The Place for Applause

Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

In my local church, clapping during the worship service is very common. Is there any biblical support for this practice?

Clapping during church services is becoming more and more popular in many of our churches, so your church is not unique in this respect. Clapping is mentioned in the Bible as an expression of social and religious feelings. But the ideas associated with this gesture are not always the ones we associate with in our culture.

Four Hebrew verbs are used to express the action of clapping (macha‘, nakah, saphak, and taqa’), and all of them contain, as would be expected, the idea of striking something or someone. They are used in conjunction with the noun “hand” (Hebrew kaf) to communicate the action of clapping (“striking the hands”). The phrase is used in several different ways.

1. It is an expression of joy at the ascension of the king: This is a social function of the gesture. When Joash was introduced as the legitimate heir to the throne, those who were present clapped their hands and shouted, “Long live the king!” (2 Kings 11:12, NIV). A religious usage is found in Psalm 47:1, where the psalmist invites all peoples to clap their hands because the Lord is being proclaimed as king over the earth. In Psalm 98:8 the people are exhorted to praise the Lord and the hills to clap their hands because the Lord is coming as king and judge of the earth.

2. It is an expression of joy on account of God’s saving actions: The return of the people of God from their captivity in Babylon is described by Isaiah as an act of redemption. What the Lord will do for His exiled people is so wonderful and glorious that even nature will rejoice. In this context the prophet personifies the trees of the field and describes them as clapping their hands as a gesture of joy (Isa. 55:12).

3. It is an expression of disgust and anger: Balak was angry because Balaam blessed the people of Israel instead of cursing them, and he showed his displeasure by clapping his hands (Num. 24:10). Ezekiel clapped his hands in disgust after seeing the evil practiced in Judah (Eze. 6:11). The Lord clapped His hands in anger and disgust as a reaction to dishonest gain and to the blood spilled by His people in Jerusalem (Eze. 22:13; 21:14, 17). This symbolic action on God’s part is followed by His judgment against unrepentant sinners.

4. It is an expression of malicious glee: This meaning is found exclusively in the context of defeated enemies. In the prophecy against Nineveh God announces that all those who will hear about His judgments will clap their hands over the city and its misfortune (Nahum 3:19). The Ammonites clapped their hands and rejoiced with malice when Israel was being destroyed by the Babylonians (Eze. 25:6). It is this same contempt and hostility that those passing by the ruins of Jerusalem expressed by clapping their hands (Lam. 2:15). This gesture was indeed a sign of hostility and derision.

There is no clear evidence that this gesture was part of worship in the Old and New Testaments. In fact, I didn’t find the phrase in the entire New Testament. Therefore, there does not seem to be any biblical parallel to what takes place in our churches today.

You may ask, “Why do we do it?” I’m not sure. I suspect that we incorporated clapping into our services from our cultural environment. Clapping is usually associated with the entertainment industry, but has become very popular in televised evangelical religious services. Perhaps we copied it from them.

Leaving aside the issue of cultural influence, I suppose that what really matters is that each person be fully aware of the reasons he or she claps in church. Motivation becomes extremely important in this context. Is it an expression of joy in the Lord and His saving power? Is it only a physical expression or a substitute for what used to be the audible amen? Or is it a recognition of the good performance of the singer or the preacher?

This time, as you can see, I have more questions than answers.