Applause, should we clap in church?
 By Steve Billiter

A great many in today’s churches take part in applauding during worship services after a song performance, something the speaker said, or any event where an act of affirmation by clapping the hands together (applause) is supported and actively done consistently in that particular church. Perhaps 40-50 years ago applause—previously seen only at secular events such as plays, concerts, and ball games, started to appear in Christian churches around this time period. It certainly appears to be something wholly secular that entered the church through the acculturation processes. So what does the Bible say about applause in church?

Essentially, we have 4 different Old Testament contexts where clapping is used, and they are; the rise and coronation of kings, the final triumph of God, and with nature itself allegorically clapping, striking the hands or fists in anger, and malicious glee. Below, we will examine and exegete each category with its Biblical references. Next, we will look at New Testament evidence, then that of the writings of Ellen White and attempt to determine whether God approves of applause in divine Sabbath worship services or other church events, and if not, should we refrain?

Coronation of Kings

Here we find court intrigue, along with murder and assassinations as young Joash is made king of Israel, “And he brought forth the king's son, and put the crown on him, and gave him the testimony; and they made him king, and anointed him; and they clapped their hands, and   said, God save the king” (2Ki 11:12). The Hebrew root word for “clapped” is nâkâh, and this verse is the only place in the Old Testament (OT) where the KJV translators inserted “clapped” for nâkâh. The meaning carries the concepts of “striking” and is largely used in a violent manner as in warfare. The context clearly shows this is a secular event where the people clapped their approval of making Joash king, and is not used in any sort of worship in the sanctuary. Therefore, this singular Bible example cannot be used honestly to support hand clapping in church.

Final Triumph of God—Nature itself applauds Him

Psalm 47:1 O clap your hands, all you people; shout to God with the voice of triumph (AKJV).
Psa. 47:2 For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
Psa. 47:3 He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.
Psa. 47:4 He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom he loved. Selah.
Psa. 47:5 God is gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
Psa. 47:6 Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises to our King, sing praises.
Psa. 47:7 For God is the King of all the earth: sing you praises with understanding.
Psa. 47:8 God reigns over the heathen: God sits on the throne of his holiness.
Psa. 47:9 The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong to God: he is greatly exalted.

These verses speak of the magnificence, power, omniscience, and majesty of God as He gives Israel the victories over their enemies as they bow to His will. We praise Him with clapped hands, and with a shout—but not in the temple service!  The solemn worship of He who created all is to be done orderly and as He commands—not as we desire, and once again, this context is not that of the church/sanctuary on the Sabbath day, or any other day. It clearly speaks of the LORD’s battlefield victories for His people. Did not the fighting men of Israel clap, shout, and sing as they watched God fight for them as their enemies were swallowed up by the Red sea, when the walls of Jericho fell, and when they rejoiced at the quick retreat of the pagan nations who arose against them? Certainly!

Then we have this verse in Isaiah, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa 55:12). Indeed, as the hills sing and the trees clap when the earth is made new, no more shall the earth wear old “like a garment” (Isaiah 51:6). Clearly, this is not an example of worshipers in the synagogue praising God or man. And, “Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the LORD; for he comes to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.” Again, God employs an allegory similar to the verse in Isaiah 55 as when the hills, mountains, and trees clapped in praise of God. No reference to a worship service in the synagogue is found here.

Striking the hands or fists in anger

The third clapping hands usage type found in the OT is that of striking the hands in anger, and so we find, “And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said to Balaam, I called you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times” (Num. 24:10). The once-true-prophet turned false prophet Balaam was called upon by King Balak to curse Israel—but God caused Balaam to bless instead. The strike of Balak’s hands was probably once. And we have examples of pounding the fists, “Thus said the Lord GOD; Smite with your hand, and stamp with your foot, and say, Alas for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel! For they shall fall by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence” (Eze. 6:11). God says to express anger or frustration at the sins of Israel as they were overcome by the Babylonians.

“I will also smite my hands together, and I will cause my fury to rest: I the LORD have said it” (Eze 21:17). “Behold, therefore I have smitten my hand at your dishonest gain which you have made, and at your blood which has been in the middle of you”( Eze 22:13). These two verses have God expressing anger and the 3rd, “You therefore, son of man, prophesy, and smite your hands together, and let the sword be doubled the third time, the sword of the slain: it is the sword of the great men that are slain, which enters into their privy chambers” (Eze 21:14) He tells the prophet to do so in the verse preceding. Once again, the Bible does not speak of a worship service at all in any of these verses.

Malicious glee

The final OT category of clapping the hands together is of malicious glee, and so we find here: Eze. 25:6 For thus said the Lord GOD; Because you have clapped your hands, and stamped with the feet, and rejoiced in heart with all your despite against the land of Israel;

Eze. 25:7 Behold, therefore I will stretch out my hand on you, and will deliver you for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut you off from the people, and I will cause you to perish out of the countries: I will destroy you; and you shall know that I am the LORD.

We know that God allowed Israel’s enemies to overcome her because of her gross sins, and God takes issue with the Ammonites and others because they celebrated their victories. My take is that God made it known to these pagan nations that is was He who gave Israel into the Babylonian hands, and the Ammonites and Moabites failed to give Him glory and so they applauded themselves. However, in addition to my initial thoughts:

The 7th Day Adventist Commentary says:

6. Clapped thine hands. To clap the hands and to stamp the feet are gestures of strong emotion (Num. 24:10; Eze. 21:14, 17; Eze. 22:13); here these actions are manifestations of malicious joy. The cause of the rejoicing was apparently not the prospect of material advantage, but malice and “despite against the land of Israel.” They should have trembled at the realization of how Rabbah might have been selected instead of Jerusalem for the initial campaign (Eze. 21:19–22).

7. Know that I am the Lord. A fact that they had been unwilling to recognize before. God designed that a knowledge of His power would lead men to seek His salvation.1

It appears that the Babylonians used divination to decide whether to attack Jerusalem or Rabbah, the city of the Ammonites, and so the Ammonites should have been more humble and breathed a sigh of relief—and blessed the God of heaven because the Chaldeans went for Jerusalem. And when the king of Nineveh fell, “There is no healing of your bruise; your wound is grievous: all that hear the bruit (means to tell or spread rumors) of you shall clap the hands over you: for on whom has not your wickedness passed continually?” (Nah 3:19). God here is saying that many will rejoice over Nineveh’s fall.

And when the rich fall, “The rich man shall lie down, but he shall not be gathered: he opens his eyes, and he is not. “Men shall clap their hands at him, and shall hiss him out of his place” (Job 27:19, 23).  The clapping of hands here is associated with hissing, or rather malicious glee over the end of the rich man. No worship/synagogue context is found.

Here, Job’s so-called friend Elihu adds insult to injury as he falsely accuses Job: “For he adds rebellion to his sin, he claps his hands among us, and multiplies his words against God” (Job 34:37). We know that Job never rebelled against God through all of his severe trials with his physical problems with the boils from head to toe, his wife and friends desert him, and in the end God blesses him even more. But Elihu’s use of “claps his hands” is certainly not made in a worship setting at all, much less in the synagogue.

Lam. 2:15: “All that pass by clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth?”  Hissing is an idiomatic way of expressing derision, and of course God, because of Israel’s sins allowed the 70 year Babylonian captivity.

We see from the Old Testament portion of Scripture that no references at all are made to affirmation applause in the ancient tabernacles and synagogues. As for the New Testament, there is not one single reference to any kind of handclapping in any context, period.

What is the proper response of the worshipers in church from ancient times and today?

Let’s see what the Lord’s messenger, Ellen G. White says about the relationship to earth from heaven: “The church of God below is one with the church of God above. Believers on the earth and the beings in heaven who have never fallen constitute one church. Every heavenly intelligence is interested in the assemblies of the saints who on earth meet to worship God. In the inner court of heaven they listen to the testimony of the witnesses for Christ in the outer court on earth, and the praise and thanksgiving from the worshipers below is taken up in the heavenly anthem, and praise and rejoicing sound through the heavenly courts because Christ has not died in vain for the fallen sons of Adam. While angels drink from the fountainhead, the saints on earth drink of the pure streams flowing from the throne, the streams that make glad the city of our God. Oh, that we could all realize the nearness of heaven to earth! When the earthborn children know it not, they have angels of light as their companions. A silent witness guards every soul that lives, seeking to draw that soul to Christ. As long as there is hope, until men resist the Holy Spirit to their eternal ruin, they are guarded by heavenly intelligences. Let us all bear in mind that in every assembly of the saints below are angels of God, listening to the testimonies, songs, and prayers. Let us remember that our praises are supplemented by the choirs of the angelic host above.”  {6T 366.1} 

The Lord’s messenger says that our praise and worship that we give here is taken up to heaven to the courts above. But if something we do in worship is unacceptable—what then? Remember Cain and Abel as they brought their sacrifices to God: Abel’s was accepted because he obeyed God and brought a lamb offering that represented Christ—Cain’s offering was rejected because he did it his way, and not how God commanded him to. When Cain because angry and his face fell. God said, “If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door” (Gen 4:7). I certainly believe that God knows best how we are to worship and praise Him . Quite simply, it is the spoken words “Amen” (so be it) and “”hallelujah,” which means Praise the Lord is what manner that God desires His people to respond to, generally speaking. 

The Levites, who were the priests and teachers in ancient Israel, instructed the people in the tabernacles and sanctuaries. We see that when God’s commands, or rather when His doctrines were taught, the people responded with amen, meaning let it be so, an affirmation and an agreement between them and God in which a mere clapping of the hands cannot accomplish. No entertainment was present here in these most solemn assemblies to indicate applause, nor was there present any of the previous 4 elements we discussed already which are: the rise and coronation of kings, the final triumph of God, and with nature itself allegorically clapping, striking the hands or fists in anger, and malicious glee. As the people congregated before the Lord we find how they responded:

Deut. 27:15 Cursed be the man that makes any graven or molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and puts it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.
Deut. 27:16 Cursed be he that sets light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Deut. 27:17 Cursed be he that removes his neighbor's landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Deut. 27:18 Cursed be he that makes the blind to wander out of the way. And all the people shall say, Amen.
1Ch 16:36 Blessed be the LORD God of Israel for ever and ever. And all the people said, Amen, and praised the LORD.

Nehemiah brings the book of the law of Moses before the people as they were assembled: “And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women….. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground”(Neh. 8:2,6). The people responded, amen, amen lifting up their hands as they bowed low. No hand clapping or applause is read here at all. These were solemn occasions and had God desired the children of Israel to clap or strike their hands together in rapid-fire manner, then surely He who always gave His people directions in the minutest details—would have done so. And from the Psalms, “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise you the LORD.

When I speak with brethren and sometimes others, I use frequently these words, “Amen, praise the Lord!” It’s a beautiful response to hearing about the Lord’s goodness, His blessings, the acknowledgement, acceptance, and the willingness to obey His commands and truth—especially when someone has answered prayer, witnessing a baptism, or has decided to accept Jesus Christ as the propitiation for their sins. “Amen” is used 78 times in the Bible, (KJV) and the phrase, “praise the Lord” is used 32 times with 19 in the Psalms alone. 257 matches occur with the words “praise and “Lord” in the same verse. Throughout the Bible, we see the response of the people, angels, and the 24 elders is primarily “amen” and “alleluia.”
Rev.19:4  And the four and twenty elders and the four beasts fell down and worshipped God that sat on the throne, saying, Amen; Alleluia.  Nowhere do we see anyone clapping or using applause in praise and worship to God.

The Slippery Slope

How many times do we hear, “The Bible does not forbid that?” But does the Bible approve of that practice as well? If it does not forbid something, nor does it approve a practice, then we must look for examples of the chosen activity in the Bible and see if we find support for, or no support. Sometimes we must apply Bible principles and look at the world’s response to find our answers.  And to really settle the issue we need only go to the Spirit of Prophecy—Ellen White, to find our answers which are made more than clear. We have seen no Bible support at all for applause in the church, nor is it expressly forbidden. I believe that Bible evidence alone is enough for me to not clap, nor to encourage any applause in church for any reason. This is something the world does to praise its heroes such as talented musicians, athletes, and theatrical performances. I believe it is a form of worship. Go to a Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant concert and listen to the applause given to the performer—it certainly is not given to Jesus. Ten thousand cigarette lighters held up---lit in adoration of the musician is also a form of worship/praise.

Why are we in church? Is it to praise and flatter men, or to worship God His way? If we applaud sinful humans in church, are we aiding in their possible destruction by the use of something akin to flattery? The term “applause” appears 213 times in Ellen White’s writings, and not one reference supports applause in church. I found 2 that seem to really give us direction as God’s people in the matter of hand clapping, or applause in church:

“Unless the minister shall fearlessly declare the whole truth, unless he shall have an eye single to the glory of God and shall work under the direction of the great Captain of his salvation, unless he shall move to the front, irrespective of censure and uncontaminated by applause, he will be accounted an unfaithful watchman.” {ChL 73.1}

The applause of men is the food that is relished by the perverted appetite of the Christless soul. Infatuated by a Satanic ambition to have the supremacy, professed followers of Christ are led on from one delusion to another until eternity is lost out of their reckoning. But he who lives godly in Christ Jesus will have no relish for the forbidden praise of men.”  {RH, December 4, 1894 par. 7}

Works Cited

 1.      Nichol, Francis D.: The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Volume 4. Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1978; 2002, S. 665