What does the word worship mean to you? As a church musician I have had to explore what it means to worship and what I have found was surprising.
Let me preface my remarks by saying the last thing I want to do is criticize the way someone relates to God. My personal relationship with the Almighty has gone through (and goes through) some difficult times. I guess a better way to ask the question is what does the Bible mean when it says "worship."
Is it a musical genre? Is it our lifestyle? Is it something we do as a community? I have found that worship is something we are commanded to do, but it is also something we cannot do for ourselves.
One of the authors I have read makes the point that worship is our response to God's action - both his action in Christ through redemption, his action through the church and in our lives. God is the one who initiates worship; we are the responders.
But back to the fundamental question: what is worship. The dictionary definition is "reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred. Also, adoring reverence or regard."
In the Bible, there are a variety of words translated "worship" but the main Hebrew word is shachah while the number one Greek word translated worship in the New Testament is proskuneo . Both of them carry a similar meaning - to bow down. Literally, to put your forehead on the ground as a sign of reverence.
According to one lexicon, shachah means "to bow down, to prostrate oneself before a superior in homage; to bow down before God in worship." Out of 166 times this word is used in the Old Testament, it is translated "worship" 99 times.
As for proskuneo it is defined as "to kiss the hand towards one, in token of reverence. Among Orientals, esp. Persians, to fall on the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence. In the NT, by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication."
One interesting side note about proskuneo, it can mean literally to lick or kiss the hand, like a dog does his master. I used to find that insulting until I learned something about dogs (thank you Cesar Milan, aka, "The Dog Whisperer"). When a dog licks its masters' face or hand, it is not a simple sign of affection; it is an acknowledgement that you are above him, that you are higher in the pack than he is. So the meaning of "proskuneo" took on a new light for me; worship is a way of acknowledging that we are not God, that He is higher than we are.
But this kind of worship is not something we can cook up, no matter how many Chris Tomlin songs we sing. It is a response to God's action. As Richard Foster wrote in The Celebration of Discipline:
"Worship is our responding to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father. Its central reality is found "in spirit and truth." This is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Forms and rituals do not produce worship, nor does the formal disuse of forms and rituals. We can use all the right techniques and methods, we can have the best possible liturgy, but we have not worshiped the Lord until Spirit touches spirit ....singing, praying, praising, all may lead to worship, but worship is more than any of them. Our spirit must be ignited by divine fire."
But be advised, that kind of worship is dangerous - dangerous to our selfishness and complacency. As Mark Labberton wrote in The Dangerous Act of Worship,
"When worship is our response to the One who alone is worthy of it - Jesus Christ - then our lives are on their way to being turned inside out. Every dimension of self-centered living becomes endangered as we come to share God's self-giving heart. Worship exposes our cultural and even spiritual complacency toward a world of suffering and injustice . . . Worship sets us free from ourselves to be free for God and God's purposes in the world."
Next time, I want to look at another question: "Who is the Worship Leader?" I welcome your comments.
(Images courtesy of New York Surveillance players, http://www.notbored.org/scp-photographs.html, pixelperfectonline, and Wow worship.)