The question of how we should praise and worship our God seems to be following me. It comes up at Messianic services where we sing, dance, blow shofars, clap hands and tambourines, and lift our hands in praise. It comes up in my local United Church of God group, where we sing a few hymns then sit quietly in our seats. It comes up in Facebook groups, comments on this blog, and private messages from friends and readers.
On the one hand, we have people who worry that physical manifestations of worship take away from our focus on God, and distract fellow believers. They say the Sabbath is not a time to entertain yourself, but a time to honor God. They’ve seen brethren who started exploring ideas from other church groups leave the faith, so to be safe they stick with tradition and shun anything new.
On the other hand, we have people who think the best way to honor God is to involve the physical as well as the spiritual. The outward forms of worship are not to entertain us — they are the natural manifestation of our inward worship. They say if we see a president for something in the Bible as a good thing, throw out our church tradition and replace it with what we find in scripture.
I try to see both sides of an argument when considering most questions, and to be sensitive to other view points. I understand the reluctance to leave comfort zones, and the fear of change turning out bad instead of good. Still, I’m sure you can tell that I’m leaning toward the later argument, the one in favor of more enthusiasm in our service to God. But why? What does the Bible have to say about the subject of praise and worship, and how important is it to God that we do things one way or another? This will be the first in a series of blog posts on the subject.
Often, a word in the Hebrew language will have several different meanings and you have to infer what is specifically being said from the context. Another language, like Greek or English, would use several different words to describe the same idea. This is not, however, the case with the subject of “praise.”
I count 7 different Hebrew words that are translated into English as “praise” in the King James Version. Some are only translated “praise” on occasion and have other related meanings, while others are exclusively used to describe a form of praise. There’s also a separate word for “worship.” What this tells me is that the idea and activity of praise was extremely important to the Hebrew people who worshiped God, and to God Himself. Since He is unchanging, praise is also vital for believers today.
The first time the word “praise” appears, it is spoken by a woman (not saying that’s significant; just interesting). After giving birth to another son, Jacob’s wife Leah says, “‘Now I will praise the Lord;’ therefore she called his name Judah” (Gen. 29:35). The word for “praise” here, and the root word of Judah’s name, is yadah (H3034). It means to acknowledge, recognize and declare a fact. It can mean confession, or to acknowledge the role of God in one’s own life and thereby five Him praise. Zodhiates notes it can also mean speak out, sing, or give thanks.
I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works. I will be glad and rejoice in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High. (Ps. 9:1-2)
Here, yadah in verse one is paired with another word for praise in verse two. Zamar (H2167) is the word for musical praise, and playing instruments or singing in a praise celebration. It’s often translated “sing praise,” or with reference to stringed instruments.
Oh, give thanks to the Lord! Call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk of all His wondrous works! (1 Chr. 16:8-9)
Singing is an integral part of several words for praise. Another, todah (H8426), “describes an offering of thanks or a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” which could be delivered in the form of a song (Baker and Carpenter). This was the purpose of the two “large thanksgiving choirs” appointed by Nehemiah (Neh. 12:27, 31, 38), the appears in other verses as well. Praising God involves thanking Him and acknowledging His goodness, often publicly with songs or spoken words.
But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. (Jon. 2:9)
Offerings like this are part of the service God expects of His people. We’ve spent all our time in the Old Testament so far, but this is certainly part of New Testament Christianity as well. Let’s take a quick look at a verse from the book of Hebrew before going back to the Old Testament:
Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. (Heb. 13:15)
The Hebrew word halel (H1984) is the word most often translated “praise” (closely followed by yadah). Baker and Carpenter’s dictionary says it comes from a root that means “to shine” or “to shout.” Both show up in the meaning of halal, which refers to praising God and is at the root of the word “hallelujah.” In the Old Testament, one of the things it is associated with is Levitical ministry as set-up by the righteous kings of Israel.
And he [David] appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel (1 Chr. 16:4)
When Zodhiates defines this word, he says that “the idea of radiance” is key to understanding what halal means. We praise God to make His glory shine forth. It is from this word that we get “the connotation of the ebullience of rejoicing and praising God.” It involves cheerfulness, exuberance, and is full of energy. Praise is a powerful thing in the mouths of God’s people. It is an expected service, and can lead to amazing victories, as we see in the story of King Jehoshaphat.
And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the Lord, and who should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army and were saying: “Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever.” Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated. (2 Chr. 20:21-22)
These verses used halal, yadah, and another word, tehillah (H8416), which is derived from halal. It is used “of the adoration and thanksgiving which humanity renders to God” (Baker and Carpenter). It refers specifically to a hymn or song of praise, and is the Hebrew name for the book of Psalms (Zodhiates).
One of the main points I notice in all these definitions of words for “praise” is that it is impossible to keep silent. If you’re praising God, in the sense the words convey, you are talking about Him, singing to Him, and making known your adoration for Him all the time.
I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together. (Ps. 43:1-3)
The word for “bless” here is the last on our list of Hebrew words translated “praise” (in Judges 5:2). Usually, barak (H1288) is translated “bless,” and it means “to bless, kneel, salute, or greet.” It is used both of people blessing, praising, and acknowledging God, and of God giving blessings to us.
I realized just a short way into this study that it was going to require multiple blog posts to cover. Consider this word-study a foundation/introduction for a whole series on the subject of praise and worship. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into this subject with you in the next few weeks, and welcome any feedback you have. Suggestions for what to include in this study as it continues? Agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Comment below!