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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is there any biblical support for the increasingly common practice of raising and waving hands during congregational singing?
This question may not appear important, but it reveals that we are very much interested in a worship that is biblically based and does not violate biblical instruction. It also implies that waving hands while singing is creating some tensions. I will deal with the use of the hands during acts of adoration. It will become clear that in the Bible the ritual use of hands took place mainly during prayer.
1. Nonverbal acts: Body gestures play an important role in the expression of ideas and emotions. Studies on the role of nonverbal acts of worship in the Bible help us understand their significance a little better. In the Bible we have only the language of postures, gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Ancient Near Eastern art illustrates many of the gestures. The hand gestures we find mentioned in the Bible were also common in the setting of worship and prayer in the ancient Near East.
2. Lifting up hands: The expressions “to lift up the hands [yādîm]” or “to lift up the palms [kappayim]” are practically synonymous. They are used in different contexts and express different meanings in some cases. “To lift up the hands” is a gesture that expresses adoration in the context of worship. Those who ministered in the Temple were exhorted to “lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord” (Ps. 134:2, NIV). The gesture indicated that the object of praises was the Lord and that the whole person was involved in the act. It was also used to present to the Lord a prayer of supplication (Ps. 28:2), as if the prayer were placed in the palm of the hand and lifted up to the Lord asking Him to accept it (Ps. 141:2). In other cases the gesture appears to express the willingness of the person to receive from the Lord what was requested (Ps. 63:4, 5; Lam. 2:19). But the lifting up of the hands seems to express something deeper, something related to the human heart: “Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven” (Lam. 3:41, NIV). The lifting of the hands corresponded to the lifting of the inner being of the worshipper to God in communion with Him.
3. Spreading out the hands: In this case the verb is pārash (“to spread out”), expressing the idea that the hands were spread out in front of the person, not necessarily lifted up. At times it appears that the worshipper spread hands toward the Temple, the heavens (1 Kings 8:38, 39, 54; Ps. 44:20), or the Lord (Ex. 9:33). Spreading out the hands was particularly done during prayers of supplication (1 Kings 8:54; Isa. 1:15; Ex. 9:29; Lam. 1:17) or when there was a deep need for the presence of God (Ps. 143:6). Psalm 88:9 reads: “I call to you, O Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you.” The need of the psalmist was so intense that he begs the Lord for help. Although in deep need, the worshipper goes to the Lord and extends the hands to Him for help. This more intense gesture was an expression of the individual’s dependence on God (Ps. 44:20) and devotion of the heart to the Lord (Job 11:13).
4. So what? As far as I can ascertain, there is no waving of hands during worship in the Bible. The lifting of hands was common (cf. 1 Tim. 2:8). The Bible does not prescribe hand gestures for worship, but it describes accepted common practices. Ancient Christian art indicates that Christians used to pray with arms and hands stretched out to the sides depicting with their bodies the crucifixion. Today we typically put our hands together either in back or in front of our bodies, or simply let them hang to the side. Occasionally we may put our palms together and interlock our fingers—a practice common among ancient Romans and Sumerians. At other times the palms are brought together with the fingers pointing upward—common in Buddhist and Hindu religiosity. The introduction of novelties in our churches, influenced by charismatic systems of worship, can disrupt a worship that should be centered in our Creator and Redeemer and in His Word. It may be better to follow the common practice of the congregation where we collectively worship the Lord.