Worship—Psalm 96:9

Worship in the ancient world included far more than just going to a shrine or sacred place to participate in a religious service. It involved anything that sought to honor a deity. Especially for Israelites, it included sacrifices, religious festivals, rest on the weekly Sabbath, music and hymns, prayer, and acts of self-denial such as fasting. The concept of worship is embedded in the entire biblical text and directs humans to worship God exclusively. Angels objected to being worshipped by humans (Rev. 19:10; 22:8, 9). God’s representatives rejected worship by fellow human beings (Acts 10:25, 26; 14:11-18). The devil demanded Jesus to worship him, but Jesus reminded him that Scripture stipulated worship to belong to God alone (Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Matt. 4:10).

In ancient times worship often reflected the oriental custom of showing respect by bowing down or prostrating oneself on the ground (Gen. 18:2). Thus, Israelites were careful about to whom or to what they did so, especially if it might have a religious connotation (Esther 3:2; Dan. 3:12, 18; 1 Kings 19:18). However, the Black Obelisk from Nimrud depicts Jehu the king of Israel in 841 BC prostrating himself on the ground in submission before the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC). Here the bowing came not from religious respect but as a symbol of political submission.

The Bible vigorously condemns worshipping idols or anything representing God’s creation instead of the Creator Himself (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 5:8, 9). All over the ancient Near East, archaeologists have found various objects of worship. They include statues of gods and goddesses worshipped either on a national or individual level. Some popular Canaanite gods revered in the Levant were Anat, Asherah, Astarte, Baal, Reshep, with El as the head of the religious pantheon. Numerous seals, sculptures, wall reliefs, and monuments depict worship scenes. Some of those images that the excavators found in places occupied by Israel and were definitely worshipped by its people. The prophets often protested the worship of any other gods. God and His spokespersons repeatedly warned Israel not to mingle with other nations lest they be enticed into worshipping their deities. The most popular Canaanite god was Baal. Its worship intensified during times of national apostasy. While the surrounding nations might have worshipped various gods, for Israel YWHW, was the one and only deity. Despite that, Israel and Judah often found themselves attracted to other gods. Remains of sites used as pagan cultic centers have been excavated in such places as Tell Abu Hawam, Ai, Arad, Beth Shean, Deir Alla, En-Gedi, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Tell Mevorah, Shechem, and Shiloh. However, no remains have survived of the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:1).

During periods of religious apostasy, the God of Israel would allow misfortune to strike the nation as punishment. But then He would send prophet after prophet in an attempt to lead the people away from the worship of Baal or any other god. Worshipping other gods made them break the covenant relationship that the Lord had established with them. As they responded to the call to worship their God, then He would restore their fortunes.

The book of Leviticus outlines the work of the priests along with the Levites, explaining how they were to administer the sacrifices and offerings as a major component for worshipping God daily and on festival days. The book of Psalms is a collection of some of the songs sung by choirs or individuals during Israelite worship. The book of Lamentations mourns the plight of Judah after it had fallen into Babylonian captivity because of apostasy. As a form of worship in which people approached God and pled for mercy, laments were often accompanied by fasting, tearing one’s clothes, putting on sackcloth, and denying oneself luxuries to seek God. Prayer is a major component of worship, and one finds many prayers scattered throughout the Bible.

Besides the weekly Sabbath, new moons, the New Year observance, and the Day of Atonement, ancient Israel followed a definite calendar of festivals for worshipping God. They provided meaningful moments for pilgrimage and worship at a national level. Such gatherings took place at designated places such as Shiloh and finally Jerusalem. During NT times people from many nations came to worship in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5). Inauguration of a king or priest could also be an occasion for worship and celebration. When the nation gained victory over an enemy, or when God demonstrated His divine intervention on behalf of His people, then the people would extemporaneously respond in praise and worship. Such occasions offered opportunity for national worship as a response to God’s saving acts.

In Scripture, the call to worship God goes out to all people irrespective of nationality, language, and location. The Bible repeatedly summons all of earth’s inhabitants to worship God alone (Ps. 96:9; Rev. 14:6, 7). The most distinguishing aspect the Bible emphasizes is to worship Him as the Creator of the earth (Gen. 2:1-3; Rev. 14:6, 7) and will be the final issue before Christ returns to earth. Such worship is best done in faithful obedience to His bidding and enabling. Worship is a relational experience with Him that involves obedience to His commandments.

John 4:23 calls for those who worship God to do so in truth and spirit, not in meaningless ritual or misunderstanding. Worshipping Him will continue both in heaven and on the new earth that He will create (Rev. 21; Isa. 65:17; 66:22, 23).


Anderson, “Worship, Israelite,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1389-1391.

Gane, “Worship, Sacrifice, and Festivals in the Ancient Near East,” 361-367.

Powell, “Worship, New Testament,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1391-1392.