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Saturday, May 10, 2014

What is Worship?

What is worship? The way I hear most people use it, it's synonymous with church-related music. But I remember all those Sunday school lessons that said "worship is not just music." Let's look at some of these different definitions and then analyze the bible's definition of "worship".

Dictionary.com definition:
  1. Reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.
  2. Formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage.
  3. Adoring reverence or regard.
  4. The object of adoring reverence or regard.
  5. (British) A title of honor used in addressing or mentioning certain magistrates and others of high rank or station.

"Look, Your Worshipfulness..." Image source.

Definition implied by the way it is used in mainstream American Christian culture:
  1. Music that says good things about God.
  2. Participating in such music (singing, playing guitar, dancing).
My definition:
  1. Always living in a way that is consistent with the fact that I belong to God.
  2. Things I do that please God.
  3. Love and obedience to God.
Notice how my definition is drastically different from the “mainstream American Christian culture” definition. That was driving me crazy, so I decided to find out what the bible says worship is.

(Yeah and it turned out to be closest to the dictionary.com definition. How about that.)

Well here’s what I got.

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The word “worship” and its variations (worshiped, worshiper, worshipers, worshiping, worships) appear 256 times in the bible: 176 in the Old Testament and 80 in the New Testament. (I’m using the NIV bible here.)

For the ones in the Old Testament: the Hebrew word “hawa” is 75 of the occurrences. I looked up all of them and determined this means:
  1. If at the temple or some “house of God”: making a sacrifice, attending a ceremony to show devotion to God. (1 Samuel 1:3 “Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh”, Psalm 86:9 “All the nations you have made will come and worship before you”.)
  2. Elsewhere, in the middle of doing something else: stopping to honor God, always includes something like bowing down (Exodus 34:8 “Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped”, 2 Chronicles 29:30 “So they sang praises with gladness and bowed their heads and worshiped”) or other physical action (Exodus 33:10 “they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent”), sometimes includes something they say to praise God (1 Kings 1:47-48 “And the king bowed in worship on his bed and said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has allowed my eyes to see a successor on my throne today’”).
  3. In a few rare cases: worshiping other gods. Participating in their religious stuff rather than the Lord’s, giving other gods a place in your life, often “worshiping and serving”, sometimes with “forsaken the Lord.” (Jeremiah 16:11 “’It is because your fathers forsook me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and followed other gods and served and worshiped them.’”). 
I sum up definitions 1 and 2 as “an act to show devotion to God explicitly/ by name,” by which I mean, you’re doing something that everybody watching recognizes as a God-related action. Like bowing down or attending religious ceremonies.

Another Hebrew word, “abad”, is 54 of the occurrences. Here is how I’ve summed this word up:
  1. Any allegiance to a religion.
    1. 32 instances are about worshiping other gods, often with “bow down/ worship/ follow other gods,” sometimes with “turn away”.
    2. 15 cases in Exodus along the lines of “let my people go so they may worship me.”
  2. In a few rare cases: by offering sacrifices/vows/songs (songs are only mentioned once, Psalm 100:2) to God.
To sum up this word (ignoring definition 2): This one is kind of a binary thing. You worship God. You worship idols. No details of what that looks like (besides “turn away/ bow down/ serve other gods”)- it’s like what religion do you claim to be part of (check all that apply).

So it’s like “hawa” is the specific actions of worship, and “abad” is the long-term lifestyle of allegiance to a religion/god.

These 2 Hebrew words are 129 of the 176 (73%) instances in the Old Testament. I didn’t look up the rest.

In the New Testament: 51 of the 80 (64%) instances are Greek word “proskyneo”.
  1. The times when people worship Jesus: often totally not explained what exactly they are doing, but comes right after a miracle, possibly with a confession of faith. (Matthew 14:33 After Jesus walks on water, "those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'")
  2. Used 9 times in John 4 when Jesus says “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
    1. I’m guessing this is important, because it’s JESUS’ teaching on worship.
    2. Does “spirit” mean emotion?
    3. Does “truth” mean your worship is based in facts?
  3. 5 times in Revelation have a very dramatic “fall down and worship” God.
  4. 10 times in Revelation are about worshiping the beast.
  5. A few cases of bow down, honor, give gifts (Magi in Matthew 2:11), attend religious service (the Ethiopian in Acts 8:27).
(I didn’t look up any other Greek words.)

The uses of the word “worship” in the New Testament are way harder to pin down. When the bible says that people "worshiped" Jesus, well, what were they doing? What does it mean? I guess you can just use the definitions I came up with for the Old Testament ones, “an outward action that explicitly shows your allegiance to God, such as bowing down, attending religious services, or a lifestyle of following a religion”, but it seems like in the New Testament there is less explained about how the “worship” is outwardly shown, so maybe the definition has expanded to be a more inward thing, an attitude of devotion/faith/reverence for Jesus, not necessarily explicitly shown outwardly though.

Also the Old and New Testaments were not in the same language, so that has something to do with it.

To summarize: "worship" in the Old Testament means doing some religious acts or being a member of a particular religion, while in the New Testament it seems more like a feeling of awe toward God. And it's fine if language changes and we use it differently in American Christian culture now- but let's not let that skew our interpretation of the bible.

1 comment:

  1. Consider the devotion to a sports team. You display their logo on your car, your shirt, your coffee mug. You tell people about your team, attesting to how great they are. You watch and attend the games, joining your fellow fans in showing appreciation of them. This is all worship along the same lines as the forms described in the old-testament. It’s easy to see that the team benefits from this. They are a business, and are strengthened by the revenue they acquire.


    What does God get out of all this? In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, he posits that gods receive spiritual energy from the very adoration of their followers. Is it really like that? because in the old testament anyway, God is jealous of other gods, and doesn’t just value worship, but demands it. It’s one thing for people to choose to follow a team, and root for them out of their own passion, but quite different if they are told that to be a member of the fan club, they have to attend so many games a year, have to like them on Facebook, have to display the posters, and have to bring friends to get them to join. I love Jesus’ statement that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. From that point of view, there must needs be a benefit to the people in providing worship. Is worship good for God, or is it good for the people. I wish the old testament was more like that, and people could worship out of love instead of from fear.

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