In my previous posts in this series I have made the point that saying the amen has all the hallmarks of a required part of worship. In contrast I have shown that there is no reason to regard clapping in the same way. It is at best (and most sympathetically viewed) a permitted circumstance of worship.
In this final post we come to consider hand-raising in worship; and here we confront a practice that seems to occupy a kind of middle ground in worship between saying the amen (a clear duty) and clapping (a possible circumstance). Here is the biblical data.
I. The Biblical Occurrences of Raising Hands in Formal Worship
The following texts speak to hand-raising in worship in the Bible.
Leviticus 9:22: “Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” Here Aaron lifts his hands in order to pronounce the priestly blessing in the context of formal Old Testament worship.
Deuteronomy 32:40: “Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, as I live forever.” Here God is presented in a formal act of oath-taking in which He swears by Himself. I think the swearing of solemn oaths and vows suggests formal worship, although they are not always taken in the context of the formal worship of God.
Nehemiah 8:6: “Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” Here all the people are gathered in circumstances that remind one very much of New Covenant worship. All the people lift up their hands while saying the amen. The lifting up of their hands is clearly an act which indicates their agreement and participation with Ezra in blessing the Lord. They also bow low and worship the Lord with faces to the ground.
Psalm 28:2: “Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to You for help, When I lift up my hands toward Your holy sanctuary.” Lifting up hands toward the holy sanctuary is clearly a way of speaking of prayer. The context of verse 1 confirms this. The reference to the holy sanctuary suggests formal worship.
Psalm 63:4: “So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. Lifting hands is here parallel to and explanatory of blessing God.” Note the reference to praising God in verse 3 and seeing God in the sanctuary in verse 2. Lifting up of hands, then, is not just indicative of prayer, but also of praise and blessing God.
Psalm 134:1-3: “Behold, bless the LORD, all servants of the LORD, Who serve by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the sanctuary And bless the LORD. May the LORD bless you from Zion, He who made heaven and earth.” Again, lifting up hands is indicative according to verse 2 of blessing the Lord, and this takes place according to verse 1 in the house of the Lord.
Psalm 141:2: “May my prayer be counted as incense before You; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.” Here lifting up hands is indicative of prayer. This is seen in the parallel between the first and second halves of the verse. The second half of the verse has an interesting reference to the temple worship when David wishes that the lifting up his hands would be viewed by God as the evening offering. This verse is interesting when compared with Malachi 1:11 and 1 Tim. 2:7-8. It shows perhaps how Paul arrived at his interpretation and application of Malachi 1:11.
Lamentations 2:19: “Arise, cry aloud in the night At the beginning of the night watches; Pour out your heart like water Before the presence of the Lord; Lift up your hands to Him For the life of your little ones Who are faint because of hunger At the head of every street.” Again, crying out to the Lord is associated with lifting up hands to Him.
Lamentations 3:41: “We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven.” The context shows that lifting up hands is associated (v. 40) with returning in prayer and repentance to the God of heaven.
Luke 24:50: “And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.” We are to understand that Jesus is here blessing His disciples with His high priestly blessing on the occasion of departing from them.
1 Timothy 2:8: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” The context here is the formal worship and prayers of the church. I have already pointed out the OT background of this statement in Malachi 1:11 and Psalm 141:2. [Lifting up of hands is here limited to adult males, but this is probably because Paul is speaking of leading in prayer and does not believe women should be permitted to do this in the assembled church. The idea that only adult males may lift their hands and only when they are leading in prayer is not supported by the parallel passages in the Old Testament. Cf. Nehemiah 8:6; Lamentations 2:19; 3:41.]
James 4:8: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” There is a possible reference to the lifting up of hands in worship. They must be cleansed before and with them one draws near to God.
Revelation 10:5-6: “Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land lifted up his right hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, WHO CREATED HEAVEN AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE EARTH AND THE THINGS IN IT, AND THE SEA AND THE THINGS IN IT, that there will be delay no longer.” Lifting up the hand is here associated with the solemn act of swearing an oath. Cf. Deut. 32:40 in which God is pictured as lifting up His hand in order to swear by Himself.
II. The Proper Conclusions about Raising Hands in Formal Worship
A. Lifting up of the hands is associated with solemn acts of devotion to God including swearing oaths, giving benedictions, saying the amen, offering prayer including prayers of repentance, and praising and blessing God.
B. It is done and, thus, given biblical precedent in the context explicitly of the formal and corporate worship of God both in the Old and New Testaments. In Leviticus 9:22 Aaron blesses the people in the midst of formal worship. In Nehemiah 8:6 in the midst of formal worship the people say the amen. In Psalm 134:1 the servants of God serving in the house of the Lord lift up their hands in blessing God. In 1 Timothy 2:8 the men in the context of the worship of the church lift up their hands while leading the church in prayer.
C. This is quite different than the biblical references to clapping. While clapping in a few references is associated with joy and praise and even with praising God, it is never explicitly mentioned in conjunction with the formal, corporate worship of God in either the Old or New Testaments. Neither is it associated explicitly with solemn acts like swearing oaths, giving benedictions, saying the amen, and offering prayer.
D. While I am not prepared to say that lifting up of the hands is an element of worship, it is very closely associated with several elements of worship. In such a case it would be difficult and even wrong in my estimation for elders to forbid the people of God to raise their hands in worship. I suppose that some might abuse this and wave their hands in a showy or distracting way. Such would be an abuse of the biblical teaching to be dealt with on an individual basis and not by a general prohibition of hand-raising.
E. While clapping is never mentioned in the context of formal worship in the Bible, in contrast there are many mentions of the raising of hands in formal worship. Does this mean, then, that the raising of hands in worship is a required part of worship? I do not think this conclusion follows. We are dealing here with a matter of outward expression—like clapping. This suggests that hand-raising in worship must not as an external matter be given the status of a required part of worship. I think we must class it still as a circumstance of worship. On the other hand, we are dealing with an outward expression or gesture that seems to have a special propriety in worship. Did you hear that word—propriety? While I would not say that raising hands is a part of worship, I would say that it is sometimes proper in worship. It is not commanded, but it is proper. Do you understand the difference between something that is commanded and something that is proper? It is proper to greet someone by smiling and extending your hand to shake their hand. Not to do so would usually be improper. It is not a sin to fail to do this, but it may be improper. It is proper to dress up to attend a wedding. Not to do so would usually be improper. It is not a sin to fail to do this, but it may be improper. What I want to say—to repeat myself—is that while hand-raising is not a part of worship, it is sometimes the proper thing to do. It is not merely a permitted circumstance of worship. It is a proper circumstance of worship.
Let me repeat, then, what I said about these three matters of saying the amen, clapping, and hand-raising in formal worship. There is clear duty in saying the amen, a circumstantial possibility in clapping, and an occasional propriety in hand-raising.
What kind of atmosphere for formal worship do we see through the lens of this study into saying the amen, clapping, and hand-raising in the formal worship of the Bible? I think it is one which is fitted to call the unresponsive, silent traditionalist and the uncontrolled and judgmental progressivist to serious reflection and, even I think, repentance. I think it is one which presents a lively, expressive, responsive, reverent, and theocentric form of worship.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.