What Is Worship?

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

Welcome, Young Believer!


When I was in Middle School I was visiting my great grandmother one weekend and attended her church for the first time. Her Pastor had a unique style of preaching where he would ask questions that he expected the congregation to answer throughout the course of his sermon. That Sunday the focus was this question, what is worship? To my shock, a room full of men and women who had been attending church since their childhood and were by and large around the age of my great-grandma were unable to answer this question clearly. One answered that worship was singing in Church another answered that worship was reading your Bible and another answered that it was tithing. Now, none of these answers are exactly wrong each of them certainly can be worship but even a non-believer can participate in each of these things without them being worship. I don't want to share this story to pump up my own understanding but as a reminder that no matter how long we spend in the Church we cannot grow lazy in our study of God's Word and our desire to know Him better. We should be able to answer foundational questions about what we believe and why. One more thing that is not worship.... sitting in church week after week for no other reason than tradition.


The First Sacrifice

What then is worship? Let's start at the beginning.

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Genesis 4:1-7

Without question, sacrifice is absolutely an action related to worship. The first time we see this in the course of human history as recorded in God's Word is in the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Now both brothers bring an offering to the Lord but one is considered acceptable and the other is not. What is the difference between the two? Note that Genesis specifies that Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions, in other words, he brought of the first and best of what he had to give to the Lord. Cain on the other hand simply brings, "an offering of the fruit of the ground." It's implied that Cain's offering was neither of the first nor of the best of his produce. The two sacrifices demonstrated a difference in the attitude of heart between the brothers in their relationship to God. God even warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door but he needs to rule over it. As we know, Cain does not heed this warning and instead murders his brother out of envy.


The difference between these two types of men takes on an interesting phraseology in the genealogy that follows this story in Genesis. Many men live, father children, and die but Enoch is described in Genesis 5:21-24 as a man who walked with God and was no more because God took him. The earth throughout these generations grows increasingly corrupt until God decides it is time to wipe the slate clean, but Noah like Abel finds favor in the eyes of the Lord.


Covenant Sacrifices

Noah builds an altar to the Lord in worship after he and his family leave the Ark and God establishes a covenant with him.


The next time we see a significant sacrifice is when God makes His covenant with Abram in Genesis 15:7-21 in this case Abram is asking for a sign that what God has promised will be accomplished. God gives Abram the sign he asks for but he also pronounces judgment for his doubt. Later, just before God promises the birth of Isaac through Sarah, Abraham's wife He institutes circumcision as a symbol between Abraham, Abraham's offspring, and God of the Covenant that He has made with them. In this case, their obedience would be the act of worship and circumcision the sacrifice.


Abraham's Test

The last sacrifice we'll look at in Genesis takes place sometime after the birth of Isaac when God comes to Abraham with a test.


After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” Genesis 22:1-18

More than all the miracles that take place in Genesis this story has always struck me as one of the wildest. First, it is a very difficult thing to imagine God asking of anyone to sacrifice their only child as a burnt offering. We are told plainly from the beginning that this was a test, but Abraham had no such knowledge. Yet obediently he set out to do what God had told him. If you know anything about Abraham's actions up to the birth of Isaac, you also understand that this obedience shows how much his faith has grown in God's ability to keep His promises even in unlikely human circumstances. In this testing of Abraham's faith and love toward God we see an incredible picture of what later would take place with God's sacrifice of His own Son upon the cross.


Like Jesus, Isaac carried the wood upon which he was to be sacrificed up the mountain. Like Jesus, Isaac was bound as a sacrifice that usually would have been a lamb. Isaac also was an only son beloved of his father. In both sacrifices, we find the divine provision of God on behalf of humans. In Abraham and Isaac's case, the Ram redeemed Isaac's life and he returned with his father back to his home. In Jesus' case, as God Incarnate after living a blameless life, His life willingly laid down redeemed the lives of those who would follow Him. This sets up the sacrificial imagery later on when the Israelites are redeemed by God from their slavery in Egypt and receive His Law as a part of their Covenant with Him, especially in the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. We've talked about the Passover specifically before so I'll link to it here if you'd like to review it.


Therefore, what have we learned about worship so far?


1. It requires an appropriate attitude toward God.

2. God deserves our first and our best, not our leftovers.

3. Worship can be both an echo of and a response to the mercy and provision of God on our behalf.

4. Participating in worship is an act of remembering the Promises of God and acknowledging His ability to complete them.

5. Worship is an act of obedience born in faith.


Worship Through Song

Over four hundred years after Abraham's test, God delivers His people from slavery in Eygpt and across the Red Sea. When they reach the other side Moses and his sister Miriam lead the people in a song of rejoicing for what God has done for them.


A Song of Praise

Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. “Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased. You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. The Lord will reign forever and ever.” For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” Exodus 15:1-21

Since this is the first time we see music as an expression of worship in the Bible how do we know that we've correctly identified it as worship? Let's go back to those requirements about worship that we've learned so far.

1. It requires an appropriate attitude toward God.

Moses and Miriam's song gives God the highest glory and praise for miraculously delivering His people out of the hands of Egypt. It is a song of thanksgiving.


2. God deserves our first and our best, not our leftovers.

Out of the overflow of their joy being rescued from the Red Sea, this is Moses and Miriam's immediate response to God's redemption. It's not something they're doing once a week or something that they decide to do later as an afterthought. Their song is immediate...


3. Worship can be both an echo of and a response to the mercy and provision of God on our behalf.

The immediacy of their song is a response to the mercy and provision of God for their deliverance.


4. Participating in worship is an act of remembering the Promises of God and acknowledging His ability to complete them.

Moses and Miriam sing to the Lord exactly how He has fulfilled His promise to Israel that He would redeem them out of Egypt.


5. Worship is an act of obedience born in faith.

This song also reminds the Israelites of the promises that God is still yet to fulfill for them.


The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Exodus 15:14-15

At this time, the Israelites still had to cross the wilderness to arrive at the land God had promised them and no the people of Canaan had not literally melted away. The people needed to step out in faith and obedience to God in order to receive the land He had promised them as their inheritance and that included believing that just as He had overcome Eygpt, He would overcome the Canaanites.


A Song of Instruction

Toward the end of Moses' life, he again lifts his voice in song, but you will notice a significant difference between this first song and the one we find in Deuteronomy 31:30-32:47. Since this is such a long song, I'm going to point out some of the highlights instead of quoting it in its entirety. I would highly encourage you to go read the full song for yourself.


Again with this song we ask the question, is this worship?


1. It requires an appropriate attitude toward God.

For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Deuteronomy 32:3-5

In this song Moses ascribes greatness to God, declaring the truth about His character to His people and contrasts it with the corruption they have fallen into. The attitude toward God that we find expressed is one of humility and a call to repentance.


2. God deserves our first and our best, not our leftovers.

Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? Deuteronomy 32:6

Moses is singing this song as a call back to worship because of the Israelites corrupted attitude toward God. Like Cain, sin was crouching at their door and they needed to become masters over it. They needed to put God back in His rightful place in their lives and remember all that He had done for them!


3. Worship can be both an echo of and a response to the mercy and provision of God on our behalf.

“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him. He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock. Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat— and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape. Deuteronomy 32:10-14

Moses does remind the people of God's goodness and provision for them throughout their years in the wilderness. Notice the language Moses uses to describe what God has given them, "with fat of lambs....the very finest of the wheat." God gave to them what was rightfully His, the fat of the lambs and the very finest of the produce. He did not withhold from His people the very best of his blessings. But they did not respond in gratitude as they should have, instead, they acted as if they were entitled to the blessings God had given them. Moses goes on in the song to rebuke them for this.


“But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. Deuteronomy 32:15

Jeshurun here is used as another name for the nation of Israel. Moses points out in the following words of the song that not only did they forsake God when they were fat off of His blessing and mock Him, but they also turned their worship to the idols of other nations.


4. Participating in worship is an act of remembering the Promises of God and acknowledging His ability to complete them.

I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces; I will wipe them from human memory,” had I not feared provocation by the enemy, lest their adversaries should misunderstand, lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant, it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ Deuteronomy 32:26-27

Moses also sings that the Lord would have destroyed them for their disobedience and their mockery of Him but because of His promises to them and for His glory among the nations who have seen Him work on their behalf, he will not destroy them.


5. Worship is an act of obedience born in faith.

This song is unique in the fact that Moses commands the Israelites to sing this song and teach it generation after generation as a memorial before the Lord that He is good and they are not. He preserves them not because they deserve it, but because of His own faithfulness and glory among the nations.


Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 32:44-47

A Song of Prayer

In between that first song of praise at the Red Sea and this song of instruction at the end of his life, we're given one more of Moses' songs recorded in Psalm 90.


Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! Psalm 90:1-17

This last song may open another door in our quest to understand what is worship: Is prayer worship? If this song is a song of prayer, then does it also fulfill what we know about worship?


1. It requires an appropriate attitude toward God.

Moses certainly points to the greatness of God in this Psalm declaring that He was even before Creation and that He is from everlasting to everlasting. He also points to the mortality of men and their need for God to judge our sin. It is before His anger that we perish.


Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Psalm 90:1-2

2. Worship can be both an echo of and a response to the mercy and provision of God on our behalf.

This song is certainly a response to the provision of God's mercy on us when all we deserve is judgment.


Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Psalm 90:14-15

3. Participating in worship is an act of remembering the Promises of God and acknowledging His ability to complete them.


Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Psalm 90:16

4. Worship is an act of obedience born in faith.

Moses only saw the fulfillment of God's promise to deliver His people from slavery in Egypt, but because of the Israelites' disobedience and Moses' own failure, he never entered the Promised Land. Yet, we find through the end of his life that Moses trusted God and did His best to obey God's commands.


By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. Hebrews 11:23-29

Throughout scripture, we will continue to see songs used in worship in these three ways: to praise God, to instruct the people, and in prayer. The most famous of these songs are by David and Solomon found in the Psalms and the Song of Solomon.


Worship Through Prayer

Speaking of many of the most famous Psalms, they are often not just songs but prayers asking God for deliverance, repenting of sin, and of course praising God for simply being God. Many people to this day take time to pray through the Psalms for themselves as they seek God in similar circumstances.


So let's ask the question, is prayer worship?


1. It requires an appropriate attitude toward God.

What is the reason you're coming to God in prayer? Even in David's prayers for deliverance, he acknowledges God's sovereignty and His ability to save. He makes it clear that even if God were to choose not to save him from those circumstances, God would still be holy. Too often we pray as if God is a vending machine: we want healing, we want a better job; more money; a home; a family; our enemies to drop dead. Haha kind of joking about that last one but not really and David himself prays some pretty dramatic curses upon his enemies so you're not necessarily wrong to be desiring the same thing. However, it all comes back to your heart's attitude toward God. Do you praise Him in your prayers? Do you repent as Moses modeled for us?


2. God deserves our first and our best, not our leftovers.

When do you pray? Is it simply a ritual you participate in at church, before meals, or before bed? Is it a last resort when the whole world seems to be going sideways?

I could use some work on this one too! Because prayer should be the first place we go on all occasions both to praise God for His blessings in our lives and to seek His deliverance when things don't look so cheery.


3. Worship can be both an echo of and a response to the mercy and provision of God on our behalf.

Here is one you may not have thought of until reading through the great prayers and songs in the Bible, but in most of these prayers and songs, we see the author repeating the great works of the Lord back to Him or quoting His Word directly. How often do you do this in prayer? I can tell you that this is something that I've only been learning to do more recently and is often prompted by the Holy Spirit.

One example of this could be reminding yourself through prayer of things God has done for you in your life. "Lord thank you for sending your Son to die for me on the cross. Thank you for loving me when I feel unloveable. Thank you for answering my prayers for a new car, I'm so grateful for your provision in my life."

There are other times when I actually quote a verse from the Bible as I'm reminded of it while praying. It's usually in the context of remembering the character and provision of God in the past and knowing through faith that He is still the same and still able to answer as He did then.


4. Participating in worship is an act of remembering the Promises of God and acknowledging His ability to complete them.


This is very similar to what we were just talking about in echoing and responding to God's works of mercy and provision in our lives.


5. Worship is an act of obedience born in faith.


Jesus Himself modeled prayer for His disciples and taught them how they should pray.


“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:7-13

Notice that Jesus says, "When you pray..." He doesn't say, "If you pray..." It is implied that prayer is to be a part of the disciples' regular relationship with God. Jesus also implies the same thing about fasting which means to deny yourself food or some types of food for a set period of time. It can also be considered a form of worship.


What is Worship?

Still, we began with this verse and it seems to sum up the one stumbling point we have with all of these forms of worship.


For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

Where we often fall short in sacrifices (tithing), singing, praying, fasting, or studying God's Word is that we do not do these things out of steadfast love or a desire for the knowledge of God.


Imagine that you upset your significant other, they are rightfully furious at you for some wrong you have done. To soothe their anger you go out and buy them an elaborate gift, for a time they might forgive you and move on. Let's say a few weeks later you commit the same wrong and they're angry with you again, so you write them a sweet love song to sing in front of all of your friends. Again, they forgive you and move on but again you make them angry by continuing to participate in this bad behavior. This time you spend all night talking it out maybe you even miss dinner and breakfast the next morning trying to explain to them how sorry you are. Once more though perhaps more reluctantly, they forgive you. Then you mess up again, you could read all the love letters they've ever sent you at this point and you're going to be very hard-pressed to convince them that you actually care about them and their feelings.


That's just how we often behave with our human loved ones!


Now, remember how often we have fallen short in God's eyes and the lengths He has been willing to go to, to redeem us from our sin so that we can stand blameless before Him. The least we can do is to worship Him out of love and a desire to know Him better, to bring honor to His Name!


No matter how much money we put in the offering plate or how beautifully we sing, it is not worship if is done with the wrong attitude toward God. No matter how long we pray or how eloquently, it is not worship if it is done only to be seen by others or to express entitlement to God's favor. We could fast forever and it still wouldn't be worship if it's done only for the health benefits and to make ourselves feel more holy. I have seen people read God's Word every day as if it is their favorite piece of literature, but it has no impact on their lives.