The Hebrew word translated as “worship” literally means “to bow down.” In Psalm 95:6, the psalmist uses three different terms to describe bowing down, which is the foundational posture of worship in the Old Testament: “Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the LORD our maker” (NLT, emphasis added). Each of the italicized words conveys the image of bowing low, bending the knee, and kneeling. They are meant to inspire the worshiper to bring himself low before God, but physically bowing down is not the true essence of humbling oneself in worship.
In the ancient world (and even in some cultures today), bowing down was the appropriate sign of respect when entering the presence of someone to whom reverence was due. Bending down expressed honor, submission, and allegiance to a higher authority. For this reason, the Israelites reserved the action for God alone. They were forbidden to bow down to false gods or idols (Exodus 20:5).
Kneeling or bowing down signifies a posture of humility and submission, both physically and mentally, bodily and in the heart. When we bow down in worship, we acknowledge God’s exalted place and accept our own lowly, surrendered position: “The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples” (Psalm 99:2, ESV; see also Psalm 46:10; 113:4).
Above all else, our attitude is what matters in worship. Our hearts must always humbly “bow down” when we worship God, even when our bodies do not: “The high and lofty one who lives in eternity, the Holy One, says this: ‘I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble’” (Isaiah 57:15, NLT).
The Bible gives examples of worshippers in many other physical positions besides bowing down. Sometimes, people fell facedown to the ground before the Lord (Nehemiah 8:6; 20:6; 22:31). At other times, they stood to sing songs of thanks and praise (Leviticus 9:5; 1 Chronicles 23:30). Miriam led the women of Israel to dance before the Lord (Exodus 15:20). When the ark of the covenant was carried into Jerusalem, David leapt and danced in worship (2 Samuel 6:14–16). At the dedication of the temple, Solomon knelt with his hands raised toward heaven (1 Kings 8:54).
The Bible gives precedence for several different postures in worship. We do not need to be physically bowing down to worship God, as long as our inner being is honestly and humbly submitted to God in reverence. The apostle Paul taught the Romans to worship God as an all-encompassing way of life: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).
Bowing down is merely an outward expression of an inner attitude of humility, reverence, and submission. Jesus said, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). To worship God in spirit and truth means honoring Him with our entire being—heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Worship that pleases God flows naturally from pure hearts (Psalm 24:3–4; Isaiah 66:2). It doesn’t matter if we bow down, stand and shout, or quietly contemplate in our minds; if our hearts are humble, reverent, and submitted to God, then we are “bowing down” in worship, and our external posture is irrelevant.