What IS Worship Anyway?
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
I remember the worship wars.
When I was a junior and senior at Bible college, one of the favorite topics of discussion was worship. We would have lively debates about questions like these:
Is worship music too hyped? Is it great?
When is a song a worship song and when is it a praise song?
Hymns or no hymns?
Are smoke machines manipulative?
Class discussions would range from tedious to heated, but at some point a born peacemaker would volunteer an observation like this:
"I think worship is more than just a song we sing. I think it is a lifestyle. I think it is everything we do."
Heads would nod, the instructor would smile, and class would be dismissed.
As a musician and one of the school's worship leaders, I remember being unsatisfied with the answer, and feeling guilty for being unsatisfied.
"Okay" I thought. "I can agree that worship is more than a song. What am I supposed to do with that? Do we nix music for next chapel service? Is what I do unimportant?"
It wasn't until later that I realized something was missing from those class discussions. We talked about our opinions, our experiences, and our theology, but I don't remember the students or the instructors ever asking the question:
What does the Bible say worship is?
The word most commonly translated "worship" is the Hebrew word shachah (shaw-khaw). From Strong's concordance: to sink or depress, bow down, cast down, bring down, brought low, bow, bending, crouch, humbleth, low, stoop.
Another similar word is cegid (seg-eed) from Aramaic which means: To prostrate oneself, to fall down. (Strong's)
Biblical Hebrew is an interesting language. It doesn't have that many words- only 8,198 unique roots. By contrast modern English has a whopping 171,496 words! In fact, there are more English words that have fallen out of usage than Hebrew ever had.
As a result, us longwinded English speakers often translate the same Hebrew word into multiple English words. That's the way it is with "worship" and "bow".
For example, in Genesis 18:3 when the Lord appears to Abraham:
"Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed (shachah) low to the ground."
That same word appears in Exodus 4:31 when Moses tells the leaders of Israel what God had said at the burning bush and performed the miracles God had given him:
"And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped (shachah)."
Wait, where's the music? No singing?
Apparently not. It turns out that worship isn't just more than a song.
Worship isn't a song at all.
If we are being Biblical about this, worship is bowing or prostrating oneself in front of someone who is superior. That's it. Not singing. Not playing an instrument. And although adoration can be included in the definition of shachah, affection is not required.
Let's go to the New Testament and see.
The word most commonly translated "worship" is the Greek word "proskuneo" (pros-koo-neh-o).
Strong's concordance defines proskuneo: to kiss, like a dog licking his master's hand, to fawn or crouch, prostrate oneself in reverence.
In Matthew 4:8,9 as Satan is tempting Jesus:
"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship (proskuneo) me.'"
Satan is described as God's ancient enemy, so clearly Satan wasn't expecting affection. He wanted Jesus to prostrate Himself and treat Satan as superior. That's all Satan has ever wanted- to be like the Most High.
In other parts of the world, bowing is built into the rhythms of life. Asians will bow when they greet one another. In England, there are strict protocols about bowing to the Queen.
In America, honor isn't so obvious. We don't bow for nobody. We shake hands and look each other in the eye, or at least we did before COVID. Okay, we bump elbows and look each other in the eye. But if you take out the act of bowing and put in the words idolize, look up to, or exalt, it may clarify things.
Who do we want to take a selfie with? Who do we want to follow and to follow us? Who do we want to entertain us? Who do we fawn over? Who do we want to be close to?
Answer those questions and you will have answered the question: who do we bow to in America? Or put a different way: who do we worship?
Worship is not about music. It is about posture.
Hm. So what is music in church about then?
But that is for another blog post.