I bought an alarm clock that is supposed to make waking up easier. At the appointed hour, the alarm gives out a dimly glowing light that grows steadily brighter. You can choose from a variety of sounds to accompany the light—waterfalls, birds chirping or ocean waves. They, too, begin faintly and grow steadily louder. Aroma tablets on top of the light release pleasant fragrances such as coffee or evergreen as the light grows hotter. However, if none of that works, eventually a loud obnoxious noise will burst forth to rouse you.
God’s wakeup calls are sometimes like that alarm clock. He gently, softly calls us to pay attention to His still, small voice. If we don’t listen, there are other ways. One of God’s well known wake up calls is the blast of the ram’s horn, or shofar.
The Talmud records a discussion among the rabbis on what to do if a man believes he has heard the sound of the shofar, only to discover that he was actually listening to the braying of a donkey. So much for the aesthetic value of the shofar! But the discussion came about because there are times when Jewish people are obligated to hear the sound of the shofar.
This year, the High Holy Days begin at sundown, October 3 with Rosh Hashanah. Often called the Jewish New Year, the biblical name of this festival is Yom Teruah (Leviticus 23:24). Yom means day” and Teruah refers to a sound made with the shofar. Though the sound of the shofar may not be aesthetically pleasing, it is good to listen. The blast of the shofar was intended as a wake up call for the people of Israel. “Pay attention. God has something to say.”
The shofar could be sounded in different ways to send different messages. It could be a call to worship or a call to war. The Bible tells us that the shofar blast on Yom Teruah served as a “memorial,” that is, a call to remember. I believe it was a call to remember how God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai. “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off” (Exodus 20:18).
God demonstrated His might in an overpowering display of sight and sound far beyond any special effects Steven Spielberg might dream up. God wanted us to pay attention to His word and to obey. The Israelites who witnessed that revelation were duly impressed.
Yet how easily they forgot, just as we today are prone to forget. The annual blast of the shofar is intended to provide a flashback to that powerful encounter at Mount Sinai.
Today our Jewish people have walked far, far away from the truth of God’s Word or from trembling in response to its commands. Most do not know its message or the Messiah of whom those Scriptures speak. Jesus told the Jewish leaders of His day, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).
Yet many who know the Lord and His Messiah also fail to tremble at His Word. Many churches today have a tragically low view of the Scriptures. God’s Holy Word is sometimes treated with alarming indifference, often relegated to an insignificant role in our worship services. We need to hear a new blast from the shofar of God, a reminder to wake up and obey the Holy Word of God, giving it its proper place in our lives. When God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, there wasn’t an Israelite who did not pay close attention or take seriously what God was saying. What about today?
This leads to a second purpose of Yom Teruah and the blowing of the shofar. Along with a memorial or call to remember, this festival day is also a call to repentance. It signals the coming of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which takes place ten days later. The Jewish people are told in Scripture to “afflict your souls,” which is generally interpreted to mean a day of fasting (Leviticus 23:27).
God does not take sin lightly and neither should we. In fact, the ten days between Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur are referred to by the rabbis as Yamim Noraim, the “Days of Awe.” They provide a period of self-evaluation and introspection, intended to produce an attitude of repentance wherein we really do afflict our souls with sorrow over our wrongdoing.
Today repentance is a much neglected need, and talk of sin is considered by most to be embarrassing, unsophisticated, not quite polite and to some, altogether inappropriate. Many of my people see Yom Kippur as a day when fasting is “the Jewish thing to do.” There is an awareness that Yom Kippur is about our need for forgiveness—but many don’t think too long or too deeply about why we need to be forgiven. Too much talk of sin doesn’t fit with the contemporary notion that human beings are “basically good.” When I share the gospel with my people I often hear the protest, “I’m a good person.” This idea does not square with Scripture: “…There is none who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3), which sounds in our ears like the blast of a shofar.
That blast from God’s Word is jarring, and not only to Jewish ears. Like a low view of Scripture, an inadequate understanding of sin has found its way into many churches as well as synagogues. Sermon topics have strayed a long, long way from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Some popular television preachers sound more like self-help gurus than the Jonathan Edwards types of the 21st century. Many churches don’t provide enough time in their worship services for people to reflect and repent of sin even if they had the inclination to do so.
The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). Paul was not keeping score of everyone’s sins and calculating his as more numerous than everyone else’s. He had a heart of continual repentance before the Lord. The closer we draw to God and His holiness, the more aware we are of our sin. Paul heard the shofar of God calling him to repentance each day and it produced a humility, reverence and fear that we desperately need for our own hearts.
The call to repent comes into our safe and self-satisfied existence as an intruder. Like the blast of the shofar, or the clang of an alarm clock, it demands our attention, and it demands our response. But the act of repentance itself leads to God’s forgiveness and direction in our lives. Repentance is a gift from God because it enables us to see right and wrong as they truly are. Repentance awakens us out of our dreamy delusions of self-righteousness and into the reality of the life that God has for us.
Yom Kippur ends with a final blast of the shofar, symbolizing, according to the rabbis, the closing of the time of repentance and the season of forgiveness. A day is coming when the shofar of Messiah will sound one final time (1 Corinthians 15:52). For those of us who know Jesus, that sound will be welcome, full of the promise of redemption and God’s righteous rule. But for those who never repented, who never received the forgiveness of God in Christ, that shofar will be a signal of God’s wrath and everlasting judgment. What a sobering thought. May this season challenge us to keep on reaching out to the lost, to keep sounding the shofar of God, that others might heed its good and gracious warning.