By Adam J. Pearson
“Whoever gives reverence,
~ Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī in the Masnavi-i Ma’navi (Persian: مثنوی معنوی) (Sidek, 2015).
- A Brief Introduction to the Idea of Worship in Postmodern Context: Recovering a Key to Wise Living and Right Relationship with Being
“Worship” is a fascinating concept that has in some ways become foreign to contemporary life and thought in a society that is increasingly saturated with postmodern nihilism and narcissistic self-worship. Indeed, in the 21st century, many of us have come to believe that there is no longer anything worthy of worship at all beyond perhaps ourselves and our material aims. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously pointed out first in The Joyful Science (1882) and then once more in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892), our post-18th century Enlightenment commitment to materialism and scientific reductionism brought about the momentous shift in Western culture. of the “death of God” in Western culture. In our pursuit of “progress,” we alienated ourselves from the Source and Ground of our being by denying its existence altogether. As Nietzsche presciently realized, the result was nothing short of cataclysmic. Without even realizing it at the time, we dismantled the foundations of our culture’s value systems, ethical systems, and centuries-old approaches to giving life meaning as such. The result was a void that we aimed futilely to fill with consumerism, egotism, capitalism, a disenchanted positivist metaphysic, and, in the 20th century, with radical political ideologies like Communism and Fascism (Knight, 2006).
Unfortunately, the cultural and philosophical condition that emerged from this trading of the Absolute for nihilistic relativism was incredibly disatisfying. As a consequence, postmodern people now live with an inner void that they do not know how to fill. The chief modes of filling the void that we attempt to deploy–hedonism, the pursuit of power and fame, social media narcissism, absorption in technology and current affairs, and addictions to sex, gambling, pornography, shopping, and many other forms of escapism–all fall flat (Supamanta, 2015). It is as if, in our rightful casting out of the bathwater of Biblical literalism, unscientific superstition, dogmatic morality, and the apparent homophobia, transphobia, ethnocentrism embedded in Western culture’s preeminent Scriptures, we also threw out the baby of our only hope for true sustenance. If so, perhaps a radical reframing of the meaning of worship–that deep human capacity to humble ourselves before the Infinite and the Source of all Good, however defined and by whatever name–could help us to fill our infinite void with the only thing large and lasting enough to fill it.
In its deepest sense, as mystics of all of the world’s traditions from Christian Desert Fathers to Sufi Muslims, Jewish Kabbalists, Buddhist sages, and Hindu yogis have long noted, worship involves the bowing of the apparent individual self before the Self of all, that Reality which is “One without a second,” to quote the Upanishads (Sarma, 2016). Worship, in its most practical and yet mystical sense, implies the right alignment of the human being with the Good at which it is wise to aim if we wish to live a meaningful life that benefits the individual, the family, the community, the society, and the commonwealth of being more than it harms.
Nor is the notion of worship as irrational or impractical we often assume. Indeed, in order to do anything at all, we must presuppose a value structure (Peterson, 2002). This structure posits that what we are doing is more valuable that what we opt not to do instead. For this reason, we believe that it is reasonable to sacrifice the latter for the sake of the former — a gesture which captures the core of the theme of sacrifice and offerings in spiritual life more generally and certainly throughout the Biblical narratives (Peterson, 2002; NIV, 2018). The object of this value structure, we might fairly call “the Good” following Plato’s lead in The Republic (Πολιτεία,), for at our best, when our nihilistic despair and malevolence do not consume us, we value goods, work for goods, and aim for things we believe to be good for us as well as for our families, friends, colleagues and societies (Baltes, 2017). If all of our rightly-aligned actions are aimed at the Good anyway, in this precise and technical sense, then perhaps an attitude of worship–or of honouring and humbling ourselves before the Source of everything we aim to achieve in all of our actions–is not as irrational as we have innocently assumed.
Moreover, if we are properly aligned towards the Good then perhaps worshiping its Source is akin to ensuring that we live gratefully, in balance with the natural world, and in service to extending to apparent others the blessings that have been extended unto us. The Good in us then bows to the Good in others and seeks to extend itself. If we live in this way, we are in the state that Buddhism, in its Noble Eightfold Path, aptly calls ‘right relationship‘ with being (Cozort & Shields, 2018). By all accounts, the Ancient Yogis also knew this truth well. It was no coincidence that they greeted one another with Namaste (नमस्ते)-– “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you” — and served the Divine in the apparent Other through karma yoga, the yoga of action, as taught in the Bhagavad Gita (Easwaran, 2007; Mukherjee, 2016).
Nor is this deep teaching foreign to Christianity and Judaism, for as the Call of Abram reveals, the nature of blessing is to extend the Good that has been given to us to others, such that after receiving a blessing, we become one. As God says to Abraham in Genesis 12:2, “I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing, . . ., and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (NIV, 2018). Is there any worthier way to live than to live that to live in such a way that we bless and benefit others and ourselves more than we harm? What could possibly be more practical, valuable, psychologically sustaining, evolutionarily-supported, ethically commendable, or wiser than that?
It seems appropriate, therefore, that to make the practical shift from serving the little “me” to serving the greater “Me” that includes all of us, the Divine by whatever name or symbol we refer to it appearing as All–Meister Eckhart’s ‘Godhead’ in manifestation–is, in a sense, the core of spiritual maturation itself (Fagge & Jackson, 2016). And yet, how often do we believe that we are “too good,” “too smart” and “too modern” for something as “antiquated” and “superstitious” as worship? Such views are understandable, and yet also bitingly ironic, especially since we have not really ceased to worship. Our worship has simply gone underground and become unconsciously submerged in our anxious and fragile egotism, the last refuge of the despairing nihilist (Llanera, 2016). Indeed, our worship remains evident in our enacted values, the values we act on, regardless of what we say we value. Having decimated the foundational myths and strengthening stories to which our ancestors turned for empowerment and consolation against the vicissitudes and tragedies of life, our postmodern cultures have instead shifted towards worshiping ephemeral, unlasting, and ultimately unsatisfactory pleasures, power, wealth, fame, and a narcotized sense of “happiness” above all (Deutschmann, 2011).
If a worshipful attitude of a transcendental Source of all Good is not foolish or outmoded, but rather wise and replenishing, then it may be valuable to revisit the roots of our very notion of worship as a civilization deeply embedded in Judaeo-Christian thought in order to obtain a replenished and deeper understanding thereof. What did “worship” originally mean in the Biblical sources on which Western civilization was founded, those stories that lie at the very bedrock of our culture and which we casually dismiss only to our own detriment? To attempt a provisional answer to this challenging question, this article, we will explore the fascinating meanings of the original Hebrew and Greek words that pepper the original texts of the Torah and New Testament in their original contexts. Having done so, perhaps we will be able to return to the subtle denotations and connotations of our own English term “worship” and see it with fresh eyes.
2. Glory and Humility: Blossoms of Worship in the Hebrew Tanach
Before diving into specifics, it can be helpful to first survey the beautiful panorama of Biblical worship as a whole. As Theopedia (2019) explains, in the Biblical texts, “worship is an active response” to the Divine “whereby the mind is transformed (e.g. faith, repentance),” we are reoriented towards the Good after ‘sinning’ or missing the mark — the literal meaning of hamartia (ἁμαρτία), from hamartánein (ἁμαρτάνειν), “the heart is renewed (e.g. love, trust), and actions are surrendered (e.g. obedience, service).” From the Biblical perspective, this is all done in accordance with the Divine Will,” which is the will-to-the-Good, “and in order to declare” the Divine’s infinite worthiness as the Source and Ground of all worth. Seen in this way, worship for the Biblical authors is nothing less than a celebration of all that is good and worthy itself as symbolized by its transcendental Source.
Several Hebrew words are employed in the Tanach to refer to worship. These include:
- 1) Shâchâh (שָׁחָה) – This term literally means to lower or prostrate oneself, and is translated in the King James Version of the Old Testament as “worship” (100 times), “bow down” (54 times), “do obeisance” (9 times), “do reverence” (5 times), “fall down” (Psalms 72:11; Isaiah 45:14;), “crouch” (1 Samuel 2:36), “humbly beseech” (2 Sam 16:4), or “make to stoop” (Pro 12:25) [See Strong’s Concordance #7812] (Theopedia, 2019). As it turns out, prostration as a form of worship and self-humbling seems to be a human universal. It is found at once among Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims, Hindu bhaktas or devotees, Christian mystics, and Tibetan Buddhist monks, to name but a few examples (Smith, 2016).
- 2) Abodah (עֲבוֹדָה) – literally means to work in any sense, but by implication, to serve. It is used more than 250 times in the Torah, most often translated as “serve” and 31 times in conjunction with shâchâh (see above). However, three times the translators of the English Standard Version of the Bible chose the word “worship” as a translation of abodah (2 Sam 15:8; Psalms 102:22; Isaiah 19:21) [See Strong’s Concordance #5647] (Theopedia, 2019). Interestingly, worship through service in the Hebrew abodah sense is roughly equivalent to the core meaning of the term karma yoga in the Hindu tradition, especially within the Bhagavad Gita (Easwaran, 2007).
- 3) Dârash (דָּרַשׁ) – In Ezra 4:2 and 6:21, the English Standard Version translates this term meaning to seek as “worship” [See Strong’s Concordance #1875] (Theopedia, 2019). Darash captures the willingness to seek to be in the presence of the Divine, to “seek out” the revelation of Divine Presence in all things. As the New International Version translates the same verse from Ezra 4:2, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, who brought us here.”
- 4) Yârê’ (יָרֵא) – In Joshua 22:25, the ESV translates this term meaning to fear or hold in reverential awe as “worship” [See Strong’s Concordance #3372] (Theopedia, 2019). The form of worship captured by yare involves a heart-expanding, awe-inspiring, reverential wonder at the nature of the Divine that stills the mind, opens the heart, and elevates the spirit.
- 5) Atsab (עצב) – In Jeremiah 44:19, the King James Version translates this term as meaning to carve or fashion as forms of “worship [See Strong’s Concordance #6087] (Theopedia, 2019). This form of worship involves making things for the Divine as offerings, such as cakes in the Jeremiah verse, but also artwork created in honour of God.
In these five Hebrew words, we can identify some of the key harmonics in the melodies of worship that resonate throughout the Torah. For the Ancient Hebrews, worship encompassed a wide spectrum of meanings which ranged from humbling ourselves (shachah) to acts of service (abodah) as offerings, seeking out (darash) the Divine Presence, contemplating the Divine in reverential awe (yare), and crafting things (atsab) in the honour of the Divine.
3. The Kiss of Faithful Love: Greek Nuances in New Testamental Worship
While the Hebrew words offer deep insights into the modes of worship among the Ancient Israelites and suggest fresh ways to approach worship today, the Greek words for worship in the New Testament shed further light on this most intimate and cosmic of human actions. The following comparative analysis heavily draws on Scott J. Shifferd (2015)’s insightful synthesis of Greek lexica, which
“defines each of the six Greek words by [its] use in the Scriptures and confirmed by five other sources consisting of Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, George Ricker Berry’s Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and Barclay M. Newman Jr.’s A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament.”
Shifferd (2015) also supplements his comparative synthesis of each Greek term with Dr. Everett Ferguson’s definition of each word to further support his definitions of the terms.
According to Shifferd (2015), the first and most prominent word for “worship” in the New Testament is
1) Proskuneo (προσκυνέω) – Of the six Greek words for worship, this word comes the closest to representing the common meaning of ‘worship’ in English [See Strong’s Concordance #4352]. Supported by the lexical sources above, the most precise and consistent definition of this term is to worship by prostrating or bowing much like the Hebrew term shachah (Shifferd, 2015). In the New Testament, the act of proskuneo consists of homage directed to the Divine or towards a noble human being, and worshipers show this homage by tokens of reverence.
Interestingly, however, proskuneo is never used as a synonym for any meetings or the group activity of assemblies in the New Testament. Out of the fifty-nine appearances of the word in the Gospels and Epistles, proskuneo is only mentioned once in reference to an assembly. This reference occurs in 1 Corinthians 14:25, where the Good News of the Gospels inspires conviction in an outsider who responds with ecstatic worship (“as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare, they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really here among you!”) (NIV, 2018).
According to the New Testamental texts, the worshiper may proskuneo the Divine, including sacrificial and temple worship in passages such as John 4:20, 12:20; Acts 8:27, 24:11; and Revelation 11:1. Interestingly, the New Testament depicts proskuneo being used both to honour, as in Mark 10:17 when a man worships Christ by bowing, and to ridicule. An example of the latter occurs in Matthew 27:29, where Roman soldiers mock Christ as the King of the Jews by the act of proskuneo or bowing towards him.
About proskuneo, Dr. Everett Ferguson affirms that
“The most common word for worship in the New Testament is proskuneo (“to kiss the hand”, “to do obeisance”, “to prostrate oneself”). It had the most specific content of the words for worship: to bow or fall down before an object of veneration. Since it could also be done before a human being of higher rank from whom a benefit was desired, its frequent occurrences in the Gospels in reference to Jesus do not necessarily indicate acceptance of his Divinity or Messianic status by those who approached him in this way, a situation that is more ambiguous in Matthew 8:2 and 9:18 than in 28:9, 17; note the mocking used in Mark 15:19. From this specific act came a general usage for “worship” or “acts of reverence” (John 12:20; Revelation 14:7). It could be directed toward human beings (Acts 10:25, in this case rejected), the idols of paganism (Acts 7:43), the Devil or his agents (Matthew 4:9; Revelation 13:4), Angels (Revelation 22:8), or towards the Divine (Revelation 7:11).
2) Latreuo (λατρεύω) – Synthesizing the lexical sources mentioned before, Shifferd (2015) suggests that latreuo means precisely to serve in a priestly and, or sacrificial manner [See Strong’s Concordance #3000]. Latreuo is, therefore, roughly analogous to the Hebrew term abodah (עֲבוֹדָה), meaning worship through service. The noun form latreia also suggests sacrificial and priestly service to God. As numerous uses of latreuo affirm throughout the New Testament, latreuo captures the notion of specific ritual acts of service done to glorify the Divine (e.g. ritual sacrifices and ceremonial offerings).
As Shifferd (2015) reveals, translators of the most popular English translations of the Scriptures translate latreuo as “worship” at least three times or more instead of as “sacrificial service; compare, for instance the following examples:
KJV – Acts 7:42, 24:14; Phil 3:3; Heb 10:2
NKJV – Acts 7:42, 24:14; Phil 3:3; Heb 10:2
ASV 1901 – Luke 2:37; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:9
NASV – Rom 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 6, 9, 10:2
NIV – Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7; 42, 24:14; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 9, 10:2, 12:18
NRSV – Luke 2:37; John 16:2; Acts 7:7, 42, 24:14, 26:7, 27:23; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 8:5, 9:1, 6, 9, 14, 10:2, 12:28; Rev 7:15, 22:3
ESV – Luke 2:37; Acts 7:7, 42, 24:14, 26:7, 27:23; Rom 9:4, 12:1; Phil 3:3; Heb 9:1, 9, 10:2, 12:28; Rev 22:3 (Shifferd, 2015).
In the New Testament, latreuo is consistently used to refer to religious rituals, especially ritual offerings, fasting, or prayers, and in every single use of the word, worshipers direct their service toward the Divine or something considered to be a deity (e.g. a Pagan idol).
Similarly, Dr. Ferguson reports that latreuo meant
“to perform religious service” or “to carry out cultic duties”; noun latreia. It is used in the New Testament for pagan worship (Acts 7:42; Romans 1:25), but properly belongs to God alone (Matthew 4:10). The word most often designates Jewish worship (Acts 7:7; 26:7; Romans 9:4; Hebrews 8:5; 9:1, 6, 9; 10:2; 13:10). That worship included fasting and prayers in Luke 2:37. A metaphorical use of the word occurs in John 16:2. Paul used the word to describe his service to God in Romans 1:9, another instance of his use of cultic language for his service to the gospel; cf. 1 Tim. 1:3; Acts 24:14; 27:23. Christian worship is contrasted with Jewish worship in Phil. 3:3 (connected with the Spirit and with Jesus) and Hebrews 13:10 (referring to the sacrifice of Jesus). Christian worship is described by this word in Hebrews 9:14 and 12:28, as is the heavenly worship in Revelation 7:15 and 22:3. Latreia for Christians is no longer the temple sacrifices but the rational offering of their bodies as living sacrifices in doing the will of God (Romans 12:1-2).”
3) Leitourgeo (λειτουργέω) – means specifically to minister in an official manner [See Strong’s Concordance #2356]. In the New Testamental texts, this word refers to public civil acts of religious service in a theocratic nation like Israel, also similar to the meaning of abodah (עֲבוֹדָה) (Shifferd, 2015). In addition, in the New Testament, the term also refers to the ministry of Christians as they act in their office of being priests or Pastors who share the “sacrifices” of Christ. Further building on Shifferd’s analysis (2015), Dr. Everett Ferguson remarks that
“The English word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek leitourgia (verb leitourgeo), a word referring to public service (cf. Romans 13:6), but used in Jewish and Christian literature of the early Christian era predominantly for religious service. The broader sense of non-cultic service may be illustrated by 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:27, the contribution for the needs of the saints, but even here there may be a metaphorical use of the sacrificial meaning (as in Philippians 2:17, cf. 2:30).
The common use of the word in the New Testament, reflecting the Greek Old Testament, is for the Jewish temple service (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 9:21; Hebrews 10:11), and thus it is used also for Jesus’ priestly ministry (Hebrews 8:2, 6). Paul uses this family of words for his preaching ministry (Romans 15:16), and this fact along with usage in early extra-canonical Christian literature, may give the meaning of “preaching” or specifically “prophesying,” for the only usage of the word in the New Testament in the context of a Christian meeting, Acts 13:2.
4) Threiskeia (θρησκεία) – is also sometimes translated as either “religion” or a system of beliefs about worship by the lexical sources reviewed by Shifferd (2015). There are six occurrences of this term in five verses of the New Testament Scriptures [See Strong’s Concordance #2356]. Shifferd (2015) suggests that the word “religion” meets threiskeia’s definition the best in every single occurrence of the word in the New Testament while the lexica and Dr. Ferguson do not show a preference of “religion” over “worship.” To Shifferd’s point, it is worth noting that both “religion” and threiskeia do not have a verb form, unlike “worship,” because both terms refer to a belief system as is evident in Acts 26:5. Dr. Ferguson adds that threiskeia
“refers to Judaism in Acts 26:5 and the worship of angels in Colossians 2:18. Its only application to Christianity in the New Testament occurs in James 1:26-27, where true religion is defined in terms of good deeds and right conduct. In contrast to “worthless religion,” which does not control the tongue, “pure and undefiled religion” is care for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
5) Sebazomai (σεβάζομαι) means to venerate in fear, or more properly, a state of overwhelming reverential awe [See Strong’s Concordance #4573]. In this way, sebazomai is the rough equivalent of the Hebrew term yârê’ (יָרֵא).
In The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Dr. Ferguson (1996) affirms that
Sebazomai and cognates meant “to worship” in the sense of show reverence. It was used for the worship of the Pagan deity Artemis (Acts 19:27). . . . The participle is used for Gentiles who reverenced the God of the Jews several times in Acts – e.g., 13:43, 50; 17:4, 17. The only express reference to Christian worship is Acts 18:13, where the Jews charged Paul with teaching “people to revere God in ways…contrary to the law.”
6) Eusebeo (εὐσεβής, ές) means to show respect for the Divine through doing one’s duty much like the Sanskrit term dharma [See Strong’s Concordance #2152]. According to 1 Timothy 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:12, and Titus 2:12, this term is often used to enjoin respectful and pious living in dutiful action on behalf of the Divine. As Everett Ferguson (1999) explains:
“Eusebeia – a general word for piety, or devotion – could also refer to worship. In Graeco-Roman literature, it almost always refers to cultic activities involving paying proper adoration. With reference to deity, it meant the attitude of dutiful ritual observance and obligation. With reference to human beings (especially the duty to parents) it meant the attitude of respect and loyalty to another person. But, in every case, it referred not just to the attitude (as often do the English words “devotion”, “piety”, and “godliness”) but also to the [dutiful] activity by which the attitude was expressed.”
As Shifferd (2015) explains, Paul uses this verb for the common Greek senses of Pagan worship through dutiful observances in Acts 17:23, as well as for fulfilling duties and obligations to members of one’s family in 1 Timothy 5:4. Although eusebeo may refer to worship in some contexts, the word for faith, pistos, can as well. In 1 Timothy 5:4, Christians are “to practice piety” toward their family or faithfulness in the sense of honouring their familial duties (“if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.”). Eusebeia, therefore, refers to a way of honouring the Good, or the Divine as its supreme symbol and Source, by doing our duty in relation to acting it out.
4. Returning Home: Ancient Resonances in English “Worship”
Now that we have deeply explored the Hebrew and Greek words for worship with their many-splendored hues and nuances, we can return to the English word “worship” with a view to unpacking its own fascinating valences. As Douglas Harper (2018) reveals, the etymology of the word “worship” captures similar connotations to both Hebrew terms like yârê’ (יָרֵא) and Greek terms such as sebazomai (σεβάζομαι):
Old English worðscip, wurðscip (Anglian), weorðscipe (West Saxon) “condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,” from weorð “worthy” (see worth) + -scipe (see -ship). Sense of “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being” is first recorded c. 1300. The original sense is preserved in the title worshipful “honorable” (c. 1300).”
Shifting from etymology to semantic definition to reveal additional layers of meaning, the Oxford English Dictionary (2008) states that worship is
“1a: homage or reverence paid to a deity.
b acts, rites, or ceremonies of worship.
2 adoration or devotion (worship of wealth)
v. 1 tr. adore as divine; honor with religious rites.
2 tr. idolize.
3 intr. attend public service.”
In these various levels of meaning, we can see echoes of the Greek and Hebrew meanings we have already explored. For example, “worship” in the English sense closely parallels proskuneo. Both “worship” and proskuneo refer to reverence in a broad sense while also encompassing religious ritual acts of service like sacrificial offerings (Shifferd, 2015). In addition, both terms are used to refer to reverence presented to the Divine or to people who are considered to be of a higher position and deserving honour, much like yârê (יָרֵא) and sebazomai (σεβάζομαι). There is one difference between these terms, however. Proskuneo is never used to represent the collective action of a religious assembly though the English word “worship” is used that way today (Shifferd, 2015).
In addition, according to the American Heritage Dictionary (2010), worship is
- The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.
The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed. Ardent devotion; adoration.
- Chiefly British Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship. v. wor•shiped or wor•shipped, wor•ship•ing or wor•ship•ping, wor•ships v.tr.
- To honor and love as a deity.
- To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion. See Synonyms at revere. v. intr.
- To participate in religious rites of worship.
- To perform an act of worship. [Middle English worshipe, worthiness, honor, from Old English weorthscipe : weorth, worth; see worth1 + -scipe, -ship.]
In these definitions, we can find all of the Greek and Hebrew meanings we have discussed represented in layers of meaning within the English term. Clearly, the common English definition of worship is broader than sacrificial and priestly services, latreia. “Worship” is broader than sacrificial and temple worship, and worship may include prostrating oneself in honour like shâchâh (שָׁחָה) and other acts of reverence such as doing good unto others or abodah (עֲבוֹדָה). Latreuo is captured in the use of ‘worship’ to refer to priests who glorify the Divine by means of their spiritual offerings as in 1 Peter 2:5 (Shifferd, 2015).
Finally, according to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, worship means:
1 : to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power.
2 : to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion.
3 : to perform or take part in an act of worship, sacrifice, or service.
These three meanings capture some, but not all of the subtle Hebrew and Greek meanings we have explored such as leitourgeo or public civil acts of service, and more particularly, it can refer to sacrificial services (Shifferd, 2015). However, leitourgeo also contrasts with the English definition of “worship” that does not consist of such public and civic services. Services of this type can include or exclude altogether the actions of proskuneo and latreuo, as Shifferd (2015) points out. Indeed, we might argue that leitourgeo might better be translated “to minister” and not “to worship.”
To compare the English with some of the other Greek terms, the English definition of “worship” only matches threiskeia in the way that “worship” can refer to “religion” as a belief system. Semantically, “religion” is broader in scope than “worship” because the word “religion” entirely encompasses a belief system consisting of both doctrine and practice while “worship” may be expressed only as broad as the practice of a religion (Ferguson, 1999). Similarly, according to Shifferd (2015), sebomai mostly encompasses the English definition of “worship”, although there are no passages that present sebomai as the act of prostrating oneself while the English words “worship” and proskuneo do. Indeed, the term “venerate” is as synonymous in meaning to sebomai as “worship” is to proskuneo (Shifferd, 2015).
5. The Raising of the Bowed: Concluding Words on the Worshipful Life
As Scott J. Shifferd (2015) points out, “apparently from these dictionaries, worship is to honor, revere, and venerate the Divine and, or the noble person, and that the act of worship consists of rituals, offering gifts and, or simple acts of humility and reverence like prostrating oneself” as is common in the Biblical texts. In the Tanachic and New Testamental understanding, a life lived worshipfully itself becomes worthy of worship, or of favour and honour. The Sufi Muslim quote from Rumi that opened this article captures the same core meaning and paradoxically reciprocal meaning — “those who give reverence, receive reverence” (Sidek, 2015).
While those who venerate are venerated, those who are blessed–and thereby glorified– but do not reciprocally glorify and give thanks to the source of their blessings fail to extend the Good that was extended unto them. In this way, the juicy grapes that grew on the vine of their life fail to ever culminate in the fine wine they could have produced; instead, they wither on the vine. This unfortunate case of blessings and reverence given but not returned roughly captures the Biblical meaning of ‘curse.’ This converse meaning is evident in Genesis 12:2 in which God promises Abram that because he is blessed and becomes a blessing unto others, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (NIV, 2018).
Similarly, just as we are shown to be worthy of love because we love others and the Divine, so will be receive honour if we give it to others. Therefore, these texts suggests, blessing, reverence, love, and honour–all core components of worship as such– are all rightly balanced when they are symmetrically structured and the receiving matches the giving. When it does not, we have fallen into sin and missed the mark of the Good through hamartia (ἁμαρτία), a situation that requires reorienting ourselves to the Good through repentance, worship, and gratitude. A worshiping life becomes a worshipful life.
In short, our wise ancestors have long known that worship is profoundly central to a life lived in proper alignment with the Good in the face of all of life’s sufferings and malevolence. Such an orientation to life and to being itself buttresses us against the storms of life and places us in the optimal position to enjoy life’s greatest fruits. In so doing, it offers a strengthening path to victory and perseverance above all. Far from obsolete, worship remains supremely relevant to us today, for it offers us a key to unlock the fulfillment we seek, fill the inner void within, and to play on Nietzsche, resurrect the God we’ve killed like Christ triumphantly rising from the tomb.
Baltes, M. (2017). Is the Idea of the Good in Plato’s Republic beyond Being?. In Studies in Plato and the Platonic tradition (pp. 21-42). New York: Routledge.
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Harper, D. (2018). Worship. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved January 2, 2019 from https://www.etymonline.com/word/worship#etymonline_v_10853
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Nietzsche, F. (1966). Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892). Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books.
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Shifferd, S. J. (2015). The Greek words for the Biblical definition of worship. Seeing God’s Breath. Retrieved January 2, 2019 from https://godsbreath.net/2015/03/05/greek-words-for-worship-in-the-bible/
Sidek, S. S. M. (2015). The Concept of Generosity in Rumi’s Mathnawi: An Analysis. Doctoral dissertation, International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC): International Islamic University Malaysia.
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Smith, A. C. (2016). Prostration as Discourse: A Comparative Literary, Semiotic, and Ritual Analysis of the Action in the Qur’an and Hebrew Bible. Doctoral dissertation, Claremont Graduate University.
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Theopedia. (2019). Worship. Retrieved January 2, 2018 from https://www.theopedia.com/worship
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