Instrumental Music in the Old Testament

by William J. Stewart

In the search for instrumental music in the Old Testament, one need not go very far. In Genesis 4:21, among the offspring of Cain, we read of Jubal, who is identified as “…the father of all those who play the harp and flute.” Thus, we have the beginning of instrumental music described for us. From this point onward, we find reference to instruments of music in numerous Old Testament passages. These instruments were used for a variety of reasons: calling an assembly together (Numbers 10:1ff), commands in battle (Joshua 6:4), worship of false gods (Daniel 3:5), entertainment or celebration (Genesis 31:27), to give honour to the king (1 Kings 1:34), as a calming agent (1 Samuel 16:23), and in the worship of the God of heaven (Psalm 150).

The association of instruments with worship begins early in the history of God’s people in the Old Testament. Being released from captivity in Egypt, Miriam and the women of Israel with her sang praise to God with timbrels (Exodus 15:20-21). Centuries later, when the ark of God was being moved from the house of Abinadab, “…David and all the house of Israel played music before the LORD on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5) However, the anger of the LORD was kindled, for they transported the ark on a cart drawn by oxen, rather than on the shoulders of the Levites, as instructed in the Law. Some time later, the ark was moved, this time correctly, and the event included “…singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals…” (1 Chronicles 15:16).

Throughout the Psalms, David made mention of praising God with instrumental music. Notice a few examples:

  • “Praise the LORD with the harp; make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.” (33:2)
  • “…on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God.” (43:4)
  • “The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the maidens playing timbrels.” (68:25)
  • “Sing to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of a psalm, with trumpets and the sound of a horn; shout joyfully before the LORD, the King.” (98:5-6)

That the worship of God with instrumental music was a big part of David’s life, and indeed the culture of Jewish worship is evident. There are still more and more examples of such in the Old Testament Scriptures. But it is important to note that they engaged in worship with instruments, not simply because they enjoyed instrumental music, and were talented players, but because God approved of their use. Note:

“And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment (1)of David, (2)of Gad the king’s seer, and (3)of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the LORD also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.” (2 Chronicles 29:25-28)

In the days of Hezekiah, Israel was led in a return to the ways of the LORD. As they prepared to make an offering to the LORD, we find these details given of the musical worship which accompanied the sacrifice. Notice, we are specifically told why they did what they did. The Levites were stationed as they were with instruments “…according to the command of…”, David, Gad, and Nathan, who had lived generations before. But notice further, the people of Hezekiah’s day were not simply following the direction of men in this, “…for thus was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets.” The use of instrumental music in worship was in fact commanded by God in the Old Testament.

Though instrumental music was used in worship in the Old Testament, one ought not immediately conclude that such is the case in New Testament worship also. The countless examples and the commandment to use harps, trumpets, stringed instruments, timbrels and the like for the people of Israel is not authoritative for those who are subject to the law of Christ. Even as we have herein searched the Old Testament, and sought to know what pleased the Lord so far as worship in song in times past, we must now search the New Testament, that we might know what pleases the Lord so far as worship in song today. This task, we will undertake in next week’s article.

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