An ancient legend recorded by Herodotus (1.119) tells how the Persian subjects of King Xerxes adored him. When the king and many of his people were returning from war in Greece, a great storm at sea threatened to capsize their overcrowded ship. Learning that the ship was about to sink, a good number of the Persians bowed before their king and flung themselves into the sea to drown. By their sacrifice the king’s life was saved.
When the Persians “bowed” before their king, they were following the ancient practice of putting the face to the ground (or ship’s deck!) as an act of complete obeisance. The Greek word for this is proskyneo (pross ku NEH oh). It derives from the word kyneo, meaning “I kiss” and a prefix that means “toward.” So proskyneo, in its classical usage, meant “I kiss the ground in the direction of the one I reverence.”
The word for this act of reverence, humility, and adoration comes into the New Testament as the word “worship.” In the literal sense many people bowed to “worship” Jesus; in Matthew alone we witness the wise men (2:11), a leper (8:2), the father of a dying girl (9:18), the mother of a demonized girl (15:25), a pleading mother (20:20), and women who clung to his feet after he arose (28:9). Typically, they “fell to the ground and worshiped him.”
From these physical examples we can learn something about our worship of God. At the heart of worship is an inner spirit bowing in humble adoration before the Creator. It is the attitude of the Psalmist, who said, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (95:6). Whatever else we may do or not do in our public worship services, the one thing that must happen is this eager bowing of our spirits before God. Even more than those ancient Persians, we have reason to say, “More than life itself, Lord, we worship you!”