Worship and Service – and what is the leader’s job

Magna Carta Installation maroon
Light display at Salisbury Cathedral – the colours change.

I don’t think it comes naturally to C21  people to worship. It is not something we have been brought up to do.  That applies whether our upbringing has been secular, in a place where people sing choruses to guitars or in the staid CofE back in the days when all services were 1662, and we chanted prose palms badly.

What is worship about? What are we doing when we worship? Are we always doing the same thing? What does this word mean?


I’m no biblical scholar, but it was a bit of an eye opener when I discovered something which would not have been easily visible until the arrival of bible software. Two advantages of bible software are that one can have various different translations on the screen, in parallel in different languages at the same time and one can search easily for ‘all the occurrences of ?’.

What are often called ‘word studies’ can be very misleading. They can entice one into thinking one has found something exciting that just is not there. Nevertheless, if one does a word search of ‘worship’ in the English translations it reveals something  very interesting.

Besides, I’m a retired lawyer. What words mean matters to me. Reflection on how they are used, helps me to think.

Two different groups of words

If one compares most modern translations with the AV (KJV), modern translations render two different groups of words as ‘worship’ or some formation from it. By contrast, the AV is usually fairly careful to translate the two groups of words differently. Both groups of words flow by linear descent along a regular conduit from Hebrew, into Greek in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek version of the Old Testament, and from there into the New Testament. In both cases, there  is a Greek word which has a consistent usage all the way through, which has clearly become an idiolect of first the Greek speaking Jewish community, and then the Christian one.

Shaḥaḥ and proskyneo

One of these words is שׁחח or שׁחה transliterated from Hebrew as  shaḥaḥ or shaḥah. I have not managed to find a way of making Hebrew pointing appear on this blog.  Even getting Greek or Hebrew letters to appear has so far been laborious.  If anyone knows, and can explain this in language I can understand, please let me know.

The ḥ denotes that it is an ‘h’ pronounced a bit like the ‘ch’ in loch.  It appears at least 173 times in the Old Testament. Among hebraicists, there has been some debate over the derivation of this word, but that is not relevant here. Whatever its derivation, it means to bow down, to prostrate oneself. It is what we do in the Venite “O come let us worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our maker”. The Greek word that translates it is προσκυνέω, often transliterated, ‘proskyneo’. This means the same thing, save that it may derive from a root meaning of ‘kiss’.  If so, that is quite interesting when one considers how in Greece people kiss ikons.

In the Old Testament, both words are used for people reverencing or prostrating themselves not just to God but also before social superiors. Abraham bows before the three strangers even when as far as he is concerned, they are still no more than honoured guests.

By the time we get to the New Testament,  proskyneo which appears 59 times, 24 in Revelation, is almost exclusively used of worship towards God and Jesus. The disciples are described as  proskyneo-ing’ Jesus. The gospel writers are consciously making the point that Jesus is not just a teacher, but Son of God, suitable to receive worship without breaking the first two commandments. It is very significant that the only exception is when Satan in the wilderness offers Jesus the world if he will but proskyneo him. Other words are used of what pagans do in their temples.

So that is the first group of words.  Both the AV and all other translations agree that that group of words are translated ‘worship’.


The other Hebrew word is עוד usually transliterated ’avad. The ’ denotes a slight consonantal catch in the back of the throat. This word appears at least 290 times in the Old Testament. Its spread of meaning means that it is not translated the same way irrespective of context. Its core meanings are to work, to labour or to serve. As a noun, pointed very slightly differently, it means a servant or a slave.  There is also a form עודה, ‘avodah which means ‘labour’ or ‘service’. That appears 145 times in the Old Testament.

However, by context, a very frequent meaning of this cluster of words comes to be ‘serving God’. It is the word used of the services the priests and levites offer in the tabernacle. It is also used of what the whole people of God owe to him. At Ex 3:12, God tells Moses that eventually, when he has delivered the people from Egypt, you (plural, i.e. everyone, not just Moses) will t’avadhu  God on this mountain.

This is the point at which the AV and modern translations divide. Most modern translations use ‘worship’ to translate the various forms of ’avad when it is being used to describe religious activity. The AV normally translates ’avad and its derivatives in those contexts as ‘serve’. So in the passage just referred to, a modern translation will typically have ‘worship God on this mountain’. The AV is ‘ye shall serve God upon this mountain’. Notice also incidentally how the AV is correct in bringing out the fact that the you is plural. The REB does this (‘you all’).  Several of the others (NRSV, NIV) do not seem to have noticed.

There is also a cluster of words whose core meaning is ‘fear’, but those are usually translated ‘fear’.

Latreuo and leitourgeo

When we come to how Greek renders ’avad, the situation becomes more complicated.  The LXX uses three different word clusters to translate it, depending on context and meaning. Where it means work in the ordinary secular sense, or the person who does it, the Greek is usually some formation from douleuo (slave). Where it is to do with ‘religious service’, the LXX uses λατρεύω  (usually transliterated latreuo but possibly latrevo) or a word formed from it to translate how we religiously serve God. Where it is translating the specific cult service of the priests and Levites, it uses λειτουργέω (leitourgeo) or a word formed from it.

Formations from latreuo only appear 21 times In the New Testament, and leitourgeo even less frequently, many of both instances being in Hebrews. Oddly, they are hardly used, if at all, to describe what happened in the gatherings of the Early Church. Virtually the only usage comparable to that in the LXX is to describe what Zechariah was doing when the angel appeared to him. In the New Testament, these words are more likely to be used to describe either the sacrificial role of Jesus (as in Hebrews) or Christian living and service.

Some conclusions

Now this starts to get even more interesting.

First does this difference have something to say to us?

Obviously I think so. Otherwise, I would not be blogging about it. 

I suspect the reason why most modern translations do not differentiate between these two sets of words is because ‘service’ is felt to have too broad a meaning in English. So translators may think it is confusing. Readers may not pick up that priests serving in the tabernacle are doing something specific.

Even if biblical Greek tends to use a different word for ‘religious’ service from ‘ordinary’ service, the same potential confusion exists in Hebrew. The way Hebrew uses these words could mean that the way it understands what religious activity people are doing at different times may be related, but is also different.  The way it chooses a word that means ‘service’ or ‘work’ says something about what that difference might be. When the priests perform ritual acts, they are doing something different from when we ‘worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our maker’. When we do that, we are approaching God. We are trying to express our feelings towards him, our response to his presence. It is us responding ‘to Godward’.

The person performing a sacrifice is doing something else. He (it would always have been ‘he’ in the Old Testament) is doing a task which enables somebody else to shaḥaḥ or proskyneo. That is a religious ‘service’ a ‘work’. The person has an enabling role. It is not about him. It is about somebody else worshipping in the proskyneo sense.

Next – roles

From this, I believe, there flows a natural conclusion. What we do when we are at a service where we aren’t responsible for doing anything is quite different from what we do if we have a role at the front. That applies as much to the musicians, those that read, and those that lead intercessions, as it does to the clergy. Once you are doing something at the front, that is ‘avad, latria or leitourgeo. Your job is not to proskyneo, to “worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our maker”. Fine if you get an opportunity to do this as well without drawing attention to yourself. But you are a servant. Your job is to enable other people to proskyneo. That takes priority. That is your service. It is a privilege, but it is also a constraint.

It also means that you are not there so that other people can watch you proskyneo-ing, or to listen to you doing so. Nor are you there to act the part of someone proskyneo-ing unless that is really likely to enable others to do so genuinely – which I suspect is very unlikely indeed. That is what the hypocrites were doing saying their prayers standing at street corners so that everyone could see them (Matt 6:5). They may have been doing it so that people would think well of them, but I suspect they would have justified themselves by saying they were an example, an inspiration to others.

Finally – parts of speech

In English, ‘worship’ is both a verb and an abstract noun. We don’t just worship. We also talk about it.

Proskyneo, though, is primarily a verb.  It is something we do and are commanded to do. In the New Testament, there is a noun formed from it which means ‘worshippers’. Strikingly, there seems to be no abstract noun in either Testament such as proskyneosis* that could mean ‘worship’ as something to write, talk or speculate about. Nor is there any such thing as an ‘act of worship’,  an ‘act of proskyneosis’. Worship in its raw proskyneo sense is something we can only do. It is our response to God. We bow. We fall down before him. If we were Greek or Russian, we would kiss.

Unlike proskyneo there are abstract nouns formed from all the words in the ’avad/latreuo/leitourgeo group. The tools do exist to talk about how we serve God in that way.  We can discuss how to do ’avad better even though there is no verbal tool that enables us to talk about how we fall down or prostrate ourselves. Proskyneo is something that goes on in our hearts.  Perhaps that is something that it is even unwholesome to try to talk too much about. It would involve taking ourselves outside ourselves and mentally watching ourselves doing it.

Besides, we are not called to talk about, write about, or even tell others how to proskyneo. We are called to do it.


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