There are reasons for this stance and the account of Solomon’s dedication of the just-completed temple gives us helpful hints (1 Kings 8).
To understand fully, we must visualize this magnificent building. Built in a rectangular shape, it was entered from the east into a large courtyard where the huge brazen altar stood for the offering of sacrifices. Then inside the building proper was the nave, called the Holy Place.
The inner sanctuary was deepest into the building and called the Holy of Holies. Here, the ark of the covenant had yet to be placed. God told his people that he would live among them, and this ark symbolized his presence.
Before King Solomon could begin the dedication, the Ark of the Covenant had to be carried by the priests from its prior resting place in the city of David and into the Holy of Holies.
The procession moved slowly and the courtyard was filled with great numbers of elders from throughout the nation. Solomon led the priests carrying the ark of the covenant toward the Holy of Holies. All the while, sacrifices were being offered extravagantly.
When the altar was finally placed in the Holy of Holies, and the priests withdrew, the Scriptures say, “… a cloud filled the temple of the Lord.” (1 Kings 8:10,11 NLT). Priests could not work because of this visible demonstration of God’s presence.
Now, notice how Solomon proceeded with the dedication. He faced the Holy of Holies with his back to the throng of elders. It was as though with mind, heart, and even position, he was focused first not on surroundings or the throngs, but on God as he prayed, “I have built for you a glorious house where you can live forever!”
Only then did he turn around to face the large gathering and bless them, following with explanatory sentences (1 Kings 8:11 -21 NLT).
Next, he turned away from the people and again faced toward the Holy of Holies and “with his hands lifted toward heaven before the altar of the Lord and before the entire community of Israel” he prayed a moving prayer for the nation (1 Kings 8:31 – 53 NLT).
But he also acknowledged with awe that the holiness and majesty of God were infinitely beyond any man-made structure, saying, “… will God really live on earth? Why even the highest heavens can’t contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” (1 Kings 8:27 NLT)
From that ancient time to the present, whether God is worshipped in lofty cathedral or humble frame church building, believers have taken their cue from Solomon’s dedication. At a wedding, for example, the bride and groom marry facing where communion table, open Bible, or mounted cross might stand as major symbols of the faith.
In a real sense, the officiating minister guides them as they exchange vows before God in his majesty and holiness. All of this explains why bride and groom face forward, with backs to the people, as though facing the “holy of holies” for their vows, and in a real sense saying: this is the house of the Lord, and by his living presence he is here with us.
In a Christian service, we who minister always hope the bride and groom will rise above the stresses of wedding detail and be moved to say their vows with an elevated sense of the presence and blessing of God.
And all of this is why the parties to a marriage stand with their backs to the congregation, looking forward, knowing in their hearts they are making vows in the presence of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Photo credit: Bill McChesney (via flickr.com)