In some churches people lift up their hands when they're singing and praying. What's that all about?
Several years ago the raising of hands during the worship service was reserved for churches considered "charismatic." Sadly, many people in the mainline churches used the term "charismatic" and "charismatic worship" with a disparaging tone of voice. By common understanding, charismatic churches were those congregations that practiced the "spiritual gifts," especially in their worship (using gifts like speaking in tongues). On the other hand, many in the mainline churches inappropriately conferred the term on any congregation that expressed excitement or joy by clapping, raising hands, and expressing verbalizations like "praise God" or "hallelujah" during worship. Critics said the charismatic style of worship was base and appealed to the emotions not the intellect. However, in recent years some mainline churches have come to understand that there is more behind faith and belief than the intellect alone and some of the charismatic worship "traits" have slipped into some mainline worship services-like the raising of hands.
So, what's the significance of raised hands and where did the custom come from?
The custom of raised hands during worship can be traced to the early years of Israel. Indeed, Aaron, the first High Priest, raised his hands in prayer as he blessed the Israelites when the sanctuary was first established. This form of prayer, called a benediction is often the only time many church goers see a raised hand, and then only by the minister. However, Aaron's raised-hand blessing became a common ritual during prayer and worship. The book of Psalms speaks of raised hands regularly: "Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name" (Psalms 63.3-4). Further, the congregation is exhorted to lift their hands in worship of God: "Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord . . . lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord" (Psalms 134.1-2).
So, what does raised hands signify? For one, raised hands are symbolic of our dependence on someone else. Raising hands during worship can be similar to children who lift their hands to be picked up, comforted, protected, or carried: "I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land" (Psalm 143.6). Thus, raised hands in worship may suggest a reaching out for God's presence, blessing, comfort, or strength. Often, this meaning is seen during prayer.
Another significant meaning of raised hands is to bless God, much like Aaron's blessing of the people. In Psalm 63 the psalmist says he raises his hands to bless God. This symbolizes both gratefulness and joy for the blessings God has given. Indeed, many of the psalms indicate that hands are raised in song and prayer to show thankfulness and joy for God's great works (cf., Psalms 134, 141). The raising of hands for this purpose is common during songs of praise.
Finally, the lifting of a hand may signify a vow. This is similar to our custom of raising our hand in court and promising to tell the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." This is practiced throughout scripture: "Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them that he would make them fall in the wilderness" (Psalms 106.26) and "Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and the land raised his right hand to heaven and swore by him who lives forever and ever . . . " (Revelation 10a5-6a). This particular significance is seldom used during worship, though it certainly could have a place there if someone wanted to make a solemn commitment to God.
The custom of raising hands during worship was a common practice in the early church, especially during prayer. In Paul's letter to Timothy he writes, "I desire, then, that in every place the people should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument" (1 Timothy 2.8). Indeed, according to some Jewish commentators, the Israelite practice of lifting hands during worship in the synagogues was stopped in reaction to the Christians who customarily raised their hands during prayer.
So, should everyone lift their hands during worship? Certainly not-there are a number of people who would feel very uncomfortable doing so. Worship is meant to be an act of praising God in celebration, and each participant must feel good about their actions in order to experience true worship. Conversely, if you feel the urge to lift a hand during a song or a prayer, your heart should feel free to exercise that impulse-surely God would approve.