Except within the context of a passage, the Bible never clearly defines worship, yet understanding what it is is critical. God is even now measuring His Temple and its altar to see who worships there in truth (Revelation 11:1-2). We are the temple of God, so we are being measured to see if we are truly worshipping God or not.
The thesaurus gives these synonyms for worship: adulate, honor, glorify, edify, deify. The Greek word most often translated "worship" is proskuneo, meaning "to kiss, make obeisance, reverence." Strong's defines it as "to fawn or crouch to, i.e. (literally or figuratively) prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore)." The picture of being prostrate or bowed down is often associated with worship.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for "worship" is shachah, defined as "to depress, i.e. prostrate (especially reflexive, in homage to royalty or God)." This word is also translated in the Authorized Version as "bow down, crouch, fall down, humbly beseech, do obeisance, do reverence, make to stoop, worship."
Worship, then, is reverencing God, adoring, honoring, and bowing down before Him. But a deeper study of worship shows that it is more a thing of the heart and mind than a physical action or position. Jesus says worshippers worship Him in vain when "their heart is far from Me" (Matthew 15:8).
Perhaps we can say worship means having a bowed-down head and heart as we adore and revere our Maker! It is an attitude of totally and unconditionally surrendering to the One we call our Master, our Lord, our God. Mere words are not enough! Many call Jesus "Lord, Lord," yet He will claim not to know them, for their actions are not those of one who really knows Him (Matthew 7:21-23) or has totally submitted to God and His way. This is why Paul testifies before Felix, the procurator of Palestine, "But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers. . ." (Acts 24:14).
Worshipping thus becomes a relationship with our holy God, characterized by a bowed-down heart in total surrender. It reflects one poor in spirit and one who mourns as he recognizes his abject spiritual bankruptcy. As we bow our hearts and heads to God in worship, crying out for mercy and to be filled with God's attitudes, we are comforted and filled.
Bowing and worshipping go hand in hand in many verses in the Bible. Satan tries to get our Savior to "fall down and worship" him, but Jesus angrily replies, "Away with you, Satan! . . . 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve'" (Matthew 4:9-10). David urges us to "worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker" (Psalm 95:6). When Abraham's servant sees how well God has blessed his quest to find a wife for Isaac, "he worship[s] the LORD, bowing himself to the earth" (Genesis 24:52).
When Job hears the horrific news of the total loss of everything he once enjoyed, including all his children, he does what many would consider an unusual thing: "Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshipped" (Job 1:20). What an example of faith!
After Solomon dedicates the new Temple to God in prayer, the people worship: "When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD" (II Chronicles 7:3). The same acts of worship are repeated in King Hezekiah's day, as "all who were present with him bowed and worshiped" (II Chronicles 29:29).
Acts of worship like this often occur in heaven itself: "And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sat on the throne, saying, 'Amen! Alleluia!'" (Revelation 19:4).
Perhaps this partly explains why worship is not deeply imbedded in our thinking. People in our independent, me-first, Western society dare not be caught on their knees in public - anywhere, anytime! Other cultures literally bow the head in deference to an older or titled person. We seldom see that here. Muslims the world over will spontaneously prostrate themselves - with foreheads on the ground - five times a day when they are called to prayer. In the Western world such demonstrations of worship are rare.
What would we think of a worship service where every person present bowed down so low that their faces touched the ground? Would this feel right? Would we be comfortable doing it? Would we believe this to be "overboard"? Yet that is often how our forefathers in Israel worshipped God.
When done properly, if we truly understand worship, this attitude of a bowed-down heart and head permeates everything we do. We seek to do God's will. We ask, "What would Jesus do?" in every situation. We do all for the glory of God, and in this sense, everything we do becomes either an act of worship - or of desecration.
The Bible also teaches there are specific times when God's people should worship. For example, Abraham tells his servants as he traveled the last few miles before sacrificing Isaac: "Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you" (Genesis 22:5). In one sense we could say Abraham had been worshipping all along the way to Moriah, yet he states he was going to a specific point, at a specific time and place to worship. Similarly, after traveling many miles for many weeks, the magi tell King Herod they had come to worship the Child born to be King of the Jews (Matthew 2:2).
Worship, then, is a constant attitude of yieldedness and humility before God, but there are certain times and occasions when we worship pointedly and in earnest.