To be human is to worship.
That much is clear in the Scriptures (Ps. 150:6), declared in our creeds, and evident from history. But while the impulse to worship seems innate, what we mean by the word worship varies. Attempts to define it usually begin with the etymology of the English word worship, which is commonly understood to mean “to ascribe worth to” someone. This leads naturally to the notion that worship is primarily verbal, that is, it involves words that praise God. Once we have made this move, it is easy to understand how and why the contemporary understanding of worship tends to associate the word with music, perhaps with the occasional sprinkling of dance or visual art.
In 2001 I was flying to Kansas City every Sunday for 16 weeks to preach in a large church with three Sunday morning services. I will never forget one morning when, at a transitional moment in the service, the “music and worship” pastor declared to the congregation, “Now, before we continue our worship, let me read a passage from Colossians 3”—as if reading and hearing the Scriptures are not exercises in worship.
This restricted notion of worship is common in our day and is reflected in the ubiquitous labeling of recordings from Bethel Music and Hillsong as “praise and worship,” the church bulletins that call the period of singing “worship time,” and the identification of musicians on the pastoral staff as “worship ministers” or “ministers of worship arts.” In fact, the so-called worship industry not only tends to equate worship with music but also limits it to a particularly narrow type of music—contemporary praise. Despite the prominence of lament in the psalms, for example, today’s worship has little room for this genre.
These practices raise all sorts of questions, not only about the significance of other aspects of the Sunday service (prayer, preaching, testimonials) but also about religious rituals in the Bible and the Scriptures’ relatively minor emphasis on music in worship. Not only is music rarely associated with worship in the New Testament, but the Pentateuch is altogether silent on music associated with tabernacle worship. All of this highlights our skewed preoccupation with and conflict over music, and raises serious questions about our understanding of worship in the first place. Perhaps the time has come to apply our commitment to sola scriptura by exploring how these perspectives line up with worship in the Bible—both the First and the New Testament.
Any discussion of the biblical understanding of the concept must begin with the language of worship, specifically the words that our English Bibles typically translate as “worship.” In the Hebrew Bible, pride of place belongs to histahawa. However, this word has nothing to do with music or praise. The word refers to a physical gesture of prostration out of respect and homage before a superior. This gesture may transpire before humans (Gen. 33:7–10, Ruth 2:10) or before God (Deut. 26:10, Ps. 95). Psalm 95 is especially significant for several reasons.
First, this important Hebrew word for worship occurs in a psalm often used by contemporary worshipists (people who specialize in contemporary worship and are deemed by others to be experts in this subject) who associate worship with songs of praise. To be sure, the psalm opens with a call to enthusiastic praise of God (vv. 1–2), but the verb, “to worship,” does not appear until verse 6. In the opening strophe, the psalmist probably has in mind the sound of singing as the faithful made their way to Zion in response to God’s gracious invitation to his presence, rather than music in the very presence of God.
Second, in case we are inclined to think of worship here more liturgically, the psalmist links the word histahawa with two additional expressions relating to the same gesture: kara, “to bow low,” and barak, “to kneel” before the Lord. This happens frequently elsewhere as well. Remarkably, for all the talk these days about full-bodied worship, outside particular charismatic and some mainline churches these gestures are rarely practiced today in Protestant worship. But this is where and how the act of worship happens in Psalm 95: “Come, let us bow down in worship” (v. 6).
Third, this gesture of homage and submission happens at a transitional stage of corporate religious expression in this psalm: after the call to worship and prior to the commencement of divine speech (v. 7c). Consistent with evidence elsewhere (e.g., Ecc. 5:1–3), the psalm understands corporate worship fundamentally to involve an audience with God. As is the case to this day, in the context of an audience with a superior (e.g., the Pope, the king or queen, or some other official), what the superior says to the person coming before him or her is always more important than what the socially inferior says to the superior.
When we explore the postures of worship in the New Testament we find that nothing has changed from the First Testament. Yes, the word for worship is now Greek, rather than Hebrew, but the semantic range of the Greek proskuneo is precisely the same as histahawa. When the wise men found Jesus in Bethlehem, they fell down (pipto) and prostrated themselves (proskuneo) before him (cf. Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:14, 7:11). Although Paul uses a different word in Philippians 2:10, he speaks of every knee (gonu) of every creature in heaven, on earth, and in the netherworld one day bending (kampto) at the sound of the name of Jesus. These are the words that are used for “worship” in the Bible.
We cannot speak of biblical worship without starting with this physical gesture of submission and homage before God the Father (John 4:21, 23) and Jesus the Son. While biblical worship is Trinitarian, strikingly, the New Testament never speaks of anyone addressing or praying to or praising the Holy Spirit. Nor does it ever portray people worshiping the Spirit with this physical gesture. The expressions of submission and homage to him take different forms.
If biblical worship begins on our knees, this does not mean that God finds everyone’s prostration before him acceptable. Discussions of the dimensions of biblical worship must inevitably turn to a consideration of dispositional factors.
When we ask, “Whose worship did God accept in the First Testament?” we immediately encounter the word fear. In the context of the first occurrence of the English word worship in the Bible (the Hebrew histahawa, in Gen. 22:5), the envoy of God declared, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (v. 12). In his disposition, Abraham represented the biblical model of faith that Moses explicitly defined in catechetical form in Deuteronomy 10:12–13:
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees, that I am giving you today for your own good?
Remarkably, Moses says nothing about physical circumcision or sacrificial rituals or songs of praise. Rather, he focuses on the weightier matters of Torah (Matt. 23:23), which begin with dispositions of the heart (fear) and extend outward to covenant love and loyalty toward and joyful obedience to the will of God. If “the fear of the Lord” is the first principle of wisdom (Ps. 111:10, Prov. 1:7), it is also the first principle of true covenant devotion to God.
But what does it mean to “fear” God? While we tend to associate the English word with fright and anxiety, in Hebrew it exhibits a wide range of meanings, extending from deadly terror to reverence and awe to trusting awe (or awed trust). In Abraham’s case, “fear” certainly involved the right side of the spectrum (below), for the entire episode involves a testing of his faith (v. 1). And this is the sense that hearing the Torah of Moses (Deuteronomy) was to produce in the Israelites whenever the Levitical priests read it to the assembled congregation.
In Deuteronomy, fear appears at the heart of what Moses presented as the formula for life (31:9–13; cf. Prov. 19:23):
Read . . .
that they may hear . . .
that they may learn . . .
that they may fear (yare) . . .
that they may listen to the
voice of God . . .
that they may live!
The Book of Malachi is an essay on what worship and life look like in the absence of fear—where spiritual leaders are corrupt and God’s people apathetically “go through the motions” while ignoring God’s commands—and in the end, it offers the Torah of Moses as the antidote (Mal. 4:4).
Although the New Testament uses several different words for fear, the most common, phobos, usually involves the left side of the spectrum below. However, occasionally it reflects the right side, especially in expressions like “the fear of God” (2 Cor. 5:11, 7:1; Acts 9:31; 1 Pet. 1:17) and “the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21). While Hebrews 12:28–29 speaks of acceptable “service” to God using the Greek word (latreuo) that the Septuagint translators had used for Hebrew “service” (abad) to God in Deuteronomy 10:12, it renders the disposition that underlies acceptable worship as “reverence and awe” (eulabeias kai deous), which presumably together represent “fear” (Hebrew yare). In any case, in neither Deuteronomy 10:12 nor Hebrews 12:28 should we limit “service” (rendered “worship” in ESV and NIV) to rituals we perform in Sunday morning worship services. Rather the expression speaks of true vassaldom to the Lord that drives our lives in their entirety.
Finally, when we think of “worship” in the Bible, we tend to have in mind cultic and ritual expressions of devotion, whether individual or corporate. In ancient Israel, these actions would include pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the sacred festivals and participation in fellowship and expiatory offerings, as well as the rites conducted in the home, such as circumcision and purification rituals.
In the New Testament, these would have included meeting for instruction by the apostles, fellowship, “breaking bread,” and prayer (Acts 2:42), as well as the ordinances of baptism (Matt. 28:19) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–30). Remarkably, although we know these were sometimes accompanied with song (e.g., Matt. 26:30), this is never formally prescribed. Paul’s instructions concerning “speaking to/admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:15–21, Col 3:12–17) occur in the context of appeals to let all of life—rather than just worship services—be the context of worshipful living.
This accords perfectly with the First Testament perspective, which consistently emphasizes that living faithfully throughout the week is a prerequisite to acceptable liturgical worship. Picking up the motif of worship as an audience with God, Psalm 24 asks, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” This is a metaphor for “Whose [liturgical/cultic] worship will be acceptable to God?” The psalmist says nothing about music or the quality of any other element of liturgical performance.
Rather, he focuses on the character and the conduct of the person who enters the Lord’s presence: They have clean hands (a metaphor for right conduct, cf. Ps. 15), a pure heart (which speaks of right disposition and motives), are totally devoted to the Lord (have no place for the worship of other gods), and keep their word (have not sworn deceitfully). These receive the blessing and “well done” of the Lord.
The prophets often reflect the same perspective; performance of worship rituals is meaningless and even repugnant to God if the worshiper’s life is not an expression of devotion. After asking, “With what sort of offerings shall I come before the Lord, and do homage (kafaf) to God on high?” the prophet Micah lists a series of over-the-top
rituals ancient Israelites might have performed to impress God, culminating in child sacrifice—which pagans deemed the ultimate expression of devotion to a god but which was abominable to YHWH, the God of Israel. And then Micah concludes:
He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice,
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God. (NJPS)
This was precisely what Jesus had in mind when he railed against the Pharisees for being preoccupied with ritual performance while forgetting the weightier matters of Torah (Matt. 23:23; Mark 7:1-23). The same is true of Paul, who set his comments on music in the context of daily life: “So watch out how you live—not being foolish, but wise, seizing the moment [for righteous living] because you live in an evil context” (Eph. 5:15–16, my translation). In Colossians 3:12–15, the apostle Paul is even more specific:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
God’s response to Cain’s and Abel’s offerings in Genesis 4:1–8 reminds us that from the beginning, people’s ritual service has not provided the lens through which God looks at the performers of ritual acts; rather, the order is reversed. God assesses people’s ritual service in light of their spiritual state, in the disposition of their heart demonstrated by their daily conduct.
Scripture clearly demonstrates that the measure of true and acceptable corporate worship is not established by outside observers, by the worshipers who attend, or by the performers of the rituals but by God, the One who graciously invites us into his presence and who delights in being the object of our worship. Accordingly, true worship involves reverential acts of submission and homage before the divine ruler in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in keeping with his revealed will.
This is not a definition of worship—the biblical concept in the Bible is too complex and multi-faceted to be reduced to a simple definition—but a description of the sort of demonstrations of faith and covenant righteousness that God finds acceptable. Of course, as in all other ethical and spiritual matters, Jesus was the perfect model of submission to the will of the Father. If we have his disposition (phroneo) we will give visible testimony to our salvation (Phil. 2:5). Animated and empowered by the Spirit of God to live righteously, we will be assured of God’s favorable response (vv. 12–13) and ultimately hear his “Well done, good and faithful servant!... Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:23).
Daniel I. Block is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Wheaton College. This article is based on his book For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014).
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