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What worship means

January 1999 | by Andrew Fountain

hymn singing (Source: Flickr / tcdavis)
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In many churches today there is chaos in worship. The tragedy is that so few seem to be looking to the Scriptures for their principles. People say, ‘That sounds worshipful’ or ‘That doesn’t sound worshipful’, or ‘I can worship God in this kind of service’. But they are making a totally subjective judgement as to what is an appropriate way to worship God. Even those who look to Scripture have, all too often, already decided what kind of worship they feel is appropriate, and just turn to the Bible to find ‘support texts’ for their views. In this article I want to consider what worship actually is, and how we should worship God in the way that pleases him.

What is worship?

The first thing to determine is what the word ‘worship’ actually means. Many people have their own ideas of what it signifies, but we have to let the Bible itself define the meaning of the word. It does so in a quite specific way.

As we go through the Bible we may be surprised at the way it uses the word ‘worship’. The Scriptures are full of verses that connect the idea of worship with that of falling or bowing down before God. The Hebrew word Hitawa means literally to prostrate oneself or to cast oneself down. When we examine the Bible, we find dozens of examples. ‘So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped’ (Exodus 34:8). ‘O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker’ (Psalm 95:6). ‘When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshipped and praised the Lord’ (2 Chronicles 7:3). ‘The twenty four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him’ (Revelation 4:10).

The expressions ‘fell on their faces’ and ‘fell to the earth’ are repeatedly associated with the worship of God. That does not mean that we must actually fall on our faces every time we worship God, or even that this was done every time in the Bible. The action is symbolic, and the important question to ask is what it signifies, and what its purpose is.

The action is more than showing love for a person. If you love your wife or your husband, you do not fall down in front of them or put your face to the ground. Again, the action of bowing down means more than respect. However much you respect your superiors at work, you do not fall down in front them. Bowing down before someone means that you are acknowledging that person as your master. You are his servant and he is your lord. He is the one who gives the orders, orders that you must obey.

Servanthood

This leads us to the second aspect of worship found in Bible usage – an association between worshipping and serving. All that we have and are belongs to God, and so we are his servants. An example of this is found in Matthew 4:10, when Christ is being tempted: ‘Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve”‘. It seems, then, that to worship God in the biblical way means both to acknowledge that he is our Master and to serve him with our lives. In a nutshell, worship involves both our words and our lives. If we wanted a short definition of worship we could say ‘to worship God is to acknowledge him as our Lord both in word and in action’.

Source: Matan Ray Vizel/Pixabay
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Lord of our life

This raises an interesting point. There are those who would like to make worship something that is purely intellectual, solely in the mind. But worship involves more than words and thoughts; it involves our whole being. It involves action. For example, giving an offering is an act of worship, even though there may be no words spoken by the giver. The donor is making a statement by actions, rather than words. What he is saying is, ‘The Lord is Lord of my wallet, as well as other aspects of my life. He is the Lord of my possessions and finances’.

A further example from Scripture is found in Revelation 4:10 which was quoted earlier. ‘The twenty four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy O Lord…”‘ What did it signify when they threw down their crowns? The fact that they had crowns means that they had some personal authority. But the act of casting their crowns before the Lord says symbolically, ‘You are King of Kings and Lord of Lords; all my authority I submit to you, for your authority is superior’. So their worship, at that point at least, involved an action that conveyed a specific meaning. An even stronger example is that of Mary, who anointed the feet of Christ with precious ointment and dried them with her hair. As far as we know she did not speak a single word, but it was nonetheless a precious act of worship.

Words are not enough

In fact ‘worship’ that consists of mere words is abhorrent to God. In Isaiah 29:13 God says, ‘These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but have removed their hearts from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the commandment of men’. Our formal worship on Sunday is a lie if God is not truly our Lord during the rest of the week.

Psalmody Session
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To sum up then, the Bible almost always uses the word ‘worship’ in the context of falling down before God, either literally or symbolically. It is not presented as something that is just intellectual or verbal, but as an act (indeed, an attitude) of our whole being. It may not even involve words, but always has the meaning of exalting God as our Lord.

Praise: the other side of the coin

Today we tend to use ‘worship’ as a kind of cover-all term for everything that goes on in public services. As we have seen, the Bible uses the word much more specifically, but it also uses other terms, the most common being ‘praise’. If worship conveys the idea of bowing down, or prostrating ourselves, before God, praise speaks of lifting ourselves up to God. When we praise, we lift our heads and shout, or sing aloud, our thanks to God for what he is and what he has done.

We can see these ideas actually linked together in the same verse, in Nehemiah 8:6: ‘Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground’. Notice that they praised by lifting up their hands and shouting ‘amen’, and they worshipped by bowing their heads to the ground. In 2 Chronicles 7:3, the ideas are the other way around. ‘They bowed their face to the ground on the pavement and worshipped and praised the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his mercy endures forever”‘. First worship, then praise. So we have those two aspects, like two sides of the same coin, brought together.

Music and singing

Now praise is something associated with music and singing. Sometimes, praise in Scripture is very loud, often involving musical instruments as an important part.

In I Chronicles 23:5, we read, ‘Four thousand praised the Lord with musical instruments, “which I made”, said David, “for giving praise”‘. Again, in 2 Chronicles 30:21, we read, ‘The Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing to the Lord, accompanied by loud instruments’. The idea of praising God aloud, and using instruments to draw attention to what God has done, is a central part of praise in the Old Testament. Although there is no mention of musical instruments in New Testament worship, the same idea of voices ‘lifted up’ in praise and prayer is present. For example, in Acts 4:24 the gathered church ‘raised their voice to God with one accord and said, “Lord, you are God who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them …”‘. Again, Paul instructs the Colossians to be ‘teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord’ (Colossians 3:16).

So to sum up, worship, according to the Scriptures, is bowing ourselves down and acknowledging God’s lordship, while praise is lifting our heads up to God and joyfully proclaiming who he is and what he has done for us. But why should we praise God, and what function does worship fulfil? I shall try to answer these questions in the next article, when we will consider the purpose of praise and worship.