Shall We Clap?

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.

Saphaq

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!”

Taqa

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.

Macha

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.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Christian Music and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Shall We Clap?

  1. Aaron Blumer says:

    I’m anti clapping, myself, but not for all the same reasons.
    “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.”
    The implication here is that “unto the Lord” means “not for the people.” But if that’s the case, why are the people there? I think the truth is “for the the people and unto the Lord.” Consequently, expressing in some way that “I have been blessed” as part of the body, is pretty easy to defend.
    On the other hand, how do we do that without being pulled into the constant cultural gravity well of the entertainment dynamic? I don’t think it’s possible to have applause and simultaneously call people away from “show time” to “I am here to ponder the perfections of my Creator and Redeemer.”

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Aaron, thank you for an excellent comment. Your comments about “unto the Lord” vs. “for the people” are very good. These are not mutually exclusive. You’ve made explicit and clear that which I only really hinted at in my penultimate paragraph, and it helps to balance the discussion. The only thing I would say in response is that “unto the Lord” has to have primacy over “for the people”, but they certainly are not in opposition, and if I implied that they are, I erred.

      You’ve boiled it down well with your last paragraph, as well. It’s not that applause is inherently wrong, and it can be done out of true and spiritual gratitude, but it comes with so much cultural baggage.

  2. Patrick Heeney says:

    AMEN! Amen! amen? CLAP!Clap? clap? (sorry, my peanut gallery self came out!)So just how am I supposed to say Good thoughts, nicely put and it was refreshing to think thru with you!
    bro Patrick

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Dear Patrick,

      I don’t know how other people are supposed to say it, but I know just how you should do it.
      1. Write “This is a faithful saying” on a piece of paper. In triplicate.
      2. Fold it in thirds (one copy of the sentence on each third), and put it in an envelope with my address on it.
      3. Decide that it is too light, and make out a cheque (check for you Americans) for an absurdly large sum, and include the check in the envelope to add ballast.
      4. Seal the envelope, and go to the post office.
      5. At the last minute, decide you must have been insane, burn the envelope, and put a comment (from the peanut gallery) on my blog instead.

      If you ever need advice again, you know I am always prepared to help, and you know how much value you can put on that advice.

      Your dear friend and brother
      Jon

  3. Bob T. says:

    Jon, My study of worship has given me the sense that all of life is to be an endeavor to bring us to worship every day and in every way. Romans 12 is a call to every day worship. Church (or assembly) worship is just that. The people of God assemble for worship together. There are many scriptures that can be brought together to give us insight and limitation on our assembly worship. Basic to this is that we must separate human performance from worship. Music must be that which encourages assembly worship. In my opinion there is no place for performance. Instruments and choirs that may be used must always encourage the assembly to sing. Thus volume must be limited and their use subordinate to congregational singing. Any special music must be done to lead us to worship. Perhaps such should be done from the side or back of the assembly. Most all attention must be given to congregational singing. Applause is an obvious human expression of appreciation. If it is part of NT worship it must therefore be toward God. Unfortunately it usually follows human performance so is not worship but an acknowledgment that human performance has taken place and is appreciated. Therefore, applause is not worship but an interruption of worship.
    We often take OT scripture that has to do with celebration and seek to use it for permission to have certain practices for NT worship. OT worship was at the temple. No applause there. NT worship has us as assembled as living stones of the spiritual temple of the church. We must stand in reverence and awe of God with both awe and joy brought forth. But we should give little place for attention being given to performance.
    Today the church is so inoculated with the serum of pagan western culture that it cannot see its emphasis on the worship of man and the minimizing of God in assembly.

    No applause for the sermon. No applause for performance.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Really good to hear from you, Bob. I greatly appreciate your comments here, and I agree on all points. The only thing you did wrong is forget that you were writing on a Scottish blog, so you should have said “endeavour” and “minimising”. 🙂

      You raise a good point about the distinction between “celebration”, which is also worship unto the Lord, and temple worship. My wife and I were just talking about that a couple of days ago, and perhaps I should have brought it out in the post. Both are worship, but one may include things that would not belong in the other.

      (My references to applause for the sermon were not intended to advocate such, but simply to challenge thinking about why we applaud.)

  4. Dan Burrell says:

    I posted this at the Sharper Iron site but the original post is now buried by new ones and the thread may have died, so I thought I’d post this question here also to see if I could gain some additional perspective over which I might mull.

    No ulterior motive, just a desire to understand the thinking of others…

    If clapping is at some level demeaning to authentic worship and perhaps even wrong or incorrect (whether or not one would consider it sinful to do so may not necessarily be relevant to this question unless the responder would simply care to include their position on that), what should a traditional believer of Western or European descent say in response to or evaluation of an African-American, Latino or actual African congregation where the cultural practice of clapping is an expression of jubilation, joy, praise, agreement or perhaps simply participation? I’ve worshiped and spoken in each of these kinds of congregation and the absence of clapping throughout the service would be considered odd to the point of awkwardness — perhaps even rudeness — by congregants of that culture. Are they incorrectly worshiping? Would a Western speaker or missionary serve them well by educating them and/or requesting that they cease or change?

    Curious as to how this is viewed by anyone.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Dan, very good question. I could perhaps boil down part of my comments above to simply this: I’ve argued that clapping in ancient Hebrew culture bore different cultural messages than it bears in most Western cultures today. Thus, we should not assume that the Scriptural mentions of hand-clapping endorse what we do today.

      A second aspect of my post could be boiled down to say that clapping (at least as applause) in our cultures carries cultural messages (praise of man, etc), if not always at least frequently, that don’t belong in corporate worship, and thus it is unwise (at best) to include applause in that setting.

      So my response to your question would be that clapping is not the issue, it is the cultural messages it conveys. If one is in a culture where it conveys different messages, then one has to evaluate those messages to decide whether it belongs in corporate worship or not. This wasn’t really, if you look at it, an “anti-clapping” post, it was an “anti-applause” post.

      As a visiting speaker who is not extremely knowledgeable of the culture, one should undoubtedly assume it is appropriate and respond accordingly. As a missionary serving in that culture, careful evaluation would seem necessary — just because something is accepted in a culture obviously doesn’t mean it is a good thing. If clapping conveys inappropriate messages, it is time to do some teaching (although there may be higher priorities, of course).

      I’ll add this. I find it hard to believe that the “applause factor” isn’t there in African-American culture, because they are just as tuned in to the entertainment world as other Americans. I think the same would be true of the Latin churches you mention. So if I were ministering in one of those churches frequently, I might challenge the leaders, at some point, to think about the things I’ve written here. They are the ones who are 1) a lot more knowledgeable about cultural connotations in their culture than we are and 2) responsible that things be done decently and in order. If I were to raise the issue, it would be with leadership alone, and I would do so in a way that leaves the ball entirely in their court.

      That’s my thoughts, for what it’s worth. A very good question.

  5. Dan Burrell says:

    Thanks, Jon! I’ve added a couple of more questions at Sharper Iron and will just leave them there. I truly appreciate the thoughtful dialogue on this and it is indeed, “poking me in the brain”. As is my annoying tendency, every answer seems to provoke a couple of more questions. Hopefully, my spirit is correct in asking them and if not, don’t hesitate to call me on it. “The active mind is the questioning mind” — so at 50, I need to make sure that some part of me indeed stays “active.” 🙂

  6. Roxene Kimes says:

    This is a really good sermon on clapping, even though it is intended for SDA’s and many (not all) of their members.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Roxene. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to approve a link to Seventh Day Adventist material on worship on my blog, even if they are right on this topic, as it appears they are.

      If anyone wants the link, they can contact me.

  7. Gwen sann says:

    The word says to make a joyful noise unto the Lord,clapping has nothing to do with anybody but to praise with all our heart and mind and strength,to express our joy about and to him,and as David said ..I will be even more unrestrained in my dance..how much more clapping,shouting,singing,what is joyful to an individual is ..just is..and also The Father(God)has taught me that Satan hates it when we truly praise and it causes the enemy to be scattered from our midst. The RELIGIOUS churches don’t believe in the Presence of the holy spirit or the manifestation of the gifts, so why wouldn’t they reason away or limit the clapping of hands to the band in front of the church…come on…read the word..GOD BREATHED,all of it.the body is spiritually asleep and it’s time to wake up..

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Well, Gwen, if we’re going to say that all Scripture is inspired, we should actually try to find out what it says. That means when people say that the Bible teaches clapping in public worship, it is a good idea to check if it really does.

      It is patently false to say that what we do in public worship “has nothing to do with anybody.” For one, it has much to do with the Lord, for it is HIS worship. But it also has to do with our brothers and sisters, which is why Paul commanded that everything be done decently and in order. That’s Scripture.

      “What is joyful to an individual” is a false and unbiblical standard for public worship. You can clap and jump and do whatever you want when you are by yourself, but not when others have met to worship. You have no right to let your individual feelings about what is joyful determine what worship should be like for others.

      So let’s just put aside the religious hooey and blaming the Holy Spirit for what we want to do and actually look at what Scripture is really saying. If you aren’t interested in that approach to questions like this, I suspect you’ll just find my blog continually frustrating.

  8. fremah says:

    I find it hard to understand all this. I think that if we meet to worship God as a congregation ,we do it together and if we are praying too we do it together so I don’t think someone will disturb the other due to over joy . in the old testament people use to marry many wife’s which was not a sin because it was their culture, today too we clap to praise so if we clap to God I don’t see anything wrong with it base on psalm 47.it says we should clap our hands for joy and praise GOD with loud songs. am finding it difficult to understand why the same bible Christian use but every church has it own way of doings things .I need answers if u can pls.thanks

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, Fremah. Psalm 47 describes God’s people marching out to war against an enemy. In the Old Testament, as I’ve explained above, clapping was a way of expressing disapproval. In Psalm 47, they are not clapping to God, they are clapping against the enemy that God is going to defeat. Enemies have come against God’s people, and they clap against them as they go out, to announce that God is going to judge those wicked people.

      It was a very different culture. In our culture, clapping is often used to express approval, applause. If we are doing that to express approval for someone who has just sung a song, for instance, that is nothing to do with the clapping in Psalm 47.

      Clapping also is sometimes used to express excitement, or joy. It can also be used just as an accompaniment to music. These things can be entirely appropriate in worship, more so in some cultures than in others.

      My purpose in this article was not to say that we should never clap. My purpose was to say that we should stop using the Bible, which is describing clapping for one purpose, to justify clapping which is being done for a completely different purpose. We need to start by looking at what the Bible actually says and what it is describing in the culture in which it was written. Many people just see the word “clap” and think it means the same thing for us today as it meant to the ancient Hebrews, but it didn’t.

      The Bible never talks about clapping to God. That would have been considered a horrible thing to do, because of what clapping meant back then.

  9. I once clapped a few times before praying. I know that is a practice in different religions, was that not the right thing to do?

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Whether you clap or not has little to do with whether or not God hears you. But if you did it because it is a practice in different religions, I would encourage you instead to find out what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who said we must worship God in spirit and in truth. We need to know what HE meant by that, not what WE think about it, or what other religions might think.

      The point of this article was that some Christians are confused by the references to clapping in the Old Testament and think that means we should use applause in our worship services. But that’s not really what those passages are talking about at all.

  10. David says:

    Excellent discussion, and perhaps it would be important to remind ourselves of what is the chief and highest end of man? It is to glorify God and fully to enjoy Him forever. As a musician I need to remind myself often that Heaven is not impressed with that little riff I stuck in no matter how well executed it was. Heaven is focused on the One who is on the Throne; thus if my music and my worship is to be even remotely fitting for Him, it had better be centered on Him with no vestiges of ego, self nor pride attached.

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