Raising Hands in Worship and Praise?

Raising Hands in Worship and Praise?

by Bob Burridge ©2011

(This article is based upon our online discussion from November 17, 2011)

We have many kinds of worship styles all claiming to be biblical.

The elements of worship are limited by Scripture to those activities God prescribes. His revelation to us is the only way we could know what pleases him in our times of gathered worship. This is what we call the Prescriptive Regulative Principle of Worship. (For a more detailed study of this we direct you to the article, “The Regulative Principle of Worship” in our on-line Syllabus.)

How the prescribed elements of worship are implemented should always support the revealed focus of worship. Its primary purpose is to express our appreciation for the revealed nature and work of God as preserved for us in his inspired word. We honor him as our Creator, Redeemer, Comforter, and King.

There are some differences in how God deals with his people in different periods of redemptive history. What was expected in the time before the finished work of the Messiah is obviously going to be different after his work was completed. There is however a unity in the general tenor and purpose of what God prescribes for worship in ever era of human history.

Differences also arise because an expression of humble praise in one culture might have a different meaning in another cultural setting. God used the languages common to the cultures historically when he gave his inspired word. We would expect that God’s revelation through the elements of worship would likewise adjust to communicate to the people engaged in the worship.

The conduct of worshipers varies as cultural norms differ. Music is strongly influenced by our cultural upbringing and by our historical heritage. Some display their emotions differently and to different degrees. How we show honor toward someone differs too. There are different outward expressions of submission and respect in Monarchies with royal families, Republics, Democracies, and so forth.

Culture is a big influence upon what people see as acceptable in worship. That does not make what is acceptable to us to be right in the eyes of God. In this article we take up one of the practices which differs from church to church in our present era. The raising of hands in worship is a growingly accepted practice outside the traditional charismatic groups where in recent centuries it was commonly practiced with a particular meaning attached.

Several Scripture passages are often cited
to support the practice of raising hands in worship.

There are very few references to this practice in the biblical record prior to the times of the Kings of Israel. The hand [the Hebrew word caph (כף)] is often used figuratively of coming under the authority of some authority, as being given over into the hands of a certain nation or people (Judges 6:1). Abram in his comments to the king of Sodom said that he raised his hand to Jehovah.

Genesis 14:22, “But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth”

It is not clear what was meant here. We do not know if the raising of the hands by Abram was an expression of praise, supplication, submission, or simply a raising of the hand to express his faithfulness to God as we would today in making a solemn pledge. It was a gesture understood at that time by both Abram and the king of Sodom.

In the time of Moses the lifting up of hands seems to have been an expression of coming to God to ask for divine care and help. In the context it is associated with prayer, or an approach to God.

Exodus 9:27-29, “And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The LORD is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. Entreat the LORD, that there may be no more mighty thundering and hail, for it is enough. I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.’ So Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will spread out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s.’ ”

Exodus 9:33, “So Moses went out of the city from Pharaoh and spread out his hands to the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain was not poured on the earth.”

By the time of the Kings and Prophets hand raising is a more commonly mentioned practice. It is noted by several historians that hands were raised by pagan nations then as they approached their deities in prayer and supplication. It seems to have signified a reaching out to receive something requested. It appears to have that significance among God’s people as well. It is not a suggested practice in any instructive portion of the Bible, but it is reported as something acceptably practiced and understood in the particular cultures of that time.

1 Kings 8:22, “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven;

2 Chronicles 6:12-13, “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands (for Solomon had made a bronze platform five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the midst of the court; and he stood on it, knelt down on his knees before all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven);”

Psalms 134:2, “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, And bless the LORD.”

Psalms 63:4, “Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name.”

Isaiah 1:15,”When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood.”

Lamentations 3:41, “Let us lift our hearts and hands To God in heaven.”

In the New Testament under the new form of the Covenant, and in the First Century culture of the Jews and early church, it is not mentioned often. There is one reference in Paul’s first letter to Timothy that is often quoted in relation to this practice. The mandate there is not to lift up hands, but that hands lifted up in prayer should be holy.

1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting;”

Some Comments by Commentators

Several commentators cite references in pagan records of reaching out to God with outstretched hands. This is an understandable gesture based upon how people beg for things when they have a need. We see the universality of this when foreign envoys reach out their hands to God for mercy or surrender in Psalm 68:31, “Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.”

Several commentators and Jewish scholars interpret this practice as away of showing our purity to God by figuratively offering up hands which are washed so that no dirt or stains remain. The focus was upon presenting one’s self as innocent and undefiled to receive from the Lord. For those truly redeemed it was their profession of a righteousness that is not their own, but given them by grace through their hope in the coming promised Messiah.

The Rabbis had developed complex rules about raising hands in prayer and in worship. It was said that, “it is forbidden a man to lift up his hands above, except in prayer, and in blessings to his Lord, and supplications, …”

The highly respected medieval Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides) wrote, “cleanness of hands, how is it done? a man must wash his hands up to the elbow, and after that pray; if a man is on a journey, and the time of prayer is come, and he has no water, if there is between him and water four miles, which are eight thousand cubits, he may go to the place of water, and wash, and after that pray. If there is between him more than that, he may rub his hands, and pray. But if the place of water is behind him, he is not obliged to go back but a mile; but if he has passed from the water more than that, he is not obliged to return, but he rubs his hands and prays; they do not make clean for prayer but the hands only, in the rest of prayers, except the morning prayer; but before the morning prayer a man washes his face, his hands and feet, and after that prays.”

In John Gill’s commentary on 1 Timothy 2:8 he states, “The apostle alludes to a custom of the Jews, who always used to wash their hands before prayer;”

In the Notes of Albert Barnes he states that the lifting up holy hands means, “… hands that are not defiled by sin, and that have not been employed for any purpose of iniquity. The idea is, that when men approach God they should do it in a pure and holy manner.”

Adam Clarke reminds us that “it was a common custom, not only among the Jews, but also among the heathens, to lift up or spread out their arms and hands in prayer. It is properly the action of entreaty and request; and seems to be an effort to embrace the assistance requested.” He then adds an interesting conjecture that, “the apostle probably alludes to the Jewish custom of laying their hands on the head of the animal which they brought for a sin-offering, confessing their sins, and then giving up the life of the animal as an expiation for the sins thus confessed. … This shows us how Christians should pray. They should come to the altar; set God before their eyes; humble themselves for their sins; bring as a sacrifice the Lamb of God; lay their hands on this sacrifice; and by faith offer it to God in their souls’ behalf, expecting salvation through his meritorious death alone.”

Today, some see hand raising as evidence
of the moving of the Holy Spirit in the worshiper.

There is no passage of Scripture to support that interpretation. There is no question that the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to stir us to appreciate the awesome work of our Creator who is also our Redeemer and Good Shepherd. No where in the Bible is the raising of hands presented as an evidence of such a special work in an individual.

Outward displays of this sort, even when motivated by a sincere love for the Lord, should never stir us to see someone as spiritually more mature or blessed than others. On the other hand, we should not look upon those who raise their hands as spiritually immature or seekers of personal attention. Arrogance is a sin which can work on both sides of this issue.

What does this practice communicate
to people in various contexts?

What we do communicates things to those within a particular cultural setting. Not all common gestures or greetings mean the same to everybody. Raising hands in ancient times was to show attention to, submission to, and dependence upon some deity or authority figure. This was understood by pagans as well as by God’s people in those ancient settings. In our present array of cultures it is not a common expression of those same intentions. Within certain religious sub-cultures it continues to have that meaning. We need to be aware of how those around us understand our words and actions.

I remember going on a missions trip to the outer islands of the Bahamas back in the late 1960s. Before we had contact with the people who lived there we had orientation lessons to help us understand the way they interpreted gestures and idioms. Little things we do by our cultural up-bringing had offensive connotations to them. We had to be very careful that we didn’t miscommunicate unintentionally and insult the people we were there to help.

What is appropriate in some places my not convey what we are thinking to those around us. When our mission is to represent the truth God has communicated to us in his word, we need to know these distinctives.

While hand raising in prayer is obviously presented in a positive way in the Bible, it is no where commanded or recommended. It is an optional practice which should be used with great caution. It is not required and should not be practiced if this gesture does not express for us what it did in those ancient times.

In conclusion we suggest the following practical guidelines concerning hand-raising during worship:

  • Where it is practiced and understood in a humble God honoring way, it is an acceptable option.
  • Where it is not seen as a humble honoring of God, offense and confusion should be avoided.
  • Where it is perceived as a pagan practice, or understood as a sign of special spiritual sensitivity or status, it should be avoided.

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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