The most important and highest activity that a company of God’s people could ever engage in, is to offer Almighty God acceptable worship. –D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

When people are asked to define worship, often their minds turn first to music. They think of music styles and talk about the type of worship, or the kind of music they like. To them, worship is seen primarily, if not exclusively, in the context of music. When asked about the worship in their church, they may respond with something like, “We have contemporary worship” or, “our worship is traditional,” or “we have blended services,” describing the kind of music they have. While all these expressions of corporate worship are legitimate and can be God-honoring, the fundamental question still is, “what is worship?” What does Scripture have to say about it?
The first words we read in the Bible are, “In the beginning God created.” These words are echoed in the first words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” And I don’t believe we violate Scripture by also saying that, “In the beginning was worship.”
We know that worship played a major role in heaven’s activity in eternity past. It was during this time that the sin of pride entered Lucifer’s heart and he became jealous of God. He wanted to be the one to receive heaven’s adoration. He wanted all of heaven, including God, to bow down to him. He wanted to be the one in charge, and this led to the organizing of the universe’s first rebellion. There was mutiny in heaven, and it was over worship.
As we know, Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven, but the effort to unseat God from His throne was not over. This was never so clear as when, following His baptism by John the Baptist, our Lord was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. At the heart of this encounter with Satan was the issue of worship. “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me,” said Satan to the Son of God (Matt. 4:9).
To this day, conflict rages in the human heart over who will ultimately be worshiped. Whom will those who have been created in God’s image worship? Before whom will the heavens and the earth bow? The real issue in worship is not if we will worship or how we will worship, but whom will we worship. Everyone worships someone or something, for worship is built into the very fiber of God’s creation. Those who visit the most remote, primitive tribes on earth find people worshiping something. Missionaries have long recognized this fact. Their mission is not so much convincing the natives of the existence of God, as it is the conversion of the people’s hearts from allegiance to their gods to the worship of the One True God.
This was what the apostle Paul faced in Athens. “Men of Athens,” he said. “I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:22–23). To this day it is not uncommon to find polytheism, the worship of more than one god, in many areas of the world. But no matter where, what or who it is, people do worship.
Part of the problem we face in understanding worship today is that the word itself, like many other words in our vocabulary, has lost some of its original meaning. Unlike these other words however, the meaning that God attaches to a word establishes it once and for all. God does not change but we do, and we sometimes redefine what God says in order to fit it into what we think. And when this happens, God says: “Return to Me…and I will return to you’” (Zech. 1:3).
So what does God have to say about worship in Scripture? How does He define the word, and what does He require? When the word worship is found in the Bible, it means essentially the same thing in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, two words are predominantly used: shachah, and abad. Abad connotes the idea of work, bond-service, labor, or general service, which is a form of worship. The aspect of worship I want to focus on in these letters, however, is that described by the word, shachah, a word found often in the Old Testament. It means to prostrate oneself, to bow down or stoop before the one you are worshiping. In the New Testament the primary word used for worship is proskuneo. It means essentially the same thing: to crouch, to prostrate oneself in homage, to reverence and adore, with the added picture of “kissing the hand.”
Those of us who grew up under a monarchy can perhaps relate better to the practice of bowing and doing homage than those who grew up in the United States. Though we (I am now also an American citizen) are usually respectful to those over us, we don’t call our president “Your Highness” or our judges “Your Worship.” Yet that is the exact attitude of heart found in this word worship. The accepted protocol is to bow, or even kneel.
Throughout the Old Testament we find people doing just that. Young David bowed before King Saul. In Joseph’s dream, he saw his brothers’ sheaves bowing down before his sheaf. Then there are times when the word shachah is used in conjunction with another Hebrew verb for bowing down physically, followed by the word worship. “Moses . . . bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped” (Exod. 34:8). So we find, according to Scripture, that worship involves a bowing, if not physically, at least a bowing of the heart before God.
Now back to music. As wonderful and important as music is, and it is to this writer, the truth is we don’t have to have it to worship. We have no record of music during much of the private or corporate worship recorded in Scripture. Music can be and often is a part of our worship, corporately and individually, but it is not fundamentally necessary. To many, however, worship is music, and music is worship, and many worship music. Yes, throughout our ministry we’ve met those who actually worship music!
What then are the fundamental ingredients in true worship? What are the essentials in offering God what He desires? We won’t find them in human reasoning, for that is nothing but man’s opinion and is what has created the division over worship in the first place. It comes down to what does God say in His Word, by direct instruction and through examples, that will help us understand what worship is. God established some basic principles in this regard, and only by looking at what He said to His people in the beginning, as He established them as a nation, as He laid down guidelines for their living and standards for their worship, can we understand what He is looking for.