Biblical Worship

What Is Worship?

By Archibald G. Brown
Worship is not a matter of externals. It is a matter of bowing the inner self to the sovereignty of God.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part 2 of a series. Read part 1.

Editor's Note: We present the second part of a sermon preached by Archibald Brown at London's Metropolitan Tabernacle on the vital, and often misunderstood, doctrine of worship. How much Christians need to grasp these crucial truths in a time when there is very little Biblical worship in the visible church. - Dr. Paul Elliott


"Worship" - what is it? This is the question which we ask, and may the Spirit of God lead us into the true answer. "God is Spirit, and they that worship Him" - that is something far more than coming to the Metropolitan Tabernacle on Sunday morning. "They that worship Him" - that is something far more than singing, magnificently as you sang that hymn just now. "They that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Oh Spirit of worship, discover unto us the meaning of worship!

We shall this morning ask and try to answer two questions. The first is, What is worship? And when we have received the answer to that we shall ask a second question which is suggested by the answer: Who then are worshippers?

Worship: The Bowing of the Inner Self to God

First, What is worship? In order to get at the bottom of the matter it will be best to see what is the actual literal meaning of the words which, in our Bible, are translated "worship". In the Old Testament there is one word employed almost exclusively, and the literal translation of the word (and I ask you to mark it) is "to bow self down"[1]. Indeed, it is many times so translated in our version. The word chiefly used in the New Testament and translated worship means "to kiss the hand towards"[2].

Now, bring the Old Testament and the New Testament definitions together, and you will see that they amount to this, that worship is the prostration of myself before God, and yet it is not a prostration of terror or dread. It is the prostration of adoring love. But bear in mind that, whilst to bow self down is the meaning of the word which is translated "worship", to worship is something far more than simply to bow the body. This comes out, and most strikingly, in one or two passages to which I will now refer. I might give you a dozen, but we will take only three.

In the fourth chapter of Exodus, and the last verse, we read: "And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that He had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped"; or, literally translated, "they bowed their heads, and then they bowed themselves". This evidently teaches that it is possible to bow the head without bowing self. They bowed their heads, and then they bowed themselves in worship.

In the twelfth chapter of the same book, and the 27th verse, you have this most interesting distinction repeated: "And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What mean ye by this service? that ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head, and worshipped." Here, again, they bowed the head, and then they bowed themselves. But if these two references show us that it is possible to bow the head without bowing self, a third reference shows the converse, or the other side of the shield, that it is possible to bow yourself without bowing the body.

In the ninety-fifth Psalm we have these well-known words, "Oh come let us worship", or, as it is really, "Oh, come let us bow self down", and then it adds, "and bow down". Yes, I can bow the body without bowing the spirit; and I can bow the spirit and worship without bowing the body.

Worship: Infinitely More Than Externals

Evidently, therefore, the first answer to our question, "What is worship?" is, that it is something infinitely more than mere posture. Personally, I think that it is well to be as reverential as possible in external demeanor; but worship consists not in any [physical] attitude. Daniel kneeled and prayed, and he so worshipped that the Lord came and put His hand upon him as he kneeled, and he arose strengthened. But Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord and prayed; and, as he prayed, the glory of the Lord filled the house, and the cloud of the divine presence went rolling through the building, until man was excluded, and the priests could no longer serve there. But I think that one of the most delightful bits of worship on record is that which David had, concerning which I read, "And David sat before the Lord." The one kneeled, and the Lord bowed over him. The other stood, and the Lord descended and wrapped him about with His glory. The third sat, but his worship was none the less sweet.

What is worship? Worship is the bowing of the inner self. It is my innermost self doing that which may be seen done by the Eastern [i.e., Muslim] in his external worship [of the false god Allah]. Look at yonder Oriental. Let him be present to our mind's eye. He stands there, and I see him with closed hands. He bends; he bows; he does not stop until his forehead is in the dust. It is when my soul does that, that I worship; and, dear brethren and sisters, there can be no worship at all until self bows.

But here is just the difficulty. How hard it is to get this wretched self to bow. When my self, graciously influenced by the divine Spirit, prostrates itself lower and lower before God until it puts its very brow into the dust with no word to say for itself, but filled with the glorious consciousness of being before God, perhaps too delighted to be able to utter a word, simply prostrate before God, and yet without an element of dread, then I approximate to the meaning of the word "worship".

Worship is not even a matter of words. There may be words, or there may not be. Worship is not interfered with, either by their presence or by their absence. Very delightful it is to join in singing hymns, and singing them as you sang just now. Yes, but the singing of hymns is not necessarily worship, although we may worship in the singing of hymns. The reading of the Word is very precious, but the reading of the Word is not necessarily worship, though I may worship in the reading of the Word. When our dear brother led us just now in prayer, who of us did not feel that prayer is talking to God? - and that is delightful worship. Yes, but worship is not necessarily prayer, though true prayer will always be worship. The spirit may worship in prayer, but worship is that inner thing that can neither be seen nor heard by our fellow men. It is my self down before God in unspeakable delight.

True Worship: The Sovereignty of God Recognized In Reality

Now, may I take you a step further, and this will go more deeply into the subject? What is worship? We answer, true worship is the sovereignty of God recognized in reality. I am afraid that the phrase the "sovereignty of God" is not very popular just now. "The sovereignty of man" commends itself most to this proud generation. Humanity enthroned and worshipped is Satan's present-preparation for an actual Antichrist. A day of terrible judgment is at hand for those who, in the pride of their heart, have thus deified humanity, for "the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up, and he shall be brought low, and the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted."

They that bow not now before the sovereignty of God can never be His worshippers. Where there is no recognition of divine sovereignty there can be no true worship, for worship is the bowing, not the exaltation, of self. God's critic can never worship. He who has a contention with Jehovah concerning His sovereignty cannot worship Him, whatever else he may do. In worship my whole self accepts the sovereignty of God, and, without a quibble or criticism, bows in unreserved obedience.

Biblical Worship Versus Crowd Psychology

There is a very remarkable expression in the book of Genesis, where Abraham says to his servants, "Tarry ye here while I and the lad go yonder and worship" [Genesis 22]: He does not mean there "go and pray". No, Abraham, taught of the Spirit, has entered into the very core of what worship is. He is going now to render a sublime obedience to the Word of his God, a surrender which knows no limit. This is worship.

It is comparatively easy to surrender one's self to enthusiasm. Let there be a mighty shout of praise such as would fill this building, and he would be a strangely stolid soul who remained unmoved. Let there be a multitude of people brought together, and one thought filling all minds, and, in all probability, "animal magnetism" will be quite sufficient to account for a good deal of thrilling emotion.

Yes, it is not difficult to be moved by enthusiasm; and it is not a very high experience either to be led to break out in a note of praise. But oh, brothers and sisters, to bend the will, to bow my self - this is no easy achievement. For me to sing ecstatically about the greatness, the glory, and the majesty of God, and yet not be surrendered to Him, is not worship. I may sing like a seraph of Him who rules and doeth as He wills, but, if my proud heart is not in absolute submission to His will, I know nothing whatever of the meaning of this word "worship".

Worship: The Prostration of Self

No proud, no self-satisfied, no God-contending spirit can worship. So long as self lifts up its head, there is no worship. The worship taught in this word is the prostration of self in adoring love before Jehovah. As one has well put it, if my memory serves me rightly, to worship is to plunge with dazzled eyes into the glory of God, and then, with veiled face, to cry, "Holy, holy, holy." This prostration before the sovereignty of God, as we have already said, is not a prostration of fear. No. A worshipper would not have God less a sovereign than He is, if He could. The yoke of the divine sovereignty does not gall him. He sings,

My God, how wonderful Thou art;
Thy majesty how bright;
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat
In depths of burning light!

He would not have the burning light less burning. He fears, but, oh, it is with a delightful fear, a fear that has no element of terror in it; for he adds - 

But I may love Thee too, 0 Lord,
Almighty as Thou art;
For Thou hast stooped to ask of me
The love of my poor heart.

May we know, dear brethren and sisters, more and more every day what it is to be in absolute subjection to the sovereignty of God, our wills completely surrendered to His, so that the subjection becomes the soul's delightful rest.

Self Forgotten, God Realized

Perhaps the most marvelous picture of worship which we have in this book is that which is found in Isaiah 6. You know it well. The burning ones, the sons of fire, the seraphim, are worshipping; and how do they worship? I hear them cry, "Holy, holy, holy": they are not thinking of themselves. They are not concerned about their surroundings. Those seraphim are occupied with One, and that One is "upon a throne high and lifted up" and, as the cadence of their song rises and falls, "Holy, holy, holy", what do they do? They veil their faces, though they be seraphic, and they veil their feet, though they are unsoiled. They boast neither of their character, nor of their walk. It is self veiled, self hidden, self forgotten, self drowned, and God realized. May the Lord grant that when next we use this word "worship" there may be a deeper meaning in it than, perhaps, there has been heretofore.

And when I cast my inner self
Prostrate before the Lord,
Earth left behind, alone with Him,
'Tis then I know the word.
When, conscious only of Himself,
Myself is swept away,
'Tis then in spirit and in truth
I worship in His way.



1. The Hebrew word predominantly translated "worship" in the Old Testament is shachah, meaning "to bow one's self".

2. The Greek word predominantly translated "worship" in the New Testament is proskuneo, a compound word combining pros, meaning "towards" and kyneo, meaning "to kiss".


Next: Who Are the True Worshippers of God?


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