What is worship?

We often hear about “worship wars” concerning whether the singing at church should be contemporary or traditional, hymn or praise song, choir or worship team.

But what I wonder is: how did we come to associate worship just with the singing at church? And how did we come to decide that the worship at church was good or not depending on how we felt afterward? We can worship via singing, but is worship just singing? And, for that matter, is worship just done at church, when we attend a “worship service?”

Dictionary.com defines worship as:

  • reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.
  • formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage
  • adoring reverence or regard

Years ago I heard a preacher define worship as “worth-ship,” thinking about and ascribing to God His worth. Someone else said something to the effect that God does not “need” our worship, but we need to give it to Him.

I decided to to a study of the word “worship” in the Bible. Let me hasten to say that such a study is just the beginning of a study of worship. There are passages where worship occurs, but that particular word is not used (many of the psalms, for example). There are synonyms to worship: I wondered, for instance, whether “praise” is an element of worship or a synonym. I didn’t take the time at this point to look up the Greek and Hebrew words for worship. I did look up many of these verses in context and found that often the whole chapter they were in was an expansion of what occurred in worship. I just searched through the ESV and not other translations. So, again, this is not a complete study or “the last word” in what worship means and involves. But it was an enlightening start.

I don’t think you’d want me to reproduce all eight pages of notes I accumulated here, but here is some of what I found.

Instruction regarding worship (not including OT ceremonial worship):

  • Don’t worship any other gods. Exodus 34:13-15, Deuteronomy. 8:19; Deuteronomy 11:13-17; 32:15-20; Psalm 97:7; Jeremiah 25:3-6; multitudes of other places
  • Worship only the one true God. Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:7-8; Revelation 14:7
  • Turn from sin. Jeremiah 25:3-6
  • “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth” 1 Chronicles 16:29-30a; Psalm 29 and 96
  • “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2
  • Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28:29

Who worshiped when (not including OT ceremonial worship):

  • Abraham’s servant when God answered his prayer for Isaac’s wife. Genesis 24:25-27
  • The children of Israel when they heard that God sent Moses to deliver them. Exodus 4:30-31
  • At the institution of the Passover: Exodus 12:26-28
  • When Moses went to speak to God: Exodus 33:9-11
  • Moses after seeing the Lord’s glory: Exodus 34:1-8
  • Jacob when blessing the sons of Joseph: Hebrews 11:21
  • Joshua on meeting the commander of the Lord’s army: Joshua 5:13-15
  • Gideon after hearing reassurance in the interpretation of a dream: Judges 7:14-16
  • Samuel’s father and family: 1 Samuel 1:3, 19
  • Samuel after being left with Eli: 1 Samuel 1:27-28
  • David after his child died: 2 Samuel 12:20
  • Dedication of temple: 2 Chronicles 7:1-3; Psalm 132:1-7
  • Jehoshaphat and Judah after God’s promise to fight for them: 2 Chronicles 20:18
  • When Hezekiah reestablished temple sacrifices, after first burnt offering: 2 Chronicles 29
  • First Passover after Israel returned to Jerusalem after exile: Ezra 6:19-22
  • When Ezra read the law: Nehemiah 8:5-7
  • Job after losing everything: Job 1:20
  • Wise men: Matthew 2
  • Disciples after Jesus walked on water and stilled the storm: Matthew 14:22-33
  • Man born blind: John 9
  • Women followers after resurrection: Matthew 28:1-10
  • Anna: Luke 2:36-38
  • Disciples after Jesus’ ascension: Luke 24:50-53
  • Disciples when Barnabas and Paul were set aside by the Holy Spirit for ministry: Acts 13:2
  • Lydia: Acts 16:14
  • Men of Athens: Acts 17: 22-34
  • Titius: Acts 18:7
  • Paul: Acts 24: 11, 14; 27:23
  • Israel: Acts 26:7; Romans 9:4
  • Visitor who is convicted: 1 Corinthians 14:24-25  
  • In the future: Egyptians: Isaiah 19:19-23; 27:13; Creatures in heaven: 24 elders (Rev. 4:10); elders (Rev. 5:14; 19:4); everyone (Rev. 5:14); angels, four living creatures (Revelation 7:9-12; 11:15-18; 19:4; Revelation 11:15-18); All nations: Rev. 15:4; In heaven: Revelation 22:3

Elements of worship:

  • Praise: too many references to list
  • Thanksgiving: ditto
  • Awe: ditto
  • Singing: 2 Chronicles 29:25-30; Psalm 96:1; Revelation 15:2-4 re God’s great deeds, His just and true ways, holiness, righteous acts
  • Cleansing, purifying: Ezra 6:19-22
  • Hearing the Word of God: Nehemiah 8:5-7; 9:1-8
  • Acknowledging who God is: Psalm 29:2, Psalm 96; Matthew 2 +; His holiness: Psalm 96:9; 99:5, 9 +, His exclusivity: Psalm 97:7 +;
  • Sacrifice, offerings, vows: Isaiah 19:21; Zephaniah 3:9-10
  • Amend ways, stop sin, disobedience, stubbornness: Jeremiah 7:1-3
  • Holiness: 1 Chronicles 16:29
  • Humility, truth: Zephaniah 3:9-13
  • Giving: Matthew 2
  • Fasting and prayer: Anna:  Luke 2:36-38; disciples: Acts 13:2
  • Joy, blessing God: Luke 24:50-53 +
  • Faith: John 9:38
  • In spirit and in truth: John 423-24; Philippians 3:3

The posture of worship

Interestingly, of the 15 times any posture is mentioned, 11 passages speak of bowing, often bowing the head, sometimes “bowed down with their faces to the ground.” The others speak of rising and standing (Exodus 33:9-11; 2 Chronicles 20:19), falling to the ground or on one’s face (Joshua 5:14; 2 Chronicles 20: 18), kneeling (Psalm 95:6).

False worship

God warns against false worship multiple times in the Bible, usually involving idols or false gods, but also the sun, moon stars, planets, angels, other people, creatures (Romans 1:25), Satan (Matthew 4:9-10; Luke 4:7-8), the dragon and beast in Revelation. Wrong worship was often accompanied by sin, stubbornness, not listening to or obeying God’s Word (2 Kings 17:6-23; Jeremiah 7; 13:9-11), asceticism (Colossians 2:18), “murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:19-21). Also, the Pharisees were said to worship God in vain by teaching for commandments the doctrines of men (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:7). A few times people worshiped deceptively (Absalom: 2 Samuel 15:7-12; Jehu 2 Kings 10; Herod: Matthew 2:8).

I know that outlines and lists are not considered the best blog writing, but it seemed to me in this case to be the most efficient way to present a lot of information.

But this little (and again I stress, incomplete) study did reveal a few things to me. Worship can include singing, but it is more than singing. It can occur with others or alone. It can occur in joyous or grievous circumstances. It won’t always result in our feeling warm and fuzzy or revved up: often it is accompanied by a deep humility, repentance, changing one’s ways. Though emotions are involved, worship that honors God must be based on truth, thus involving the mind. And the turning from sin often mentioned indicates we worship with our will as well. The characteristics most often involved in worship are acknowledging who God is, what He is like, what He has done, and thanking and praising Him.

This brings to mind the last line of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love Divine, A Loves Excelling”: “Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Erwin Lutzer’s quote reminds me of warnings about the Pharisees worshiping God in vain: “Worship that is not based on God’s Word is but an emotional encounter with oneself”

And this quote from Archbishop William Temple (about whom I know nothing beyond this quote) seems to sum it up nicely: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and joy are in his place.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering and come before him!
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth;

    yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
    and let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
1 Chronicles 16:27-32, ESV
(See verses 8-36 for a stupendous example of worship)

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories)

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15 thoughts on “What is worship?

  1. Personally, I love listing! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your studies – I see a lot of good stuff I want to look into further. Especially loved the elements of worship section.
    I think the phrase, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name,” pretty much sums up what worship is. May we all do more and more of it, because He is worthy!

    • I like lists, too, sometimes – it’s often easier to run the eye down a list and pick things out rather than combing through a paragraph.

      I found several nuggets for further study, too.

      Amen to your last paragraph!

  2. This must have taken you hours and hours! Thanks for sharing this worship with us. I often find it amazing how David worshipped right after the loss of his infant son, a powerful example of a deep relationship with God.

    • David and Job, too – the thought of Job worshiping immediately after receiving all that devastating loss touches my heart and showcases his relationship with God. Their examples are so inspiring and convicting.

  3. You’ve reminded me that my dad used to dislike the label “worship service”. Worship is SO much more than the singing we do at church during a set time. You did a thorough study here. Reminds me of a great book I read on worship a few years back: “Worship Matters” by Bob Kauflin.

    I’m really enjoying your comments on my Handmade series this month! It’s been so interesting to read what you share. I haven’t been able to keep up with responding to comments but I definitely read and benefit by each one you write!

  4. Barbara, thank you for sharing this about worship here today. It is something that I’ve pondered a lot today. In one of Elisabeth Elliot’s books that I read years ago, she mentioned that the very way we live our lives is a form of worship. I loved your summation of everything because it reminded me of a book I’ve recently read by John MacArthur…Worship…the Ultimate Priority. He covered many of the same things as the thoughts you shared here.

  5. This was wonderful! I like the observation from your list (which is helpful; in skimming over them I can pick up themes) that worship is an appropriate response to pretty much anything — good things and bad alike. Nice observation as well that worship doesn’t have to just mean the first part of the church service. And now I have “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” in my head. Nice way to begin the day!

  6. Barbara, WOW. So much good meat here. Many years ago, I attended a conference about worship. One of the speakers shared that worship isn’t just songs sung on Sunday. You did a great job of reminding us that worship involved more than our voices, but also our hearts and our minds. It’s not just doing the act (in Israel, sacrificing the animal), but it’s also a willingness in the heart.

    Great study.

  7. Very thoughtful essay, Barbara! I never realized that so many times the posture of worship involved bowing. Now I know why we kneel so much in church ;). I think worship involves an attitude–an attitude of awe, gratefulness, and reverence. And we can worship at any time or any place.

  8. I agree with you that worship is so much more than singing. I find I worship in the act of walking outside observing God’s beauty. There are times that worship involves stopping to thank God for a beautiful sunrise/sunset. In that pause, I give all the glory to God. I appreciate your post today to being to think about worship in a broader sense.

  9. Pingback: Begin with Worship - Day 28 of Handmade

  10. I began studying worship in earnest almost a year ago. One of my teachers set up Psalm 96 as the Biblical guide to the baseline requirements for worship, in ascriptive worship, in evangelistic worship, in giving, and in living. Another of my professors raises up Romans 12:1-2 as the mind broadening scripture for what worship really is, as a life commitment, and not just singing. If you’re interested in reading some intense and good teaching on it from a 20th century firebrand, I highly recommend Whatever Happened to Worship by A.W. Tozer.

    So glad you got that Temple quote in there. It is the most beautiful and complete definition I’ve ever seen.

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