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The Nature of Worship

When our first parents breathed their initial breaths and brushed the dirt from their newly created skin, they must have looked up and seen God wiping the primordial clay from his hands. They would have instantly known from Whom they had come, and for Whom they should live; they were created worshiping! They must have reveled in this utopian fellowship with their Maker until the day that they thought they knew better, or deserved better. When they sinned, they simply traded gods, and kept on worshiping. But why?

At first glance, worship seems to be, in the words of Marva Dawn’s book, A Royal Waste of Time.[1] Yet, the general existence of worship rituals in all known cultures testifies to the importance of worship to Mankind. Evelyn Underhill states that worship, in its simplest form, is “an acknowledgment of Transcendence; that is to say, of a Reality independent of the worshipper, which is always more or less deeply coloured by mystery, and which is there first.”[2] The acknowledgement of this mysterious and independent reality displays itself in countless customs and rituals.

Ronald Byars suggests that this craving for ritual is actually instinctive in humans.[3] Since Man is both spirit and flesh, there appears to be an innate drive to enflesh worship through the use of signs, symbols and ceremonies. These elements have by nature a social quality, thereby creating ritual, which Underhill defines as “an agreed pattern of ceremonial movement, sound or verbal formula, creating a framework in which corporate religious action can take place.”[4]

Why The Hebrews Worshiped

The rituals of a particular people seem to reveal what they believe about their gods, and what their responsibilities are in light of that belief. Hebrew ritual is particularly well documented. The lyrics for much of their worship music still is preserved[5], and gives a living glimpse into some of the various motivations and methods of their worship. In the Psalms we see processionals, liturgical responses, songs and prayers. Because Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish anticipation of a Messiah, Hebrew worship provides a natural foundation for the consideration of the essentials of Christian worship. I will briefly review four motivations for Jewish worship: covenant obligation; appropriate response; obedience to the command to praise; and, finally, the purpose of human existence.

Covenant Obligation

A primary theme in Jewish worship focuses on the concept of covenant. A covenant is “a political format for maintaining relationships without the use of force,”[6] and provides a structure for the Hebrew wherein God and Man can relate to one another. In a covenant, one party is dominant and the other is subordinate. Major Old Testament covenants included Noahic (Gen 9:18-17), Abrahamic (Gen 15:9-21; Gen 17), Sinaitic (Exod 19-24) and Davidic (2 Sam 7:5-16).

Throughout Hebrew history, the covenant between God and the Israelites is the dominant reference point. Covenants outlined how both God and the Jews would live out their relationship with each other. The allegiance to the covenant was a good indicator of the spiritual condition of the nation. For example: “All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful, for those who keep the demands of his covenant” (Ps 27:10). Covenant keeping was a major part of the relationship between God and the Jews.

The Appropriate Response

Covenant obligation was not the sole motivation for worship amongst the ancient Hebrews. When a finite creature realizes he has been created by the Infinite, he becomes keenly aware that allegiance and homage are demanded in response; it is only appropriate. Similarly, a People who have experienced mercy in the form of forgiveness or deliverance realize that the Giver of mercy deserves their gratitude; it is seemly. Author C. S. Lewis likens it to the sense in which a work of Art demands or deserves our attention. In the “Art” metaphor, Lewis alleges that appreciation is the correct and expected response, and adds “if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers; we shall have missed something.”[7]

The Hebrews expressed the expected response of the Creation to the Creator.

The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it,

the world, and all who live in it;

for he founded it upon the seas

and established it upon the waters. (Psalm 24:1)

In other words, everything belongs to God because everything was made by God. It is self-evident that the creature should pay homage to the Creator, and seems ample motivation for worship.

The Hebrews expressed the expected response of the Finite to the Infinite.

Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;

his greatness no one can fathom. (Ps 145:3)

An attitude of humbled amazement surfaces throughout the Psalms. The Psalm writers frequently become caught up in the greatness of God, and often will list the deeds or attributes of God that best illustrate the reason for their feelings of awe. Tozer, describes this as the fear of God, and uses phrases like astonished reverence, breathless adoration, awesome fascination, lofty admiration of the attributes of God and something of the breathless silence that we know when God is.[8] Worship, in this context, resembles a reflex or a spontaneous expression of the heart. It is not conjured up, but simply bubbles over.

The Hebrews expressed the expected response of the Forgiven to the Forgiver.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits

Who forgives all your sins, and heals your diseases. (Ps 103:2-3)

With these words the Psalmist shows both his awareness of personal sin and God’s willingness to forgive. The praise of the forgiven reflects the spirit of a drowning person who has been thrown a life preserver, or a parched person who has received a long drink of cool water. Deep gratitude is instantly and naturally expressed.

The Hebrews expressed the expected response of the Delivered to the Deliverer.

The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him,

And rescues them. (Ps 34:7)

Deliverance was a concept the Jews understood well. The festival of Passover reenacts Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, and the festival of Purim recalls Esther’s courage in helping to deliver the Jews from Xerxes’ edict (Esth 9:31-32). Persecution was a fact of life for the “chosen” people. Remembrance of God’s deliverance turned their hearts toward the Deliverer.

God Requires It

A third motivation of Hebrew worship flows from the command of God. Not only is worship expected of a covenant participant, and appropriate from the recipient of mercies beyond measure, but also God commands worship. Three such commands come quickly to mind:

“You shall have no other gods before Me . . . for I, the LORD your God,
am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:3-4).

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might: (Deut. 6:5)

Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him” (Psalm 45:11).

A Central Purpose of Human Existence

Finally, Scripture teaches that worship is a central purpose of human existence. Psalm 89 describes the practiced worshiper as one who experiences God’s presence constantly.

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you,

Who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD.

They rejoice in your name all day long;

They exult in your righteousness. (Ps 89:15-16)

The Psalter describes those as “blessed” who are continually praising God. The urge to praise seems to be programmed into creation, and it appears that Mankind is not exempt from this desire. The closing command of the Psalter gives particular insight into the purpose of life, commanding everything that has breath, or being, to give praise to God (Ps 150)!

Why Christians Worship

Compared to the parent Hebrew religion, Christianity is given little scriptural instruction for worship. Some attribute this to the fact that early Christians were Jewish and already knew how to worship, while others recognize Christianity as more of a relationship than a religion, and, therefore, harder to dictate exact requirements. Author and preacher A.W. Tozer proposed that when God created humans in his image, he gave them the capability to appreciate and admire his attributes.[9] Still, the capacity to worship does not explain the Christian’s motivation to worship.

Regarding Christian worship, author and pastor Don Saliers observes that two crucial themes of thanksgiving and doxology emerge from religious practice.[10] Tozer, too, notices two kinds of love for God: thanksgiving for his acts, and amazement at his person. He complains, though, that most worshipers rarely get beyond gratitude.[11] Christians, then, worship in response to God’s mercies (Rom 12:1), and in appreciation of his attributes (Rom 11:33-36). As the Eucharistic prayers states: ‘It is our duty and delight to offer you thanks and praise!’ ”[12]

Tozer further maintained that worship is the “normal employment”[13] of human beings. Yet, there has been a movement in the United States to convert the Sunday service into a primarily evangelistic gathering. Whereas, historically, Christians gathered for fellowship and worship and scattered for evangelism, some Church Growth models encourage churches to gather on Sunday for evangelism, and perhaps again for a mid-week worship event. According to Dr. Ronald Allen, however, the worship of God is the priority and ultimate end of his redemptive work.[14] Though important, Peterson agrees that evangelism is not the primary purpose of the gathering, based on 1 Corinthians 14.[15] Still, some worry whether evangelism will somehow get lost if the Church focuses primarily on worship. Tozer would counter that “practically every great deed done in the church of Christ all the way back to the apostle Paul was done by people blazing with the radiant worship of their God.”[16] Allen also agrees that corporate worship fuels evangelism.[17] Service, including evangelism, is the natural byproduct of worship.

There are three general types of worship the Christian should practice. First, the follower of Christ should develop the habit of personal worship. Christians are the temple of God, and God’s very Spirit dwells in them (1 Cor 3:16). Various terms are used for this junction of creature and Creator: the “secret place” (Ps 27:5), the “inmost place” (Ps 51) and the “inner being” (Eph 3:16). It is here, at the intersection of time and eternity, that mortals are privileged to commune with The Divine. A wonderful by-product of personal worship is penned by the Apostle Paul: “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). The notion that mere mortals can have both knowledge of, and experience with, the Living God is unfathomable, but true!

Second, Christians should practice corporate worship. The Apostle Peter addresses Christ-followers in cooperative terms like “people,” “priesthood” and “nation.” Why? Peter continues “That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9). Some may question the need for the corporate gathering, in lieu of the practice of personal worship, but both are important, and both are Biblical. Jesus said “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20). It is not that Christ manifests himself differently to the individual than He does to the gathering, for He does not change. It is “we” who change; “me” has become “we.” In corporate worship, gathered Christians reflect the very nature of the Triune God, simultaneously singular and plural, and experience God corporately through both the presence of The Holy Spirit, and through one another. There is also a dual audience in corporate worship, reflected in Paul’s writings to the Ephesians: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19-20). We sing to God and to one another.

Finally, the Disciple of Christ should engage in a lifestyle of worship. This means that Christ-followers demonstrate their love, and thereby their worship, through their obedience to God. Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). This is why, when tempted by Satan to trade gods, Jesus replied, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (Matt 4:10). The Apostle Paul’s teaching on worship urged Christians to consider the mercies they had received, and to worship by offering themselves as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). Scripture does not demand perfection; we all know that living sacrifices tend to crawl off the altar. The daily life of a worshiper, however, is fueled by God’s mercies to live a life that is pleasing to God.

The Vocabulary of Praise and Worship

Worship – To reflect God’s self-revealed worth back to Him.

There is a cycle that happens in worship. It is a communication cycle, and is what theologians call the “dialogical process.” Simply put, it consists of God revealing Himself to humans, and humans responding accordingly, i.e. God shows and tells what He is like, and humans respond with thoughts and feelings of amazement and wonder. Joseph Sittler used a musical analogy to describe the worship event: “Dogma and Doxa – what we believe and what we pray, constitute a single music in contrapuntal form.”[18]

There are numerous examples of this cycle throughout Scripture that provide for us both a model and a Biblical precedent. The “Shamah” of Deuteronomy 6 and the Apostle Peter’s sermon of Acts 2 are examples of this dialogue: the intentional presentation of the truth about the Triune God, and the response of God’s people to that proclaimed truth. The principle that God makes the first move towards his creation is foundational in Christian doctrine. He speaks, and we respond.

In His graciousness, God has revealed something of what He is like: his attributes. When we reflect on worship, we are generally referring to our end of the equation; our response to God’s attributes. We are akin the Moon, which has no light of its own, but which simply reflects the light of the Sun back to it. As mentioned, Tozer described worship as “astonished reverence, breathless adoration, awesome fascination, and lofty admiration.”[19] To worship, then, could be defined as standing in the light and revelation of the Triune God, and reflecting his magnitude and excellence back to Him.

The word “worship” comes to us from the Middle English word Worthschipe, and

refers to something that shows or possesses a state of worth. When the word “worship” is read in the English Bible, it is translated from one of two groups of Hebrew and Greek words, referring to either acts of homage or acts of service. Group one relates to acts of reverence. The Hebrew word shachah means to prostrate, bow down, or stoop, and the Greek word proskuneo means to do reverence, to prostrate, or to kiss towards. Group two consists of words that primarily relate to labor or service. The Hebrew word abad means to serve or stand, and was generally used to refer to the work of the priests and Levites in their roles relating to the temple worship. The Greek word leitourgia refers to the service, work or ministry of worship.

The words “praise and worship” are often use as if they were Siamese twins, but this is not the case. Worship, unlike praise, is a response to the nature and being of God, rather than to his works. Using marriage as an analogy, “praise” would be like boasting about the great things your spouse has accomplished, while “worship” would resemble appreciating your spouse because they are loyal, compassionate, honest and encouraging. “Worship,” then, centers on character traits, rather than deeds. Both expressions are necessary; both are Biblical. “Worship” and “praise” are different components of the same relationship. Christians worship God for Who he is, and praise him for what he has done. Worship is reflecting God’s self-revealed worth back to Him.

Praise – Active boasting in the acts of God.

“Praise” is, first and foremost, active. Just as the ancient Hebrews could not have conceived of a God who does nothing, neither could their praise have remained static; they had to embody it (Luke 19:40). Their need to incarnate their praise resembles the difference between reading a book on swimming and actually getting wet; praise is like jumping into the water. Secondly, “praise” is boasting. In the ancient world, Hebrews were faced with a whole host of gods, such as the Canaanite god Baal. “Praise,” then, is the ultimate “my Dad can beat up your Dad” statement, as in Psalm 96:4-5: “For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”

Finally, “praise” is acknowledging the acts of God. If, for example, you ever see a turtle on a fencepost, your immediate assumption is that the turtle did not get there by himself; someone else has done it. The inherent understanding in “praise” is that God has done something that is obviously beyond our ability and cunning. As Deuteronomy 10:21 states: “He is your praise . . . who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. The biblical word “praise,” then, is a tangible recognition of God’s divine interventions.

Since God’s attributes are so entwined with his actions, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish his deeds from his traits, and another word study is in order. The biblical word “praise” is usually a translation of the Hebrew word halal, or its Greek counterpart ainos. Halal implies not only a command to boast, but also a sense of exclamation and abandonment. “Someone paid my rent!” would be an example of halal. When halal is directed towards Jah, a shortened form of the name YAWEH (God’s holy, unspeakable name), we arrive at the word hallelujah, usually translated “praise the LORD!” Hallelujah has become so much a part of the Christian’s vocabulary that it is often not translated at all; the word itself has become an exclamation of praise. (As a side note, different spellings or pronunciations, such as “alleluia” are sometimes used, and are completely acceptable.)

One question of interest regarding “praise” is “Who should actually do this boasting about the acts of God?” Scripture is clear that praise is expected of all servants of God, “small and great” (Rev 19:5), and that eventually all creatures will praise him (Ps 150:6; Rev 5:13). A second question is “Why praise?” In addition to the fact that halal is an imperative (a command), Scripture asserts that praise is fitting for creatures, and befitting the Creator, as in Psalm 147:1: “Praise the LORD. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” In other words, “praise” fits; it fits us as though we were designed for this very purpose. And it fits God because He does such amazing things.

The question “when” to praise has far-reaching implications for the Believer. Hebrews 13:15 exhorts us to “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. Praise is to be a continuous and sacrificial dialogue because of what Christ has done in His victory over sin and death. This unremitting lifestyle of praise is not burdensome, but rather, is a refreshing invitation to live above the fray, as the continuous offering of praise turns its practitioner into a free and joyful participant in the Kingdom of God. Praise is even appropriate when things are difficult. Scripture does not suggest that one praise God because bad things are happening, but rather, in spite of them. Paul and Silas, for example, “were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25) even in prison, and at midnight, no less! This type of praise is sacrificial, and requires maturity to be offered sincerely. Further, God can be praised even in the face of tragedy. The Apostle Peter writes to the persecuted Christians, “These [sufferings] have come so that your faith . . . may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pt 1:7). In the face of difficulty, then, praise is an amazing acknowledgement that God is both sovereign and good.

There is no required location where God should be praised. Psalm 113:3 asserts “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised.” This is in keeping with Jesus’ teachings that, since God is Spirit, the location of worship is no longer relevant (John 4). Finally, one may ask, “How” should God be praised? Light may be shed on this question by examining other less-frequent Hebrew and Greek words that are also translated or associated with “praise.” They are, in reality, various types of actions. We are to confess His praise (romam; yadah; exomologeo), sing His praise (tehillah; humneo), play His praise (zamar: psallo) on all available instruments (Psalm 150), and dance His praise (machol). Praise can erupt spontaneously from a grateful heart, or be the result of studied preparation and refinement. Praise can be articulated in a simple song of deliverance, like Moses’, or expressed through the Arts, as with Miriam when she played, danced and sang in praise of God’s deliverance (Ex 15). (She may have been the very first worship leader as she led the children of Israel in corporate praise.)

Praise is fitting for all creatures in all situations at all times. It should be offered everywhere and in every way. The various Hebrew and Greek words infer that “praise” can be planned and ordered, or spontaneous and clamorous. It is always a focused boast of what God has done, and is never about us, or our praise of God. What has God done in you that you could not do in yourself? Find some concrete ways to boast about his acts in your life, and you will know the meaning of “praise”!

[1] Marva J. Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

[2] Evelyn Underhill. Worship (Guildford, Surrey, UK: Eagle, 1936, revised 1991), 3.

[3] Ronald P. Byars, Christian Worship: Glorifying and Enjoying God (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2000), 31.

[4] Underhill, Worship, 25.

[5] The Hebrew songbook is known as the biblical book of Psalms. The book is not, of course, a complete repertoire, but rather, a compilation of songs from various eras in Jewish ancient history.

[6] Janice E. Leonard, “The Covenant Basis of Biblical Worship.” In Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, ed. Robert E. Webber, vol. 1, Complete Library of Christian Worship (Nashville: Star Song, 1994), 56.

[7] Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 92

[8] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, ed. Gerald B. Smith (Camp Hill Pennsylvania: Wing Spread Publishers, 1985), 30.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Don E. Saliers, Worship As Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 75.

[11] Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, 87.

[12] Saliers, Worship As Theology, 76.

[13] Andrew Hill, . Enter His Courts With Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), xvii.

[14] Allen, Wonder of Worship, 21.

[15] David Peterson, Engaging with God; A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 195.

[16] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, comp. Gerald B. Smith, (Camp Hill Pennsylvania: Wing Spread Publishers, 1985), 18.

[17] Allen, Wonder of Worship, 30.

[18] Saliers, Worship As Theology, 40, quoting Joseph Sittler, “Dogma and Doxa,” in Worship: Good News in Action, ed. Mandus A. Egge (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishers, 1997), 23.

[19] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, ed. Gerald B. Smith (Camp Hill Pennsylvania: Wing Spread Publishers, 1985), 30.

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