My first memories of worship are laced with music. I held the hand of my Uncle Otis as we (and, I assume, the rest of the congregation) sang “Rock of Ages” during his Church of God services. My auntie told me to pipe down because my hymn singing, during her Hidenwood Presbyterian worship, was a little too loudly exuberant. I biked four miles uphill to sing my Seventh-day Adventist worship in a building that became our school’s roller-skating rink after sundown. Over the years, my internalized sense of what comprises worship has shifted as I have grown, studied, and experienced life. With friends, with family, and for my own erudition, I have attended the worship of a few religions, several denominations, and cultures that span at least four continents and a few islands.
To write this commentary I wanted to go back to some of the Biblical roots of worship. I began with looking up the meaning of Bible words translated into “worship” from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. For literature that covers approximately eighteen centuries, several authors, a variety of cultures, and two testaments, it was a bit of a surprise to me that the 13–16 words for “worship” or “worshiped” describe only three primary concepts: bowing or kneeling, service or ministry, and fear. I am going to look at each of them, share some of the examples of their use, and extrapolate a bit about what they can mean for us today.
To Kneel Down
In the Old Testament, hawa (to kneel or bow down) is often used in times when a decision has been made to honor God’s command and trust in His character, even when situations are trying. On his heart-wrenching journey to Moriah with Isaac, Abraham describes his worship plans as hawa. As Moses continues to choose Yahweh over the gods of Egypt, despite losing all he thought was his destiny, God promises him at Sinai’s burning bush that he would again hawa Yahweh with the children of Israel on that same mountain. Even though Elkhanah was not been blessed with the children promised to those loyal to Israel’s God, he describes his faithful, yearly journey to the temple as hawa. David, as he brings the Ark back from its exile in the lands of the Philistines, exhorts the children of Israel to hawa; to make a choice to continue to choose Yahweh.
The same word is used to warn or condemn those who have chosen or may choose to follow, not God, but their own wishes or desire for power. The author of Psalm 97 writes “let all who hawa images be put to shame” (vs 7). Many of the prophets exhort Israel to throw away their images and hawa the Lord so they will not be taken into captivity.
The Greek word for worship that indicates a choice to bow or kneel is proskyneo. It is used primarily by the writers of the gospels as they tell the story of those making a choice to worship Jesus as the Divine Messiah. John uses the same word in Revelation to describe the decisions to be made during the times and actions covered by that book.
In both languages, bowing down and kneeling to Yahweh indicates a choice to honor and emulate, in heart and action, the character of God in whatever circumstances mortals find themselves.
The history and spiritual lessons of these words for worship take us all the way back to the universe-changing controversy in Heaven:
How have you fallen from Heaven, morning star, son of dawn…you have said in your heart, I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God…I will make myself like the most high (Isaiah 14: 13).
Then war broke out in Heaven. Michael and His angels waged war upon the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought but they had not the strength to win…so the great dragon was thrown down (Revelation 12).
My understanding of these texts is that they describe a time when Lucifer wanted the power of God and the worship directed toward God, without the self-sacrificing love that is the character of God. As Lucifer chose the journey from Light Bearer to Adversary, angels had to make a choice of who to honor.
Other created beings who choose to hawa and proskyneo God, in whatever place of geography or era of history, have made and are making a choice in a battle for hearts that began in Heaven, moved to Earth, and will end only when time does. They are making a choice to live by the self-sacrificing love of Heaven’s values, no matter what the life circumstances.
To Reach Out
Abad is a Hebrew word for worship that means to be in ministry, to be a servant, to have a task, to labor, to be held in bondage, to be a slave. Of the thirty-one times “worship” is used in the Pentateuch, twenty-seven of them are abad. In Hebrew, letters and words are concrete examples of concepts. As the children of Israel made the journey from Egyptian slavery to becoming their own nation, abad as worship taught Israel to use their energy and power to minister and to protect those who were vulnerable. The children of Israel were to be slaves of trust and caring. We see it in the economy of gleaning and of fallow times. We see it in the Sabbath commandment.
You shall not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your slave or your slave girl, your cattle or the alien within your gates (Exodus 20: 10,11).
The blessing and trust lessons of the Sabbath were to be shared with all, including the most vulnerable. As the children of Israel trusted God to care for their needs on Sabbath, they were to respond by caring for the needs of others. I believe God meant these lessons to extend to the other six days of the week and to the years that followed.
Centuries later, God speaking through Isaiah reminded them:
Is this not what I require of you, to loose the fetters of injustice…to set free those who have been crushed, to share your food with the hungry, to take the homeless poor into your house, to clothe the naked…. If you cease to pervert justice and avoid the pointing finger and malicious talk, then your light will rise like the dawn out of darkness (Isaiah 58, excerpts).
Accepting the care and blessings of God the Shepherd meant being an example of that Shepherd to other vulnerable ones. Action as worship.
Two related Greek words for worship, latreia and latreuo, also make worship an action. They can mean to offer service at the sanctuary or be in service to God, a service of ministry.
Jesus lived examples of latreia in a carpentry shop in Nazareth; in His ministry of healing, feeding, and protecting those in need; in washing the feet of His disciples; in His choice of the cross, and in His care for His followers as He prepared to go home to Heaven.
In his letter to the members at Philippi, teaching them of the way to follow Jesus, Paul wrote:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2: 5-7 NIV)
In contrast to the two concepts of worship mentioned above is the Hebrew word, translated as worship, yare. It means to be afraid, to be frightened, and to revere. In some instances, it connects honor and respect to terror. It is used in only two contexts and nine times in the Bible.
The first is in 2 Kings 17, where the word is used seven times, all of them between verses 28 and 39. The context is the Israelites living in the Assyrian diaspora. They are noted as not paying homage to Yahweh. Lions began to prey upon them. The king of Assyria sent a priest from Samaria to teach them how to worship God. That priest’s teachings about worship and homage focused on yare. The story of the results of that teaching to these exiled Israelites ends with: “They paid yare to God while at the same time they served their own gods according to the custom of the nations from which they had been brought into exile” (vs 33). Isaiah uses yare when he mentions the Assyrian context (Isaiah 29:13) saying “they honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”
That statement could also apply to the last time yare is used. The boat Jonah hired to run from his assignment of warning and grace (oddly enough to the capitol of the Neo-Assyrian Empire) is deluged by a hurricane. When asked who he was and what God he worshiped Jonah replied, “I yare the Lord the God of Heaven” (Jonah 1:9). As I have been thinking about this study, I wonder if God wanted Jonah to learn to honor the Deity with his heart and not just with his lips. I wonder if God wanted Jonah to serve Him from love and not terror. I wonder if God sent Jonah off on this mission to have a chance to see, and partake in, the extraordinary grace of God to Nineveh. Sadly, at the end of the story I see Jonah, sent to offer Heaven’s grace, disgruntled by that same grace.
A similar Greek word translated as worship is phoebomai—to fear, to be alarmed, to see fear as reverence or respect, and as an impediment to faith and love. It is used only once in the New Testament. Paul, preaching to a synagogue of Jews in Pisidian Antioch, rose up and said, “Men of Israel and you who phoebomai our God, listen to me!” In all of his transcribed sermons and preserved letters, this Hellenic academic and theologian uses phoebomai only once. I don’t know why he chose to use it for this specific audience. I do believe we should note that this man, whose faith focused on the grace and love of God, used phoebomai specifically as a unique teaching opportunity.
Given the rarity and reasons for the inclusion of fear as worship in the ancient world, I am concerned about the frequency with which we use fear in our discussions of God today. We often focus on teaching people to be afraid of the judgment. We should, instead, focus on how very much God wants a loving and interactive relationship with us, a relationship that will take us through all life, including the judgment.
If we choose to hawa and proskyneo, the choice to bow down or kneel to God is not just a bodily action but a way of life, a choice of the heart. It means we acknowledge and live in a way that honors God’s role in the universe and do not try to take it for ourselves. We refuse to judge anyone because that is God’s role. We use our power and authority to serve, not compel. In our fears for our children or those who are vulnerable to us, we interact with them in a gentle, loving way that invites them to follow the One we serve. We focus on what God the Shepherd is like, by protecting, not repeatedly condemning or terrorizing the lambs who are straying. We do not put ourselves in the place of the Holy Spirit as an arbiter of conscience.
If we choose abad and latreia/latreuo, and the lessons in the story of the Good Samaritan, the counsel of Isaiah 58, and the example of the life of Jesus, our worship will change. What a difference it will make in our lives and the communities around us when our worship includes the concept that anyone in need is our sibling—when our focus is to loose fetters, when we set free those who have been crushed, when we feed the hungry (on many levels), when we welcome the homeless (on many levels); when we refuse to point the finger of accusation at others!
I believe that when our worship comes to include these lessons, we are visiting Heaven as it has always been. When this worship seeps into the very core of our souls, we are becoming true shepherds and citizens of that kingdom.
Catherine Taylor is a family therapist who specializes in the development of benevolent systems. She has been a Sabbath School teacher, sermon presenter, Bible study facilitator, camp meeting speaker, and writer on various Bible topics.
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