What is Biblical Worship?


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” A slogan at Apple Computers (1977)

What exactly is worship according to the Bible? A common use of worship today is as a synonym for Christian music - we worship, stop to pray, start worshiping again, stop to read Scripture and hear the sermon, and respond in worship. I am going to develop a much more expansive vision of worship, that embraces everything from the things we do gathered in the presence of God as a Christian community, to the obedience of daily life as a sacrifice of worship to God.

The test of a good definition is its helpfulness in promoting understanding and action. A definition is invariably a struggle between simplicity and precision.1 My instinct is to err toward simplicity and parse out the definition in the subsequent paper. My working definition is this: biblical worship is the celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer.

This study is divided into three sections, each aimed at orienting, explaining, and defending this definition. Each section will engage a different genre of Scripture, two from the old and one from the new. The first section seeks to orient my definition of worship within the larger field of biblical theology, defending my placement of God as the sole object of worship. It will dialogue with Robert Webber's contention that God is not the object of worship, and do so through an examination of Daniel 2-4 as a paradigm of worship. The second section is the heart of the paper, fleshing out my definition through a broad look at the Psalms, focusing on my choice of the word celebration as a summary description of worship. The third is a brief consideration of Paul's benediction in Ephesians 1, providing a New Testament test of my definition as a summary description of Christian, trinitarian worship.

* * *

Biblical worship sits at the hub of a cluster of theological concepts, especially the doctrines of creation and redemption. Genesis 1 and 2 carefully presents God as a personal Deity, separate from creation in an exalted sense, and yet intimately active in the ongoing history of creation. Humanity, given shape and breath through the intimate acts of God in Genesis 2, enjoy a relationship with God that can be called fellowship. God's relationship to his creation as Holy Creator is defined around the ideas of justice and loving faithfulness. Our relationship to God is characterized as worship, not only the worship of humanity as the image-bearers of God, but that of heavenly beings as well. Indeed, all of creation worships after its own fashion.2 As humans, worship permeates our lives as individuals and in society, culminating in communal acts of worship that are full of joy and thanksgiving – a celebration of God our Creator.

Sin breaks this relationship and corrupts worship, captured so vividly in the stories of the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden, and the worship of Abel and Cain. The Holy Creator has not changed, certainly not his desire for joyous fellowship with humanity. He becomes active as Redeemer, choosing out a people for himself, revealing his nature and will through word and deed, and restoring relationship with them through covenant, ultimately as the Triune God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. As one of the chief consequences of sin is the corrupting of worship, so the redemption of God removes sin and its pollution so that fellowship with God can be restored and worship renewed. In this sense, the Christian life itself as a process of sanctification can be characterized as a retraining in worship as we renew our relationship with God. As redemption unfolds, humanity increasingly joins and leads all creation, in heaven above and earth beneath, in the celebration of God the Creator and Redeemer. Thus my definition of biblical worship is one of celebration, with God as the object of worship, defined through his self-revelation as Creator and Redeemer.3

This seems to contradict Robert Webber's provocative statement, “God is not the object of our worship.”4 In his later years, Webber grew increasingly concerned with the breakdown he perceived in contemporary Christian worship. He described this breakdown in various ways, including “me-oriented worship” and “narcissistic worship.”5 While many church doctrinal statements remained orthodox, his concern was that the story of God was being ignored or even replaced by a self-oriented, self-serving worship in which God was being wrapped up in our stories.

Webber came to conceive of the problem as a distinction between God as object and subject of worship. For him, contemporary worship had adopted a Greek conception of God as spatially separated from us, sitting up in heaven, above and beyond us. This spatial view came into the art and architecture of the church, becoming a visual view of God as an object of praise. In effect, God was separated from his actions in history and worship was left without an anchor in the story of God, vulnerable to the narcissism of contemporary culture. 6

For Webber, the God of the Bible is active. He creates and redeems. He calls out his people and works all things together for their good, moving them inexorably toward glory. He defeats evil and rescues the righteous. He is the great actor in the drama of history who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ as the Triune God. Where this story is richly recalled and celebrated, as it is in the ancient traditions of Christian worship, the true worship of God flourishes. God is the active subject of worship, not its abstract, distant object.

My definition agrees with Webber in essence, that biblical worship engages God as he has defined himself through his “story,” yet I find his phrase “God is not the object of worship” unhelpful. Consider the account of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel. The story moves from the conquest of Jerusalem, and apparent defeat of Israel's God, to the King of Babylon worshiping the God of Israel as the Most High, the King of Heaven (4:2-3, 34-37). He comes to embrace the story of God revealed to him in chapter 2 as the subject of his worship, and replace as his object of worship the golden idol of chapter 3 with the true God of Israel.7

The impetus for Nebuchadnezzar's change comes from the distance of God, which is interesting given Webber's contemporary concerns. He recognizes the dream of chapter 2 as divine revelation, but he has no access to heaven to gain understanding. His counselors famously remind him that, “no one can reveal [the dream and its interpretation] to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals.”8 Wherever the gods might dwell, they do not dwell among humans. That distance has allowed the priests and counselors of Babylon to fashion gods and stories according their own designs, to replaced the proper object of worship with improper objects and the true story of God with “lies” and “deceptions,” to use Nebuchadnezzar's words.9 Without the interpretation of Daniel, there is no hope of understanding producing true worship.

When Nebuchadnezzar is enlightened by Daniel, he understands that worship is the appropriate response. Daniel's interpretation is a condensed summary of the story of God in a fallen world. The human statue represents human kingdoms standing collectively in idolatrous defiance, crumbling ultimately under the judgment of God and the establishment of God's kingdom. Daniel's praise arises in response to the revelation of God, as does Nebuchadnezzar's, rooted in the story of God.10 To use Webber's language, God is not an object of worship in that he is separated from his story, but his worship arises from his story.

Yet the subsequent accounts in Daniel center on the grammatical object of worship as a verb.11 The king fashions a golden image and demands that all worship his image. The three Hebrews will not worship that image: they (subject) will only worship (verb) the God of Israel (object), and they will die before they worship an idol. God and God alone is the true object of worship. When they are rescued from the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar shifts the object of his praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, rooted in the story of the Most High God who saves. This becomes a story of personal salvation in Daniel 4, when Nebuchadnezzar is brought through repentance into a right relationship with his Creator, allowing him to worship the King of Heaven, the Most High.12 In this context, it is counter-intuitive to say, “God is not the object of worship.”13

I conclude the following two statements. First, the self-revelation of God as Creator and Redeemer, “his story,” gives rise to worship, shapes it, and informs it. Second, biblical worship does not celebrate a god humans have fashioned to serve their own stories and agendas, but is unrelenting in its demand that God alone be the object of our worship. Thus, in regard to Webber's terms, I am comfortable saying that God is the object of biblical worship, and dogmatic that God be defined as he has revealed himself as Creator and Redeemer, the subject of worship. Thus my definition that biblical worship is the celebration of God as Creator and Redeemer.

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1See the entertaining treatment of definitions by Andrew Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise! (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), xix.

2As in Psalm 19, and figuratively in Isaiah 55:12.

3Contrast this with the definition of worship offered by David Peterson, Engaging With God (Leicester: Intervarsity Pr, 1992), 20. “The worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms he proposes and in the way he alone makes possible.” The covenantal, relational aspect of worship is captured well in the word engagement. But for me it lacks the warmth and essential joy that permeates biblical worship. The word celebration can move from acts of reverent awe to exuberant dance and song, all tinged with joy.

4See, for example, Robert E. Webber, “God Is Not the Object of Our Worship,” ChristianityToday.com, accessed February 16, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/aprilweb-only/118-13.0.html. or “God: The Object or Subject of Worship?,” The Institute For Worship Studies, accessed February 16, 2015, http://iws.edu/2005/09/robert-webber-god-object-or-subject/.

5Webber, “God Is Not the Object of Our Worship,” 1.

6Ibid.

7He is coming to terms with the first two commandments in Exodus 20:3-6.

8Daniel 2:11.

9Daniel 2:9. Webber singles out Greek thought as conceiving of God as spatially distant from us. The Greeks might have developed that distance in unique ways, but the author of Daniel would make the problem of God's distance a universal condition.

10Daniel 2:20-23, 46-47.

11It was an issue already in chapter 2. Most commentators hold that Nebuchadnezzar's prostration before Daniel is in effect worship to the God of Daniel, representing a shift in the object of his worship. See John E. Goldingay, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 30, Daniel (Dallas, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 52. Interesting is the view of Rashi that Nebuchadnezzar is attempting to deify Daniel – he still has the wrong object of worship. “The Complete Tanach with Rashi’s Commentary - Tanakh Online - Torah - Bible,” accessed March 9, 2015, http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Torah-Jewish-Bible.htm.

12Goldingay, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 30, Daniel, 96.

13I am comfortable in this regard with the choice of language in Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship, 1 edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014), 29.


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