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How Did We Get So Far Off the Mark? The Misunderstanding of Worship

My wife recently returned from a large Bible Study meeting (a well-known national study for women).  They were looking at Revelation 4 and – of course – discussing worship. My wife was near tears, because the two of us have been discussing the meaning of this word for over a year now, and we have become completely dismayed by the improper use of the word in today’s Christian culture.

Revelation 4 is the familiar passage of John going before the throne room and seeing the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures who say the familiar words: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” which is followed by the elders in a position of praise (‘spewing forth’ positive statements about God) and worship (prostrate before God):

…the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
— Rev. 4:10-11 (ESV)

It seems that the study leader indicated that this passage is about our experience in heaven (a common misconception) and that it implies that when we are in heaven we will be worshiping God continuously by singing.

We heard the very same statement made (without scriptural reference) by a song leader in church a few months ago. It seems a common theme among many today to believe that our entire heavenly experience will be to sing away, 24/7.

While I like to sing, that is not what I have in mind. I actually had every hope of getting about a thousand year nap in first.

First of all, there is no mention in any part of Revelation 4 of singing. I can understand some of the confusion. We see “Holy, Holy, Holy” and immediately the hymn comes to mind and we have the song going in our head. It is a great hymn and I figure a likely source of song (praise) material when we are in our eternal home. But the passage doesn’t say they sang these words. It specifically says that they say (λέγοντες) them.  Legontes is consistenly translated as saying, and never as singing. The same word is used of the twenty-four elders. They say “worthy are you Lord….” They are not singing it.

You may be thinking that this seems like a minor point. We know that we will sing in heaven, so what difference does it make if they are speaking or singing?

This is the issue. Over and over, despite the overwhelming evidence that the words used in the Old and New Testaments for worship are about bowing down, kneeling, laying prostrate before the one being worshiped and serving, we have never seen such a complete and continuous number of references to worship as singing.

The leader of the study the other morning implied that the greatest act of communing with God is to sing out before Him. Repeatedly we hear pastors and song leaders say that we are now going to worship, and then we start singing. We hear over and over the idea that when I sing (or dance, or wave flags around) I am worshiping.

Sorry, brothers and sisters, this is not worship. In most cases we would call it praise. Which is not to be minimized – as praise is a great and glorious part of our relationship with God.

But worship is something altogether different and not understanding this – in our opinion – creates a significant gap in our being rightly related to our God. To believe that worship is singing (or dancing or some other act that we control) is to miss the whole point of what is implied by the Hebrew and Greek words.

bowing-down-sepiaThe Hebrew word that is usually translated worship is shacah. In the New Testament the word is proskeneo. While both are to be understood as bowing down, the Greek word used in the NT actually goes further and implies a prostrate posture of complete submission.

Even though scholars and even most pastors and many “worship leaders” know that this is the meaning of the words, there is this unfailing communication of the idea that worship is to be equated with singing (or dancing or flag waving – or some other type of visible activity that we would normally associate with an act of praise or celebration). We don’t understand this. How did this disconnect happen?

If worship is related to bowing down or lying prostrate on the ground, then its meaning MUST be related to the idea of submission. It is an act of stating, “You are worthy of my obedience”, or “You are God and I am not and therefore I will do as you ask.” Simply, it is saying “yes” to God.

We have come to believe that the reason for the avoidance of this use of the word may – unfortunately – be found in the problem in our Christian culture that we have with taking a posture of humility before God. As humans we are often very self focused – even as Christians – to the degree that we are far more content to offer up songs to God than we are to bow humbly before Him and say yes to whatever He is asking of us. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of ignorance or a lack of teaching, as many people do not study the original meanings of the words. In other situations, as we have come to see, it is about income. Lots of jobs have now been created to encompass “worship songs” and “worship videos” and “worship material” and “worship curriculum” and “worship flags” and “worship manuals” and “worship books” and “worship leader degrees” and “worship leader training courses” and so on (implying that we need people to teach us how to worship God through singing). This is generating income for many, today, and to walk away from that may be a bit tough. Not long ago we saw a new “worship coloring book” for sale on Facebook. We have so strayed from the original meaning of the word that we now believe sitting at our kitchen table, coloring in Bible verses, is worship? More likely, it’s an income generator and a great number of folks want to cash in on the SEO of this cultural shift. It also feels nice to say, “I really worshiped today!” Or, “What a great worship song to help *me* worship!” We like the feeling that comes when our senses are engaged and so defining “worship” our way fits neatly into this viewpoint. There isn’t much to talk about, with others, perhaps, when we quietly worship (bow down to) God in our prayer closet asking, “What do You want with me, Lord? How may I serve You today?”

In sharing the idea of ‘worship meaning to bow in submission’ with other believers, we are surprised at the number of people who respond with an attitude of rejection and refusal. They don’t like the idea that their posture before God is to be one of surrender and obedience.

This says a lot about how Christianity has been presented to people today. Many see God as the one who meets needs, rewards faith and promises health, wealth and happiness. I once heard it called the cult of self-fulfillment (another article is coming on that one). When Christianity becomes synonymous with meeting my needs and wants, and not service, servanthood and obedience, it seems to us that the idea of taking up our cross and following Jesus has also been lost.

Perhaps Believers prefer the idea of reaching spiritual self-actualization now: “I will define words my way to suit my own spiritual wants, rather than believing Scripture for what it says.”

Yes, what we are saying is that we see equating worship with singing as a part of the watering down of the Christian faith. We are weakening the entire idea of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to worship Him, and to submit to His leading while we serve God and our neighbor.

When God states that He is looking for those who will worship in spirit and in truth, He is not seeking for people to sing to Him. The text there, in original context, is saying that God is searching for adorers who will bow down to Him in spirit and truth. In other words: He wants us to WANT to do it. He wants us to accept His invitation to worship Him and to find rest at His feet, in His finished work. A  misunderstanding of this term actually takes us away from a beautiful and authentic aspect of relationship with our Maker. To lay at the feet of God is to say, “I give up striving. I trust You to be in charge of the world and of me. Thank you for saving me. Please use me as You will, as I surrender and submit. Your ways are higher and holier than mine.” We give up the fight and hand the keys back over to God. To miss this, in our opinion, is to miss a gift.

The days ahead for Christians do not appear to be getting any easier. Like the first century believer’s who were encouraged to stand firm, put on the whole armor, practice self-denial, etc., it seems that we had better strengthen our walk soon or the “tribulation and persecution” will bring quite a lot of falling away (Matthew 13:21). That walk will be made stronger when we truly worship – humbling ourselves in submission before the throne of grace and learning to say “yes” to God rather than asking what He can do for us.

Final note: please don’t misinterpret the above to be some kind of statement against singing. We sing constantly in our daily walk. We listen to nothing but Christian music at home and in our vehicle. Shara posts songs and hymns on her Facebook account with regularity. She even wakes up in the middle of the night with a song or hymn on her lips, as if she had already started it in the midst of her sleep. “There is a song in our heart” so to say.

But we need to call singing what it is – usually identified with praise (or thanksgiving). While a song can lead to an act of worship, it isn’t the worship moment. Like a sermon might lead to a worship response – hearing or singing The Word can bring a response that is our worship. But those acts are not to be confused with what the word is calling us toward.

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Rick served as a pastor in three different churches for a period of 14 years. Since 1997 he has operated his own business (Design Media Pros) offering web services, development, consulting, print production and graphics. In 2010 Rick and Shara combined their talents to start Weiss Business Solutions. Rick seeks to combine his ministry heart with his web experiences. Believer's Forum is the beginning of that dream.

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3 Comments

  1. I do find that when I listen to some songs, they bring me to worship, speak to my heart and lose “me” so it’s all focused on God. Adoring and clinging to the One that gave it all for me.

  2. Judi

    It is correct to think of a song – or the signing of a song – as a way to bring us to a point of worship. That has happened to me a number of times.

    The point is, however, that singing in and of itself is not worship. The time when we sing in a church service is no more (or less) the “worship” time then the message from the pastor.

    Worship is not the activity we perform, it is the response we have when we connect to something in these activities. When we respond in obedience, submission, or just saying “yes” – then we have worshiped.

    Thanks for your comment.

    1. There have been a number of times in recent months, during the singing time, that I have wanted to bow down (or lay prostrate) on the ground. However, it would seem a bit odd when no one else is doing it. Someone may call 911 assuming I was in trouble. 😉 It may also just depend on the church you’re in. We attended a church in another state where I would have (and did) bow down during the singing portion of the service. It was acceptable there and others did it, too. In those moments when I’m overcome by the salvation given me (and the very breath in my lungs) – I want to respond by lowering myself in God’s presence to show Him that I understand He is God and I am not. “Know before whom you stand” as our Jewish brothers and sisters say. You can learn more about that statement here, if interested: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Da_lifnei/da_lifnei.html (Via Hebrew for Christians) From this page he states: “When we awaken to the truth of God’s presence, we necessarily draw back in humility.” (Yes) xoxo

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