This English word (from the same Latin root as “obey” and “obedience”) signifies the act of bowing, kneeling or prostrating the body, or by some other gesture betokening submission or simply the paying of respect. It adequately translates the Hebrew sha·hhahʹ and the Greek pro·sky·neʹo in many cases.
Sha·hhahʹ means, basically, “to bow down.” (Prov. 12:25) Such bowing might be done as an act of respect or deference toward another human, as to a king (1 Sam. 24:8; 2 Sam. 24:20; Ps. 45:11), the high priest (1 Sam. 2:36), a prophet (2 Ki. 2:15), or other person of authority (Gen. 37:9, 10; 42:6; Ruth 2:8-10), to an elder relative (Gen. 33:1-6; 48:11, 12; Ex. 18:7; 1 Ki. 2:19), or even to strangers as an expression of courteous regard. (Gen. 19:1, 2) Abraham bowed down to the Canaanite sons of Heth from whom he sought to buy a burial place. (Gen. 23:7) Isaac’s blessing on Jacob called for national groups and Jacob’s own “brothers” to bow down to him. (Gen. 27:29; compare 49:8.) When men started to bow down before David’s son Absalom, he grabbed them and kissed them, evidently to further his political ambitions by making a show of putting himself on a level with them. (2 Sam. 15:5, 6) Mordecai refused to prostrate himself before Haman, not because he viewed the practice as wrong in itself but doubtless because this high Persian official was an accursed Amalekite by descent. (Esther 3:1-6) The Babylonian conquerors of Judah in effect told her people to bow down and make their backs like a street for the conquerors to cross over.—Isa. 51:23.
From the above examples it is clear that this Hebrew term of itself does not necessarily have a religious sense or signify worship. Nevertheless, in a large number of cases it is used in connection with worship, either of the true God (Ex. 24:1; Ps. 95:6; Isa. 27:13; 66:23) or of false gods. (Deut. 4:19; 8:19; 11:16) Persons might bow down in prayer to God (Ex. 34:8; Job 1:20, 21) and often prostrated themselves upon receiving some revelation from God or some expression or evidence of his favor, thereby showing their gratitude, reverence and humble submission to his will.—Gen. 24:23-26, 50-52; Ex. 4:31; 12:27, 28; 2 Chron. 7:3; 20:14-19; compare 1 Corinthians 14:25; Revelation 19:1-4.
Bowing down to humans as an act of respect was admissible, but bowing to anyone other than Jehovah as a deity was prohibited by God. (Ex. 23:24; 34:14) Similarly, the worshipful bowing down to religious images or to any created thing was positively condemned. (Ex. 20:4, 5; Lev. 26:1; Deut. 4:15-19; Isa. 2:8, 9, 20, 21) Thus, in the Hebrew Scriptures, when certain of Jehovah’s servants prostrated themselves before angels, they only did so as recognizing that these were God’s representatives, not as rendering obeisance to them as deities.—Josh. 5:13-15; Gen. 18:1-3.
OBEISANCE IN THE CHRISTIAN GREEK SCRIPTURES
The Greek pro·sky·neʹo corresponds closely with the Hebrew sha·hhahʹ as to conveying the thought of both obeisance to creatures and worship to God or a deity. While the manner of expressing the obeisance is perhaps not so prominent in pro·sky·neʹo as in sha·hhahʹ, where the Hebrew term graphically conveys the thought of prostration or bowing down, some lexicographers suggest that originally the Greek term did emphatically portray this idea. Some scholars would derive the term from the Greek ky·neʹo, “to kiss,” while others would derive it from the Greek word for “dog” kyʹon, and give it the basic meaning of “to crouch, crawl, fawn,” as a dog would at his master’s feet. The derivation thus remains in dispute; however, the usage of the word in the Christian Greek Scriptures (as also in the Greek Septuagint Version of the Hebrew Scriptures) shows that persons to whose actions the term is applied, did, in fact, prostrate themselves or bow down. (Matt. 2:11; 18:26; 28:9) So the latter derivation may fit better than that relating to kissing.
As with the Hebrew term, the context must be considered to determine whether pro·sky·neʹo refers to obeisance solely in the form of deep respect or obeisance in the form of religious worship. Where reference is directly to God (John 4:20-24; 1 Cor. 14:25; Rev. 4:10) or to false gods and their idols (Acts 7:43; Rev. 9:20), it is evident that the obeisance goes beyond that acceptably or customarily rendered to men and enters the field of worship. So, too, where the object of the obeisance is left unstated, its being directed to God being understood. (John 12:20; Acts 8:27; 24:11; Heb. 11:21; Rev. 11:1) On the other hand, the action of those of the “synagogue of Satan” who are made to “come and do obeisance” before the feet of Christians is clearly not worship.—Rev. 3:9.
Obeisance to a human king is found in Jesus’ illustration at Matthew 18:26. It is also evident that this was the kind of obeisance the astrologers rendered to the child Jesus, “born king of the Jews,” and also that Herod professed interest in expressing, and that the soldiers mockingly rendered to Jesus before his impalement. They clearly did not view Jesus as God or as a deity. (Matt. 2:2, 8; Mark 15:19) While some translators use the word “worship” in the majority of cases where pro·sky·neʹo describes persons’ actions toward Jesus, the evidence does not warrant one’s reading too much into this rendering. Rather, the circumstances that evoked the obeisance correspond very closely with those producing obeisance to the earlier prophets and kings. (Compare Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 20:20 with 1 Samuel 25:23, 24; 2 Samuel 14:4-7; 1 Kings 1:16; 2 Kings 4:36, 37.) The very expressions of those involved often reveal that, while they clearly recognized Jesus as God’s representative, they rendered obeisance to him, not as to God or a deity, but as “God’s Son,” the foretold “Son of man,” the Messiah with divine authority. On many occasions their obeisance expressed a gratitude for divine revelation or evidence of favor like that expressed in earlier times.—Matt. 14:32, 33; 28:5-10, 16-18; Luke 24:50-52; John 9:35, 38.
While earlier prophets and also angels had accepted obeisance, Peter stopped Cornelius from rendering such to him and the angel (or angels) of John’s vision twice stopped John from doing so, referring to himself as a “fellow slave” and concluding with the exhortation to “worship God [toi The·oiʹ pro·skyʹ’ne·son].” (Acts 10:25, 26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8, 9) Evidently Christ’s coming had brought in new relationships affecting standards of conduct toward others of God’s servants. He taught his disciples that “one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers . . . your Leader is one, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8-12), for it was in him that the prophetic figures and types found their fulfillment, even as the angel told John that “the bearing witness to Jesus is what inspires prophesying.” (Rev. 19:10) Jesus was David’s Lord, the greater than Solomon, the prophet greater than Moses. (Luke 20:41-43; Matt. 12:42; Acts 3:19-24) The obeisance rendered those men prefigured that due Christ. Peter therefore rightly refused to let Cornelius make too much of him.
So, too, John, by virtue of having been declared righteous or justified by God as an anointed Christian, called to be a heavenly son of God and a member of his Son’s kingdom, was in a different relationship to the angel(s) of the revelation than were the Israelites to whom angels earlier appeared. As the apostle Paul had written: “Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3) The angel(s) evidently recognized this change of relationship when rejecting John’s obeisance.—See DECLARE RIGHTEOUS.
Obeisance to the glorified Jesus Christ
On the other hand, Christ Jesus has been exalted by his Father to a position second only to God, so that “in the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the ground, and every tongue should openly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11; compare Daniel 7:13, 14, 27.) Hebrews 1:6 also shows that even the angels render obeisance to the resurrected Jesus Christ. Many translations of this text here render pro·sky·neʹo as “worship,” while some render it by such expressions as “bow before” (AT; Yg) and ‘pay homage’ (NE). No matter what English term is used, the original Greek remains the same and the understanding of what it is that the angels render to Christ must accord with the rest of the Scriptures. If the rendering “worship” is preferred, then it must be understood that such “worship” is only of a relative kind, for Jesus himself emphatically stated to Satan that “it is Jehovah your God you must worship [form of pro·sky·neʹo], and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.” (Matt. 4:8-10; Luke 4:7, 8) Similarly, the angel(s) told John to “worship God” (Rev. 19:10; 22:9), and this injunction came after Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation, showing that matters had not changed in this regard. True, Psalm 97, which the apostle evidently quotes at Hebrews 1:6, refers to Jehovah God as the object of the ‘bowing down,’ and still this text was applied to Christ Jesus. (Ps. 97:1, 7) However, the apostle previously had shown that the resurrected Christ became the “reflection of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his very being.” (Heb. 1:1-3) Hence, if what we understand as “worship” is apparently directed to the Son by angels, it is in reality being directed through him to Jehovah God, the Sovereign Ruler, “the One who made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters.” (Rev. 14:7; 4:10, 11; 7:11, 12; 11:16, 17; compare 1 Chronicles 29:20; Revelation 5:13, 14; 21:22.) On the other hand, the renderings “bow before” and ‘pay homage’ (instead of “worship”) are in no way out of harmony with the original language, either the Hebrew of Psalm 97:7 or the Greek of Hebrews 1:6, for such translations convey the basic sense of both sha·hhahʹ and pro·sky·neʹo.