The Heart of Praise and Worship: A Word Study of the Biblical Usage of the Terms

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty heavens!
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!

 Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with harp and lyre!
Praise Him with tambourine and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with the clash of cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

 –Psalm 150

Praise the Lord!  No other directive do we hear more throughout our Christian lives than this.  Whether reading the Word, attending a church service, or hearing the various happenings of others’ lives, it is near impossible for today’s follower of Christ not to encounter the phrase on a regular basis.  What is meant by these three simple words?  If you were to ask a thousand different self-identified Christians throughout the world today what it means to “praise the Lord,” you may well receive a thousand different answers; and the deeper you dig into the details, the more diverse the opinions.  Every week, churches around the world are constantly asking question about their own praise practices.  How should we praise the Lord?  Should we sign hymns or contemporary songs?  Where and when should we praise the Lord?  Can we only praise him on Sunday mornings in our official, recognized church buildings?  Who should praise the Lord?  Can only tithing, membership-class graduates led by a male 30-something-year-old stand on stage?  The debates over such issues seem endless, and the only sure solution that Christians have employed to solve these disagreements is to have one side get up, leave, and start their own church.  Is this really what Saint Paul and the entire canon of Holy Scripture would advise us to do whenever we disagree over something?[1]  If not by division, how then are we to solve this age-old debate?  When we understand what the Word of God means when it tells us to “praise the Lord,” we will begin to see that what we commonly mean by the phrase is not what the authors of Scripture meant.

The appearance of the word “praise” first occurs in Scripture in the 29th chapter of Genesis.  Leah, the first wife of Jacob and sister of Rachel, is the first to use it.  As the narrative tells us, “[S]he [Leah] conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’  Therefore she called his name Judah.  Then she ceased bearing.”[2]  The “therefore” used here, much like when used in similar contexts,[3] signifies that the name “Judah” has implied connections with Leah’s expression.  In this case, she named him Judah because she exclaimed, “This time I will praise the Lord.”  As most good Bible publications will indicate in the footnotes, Judah (יְהוּדָה, Yĕhuwdah) sounds like the Hebrew word praise (יָדָה, yadah) used in the verse.  Yadah, not surprisingly, most often means to praise or give thanks.  However, while yadah is used frequently[4] throughout the Tanakh,[5] it is not the word used by David in the above Psalm.

The word that David chose for his psalm is halal (הָלַל).  Halal is the word most often translated into English as “praise,”[6] and means, again, not surprisingly, to praise.  The difference between these two terms, however, is that halal implies praising with recognition of the worth of the object of praise.  Elsewhere halal is translated “commend.”  The proverb tells, “A man shall be commended [or praised] according to his wisdom.”[7]  Whom does David tell us to praise for their worthiness?  David says we are to praise Yahh (יָהּ, the Lord),[8] halal-Yahh, better recognized as hallelujah.

The vast majority of times that the reader encounters the word “praise” in the Tanakh, it is a translation of either the Hebrew yadah or halal.  Thus, when the Word of God uses the word “praise,” it means a response to God, thanking him for what he has done or recognizing his worth and glory.  The phrase “praise the Lord,” hallelujah, in itself is always an imperative.[9]  The Word of God is telling us hallelujah, “praise the Lord!”  It seems, then, important that we do so.  Is this, however, what we modern-day followers of Christ mean when we use the word “praise”?

When we say, “let’s praise the Lord,” it seems that we most often mean “let’s sing three or four songs before or after the preaching portion of our Sunday morning church service.”  Alternatively, if we are not calling this time of corporate singing “praise” we are calling it “worship” or simply equating the two terms, interchanging them at our leisure; but where in the Bible is a time of corporate singing before or after preaching called “worship”?

The Bible does not use the words “praise” and “worship” interchangeably as we so often find ourselves doing.  The two words have distinct definitions and uses, thoroughly differentiating them, one from another.  We have already evaluated the biblical meaning of praise.  Now let us do the same, briefly, for worship.

Almost always, when our English translations use the word “worship,” they are translating the Hebrew word shachah (שָׁחָה).[10]  Shachah, surprisingly this time, does not mean worship in the way we commonly think of it.  If our idea of worship is, as stated above, a designated time of standing up together and singing songs to God, it is not coherent with the description of worship in the Bible.  Shachah means to physically bow down, or prostrate oneself, before the object of worship.  This definition is also fitting for shachah’s Greek counterpart, proskyneō (προσκυνέω), found throughout the New Testament.  Unless one is rather close to the ground during a designated “worship” time, she is not worshipping in the same manner or style of the description of worship used throughout the Bible.  Now, this is not to say that one is not praising the Lord when she is standing and singing songs to God, for yadah and halal do not carry the same connotation of physical position as shachah does.  What is often meant by the English word “worship,” honor given to someone in recognition of his merit or worth, is not shachah, but, more accurately, halal, praise.  We need to be much more aware of the differences between these two words’ biblical meaning and more careful in how we use them.[11]  It is just good hermeneutics.

Having now examined what the Bible means by praise and what it means by worship, we must ask the important question:  Are we praising and worshiping God as we ought to?  The Word of God clearly dictates that its readers partake of both actions.  When we gather, do we recognize the infinite glory of God and thank Him for all that He has done?  In most churches, we generally do this, praising, well.  However, do we also, both physically and spiritually, humbly bow down or lie prostrate before our Lord and Savior?  In today’s American evangelical churches, the answer is a resounding “no.”  Though we almost always call it “worship”, our times of corporate singing[12] tend only to touch on the act of praising God.  Praising God is never a bad thing, but we ought not to isolate what we offer to God to just this.

So, maybe it is time to try something different.  Maybe we need to move away from always standing and going through the same “motions” of praise (i.e. lifting hands, clapping, foot tapping, etc.) and try worshipping by bowing down or prostrating ourselves in the presence of our Lord.  Now, acting physically does not always guarantee engagement of one’s whole being in the action.  Jesus reminds us that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[13]  However, there is an incomprehensible unity between body and spirit that I do not believe should be so quickly written off as to say what we do physically is meaningless.  We learn from the prophet Elijah’s eat, sleep, repeat cycle described in I Kings 19 that what one does physically may allow for a radical spiritual encounter with God that may otherwise be impossible.  So, while the end goal is worship of God in spirit and truth, it may take the physical action of humbling ourselves in his presence to get us there.

Now, here at Moody Bible Institute, we generally do take the time we spend praising and worshiping God together seriously.  However, at times throughout any given semester, it seems that our enthusiasm has a tendency to wane and waver.  Why is this?

Perhaps, as has been suggested, we gather so frequently[14] that the times we set aside to praise and worship the Lord together become so routine that they consequently lose their worth or meaning.  Those who feel this way may very well be disappointed with what everlasting life is all about, a place where our praise and worship of our God will never cease.

Perhaps the fact that we are required to attend chapel and do not have much of a choice in the matter drains us of the joyful spirit of praise.  To the Calvinistically inclined who believe this I ask, can there then be any joy and longing to do anything virtuous in life?  Do you not actively work out your own salvation with fear and trembling[15] because you do not have a choice of whether or not you are elect?  To those of a non-Calvinistic persuasion, why would being asked to do something strip it of all value?  You are asked simply to be at chapel, the choice to praise and worship the Lord or not is yours.

Or perhaps we simply just do not feel inspired to praise the Lord.  If you find yourself in this boat, it may behoove you to spend some time reflecting on all that God has done for you as recorded in his inspired Word.  Meditate anywhere near the story of the loving sacrifice of God’s only Son long enough and with an open heart to let the Holy Spirit move and I guarantee that he will do so in ways you have never experienced before.  If the story of Christ does not inspire you to praise and worship the Lord, nothing will.

Ultimately, there is nothing quite as satisfying as bowing before the one true and living God and offering up our whole selves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable.  As Saint Augustine so eloquently puts it, “You [God] stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[16]

[1] Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10, et al. if there is any doubt.

[2] Genesis 29:35 (ESV).  It is interesting to note that Leah was blessed with three sons before this, yet this is the first time Scripture mentions here praising the Lord.  After she praised him, she ceased bearing.

[3] Cf. Genesis 11:9, 25:30, et al.

[4] 112 times translated to the effect of to praise or give thanks in the King James Version (KJV).

[5] Hebrew Bible; Old Testament.

[6] 133 times translated to the effect of to praise or commend in the KJV.

[7] Proverbs 12:8 (KJV).

[8] Yahh is taken from the first two letters of YHWH, the proper Hebrew name of the one true God.

[9] Or command.

[10] I intentionally leave room for exceptions (or mistranslations), but the Hebrew word is shachah in all but this handful of situations.

[11] For more on using biblical words properly, see Keithly, Samuel J., “Mean What You Say Part One [and Two] in the Use of Religious Language” Soma Volume 1, 2 (2011), 8-9, 8-10 (respectively).

[12] Surely our praise and worship of God is not limited to just corporate singing, but I am afraid that clarifying this misconception would reach ambitiously beyond the bounds of this current article.  I will save that discussion for another time.

[13] John 4:24 (ESV).

[14] Three times a week (minus the six permitted absences).

[15] Philippians 2:12.

[16] Saint Augustine Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1991) I. i (1).


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