Real Worship: Part 2: Shachah and Proskuneo

“Worship” in the Old Testament

There are two strands of thought regarding worship I’d like to present for your consideration. The first starts with Abraham.

(Gen 22:5-6 ESV) 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.

“Worship” translates shachah, meaning literally to bow, and so it can also be used of one man bowing to another. This is the first case of the word being used metaphorically of worship, as Abraham was going to the summit of Mt. Moriah to sacrifice, not to bow.

It’s next used in the sense of worship in —

(Exo 24:1 ESV) Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar.”

How did they worship?

(Exo 24:8-11 ESV) 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Following animal sacrifice, they ate and drank with God. (The parallels with the Lord’s Supper are no coincidence.)

Next we find —

(Exo 34:13-16 ESV) 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

Again, “worship” refers to sacrifice.

(Deu 12:3-6 ESV) 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.

Again, “worship” is about sacrifice.

Thus, David composed a Temple psalm saying,

(1Ch 16:29 ESV) 29 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;

and —

(Psa 99:9 ESV) 9 Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy!

“His holy mountain” is Moriah, the site of the ark of covenant in David’s day, and Temple under Solomon and later kings. This is where sacrifices were made.

As late as Ezra, we see the same thought —

(Ezr 4:1-2 ESV) Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.”

I’ve not covered every single reference to “worship” in the Old Testament, but these verses are entirely typical. They either speak of “worship” without specifying how the worship is to occur or else they speak in terms of sacrifice or in terms of going to Jerusalem or the Temple to worship. But, of course, Jerusalem was the center of the sacrificial system. The Israelites could sing to God anywhere. After the time of David, they could only sacrifice in Jerusalem.

“Worship” in the New Testament

Proskuneo

The Septuagint consistently translates the Hebrew shachah as proskeneo, also literally meaning to bow. The word is built on roots meaning to “kiss the hand toward,” but that’s not the meaning of the word. It means to bow in worship, especially to prostrate oneself in worship.

The first use of the word in the New Testament is —

(Mat 2:1-2 ESV) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

How did the wise men offer their worship?

(Mat 2:11 ESV) 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The literally bowed down before him. But it’s not likely that they preached a sermon or sang a song or took communion. They did, however, engage in physical acts of submission and offered gifts.

(Mat 14:32-33 ESV) 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the first reference to worship of Jesus, and it was not any of the “five acts.” It was simply a declaration of faith in Jesus, likely accompanied by prostration.

We next find —

(Mat 28:9 ESV) 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

(Mat 28:17 ESV) 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.

We’re not told exactly what form this worship took, but it seems most likely that it was a physical sign of submission — bowing or prostration — and words expressing faith in Jesus as Son of God.

In Luke we read,

(Luk 24:51-53 ESV) 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.

Luke leaves us to speculate as to the form of worship that took place after Jesus ascended. But I doubt that it was a campfire devo. They most likely prostrated themselves and declared the praises of Jesus as Son of God.

John describes this form of worship —

(John 9:35-38 ESV) 35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Remember, both Luke and John wrote in Greek, and “worship” also means “bow before.” Therefore, we have to take as the most likely meaning that the man bowed or prostrated himself before Jesus.

Paul speaks in similar terms —

(1Co 14:24-25 ESV) 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

This kind of “worship” also isn’t four-part harmony but prostration.

Just so, in the Revelation, we read —

(Rev 4:9-11 ESV) 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

In the Old Testament, proskuneo refers to sacrifice. In the New Testament the idea of animal sacrifice is gone and replaced with submission — declarations of faith and yielding to the authority of the one being worshiped.

Prostration and bowing is the Eastern way of indicating humble submission. It was considered only appropriate to prostrate oneself before a god. Alexander the Great demanded prostration, and this was taken at the time as a claim of divinity. Thus, Jesus’ acceptance of prostration shows that he considered himself divine.

I can’t prove this, but it seems likely that the reason prostration was the most humble physical act — suitable only for a man in the presence of a god — is because it was an act that made him utterly defenseless. Put your face on the ground, and you risk your life. There’s no way to escape any attack that may be coming.

We also see that the Old Testament sense of ritual — you must offer a physical sacrifice at the right place — is replaced with spontaneous submission. Yes, there’s sacrifice, but the sacrifice is you. It’s the utter submission of self to God, the yielding up of all defenses.

So reflect a bit on the changing use of proskuneo. In the Old Testament, it refers to worship by means of sacrifice. By the time of David, it refers exclusively to worship at Jerusalem — a highly ritualized, specified form of worship by sacrifice. Before then, a Jew could proskuneo at home or elsewhere, but still only by sacrifice.

In the New Testament, proskuneo occasionally refers to Jews worshiping at Jerusalem, but in the Gospels, it frequently refers to the worship offered Jesus in response to a miracle or other evidence of his Messiahship. And Matthew uses proskuneo more than any other book for this purpose. Matthew is the Gospel written for a Jewish audience, and he deliberately chooses proskuneo to refer to the worship of Jesus to an audience that was taught only to proskuneo at Jerusalem following the rules in Leviticus! What’s the lesson?

Plainly, Matthew is subtly pointing out that the worship of Jesus is not like the Temple worship of the Law of Moses. The worship brought by the gospel is spontaneous and submissive. The sacrifice to be made is the sacrifice of self. The “ritual” is a spontaneous, unrehearsed outpouring of faith, thanksgiving, and love.

Thus, Paul only uses the word but once —

(1Co 14:24-25 ESV) 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Paul is not referring to a distinct “act of worship” where visitors are asked to fall down in worship at 9:15 in response to the preplanned order of worship. No, this is worship in the mode of —

(Mat 14:32-33 ESV) 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

And note this: the use of proskuneo in the Old and New Testaments has this in common: sacrifice. The idea of giving something up is unchanged. But the New Testament replaces the life of a perfect animal for the life of an imperfect Christian.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to Real Worship: Part 2: Shachah and Proskuneo

  1. Laymond says:

    People today see worship, and praise as the same, which they are not.
    Worship, is bowing to the will of God, as Jesus did "your will, not mine"
    Praise, is the exalting of that very God we worship.
    Psa 149:3 Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.

    Not knowing the difference in worship, and praise , is what causes the argument of using instruments in "worship" You may use instruments "in praise" you bow down "in worship".

  2. Laymond says:

    By the way, that is exactly what Abraham was doing, bowing to the will of God. I would bet he didn't have any musical instruments with him.

  3. Laymond says:

    By the way, that is exactly what Abraham was doing, bowing to the will of God. I would bet he didn’t have any musical instruments with him.

  4. Les says:

    I think you are right, Jay. The nature of true worship under the new covenant is primarily "the submission of self to God". We have a very limited view of what true worship should be about in our heritage. Our emphasis is usually on doing the correct outward acts and our focus is usually on what takes place in our assemblies. We have a tendency to look at the new covenant through the lens of the old. "The first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctury" (Hb.9:1). But we are told the new covenant is not like the old. True worship under the new covenant is daily (Lk.9:23; Rom.12:1; I Pt. 2:5). We no longer go to a temple to worship. We are the temple.
    (I Cor.6:19). At the end of the book of Hebrews after the writer has argued powerfully that Jesus and His covenant is far, far supeior to the old, he concludes, "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." (Hb.12:28). How does acceptable worship play out in life? He continues, loving one another, showing hospitality, remembering those in prison, keeping our marriages pure, keeping our lives free from the love of money, remembering our leaders,imitating their faith, on and on he goes. He adds, praising God with our lips, doing good,sharing with others, those are the sacrifices that are pleasing to God.(Hb.13:15). True worship is not limited to 5 acts that we do in our public assemblies. True worship is 24/7 and is best manifested in a surrendered life to the will of the Father.

  5. guy says:

    Jay,

    Either the intended purpose of this series is simply unclear, or i think there's a large conflation of different ideas developing.

    i understood the iMonk articles to be talking about worship as in a worship service. That is, the author was using worship the way it is commonly used in contemporary vernacular, not necessarily referring to any of the particular words in Scripture underlying that term. That is, what is the proper primary aim or dynamic of a worship service–the assembly?

    That seems like a much clearer question than just "what does the word 'worship' mean?" As i'm sure you know, there's about 8 different words in Greek all of which are translated "worship" in English. Thus, i don't think it's a very fruitful endeavor to think we're ever going to discover a univocal meaning for the word.

    On a separate note–Why have you concluded that "to kiss the hand toward" is *not* part of the meaning of proskuneo? i read of customs and gestures in ancient middle eastern cultures that involved both prostration and kissing in the same gesture. This was years ago when i taught the lesson on this word–it was all on a lap top that has since bit the dust, so sadly i'm not sure what the source was. But i seem to recall a couple articles described an evolution of the gesture that involved kneeling low and kissing the hand, then prostrating and kissing the feet, then prostrating and "throwing kisses" while prostrate, and then eventually just prostration.

    –guy

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    I'll be getting to the assembly in due course. But to get there, we have to first sort out "worship."

    I will carefully use "worship" in its NT sense and refer to the gathering of the saints on the first day of the week as the "assembly."

    I don't find any use of proskuneo in the Bible as kissing the hand toward. Most NT Greek dictionaries don't even mention "kissing the hand toward" as a possible meaning.

    You are likely right regarding the evolution of the word. It likely did at one point refer to a kissing gesture, but by the time of the Septuagint, it referred primarily to prostration in worship or metaphorically to worship in general.

  7. Anonymous says:

    AMEN to Les. Our worship is a submissive life.Bowing in worship has deem symbolism. When I was young, many brethren thought the only proper way to pray was to kneel, and in most congregations most men (and a few women) would kneel to pray. You seldom see this any more. Today, if we do anything, more are likely to raise their hands than to kneel. Is "lifting holy hands" derived from "to kiss the hand toward"? Just a thought.

  8. guy says:

    Jay,

    (1) Well, alright. i guess i'm still not seeing the need for that strategy. Seems to me you can worship without assembling, and assemble without worshiping. So i guess i don't take it for granted that "worship" is the primary purpose of the assembly (or that it is a required purpose at all).

    (2) Again, saying "worship in its NT sense" is misleading. There's not one, single NT sense of that word.

    (3) Suppose a certain civic organization holds a dinner in honor of the achievements of some of its members. The MC might say, "This is our salute to you for your service to our organization." Even though he said that, it may be the case that not a single person actually gestures with their hand toward their head. But that doesn't mean the physical gesture doesn't play a role in the MC's use of that word. In fact, his use of that term references that gesture and its customary significance despite no one's having acted it out literally. Thus, that physical gesture does have something to do with the meaning of his words.

    Even though there may be no reference to anyone in Scripture literally carrying out the "kiss the hand toward" gesture does not mean that the physical gesture doesn't have any bearing or significance on the meaning of the word when used.

    –guy

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Jerry,

    Lifting holy hands seems to be a reference to the Jewish mode of prayer. This is from the Christian Courier —

    "The “lifting up holy hands” is more than likely an expression borrowed from the Old Testament because of a common (though neither mandated or rigid), ancient practice of raising one’s hands when praying. When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple, “he spread forth his hands toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:22). In one of his prayers, David exclaimed: “Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry unto you; when I lift up my hands toward your holy oracle” (Psalm 28:2). To the superficial, hypocritical worshippers in the era of Isaiah the prophet, the Lord God said: “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).

    "These passages illustrate the fact that on occasion the Hebrews held up their hands when they prayed. Such was not always the case, however, and other postures are mentioned. Prayer was made standing (1 Samuel 1:26), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54), prostrate (1 Kings 18:42), audibly (John 17:1; 18:1), silently (1 Samuel 1:13), with bowed head (Genesis 24:26), with uplifted eyes (John 17:1), etc. Obviously, a particular posture in prayer was not a binding pattern."
    http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1093-are

    The Jews generally stood when lifting holy hands, the best I can tell. It does seem clear that it's not prostration — but they prayed in prostration at times as well.

  10. Tim Archer says:

    It's interesting that "proskuneo" virtually disappears from the vocabulary of the New Testament as far as Christian worship is concerned. In the letters, it is only used in reference to:

    (1) Temple worship

    (2) Actual bowing down (like the Corinthians passage)

    I've wondered if Jesus' words in John 4 didn't move Christian writers away from that common word.

    Grace and peace,

    Tim Archer

  11. Dadi Nanmua Alexis says:

    Please I would like a deeper understanding of this topic. It is such that many give different interpretations and yet almost seem to say one and the same especially thinking that worship means slow tempoed music. Would ‘bowing in obeisance’ not also mean total service?

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    The major problem here is that your hands were not made Holy by raising them up! It is the life you are living that validates your hands being Holy. Therefore, the concept here is not just hands or anything about the place where you are, it is about your service to God 24/7.

  13. Dwight says:

    Holiness is about personal approach to God, usually because God makes the approach Holy.
    The burning bush is a great example of God telling man that the ground was holy, even though technically it was just ground, it was how Moses was to see the ground. The ground wasn’t however changed in its content, but it was in its context.
    Anyone else who saw the ground around the bush would not see the holiness context, except Moses.
    The Temple was holy, temporarily.
    Man was/is to be holy that is dedicated/separated to God always, because God is always holy.
    The holy hands raised is not about the hands, but about the persons spirit in the raising of his hands, just like his spirit in his life in general. A person is the Temple of God and thus is to be Holy.
    This is a case where the spiritual context changes the content, even when the content stays technically the same as before and after.
    The fruit of the vine, is technically grape juice or wine, but in the Lord’s Supper it is Christ blood, from the perspective of the saint.

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