Some words or phrases found in Scripture may seem so ordinary or mundane that we often pass over them very quickly with little or no thought. One example is the prepositional phrase, “before the Lord.” Granted, in some places the phrase occurs in a prosaically literal context. For instance, the phrase is sometimes used with the ordinary meaning of before in reference to time: we are told that “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gen. 13:10). At other times it is used with the normal meaning of “in front of”: after three men appear to Abraham and announce their intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two of the men (whom we later find to be angels) depart for Sodom “while Abraham was still standing before the Lord,” (Gen. 18:22) that is, literally in front of Him physically. But the phrase contains other meanings as well.
Its first usage is somewhat surprising. We are told that Nimrod “was a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:9). Some have held that the phrase in this instance indicates commendation of Nimrod. However, we know that he has been identified as the founder of two great pagan cities—Babylon and Nineveh, the former ravaging and conquering the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the latter doing the same to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Furthermore, we know that Nimrod and his mother, Semiramis, became the focus of a mother-son cult that has culminated in the Mariolatry practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. Describing Nimrod as “a mighty hunter,” then, would seem to indicate that Nimrod’s prey were not animals but men whose physical deaths he brought about as a vicious warrior and whose spiritual deaths he contributed to when men worshipped him and his mother rather than the one true God. That these atrocities were committed “before the Lord” suggests at least two thoughts. First, it reveals the pride and arrogance of one who rebels against the truth. Second, it is a stark declaration that no sin is hidden from God; He sees it all and takes it as a personal affront to His righteousness. The phrase puts a check on us when we are tempted to think that no one will see or know about our sin because we are reminded that it would be committed “before the Lord.”
In one of its most frequent usages, the phrase is used to express the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle and the temple. To be within the environs of the tabernacle was to stand before God who chose to “dwell” with men there. The Levitical offerings were not said to be slain before the priest or before the sinner. Rather, the sacrifices (such as the burnt offering, peace offering, and sin offering) were to be slain “at the doorway of the tent of meeting” [the tabernacle] and “before the Lord” (Lev. 1:3, 5) because His presence filled the Holy Place. The frequent repetition of the phrase, “before the Lord,” with respect to the offering of a bloody sacrifice proved a powerful reminder to the repentant sinner that, however dramatic the bloody action proved to be, the focus was not to rest on the bull, or lamb, or whatever animal was slain, nor, as counterintuitive as it might be, was the focus on the repentant sinner. Instead, all was to be performed in the awesome realization that the sacrifice was being done “before the Lord.” The vindication of God’s holiness and the upholding of His righteousness stood in the foreground.
Additionally, the phrase is used with regard to true worship. When the Ark was finally brought back to Jerusalem following its capture by the Philistines, in joyful thanksgiving, David is described as “dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14). After Israel had gone to war against the tribe of Benjamin, we read that “all the sons of Israel . . . came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before the Lord” Jud. 20:26). Also, the psalmist pictures nature as praising God: “Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy, before the Lord” (96:12, 13). In other words, genuine worship involves an intimate personal relationship with the Lord, a conscious realization that we are in His presence. And the Lord delights that it be such. So are we living our lives before the Lord in a manner that pleases Him?
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