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The Sursum Corda and Biblically Shaped Worship

Jeffrey B. Wilson

Interest in historic Christian liturgies is increasing among some Christians and in certain churches.[1] One example of this is the sursum corda (lift up your hearts) which is showing up, more and more, in the worship of various Protestant churches. After a long period of being overlooked, or being intentionally ignored, the sursum corda is being rediscovered and included in worship where it once had been absent. Its location in today’s liturgy, however, is not always the same as it was in the historic liturgies. One church I attended a couple of years ago included the sursum corda as a song set off by itself in the liturgy. The service ended without the Lord’s Supper to which, in the past, the sursum corda was attached as the preface to the Eucharistic prayer. Perhaps the renewed interest in the sursum corda is because it is one of those elements of Christian worship that has an ancient and clear spiritual ring to it—“Lift up your hearts; we lift them to the Lord.” However, to use something simply because it sounds more spiritual is[1] not a satisfactory reason to include it in the worship of the church. The Reformed tradition has insisted that there must be a biblical warrant for what we do in worship. Therefore, the question arises: is the use of the sursum corda in worship according to Scripture, particularly in its historic location as the preface to the prayer of thanksgiving in the communion service.

Early Christian prayer grew out of the soil of Jewish prayer. Much work has been done on the Jewish background of the prayers in the church.[2] Within the vocabulary for worship and prayer in the Old Testament is the נשא ידים (nasa yadim lift up hands) phrase, as in the line “I will lift up my hands” to the Lord (Ps. 28:2).[3] When Israel gathered in the temple they prayed to God with their arms raised in the air. Psalm 134 is a direct call to the people “in the house of the Lord” to “lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.” For the Jewish people, prayer incorporated the body with their hands outstretched to the God of Israel. Praying with hands raised up to God may seem like a strange position for prayer until we remember we have our own prayerful postures. When we pray, we typically bow our head, close our eyes, and fold our hands. Bodily posture expresses something about our prayer. The bowing of the head communicates humility and deference before God. The closing of the eyes is a way of focusing our attention on our Heavenly Father. Similarly, the practice of lifting up the hands to God in the Old Testament communicated something about the act of prayer. For some Christians today this prayer posture of hands lifted up to God has been identified with a sense of closeness to God. It is understood as an expression of the desire to reach out to God and make contact with him in an intensely personal and spiritual connection, like a child reaching out her hand for her father to grasp it. What this amounts to is a psychological-emotional reinterpretation of Israel’s practice of lifting up its hands to God. For Israel the lifting up of the hands in prayer was a profound, fully personal way of expressing their prayers as a plea or appeal to God. This God, Israel knew, is the God who created the heavens and the earth, who rules over the nations, who is infinitely sublime and beyond us, yet who entered into a covenant with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and formed them into a holy nation. To this God, Israel brought its prayers. At Mount Sinai God had declared to the people through Moses, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:8). Everyone in Israel could participate in this offering of prayers to God. Therefore, the Psalms extend the summons to “lift up hands” to all of Israel, “Lift up your hands” (Ps. 134). There is evidence that churches mentioned in the New Testament continued the practice of lifting up their hands to God. The First Letter to Timothy instructs the men in the church to pray, “lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Tim. 2:8). Instead of fighting with each other—which uses the hands in a threatening posture—the Christians were to raise their hands to God in thanksgiving, and petition him for what they needed. Since the first Christians were mostly Jewish, it was natural for them to associate prayer with lifting up of the hands to God.

From Scripture, then, we learn that the נשא (nasa lift up) language is often used for prayer, and the phrase “lift up your hands” is an expression of prayer. The sursum corda uses this language for prayer that is found in the Psalms. Accordingly, in the historic liturgies of the church, the sursum corda begins the prayer of thanksgiving during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. “Lift up your hearts” from the sursum corda accords well with the “lift up” phrase used in the Psalms for prayer and is entirely appropriate for the introduction to the Eucharistic prayer.

Another נשא (nasa lift up) phrase for prayer in the Psalms is אליך יהוה נפשי אשא (‘eleyka yahweh napshi ‘esa to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul). The word נפש (nepesh soul), in the Hebrew way of thinking, refers to the essential life of the person and the very core of his or her being.[4] In Greek thinking the λογοs (logos mind) was the essence of the person and that is why in some cases, in the early Christian Eastern liturgies (which tend to rely on the Greek language), the sursum corda is “lift up the mind” instead of “lift up the heart.” Interestingly, the popular American way of referring to the inner, authentic part of a person is more in keeping with the Hebrew metaphor of the heart than the Greek metaphor of the mind, such as when people say, “I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

To lift up the hands is one thing. To lift up the soul is something more. Three psalms contain a form of the phrase נפש נשא (nepesh nasa lift up soul), Psalms 25, 86, and 143. Let us consider Psalm 86 first. This psalm has been classified as an individual lament, which is evident in the first line, “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me.”[5] James Mays presents an insightful analysis of the psalm.[6] He comments that one unusual feature about Psalm 86 is that many of its lines are found in other psalms. For example, the statement in verse 4 אליך יהוה נפשי אשא (’eleka ’adonay napeshi ’esa to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul) is taken from Psalm 25. Frequent borrowing notwithstanding, Psalm 86 has been arranged so that it has its own agenda which focuses on the one who prays the psalm and his relationship to God. The psalm identifies that relationship as a servant-Lord relationship, such as in verses 3–4: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.”

As one who is completely dependent upon God, the psalmist makes his prayer. Concerning the Lord-servant imagery, used with the “lift up my soul” phrase, Mays offers this keen observation, “Prayer not only seeks deliverance from trouble but as well helps in the formation of the self.”[7] We call upon God and are thankful to God when the self, the core of our being, knows it is dependent on God. Mays comments that Psalm 86 goes so far as to pray that God would integrate the self so that the whole heart is undivided and is united in giving thanks. Note verses 11–12:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.

I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with
my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.

Mays vividly explains this integration of the self using the אליך יהוה נפשי אשא (’eleka ’adonay napeshi ’esa to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul) imagery, “The metaphor portrays prayer as an act in which individuals hold their conscious identity, their life, in hands stretched out to God as a way of saying that their life depends completely and only on the help of God.”[8]

The sursum corda (lift up your hearts) carries this imagery and meaning into worship. The congregation lifts up its thanksgiving to God before the communion meal in total dependence upon God, giving thanks specifically for their redemption in Jesus Christ and the new life he gives to them. With the profound language of Scripture, the people pray with their whole being to their Heavenly Father because the fractured reality of their life, broken by sin, is healed and united by the abundant life of Jesus Christ.

These same three psalms (Psalms 25, 86, 143) join trust with the אליך נפשי אשא (’eleka napeshi ’esa to you I lift up my soul). Psalm 25 is arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet in the form of an acrostic. Much of the psalm is comprised of petitions and the opening verse sets it off as a prayer, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” There is also instruction in this psalm. It can be argued that the purpose of the psalm is to give instruction on prayer, yet the effect of the opening metaphor is to characterize the entire psalm as a lifting up of the soul to God.[9] The psalm teaches while it prays. The result is a prayer that works back on those who pray it. Throughout the psalm—beginning, middle, and end—there is the assertion of trust, “O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame” (v. 2), and “for you I wait” (vv. 5, 21). The reason for this trust is God’s חסד (khesed steadfast love) and רחמם (rahamim mercy) which is invoked in the middle of the psalm, “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (v. 6, see also vv. 7, 10). With Psalm 25 trust is included with the prayer, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

The same can be found in Psalms 86 and 143. A series of petitions are made at the beginning of Psalm 86, and here too there is a confidence in God because, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (v. 15). The other psalm, Psalm 143, petitions God to listen in his faithfulness and not in judgment. Asking for a quick answer to his prayer, the psalmist prays, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love” (v. 8). All three of these psalms bring their petitions to God in trust because of God’s character of faithfulness, mercy, and steadfast love.

Besides the Psalms, the נשא (nasa lift up) phrase is found in the book of Lamentations. The Lamentation’s reference needs some comment since it is often cited in worship bulletins as the biblical text for the sursum corda (lift up your hearts). The text found in Lamentations 3:41 is נשא לבבנו אל־כפים אל־אל בשמים (nisa lbabenu ‘el-kappayim ‘el-el bashamayim let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in the heavens). Here we find the two נשא (nasa lift up) phrases in the Psalms drawn together (let us lift up our hearts and hands) with some elaboration. The Hebrew word for “hands” in the Lamentations text is more specific than the word for “hands” used in the psalms reviewed above. The word in Lamentations means the hollow of the hand.[10] The plural “our hearts” has replaced “my soul,” and the object of the lifted hands and hearts is “to God in the heavens.” The “heart” in Hebrew refers to the inner, the middle, the central part of the person and can also refer to the mind, the inclinations, the person himself, and the seat of the passions and emotions.[11] Given this range of meaning, there is considerable overlap between the connotations of the “heart” and the “soul” in Hebrew. With these changes to the psalmic נשא (nasa lift up) phrase, the Lamentations text appears to be a more direct Scripture reference for the sursum corda (lift up your hearts). This may explain why Lamentations 3:41 is the text some churches list beside the sursum corda in their order of worship.

The extraction of words and phrases from the Bible for use in worship has occurred since the beginning of Christian worship, and a liturgical use of Scripture does not always have regard for the biblical context of the phrase being used. However, to answer questions about the biblical warrant for the use of language in worship, such as “lift up your heart,” the context of that phrase in Scripture needs to be considered.

Lamentations is a writing filled with intense pain and outrage. One commentator describes it this way, “The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.”[12] The tragedy of the Babylonian invasion of Judah is the proximate cause for the pain and outrage in Lamentations, and yet this book knows that the more ultimate cause is the anger of the Lord because of the sin of his people. The deep agony can be heard in each of the five poems that comprise the book, for example: “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me; because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death” (Lam. 1:20). Chapter three is the third poem in Lamentations and it calls for a communal response of repentance. The people have sinned against the Lord, and together they must confess their sin. This is where the line נשא לבבנו אל־כפים אל־אל בשמים (nisa lbabenu ’el-kappayim ’el-el bashamayim let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven), verse 41, appears. The stanza containing verses 40–42, begins, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” And it ends with an accusation against God, “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” In between is the line, “Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.” For a moment, the anger is turned to God, but then the poem moves on and becomes hopeful, imploring God with tears for vengeance against Judah’s enemies. In Lamentations, the “lift up your hearts and hands” phrase is in the context of repentance and indignation.

This does not fit well with the liturgical use of the sursum corda in its traditional location as the preface to the Eucharistic prayer during communion. The theme of the Eucharistic prayer is joy and gratitude for the mighty acts of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. It calls upon the Lord, with thankfulness and confident trust, to send his Spirit “so the eating of this bread and drinking of this wine may be a communion in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The setting of the “let us lift up our hearts and hands” in Lamentations is not thanksgiving. However, far from invalidating the sursum corda for use in worship, Lamentations indicates that the biblical language “lift up your hearts” may fit into other places in Christian worship, like the prayer of confession of sin. Still, the more common use of the “lift up” language in Scripture is found in Psalms where it is in the context of prayer with confident trust and expectant dependence upon God.

This study shows that the language of the sursum corda does have biblical warrant in Psalms and Lamentations. Even though it cannot be argued that the biblical warrant for the sursum corda only accords with the Eucharistic prayer in the communion service, the language in Psalms, אליך נפשי אשא (’eleka napeshi ’esa to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul), is well suited for the preface to the Eucharistic prayer before communion. Yet it is not merely a matter of quoting these words from Scripture in order to make the church’s liturgy “more biblical.” The use of biblical language has much more to do with shaping the imagery of worship. A church’s liturgy can have the basic elements of worship directed by Scripture and still be superficial and poorly constructed. Worship according to the Bible is also about imagery. In writing to ministers about leading in worship, Hughes Oliphant Old makes this point well:

Prayer does have its own language, its own vocabulary, and its own imagery. This language is not simply a matter of style. Prayer, particularly Christian prayer, uses biblical language.... The Bible contains a vast number of paradigms for prayer and a thesaurus of words to handle the unique experience of prayer.[13]

The imagery of the language of Scripture draws the church into the reality of worshipping the God who is our creator and redeemer. Without such imagery worship loses that vibrancy and vividness of our encounter with the Holy and Almighty One. It is a matter of perspective—what we are doing in worship. Churches today would do well to incorporate the sursum corda with its biblical imagery into their worship. The Christian communities that came before us learned much about using biblical language and imagery in worship, and we have much we can learn from them. This is certainly true of the “lift up my soul” language from Psalms. As they saw it, this language is ideal for expressing our thanksgiving and communion with God. Those who led the Reformed churches during the Reformation, particularly John Calvin and Peter Vermigli, also appreciated the imagery of the sursum corda, and they recognized its deep and rich theological dimensions.

Endnotes

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/September/9.24.html; Robert Webber and Lester Ruth, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (New York: Morehouse, 2012); website of the Reformed Liturgical Institute, http://www.liturgicalinstitute.wordpress.com/churches.

[2] See Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship, Guides to the Reformed Tradition, ed. John H. Leith and John W. Kuykendall (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 87–96; R. T. Beckwith, “The Jewish Background to Christian Worship” The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 39–51; Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 53–108.

[3] See also Psalms 63:4; 134:2 and Lamentations 2:19.

[4] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, based on the lexicon of William Gesenius as translated by Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), 659–60.

[5] Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 51–100, vol. 20, (Dallas: Word, 1990), 377.

[6] James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 278–79.

[7] Ibid., 280.

[8] Ibid., 124. Mays says this in his comments on Psalm 25.

[9] Ibid., 125.

[10] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 496.

[11] Ibid., 523.

[12] Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Book of Lamentations, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 1013.

[13] Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer, a Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 7.

Jeffrey B. Wilson is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Southfield, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, November 2014.

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