grace and with his blessing and assistance. Hence it is that the place appointed for his service is called “his face” (Gen. 4:14). This is afterward called “the presence of the Lord” (v. 16). So Ps. 46:5, God is said to be in the midst of the City of God; and Christ teaches that wheresoever two or three are gathered together in his name, He is in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). So then, wheresoever the place of God’s worship is, there is God ever present. [1 Cor. 14:25]

For first, He has promised to dwell there. Where dwells the master of the house and where is he readiest to be found, but where he dwells? As Ps. 132:13-14, “The Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for his habitation. This is my rest forever; here will I dwell, for I have desired it.

Secondly, He is known by a special work of his presence sanctifying those that are his by his Word. Hereupon the prophet says, “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob; glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.” (Ps. 87:2-3)

Thirdly, He delights in his own ordinances. “In Judah is God known; his name is great in Israel: in Salem also is his Tabernacle and his dwelling place in Zion.” (Ps. 76:1-2) It is God’s ordinance that we should meet together in one place. For this cause He commanded the Tabernacle to be built and afterward the Temple: these He sanctified for the Word, for sacrifices and for prayer. These does the Lord love, and in those does He take pleasure; and with them will He vouchsafe his presence.

This being an evident truth, from hence we must learn so to carry ourselves in such places as are sanctified and set apart for his service as that we may call Him to be a witness of our sincerity. Will a subject dare to behave himself rudely and unreverently in the presence of his prince? Or the child in the presence of his father? How then ought we to stand in awe of the majesty of Almighty God, whose glory is incomprehensible, who dwells in light that none can attain unto? [1 Tim. 6:16] Hereupon the wise man says, Eccl. 5:1, “Keep your foot when you go to the house of God, and be more ready to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.” 

No man ought to come before the Lord unprepared or to set his feet in the Lord’s house rashly and unreverently. Were it not unseemly and uncivil to enter into a king’s palace with foul and filthy feet defiled with dung and mire, or to sit down at a prince’s table with unwashen hands? And is it not more indecent and undutiful to come into the house of the great King, the King of kings, and to be partakers of his Table before we have cleansed and sanctified our hearts? This was shadowed out at the giving of the Law by commanding them to wash their garments and to abstain from their wives (Ex. 19:14-15). Thus they were to be prepared before they received the Law.

Likewise, before they could behold the wonderful works of God, they were spoken to, to pull off their shoes because the place whereon they stood was holy ground (Ex. 3:5; Josh. 5:15). This we should all consider when we meet together in one place and carefully remember that the place in which we assemble is holy ground; and therefore we should take heed that we do not abuse it.

But is that ground whereupon temples or churches stand more holy than other [places]? I answer no; it is not in itself. [2] There is no more holiness in it than in other [places], but in respect of the assembly therein gathered together, and of the exercises of religion therein performed, it is for that present more holy and better to be accounted and esteemed than all other places and pieces of ground whatsoever. This made the prophet say, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand: I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Ps. 84:10) 

We see how careful all men are, whensoever they go abroad and come into any public place and presence of men, to adorn the outward man decently, lest being seen in an unseemly manner they be condemned and despised, especially if they be to appear before some great person, as we see in Joseph when they brought him before the presence of Pharaoh; he shaved himself and he changed his raiment, and so came unto him (Gen. 41:14). How much more then should we look to ourselves, to the inward man, to the heart, that we come not carelessly and contemptuously before Him that searches the hearts and reigns? [Jer. 17:10]

How to Prepare Ourselves to Enter into God’s Presence.

If any ask how we may prepare ourselves and behave ourselves that we may be accounted fit to come before God’s presence? I answer: we must practice three duties. First, we must embrace true godliness and righteousness, and cast out of our hearts, as filthiness out of our houses, all impiety and unrighteousness. The gates of God’s house into which He will enter are the gates of righteousness and none shall enter into them but the righteous. Ps. 118:16, “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go into them and I will praise the Lord. This gate is the Lord’s, into which the righteous shall enter.

When Jacob went to Bethel to build for God an altar and to worship Him, first he cleansed his house of idols and commanded his household to be clean (Gen. 35:1-4), thereby shadowing out the purity of their hearts. To this purpose does David testify that he would wash his hands in innocency and then afterward he would compass his altar (Ps. 26:6). So then, so often as we intend to come to the house of God, we must rid our hearts of wickedness, as it were our ground of weeds, and so sanctify them that they may be fit vessels to receive heavenly graces. They that do otherwise shall never reap any benefit by the holy assemblies of the saints, let them resort thither never so often.

Secondly, we must not only shun and shake off things ungodly and unlawful in themselves, but even such things that in time and place may be followed and are commanded to be done of us, to wit, the care of earthly things and thoughts upon the matters of this world. These have their time, but their time is out of time when the time serves to serve the Lord and we are to sanctify a Sabbath unto Him. These indeed have their place but they have no place in the place of God’s worship, and therefore must be displaced out of our hearts before we come to the house of God. A vessel full of mire and puddle cannot receive any sweet and wholesome liquor, though you pour it upon it all the day long; and if our minds and hearts be forestalled with the cares of this life and the cogitations of earthly things, they are no way capable of heavenly things: they are full fraught and stuffed already and so leave no room or receipt for better things. These are rank thorns that choke the Word. [Mk. 4:18-19]

Lastly, we must consider that we have to deal with God and not with man, and be ready to receive without contradiction or resisting, without mincing and mangling whatsoever is delivered unto us by the ministers of God and from the warrant of Scriptures. This must be the end that we aim at when we come into the Church: to hear the Word of life, to learn the way of salvation and to embrace the doctrine of truth and salvation. It was the manner of the priests and Levites to interpret the Law, and the prophets were wont [accustomed] to preach their sermons to the people gathered together in great multitudes in the Temple, i.e. Jer. 7:2, where Jeremy is commanded to stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and proclaim there this word. Let us therefore prepare our hearts to obedience by setting before us the presence of God [Ps. 16:8], present by his Word, present by his grace, present by his sacraments, present by all his ordinances and by his blessing upon his ordinances. 

Thus does the prophet prophesy that the people call one to another and say, “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us (he does not say ‘the ministers’, but the Lord Himself will teach us) his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” (Isa. 2:3) [Here is] a notable means to work much good in us and the chiefest way to touch our hearts with fear and reverence, knowing that we have to do with God’s Word, nay with God Himself. Thus did Cornelius consider when he said to Peter, “We are all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded you of God.” (Acts 10:33) Let us examine ourselves by these few rules, and by them we shall know whether we come aright or not to the house of God with due reverence and preparation. Let not the minister sow among thorns, but grub them out of the ground of your hearts that so you may bring forth fruits with patience.

Satan’s Presence Amidst Idolatry.

Secondly, observe from the law of contraries that Satan is present in all places of idolatry, wickedness, impiety and profaneness. For as God is present where He is worshipped, so is the Prince of this World that works in all the children of disobedience [Eph. 2:2] present also where he is served. Thus speaks Christ our Savior to the Church of Pergamus, “I know your works and where you dwell, even where Satan’s throne is.” (Rev. 2:13) So then where ungodliness is set up and maintained, there is Satan present; nay, there he is president. There is Satan’s seat and there he keeps residence. 

O that all wicked and ungodly persons were thoroughly persuaded of the truth of this point, and that they would diligently weigh with themselves that Satan is oftentimes near them, even at their elbows when they think him to be far from them, and themselves out of gunshot (as we are used to speak) and free from all danger. For if he will intrude himself and wind in himself among the saints to hinder the best works (Zech. 3:1; Lk. 8:12), like a subtle serpent that he may seduce and deceive us as he did our first parents, we may be assured he comes freely and frequently into the company of his professed servants which are his children (Jn. 8:44). For as Christ speaks that where two or three are gathered together in his name, He is in the midst of them, so wheresoever two or three are met together at his pleasure and to his liking and for the doing of his will, he will be in the midst of them (though not in a visible manner) to tempt them to evil and to make them glory and continue in their evil. If then we fear such a companion, let us forsake such company. If we will needs frequent the company of wicked livers, we cannot avoid the society of Satan. Do we then see any place where drunkenness, where whoredom, where vanity, where blasphemy and all impiety is maintained and upholden? We may conclude, and as it were writ upon the backside of it and upon every door and post within it, “This is the devil’s house; here are the works of the devil to be seen; here is the devil in a special manner present with his tentations, with his allurements, with his instruments to ruin the souls of men, and to bring them to confusion and destruction.

Our Sabbath Duty.

Thirdly, it is our duty to frequent those places that make known his name unto us and spread abroad his saving health among all people. Here we may have familiar access to Him and be admitted into his presence. In prayer we talk familiarly with Him: Gen. 18:27, where Abraham says he had taken upon him to speak to the Lord; and in his Word He talks familiarly with us [Acts 10:36; Ps. 95:7 with Heb. 3:7], and therefore do the prophets continually cry out to [have us] hear the Word of the Lord and tell us that the Lord speaks to his people. What a high honor is it to a subject to have free access to his prince and to come into his chamber of presence? We are so honored of God to come to Him without check or controlment; the more boldly we press into his presence, the more welcome we are [Heb. 4:16; 10:19]. No man is reproved for coming too often. The faithful have accounted it a great part of their happiness to have liberty to meet together with one mind and with one mouth to glorify God and to set forth his praises. This made the prophet say, “Lord, I have loved the habitation of your house and the place where your honor dwells.” (Ps. 26:8) 

On the other side, they have lamented their condition with a lamentable and bitter cry when they have been banished from the place of God’s worship and driven to seek harbor and habitation among the unbelievers. Then their souls longed and fainted for the courts of the Lord (Ps. 84:2); their hearts and their flesh cried out for the living God; yea, they wept and lamented when in captivity they remembered Zion. (Ps. 137:1-2) They longed for the courts of the Lord; but many among us long greatly to be out of them. They accounted it a great grief to be out of the house of God; but we account it a great grief to abide in the house of God. They were never well nor quiet so long as they were from the worship of God; we are even sick and discontent so long as we are at it.

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.

Finally, they were banished from the Lord’s house; we banish ourselves. They were compelled to be absent; we cannot be compelled to be present. We would be thought to be willing to have God in our company and to desire to have access unto his presence, but if this were truly in us we would love the place of his dwelling. We shall be sure to find Him in his Word, to meet with Him at the sacraments and to speak with Him by our prayers.

This then reproves the carelessness of all such as make no reckoning of Church assemblies, that account one day or hour of the day spent in their own pleasures and vanities better than a thousand in the courts of the Lord. These are weary of the heavenly manna [Jn. 6:58]; it is a light and a loathsome food. This is a fearful sin, to pollute the holy things that He has sanctified and set apart to holy uses. These are scornful beasts and profane persons; there is but a step between them and atheism [Ps. 49:20]. They are men without religion; they tread under feet the Son of God and account the blood of the New Testament as a profane thing [Heb. 10:29]. Hereby we see the height of that sin which is too rife and common, to wit, the careless, willful and negligent forsaking of the holy things of God. These are come to the highest step of sin and are sat down in the seat of scorners (Ps. 1:1). These have faith justly denied unto them, and have not the grace given them to believe because they contemn the means by which they might believe and be saved (Acts 13:48). And doubtless he that makes no conscience of God’s worship will also, if occasion show itself, make as little conscience of anything else that belongs unto his brother.

To conclude, let us have no part or fellowship with these men, but carry earnest affection to the exercises of religion, hungering and thirsting after them with longing desires. When one Sabbath is ended, we should wish for the next; when one sermon is finished, we should desire another; when one communion has been celebrated, we should enquire when the next shall follow [Ps. 84:6-7]; even as the Gentiles besought Paul and Barnabas to preach to them the next Sabbath day the same things they had offered to the Jews (Acts 13:42). O that this zeal were found in us! Then would God be found of us. O that we would enquire after Him! He would offer to us his gracious presence in this life and we should be sure to enjoy his glorious presence in the Life to Come.


[1] This excerpt was edited by Travis Fentiman.

[2] WCF 21.6, “Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now under the Gospel either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth (John 4:21; Mal. 1:11; 1 Tim. 2:8).

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