A Very Brief Anatomy of Worship

“‘I declare, your worship, there is nothing you don’t know.”

Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)

When a Sancho Panza addressed Don Quixote as “your worship,” the salutation was meant to acknowledge the knight’s superiority in status, rank or worth. When a lawyer addresses a judge as “your honor,” or a courtier addresses a monarch as “your majesty,” they do exactly the same thing. Worship was originally the state of possessing extraordinary worth, and only by extension became the words, acts, and other rites by which this extraordinary worth is acknowledged by lesser beings.

The meaning of worship was also narrowed to the words, acts, and other rites, by which lesser beings acknowledge the greatest worth.  When they acknowledge worth of a lesser sort, they usually call what they are doing “honor.”   When Yahweh commanded, “do not worship any other god,” he was of course asserting that he possessed the greatest worth, and that he alone was therefore worthy of the extraordinary forms of honor known as worship. The Bible makes clear that we should “honor” men and women who deserve honor, but that worship is the exclusive privilege of that which deserves honor above all else.

Worship is thus the great theme of the Old Testament. Taken as a whole, the Old Testament tells us what a man should worship, how he should worship it, and that he very often worships the wrong thing. The Old Testament calls these wrong things “strange gods,” by which it means the gods of men who are strangers to the true God.

Everything else in the Old Testament is just oriental atmosphere and bronze-age blood and thunder.

Worship is, likewise, the great theme of the New Testament, beginning in the second chapter of its first book, when the wise men find the baby Jesus and “bow down and worship him.” Everything that follows is an argument that, in doing this, the wise men were in fact wise men.

In other words, the New Testament is essentially a defense of the proposition that Jesus was not a “strange god.”

As I said, strange gods is what the Old Testament calls unworthy objects of idolatrous worship, and in the Old Testament these strange gods are, for the most part, fertility symbols and personifications of natural forces, such as Ashtaroth or Baal. The New Testament also has strange gods and idolatrous worship, but here they are described as the earthly powers with which the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. I would characterize these as idolatrous worship of the power of riches (“bread”), of the power of dominion (“authority and splendor”), and of the power of sorcery (employing spiritual means to material ends).

Thus any doctrine of worship would seem to have three articles: it will name the object of greatest worth, stipulate the rites of appropriate worship, and catalogue the strange gods that are most likely to lead men astray. Some such doctrine of worship stands at the heart of every culture, since every culture is defined by what we nowadays call its “values,” and a value is nothing other than a judgment of worth.

4 thoughts on “A Very Brief Anatomy of Worship

  1. Pingback: A Very Brief Anatomy of Worship | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 06/16/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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