Customs change slowly in Bible lands. This becomes clear by a comparison of the many references found in the Bible and other literatures of the Orient with existing circumstances and conditions. The same fact is attested by the pictures illustrating daily life upon the monuments of Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt in the countries between the Nile and the Tigris. Many of these, dating back to the second or third millennium before our era, prove conclusively that the same practices and usages as are now common among the inhabitants of those lands were in vogue in the days of Hammurabi and the early rulers of Egypt. This is especially true of matters pertaining to the worship of the gods, and of the attitudes or positions assumed in homage and respect to monarchs and those in authority.
The many references found in the Bible to these same usages prove that the Hebrews too had much in common with the nations around them, not only in creed, but also in the mode of worship, as well as in general everyday etiquette. This is not strange, at least among the Semitic peoples, for there is more or less agreement, even among all nations, ancient and modern, in the attitude of the worshipper in temple and high place.
The outward tokens of respect and honor shown by Orientals to their superiors, above all to monarchs, may seem exaggerated. But when we consider that the king was God's vicegerent upon the earth or over a certain country, and in some sense Divine, worthy even of adoration, it is not strange that almost equal homage should be paid him as the gods themselves. The higher the person was in power, the greater the honor and respect shown him. It is natural, therefore, that God, the Lord of Lords, and the King of Kings should be the recipient of the highest reverence and adoration.
There are several Hebrew words used to describe the various attitudes assumed by those who worshipped Yahweh and heathen gods; these same words are constantly employed in speaking of the homage or respect paid to rulers and persons in authority. The most common terms are those rendered "to stand," "to bow," "to kneel" and "prostrate oneself" or "fall on the face." It is not always easy to differentiate between them, for often one passes imperceptibly into the other. No doubt several attitudes were assumed by the worshipper or suppliant while offering a prayer or petition. The intensity, the ardor or earnestness with which such a petition or prayer was presented would naturally have much to do with the words and posture of the petitioner, though the same expression might be employed to designate his posture or attitude. Thus "to fall on the face" might be done in many different ways. The Moslems observe a regular course of nine or more different postures in their worship. These are more or less faithfully observed by the faithful everywhere. It is almost certain that the Hebrews in common with other Orientals observed and went through almost every one of these attitudes as they presented themselves in prayer to Yahweh. We shall call attention to just four postures:
(3) kneeling, and
(4) falling on the face or prostration.
This was one of the very common postures in prayer to God, especially in public worship. It is still customary to stand either erect or with slightly bowed head while offering the public prayers in the synagogue. This is likewise the common practice of a large number of Christians in this and other lands, and no doubt such a posture is sanctioned by the example of the early church and primitive Christians, who, in turn, adopted the usages of the Jewish church. The same practice was in vogue among the Persians, Egyptians and Babylonians and other ancient people as is evidenced by their sculptures and paintings. The famous stela of Hammurabi shows this great king in a standing position as he receives the famous Code from the sun-god.
There are numerous Babylonian and Assyrian seals on which are pictured a priest in a standing position before the throne of Sin or Shamash. In this attitude with uplifted hands, he is sometimes accompanied by the person in whose behalf prayers are made. A beautiful rock sculpture at Ibriz, Southeast of Eregli in Lycaonia, shows us a king or satrap in a standing position, worshipping a local Baal. E. J. Davies, the discoverer of this Hittite monument, in describing it, makes this remark, which we cannot refrain from inserting, inasmuch as it gives another proof of the unchangeable East. He says:
"He (the god) wears boots turned up in front, and bound round the leg above the ankle by thongs and a piece of leather reaching half-way up the shin, exactly as it is worn to this day by the peasants of the plain of Cilicia round Adana." King Solomon, during at least a portion of his prayer at the dedication of the temple, stood before the altar with his hands stretched out toward heaven (1 Kings 8:22). Numerous allusions to prayer in the New Testament prove that standing was the common posture (Matthew 6:5; Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11).
What has been said about standing while praying to God is true also of the attitude of the petitioner when paying homage or making an entreaty to man. The Assyrian and Babylonian monuments are full of evidence on this point; we shall give only one illustration:
One of the sculptures describing the siege of Lachish by Sennacherib represents the monarch as seated upon his throne while the conquered stand or kneel before him. Joseph stood before Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46). Solomon's advisers stood before him (2 Chronicles 10:6) and so did those of Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 10:8). The same attitude was assumed by suppliants in the Persian court (Esther 5:2; 8:4). The same is true of Babylonia (Daniel 1:19; 2:2).
Though standing seems to have been the usual attitude, it is quite certain that kneeling was common at all times. The monuments afford abundant proof for this statement; so too the many references in the Bible. Solomon not only stood before the altar on the occasion of dedicating his famous temple, but he also knelt (1 Kings 8:54; 2 Chronicles 6:13). Josephus, describing this ceremony, says that the king at the conclusion of his prayer prostrated himself on the ground and in this posture continued worshipping for a long time. Ezra fell upon his knees as he addressed Yahweh in prayer (Ezra 9:5). Daniel, too, knelt upon his knees and prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10). The same practice was observed by the apostles and the early church; for we read that Stephen (Acts 7:60), Peter (Acts 9:40), Paul (Acts 20:36) and others (Acts 21:5) assumed this posture as they prayed.
As already stated, it is not always easy to determine the exact posture of those described as kneeling or bowing, for this varied with the temperament of the suppliant and the intensity of his prayer or supplication. Eleazer when sent to select a wife for his master, Isaac, bowed before Yahweh (Genesis 24:26). The Hebrews on leaving Egypt were commanded to bow to Yahweh (Exodus 11:8; 12:27,28). The injunction of the Psalmist shows the prevalence of this posture in prayer:
"O come, let us worship and bow down" (Psalms 95:6). Isaiah refers to the same when he says: "Every knee shall bow" to God (Isaiah 45:23). Paul also bowed his knees to the Father (Ephesians 3:14). The same practice obtained among the heathen nations as they worshipped their gods or idols. Naaman bowed before Rimmon, his god. The numerous prohibitions in the Hebrew Scriptures against bowing down at the shrines of the nations around Israel prove the prevalence of this method of adoration. Indeed, one of the ten commandments is directed explicitly against bowing to or worshipping idols (Exodus 20:5). The same prohibition was often repeated, as by Joshua (23:7) and the author of 2Ki (17:35). Unfortunately, Israel did transgress in this very thing, for while still in the Wilderness they bowed down to the gods of Moab (Numbers 25:2) and again after their settlement in Canaan (Judges 2:12). Amaziah bowed down to the gods of Edom (2 Chronicles 25:14).
Like deference was also shown to angels or supernatural beings. Thus, Abraham bows to the three angels as they appear to him at Mamre (Genesis 18:2). And so did Lot at Sodom (Genesis 19:1). Joshua fell on his face before the prince of the host of Yahweh (Joshua 5:14). This attitude was a common one to Ezekiel as he saw his wonderful visions (Ezekiel 1:28; 3:23, and often). Daniel when he saw Gabriel in a vision was afraid and fell upon his face (Daniel 8:17). The three disciples had the same experience on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:6).
Monarchs and persons of superior rank were the recipients of like honors and marks of respect. Joseph's brothers bowed as they came into his presence, thinking that he was an Egyptian of high rank (Genesis 43:28). Bathsheba bowed to King David when she entered his presence in the interest of their son Solomon (1 Kings 1:16,31). But such deference was not shown to monarchs only, for Jacob and his household bowed down seven times to the irate Esau (Genesis 33:3). Abigail fell on her face before David as he was marching to avenge himself upon Nabal, her husband (1 Samuel 25:23). David too when he went to meet Jonathan fell on his face to the ground and bowed himself three times (1 Samuel 20:41). The Shunammite woman, as she came to entreat Elisha for the life of her boy, bowed before the prophet (2 Kings 4:37). The same custom prevailed not only among the Persians, as is evident from the Book of Esther and the monuments at Persepolis, but also in Babylonia, Assyria and other countries.
This was but a more intense way of showing one's regard or of emphasizing a petition. It was the token of abject subjection or the deepest reverence. Abraham, when Yahweh appeared to him and promised him a son, with profoundest gratitude and greatest joy fell prostrate on his face (Genesis 17:3). Moses and Aaron were often found in this posture (Numbers 14:5; 16:4,45; 20:6). Elijah, eccentric in many ways, cast himself upon the earth and placed his face between his knees (compare 1 Kings 18:42). Job fell on the ground and worshipped Yahweh (Job 1:20). Such homage was often shown to our Saviour (Mark 5:22; John 11:32), not because men realized that He was God in the flesh, but simply as a mark of respect for a great teacher and miracle-worker. It is to be noticed th at our Saviour never refused such homage, but accepted it as pertinent and proper. Did He not realize that honor and worship Divine belonged to Him, He would have refused them just as Peter did when Cornelius fell down at his feet and worshipped him (Acts 10:25) or as the angel in Revelation 19:10, who said to John, prostrate at his feet, "See thou do it not:
I am a fellow servant," etc. See ADORATION, iii.
W. W. Davies
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