What Does Worship Mean in the Bible

Written by: Inés Franklin
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On the rare occasion that I was home alone as a young teenager, I used to sit with my back against the speakers of our record player console, put on Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby”—the extended LP version—and sing with her at the top of my voice. To their chagrin, my neighbors would be forced to listen to my squeaky adolescent voice trying to mimic disco legend.

In a way, I worshiped Summer’s voice and passion for love, and I allowed her ballad to steer my heart toward ideas of what it meant to be alive and in love. Little did I know that she was singing a very sexual song. (Eventually, my older brother broke the news to me.)

I am not trying to make a point about secular music or anything like that, but looking back on this experience, I see clearly that no one had to teach me to worship. It was something programmed in me—something my heart naturally did—whether expressed towards God, my idols, or a particular way of living that I believed held the key to “real” life.

I eventually realized that it was important for me to understand what I was allowing to take center stage in my heart.

We are divinely wired to worship.

My mouth is full of praise and honor to you all day long. (Psalm 71:8 CSB)

Human beings, across cultures and throughout history, have displayed an innate predisposition towards worship. We are intrinsically wired to seek out, revere, and devote ourselves to something greater than our individual existence.

Whether expressed through religious rituals, admiration of nature, dedication to a cause, or even the modern idolization of celebrities and ideals, this inherent drive to worship stems from a deep-seated need to connect, find purpose, and anchor our lives in something transcendent.

Many believe this universal human posture not only shapes our values and behaviors but also offers a window into the profound quest for meaning and belonging that defines the human experience. But this is not breaking news to Jesus, who created us to give thanks to the Father from the beginning. (See Colossians 1:9-23)

All of God’s creation worships. Humans are not alone in this desire. Even nature seems inclined to worship according to Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.” (CSB) When asked to silence the praise of the crowds who were “joyfully with a loud voice” worshiping Jesus for the miracles he had done, Jesus said, “I tell you, if they were to keep silent, the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 CSB). And angels are also described as gathering around the throne, bowing down face to the ground, and worshiping God. (Revelation 7:11)

Yet, for us humans, because of the Fall (Genesis 3), our worship can be misdirected and twisted, pointing our hearts towards things that were never designed to bring us life—just as mine was pointing toward Donna Summers. I may not have called it worship then, but my heart, time, energy, and sacrifice were directed to her celebrity and her power to entertain me for hours.

And though Donna no longer leads my heart today, I am not above the temptation towards idolatry. Technology, my health, and even my relationships at times seem to demand my worship. But all of these are expressions of my self-centered desires rather than the selfless hunger to worship my good, loving, and powerful Creator.

Praise be to God that through the saving grace of Jesus and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can worship the way God intended from the beginning.

Worshiping according to the Bible

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness. (Psalm 29:2, CSB)

Worship is a central theme in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It is a concept deeply rooted in the intimate relationship between God and His people.

In a Facebook post in 2020, Tim Keller wrote that “worship is seeing what God is worth and giving him what he’s worth.” He noted that the word itself comes from older English “worth-ship.” Worship, Keller explained, means to “revere God as all worthy” (Revelation 4:11) and “give God what he deserves—everything you have and are.” (Philippians 3:8, Romans 12:1)

By this definition, another Facebook user exclaimed, “All other things are worshiped but to a lesser extent.” Indeed, we can “give what is worth” to temporary things such as our bank accounts, job, food, health, etc., but nothing other than our Creator deserves all that we are and all that we have.

It is worth noting that the meaning of the variety of Hebrew and Greek words for “worship” differ from the narrow definition of our English word.

For example, among other words we translate to worship, the Hebrew word aboda (see also abad or asab), and the Greek word latreia (also latreuo) stand out. Both these words refer to the service done in the temple. Paul uses aboda to refer to service and sacrifice when he urges Christians to offer their own bodies as an act of worship. (Romans 12:1)

The Greek term proskyneo (in Hebrew shachach) refers to submission and acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty. Shachah means to “lay prostrate with face touching the ground.” And this is just a sampling.

In the Old Testament, worship often involved sacrifices and offerings as an act of atonement, thanksgiving, or dedication to God. While in the New Testament, worship is redefined by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In his death, it still remains that worship involves giving up something valuable for the sake of God—in this case, one’s life. But the motive behind Jesus’ worshipful obedience is highlighted here: that is, LOVE.

This link between worship and love is nothing new, however. Throughout the Scriptures, worship is depicted as a profound act of love and reverence for God. More than rituals and sacrifices, God values the sincerity and condition of our hearts when we approach Him. He looks beyond the outward appearance and peers straight into our hearts. (See 1 Samuel 16:7)

God continually reminds his people throughout Scripture that to simply worship him through religious rituals and not through our whole lives and selves is to miss the point of worship entirely. Worship through caring for others is highlighted in particular. Consider these passages:

Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7, CSB)

Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24, CSB)

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27, CSB)

Worship is clearly more than expressing our adoration through song, praise, and religious ritual. Worship can be expressed in innumerable ways, either personally or corporately, including sacrificial service to others, holy living, faithful profession, praise, testimony, gratitude, and the like.

But it must be done in spirit and truth (John 4:20ff)—done with hearts and lives all in, seeking to honor God.

Worship, a Continuous Act of the Heart

…love the Lord your God and worship him with all your heart and all your soul. (Deuteronomy 11:13, CSB)

The ancient Israelites didn’t have a word for the human mind or brain as we use it today. In Hebrew, they used the word “heart” (leb) when referring to our entire inner person (our mind, thoughts, and will)—not limiting the idea of one’s heart to just the seat of our emotions.

When I used to listen to Donna Summers, my entire “heart” was all in, and I refused to stop until something or someone interrupted me. Again, no one had to tell me that worship is something that, when done from the heart, is hard to stop. I think this is why the Bible encourages us believers to adopt an attitude of continuous worship toward God, acknowledging His presence in every aspect of our lives.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God desires us to fully surrender to His will, placing our complete trust in His plan and desires for our lives. He wishes for us to maintain a heart of gratitude, acknowledging His blessings and mercies anew each day.

Why? Because it is an intimate expression of our love for him, a deepening of our relationship.

We need to worship.

Just like a singer must sing, a painter must paint, and a writer must write, so a human must worship. It’s an expression of an intrinsic yearning of our hearts. We cannot suppress this all-important aspect of our human nature. Our worship will be aimed somewhere, always.

In seeking to aim our worship towards God, it helps to acknowledge the sovereignty of God as our supreme authority, Creator, and sustainer of the universe. Any other god is too small for our huge world problems.

We worship to anchor our existence in the greater meta-narrative of Scripture, the source of our purpose of meaning. (Ephesians 2:10) Worship sets our moral compass to the only One who is righteous, good, and holy. (Philippians 2:3-11) It offers us spiritual growth as we develop humility, gratitude, and sacrificial love. Worship evokes joy, peace, and contentment because God is the God of comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), the source of supernatural peace (John 14:27), and our ultimate rest. (Isaiah 14:3, Psalm 62:5-12)

This is just a sampling of what the Bible has to say about worship. For further reading on the heart of worship, I would recommend A.W. Tozer’s book, The Purpose of Man; Designed to Worship.

Let us worship the Lord with all that we are and all that we have. And when we feel like it, as loud as we wish, and as long as we can, sing. As the Psalmist declares:

Hallelujah! How good it is to sing to our God, for praise is pleasant and lovely. (Psalm 147:1, CSB)