What Does Worship Mean?

There is a lot of talk about worship. What kind of music should be played, what form and style of service is best suited for the church, what is best pleasing to God, and what is best pleasing to us. We confuse the idea of worship with singing, and we turn the focus of our attention to our preferences and what is pleasing to us. We define and re-define worship to accommodate ourselves. 

If we have been in the church for any length of time we have probably heard the word “worship” defined by its English roots. “To ascribe worth to” is what we have been told is at the heart of worship. We “value” God, therefor we sing to Him and show that He is worth a lot to us. We “worship” Him. I’ve always felt like that was a pretty lame explanation of what we are doing as the church in worship. And it is.

The word that worship is translated from is Shachah (shä·khä’) in Hebrew. It is exactly the same word as “bow,” as in “to bow down.” Here are the ways that it is used throughout the Old Testament:

1) to bow down
(Qal) to bow down
(Hiphil) to depress
to bow down, prostrate oneself
before superior in homage
before God in worship
before false gods
before angels

And it is the same thing in the New Testament, the Greek word for worship is proskyneō (pros-kü-ne’-ō). Used in the the scriptures like this:

1) to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank
to the Jewish high priests
to God
to Christ
to heavenly beings
to demons

Bowing is a picture of something more than the simple act of kneeling. When a person bows before someone (or something,) they are worshiping it. It is an outward sign of something that is going on in the heart of the person bowing. It may appear that they are simply on their knees with their forehead on the ground in front of another person (who may just happen to have a big golden hat while seated on a giant purple chair), but there is more happening. The person bowing is saying something with the bow. They are saying, “You are my King, my sovereign, I am at your service, I humble myself before you, I pledge to you all that I am.”

Maybe. Or maybe they are just looking for a lost contact lens. Maybe they have their fingers crossed. Maybe they are rolling their eyes. Maybe they are hiding a dagger. Many men have bowed before a King with murderous intentions.

Worship can be true or false. Merely bowing is not enough. The knee must bow, the head must bow, but it is most important that the heart bows. The bowing has to mean something to the one bowing.

We don’t bow in our modern culture. We don’t do any of the things that symbolize our humility before another. We don’t kiss their hand, we don’t stoop, we don’t humble ourselves in any way. Our actions say that we don’t think of anyone higher than ourselves. We are not a humble culture. If we were allowed to walk up to the President of the United States (The highest office in our land) what would we do? We would offer him our right hand, a hand-shake, we would essentially be saying, “I’m your equal.”

We only worship ourselves.

“That’s not true, Frank,” you say, “We worship God.” And by that we mean that we go to the church of our choosing, the one that we like the best, the one that plays the kind of music that we prefer, that has the most entertaining sermons, that offers the most fun activities for our children, and is the most convenient for us to attend both in time of service and location. Ouch! Is that worship? (That stings me as much as it stings anyone else.)

OK, if that’s not what we mean, then what do we mean by worship? We pray, which is to say that we talk to the Creator of the Universe thanking Him for what He has already done for us and ask Him for things that He has not done for us yet. (Still sounds a little selfish, but maybe it’s just me.) We read our Bibles, which is to say that we think we should read our Bibles so that we can learn how to live a better and more fulfilling life. (Selfish? What, do we think reading the Bible is for God?)

“Dang! Lighten up Francis! You’re supposed to feed the sheep, not just sheer them!” you might be saying.

OK, fair enough, how’s this:

Here’s my definition of worship, and maybe it will help bring this back around to something good:
Worship is everything we do in response to God.

Proper worship would include humbling ourselves and listening to God’s word, preferring His words to our own, or anyone else’s. It would include having a thankful heart for all of the blessings that God has given us, and receiving everything that God desires to give us (take, eat, be clean.) It would include doing the things that God has given us to do, with strength and courage. It would include not doing the things that God has forbidden. (Even if we want to!) It would include speaking to God and confessing our failures, repenting, and thanking Him for His mercy.

We have to begin to see God as the supreme expert in all areas of our life. We have to worship God by bowing all areas of our life before Him. There can be no area of our life that we withhold from Him, thinking that we are better suited to rule that area. This means that we are to put our love life (sex) before Him (and save sex for marriage, stop shacking up with our lovers, avoid poisoning our minds with pornography, stop fantasizing about how much better life would be if we were married to someone else, stop being discontent with who we are with and who we are not with), this means that we have to put our money before Him (giving back an honest 10% to the church, and being a careful steward of the remaining 90%, spending it not only on entertainment and things to put in our mouths, nice homes, and new cars, but also taking care of our parents, extended family, helping and blessing our neighbors, giving to the poor, and investing in the work and mission of those who are doing Christ’s work around the world), this means that we have to start loving and forgiving people for real (the people that wrong us in very hurtful ways, the people that God puts in our path that need a kind word, and the people that God puts in our path that need a truthful word spoken with love.) In everything we think, everything we say and everything we do, we must bow to God and worship Him.

And when we have begun to do this, we must also come together and sing.

“Sing? I thought you said that worship was not to be confused with music?” you may be thinking.

Just like bowing is a perfect picture of what worship looks like, singing is also a perfect picture of what worship looks like. We come together as one people of God. We tune our hearts and minds, and voices to one true pitch (Jesus.) We face the same direction with purpose, looking at the cross, the altar, the symbols of God, His work, His love, His presence. We join our voices together in the unity of ideas, of melody, of harmony, of rhythm, of tempo, of emotion, thankful, in praise of God, His works, His love and all that He is. Then we sing together, forgetting ourselves, and blending our voice with the community of people that God has put us in. Not thinking about what song we would rather be singing, but submitting to the song that is being offered to God.

The Bible says that God is seated on the throne of His people’s praise. We bow to (worship) God by singing to Him, and He is seated as King of Kings on the throne of our songs. We sing by the power of the Holy Spirit and join the angels and the saints that surround the throne of God in Heaven. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world with the rainbow encircling Him, with the sound of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!” We sing with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength. We sing with the joyous rapture of a sailor on Friday night with a pocket full of money and an empty bottle in his hand, with the reckless abandon of a lover in their first ecstasy, of a child in perfect delirious play, we sing like people who have something to sing about! At least that’s the way we are supposed to sing!

Here’s something to think about: Is the way we sing to God in our time of worship an accurate picture of the way we worship God with the rest of our lives? Does the way that we bow to God in singing resemble the way we bow to God with our sex life, our money commitments, and the way we extend kindness and love to our family and neighbors?

Sadly, maybe the answer is yes, and that means we don’t sing at all, we don’t participate in gathered worship and we don’t participate in life as a Christian during the week either. Or, maybe the answer is no, because when we are in church we sing our hearts out, and then ignore God the rest of the week, doing whatever the hell we want to do.

Most of us are probably in the middle somewhere, and there is room for improvement.

May we tune our hearts toward worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth. May we bow ourselves before Him in every way, and then may we come together and sing. Really sing.