Bible Q&A: A Question About Lifting Holy Hands In Worship

I’ve noticed that a lot of people in church lift their hands up high and close their eyes while singing, praying, and listening to the preacher. Why do they do this?

Over the years, from time to time I’ll ask this same question to people whom I’ve observed doing this. Generally, the answer they give is because they’ve seen others do it and they think it would be a cool thing to do, something that they feel would be spiritual in nature and make them feel closer to God. Once in a while someone will answer, “Because it’s in the Bible,” although when asked to show me where all but one admitted they did not know. The person who did know pointed me to Psalm 28:2, which says: “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.”

You do read about people raising one’s hands while praying in the Old Testament. As we just read, David did it (Ps. 28:2). Solomon did it (1 Kings 8:22). God alluded to the Israelites doing so while they prayed (Is. 1:15). It should also be pointed out that Scripture records people praying while doing other things at times. For example, Abraham’s servant prayed while bowing his head (Gen. 24:26). Jesus prayed while lifting up his eyes (John 17:1), while the tax collector did not (Lk. 18:13). Solomon prayed not only with hands raised, but while kneeling (1 Kings 8:54). Hannah, on the other hand, stood while in prayer (1 Sam. 1:26), while Elijah prostrated himself on the ground (1 Kings 18:42). This tells us that God has not specifically commanded that one specifically do a certain thing with one’s body while praying to him.

We are commanded to give God reverence while in worship to him (Heb. 12:28), and it’s clear that most of the above – raising hands, bowing one’s head, lifting up one’s eyes or doing the opposite, kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground – are clear outward signs of deep reverence. However, it’s also interesting to note that Hannah did nothing but stand while in prayer, and an observer (Eli) made a mistaken judgment call concerning her and what she was doing; he thought she was drunk because she “was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:12-13). In truth, not only was she not drunk but the Lord clearly recognized that she was praying out of reverence to him even in the midst of her pain, considering that he answered her prayer for a child affirmatively. All Hannah was doing was standing while praying, and yet she was clearly showing reverence in her worship as well. This teaches us that true spirituality and reverence in worship to God is not necessarily dependent upon one’s posture. Worship which pleases God is not only according to his revealed will in Scripture but is also from the heart and thus sincere (cf. Matt. 15:8-9). If you sincerely feel the need to give reverence to God by doing something which you read of others doing in Scripture to show their reverence to God like what is mentioned above, then do so. Do not do it because you see others doing it and you think it would be “cool” or cause observers to think you to be a pious person (cf. Matt. 6:1ff). Do not do it because you think that doing it is all which is required to truly be a spiritual person while worshiping God, because you could raise your hands or bow your head while in prayer and your heart/mind still be a thousand miles away focused on worldly matters rather than addressing your Creator in prayer (cf. Matt. 15:8-9a).

Above all, make sure that all that you do in worship to God is in keeping with all of his will as revealed in Scripture. Worship which is acceptable God is not only spiritual and sincere, but also is “in truth” (John 4:24). Truth is the entirety of God’s Word (John 17:17; Ps. 119:160a), so God will find your worship acceptable if it is within all of the parameters of his revealed will in his Word. With this in mind, let’s see what else Scripture has to say about the topic of raising hands in worship. Deepening our study in this way will show that there is more to this matter than heart-felt sincerity and reverence.

Within the New Testament, the covenant which Christians are to obey (cf. Heb. 8:7-13; 9:15-17; Rom. 7:1-4; et al), Paul mentions “lifting up holy hands” while praying (1 Tim. 2:8). Diving deeper into the meaning of “lifting up holy hands” reveals that what Paul’s actually talking about has nothing to do with what one literally does with one’s hands. Looking at this from a completely literal perspective, there are no such things as literal “hands” which are “holy,” just like from a literal standpoint it is impossible for one’s physical eyes to be “haughty” (Prov. 6:17) or one’s physical “lips” to be “lying” (Prov. 12:22). Oftentimes the Bible uses a figure of speech known as a synedoche, in which a part of something is spoken of to figuratively represent the whole. “Haughty eyes” (Prov. 6:17) is a synedoche which refers to someone who is haughty. “Lying lips” (Prov. 12:22) is a synedoche which speaks of a liar. In like manner, “lifting up holy hands” is a synedoche which Paul uses to command that Christian men who lead prayer in the worship assembly must be men who are holy and spiritual rather than worldly and sinful. Whether they literally and physically lift up their hands while in prayer is not the point being made in the verse.

However, this verse is still commonly cited as the reason anyone in church can or even should lift up their hands during any and all acts of worship. So for those viewing “lifting up holy hands” in a literal sense rather than in the figurative sense actually meant in the verse, let’s look closer at the passage. The context of the verse has to do with what is done in churches “in every place” when they worship (2:8-15; 3:14-15; cf. 1 Cor. 4:17). With that in mind, notice that “lifting up holy hands” is said to be done while praying, not while singing or listening to preaching as is commonly done by many churchgoers today. Also, notice that he says that it is “men” who should do this, not women. (The Greek word in this verse translated “men” is not anthropos, which refers to humanity as a whole, but aner, which refers specifically to the male gender.) Therefore, unlike what is done in so many churches these days where both men and women lift up their hands in not just prayer but also in song and during the sermon, the New Testament directs only men to lift up their hands and only during prayer.

I’ve observed over the years that making this scriptural and correct observation has caused some proponents of both genders lifting hands during any and all acts of worship to react in a seemingly “knee-jerk” way with accusations of “Legalistic Pharisee!” and other such contemptuous charges. It’s an erroneous accusation, considering that the Pharisees were condemned not for teaching what God’s Word actually said — Jesus actually commended them whenever they actually taught the Law of Moses and directed the Jews to follow their teaching when they did so (Matt. 23:2-3a) — but for actually not following it themselves (Matt. 23:3bff), as well as adding their own man-made traditions to it in such a way that put actual scriptural teaching on the backburner (Matt. 15:1-6). Simply pointing out that what 1 Timothy 2:8 actually says is quite different from how it is applied concerning the practice of raising hands in worship is quite the opposite of being the type of “legalistic Pharisee” which Jesus condemned. These kinds of responses made so quickly make me question if more is needed to make us truly spiritual in our worship to God than lifting our hands, especially when one keeps in mind the next point from Scripture relevant to this discussion.

The New Testament speaks of another directive from God which must be kept in mind when studying the topic of lifting up hands in worship; it applies in a lot of other situations both within the church and throughout life. I’m speaking of the principle of not putting a stumbling block in front of your fellow man, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather keeping yourself from doing anything that would hinder them from being taught and built up spiritually.

To illustrate, I recall just a few weeks ago when I attended a funeral of someone who was religious but not a member of the church. While the preacher was giving the deceased’s eulogy and speaking about his life, there was a woman about five rows directly in front of me who repeatedly raised her hand above her head, wrist bent so that her palm was facing the ceiling, every time the preacher said something of which she approved. She did this a lot, on average two or three times a minute. She did the same during the singing, raising her hand in that particular manner at the song’s beginning and keeping it raised until the end. It was very distracting, and I had to make a conscious effort to ignore it and focus on what was being said. It was difficult to do so because of the many times she did this within my line of sight to the pulpit. It was similar to experiences I’ve had from time to time in which one finds themselves sitting next to someone in church who during the sermon feels the need to loudly say, “Amen,” “That’s right, that’s right,” and/or “Preach it!” every few seconds. Speaking not only for myself but for others in those situations, it is very hard to be able to focus on the sermon when such things occur.

Keeping this in mind, notice how Paul directed the church at Corinth that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) concerning how they conducted their worship services. When one studies 1 Corinthians 14 as a whole, it’s apparent that the way they were using their miraculous spiritual gifts was counterproductive to one of the purposes of worship: for all who participate to be edified (v. 26). Those who were speaking in tongues had no consideration for the ones around them who could not understand what was being said and thus got nothing out of their message (vs. 16-17). Those who were prophesying were apparently all speaking simultaneously rather than one at a time, thus keeping those who were listening from learning and being encouraged (vs. 29-31). He wanted them to be considerate of the people around them and not do anything that would keep those around them from learning and being spiritually built up. This is in keeping with what he had taught them earlier about being willing to give up even that which they had the freedom to do in order to avoid being a stumbling block to their brethren (1 Cor. 8-10; cf. Rom. 14).

In a perfect world, any Christian man in a public worship setting might sincerely and reverentially raise his hands in prayer to God and all around him would understand and appreciate, even be built up by, the outward sign of his reverence. In a perfect world, any Christian – man or woman – in a public worship setting might sincerely and reverentially step out into the aisle and kneel down, or even lie prostrate on the floor, while in prayer to God and everyone around them would understand and appreciate, even be built up by, this outward sign of their reverence.

We don’t live in a perfect world, though. Early in my career, I preached in a church where, on one occasion, the brother in Christ who led the closing prayer apparently felt the sincere need to kneel next to the podium in front of the congregation while praying. Personally, I appreciated the outward sign of his reverence. However, I found out later that quite a few in the congregation were distracted by it, and some even assumed he was doing it insincerely to get attention and praise. Before you shake your head about that, remember what we saw earlier concerning Hannah and the high priest Eli, by all accounts a holy and pious man who still had noteworthy faults. One of those faults was observing Hannah pray sincerely and reverentially, and yet also in a way unusual to the high priest in that she was moving her lips but making no sound, and thus assuming the worst about her, that she was drunk. Good people, people who take their relationship with God seriously, can still see things which they are not used to and be distracted by them, even to the point where they make erroneous judgments. I know I have in the past, and you probably have as well.

Plus, in the world in which we live there are those who do in fact do such things like kneel in prayer or raise their hands in prayer, or in other acts of worship, not out of reverence for God but out of a desire to get others to notice them, or because they think it’s “cool,” etc. And as we’ve seen, some do so in ways that do not fit the divine directive we find in 1 Timothy 2:8. Those who do their best to worship only within the parameters of the New Testament know this, and it plays a factor in how they react when they see anything like it around them. Perhaps in some cases it shouldn’t. Perhaps in some cases they should give the Christian man who raises his hands in prayer next to them the benefit of the doubt, but some do not do that. We are all at different points in our Christian walk. That’s just a fact of life.

The truly spiritual Christian who has matured and is wise will keep all of this in mind. Why? Because he or she has been taught from the Scriptures cited in this article. They’ve been taught, and have accepted, the principle of not putting a stumbling block before others, even if it means giving up something which they have the freedom to do. They’ve been taught, and have accepted, the principle of making sure that all which they do in worship will be done in an orderly fashion so that those around them will be able to learn and be built up. They will understand that such things as men raising hands in prayer or men and women kneeling in prayer have scriptural precedence but, as the entirety of Scripture show, are not inherently required to show reverence to God. They will thus understand the need to use proper judgment that puts the needs of others before their own desires concerning these matters (cf. Phil. 2:1-5).

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