Let’s do some word study! Yeah, I know, that sounds as fun as diagramming sentences (something I always enjoyed, BTW) but we really can’t discuss worship without understanding the word itself. Words have meanings. Although we humans have an inclination to make up definitions as we go along, it really is important for effective communication that word meanings are clear. So, to try to establish that clarity, I’m going to examine the use of the word “worship” among the people of God in three steps, beginning with the Old Testament, moving on to the New (all using my rudimentary Hebrew and Greek lexicon skills), and ending by comparing and contrasting those uses with English definitions. This may get a little dense but, if you’ll stick with me through these next three posts, I promise a pithy synopsis that may completely change the way you think about worship.
Today, let’s look at the Old Testament. The two most common Old Testament Hebrew words commonly translated as “worship” are shachah and abad. There are other Hebrew words sometimes translated worship but their use is infrequent and they are more commonly translated without specific religious implication, i.e., fall down, burn, etc. Studying these now would be exhausting and contribute little to this analysis, so I’ll skip those.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines shachah as meaning ““to worship, prostrate oneself, bow down.” It occurs more than 170 times in the OT and is the principle Hebrew word translated into English as “worship.”
Its first OT appearance is in Gen. 18:2, when three angels visit Abraham to announce that Sarah would bear Isaac a year later, and is translated “bow” rather than “worship”; “. . . he ran from the tent door to meet them and BOWED himself to the earth” (ESV).
It is first translated as “worship” in Gen. 22:5; “Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and WORSHIP.’”
Shachah, as shown in Gen. 18:2, conveys a sense of bowing down in homage to a superior – someone of a higher social or economic class, a ruler, or a deity – and implies obeisance in addition to the physical act of bowing. This can be seen in Ex. 34:8 when it’s combined with a different Hebrew word for bowing and is still translated “worship”: “And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and WORSHIPED.”
Next, think for a moment about the implications of correlating worship with bowing. The origins of bowing have been lost to antiquity, but commentators often postulate that bowing began in ancient society as a gesture meant to demonstrate submission or the absence of a challenge or a threat. Think about two strangers meeting in the ancient world. For one to bow down before the other puts the first person in a position of complete vulnerability, removing any opportunity of offensive action and completely exposing the back of the neck. This is especially so if the second person is armed. This gesture would communicate one or both of two things: innocence and goodwill, or complete surrender to the mercy of the second person to be used as they willed. This second meaning is what is in view with shachah and what is illustrated in Isaiah 6:8 when Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me!”
Vine’s defines abad as meaning “to serve, cultivate, enslave, work.” It is very common throughout the OT (nearly 300 instances) but is only occasionally translated as “worship” (about 15 times). Rather, its most frequent English translation is “to serve” where it refers to all manner of ordinary labor. Generally, abad just means “to work hard for another.” It takes on religious overtones only when it refers to doing labor or ritual in service to a deity. But, it’s important to note that it DOES take on these overtones in such situations.
Consider this sampling of abad’s portrayal of service as worship:
- Genesis 2:15: The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to WORK it and keep it. IMPLICATION: Adam’s keeping the garden was service to God.
- Exodus 10:25-26: But Moses said [to Pharaoh], “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to SERVE the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must SERVE the Lord until we arrive there.” IMPLICATION: Later chapters of Exodus inform us that God commanded the livestock to be used to provide not just offerings, but wool and hair for weaving the priests’ robes and curtains for the tabernacle, and hides for the tent covering the tabernacle, all of which were acts of divine service. How could we see this divine service as anything other than worship? And, in fact, several translators render abad here as WORSHIP.
- Exodus 13:5: And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this SERVICE [the Passover] in this month. IMPLICATION: Observance of religious remembrance and calendar is a type of service to God.
- Exodus 20:5a: You shall not bow down (shachah) to them or SERVE them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God . . . IMPLICATION: God sees service to idols as giving away what belongs to him, namely, worship.
- Numbers 8:11: and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the SERVICE of the Lord. IMPLICATION: The work of the Levites in the Tabernacle was a service to God.
- Numbers 18:7a: And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall SERVE. IMPLICATION: As in Numbers 8, the duties of the temple priests was service to God.
- Deuteronomy 10:12-13: – “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to SERVE the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? IMPLICATION: Correct attitude, behavior, expression of affection, obedience, and more are necessary components of full service to God.
- Joshua 24:14-15: “Now therefore fear the Lord and SERVE him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers SERVED beyond the River and in Egypt, and SERVE the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to SERVE the Lord, choose this day whom you will SERVE, whether the gods your fathers SERVED in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will SERVE the Lord.” IMPLICATION: Joshua saw that proper relationship to God required comprehensive and devoted service.
Two consequences strike me in these verses. First, there is little, if any, distinction between acts of service to God and acts of worship. Second, the type of worship God expects from us demands a submission of our entire being. Combining these points leads to a third consequence, that we cannot worship God correctly without serving Him. This is what some refer to as “lifestyle” worship. It’s what Paul had in mind when he commands us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). Such an understanding of service explains why translators often translate abad as “worship.”
In review, when the English word “worship” is found in the Old Testament the Hebrew word behind it is overwhelmingly shachah, meaning “to worship,” “prostrate oneself,” “bow down.” The next most frequently used word is abad, meaning “to serve.” And although it is only sometimes translated directly to “worship,” even when it reads “serve” it should be read as synonymous with “worship” when applied in a religious context. Both words carry a strong connotation of submission. And when we contemplate ancient middle-eastern culture, with kings and subjects, masters and servants, the idea of bowing and serving being components of Almighty God’s relationship with his people doesn’t seem odd at all.
To conclude, when we read the word “worship” in the Old Testament we should always see within it the essence of bowing, an aroma of surrender and service, of saying, “here I am, use me as you will.” To borrow a line from Issac Watts, when the Old Testament says worship, it is saying, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”