My Story of Better Understanding Worship
In September 2003, my band was invited to perform at a church fellowship called Harvest Land Ministries (Clarkston, Michigan). Harvest Land is a loving, Bible centered foreign missionary church. We arrived early; met our hosts; set up the equipment; sound checked; and then waited for the event to begin.
As with most church meetings, the in-house praise and worship team started with a mixture of popular inspirational songs. Then my band was introduced and we performed a set of original tunes just before the guest speaker was to take the podium.
The guest speaker was David Ravenhill[1. http://www.davidravenhill.com]. David is the son of the late noted British author, evangelist and missionary Leonard Ravenhill[2. 1907-1994]. He is a son who has certainly followed in his father’s footsteps. He – too – is an author, evangelist and missionary. I believe, David was on site throughout most of the setup. Although, I didn’t realize he was “the speaker” until he was actually introduced. Humble in his demeanor; an English gentleman: he was unassuming and unpretentious.
Before David shared the message he had planned, he decided to make a point about an expression that had been used a few times earlier in the meeting. The statement was, “… leading folks in praise and worship…”. As a musician, my defensive radar immediately became activated, because David (I supposed) was a “non-musician” getting ready to criticize or at least get into the business of the preceding musical presentations – either the praise and worship team’s or my band’s (or perhaps both). I first decided not to listen and to just kind of… tune him out. But a little voice inside of me said, “You should listen to him”. So I gave David my full attention.
David very simply explained that the “leading in praise” part of “leading in praise and worship” was pretty straightforward. Someone – anyone – can remind and/or encourage another individual or a group to “praise” the Lord – that is, to think of God’s love, goodness and mercy and to thank him for it. He explained that, that part is relatively easy because we have no problem of being thankful for what is perceived as providence when good things have happened to us.
This is very interesting, because it easily includes people who do not even believe in “ a god”! I have heard people who live their lives bent on doing their own thing and having no allegiance to God at all, say things like, “Thank you Jesus!” when something perceived as providence comes their way.[3. Me]
David went on to share that the “leading in worship” component of the phrase is another matter all together. He pointed out that he did not believe one could “lead someone else in worship” in the context the phrase was used. He equated true worship with practical obedience. He went on to cite the very first instance in scripture where the word worship is translated into English.
Abraham said to his servants,
Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.[4. Genesis 22:5]
David rhetorically asked, “Were they going someplace to sing; to pray; or to have some kind of emotional experience? No, they went up the mountain to do what God had told them to do! They went up the mountain to be obedient.”
The scripture says “we will worship…” but only Abraham had the command from the Lord to sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac did not know where the sacrifice was until he was tied up and on the altar. [5. Me. See Genesis 22:9]
David went on to mention, that today, “We mistakenly equate worship with singing songs, raising our hands, closing our eyes and/or having some perceived otherworldly emotional experience”. He said Abraham was not going up the mountain to do that. He and his boy were going up the mountain to be obedient. He then started the message which he had planned to share – which now unfortunately (and certainly not David’s fault) I don’t even remember its title.
Hearing this pre-main message address has made a tremendous difference in my life; my attitude; and in my worship of God. I have always been challenged to look at things in a very straight-forward fashion. I look for – as much as possible – a clear interpretation of natural things and especially spiritual things. As detective Sergeant Friday (of Dragnet fame[6. Starring Jack Webb circa 1967 – 1970 ]) says, “All we want are the facts…”
To my knowledge previous to that time, I had never really heard anyone explain specifically worship by itself in a practical way. David’s explanation seemed to go right to the heart of the matter. It had nothing to do with how one feels; the music or the elaborate words spoken towards God. For me, it avoided the confusion surrounding worship and gave a specific usable example of it.
Because of how I became a Christian[7. That is another story.
http://www.rufusharris.com/personal_journey.html] and thanks to my first mentor [6. Fred Little, Jr.], I am compelled to be practical and relevant in my spiritual thinking and practices. So, I began to – with a little more depth – to look into this topic and I would like to share it with you. My purpose in sharing this specific blog is to help bring clarity to the word “worship” and to our actions regarding it, as presented in the Scriptures – especially as it relates to the teaching of the New Testament.
PRAISE IS GOOD… WORSHIP IS MORE
This blog must first include clear definitions of the words: “praise” and “worship”.
Praise is both a verb and a noun. As a verb, praise is an action when someone expresses “warm approval or admiration of”[8. Google dictionary] someone or something. As a noun (a person, place or thing), it is a thing. It is the very act of “expressing that approval; admiration, or commendation.” [9. Dictionary Reference.com] Therefore, praise is something an individual or a group can participate in and it is something others can see or see the results of it (a praise service; a placard; a certificate; something done in special honor of…, etc.). Praise – simply – is appreciating something; thanking someone or the very action of performing that deed. All this is pretty straightforward. Now let’s look at worship.
Worthy of mention, worship in the British idiom (the king’s English spoken in Great Britain and its territories) can be used as a title for various political or judicial officials – for example, mayors and magistrates. Basically in Great Britain, a civil officer or a lay judge who administers the law, especially one who conducts a court that deals with minor offences. Out of respect, that type of an official would be called, “Your worship Sir Leonard, the Mayor of …” etc. for example.
In the U.S., the word worship is generally understood as:
Reverence offered to or an act towards a divine being
A form of religious practice with its creed and rituals or even the
Extravagant respect; admiration for; or devotion to an object of esteem (a god, God, or as one might regard money or a figurine)[12. Merriam-Webster]
Further we call worship:
The church meeting itself
The singing of praise songs
Emotional outbursts of joy or ecstasy in a meeting
Or, a mixture of all the above
In attempting to bring understanding to this word and its activity – as it relates to Christianity – one also needs to understand what worship meant from a pre-Jewish (that is, from Adam through the life of Abraham) and a Jewish perspective because Christianity has roots in both. So we’ll start with the Hebrew dictionary and how the Hebrew word “worship” is defined there.
In the Hebrew dictionary worship is simply defined as:
To depress (that is, to lower oneself); to be face down as a spontaneous effect, and/or to bow down in reverence to royalty or to non-royalty.[14. OT 7812 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon]
In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible this word is translated:
To bow (self) down, crouch, fall down (flat), humbly beseech, do (that is [15. Bold Emphasis Mine], make) obeisance[16. That is to curtsey, bend, or to bob (that is, like the motion of a rocking chair) – So that’s where the rocking at the Wailing Wall comes from], do reverence, make to stoop, worship.[17. OT 7812 Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc]
Worship by this definition – for the most part – is a physical action. Ideally, when a person physically bows before someone that person shows the importance, respect, reverence, yielding, and recognition of that person to whom they are bowing. I describe it as a type of surrender to that person – a type of being at that person’s mercy; a deference to that person. However the very act of bowing can be genuine or it can be counterfeit – the counterfeit characteristic of worship will be examined little later in this blog.
As I continued to study – surprisingly – I found that although Genesis 22:5 is the first time the English word “worship” is used in translation, it is not however – the first time that, that specific Hebrew word[18. OT 7812 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon] appears in scripture. It is actually – the third time it occurs. The two earlier occurrences are in: Genesis 18:2 and in chapter 19:1. That posed to me a question: Why are not those two earlier words translated worship too? Or on the other hand, why is not the third occurrence translated, “bowed down”?
The first mention of the word also involves Abraham[19. Genesis 18:2] and the second incorporates Abraham’s nephew Lot[20. Genesis 19:1, The son of Abraham’s brother Haran Genesis 11:27]. Both of these instances refer directly to the physical act of bowing down to the ground in honor of three men and to two angels, respectively[22. This is not the place to discuss or to postulate who were those 3 men or two angels]. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for “ground” (earth or dirt)[22. OT 776 – Strong’s Concordance and Thayer’s Greek and Brown Driver and Biggs Hebrew Lexicon] is included in both of those earlier passages. In both instances, they physically bowed down to the ground. The third mention[23. Genesis 22:7] of this word does not reference the word “ground” or bowed down at all. There is a difference, I dare say a big difference with the third reference.
THIS WORD WORSHIP INDICATES SOMETHING ELSE
The difference is simply in the context. The author of Genesis[25. Commonly considered Moses] penned the Hebrew word for Abraham’s action of obedience as: an act of bowing, doing reverence and/or stooping down. The translators of this passage may have seen this difference too; and that may have prompted them to translate it differently in English – as the word “worship”. Especially since this is the very first occurrence of that Hebrew word [26. O.T.7812-Strongs Concordance Number] being translated as “worship” in the English Bible. Although not very important though, also absent from that particular text are the Hebrew words for: ground, earth or dirt. Something definitely different occurred in this event. Genesis 22:5 does not directly refer to a physical act of bowing – it refers to a spiritual act of bowing – which is indicated through a willful act of obedience.
From the preceding understanding, we can learn a phenomenal lesson from Abraham especially when we compare it to what the New Testament says about Abraham. It says, this man Abraham is the father of the faithful; the father of all who believe; the father of all who walk in the footsteps of faith as he did[25. Romans 4:11-12. Also, if there is doubt about walking in Abraham’s footsteps look at these exhortations: John 13:15; Rom 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 2:5; 1 John 2:6; 1 John 3:16; Revelation 12:11]. He is an example to believers as to how to believe in God. It is faith tied to obedience. This is the rule not the exception.
Abraham trusted God unambiguously – not having any vagueness or uncertainty in his trust of God. He reasoned according to what God had promised him; he figured that after his personal obedience (the sacrifice of his son Isaac) God would indeed raise Isaac from the dead. He was assured of this because of what God had previously promised him regarding his son’s future[27. Hebrews 11:17-19]. Moreover, it must be blatantly mentioned here, the scripture does not indicate at all that Abraham contended or pleaded with the Lord about what he had been commanded to do. The Lord had said to Abraham,
Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. Gen 22:2 NIV
The next verses indicate that early the next morning Abraham prepared to do what the Lord commanded; and then traveled three days to the place where God had told him to go. And after his arrival he went up the mountain to do the task[28. Genesis 22:3-5]. This is very straightforward. Abraham absolutely trusted God. He reasoned that God could and would do what he had promised. He was sure of what he hoped for regarding God and sure of what he did not see in regard to God.[29. Hebrews 11:1] For Abraham his worship was obedience. He said so, he was going to worship. This is key! The father of faith shows us the way. We are to reason (that is, to think) on the promises of God and do what he has commanded us.
WHEN WORSHIP IS WORTHLESS
Here we will look at counterfeit characteristics in worship. It has been said, “Looks can be deceiving” or as Jesus says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make right judgment”[30. John 7:24 NIV].
Physical bowing may make look like one is yielding, respectful or humble. One might look as if one is being compliant, but there is no real compliance at all. Bowing in pretense means the person is still on guard for themselves and even possibly ready to strike the person to whom they pretend bow to – not being submissive in attitude – regardless of the physical act of bowing. Abraham’s worship in Genesis 22:5 was sincere; difficult – and another thought – impossible to counterfeit. It was based on a command and a act of obedience towards God’s command.
I fear that what we are taught in regard to worship is foundationally weak or just simply uninformed. Many “worship leaders” make much ado about raising hands and singing enthusiastically saying, “Brother and sisters, sing it like you mean it!” Rather than saying, “Sing it because you mean it and don’t sing it if you don’t mean it”. That would be a true worship leader. Because worship goes far beyond just singing. So very often, we sing words that we truly do not mean and it seems okay for us to do that – but it is not. We may sing:
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed?[31. Amazing Grace – John Newton 1799]
Consider this. Is it true that God’s grace has taught our hearts to truly fear or respect him? Has his grace truly relieved our fears? Was God’s grace valuable from the first hour we believed? A contemporary songwriter Matt Redman wrote the following words echoing the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10:
Oh, to know the power of your risen life, And to know you in your suffering;
To become like you in your death, my Lord, so with you to live and never die
Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord… [32. Knowing Jesus – Matt Redman]
When we sing this (and songs like it) do we really want to know (in the sense “learning” and “understanding”) the power of Jesus’ risen life? Do we really want “to know” him in his sufferings? Is to know Christ the greatest thing for us? Is he truly our joy? Do we really love him, especially in the light of Jesus’ words, “If you love me you will do what I say”[33. John 14:15]? Do we sing these things for nothing? Do we sing these in vain?
How frequently do we bow our heads and close our eyes in prayer and really don’t pray? Most everybody prays when in trouble, but even when we pray, do we pray according to God’s prescription? Do we pray according to his will? Do we pray in the manner he taught his disciples to pray? We have much practice “saying” the right things but not really meaning what we say from our hearts. “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!” Do we really believe that? Do we really believe this in our personal lives? Are our mouths are full of clichés which are automatically spouted when we greet folks or are greeted by them and even at times, when we speak to God?
How important is our respect or reverence offered toward God; our religious practice with its creeds and rituals or public devotion; attending “church”; or singing praise songs without our obedience to him? It is not very important; and I dare say it is not very important to God either. We place much energy – far too much energy in and on things that do not count – thinking they do count without obedience! We are too satisfied with simple appearances. We think if people just show up that means everything is okay and that doesn’t mean everything is okay.
In line with this idea, the Lord Jesus speaking to the Pharisees[34. The Pharisees were a religious and political party in Palestine in New Testament times. The Pharisees were known for insisting that the law of God be observed as the scribes interpreted it and for their special commitment to keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity. (from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)] and teachers of the law[35. The teachers of the law were men learned in the Mosaic law and in the sacred writings, an interpreter, teacher. (from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2006 by B