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The Practice of Physical Praise

 

We believe that all true worship starts in the heart of a person and will only be deep and meaningful when the heart is adequately prepared. If the heart has become a garden of praise, a storehouse of good things, we need to find biblical expression of that praise in our words and actions. Specifically, we need to consider the use of our body. Notice this is not our starting point, but the byproduct of adequate preparation.

There are few opportunities for physical action in worship in many churches today, except for sitting and singing. Sometimes the congregation will stand to sing, but more often than not, standing is simply a way to allow people to stretch before that long sermon begins. In a book entitled, Worship (Ronald Allen, Gordon Borror, Multnomah Press, p. 120), the author records a conversation between a friend of his and a woman who went to a charismatic church.

 

The woman asked him if people raised their hands in his non-charismatic church, and he responded that they did not. She then probed him as to why they refrained from what the Psalms speaks of doing in worship services. The friend's defensive action was that the whole idea seemed pretty silly. "Perhaps the Psalms do speak of such action, but we don't do them. Why should we? Just because a pastor tells us to do so?"

The author continues: "My friend's response seems to suggest that habit and precedent are the arbiters of actions; that custom (my custom) settles issues. 'That is not a custom of ours. Why should we do it?'"

That brings up an important question concerning the physical actions in worship. Does custom dictate action, or are there biblical principles and examples that can guide us with clarity and authority in making decisions in this area? We hope to look at those biblical pricniples as well as the action that will guide us in this study.

The Practice of Physical Praise

How do we present our bodies to God in worship? If the heart has become a storehouse of good things, we need to find biblical expressions of that praise in our words and action. Specifically, Scripture encourages us to praise and worship God in a number of physical ways. We can worship God:

 

Through the lifting of our hands

Ps. 141:2; 63:3-5; 1 Tim. 2:8. Let's observe closely the way this form of worship is tied to the heart and then look at the five basic reasons for raising one's hands.

 

The connection of the heart with the hand—Ps. 28:2; Lam. 3:40-42.

In Psalm 28:2, here we see the blending of heart and hands and voices. "Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy place" (v.2).

 

The words of his heart are joined to the action of lifting his hands. Later on in the Psalm as David finds grace has been extended to him again, we see heart and song joined together. Vs. 6-7—"Praise be to the Lord, for He has heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song."

The heart in the Old Testament is used to describe this inner person; and the hand is a convenient symbol for the physical body, but also very expressive of the personality and the heart. It very beautifully typifies the human spirit, totally distinct from any other appendage in appearance and dexterity. If we observe the hands of a skilled person, no matter the field, it is an amazing exhibition of the genius of God's creation.

The hand is also an expression of the condition of the heart. Notice how the author of Lamentations joins the heart and hand in repentance.

Lam. 3:40-42—"Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: 'We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.'"

 

In the Old and New Testaments, the raising of the hands was a regular part of the worship of God.

The significance of raising our hands

Signifies expectancy—Ps. 28:2; 88:9b; 143:5-16. A person in prayer signifies that he expects God in His great grace to respond to his request. This is a posture of faith: God will respond to those who call out for mercy and help.

Signifies no deceit in the heart—Ps. 134:2. As we hold up our hands to receive a gift of God's grace, it also suggests that there is a lack of guile and deceit, secret desires, or hostile intentions. The opening of the hands signifies our desires have been made known, and with no deceit we expect and wait for God's reply. The open hand to God shows we are hiding nothing from the Lord. This is why the Psalmist encourages us to "Lift up your hands in holiness and bless the Lord"—Ps. 134:2 (KJV)

Signifies praise to God for His greatness

  • Ps. 63:3-5: vs. 4—"I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands."
  • Neh. 8:6. Ezra led the people in praise to God. "Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground."
  • 1 Tim. 2:8: "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing."

I know there are many who, for a variety of reasons, dismiss raising hands as being an Old Testament concept. I have to admit I get weary of people picking and choosing and explaining away that which is uncomfortable to them. The answer to this reaction, though, is to point out that the New Testament writers have restated the admonition to raise our hands.

 

Faculty members of Western Conservative Baptist Seminary have authored a book entitled, Worship in which they give a helpful reply to those who demean the raising of hands. They are not coming from a Pentecostal or Charismatic vantage point, but simply responding to what they believe the Word of God says:

"The raising of one's hands in prayer or praise to God is neither a new phenomenon developed within churches bent toward the emotional, nor is it a holdover from the pre-Christian era. Rather, this practice is thoroughly biblical, having been practiced in the worship patterns of the Old Testament period, and carried on into the New Testament era—and therefore, into the Christian era." p. 124.

 

Later in the book, one of the authors writes this startling observation:

"Occasionally, in informal retreat settings, we have encouraged people to raise their hands in praise and prayer...even though some people had feelings of unfamiliar settings or awkward circumstances, none has yet broken out in a rash or turned green."

Isn't that encouraging! In addition to signifying expectancy, no deceit, and praise to God for His greatness, the raising of the hands seems to have another function within the church. The raised hand of a spiritual leader before the congregation is often used to signify a prayer of blessing upon his flock or congregation.

 

Signifies a blessing

It can bless other people (Lk. 24:50-51) and bless the Lord (Ps. 134:2). What does it mean to bless the Lord? (See Ps. 103:1-2.)

Signifies submission of the whole self to God—Ps. 63:2-4

 

The cautions to observe when raising our hands

If there is no reserve of praise stored in our hearts, the raising of our hands will only be a form—Matt. 23:27-28. God will hide His eyes from it. He gives the warning in Isaiah 1:15 (When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood...) and the right way in 1 Tim. 2:8 (I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing) and Ps. 134:2 (Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD).

 

 

Through kneeling and bowing before God

The word for worship carries within its definition a physical response. In the Hebrew language it means to bow down, or prostrate oneself in honor to God. This is an act done before a superior or a ruler. In the Greek language it means to give reverence and can stress the feeling of awe and devotion.

The act of bowing is designed to be an outward symbol of an inward attitude of gratitude, submission and humility before God. There are numerous illustrations of kneeling and bowing in Scripture, each illustrating gratitude, submission, and humility. In Old Testament culture, bowing and knelling was done in many settings (Ruth 2:10; Ps. 95:6-7; 2 Chron. 6:12-13).

In the New Testament, Paul practiced this same posture before God—Eph. 3:14-15; Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 14:11-12.

I'm sure many would attribute the above examples to culture. Certainly people differ in the way they show their appreciation and humility. If someone is nice to us or has a position of authority, most of us would not fall to the ground and grovel in the dirt when we meet them. The scripture indicates, however, in Philippians 2:5-11 that kneeling before God is a transcultural response. It is not an act reserved for overly emotional alien widows, zealous apostles, or dedicated kings. The scripture very plainly indicates that one day, all people everywhere will kneel before the Lord—Phil. 2:5-11. If that is the case, why are we hesitant to kneel in worship today? If in our hearts we acknowledge God to be the only God of this universe, then kneeling is just an outward expression of the heart reality.

 

The cautions to kneeling and bowing

With every physical expression there is potential for abuse.
  1. First, kneeling is not the exclusive symbol of reverence before God. There are a variety of acceptable positions.
  2. Second, kneeling isn’t a matter of emotion, but of reverence—Ps. 42:5-6. Its practice shouldn't be dependent on our feelings.
  3. Third, kneeling is not penance, but praise. The Scripture is not arguing for pain, or outward piety. The Lord desires outward acts that express our heart of praise.

 

Through the combined voices of congregational praise

Personal worship is not complete worship. David knew that personal worship creates a desire for corporate worship. Listen to his invitation: "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together—Ps. 34:3."

 

Here's the principle: Genuine personal worship must and will lead to corporate worship. Perhaps this is because no individual worshiper can provide sufficient response to God's majesty. The fullness of God's nature requires a response from the diversity of the body of Christ. As individuals begin to appreciate God's character in personal worship, they are driven to worship.

 

Praise is not silent, it is to be vocal. In the purest sense of the word, it is not praise unless it is audible—Ps. 111; 103:1-5; 92:1; 145:4a; 95:1; 100:1; 116:17; 145:1. Praise is also not an option.

 

Through clapping of the hands

—Ps. 47:1. What does it mean?

  • The hand can stand for the man himself—Ex. 19:13.
  • The right hand can be used to impart strong blessing —Gen. 48:14.
  • A bargain is sealed with a handshake or the striking of two hands together. It signifies an agreement—2 Kings 10:15; Ex. 17:16.
  • Clapping is used as an indication of the heart—joy or malice—Ezek. 25:6-7; Ps. 47:1.
  • Hands are lifted in prayer—Ps. 28:2; 63:4.
  • Hands are lifted as an oath—Ex. 6:8; Nahum 14:30.
  • Clapping is used to show agreement and rejoicing—2 Kings 11:12

 

What does it tell us in praise?

  • An expression of joy in our hearts over what God has done and will do—Ps. 47:1; 98:8; Is. 55:2
  • An expression of agreement as to what is being sung or said—2 Kings 10:15; Ex. 11:12

 

Through giving

Ps. 96:8; John 12:1-8; 2 Cor. 9:11-15