Worship in the Old and New Testaments

How was it done? To what purpose? Worship leaders must be Bible based, or else their lyrics and mode of worship will become shallow and self-focused instead of God centered.

Let’s begin with the Old Covenant Scriptures and go on to the New Covenant Scriptures.

Old Testament

We can go back as far as Cain and Abel, who brought sacrificial offerings to the Lord (Gen. 4:2-5). Abel brought the firstborn or firstfruits of his animals, which was more sacrificial than Cain’s offering of plants, which are never said to be the firstfruits. So Abel’s offering was acceptable, while Cain’s was not. But regardless of the details, sacrifice is a form of praise. This was extended throughout the Torah (first five book of the Bible), particularly in Lev. 1-6.

The son of Lamech, Jubal, was the father of those who played the lyre and pipe (Gen. 4:21). Music goes way back into humanity. It is a gift from God, built into humankind.

Next, Laban sent off his daughters and sons-in-law with singing and music with harps and timbrels or tambourines (Gen. 31:27).

Abram built an altar to the Lord and called on him, after God promised him a mighty nation (Gen. 12:7). Jacob came in contact with the Lord and so also built a sacred place at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-22; 35:1-15). When God calls and visits you, it is a good idea to offer sacred praise, if not a physical reminder like an altar of stone.

God called Moses to lead the Israelites out to worship (Exod. 3:12). When they were rescued from Egypt, the people bowed their heads and worshipped (12:17). After going through the Red Sea on dry ground, Moses composed a song, part of which says: “The LORD is my strength and song … this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exod. 15:2). Miriam the prophet, sister to Aaron and Moses, got her timbral and danced and celebrated their deliverance through the Red Sea. The women joined in. Dancing and instruments are appropriate in worship. Women dancing in festive occasions were found painted on Egyptians tombs. This provides the context for Hebrew women dancing right after the Red Sea crossing. 2 Sam. 19:35 mentions male and female singers, and the context implies they sang for entertainment, like maybe folk or love longs. Or the context may be about devotional songs.

In the jobs of everyday life, well diggers and the water drinkers sang and chanted in celebration and hope (Num. 21:17-19). Those who trod on grapes sang (Jer. 48:33).

Deborah praised God for the victory over King Jabin of Canaan (Jdg. 5). Samson celebrated his victory over the Philistines (Jdg. 17:15:16). Battle-worn heroes were proclaimed in songs, as David was, over and above King Saul: Saul killed thousands, while David killed ten thousand (1 Sam. 18:6-7). On the other side, David lamented the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:17-27). Lamentation can be expressed in poetic speech, and perhaps with singing.

It was during the monarchy that King David and the chief musician Asaph brought worship to its heights. About 55 psalms have the heading “to the choir director,” which indicates not only a director but an entire choir. They celebrated deeply and greatly. As one sample, Ps. 98:4-6 says:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song and music; make music to the Lord with the harp, and the harp and sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn, shout for joy before the LORD, the King (Ps. 98:4-6, NIV)

Even the entire earth will worship (Ps. 66:4), so will the nations (Pss. 86:9; 102:18, 21-22).

The glory of the Lord filled the temple (2 Chron. 5:13-14). Expect the glory of God, sometimes visible in a cloud, other times invisible to our eyes but not to our spirits, to show up in worship.

Here are instruments used in worship: harps, lyres, trumpets (metal tube, flared at end; cf. Num. 10:2-10), shofar (ram’s horn), cymbals, flutes and pipes (1 Kings 1:39-40; Jer. 48:36; Matt. 9:23).

Celebrate God with your body: bowing and kneeling (2 Chron. 7:1-3; Eph. 3:14), trembling (Pss. 96:6; 99:1; 114:7; Jer. 5:22), prostrating (Rev. 4:10), clapping (Ps. 47:1), lifting hands (Pss. 28:2; 63:4; 1 Tim. 2:8) and lifting heads (Ps. 3:3), and dancing (Pss. 149:3; 150:4). David danced with all his might (2 Sam. 6:14). Michal his wife mocked him, but God was displeased with her (2 Sam. 6:23). Warning. Don’t mock people who dance before the Lord. When Solomon finished his dedicatory prayer for the newly built temple, he had been kneeling and spreading out his hands towards heaven (1 Kings 8:54). Do we have such an unbridled, uninhibited stance when we worship in front of people?

The next component of worship was the utmost holiness of God and our response of awe and reverence. Exod. 3:5 teaches us that Moses approached the burning bush that did not consume itself, and it was God speaking in the bush—the preincarnate Son of God. Moses was commanded to take off his sandals. Holiness and awe.

Exod. 19:16-19 says:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain, Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him (Exod. 19:16-19, NIV, emphasis added).

It is true that we no longer approach fearsome Mt. Sinai (Heb. 12:18-24; Gal. 4:24-25), but the awesomeness of God has never diminished, and we need to worship in reverence and awe.

When the Philistines took the ark of the covenant, which housed the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, their god, Dagon, fell and broke before its presence (1 Sam. 5:4). This is a picture of God’s awesomeness ultimately winning over Satan.

When the ark was offered back to the Israelites at the town of Beth Shemesh, because the Philistines were being afflicted by God for sheltering it unlawfully, God followed the Sinai Covenant, by which the wrath of God comes (Rom. 4:15), and eliminated seventy Israelites who peeked inside it. The people of the town cried out, “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, the holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20). Once again, we do not live under the old Sinai Covenant, but God has never lost his holiness and awesomeness.

1 Chron. 15-6 describes how many instruments and singers and praisers whom David had established. The number and variety of instruments are suggestive, not comprehensive. More could be added.

1 Chron. 13:14 says that as David was bringing the ark back to Jerusalem, “David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals, and trumpets” (NIV). But they stopped short of Jerusalem because God’s wrath broke out against a man, for he had not followed the regulations.

Then on their way to Jerusalem, this time being done properly, 1 Chron. 15:28 says, “So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouts, with the sounding of the ram’s horns, trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.”

The point is that worship leaders must read those chapters in 1 Chron. They will then learn a lot.

In 2 Chron. 20, there is a magnificent story about how Jehoshaphat defeated the Ammonites and Moabites. He sought the Lord, and the prophet stood up and promised victory by the Lord. He appointed men to go out ahead of the army to sing praises to the Lord: “Give thinks to the LORD, for his love endures forever” (v. 21). The Ammonites and Moabites first annihilated the men of Seir, and then they ambushed each other. In other words, praise produced confusion in the enemy, and they self-defeated. The lesson is that praise should be first in our personal spiritual warfare and in the church. Victory belongs to the Lord in your life through offering praise to him.

New Testament

This inspired, infallible authoritative book is a lot smaller than the Old, but it includes all sorts of verses on worship.

1 Pet. 2:9 says that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s possession, so that we can proclaim the excellencies of God who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. “Excellencies” means his wonderful deeds and praises or perfections. He does all things well and prosperously. Our purpose is to proclaim God’s wonderful deeds and perfections.

Acts 2:11 says that when the 120 disciples were filled with the Spirit, they spoke forth the praises and wonderful works of God to his glory with prayer languages.

Acts 3:1-10 teaches us that John and Peter went to the temple during the time of prayer. They healed a man lame from birth, and he got up and walked and leaped and praised God for his healing. A revival of joy broke out.

The Sanhedrin persecuted the Messianic Jews, but the apostles got back to their Christian community and prayed. The place of prayer was shaken, and they were filled with the Spirit and boldness to speak his word (Acts 4:24-30). Expect great things to happen when you pray. Expect to be refilled with the Spirit.

In Syrian Antioch, a major headquarter of the community of the followers of the Way, Paul and Barnabas and others were praying and fasting and seeking the Lord. While they were worshipping, the Spirit spoke to them and called them to their ministry (Acts 13:1-2).

Paul and Silas were in a Philippian jail, and at midnight they prayed and sang hymns of praise to God (Acts 16:25). An earthquake happened, but Paul and Silas did not flee, because they had to minister to the jailer, who asked how he could get saved. Paul told him to call on the name of the Lord (vv. 30-34). He was saved.

Paul and the church at Tyre knelt down on the beach and prayed and sent him off (Acts 21:5).

Therefore, expect to use your entire body for sacred worship.

In Luke 15:25 in the Parable of the Prodigal Son the older son heard music and dancing from his father’s house, in celebration of his lost son’s return. Jesus’s parable in that scene is true-to-life in Jewish culture, so the Lord did not seem to have a problem with celebrating in that way.

1 Pet. 2:5 says that we are being built up into a temple, like living stones, so we can offer continual worship to God. We are the new priesthood, but we don’t sacrifice animals, but words of praise. It’s the sacrifice of praise.

Eph. 5:18-20 says we need to be filled with the Spirit and to keep on being filled. Why? We speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from the Spirit. “Spiritual songs” speaks of singing in the Spirit or Spirit-inspired languages (commonly and archaically called “tongues”). We do this in church and in our prayer closet, as we sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord. So worship is public and private. The goal is to give “thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20).

Col. 3:16 says that the Word of Christ—the word about Jesus, the gospel—must dwell in us richly (not shallowly), so that we can teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual sons, with thankfulness in our hearts to God” (ESV). Being full of the Word brings wisdom from above, and then we can teach and admonish others. This verse implies that worship leaders and singers—or just plain you or I—can teach and admonish people through their songs. I had never seen that before. Many lyrics of the older and more recent songs are very instructive. So sing on, worship leaders, sing on, and teach and admonish us!

1 Cor. 14:26 says that when the church comes together, someone will have a hymn. The Corinthian church was fully gifted. They prophesied and spoke in the Spirit and prayed for each other and to God. The focus here is a hymn or song. Do you have one? Share it.

Sometimes the presence of God is so clearly manifested that it is impossible to stand and “work” in the temple (2 Chron. 7:1-3). In that passage, at the dedication of the temple, the people felt his presence so strongly that they knelt down with their faces to the ground (v. 3). We are all a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), so our “work” in the temple today is to offer sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15). The glory can fill our gathering, sometimes visible, other times perceived only our spirits.

Rev. 4:8 says that the four living creatures cried before the throne, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Myriads of angels proclaimed, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). Every creature in heaven and earth and sea also cried out, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” The twenty-four elders fell down and worshipped (Rev. 5:13-14). They guide us on how we too should worship, unreservedly.

Here is a Scriptural list, acknowledged by many Bible scholars, of hymns or possible fragments of hymns:

Eph. 5:14

Col. 1:15-20

Phil. 2:6-11

1 Tim. 1:17

1 Tim. 3:16

2 Tim. 2:11-13

Rev. 4:11

Rev. 5:13

Rev. 7:12

Those Scriptures need to be studied by worship leaders. Maybe they can compose songs based on them.

How does this post lead me to grow closer to God through Christ and become a better worshiper?

1 Kings 8:11 says that at the dedication of the temple, the priests were unable to perform their duties. Why not? Here’s why: “And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple.” Ezekiel fell facedown when the glory of the Lord filled his new temple (Ezek. 44:4). We can experience that today—or let’s pray we can. But Matt. 18:20 says, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” We can take that Scripture to apply to our worship services, and take his presence by faith, even when we don’t feel it.

Music and instrumentation were introduced early to humanity. Music seems to be built into us. Praise exists in heaven, so music by itself is a gift of God. It is noteworthy that in this gift women played a prominent role—Miriam and Deborah. Women today need to take leading places in worship. May they never shrink back.

Let’s hope that all worship, no matter who leads it, is done to glorify God, and not the musician. People can use music to glorify the demonic, as the Israelites did when they sang and danced around the golden calf (Exod. 32:17-19). Isaiah rebuked the leisurely rich who had lyre and harp and tambourines and flute and wine for worldly purposes, without mentioning the deeds of the LORD (Is. 5:12).

God made you spirit, soul and body, but holistically, not in three separate parts that never interact. Use your entire being to glorify your Creator. The Old Testament believers praised God with their whole beings, and they can guide us in how to do this.

See my post about the parts of humanity:

Is Humankind Two or Three Parts?

Word Study on Spirit, Soul, and Body

Christian worship is fuller because our revelation of God is fuller—we worship the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who called us from darkness into his light (1 Pet. 2:9). We have a clearer vision of heaven in the Book of the Revelation, but Is. 6 is also clear, though short. Our salvation is caused by the Holy Spirit, and he inspires us to worship. We don’t do this by willpower alone, but with his help. This is why it is imperative that we should be filled and refilled again and again with the Spirit. Then true worship is done in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).


What Is Biblical Praise?

Bible Basics about Praise and Worship

Word Study on Praise and Worship

What Is Biblical Thanksgiving?

Balanced Worship in the Psalms

What Is the Biblical Character of Worship at Church?

The Biblical Way of Worship in Church


Works Cited

At that link, look for Williams, vol. 3, pp. 85-90.

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