What is Worship?
B. Koene

The act of worship is something every Christian engages in and the concept of worship is a common part of the Christian vocabulary. However, both the act and the concept of worship are not easily defined. The act of Christian worship does not conform to any specific action or series of actions and the concept does not fit neatly into a "five-to-ten-word" definition. 

This is illustrated by the fact that as many as seven different Hebrew words are used to describe both the actions and the concepts of worship. Interestingly, all the terms in Hebrew related to the concept of worship involve some form of specific action. In other words, we cannot separate the concept of worship from the response and actions that worship elicits from the worshipper.

The English word "worship" is derived from Old English worthscipe, meaning "worthiness" or "worth-ship." So in its simplest concept, worship is to give worth to something. But Christian worship is not simply giving worth to "some thing" but is focussed on the Almighty Triune God. Because of who God is, and all he has done, revealed in the many names of God used throughout the scriptures, worship, that is ascribing worth to God, involves a multiplicity of actions on our part.

A quick review of the Hebrew terms related to worship reveals both the many dimensions of the concept of worship and the range of responses or actions in expressing worship to God.


Halal is the most common term expressing worship, used 122 times in the Old Testament. It means to be clear (in sound or in colour), to shine, to make a show, or to boast. The implication is to make loud, clear sounds of praise. The Hebrew term also carries the meaning of being clamorously foolish, to rave, or to celebrate, thus to halal God means unbridled, exuberant praise. The English word "hallelujah" comes from a combination of the Hebrew words halal and Yahweh (or Yah).

Yadah is another common Hebrew term for worship (used 101 times) a well as a related word Todah (used 30 times). Both of these terms come from the root yad meaning "hand," and are an expression of worship that involves the use of hands: to hold out one’s hands, or to give thanks or revere with extended hands in thanksgiving, praise and adoration. It may also mean to use hands in confession or absolute surrender.

Barak (used 80 times), comes from the root berech meaning "knee." Its use as an act of worship involves kneeling down before God. It can also mean to congratulate, salute, praise or thank. It implies giving reverence to God as an act of adoration.

Shachah (used 66 times), means to bow, stoop down, or prostrate oneself as an act of submission or reverence; to make obeisance or to fall or bow down in reverence before God.

Tehillah as a noun (related to the verb halal) is used 55 times. It means the offering of praise and celebration, specifically with hymns or songs of praise. It may also sometimes mean singing spontaneous new songs to God by adding words to a melody from the heart.

Zamar, occurring 45 times, has the root Hebrew meaning of touching the strings or parts of musical instruments. Its use as an expression of worship was in the playing of instruments accompanied by voices, to celebrate or give praise with instruments and voices.

Shabach (used six times), means literally to address in a loud tone, implying laud, praise or proclamation with a loud voice or a shout.

Through this brief review one can see the variety of concepts as well as expressions of worship in the scriptures. And one can also see how the concept of worship cannot be separated from specific acts or expressions of worship.

Worship is not defined or limited to any specific action or context; rather, it uses every means and expression available to us: through all kinds of gifts, music, instruments, movement, art, colour, light, sound and language!

Nor is worship limited or defined by location. When Jesus was asked about where one should worship, he responded by saying that true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. In other words, worship has less to do with location or context, than the content and the heart of worship. The two primary elements of true worship are
spirit and truth.

The heart of worship needs to be Spirit-led. We are led, inspired, and empowered in our worship by the Holy Spirit. The content of worship needs to be based on the truth as taught through the scriptures and it needs to be focussed on the one who declared "I am the Truth." True worship requires both qualities. If worship focuses only on content, even if it is entirely based on truth, it will become lifeless ritual; on the other hand, worship that is focussed only on the heart, with a lack of content, even with the desire to be led by the Spirit, will become like drifting breezes without direction.

So, what is worship? Perhaps we can capsulize it by saying that worship is ascribing worthiness to the One who alone is all worthy, as an attitude of the heart, led by the Spirit and grounded in the Truth, finding expression through every means, media and instrument available to us; both intensively in times of consecrated devotion, and extensively through a lifestyle of devoting all we are and all we do as a reflection of our heart of worship to Him.

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