Lifting Holy Hands, Part One, by Pastor Josh Larsen

holyhands.gif          I am writing this paper in response to a question put to me by some of the teens in our church’s youth group. It seems that a former youth worker invited the students to lift their hands while singing, encouraging them not to “hinder their joy.” However, after this youth worker left the practice was abandoned, leaving the students confused as to the validity of the gesture in worship.         

          I come from a church where many people in the congregation would lift their hands while singing, and frequently our pastor would pray with outstretched arms and uplifted palms. When I was first asked the question, “Can we lift our hands when we sing?” my initial thought was to take a neutral position on the issue. I did not think it was wrong, but I did not think it was absolutely necessary either. It seemed like one of those things that a person could take or leave, and I had no desire to cause a controversy over such a minor issue. However, after determining to research the matter and form a conclusive position, I have moved from a position of neutrality to one of partiality. While it is not clearly mandated in Scripture, there is sufficient precedent in both the Bible and the early church as well as ample spiritual benefit to warrant the encouraging of worshipers to lift their hands while praying or singing.

The Precedent For Lifting Hands In Worship         

          While I have heard a few statements made in passing by those opposed to the lifting of hands in corporate worship, it seems to me that none of the arguments is strong enough to stand on its own against Biblical precedent, and the Bible is replete with references to outstretched hands. The two most common attitudes represented by this posture are supplication and blessing.[1]

          A great example of supplication is found in Isaiah 65 when God is pleading with his people to repent of their wickedness. In verse one, God proclaims through his prophet, “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices” (cf. Prov. 1:24; Job 30:24; Jer. 4:31; Lam. 1:17).[2] Granted, God is a Spirit, and does not have hands. Nevertheless, when physical features are ascribed to God in Scripture, it is always done in a way that makes sense to mankind. This pleading posture is even seen today in pulpits. Many times when a pastor is pleading with his people, he will “spread out his hands” before them in an emphatic gesture.          

          When Solomon dedicated the temple, he “stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven…”(1 Kings 8:22; c.f. vs. 54; 2 Chr. 6:12-13). In an expression of spiritual famine, David cries out, “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalm 143:6). He uses similar terminology in reference to his soul in verse 8 of the same chapter. In fact, the idea of praying with uplifted hands is so common that sometimes the practice is mentioned in such a way as to assume prayer. For example: “Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children” (Lam. 2:19; c.f. Ps. 44:20; Lam. 1:17).          

          When hands are lifted to God unworthily, it is an offense to him: “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15). In this condition, Jeremiah pleads with his fellow Jews, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (Lam. 3:40-41).         

          Another intention of outstretched hands is to offer a blessing.[3] In Leviticus 9:22 Aaron lifted his hands over the Israelites to bless them. Similarly, Jesus lifted his hands over his disciples to bless them just before he ascended (Luke 24:50). This connotation flowed naturally from the Psalmist’s blessing of God. In Psalm 63:4, David says, “So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.” David also encouraged fellow worshipers of God to “lift up your hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord” (Psalm 134:2, NKJV)! David apparently felt that uplifted hands signified worship just as much as sacrifices did: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2). Ezra led people with hands outstretched in worship in Nehemiah 8:6: “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” It is worth mentioning here that another gesture that is wholly appropriate in worship is bowing to the ground, although this is very difficult in the format of our modern day worship service. Praying face down in private is very Scriptural, however.         

          The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament discusses the use of the word “hand” in the Old Testament. “In many passages the hand can stand for the man himself … The right hand can impart the stronger blessing … Giving and receiving are done with the hand, a bargain is sealed with a handshake … Hands are lifted up for prayer … A stretched forth hand can denote resolution.”[4]         

          Hands were used similarly in ancient Greek literature. The gods would stretch out their hands over their people to protect them. They would also impart blessings to men through their hands. Human healers would impart healing by laying their hands on the sick.[5]         

          The New Testament is no different. Hands in the New Testament are lifted in prayers, blessings and oaths. God’s hands intervene and protect and bless. Hands are placed on the sick to heal them and they are also placed on servants of Christ as a sign of commissioning.[6]         

          At this point, critics are quick to quip, “But the majority of hand raising took place in the Old Testament. It is a Jewish custom and is not meant for the church.” Church history stands as a firm rebuttal to such remarks. While it is true that the New Testament does not necessarily prescribe the lifting of hands in worship, the early church did adopt the practice. And even though Paul only mentions men in 1 Timothy 2:8 (In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul approves of women being included in public prayer.), women lifted their hands in worship as well. A strong evidence of this can be found in C. K. Barrett’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, where he displays a photograph of a third-century Christian sarcophagus, showing a praying woman with uplifted hands.[7] Barrett comments on this practice: “To pray with uplifted hands was the common practice in antiquity (pagan, Jewish, and Christian).”[8]         

          A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities devotes some considerable space to this artwork, also referred to as oranti: “The figures which bear this name, and are so frequently found in the catacomb frescoes, are generally to be described as male or female forms in the Eastern attitude of prayer … They are, for the most part, in a standing position, with the arms extended.”[9]         

          In his book entitled, Jewish Worship, Abraham Millgram provides some interesting insight into how this custom entered the early church. Hundreds of years before the church, raised hands were “normal expressions of worship. … The prophets never reproached the people for these forms of adoration. The Bible speaks of these gestures as normal acts which needed no explanation or rationalization whatever.”[10] Jewish converts to Christianity naturally brought the reverent gestures with them and incorporated them into corporate worship within the church.         

          But then something fascinating happened. Judaism reacted specifically against the raising of hands, because it became so identified with the church. The practice, along with some other postures, was banned from all synagogue services. In the 13th century, Rabbi Abraham ben Maimon attempted to reinstate what he saw as “important aids to piety,” but was opposed by his peers because of the connection of these gestures to Christianity. Today kneeling, prostration, and the spreading of hands are no longer parts of Jewish worship.[11]

          So what does that mean for us? Well, for at least the first thirteen hundred years of the church, the practice of lifting hands in worship was as identifiable with Christianity as the cross. But for a host of fragile reasons, many in fundamentalism would prefer to see hand raising remain in ancient history. It appears, however, that both Scripture and church history supply us with ample precedent to revive the practice. So that brings us to another question. Why don’t we do this? Why are there no lifted hands in our conservative Baptist worship services?

to be continued…


[1] Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, “Lifting Hands in Worship”, Christian Articles Archives; available from http://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/hands.htm; Internet; accessed 18 January 2006.  Dr. Wilson’s site provided much helpful information on where to find sources for my research. In addition, he listed 28 Scripture references dealing specifically with this subject matter.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 9:426.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C. K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles in the New English Bible (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 53.

[8] Ibid.

[9] William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, eds., A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities; Being a Continuation of the ‘Dictionary of the Bible,’ (Hartford: The J. B. Burr Publishing Co., 1877), 2:1463.

[10] Abraham Millgram, Jewish Worship, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971), 356.

[11] Ibid, 357.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joy Wagner on June 5, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Josh,
    very well written and thought provoking (not that I would expect less of course)
    One hesitation I thought of while I read your article was that often in the bible “hands” is used metaphorically to refer to the whole person (“no man shall be able to pluck them out of my hands”– Jn. 10:28). I realize that there are enough other examples where it is literal, but I wonder if this is another case of us calling unclean what God calls clean (reminder of the sheet and Peter in Acts 10:15). I also wonder if many shy away from it because some other people have perverted the practice to be an attention gathering technique. I’m not by any means suggesting that everyone who raises their hands is trying to gain personal attention. I do think, however, that some have used the practice as a way to draw the attention away from God and onto themselves. I’ve known people who say amen for the same reason. On the other hand, there is no excuse for us to reject a practice (especially a Biblical one) for the sake of a few who have perverted it. If we did that consistently, we would be hindered from every ecclesiastical practice.
    Anyway, we should all chew on your ideas. (I speak metaphorically of course)
    Joy

    Reply

  2. Josh, Good to here from you. I enjoyed your article. One reason why I think that the lifting of hands is not done in certain “circles” of fundamentalism, is that the lifting of hands is an emotional gesture that results in a hearts desire. In our services, we don’t encourage or discourage it, but some individuals when they are moved, raise their hands. I think the issue goes deeper. Many of our conservative churches have a negative attitude toward any type of emotional outpouring. When we return to worshipping with all of our being (emotions included) I think we will see more of these physical expressions of worship.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Josh Larsen on June 15, 2006 at 10:50 am

    Joy,

    I agree with you about this being a case of us calling a clean thing unclean. And good point about the faulty logic behind rejecting a practice just because some people abuse it.

    Matt,

    Good to hear from you as well! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I think that there are a number of people within fundamentalism thinking through this thing, and I agree that we will eventually see more of it in our churches.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Lesley van der Merwe on February 10, 2007 at 8:25 am

    Hi, I am a postgrad student in Archeology and Ancient near Cultures. I need info on gestures which express emotional and symbolic acts as found in the Book of Psalms.
    I also enjoy your article on “Lifting of hands”.
    Will appreciate it to hear from you soon.
    Thank you,
    Lesley

    Reply

  5. Posted by Theodore Kalivoda on December 17, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    A good article! Here are a few of my personal observatons:
    1. I can’t help but wonder if those who lift hands in worship hold a superior spritual attitude over those who don’t.
    2. Watching those arms pop up at any moment while singing is distractive to me.
    3. The accompanying looks of agony on the faces of some of the hand raisers is also distractiing, especially when done by those on the platform (a.g., choir, praise singers) who are highly visible.
    4. While growing up as a young Christian 60 years ago, I never witnessed hand raising in church (and I attended several different churches due to change in residence). Does that imply that the church goers were missing out on a valuable aspect of worship? Or, does it mean that today’s “hand raisers” are practicing something that is merely currently in vogue?
    5. Humans are good at concocting practices we think enhance worship, and eventually some of those practices become mandates.
    6. We tend to think that body manipulations for expressing worship are more meaningful to God than just a heart attitude. So we can insist on accompanying prayer with the following: (1) kneeling, (2) standing, (3) prostrating, (4) looking up when praying, (5) heads bowed and eyes closed, (6) raising hands,(7) bending the knee, (8) beating the breast (Luke 18:13) — and who knows what else?
    7. Given the fact that no New Testament commands exist on raising hands or other physical movements for that matter, might it not be well to consider manipulation of body parts as traits that we have developed culturally, which unfortunately we look upon as necessary expressions of spirituality?

    Reply

  6. Theodore,

    I would encourage you to read the entire article if you haven’t already. It’s in three parts. No one here is suggesting any kind of manipulation. However, I would agree with the author of the article that there are many churches that have embraced a stoic style of worship where there is little if any physical expression in worship. That seems to be an extreme reaction to groups like Pentecostals, etc., and not in line historically with the worshiping people of God.

    We’re not suggesting that lifting hands in worship makes anyone more spiritual; however, we would say that it can be an appropriate physical expression in worship and should be encouraged.

    Reply

  7. Great post there. Glad to have passed by.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Sheryl wiggins on June 29, 2015 at 10:33 am

    I want to add a personal reflection; I started going to church at age 13, to a fundemental church. It was taboo to lift hands. As I grew in my faith, married, moved to another location, found a church, it was a lot like the previous. However, there was an older woman who would always lift her hands. I wondered why, so I observed her for along time. It seemed anytime the pastor or the music we sang mentioned the love of God, His undying love for us, His help in troubled time, His great and wonderful creation, and the list goes on, this woman would be raising her hands. Sometimes both hands sometimes only one. I wanted so desperately to raise my hands to God when I heard this words but refrained from doing so out of fear of judgement by those around me. So here’s my take on the subject.
    Christians are far too quickly to judge others for what they don’t fully understand.
    That’s it in a nutshell. I’m happy to say, I don’t care what others think about me when I raise my hands in surrender, His awesomeness, His great power, Him, just Him alone! It’s between Him and me. It’s private. It’s personal. It’s a special relationship with my Father, that I have with no other.
    Josh, Thank you for your words of wisdom. May God continue to bless you and your family for standing up for Truth. And now, I will finish reading parts 2-3.
    Much love, through the One and only name, Jesus, He who lives forever,
    Sheryl

    Reply

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