God’s people have met to worship together. There is prayer, congregational singing, Bible reading, perhaps testimonies of God’s goodness, mutual encouragement, and teaching from the Word of God. As some point during the time together, the musicians come forward, and sing a song of praise to the Lord, while the congregation listens. When the music dies away, as is the practice in our culture, their audience applauds — or do they? What do the Scriptures say?
The Bible does reference the clapping of hands. There are several words translated “clap” in the King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible. We’ll take the time to look at each of them.
Job 27:23 Men shall clap their hands at him, and shall hiss him out of his place.
Lamentations 2:15 All that pass by clap their hands at thee; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call, The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth?
Job 34:37 For he addeth rebellion unto his sin, he clappeth his hands among us, and multiplieth his words against God.
The same word occurs in Numbers 24:10, translated “smote” his hands together (in anger).
This word is also translated “smite” (upon the thigh, two passages), “striketh them as wicked men” (Job 34:26), and “wallow” in vomit (Jeremiah 48:26).
To clap your hands at someone, in Old Testament times, appears to indicate anger or mockery. Certainly, it was expressing disapproval in some sense — accusation, reprobation, or contempt. To “saphaq” your hands would be insulting to our musicians — somewhat comparable to a long, loud “BOOOO!”
Psalm 47:1 O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
Nahum 3:19 There is no healing of thy bruise; thy wound is grievous: all that hear the bruit of thee shall clap the hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?
This word is quite interesting. It appears very frequently, but not in regard to the hands — rather, with a trumpet, where the translation is “blow”, blow the trumpet.
It is also used in Proverbs (and once in Job) in the sense of “striking hands” as dealing with surety, apparently similarly to the way we shake hands to seal an agreement.
The context for the blowing of the trumpet often (though not always) seems to be a martial one, which would certainly fit with the two passages where it is used in reference to “clapping” hands. In both of these, the idea of triumph also appears to be present — rejoicing in a victory. In Psalm 47, God’s people are rejoicing in the victory of the Lord as He subdues the nations. In Nahum, everyone who hears of the destruction of Nineveh is rejoicing at their destruction.
It would be inappropriate to see the use of “hand clapping” in these verses as having anything to do with the use of hand clapping for applause in Western societies today. In the light of hand-clapping as an expression of disapproval (as evidenced by the verses I cited above which use saphaq), these verses are best understood as referring to clapping against the enemy. Psalm 47 is clearly a martial song, which was either sung when marching to war or in celebration of victories after the battle. Perhaps the people clapped in accompaniment as they marched, or as they sang, to signify God’s judgment on the enemy. It may have been intended to communicate to the enemy that judgment is on the way, we are clapping against you at God’s command.
Psalm 98:8 Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together 9 Before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.
Isaiah 55:12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Ezekiel 25:6 For thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thou hast clapped thine hands, and stamped with the feet, and rejoiced in heart with all thy despite against the land of Israel; 7 Behold, therefore I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries: I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that am the LORD.
The sense of the Ezekiel passage is entirely consistent with how we see hand-clapping above. It is an expression of triumph and approbation, this time against Israel, on the part of the Ammonites, and God is going to judge them for their wickedness in expressing themselves this way.
The passages from Psalm and Isaiah are less obvious. If we were to read our culture into them, we might well see this as applause, but since hand-clapping is clearly, elsewhere, the opposite of applause, we’d better look more closely.
There are a few parallels between them. In both, there is great joy. In both, there is triumph, though the enemy is not as explicitly in view as in some of the other passages. In both, the clapping of hands occurs in a strongly musical context. Perhaps the clapping of hands, as accompaniment to singing, was an expression of joyful triumph in ancient Hebrew culture — which would also fit with Psalm 47, discussed above.
Certainly, the Biblical evidence is that the clapping of hands was frequently an expression of disapproval, although it appears that it may also have been used as a musical accompaniment. The concept of hand clapping as “applause”, the way it is used in our culture, is something that we simply do not see in Scripture. If we are looking for Scriptural warrant for applause in worship, we will not find it in the Old Testament references to the clapping of hands. We should not say that we clap our hands in applause because Scripture tells us to do so — it doesn’t.
Just a Few More Thoughts
Does praising someone for their performance fit with worship? Isn’t worship intended to exalt God? If we applaud a musician in the same way that the world applauds entertainers, don’t we, at best, run the risk of communicating that what they have done, rather than worship, is merely a performance, an act of entertainment? If WE clap, aren’t we subtly suggesting that it was done for OUR approval, or at least that we view it that way? Aren’t we tempting/encouraging the musician to think of it that way, to pursue the praise of man, to turn his heart from worship to a false focus on human approval?
If you applaud musicians after they have played or sung music, do you also applaud your pastor after he preaches or teaches? If not, why not? Is his preaching that bad? (DON’T answer, I don’t want to know. 🙂 But if any comedians applaud after my sermon this Sunday, there’s going to be trouble!) Do you applaud people when they put money in the collection? Isn’t that worship, too? What about when someone reads the Scripture, or gives a testimony? Why do we applaud one kind of worship, and not others? Are we subtly accepting the world’s view that music isn’t really worship, but entertainment?
I should add that the same concerns can apply to “sanctified applause”. Some churches don’t clap, they use loud “Amens”. No, it doesn’t have the same cultural connotations, but in “loud Amen” churches, why is it that some musical “worship performances” get more and louder “Amens” than others? And are we encouraging people to “perform” with a view to getting a good Amen chorus when they finish? Have we just drifted into the applause mindset but with a more “sanctified” method of shifting the focus away from the Lord? After all, the Scriptures use “Amen,” so it must be right when we do it, right? Awkward questions, perhaps….
In general, in our church we don’t do much in the way of solos or other music that could drift into the “performance” category. We’re supposed to be singing to one another, which implies congregational singing. I’m not going to say that the Scripture forbids solos and such, because it doesn’t, but we don’t do it very often at all. But when/where these are used in the church, is applause really the right response?
One of the worst sins is ingratitude or unthankfulness. It is good for us to express gratitude to those who have ministered in a way that edifies us. If someone expresses gratitude by applauding, I would never say they have sinned. Within our culture, this is the way people often express gratitude. The problem is that it almost always expresses other things as well, and fosters a mental approach (in both the applaud-er and the applaud-ee) that is not focused on worshipping God, and God alone. In general, it would be better for us to find other ways to express gratitude.
When we worship together, if someone sings, preaches, gives, reads, or whatever, they do so unto the Lord. We would do best to avoid communicating that we in any way think we have the right to give approval for what they have done. If what they have done is done rightly, it isn’t done for us at all. Assenting to the truths they proclaim, yes, that is certainly our role. But we are NOT the audience. God is, and approval of their service belongs to Him alone.
Update: This post is also being discussed at SharperIron, if you are interested in the reactions of the SI community.