What is Worship?

What is Worship?

Have you ever considered this question? Until I read Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life, I can't recall a distinct moment where I ever really considered what worship was. And for that matter, why would I? I was very content with what I believed worship to be!

So whether you have or haven't distinctly considered what worship is, I hope the following passage from Rick's book challenges you to think about the question as much as it challenged me back in 2003.

  • Anything you do that brings pleasure to God is an act of worship. Like a diamond, worship is multifaceted... Worship is a lifestyle... For many people, worship is just a synonym for music. They say, "At our church we have the worship first, and then the teaching." This is a big misunderstanding. Every part of a church service is an act of worship: praying, Scripture reading, singing, confession, silence, being still, listening to a sermon, taking notes, giving an offering, baptism, communion, singing a commitment card, and even greeting other worshipers." (Pg. 64-65, 2002)

Upon reading this breadth of activities Rick ascribes to worship, I wrote "is this worship?" in the margin of my book. He opened the definition so wide that I was forced to close in on that question I had never asked... and after an extensive word study, I'd soon discover that Rick Warren is likely very far from a biblical description of worship.


Rick Warren states, "For many people, worship is just a synonym for music. They say, 'At our church we have the worship first, and then the teaching.' This is a big misunderstanding." An easy counterexample to Rick's idea is the fact that Nehemiah seems to have had this same "misunderstanding". In Nehemiah 9:3 we read, "...they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of YHWH their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped YHWH their God." So if Rick is correct, then Nehemiah misunderstood worship and recorded the events of the day incorrectly. It seems clear that if Rick is right, then Nehemiah is wrong. I must confess that I'm a bit biased. I'm siding with Nehemiah on this issue. Since Nehemiah records worship as distinct from reading the Book of the Law, I believe he makes it clear that Rick is the one with the "big misunderstanding".

Nevertheless, I must admit that I may not have ever discovered what worship is had I not read Rick Warren's book. So, I must give credit where credit is due... Thank you Rick Warren, wherever you are!!!


So What is Worship Then?

When I wanted to know what worship was, I invested some time and simply looked at scriptures where the term "worship" is used. I quickly discovered a key theme throughout the texts of the bible, from the old testament to the new testament, from heaven to earth. Please read the following passages and I believe you will see it too.

Genesis 24:26
...the man bowed down his head and worshiped YHWH.

Genesis 24:48
...I bowed my head and worshiped YHWH...

Genesis 24:52
...he worshiped YHWH, bowing himself to the earth.

Exodus 4:31
...they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Exodus 12:27
...the people bowed their heads and worshiped.

Exodus 34:8
...Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.

2 Kings 5:18
Yet in this thing may YHWH pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may YHWH please pardon your servant in this thing.

2 Chronicles 7:3
...they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped...

2 Chronicles 20:18
...Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem bowed before YHWH, worshiping YHWH.

2 Chronicles 29:29
....the king and all who were present with him bowed and worshiped.

2 Chronicles 29:30
...they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Nehemiah 8:6
...they bowed their heads and worshiped YHWH with their faces to the ground.

Job 1:20
...[Job] fell to the ground and worshiped.

Psalm 95:6
Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before YHWH our Maker.

Isaiah 44:15
...he makes a god and worships it; He makes it a carved image, and falls down to it.

Isaiah 44:17
...He falls down before [the carved image] and worships it...

Isaiah 46:6
...They prostrate themselves, yes, they worship.

Daniel 3:5
...you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up...

Daniel 3:6
...whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace...

Daniel 3:7
...all the people, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the gold image...

Daniel 3:10
...fall down and worship the gold image...

Daniel 3:11
...fall down and worship...

Daniel 3:15
...fall down and worship the image...

Matthew 2:11
...[they] fell down and worshiped Him...

Matthew 4:9
...all these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.

Matthew 28:9
...they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.

Mark 15:19
...bowing the knee, they worshiped Him.

Acts 10:25
...Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him.

1 Corinthians 14:25
...falling down on his face, he will worship God...

Revelation 3:9
...I will make them come and worship before your feet...

Revelation 4:10
..the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him...

Revelation 5:14
...the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him...

Revelation 7:11
...the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God...

Revelation 19:4
...the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God...

Revelation 19:10
...I fell at his feet to worship him...

Revelation 22:8
...I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel...

Key Idea: When given contextual clues, the texts of the bible use words like "bowed down his head", "bowed himself to the earth", "bowed down", "bowed their faces to the ground", "fell to the ground", "kneeled before", "fell down", "prostrated", "fell on their faces", "fell at his feet", "bowing the knee", and/or "held Him by the feet" when describing worship. This is true in the Bible's Old Testament and New Testament, in heaven, and on earth. Regardless of what I felt worship to be before I did this word study, after looking into these things I had to accept that worship involves some sort of physical prostration.


(((Before I continue, I must warn you that I've received a lot of flak for suggesting that a key component of worship is prostration, bowing down, face to the ground, kneeling, bowing the knee... A LOT OF FLAK!!! So please be aware that some care should be taken when discussing this issue.  Since I began telling others what I discovered Biblical worship to be, the amount of opposition I have received has been a huge surprise to me. Where I expect excitement, I experience disdain.  It seems clear that many don't like what I have discovered at all!  Again, be careful!

My best guess as to why this is the case is that "worship" is a very personal and perhaps wonderfully fulfilling aspect of peoples' lives even if their "worship" does not contain prostration, bowing down, face to the ground, kneeling, and/or bowing the knee which are biblical aspects of worship.  So, if you say "Did you know that biblical worship is..."  they may feel you are robbing them of a very personal and perhaps wonderfully fulfilling aspect of their life.  So at that point, a nice conversation can become an angry argument.  Again, please use caution and have compassion.

My attempt at a helpful suggestion:  Make it clear that you are not taking away, but adding.  You are not destroying, but just describing.  Those very personal and perhaps wonderfully fulfilling aspect of peoples' lives will still be very personal and perhaps wonderfully fulfilling aspect of their lives if they are not described as worship.  Worship simply has a particular meaning.  Just because worship may have a narrower meaning than most think, this does not mean their life and experience has changed, just how they describe it.  Best of all, biblical worship may become a new and distinct addition to the experience and life of the believer you are speaking with.

Lastly, if a person is particularly adamant, then I'd suggest simply encouraging them to find verses which support that worship need not include prostration, bowing down, face to the ground, kneeling, bowing the knee...  Then encourage they be like the Bereans, as I'd hope we all should be.  Acts 17:11 ...they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.)))


"Worship" in the Hebrew Language

Beyond the contextual clues in the Old Testament ("bowed down his head", "bowed himself to the earth", "bowed down", "bowed their faces to the ground", "fell to the ground", "kneeled before", "fell down", "prostrated") which help us understand what worship is, the Hebrew word shahhah by itself, often translated as worship, actually means to prostrate.

Hebrew: SHAHHAH (worship)

"In our modern western culture worship is an action directed toward God and God alone. But this is not the case in the Hebrew Bible. The word shehhah is a common Hebrew word meaning to prostrate oneself before another in respect. We see Moses doing this to his father in law in Exodus 18:7. When the translators translate the word shehhah they will use the word "worship" when the bowing down is directed toward God but as "obeisance" or other equivalent word when directed toward another man. There is no Hebrew word meaning worship in the sense that we are used to using it in our culture today. From an Hebraic perspective worship, or shehhah is the act of getting down on ones knees and placing the face down on the ground before another worthy of respect." (Taken from Ancient Hebrew Research Center)

Key Idea: The Hebrew word often translated as worship actually means to prostrate.


"Worship" in the Greek Language

Beyond the contextual clues in the New Testament ("fell down", "fell on their faces", "fell at his feet", "bowing the knee", "held Him by the feet") which help us understand what worship is, the Greek word proskyneo by itself, often translated as worship, doesn't necessarily mean prostration. So using the Greek word alone might not support the case I've been making.

Greek: PROSKYNEO (worship)

"In Classic literature: The basic meaning of proskyneo, in the opinion of most scholars, is to kiss. the prefix indicates a connection with the cultic practices going back beyond Greek history. On Egyptian reliefs worshippers are represented with outsreched hands throwing a kiss to (pros-) the deity. Among the Greeks the verb is a techical term for the adoration of the gods, meaning to fall down, prostrate oneself, adore on one's knees. Probably it came to have this meaning because in order to kiss the earth (i.e. the earth deity) or the image of a god, one had to cast oneself on the ground. Later proskyneo was also used in connection with the deification of rulers and the roman emeror cult. In addition to the external act of prostrating oneself in worship, proskyneo can denote the corresponding inward attitude of reverence and humility."

(Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume II (NIDNTT II),pg. 875-876)

So the Greek word often translated as worship may not necessarily include prostration in it of itself. Nonetheless, please don't forget that the contextual clues which appear with proskyneo in the New Testament include some sort of prostration. So please note that I'm just bringing up the Greek word meaning for the sake of thoroughness. It is primarily when we examine the contextual use of proskyneo that we can see that it included prostration.

Key Idea: The Greek word for worship, by itself, may not necissarily involve prostration. However, we obtain the connection with prostration via how this word is used in the New Testament.


[Something noteworthy regarding the Greek word proskyneo and the Hebrew word shahhah: The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that existed prior to the 1st century. "In the overwhelming majority of cases in the Septuagint proskyneo translates the Hebrew shahhah in the hithpael, meaning to bow down, and is used both of bowing down before men and of worship..." (Colin Brown, NIDNTT II, pg. 876) So the translators of the Septuagint chose to translate the Hebrew word shahhah as the Greek word proskyneo. Thus, it seems they saw proskyneo as an adequate Greek term to describe the prostration described within the Hebrew shahhah.]

CONCLUSION: Worship Includes Prostration

From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from heaven to earth, the scriptures describes worship with words that involve prostration. The Hebrew word shahhah by itself means prostration. The Greek word proskyneo may not have to mean prostration by itself, but its use in the New Testament incudes words that involve prostration. Further, proskyneo is the word usually used to translate the Hebrew shahhah in the Septuagint. I believe it isn't hard to conclude that worship includes prostration. Most importantly, I haven't found any verses that teach otherwise.

If you find one, please e-mail me at JeffGeibel@Gmail.com

Last Thought: How Important is Prostrated Worship?

The late Leonard Ravenhill made this point in his sermon "God is Worthy of Worship".

Consider this excerpt from Mathew's account of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, recorded in the Matthew 4:8-9.

8 ...the devil took [Jesus] up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

In exchange for the whole world, all that the devil desired was a moment of Jesus kneeling before him. That is it! How important is kneeling in worship? How important is prostration? Satan understood the value! To be precise, it was worth all the world to him.

I hope you have been blessed by this and that you will be as challenged to worship YHWH bowed down as I have been.


"Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

Let us kneel before YHWH our Maker."

~ Psalm 95:6 ~