I joined my church’s worship team in July. I’ve enjoyed my experience as a keys player, which has consisted of learning how to decipher lead sheets, navigate a futuristic keyboard and laptop setup, and play with in-ears and electric guitarists. At the same time, I found myself wanting to buttress my growing technical knowledge with a better understanding of Biblical worship, so I set out on a mini-study.
I learned that the definition of worship is simple but astonishing in scope. It is not limited to Sunday morning, but instead is a lifestyle that begins in a heart captivated by God. To understand why, let’s start with the most basic component: the word worship itself.
The Word Worship
The English verb worship dates back to the thirteenth century, where it came from the Old English worðscip, which referred to something that was full of worth. To worship something meant to declare its worth. When we worship God, we declare that he is worthy of our praise. Worship, however, is only a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek words. Although there is a variety of words that modern translations render as worship, we’ll hone in on one from each of the testaments.
The Classical Hebrew word for worship is directly associated with physical activity. In Genesis 18:2, three visitors come to Abraham to announce that he and his wife Sarah will have a child. When Abraham first sees them, he “he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground” (ESV). The phrase “bowed low” is a direct translation of the word shachah (שָׁחָה), pronounced shaw-khaw’.
In other instances, we see this same word translated as worship. For example, this happens in Genesis 22:5, when Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac: “Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you’” (ESV). Here, shachah is translated as worship.
We see this pattern throughout the Old Testament – sometimes shachah is translated literally as bowing down, while at other points, it is translated as worship.
In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, we see a similar pattern of physical actions being translated as worship.
One of the common words for worship in the New Testament is proskuneó (προσκυνέω), pronounced like pros-koo-neh’-o. This word comes from pros, which means towards, and kyneo, which means to kiss.
We see this word used in Matthew 2:2. When the three wise men are coming to see baby Jesus, they say, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (ESV). If we were to translate the word literally, they are saying that they have come to kiss him.
Knowing that worship derives from words (and there are more words than these two) associated with physical actions gives us a good foundation for understanding Biblical worship.
The Object of Our Worship
Both shachah and proskuneó refer to an object. We kiss someone, we bow down before someone. So, who is the object of our worship?
The object of our worship is Jesus.
We bow before him; we kiss him.
However, it is not enough to say that we worship in the name of Jesus. There is no “magic” in the name of Jesus – simply saying that we worship (or, really, do anything) in his name does not mean that we are truly doing something unto God. This is because, as A. W. Tozer writes in his book Whatever Happened to Worship, that “that the name and the nature of Jesus are one.” If we fail to recognize who Jesus is, it doesn’t matter if we say we worship in his name – we don’t really know him, and therefore can’t do something unto him. Isaiah 29:13 describes this condition:
And the Lord said: “…people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.”
Isaiah 29:13 ESV
We can speak the name of Jesus, honoring him with our lips, but be far away from him. For Jesus to be the object of our worship, we much know him personally as God. You would probably not bow down before a stranger or kiss the hand of a person you’ve never heard of (if it weren’t the cultural norm). If we don’t know Jesus, we would not bow before him or kiss him, and, therefore, cannot worship him.
In worship, we invoke a personal relationship with the God who is ever-transforming us into his image. We don’t worship in his name only because we realize that such worship is paltry compared to total adoration for the one who took us from death to life. As Psalm 139:14 says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (ESV). We worship Jesus because we know him and his love for each of us.
The All-Encompassing Root of Worship
Because God is the object of our worship, the root of our worship is what we think about God. Sunday morning singing comes from the wellspring of a heart in love with the Lord – and the effects of this heart can be felt everywhere, anytime. Tozer puts it piquantly:
If you cannot worship the Lord in the midst of your responsibilities on Monday, it is not very likely that you were worshipping on Sunday!
A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?
A worshipful heart worships the Lord at all times. Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French lay brother who lived in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, is known for his collection of teachings titled The Practice of the Presence of God, in which he explains how he learned to live a life of constant worship. In the collection, he is recorded as saying,
We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king.
Brother lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
He sought to invoke the Lord in all aspects of his life. Daily chores became the equivalent of the Greek proskuneó or Hebrew shachah. Indeed, when Brother Lawrence reconceptualized turning that cake as bowing down before the Lord or kissing Jesus, it is no wonder that he saw it as worship.
God Will Help us Worship
As I write about how worship should saturate all of our lives, my own hypocrisy comes into full view. I didn’t do the dishes last night, even though I should have, because, well, I didn’t feel like it. The thought of doing them unto the Lord didn’t cross my mind – and I had spent that morning writing about worship!
However, I’m reminded that God will help all of us learn to worship him because he created us for that exact reason. We see this in Isaiah:
I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
Isaiah 43:20b-21 (ESV)
He formed people “for himself” that they might “declare his praises.” This is what we were created to do, and just as he has saved us from sin, God renews our minds so that we can live in continual worship. In his devotional My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes about how we must rely on God to help us live as he has called us to.
The things Jesus did were the most menial of everyday tasks, and this is an indication that it takes all of God’s power in me to accomplish even the most common tasks in His way. Can I use a towel as He did? Towels, dishes, sandals, and all the other ordinary things in our lives reveal what we are made of more quickly than anything else. It takes God Almighty Incarnate in us to do the most menial duty as it ought to be done.
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
We cannot live as worshipers without the Lord’s help. As Chambers says, it takes God Almighty Incarnate in us. He has not called us to worship in our own strength – but instead to come to him to transform our hearts and minds so that we worship him out of an abundance of love. He will help us worship.
What is worship?
In his book Surviving the Anointing: Learning to Effectively Experience and Walk in God, David Ravenhill quotes his father Leonard’s description of worship:
Worship is a preoccupation with God alone.
Preoccupation means being absorbed with something. We should be absorbed by high thoughts of God, thinking about his love for us, his goodness, faithfulness, and peace. This means that when I’m playing in front of the church, I’m not thinking about anyone’s approval. I’m not thinking primarily about the congregation, or hitting a wrong note, or trying to sing along. I’m preoccupied with Jesus — and everything flows from that.
And I’m not always there — I have bouts of nervousness about losing the beat or forgetting the next chord or how many times we’re repeating a chorus — but I’m also learning to remember that one of the reasons we worship God is that he shows us grace. Even as we stumble, he’s growing our hearts and magnifying our thoughts of him, molding us into the worshipers that we were created to be. And, as this happens, Tozer writes,
Worship becomes a completely personal love experience between God and the worshipper. It was like that with David, with Isaiah, with Paul. It is like that with all whose desire has been to possess God. This is the glad truth: God is my God.
A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?
Jesus is our God. The only natural response is life transformed so that it resounds with worship – and the Lord will help each of us get there as we call upon him to move in our hearts.
© Olivia Davis 2019, all rights reserved