Moses is famous for four words he spoke to Pharaoh on God’s behalf. Those words, “let my people go,” have sounded like a rallying cry for all who are oppressed. Indeed these four words are a demand for freedom. This freedom was God’s intention for his people. Pharaoh was more than a little reluctant to grant the people this freedom. God would accomplish the l liberation of his people at great cost to the people of Egypt and to Pharaoh’s authority.
What we seldom remember in our retellings of the story of Israel in Egypt was the purpose of the release Moses was asking for the people. At the beginning of Exodus 5 we hear the full request: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.”
Moses was asking, on God’s behalf, for the people to be let go so that they could spend a few days worshiping God.
Pharaoh was upset at the request. “Why are you taking the people away from their labor? Get back to work!” To him it was simple: worshiping the Lord served no constructive function, it contributed nothing to Egyptian society, so it was a pointless act. It could only be accounted for as a way to dodge the duties of “real” work. The people must be lazy. They must be looking for time off.
Although we don’t experience much oppression these days from people trying to keep us from worshiping God, the same mindset prevails: worshiping God doesn’t accomplish anything. Even among professing Christians, it seems easier to throw our energy into action rather than worship, into projects rather than time with God. After all, what is the point of worship?
Author and theologian Marva Dawn has a book on worship called A Royal Waste of Time, indicating her sense that although worship is something that we can’t explain in terms of what it does, it is nevertheless something that involves us in the life of God’s royal court. We are in the realm of his kingdom when we honour him as the king through our worship, even if to all human reasoning it looks like nothing but a “waste of time.”
Pharaoh could see no point in Israel going out to worship when they could use that perfectly good time to make bricks for him. We may see no point in worshiping God together in church or even kneeling to pray and give praise to him privately. Can’t we be more effective by using our time to “do” things?
God seems to say otherwise. His first thought with that request, “Let my people go,” was actually “Let them give praise to me.” Today we are in every way already free to worship God but we place it so far down our list of priorities that you might guess we were still in Egypt. It may be a waste of time according to the world, but in God’s eyes it is time well-spent with the true king.