There is a significance to the idea I of worship that, although given much emphasis in Holy Scripture, generally is overlooked by the saints. Real worship, according to this scriptural significance, is our response to the divine claim for reverence and godly fear. This import is seen in our Lord’s answer to the devil’s temptation, “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10). When we refer to this Old Testament Scripture, we read, “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God” (Deut. 10:20). Worship, in the conception of our Saviour, was an act expressing the fear of the Lord, an act of rendering homage to Deity. The devil knew this act was performed by prostration before the person being worshipped, for the devil asked Jesus to fall down and worship him.
Worship in the Old Testament
In our survey of this important subject, let it be understood that wherever a specific description is given in the Old Testament of the mode of worship or of how a person is worshipped, bodily prostration is mentioned.
According to Dr. Young’s Concordance, we find this idea conveyed numerous times and in various degrees, thus: ten times, persons fell down and worshipped; six times, they bowed their heads and worshipped; four times, they bowed themselves and worshipped; three times, they bowed their faces to the ground and worshipped; twice, they fell on their faces and worshipped; once, they bowed to the earth and worshipped; and once, they bowed their heads to the earth and worshipped.
The meaning of worship readily is seen in such references as Dan. 3:5-6, where the three Hebrew youths are commanded to fall down and worship the golden image; that is, to give to that image homage appropriate to a deity. Furthermore, we read in Isa. 44:15-17, of a man who makes a graven image and falls down to it and worships it. That worship is homage in recognition of Deity is made clear in Psa. 95:6, “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God.”
A very interesting picture of worship is drawn in Isa. 51:23, “Bow down (The word ‘shachah’ used here is the same Hebrew word rendered into English, ‘worship’), that we may go over; and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.” The picture is of one bowed so low that he could not be lower.
The true meaning of worship is also readily seen in the usage of the Hebrew word “shachah,” the principle Hebrew word translated into English by the infinitive, “to worship.” Dr. Young gives the meaning of “shachah” as to bow self down, and lists the following translations and occurrences: worship, 99 times; bow selves, 35 times; bow down, 9 times; bow down selves, 8 times; do obeisance, 5 times; do reverence, 5 times; make obeisance, 4 times; fall down, 3 times; fall flat, once; make to stoop, once; crouch, once; humbly beseech, once.
Please note that only one of the above translations suggests anything other than a rendering of homage; in that case it is a beseeching (2 Sam. 16:4). Worship as described in the Old Testament is a prostration before God, not a presentation to God; it is a rendering of homage (as J. N. Darby translates it), not a giving of praise.
Some may object, and ask, did not the priest worship at the golden altar in the tabernacle? Undoubtedly, this has been taught, but nowhere do we find in Scripture that a priest worshipped. Aaron worshipped with the elders in Ex. 24:1, but that was before he was separated to the priesthood. In fact, not once in the Book of Leviticus, the book some have called, “The Book of Worship,” is the word worship to be found. Furthermore, there is no record of any one worshipping in the holy place of either the tabernacle or the temple. Saints did worship in Old Testament times, but not in the holy place. The priests’ activities in the holy place are called services and ministries before the Lord (Ex. 28:35; 29:30. Num. 18:7, etc.), but these are not called worship, for in their performance they did not bow down. However, we do read of individuals (not priests) worshipping, some privately, as Abraham’s servant during his journey, “And the man bowed down his head and worshipped the Lord” (Gen. 24:26-28); and others publicly, either by worshipping toward the temple, that is bowing down toward the temple (Psa. 138:2), or by going up to the locality where God had placed His name and worshipping (bowing) before the altar (2 Kings 18:22).
To summarize: to worship according to the Old Testament is to engage in an act of homage given to no other God but Jehovah, and this act is a bowing to the ground before Him, not a giving of praise to Him, although that is good, but a prostration before Him.
Worship in the New Testament
Now, in the New Testament worship has a similar meaning. The first worshippers were the wise men who fell down and worshipped the child Jesus, and afterwards opened their treasures and presented unto Him their gifts. Worship is the rightful claim of Deity as in Matt. 4:10, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God.” That the primary meaning of worship in the New Testament as well as in the Old is homage, can be seen in the usage of the word, and in its lexicographic meaning. At least 12 times in the New Testament, it is stated that the worshipper either fell down or bowed down to worship. For the definition of the Greek word “proskuneo,” which is translated “to worship,” let us consult The Expository Dictionary by W. E. Vine. The Greek word “proskuneo,” rendered into English by the phrases “to make obeisance, to do reverence to,” expresses an act of homage or reverence to God (Matt. 4:10), to Christ (Matt. 2:2), to a man (Matt. 18:26), to the dragon (Rev. 13:4), to the beast (Rev. 13:4), to the image of the beast (Rev. 13:15), to demons (Rev. 9:20), and to idols (Acts 7:43).
In The Dictionary of the Bible by Davis, under the heading “Worship,” it is stated: “Respect and honour shown to a person. This sense of the word worship has become obsolete; respect which implies that the object thereof possesses divine attributes.”
J. N. Darby, in his translation of the New Testament, attaches this note to Matt. 4:10, “ ‘proskuneo’ — an act of personal reverence and homage. What in modern language is called worship is ‘latrueo’ as ‘serve’ in verse 10.”
From the above we see that, although modern language has broadened the meaning of worship to include praise and church service, nevertheless, its original meaning of rendering homage to Deity or to man is maintained in Scripture.
Some may still object, and say, is not the sacrifice of praise in Heb. 13:15, worship? As in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of praise is more properly defined as priestly service; it is the Greek word “latrueo” as mentioned by Mr. Darby. This is the word used in Matt. 4:10. “And Him only shalt thou serve.” This is the word that Mr. Newberry translates “religious service” in Rom. 12:1, “Which is your intelligent religious service,” or as in Phil 3:3, “We are the circumcision which religiously serve God in the Spirit.” This word also occurs in Heb. 9:1-6, “The priest went always in to the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God.”
To worship one must bow. The literal meaning of the Greek word, “proskuneo” (to worship) is to kiss (the hand or the ground) toward. We all probably have seen a picture of the Mohammedans at worship on their knees with their heads on their hands on the ground. Such is the idea conveyed by the Greek word. Notice the posture of John in Rev. 19:10; 22:8. He says, “I fell down (in order) to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: … worship (do obeisance to) God.”
The Spiritual Application
This examination immediately raises the question whether or not we, when met in assembly capacity, should bow literally to the ground. What saith the Scriptures?
Firstly, in the Gospels, in the bodily presence of our Lord, saints literally bowed before Him both before and after His resurrection (Matt. 2:1; 28:9). Secondly, in the glory according to the Book of the Revelation, if not angels, then saints prostrate themselves before Him (Rev. 1:17; 4:10). However, in the Epistles where we expect to find guidance on Church practice, there are only two occasions in which the word worship appears with any assembly connection. The one is found in Phil. 3:3, and already has been noted as more properly translated “religious service.” The other reference is in 1 Cor. 14:25, where the unlearned or unbeliever, after being convicted by the ministry given by the local prophets, will fall down on his face and will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth. Here worship results from the realization of the presence of Deity, and is expressed by prostration and doing obeisance, and is caused by the preaching of the word. However, it is an unlearned man who so expresses himself, presumably in a manner similar to that which he was accustomed when doing obeisance in his former religion. It is also noteworthy that after Christ’s resurrection as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, literal bowing is mentioned, but in John’s Gospel, in which we know not Christ after the flesh, when Thomas acknowledged the Deity of Christ with the words, “My Lord and my God,” no mention of posture is recorded. Furthermore, it is in John’s Gospel we are told that God desires spiritual worship (John 4:24). They that do homage to Him must do homage to Him in spirit and in truth. The absence of physical bowing in the Epistles, and the emphasis upon the spiritual aspect of worship and service in this Church age, suggests that we are to bow in spirit, that physical homage was only a shadow of the spiritual reality. The spirit of reverence, obeisance, of bowing in humility before God, is still called for among the saints, for “the Father seeketh such” (John 4:23). On the other hand, if any physical posture accompanies worship, it should be that of bowing. For example, why do saints bow when they have just entered the assembly meeting? Is it not an acknowledgement of the Divine Presence?
“Where is My fear?” demanded the Lord of Hosts of His people in a past dispensation (Mal. 1:6). “Fear God” is a present exhortation for the saints (1 Pet. 2:17). Although we have the liberty to address Almighty God as our Father, let us not be contemptuously familiar, for hallowed is His name. What homage is due to God! In 1 Chron. 29:20, the honour due our earthly sovereign is compared to the honour due to our God. We read of the people of Israel, “And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshipped the Lord, and the king.” When homage is paid to any king or queen, only one form is acceptable that of kneeling and kissing the hand. A song of praise alone would not do; there would have to be bowing. When homage is paid to our God only one posture is acceptable, the humble prostration of ourselves before Him. Brethren, if we have not bowed in spirit as we have been overwhelmed by the realization of His greatness, grace and glory, and of our own nothingness, we have not worshipped.
In the Old Testament, bowing in worship and priestly service were two separate acts, but when we worship in spirit, the physical act becomes a spiritual attitude of reverence which accompanies priestly praise and prayer. Notice that in Rev. 4:10 they fell down before speaking, in Rev. 5:8, they fell down before singing, and in Rev. 5:14, in silence they fell down as they contemplated the Enthroned One. The singing and speaking were actually not worship; the worship was the attitude that preceded and accompanied the presenting of praise in word and song.
We worship when our silence, speech and singing are characterized by that spirit of reverence which becomes the presence of our Lord and our God.