The Diamond of Praise – Machol (Dance!)

The Diamond of Praise – Machol (Dance!)

A Facet of Praise – Machol (Dance!).

“The area of ancient Israel’s greatest creativity, and so what they did best, was the praise of God.” (Ellen Davis, Getting involved with God). “I will extol Thee, my God, O King; And I will bless Thy name forever and ever. Every day I will bless Thee, and I will praise Thy name forever and ever. Great is the Lord Yahweh, and highly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall praise Thy works to another, and shall declare Thy mighty acts, the glorious splendor of Thy majesty, and on Thy wonderful works I will meditate.”  (Psalm 145, a song of praise by David).

Scripture doesn’t define the word “praise,” but it offers plenty of descriptions. Praise can be described as an outward expression of gratitude for all that God has done for oneself, for the community, for the world. Praise is a recounting of the many blessings that God has provided in His grace and mercy. Praise is a grateful appreciation of God’s mighty works. Praise is an expression of thanksgiving to the Lord, an acknowledgement of God’s righteous deeds. To praise God is to thank God and celebrate His presence in the world.

Praise is what we were created to do, it is the chief of our ultimate satisfactions, and we won’t find personal fulfillment unless we develop the habit of forgetting ourselves and praising God. Most of us Christian believers are not following in the footsteps of our Jewish brethren and praising God with an inspired creativity. The fact is, the Hebrew Bible reveals a vocabulary of praise that will help us in our bid to be more expressive of our praise, more imaginative, more creative. The Hebrew Bible reveals praise to be a diamond with an almost uncountable number of facets. There are many words in Scripture that may translate as praise, but the reality is praise has an abundance of angles and facets and dimensions that we need to learn if we want to mature in our praise of God. The Hebrew language is loaded with words that contain the element of praise but with added qualities that expands our view of what praise could mean to us in our walk of faith. Knowing these words will help us to participate more fully and deeply in praising our God, in expressing our thanksgiving to Him in every way humanly possible. “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Thy praise (tehillah, see below).” (Psalm 51:15 )

Praising God involves all of us, not just our intellect to think with or our bottoms to sit on. Praise and worship in the Jewish tradition is a physical experience as well as spiritual, with lots of meaningful postures and gestures, singing, multisensory, thoughtful yet expressive. Praise and worship in the Hebrew Bible invariably incorporated music and melody and instrumentation. Praise is not a spectator sport, but one that asks for full participation. As Dwight Pryor once said, “Praise is not afraid of feelings, but they are not based on feelings. If praise were a train, the engine that needs to constantly be stoked is God-focus and self-forgetfulness, and the emotional feelings are basically the caboose… still a part of things, but not what’s running the train.”

Praise is our exhale of gratitude and devotion after our inhale of God’s inspired presence. God initiates, we respond. So praising God is like our respiratory system, and unless we are breathing in God and then breathing out praise, we will spiritually expire. If we don’t learn how to respond to God’s goodness with heartfelt praise, our faith will soon become lifeless. Consider this category of “The Diamond of Praise” in the blog to be my meager attempt to polish each facet on this sparkling diamond. Each Hebrew word in this expanded vocabulary of praise will convey a different aspect of praise, and is intended to help us be more creative in our praise, more expressive, more biblical.

Being Physical with Worship. The spiritual and the physical belong together, and are in fact inseparable. We were created as whole beings with a mysterious fusion of body and spirit and soul and body and everything else that constitutes our personhood. Not only that, the Incarnation reveals how important the body is to Creator God. In a sense, the idea, the reality, of God taking on a physical body was actually a spiritual act. We need to make sure we incarnate our worship. So worship of our Creator needs to include the body if we want to worship with our whole selves. Physical acts of worship become meaningless if it is done thoughtlessly, without its intention of worshipping God. But worship is not limited to the nonphysical, the so-called spiritual either, or one is not truly involved fully in the act of worship. As Rev. Josef Ratzinger once wrote in his excellent article, The Theology of Kneeling, “The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is worship. Without the heart of worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act itself must of its very nature express itself in the bodily gestures.” So physical gestures are invaluable in the act of worship. They can point to spiritual truths, they can stimulate worshipful acts, and they can enable a fuller expression of awe, lament, adoration and worship. Using the body helps us to put the Gospel message into motion. The movement of one’s body can be a sign that communicates a message… Do you want to signal to God that you submit to Him, that you want to confess to Him, that you adore Him, that you intend to follow Him in trust? There are gestures and postures and movements that can express what is on your heart without any use of words. Body language is vital to spiritual life and expression. In this blog series entitled “Physical Worship,” I will focus on the worshipful use of the body through such gestures and movements as: prostration before God; sitting at the feet of Jesus; standing in respect and oneness; kneeling in submission; walking in order to follow; running the good race; jumping for joy; lifting up the heart and hands; offering the kiss of peace;; and the act of crossing oneself with the sign of the Cross. This is important: Physical postures and actions during worship reflect the attitudes of the heart, but they can also help produce the attitudes of the heart.

Machol – A term in the Hebrew Bible which means, to dance, particularly in a circle dance, to dance in the company of others. The Hebrew shortened form of machol is “hul,” which also means to dance, with lots of whirling and twirling.

“Hallelujah! Praise God in His holy place, praise Him in the vault of His power! Praise Him for His mighty acts, praise Him as befits His abounding greatness! Praise Him with the ram-horn’s blast, praise Him with the lute and the lyre! Praise Him with timbrel and dance (Machol), praise Him with strings and flute! Praise Him with sounding cymbals, praise Him with crashing cymbals! Let all that has breath praise Jah!  (Psalm 150). 

Despite the resurgence of dance worship in a variety of churches, the history of dancing with the Christians is a bit spotty. The joy of dancing in worship has never had resistance in Judaism, however. The Israelites have enjoyed dancing in their worship seemingly forever, according to the Hebrew Bible. Holy dance has always been embraced in Hebrew worship as a physical expression of joy and celebration and even reverence. Psalm 149:1-3 is another biblical call to dance. “Hallelujah! Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the faithful’s assembly. Let Israel rejoice in its Maker, Zion’s children exult in their King! Let them praise His Name in dance (machol), on the timbrel and lyre let them hymn to Him.”  Here are a few highlights of holy dancing as recorded in Scripture:

(1.)  Miriam dancing at the Red Sea. “Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!’”(Acts 15:20-21, Exodus 15:20).  Miriam is the first woman in the Hebrew Bible to be called a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). She is prominent in Jewish history, and is on the short list of the seven special women in the Jewish faith who were called prophetesses. These women are the “Holy Women to Israel”: Sarah (Genesis), Miriam (Exodus, Numbers), Deborah (Judges), Hannah (1 Samuel), Abigail (1 Samuel 25), Huldah (2 Kings), and Esther. The designated prophet in Jewish circles, whether male or female, held a unique place in the Scriptures. Prophets and prophetesses were able to receive divine revelations from the Lord regarding the future as well as the present. The prophet would speak what was on God’s mind. Prophets were also held up as role models of sanctity and intimacy with God. They set the community standards for religious faith and behavior. Rabbinic tradition holds that Miriam was at first considered a prophet because she had prophesied to her parents that they would bear the person who would deliver the Israelites from bondage. The fact that both mother and sister went to such extraordinary measures to take care of Moses suggests that they knew Moses was going to be unique, with a singular role as savior and deliverer of his people. The other reason Miriam was called a prophetess in Scripture is that she was described that way in direct connection to her role as worship leader in song and dance at the Red Sea. Jewish tradition holds that Miriam was the designated worship leader all during their wilderness journey.

(2.)  David dancing before the Ark.  David was full of joy as he escorted the Ark of God back to its rightful place in Jerusalem. The Ark represented the very presence of Yahweh, and it established Jerusalem as the religious center of Israel. David was thrilled that the Ark of the Covenant would be accessible for worship in Israel’s capital. So there was “great celebration” as they brought back the Ark. “David danced before the LORD, whirling about with all his might, wearing a priestly loincloth.” (2 Samuel 6). So David and all the people of Israel formed a riotous parade with shouts of joy and the blowing of ram’s horns. But when his wife Michal saw King David “leaping and dancing before the Lord, she was filled with contempt for David.” Michal was disgusted with David for making a spectacle of himself before all the people. “How distinguished the King of Israel looked today, shamelessly exposing himself to the servant girls like any vulgar person might do!” David defended himself, and said “I was dancing before Yahweh, making merry out of pure enjoyment… And I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes!” After this exchange, their relationship hit the rocks, and she remained childless (2 Samuel 6:12-23). It needs to be noted that David’s priestly loincloth was basically linen underwear worn by priests when offering sacrifices. (Exodus 20:26 and 28:42). The Lord instructed the priests to wear the loincloth over bare skin. But in his celebration before Yahweh, David didn’t worry about playing the shameless fool. He said he would engage in even more of this foolishness if it was called upon!

(3.)  Torch Dancing at the Feast of the Tabernacles. This psalm specifically written for the Feast gives us a sense of the celebration: “Sing gladly to God our strength, shout out to the God of Jacob. Lift your voices in song and beat the drum, the lyre is sweet with the lute. Blast the ram’s horn on the new moon, when the moon starts to wax for our festival day.” (Psalm 81:1-3). This Jewish “Feast of Joy” was celebrated once a year in Jerusalem, and it was by far the most festive of all the biblical feasts in Judaism. One exciting event that took place every night for six nights in the Temple Court was knowns as the “Fire Ceremony.” The Temple priests and elders put on an unforgettable light show of their own before all the thousands in attendance. Light was celebrated in two ways: the blessed memory of the pillar of fire during the wilderness journey; and the celebration of God’s Shekinah glory of light filling the Holy of Holies with His presence. Light was also an expectation as believing Jews anticipated the universal return of the Shekinah to all the believers in God in the fullness of time. During the Fire Ceremony, there would be four gigantic lampstands (menorahs) set up in the Temple court, each about 75 feet high! Each lampstand had four branches with huge wicks soaked in oil and were constantly burning through the night. There was so much light in the Temple that it was reported that every home in Jerusalem was lit with the Temple lights. Around the giant lampstands a group of elders with lit torches danced around the Temple courtyard, dancing and waving the torches, throwing them into the air and catching them again. While the Torch Dances were in full motion, there were a group of priests accompanying the dancers with harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets, and other instruments. And then these priests positioned themselves on the top of the famous Fifteen steps leading downward. They would then sing one of the Hallel Psalms (Ps. 113-118 and other psalms that begin with Hallelujah) on each step, descending each step in unison, until they reached the bottom step and finished singing those psalms. This was all quite the spectacle, and it was said, “Anyone who has not seen the rejoicing of the Fire Ceremony in his life has never truly seen rejoicing.” Astoundingly, it was the day following the Feast, when everyone still had their minds swimming with the images of light, that Jesus declared, ”I Am the Light of the World!” (John 8:12). This was an obvious claim to deity in this context of the Feast. It would have been equivalent to Jesus saying, ” I AM the pillar of fire!” or “I AM the Shekinah glory!” This took serious chutzpah on the part of Jesus, and I love Him for that.

(4.)  The Jewish Wedding Dances. The Jewish wedding was an important time to celebrate with dancing, not only for the blessing of enjoying another marriage, but also because every wedding ceremony was in memory of the spiritual wedding covenant on Mr. Sinai between Yahweh and His Chosen People. Thus, there was intense celebration at every wedding! Here are a couple of exhilarating examples… The one video is a clip from the classic dancing scene from the Fiddler on the Roof, and the other video is contemporary example of how the Jewish wedding has maintained that joy of dancing through the centuries.

Fiddler on the Roof (10/10) Movie CLIP – The Bottle Dance (1971) HD – YouTube

Most epic Jewish wedding dance – YouTube

Jesus did nothing to discourage dancing during His ministry on earth. He undoubtedly continued participating in religious dances, since He was so fully Jewish in all His ways. His most famous parable, the Prodigal Son, ends with celebrating, singing and dancing at the feast given by the Father in the son’s honor. (Luke15). We know that to “rejoice” literally means to jump for joy, to leap with gladness of heart, and isn’t it wonderful that Luke spoke of Jesus “rejoicing greatly” in Luke 10:21. I like to imagine our Lord twirling and whirling and jumping for joy.

The first five centuries of Christian worship more or less followed in their Judaic roots. There was dancing during worship and in festive processionals. They made distinctions between holy dancing in church and pagan dancing during their profane worship. In the mid-fourth century a church leader wrote this to his church members on Palm Sunday, “Rejoice in the highest, daughters of Zion! Rejoice and be glad! Leap boisterously! For behold, once again the King approaches. Once again perform choral dances, leap wildly, ye Heavens; sing hymns, ye Angels, and all you who dwell in Zion, and dance the ring dances.”  The sainted Gregory of Nyssa (4th C.) even went so far as to describe Jesus as “the One and Only Choreographer, the leader of dances on earth and in heaven.” Look at the lyrics of this song, and the picture of Jesus dancing with children, and be happy that He is the Lord of the Dance.

When reading the quote above referring to the “choral dance” and the “ring dance,” it is referring to the most popular type of dancing in worship during the early days of the Christian Church. The name of the dance was the “Tripudium,” which means simply “Three.” Each dancer would put his/her hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, and take three steps forward and one step back, symbolizing our walk with God as progressing a few steps and then inevitably making a mistake, and then progressing forward again. The dancers would use these steps as they danced in circles, whether around the churchyard, in the streets, or even around the altar in the church sanctuary. Many contemporary Christian churches have continued the dancing of the Tripudium in worship, including the church in this video clip. Watch this video to the end and you will see how it is done during worship in their church, which as it happens, is called St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Tripudium – YouTube

Some early Church leaders, including Augustine and Chrysostom, began to frown on dancing in worship because it was starting to resemble the pagan forms of dancing in their worship. So for the most part until the Reformation, church worship dance was somewhat limited to festive and expressive processionals during the worship service. The Reformation put an end to that as well, and the result has been a tradition of Protestant churches frowning on dancing during worship.

Those churches that hold square dance parties or special Prom nights know how enjoyable, and how much of a community-builder, dancing together can be. There remain though a few Christian churches that continue to express themselves physically during worship.  The African American tradition is to enjoy physical worship as an expression of joy and celebration. This wonderful video of Rev. Charles Jenkins in a huge African American church reveals how much other churches are missing. Enjoy this!

Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago – War (Live) – YouTube

Finally, I must confess that I couldn’t resist showing this one last dance video. When we use our bodies to physically express ourselves honorably with excellence and joy, without anything irreverent or unholy, I believe we truly honor God with our bodies. This video is so much fun, I hope none of you readers just skip over this. To the music of probably the most danceable song of the decade, “Uptown Funk,” many famous dancing scenes in old movies are synched up and absolutely wonderful to watch. Really fun. This may not be worship directly, but the physical and musical expressions of joy here just has to make God smile. Enjoy!

Old Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk – YouTube

“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness! My soul will sing praise to you and will not be silent! O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” (Psalm 30:11-12).