A lot of the themes and theology of worship in the Old Testament (and therefore of biblical theology as a whole) can be drawn from the nature and frequency of the various terms used in relation to worship and its practices.
1. lipne YHWH “before the Lord” (in the presence of, lit. “at the face of”)
The phrase appears 256 times int he Old Testament, 61 of those in the book of Leviticus. These words show the privilege of approaching God in the sacrificial system (albeit only through the mediation of the priesthood; direct, free and bold access will of course only be fulfilled in and through the work of Christ, Hebrews 10:19-22).
2. hishtahavah(from shāha or hāva) “to bow” (kneel or prostrate oneself), hence worship
This, the most common Old Testament word for worship, had the original root meaning of bowing or prostrating oneself (before a superior or royalty). And indeed, the term is used fairly often of paying homage to others than God, with no sense of what we would call worship.
This word first occurs in the Old Testament in the pivotal account of Abraham’s offering of Isaiah in Genesis 22, where in verse 5 he says to his servants: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you;” hence worship from this early time carries connotations of love, sacrifice and substitution. (In 22:2 we also find the first occurrence of the word “love” in the Bible; significantly, that first mention speaks not of the love of a man and a woman, but of father for his son: the first love that existed, the source and model of all love, was before the foundation of the world among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.)
When hishtahavah is directed towards God in the Old Testament, there is often an explicit mention of a physical response of bowing or sacrifice; but not always. In spite of its original physical connotation, the word is also sometimes used without mention of physical gestures, with a more general sense of worship (e.g., Psalm 92:2).
In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this term was most commonly translated proskuneō, a word with a similar root meaning (literally to “kiss toward,” i.e. kiss the ground, bow in humble respect and homage). And it is also the case of proskuneō in the New Testament that it used of paying homage to royalty or to a superior; or of divine worship, with or without a physical gesture (cf. John 4).
3. ‘abad “to serve” (variously translated in the Septuagint by latreuō, douleuō, leitourgeō)
We should not import our English nuance to the idea of serving, and take this term to refer simply to doing activities for God. Rather there is a clear internal, heart-based foundation to the concept, in the sense of loyalty and committed worship; hence in Joshua 24:15 :”As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Certainly outward activitites are involved, but the source and foundation are attitudes of the heart (see last month’s Worship Notes on the worship of the heart).
The same is true of latreuō in the New Testament, which is used far more frequently than proskuneō in the epistles, and is sometimes translated “worship”: there is a definite internal connotation to Paul’s and others’ use of the term (e.g., Romans 1:9, “For God is my witness, whom I servewith my spirit in the gospel of His Son”).
TRANSLATIONS IN THE SEPTUAGINT
latreuō – religious service, worship
douleuō – service of God, worship (especially in Judges – Chronicles)
leitourgeō – service of priests and Levites in the tabernacle/temple