Are Christians Required to “Lift Up Holy Hands”?

By Wayne Jackson

"In his letter to Timothy, Paul said that men are to pray, ‘lifting up hold hands’ to God (1 Timothy 2:8). Why don’t people lift up their hands when they pray today?

The “lifting up holy hands” is more than likely an expression borrowed from the Old Testament because of a common (though neither mandated or rigid), ancient practice of raising one’s hands when praying. When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple, “he spread forth his hands toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:22). In one of his prayers, David exclaimed: “Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry unto you; when I lift up my hands toward your holy oracle” (Psalm 28:2). To the superficial, hypocritical worshippers in the era of Isaiah the prophet, the Lord God said: “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).

These passages illustrate the fact that on occasion the Hebrews held up their hands when they prayed. Such was not always the case, however, and other postures are mentioned. Prayer was made standing (1 Samuel 1:26), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54), prostrate (1 Kings 18:42), audibly (John 17:1; 18:1), silently (1 Samuel 1:13), with bowed head (Genesis 24:26), with uplifted eyes (John 17:1), etc. Obviously, a particular posture in prayer was not a binding pattern.

Furthermore, literally speaking, there is no such thing as “holy hands.” This is a figure of speech known as the synecdoche (the part put for the whole); “holy hands” stand for a holy person. In Proverbs 6:16-19 several body components are used metaphorically to stress certain evil actions. Mention is made of “haughty eyes,” a “lying tongue,” murderous “hands,” a wicked “heart,” and mischievous “feet.”

The point being made in 1 Timothy 2:8 is this: those who lead in the worship (and public worship is of the thrust of this context) must be holy men. In view of this, how serious a responsibility it is for the men who are leading the church’s worship to be of the very highest spiritual quality. To employ worldly men for a lesser motive (e.g., a reward for some material service rendered, or to “encourage them to do better”) is a woefully misguided effort.

Some have inquired as to whether there is any wrong with people raising their hands when they pray, even in the public assembly? In some churches this is becoming more common. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. Perhaps, however, a word of caution would not be out of place, and admittedly one must be cautious here.

First, this practice in the modern community of “Christendom” is generally identified with the hyper-emotional “Pentecostal” people who are known to thrust aside scriptural restraint for the so-called “charismatic” experience. One may wish to consider whether he wants to leave the impression that he is inclined in this direction.

Second, the phenomenon is finding some level of a “comfort zone” among the more liberal congregations of the Lord’s people. The “hands up” stance may send a signal to some that a “more contemporary” worship format is being tested — something more emotional and less formal.

Third, one might consider whether such a novel practice might create a distraction for others. These are “judgment” factors, but it seems that a prudent Christian might want to reflect upon them.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.