We’ve embarked on a mission to study the subject of praise and worship in the Bible. Last week’s post served as an introduction, explaining why I’m studying this topic and supplying a foundation for what praise means in scripture. We looked at various Hebrew words translated “praise,” and saw that it involves not keeping silent about the splendor and goodness of God. Praise includes verbal acknowledgement of Him, singing His praises, and offering thanksgiving, and involves a certain level of excitement.
This tells us that simply having unverbalized thoughts of praise is not enough. Yes, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) — we can’t have genuine praise if our hearts and spirits are not right with God. But when we are worshiping in spirit and in truth, there will be some sort of physical aspect as well. God looks on our hearts, and on what comes out of our mouths as a result of our heart. What we say and how we say it is important.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. … For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:34-35, 37)
So, what does this have to do with praise and worship? Well, we can agree that some way of praising God aloud is good and proper, but the form that takes is still up for debate. I want to take the time today to look at examples of people praising and praying in the Bible, and see what we’ve given in terms of description. What details are we given of their physical posture, the music that accompanies their songs of praise, and other examples of coming before God?
In churches today, I’ve seen people come before God in prayer and/or praise standing, sitting, and kneeling. I’ve seen bowed heads, and raised hands. There are many ways people approach God, but they are not all equally well-received in every church group. I’ve been told that it is disrespectful to pray sitting down, that it is showy and inappropriate to raise your hands, and that if you want to kneel do so in the privacy of your own home. Often, there’s a prescribed mode of worship and it makes people nervous when you deviate.
In the Bible, however, I’ve found positive examples of people praying with their faces to the earth as they bow down (Deut. 9:25), while looking toward heaven (Ps. 5:2-3), in a seated posture (2 Sam. 7:18), standing up (Mark 11:25), with their hands lifted (Ps. 141:2), lying in a sick bed (2 Kings 20:2), and while kneeling (Dan. 6:10). Biblical people pray silently and aloud, alone and in groups.
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven; and he said: “Lord God of Israel, there is no God in heaven above or on earth below like You, who keep Your covenant and mercy with Your servants who walk before You with all their hearts.” (1 Kings 8:22-23)
Solomon began his prayer at the temple dedication standing before the altar with his arms lifted toward heaven. As he continued, he prayed that God would hearken unto prayers made toward this temple (which is why my Messianic group still recites the shema while facing Jerusalem, though we know God always hears us whichever way we’re pointing). At some point during this prayer, Solomon went to his knees.
And so it was, when Solomon had finished praying all this prayer and supplication to the Lord, that he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven. (1 Kings 8:54)
This is an example of a public prayer, and sometimes such prayers are called for. I think most prayers given in public today, though, will be in a smaller setting with other believers. We see examples of this type of prayer in the gospels, when Christ prayed with His disciples present (Luke 9:28-29; 11:1; John 17:1), and in Acts when the disciples pray as a group (Acts 1:24; 4:24-31; 12:12; 20:36).
I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting (1 Tim. 2:8)
Prayer is also a very private thing, when not part of public praise and worship. It can be silent, as was Hanah’s prayer (1 Sam. 1:13), or aloud like Christ’s prayer in the garden (Matt. 26:39; Heb 5:7), but the focus is always on talking with God, not on being seen. God hears all sorts of prayers and doesn’t have a set mode for how we should physically approach Him. What He cares about is the inner state of our hearts (which we’ll talk about in a moment).
Modes of Praise
Most of the musical forms of praise aren’t talked about in the Bible until David became king. There were songs of praise to the Lord, like Moses and Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1-21), but music, singing, and dancing as praise isn’t really mentioned as part of regular worship practices until David set up the tabernacle. This “man after God’s own heart” appointed 4,000 priests to praise the Lord with music (1 Chr. 23:5). They used instruments like the harp, psaltery, trumpets, cymbals, and tambourines (Ps. 33:2; 149:3; 2 Chr. 5:13)
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him with the lute and harp! Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes! Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. (Ps. 150:3-6)
Praise we see in the Bible is loud and enthusiastic (2 Chr. 30:21; Ezra 3:11; Jer. 31:7), full of gladness, joy, and song (2 Chr. 29:30; Ps. 28:7), but can sometimes be described with more subdued words like “harmonious” and “solemn” as well.
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High; to declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, and Your faithfulness every night, on an instrument of ten strings, on the lute, and on the harp, with harmonious sound. (Ps. 92:1-3)
Many of God’s holy days are described as “solemn assemblies.” The Hebrew words — and there are several — don’t necessarily mean what we think of as “solemn,” though. They refer to appointed times, meetings, and assemblies of great importance. One of the words (H2287) actually means “to march in a sacred procession, to observe a festival; by implication to be giddy” (Strong’s Dictionary, see Deut. 16:13-15)
Sing aloud to God our strength; make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob. Raise a song and strike the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the lute. Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob.(Ps. 81:1-4)
Doesn’t sound so very “solemn” to me, but we can “sing praises with gladness” to a wide variety of music styles. We shouldn’t get bored with more meditative songs, and we shouldn’t disprove of loud, joyful songs either. Both have a place in worship, and both can be used to honor God.
State of Your Heart
Most of what we’ve looked at so far discusses what prayers and praise should look like from the outside. The point I’ve been trying to make by doing this is that the outward expression of worship and communication with God can be quite varied, and that’s okay. God doesn’t ignore people because they chose to pray aloud instead of silently, or standing instead of kneeling, or with hands raised instead of lowered (or vice versa on all these). That’s not what He’s concerned about, and it’s not what should worry us either.
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The difference between these two men wasn’t that one prayed looking up and one prayed with head bowed. It was the attitude that showed in how they prayed which concerned Jesus. One prayed “with himself” about how much better his way of serving God was than that of other people. The other man made his prayer about God’s love and mercy which makes a relationship with Him possible. One was proud of himself, the other was humble before his God.
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matt. 6:5-6)
This doesn’t forbid all public prayer, but rather praying as a pretense just to be seen (Matt. 23:14). There are times to pray around other people, but most conversation with God doesn’t need an audience.
Praise, on the other hand, is often more effective with other people around. As we talked about last week, praise involves declaring the wonder of God and offering thanks for what He has done. This can be done in private, but when the Bible talks about “showing forth” or “telling of” God’s marvelous works, it implies sharing your praise of God with others. This is why it irritates me so much to be told that enthusiastic music, hand lifting, and praise dancing doesn’t belong in a church service and can be done privately at home if you feel you must. Praise isn’t something we should shut up in an out-of-the-way place.
I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation. (Ps. 111:1)
The motivation for our praise is just as important as the motivation for our prayers. If we’re praising just to be seen (which is what people who raise their hands are often accused of in more subdued congregations), then our praise is empty. Praise should start in the heart, then overflow to the outer world.
I will praise You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify Your name forevermore. (Ps. 86:12)
I will praise You with uprightness of heart, when I learn Your righteous judgments. (Ps. 119:7)
Since God is the only one who can discern the thoughts and intents of a heart, we are left with very little room for criticizing how other people praise and worship. We can’t see into their hearts, and it is not our place to judge whether or not their expressions of worship are genuine. Unless the way they are praising is indecent and causing confusion in the church (1 Cor. 14:33, 40), we shouldn’t judge other worshipers or dictate and micro-manage our worship practices.