What Is Biblical Worship?

What is worship? We recognize it is deeply personal (though worship should also be corporate), but we must have a firm understanding of what it involves. A look at the main words in Hebrew and Greek will go a long way in helping us answer the question.

The OT Hishtahawa* means “to bow down” and is used in both secular and religious senses. For instance, Abraham bowed before the Hittites when purchasing land for Sarah’s burial (Gen. 23:7, 12), and Mordecai refused to bow before Haman (Est. 3:2). “Worship” is absent in both of these cases. Bowing down was a sign of respect and self-abasement then just as much as it is in many cultures today. The religious sense of “to worship” is evident in passages like Gen. 22:5, where Abraham goes to worship God, and II Sam. 12:20, where David worships God after the death of his child. In this sense, the Israelites were forbidden to bow before idols (Ex. 20:5).

The Greek proskuneo is used extensively in the Greek OT to translate hishtahawa. Thus, in the OT, proskuneo has both religious and secular uses. In the New Testament, though, its application is limited to the worship of Jesus or God (or to forbidding the worship of any other).

There are a few insights we can draw from the way these two words are used.

1. We are worshipping God when we humble ourselves and exalt Him. Whether the “worship” in any given usage is secular or religious, it includes self-abasement and (usually) the paying of respect to a superior. By itself, this gives us the essence of the biblical concept of worship.

2. Worship is a matter of the heart. Both words refer to the literal aspect of bowing before another, but the intention of the worshipper (or the implications of his worship) is the main focus. For example, after being dedicating himself the Lord, Naaman asks Elisha not to take offense at an aspect of his job, saying, “But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.” Naaman insisted that even though he was not worshipping in bowing before his master’s god. Elisha accepted the request, demonstrating that Namaan’s distinction was correct (II Ki. 5:1-19). A second example is found when David, on his death bed, is told that Solomon would succeed him. In his joy, he “bows” before God in worship (I Ki. 1:47). Clearly, David could not bow if he was lying down. The word refers to his attitude of worship.

3. Worship is usually external as well as internal. Our worship should not become so spiritual that we disregard its outward expression anymore than our faith should (cf. our discussion of Jas. 2:14-26). Everywhere in the Bible, God confirms spiritual realities with external symbols. Our own worship should include outward demonstration as much as possible. For the biblical characters, this meant bowing. For us, it could mean any number of things. The sign should never be a replacement for the attitude, nor should we think that worship without demonstration is deficient; but again, because we are physical beings, we should note that biblical worship consistently involves both the body and the heart.

Worship is not limited to thirty minutes of songs before the sermon. It is a lifestyle. It is something we should do every moment of every day, but it is also something that we should set aside times for as we are able.

In light of the biblical usage of the word, what are your thoughts on worship? How do you practice it? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below, and be sure to subscribe to stay updated on the conversation.

* There has been recent scholarly dispute over the etymology of this word. In most lexicons, it is considered a derivative of shahah, but is considered by some on the basis of Ugaritic evidence to be an Eshtaphal stem of hawa (see TWOT 619).

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5 thoughts on “What Is Biblical Worship?

  1. Worship is an innate principle that belongs to God’s rational creatures. It is expressed by attributing worthiness to their object of worship. May I suggest a couple of resources. I published a paper entitled “Restore Biblical Worship” on my web site, Rational Christian Thoughts, http://www.rationalchristianthoughts.com

    The fact that biblical principles have been maligned in a large part of the evangelical church is easy to prove. If you planned to go to a football game would you tell people you were going to a basketball game? Unless you purposely intend to deceive someone the answer is probably “no.” Why do Christians say “I’m going to church” or “let’s go to church” or some similar phraseology about attending church?

    Since all individual believers constitute the church, it is impossible for the church to go to church. The church may gather or assemble for a variety of reasons including Bible study, fellowship, prayer, or worship. Christians do not and cannot go to church. The church can and should go to worship.

    Liberal Arts Christian colleges, Bible colleges, and seminaries inculcate the idea to their students that Christians “go to church.” After 50 years of observation and 25 years of research, I conclude the reason for that is they do not understand the biblical purpose of the church. It is to worship God. Christian leaders focus their attention on evangelism, therapy, and other important disciplines for the church. These are often treated as if they are the purpose of the church. Not so! Worship is the purpose of the church. The mission of the church is to make disciples and teach holiness. The ministry of the church is to follow the biblical prescription that will fulfill the purpose and mission.

    Those are just a few thoughts. The Theocentric Publishing Group will publish a book in Oct. 10, D.V., entitled “Joy in Worship.” This book is based on sound biblical scholarship, but will be for the layman to rediscover the biblical meaning and practice of worship.

    • Martin,

      I’m looking forward to reading your paper. Thanks for the link and references. All in all, I think your comments are right on. I have a slightly different nuance on the definition of the church (you can see it here: http://acts172.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/ecclesia/), but your statement that Christians don’t “go to church” is absolutely correct.

      Further, I very much appreciate the distinction between the mission and purpose of the church. Excellent in every way. Where, though, would you put fellowship in that category? I would be inclined to see that as a more basic purpose of God’s ecclesia, with worship being the basic purpose of all of us as individuals.

  2. Every time I hear the word worship, my mind is transformed to a place of peace and tranquility that can truly only be found when we are worshiping God. Whether it be public or private worship, the transforming of the mind is always the same. While I do love public worship, which I also believe is one of the main purposes for the gathering of the body, I find my most intimate and life altering moments during my private worship. In my heart and spirit, as I come before my Father and allow His Spirit to clear my heart and mind, I am able to experience and understand the command to “be still and know that I am God”. Sometimes, I am in awe . . . other times I weep . . . and still other moments are filled with such an overwhelming feeling of joy that it seems my soul could explode. Last year, while trying to talk to God in personal worship, I wrote a song to Him which contains these words. “I wait alone here in the silence because it’s where I choose to be tonight; For I’m longing for Your presence, and I know the darkness leads me to Your guiding light; And as I wait for You to meet me, I think of all the turmoil, my heart has led me into, and I so quickly followed; and now as You draw near; I feel the wonder of You; and I can feel the peace that passes all; Now I’m drawn into Your presence and I know that You are everywhere; as Your Spirit moves about me, I can’t see but still I know that You are there; And as my soul is drawn unto You; My heart begins to let go; Of all the heavy burdens; That kept me so far from You; As I am filled with healing; I know the wonder of You; for the time I’ve waited for has finally come.” The song is simply called – Worship – and for me personal worship is summed up within the words. “That’s when I bow before You; That’s when I lay my life before You; Awed now by Your presence, I can’t even speak.” How many times have you experience that kind of worship in your life. For me, I can’t communicate properly without achieving it. That, is worship.

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