The Bible does not explain what worship is or why or how we should worship. The living experience of Israel bowing before her God and praying and singing and even shouting at Him is given without any comment or theological analysis.
The reader of the Bible will have to receive its testimonies as they are, a raw event from which he/ she may want to think about worship and thus enrich or deepen his/her own experience of worship.
The Reason for Worship
Why worship? This is certainly the first question that comes to our minds. And today in our secular environment the question is all the more relevant. The Bible starts precisely with the answers to that question. The first pages of the Bible are the record of the event which brought mankind and the universe into existence: the Creation. According to the Bible, the first human act of worship ever in history took place as a direct response to Creation. It is significant, indeed, that humankind’s first day was a day of worship. As soon as Adam and Eve woke up from the dust, it was Sabbath (Genesis 2:3). It was a holy time devoted to the worship of the Creator from within the contemplation of the wonderful nature, the “very good” work of God. Their first emotions, their first songs, their first surprise, their first awe were religious and were inserted into the experience of worship.
Henceforth, Israel was called to “remember” Creation on Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). And from Sabbath to Sabbath, they would learn the meaning of worship. As soon as Noah came out from the darkness of the flood and shared with nature the miracle of a new creation (Genesis 8-9), he built an altar and worshiped the Lord (Genesis 8:20-22). As soon as Israel emerged from slavery through the wonders of the ten plagues and the many miracles of the Exodus, they ran to worship the Lord in the holy time of a Sabbath (Exodus 5:5) and in the holy space of the Sanctuary (Exodus 24ff.). As soon as Israel was recreated (Isaiah 40) and returned to their land after seventy years of exile, the first move involved the building of the temple and the restoration of worship (Ezra 3). All these experiences of creation led consistently to the same goal: worship the One who just transformed darkness into light and turned nothingness into being. It is no accident then that the Psalms, which reflect the spiritual life of Israel and express their sentiments in worship, place Creation precisely at the core of worship. In the Psalms, worship is directly related to Creation (Psalms 29; 66:1-5; 104; see also Nehemiah 9:6, etc.). The very act of singing and shouting to the Lord, of coming before His presence, of bowing down before Him, is justified on the grounds that He is the Creator: Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, and as in the day of trial in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:1-8).
Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands! Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know that the Lord, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100:1-3).
It is from this acute awareness that they were created by God that the ancient Israelites derived their reason for worship. Worship was felt to be the purpose of their existence: “This will be written for the generations to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).
To the atheistic French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who argued against God’s existence on the basis of man’s existence and said, “I exist, therefore God does not exist,” the ancient Hebrews would have responded: “I exist, therefore I worship.”
The Essence of Worship
Because the divine act of Creation leads to the human act of worship, worship is made of the faith in Creation with all the tension this reference may imply.
On the one hand, it is because God is the Creator, because He has created the universe, because He is invisible and His face holy, that He deserves to be worshiped The awareness of His infinite grandeur, His majesty, His mystery, His power, engenders in us feelings of awe and admiration with the profound sentiments of our limitations and misery. These are the first basic ingredients for worship.
On the other hand, it is because God has consented to move outside of Himself, because He has come down and drawn closer to mankind by creating them, because He has revealed Himself, that it is possible to receive Him, respond to Him, and therefore worship Him. Worship is also made of the intellectual and emotional discovery of God’s love and grace. On the human level, this means profound gratefulness and the acute awareness that we owe everything to Him.
And the two sets of thoughts and feelings are dependent on each other. The more God is grand, powerful, and majestic, the more dramatic His descent towards mankind will be. In fact, this tension is registered in the first pages of the Bible as they report the events of Creation from two different perspectives. The first Creation story speaks about the great, powerful, and infinitely distant Elohim (Genesis 1:1-2:4a). The second Creation story speaks about YHWH, a God who comes closer to men and women and relates to them (Genesis 2:4b- 25). Whether the Israelites prayed or performed sacrifices, they expanded their awareness of that tension. In their prayers, they addressed the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4; Psalms 136:26) as a Shepherd (Psalms 23), as a Father (Psalms 89:26; Matthew 6:9) who draws close to humans. It is noteworthy that the act of sacrifice carried the same tension; while it reminded the Israelites that they could not approach God by themselves (Jeremiah 30:21), it was also used as a sign of God’s proximity (Exodus 29:42). The root of the word qorban, “sacrifice” (Leviticus 1:2), derived from the root qrb meaning “near,” has well preserved this dynamic. It is not an accident then that the reference to Creation is so important in relation to worship. For through the act of creation, God has shown both His power and His grace. He is great enough to be awed and near enough to be loved; worship necessarily implies that tension between the sense of the distance of God and yet the intimate experience of His proximity. Worship is made of joy, but also of trembling (Psalm 2:11); fear but also trust (Exodus 14:31); love but also reverence (Nehemiah 1:5).
The Models of Worship
Since worship was the direct response to Creation, it involved the totality of the human being.
It involved the body. The Jewish festivals, the cultic eatings and drinkings, the killing of the sacrifices, the prostrations to the ground and the liftings of the hands, all these movements gave a special dynamic to the worship experience. The believers did not just sit and watch or fall and meditate. They moved around and played an active physical part in the sacred drama.
And all the senses of the body were alert: the smell for the sacrifice or the incense, or the holy priestly oil; the taste for the diverse foods pre - scribed on that occasion; the vision for the colors of the holy garments, the gestures of the high priest, and the impressive architecture of the temple; the touch in the anointment ceremonies or the cleansing rituals; the ears for the music, the words, the shouts, and all the other sounds produced by the concrete words of the service—but also for the moments of tense silence which would say more than any word or act.
It involved the soul. The worship experience was not a mechanical activity, doing the right thing and pronouncing the right formula at the right time. Worshipers were not cold puppets. Intense emotions were expressed and enhanced by the chanting of ancient and new poems and the singing of traditional but also more contemporary creative melodies with the powerful support of all kinds of musical instruments (Psalm 150). People cried in worship, but they sometimes shouted. They pondered over the deep mystery, but they also shivered under the sensation of God’s presence.
It involved the mind. Worship was also the occasion for studying the prophetic word of God and His law. It obliged thinking, learning, and understanding God’s plans, wisdom, and will for the believers. Intelligence played an important role in the worship experience. The prophet or the scribe would stand before the community and read and explain the sacred text. People would not just hear and passively receive the lesson. They would have to understand and learn the prophetic word in order to keep it after the actual moment of worship. They would then leave the place with fresh ideas and new feelings, a better understanding of God, closer to Him and to themselves— new creatures.
It involved the community. Worship was a corporate experience All the above could not take place without the others. The religious act of the individual, his/her gesture, his/her feelings, his/her esthetic emotions, his/her thoughts and amazements at the discovery of the truths were intensified because they were at that very moment the common experience of many. Furthermore, the responsorial singing added to the experience of togetherness, the dimension of harmonious complementarity. Worship drew people closer to each other. The love for God and the opening to the divine influence was accompanied with love for the neighbor and the humble willingness to learn from each other and to grow before God and society.
Yet, the experience of worship did not stop at worship. It was not just one temporary memory of sensational religion. Worship involved the domain of human existence. Beyond the intense and wonderful time spent on the mountain was the ordinary life in the valley. Significantly, when the ancient Israelites received the Torah, in a liturgical setting they immediately responded by referring to action, na‘aseh, “we shall do” (Exodus 24:7). Worship should lead to action and history, otherwise it is not worship; it is just another psychological stimulation. This is why the experience of worship was to be regularly repeated each morning, each evening, each Sabbath, each Jewish festival, and each holy convocation, because it carried a lesson they did not want to forget: not only the duty to shape their daily life, but also profound hope that someday they would recover the fellowship they had lost, of which they had only an obscure intuition at the highest moments of worship.
Image: Detail from Religion by Charles Sprague Pearce (1896). Public Domain