What Is Worship? A Survey of Scripture
Many Christian churches have changed their worship styles. As is often the case with experiences, we have different impressions and reactions to worship styles. In this article, we examine what the Bible says about worship. Let’s look at the way God’s people worshiped before Moses, after Moses, and after Jesus. Then let’s see how that biblical insight can help inform our worship in the modern world.
The Bible doesn’t give a formal definition of worship. But perhaps we can start by seeing what various words for worship mean. The English word “worship” comes from two Old English words: weorth, which means “worth,” and scipe or ship, which means something like shape or “quality.” We can see the Old English word -ship in modern words like friendship and sportsmanship – that’s the quality of being a friend, or the quality of being a good sport.
So worth-ship is the quality of having worth or of being worthy. When we worship, we are saying that God has worth, that he is worthy. Worship means to declare worth, to attribute worth. Or to put it in biblical terms, we praise God. We speak, or sing, about how good and powerful God is.
This is a purpose for which we are called: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). We were called for the purpose of praising God, worshiping God. That is one of the job descriptions of a Christian. We should declare that God is worthy, worth more than everything else put together.
Now let’s look at the biblical words. In both Hebrew and Greek, there are two major kinds of words for worship. The first kind means to bow down, to kneel, to put one’s face down as an act of respect and submission. Our body language is saying, I will do whatever you want me to. I am ready to listen to your instructions and I am willing to obey. The other kind of biblical word means to serve. Roughly half of the time these words are translated as worship, and the other half as serve. It carries the idea of doing something for God — making a sacrifice or carrying out his instructions.
Of course, word meanings don’t prove what worship is, but they do illustrate three kinds of worship. There is
1. worship that involves speaking, and
2. worship that involves listening, and
3. a worship that involves doing.
There is a worship that expresses the heart, and worship that involves the mind, and a worship that involves the body. There is a worship that is giving praise upward, a worship that is receiving instructions from above, and a worship that carries out instruction in the world around us.
We need all three types of worship. Some people focus primarily on speaking or singing praise to God. Praise is good, but if all we do is praise God, without ever listening to what he says, we have to ask whether we believe the words we are saying. If he is really all wise and all loving, then we need to be attentive to what he is telling us, because he is worth listening to.
Similarly, all talk and no action does not show God the respect he deserves. Actions speak louder than words, and if our behavior isn’t changed by God, then our actions are saying that God isn’t important — he’s a nice idea, but not relevant to our day-to-day lives. When we really believe that God is worthy of every praise, then we will be willing to listen and to change the way we live in response to such a worthy God. We will trust him and seek him and want to please him as much as we can. Worship should affect our behavior.
Response with all our being
Another preliminary point is that worship is a response to God. We can’t know God’s worth, much less declare it, unless God reveals himself to us. So God initiates worship by revealing himself to us. Then we respond, and the proper response is worship. The more we grasp his greatness, his power, his love, his character, the more we understand his worthiness, the better we can declare his worth – the better we can worship.
Our worship is a response to what God has revealed himself to be, not only in who he is, but also in what he has done and is doing and will do in the future. Worship includes all our responses to God – including a response with our mind, such as our belief in God’s worthiness, our emotions, such as love and trust, and our actions and our words. Our heart expresses itself in words and songs; our mind is active when we want to learn what God wants us to do, and our bodies and strength are involved when we obey and when we serve.
Both Old Testament and New Testament tell us that our relationship with God should involve our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It involves all that we are. Worship involves heart, mind, soul and strength, too.
The fact that we believe God says something about his worthiness. The fact that we trust him and love him declares that he is worthy of love and trust. The fact that we obey him also says that he has worth. Our words complete the picture by saying that God has worth. In the words we say to one another, in the prayers we say to God, in the songs we sing, we can declare that God is worth more than all other gods, worth more than all other things.
We can worship God all by ourselves. But it is also something we do together. God has revealed himself not just to me, but to many people. God puts us in a community, he reveals himself to a community and through a community, and the community together responds to him in worship, in declaring that he is worth all honor and praise.
Moreover, God promises that whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, he will be there. We gather in his presence, and because of his promise, we expect him to be with us. He is the One who calls us together, who reveals himself to us, who initiates the worship and is the object of our worship.
One important method we use to worship God is that of music. In church, we have someone called a worship leader, who leads us in singing hymns and spiritual songs. So a worship leader is a song leader, and because of that some people automatically think of music when they hear the word worship.
Music is important, but worship is not just music – it involves our entire relationship with God, all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – it involves all the ways in which we can respond to God, all the ways we can praise him by what we say and do, all the ways we can demonstrate that God is worthy of all praise and honor and allegiance.
Worship before the time of Moses
If we survey the Bible, we will see a wide variety of methods that God’s people have used to worship him and express their devotion to him. Some of these methods were done by specific command from God; others seem to have been the choice of the persons involved. We see this pattern throughout the Bible: some things are commanded and some things are optional.
We don’t have to read the Bible very far before we encounter a story about worship. Genesis 4 tells us that Cain and Abel brought an offering to the Lord. We aren’t told why – we are just told that they did it. A few chapters later, we read that Noah built an altar after the Flood, and he sacrificed some animals.
Later, Abraham made sacrifices. He built an altar at Shechem, another at Bethel, then at Hebron, and at Mount Moriah. As part of his worship, Abraham also prayed, circumcised and tithed. Isaac built an altar at Beersheba and he prayed. Jacob set up a stone pillar at Bethel and poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it as some sort of worship. He built an altar at Shechem, and one at Bethel. He vowed to tithe and he prayed. What conclusions can we draw from this?
- First, no one
needed a priest. Everyone built their own altars, sacrificed their own
animals and did their own worship. The head of the household acted as the
religious leader for the family. We see that in the book of Job, too: Job
made sacrifices on behalf of his children. There was no special
priesthood. Each person could worship without a priest.
- Second, there
aren’t many commands about the worship that the patriarchs did. God
sometimes told his people where to build an altar and what to offer, but
for the most part, the altars and offerings seem to have been initiated by
the people. There’s no mention of special times or special days or special
seasons. There doesn’t seem to be any restriction on place, either. The
patriarchs stayed away from Baal worship, but other than that, they
worshiped the true God wherever and whenever and however they
- Third, not
much is said about method – the people could pour out wine or oil, totally
incinerate an animal, or roast it and eat part of it. Abel, Noah, Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob were not limited by time, location or method. The key word
is flexibility. The detailed rules that God gave through Moses did not
apply to the patriarchs. They were not restricted by rules about special
places, people, rituals and days.
One thing was important – probably the greatest commandment about worship, the most important rule about worship no matter who we are or when we live. The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall worship no other gods.
When God dealt with Jacob, he was not concerned about how he was worshiped – his primary concern was that Jacob worship the true God and no other gods. God demands exclusive worship, 100 percent allegiance. Only that can do justice to his worth. There’s no room for loving any other gods even 1 percent. We cannot allow anything to get in the way of our worship relationship with God. We cannot let money, self-consciousness, busyness or anything else get in the way. Worship is to be our highest priority.
Moses and the tabernacle
In the days of Moses, worship went from very little structure to very specific and very detailed structure. God specified exactly
- when sacrifices were to be made,
- how they were to be made,
- where they were to be made, and
- who was supposed to make them.
Worship became much more formal. Under the law of Moses, there were holy places, holy people, holy animals, holy rituals, and holy times. God designated certain things for certain uses in worship.
The tabernacle was a holy place. Wherever it was, it marked off holy space. It was somewhat holy in the outer court, more holy in the inner court, and extremely holy behind the veil. The design of the tabernacle communicated something important about God: that he was holy. You just can’t walk up on him every day. You had to be a very holy person on a very holy day in order to walk into the Holy of Holies, and you had to go through special rituals in order to do it. The tabernacle was a symbolic message about God.
The tabernacle pictured God’s holiness, but it also pictured that he was not some far-off God. No – he was in the camp of Israel. When the Israelites broke camp and the tabernacle was dismantled, the ark of the covenant could be seen. People knew what it was, but when the tabernacle was set up, it was hidden. Close, but not accessible. Although God was near, he was also holy and off-limits, and people could come to him only by using proper channels.
For worship in ancient Israel, there were holy people. The Levites were holy and assigned to work with the tabernacle. There was a priesthood between the people and God. For many acts of worship, the priests had to perform the actions. There were also holy animals and holy plants. Every firstborn animal was holy, dedicated to the Lord. The first-ripe fruits were holy, set apart for worship. There was a holy incense formula, too, and if anyone made the same formula, they were supposed to be expelled from the nation. It was that special. It was reserved for worship. It was holy.
There were holy times. Every week, one day was holy. Every year, some extra days were holy. Every seven years and every 50 years, a whole year was set apart for special use. These designated times gave structure to the Israelite worship. The who, the what, the when, and the where were all spelled out. Everything was structured, organized, formalized.
Most of those details are obsolete, but the most important principle carries over into today’s worship, too. Only God should be worshiped. It’s not that he should be worshiped more than other gods are. It’s that he is the only God worthy of worship. He is so great, nothing else is even close. There is no god like our God. Nothing can compare with him, so we give him exclusive worship. We do not divide our loyalties between him and Baal, or between him and Mammon, or between him and self. All allegiance and all worship go to him alone.
A matter of the heart
In the Law of Moses, it is easy to be distracted by all the detailed worship regulations, but that is not the real focus. All those details were given in order to serve a larger purpose, and that is God. Our focus should be on God, and the same was true for the ancient Israelites. They were to focus on God.
Worship in ancient Israel was not just at the tabernacle – it was also in the heart and in the home. God did not want people to think that they could do the rituals and then live as they please. It was not enough to “do” the worship – a person’s honor and respect for God should be genuine, in the heart, which meant that God was to be praised in all of life.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses told the Israelites to put God’s instructions in their hearts, and teach them to their children, to talk about them when they sat, when they walked, and when they lay down. They were to write these instructions on the doorposts, to immerse themselves in God’s way of life. All of life is worship.
Some of the later prophets build on this theme. Samuel told Saul that obedience is better than sacrifice. God wants a right attitude more than he wants correct rituals. In Jeremiah 7:22, God says, I didn’t bring you out of Egypt because I wanted sacrifices. I just wanted you to obey me, and sacrifices are only a tiny part of what I commanded.
Isaiah is even stronger – saying, in effect, “I’m sick of your sacrifices. I’m sick of your sabbaths and holy days.” Here is Isaiah 1:11-17: “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…. Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates…. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” The people were doing rituals, bringing animals, keeping Sabbaths and festivals, even praying, but despite all that, there was something seriously lacking in their worship.
Why didn’t God like their worship? He does not say they were keeping the wrong days or doing the rituals incorrectly. The problem was that their lives were full of sin. So Isaiah counsels: “Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean…. Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Their sacrifices, prayers and praises were not accompanied by performance in their day-to-day lives. They had worship rituals, but they did not obey God’s commands for how to treat their neighbors, and the result was unacceptable worship. As Jesus said, quoting Isaiah 29:13, their worship was in vain. It was hypocritical to do the worship if it wasn’t changing the other aspects of their lives.
For worship to be acceptable to God, we must have obedient lives. The ritual is not enough – the attitude is what is most important. God does not want hypocritical worship, people who say he is great but do not act like it. Perhaps this is commandment number 2 regarding worship – that it must be sincere. If we are going to say that God is worthy of all worship, then we should believe it in our hearts, and if we believe it, it will show in our actions. Real worship changes everything we do, because it changes who we are. Worship must be in the heart, not just at the place of worship.
Micah tells us this: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn child?… He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8).
We do not have to have a perfect life. David did not have a sinless life, yet overall, he pleased God. His attitude was right, and that’s the kind of worship God wants most. God even used David in two major developments in Israelite worship.
Music at the temple
Many know that David initiated the building of the Temple, a “permanent” place for worship. But David’s other contribution has lasted even longer than the Temple did. That is in the area of music. David had a background in music. As a shepherd, he played the lyre, a simple stringed instrument. He composed music and sang about God. He worshiped God while he took care of his sheep – it was worship on the job. David’s songs are called psalms. That comes from the Greek word psallo, which means “to pluck a string.” Psalms is a book of songs for stringed instruments. We can worship God with songs and musical instruments.
David didn’t write all the psalms. Some were written centuries later. But David got the psalm-book started, and he organized the way that music is used in worship. He assigned some of the Levites to be worship musicians (1 Chron. 23:5; 25:1-8). Music became a permanent part of worship.
Psalms come in a wide variety. Some are historical, reminding us of God’s great works in creation, in the Exodus, in giving the Israelites the land. Some psalms offer praise. Other express thanksgiving, or ask for God’s help. Some express adoration, ask questions, or complain to God about suffering. The mood ranges from anguish to hope, fear to joy, anger to pride. These songs may have begun as private prayers, but they became prayers in which all the people could join in. The people became participants in these worship songs.
All the psalms are worship – even the psalms that complain. The fact that our questions and complaints are directed to God shows something about our relationship to him. All of life is in his hands, in his control. The psalms show our dependence on him.
The psalms are often in the form of a prayer, in words spoken to God. He is the audience, and the people are the participants, the worshipers. These songs are memorized prayers, since they are spoken to God. Some people think that Christians shouldn’t have memorized prayers. But we actually have several of them during worship services every week. We just have them with a melody, and that is a legitimate form of worship. Even without the melody, a recited prayer can be a legitimate form of worship.
Psalm 150 points out a variety of worship methods: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
We might find some of these worship methods unusual today, but all these artistic expressions are permissible when they are done to the glory of God. The main principle of worship is that we worship only God, and that we really mean it.