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).