A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


Music and Worship in the Bible

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Music has a powerful effect on human experience. Students of religious phenomena have long recognized that music transcends our understanding and appeals to our intuitive nature. It is not surprising, then, that music played an important part in the worship of biblical communities, as a way of approaching the mystery of God and of expressing the joy of his presence. This article discusses the role of music in the worship of Israel and of the early church, by way of establishing a biblical foundation for music in the Christian worship of today.

Music in Israelite Worship

Israelite prophets were musicians. During the exodus Miriam the prophetess, taking her tambourine, led the women in song and dance, celebrating the Lord's triumph over the Egyptians (Exod. 15:20-21). Saul encountered a band of sanctuary prophets who prophesied accompanied by instruments (1 Sam. 10:5). Isaiah composed songs, including one celebrating the Lord's deliverance of those who trust in him (Isa. 26:1-6). The public regarded Ezekiel as "one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument" (33:32).

David, a musician as well as a warrior, established the place of music in the worship of the Lord. Even before the sacrifices had been moved to Jerusalem, he instructed the Levitical musicians to celebrate the ark's journey to Zion (1 Chron. 15:16-24), and appointed Asaph as chief musician in charge of continual thanksgiving and praise (1 Chron. 16:1-7). The description of this activity (1 Chron. 25:1-7) suggests that these musicians led in a spontaneous and overwhelming outpouring of worship, especially at high moments like the dedication of Solomon's temple (2 Chron 5:11-14). This may be the "new song" to which the Psalms refer (33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 144:9, 149:1). Many Psalms perhaps originated in this pre-temple Davidic worship centering around the ark of the covenant.

In the temple, music functioned as a "sacrifice of praise," an offering of song to accompany the offering of sacrifice. Under the Judean rulers, the performance of music became regulated and standardized. The titles of 55 Psalms refer to the music director, with instructions for performance on various instruments or using certain tunes. This psalmody remained a feature of Israelite and Jewish worship. After the exile, Ezra recruited more than 200 Levites for service in the sanctuary (Ezra 8:18-20). First-century Jewish sources indicate that the choir of Herod's temple consisted of at least twelve adult male singers, with no upper limit. Singers served between the ages of thirty and fifty, after a five-year training period. The sources also describe the instruments in use at that time.

After the Babylonian exile, most Jews lived in the Dispersion (areas outside of Palestine) and could not participate in temple worship. Therefore the synagogue arose for prayer and the study of the Scriptures. The Psalms continued to be sung, and other portions of the Scriptures as well as prayers were chanted according to a developing system of "modes." Such Jewish music influenced the worship of the early church.

Israelite worship music was both vocal and instrumental; the sanctuary orchestra contributed to the celebration of Israel's covenant with the Lord. Its instruments fall into the same general classes with which we are familiar — percussion, winds (pipes) and strings. Horns, trumpets, cymbals, harps and lyres were used when the ark was brought to Mount Zion, and their continued use is reflected in their mention in the Psalms. The sanctuary instruments were not solo instruments, but sounded simultaneously to call the assembly to worship (Psa. 98:6). Strings and pipes, if used, probably played the modalities (tune elements) in the psalm being sung, with perhaps distinctive patterns of ornamentation. Horns, trumpets and cymbals added to the festive joy by creating a larger sound. The selah of the Psalms may have been an instrumental interlude, or a "lifting up" of sound by both singers and instrumentalists. Tambourines, usually played by women, are mentioned in connection with dancing at Israelite festivals (Psa. 68:25), but were not used in the sanctuary where only men served as priests and musicians.

What did the music of Israel's worship sound like? While we cannot know today exactly how it sounded, recent research has confirmed the similarity between Hebraic music and ancient forms of Christian chant. Biblical music incorporated several characteristic features:

  • Monophony, the use of an unharmonized melodic line — although ornamentation and instrumental accompaniment could create a primitive form of harmony.
  • Modality refers to the use of various musical motifs within a certain scale, each with its own function.
  • Ornamentation, the use of enhancements suited to the skill of the performer.
  • Rhythm — Semitic music does not use the regular beat of modern Western music but has a more complex pattern of time structuring.
  • Scale — Semitic music follows a generally diatonic melody, but with some use of quarter-tone intervals as well as whole or half tones.
  • Improvisation, the practice of composing the music in the process of performing it using skills acquired through a long period of training.
  • Antiphony — In antiphonal music, groups of performers answer one another in statement and response. Examples in biblical worship may be found in the Psalms (Pss. 24, 118) and the "Holy, holy, holy" of Isaiah's seraphim (Isa. 6:3), in a vision no doubt influenced in its expression by the chanting of priestly choirs. This last feature suggests that the congregation, as well as trained musicians, may have been involved in the musical responses of the service.

Worship Music in the New Testament

The worship of the emerging Christian movement did not produce new forms of music, but shared the characteristics described above, many of which are still found in the music of historic liturgies. Clearly, the worship life of the early church included psalms and other forms of song.

The New Testament mentions worship music in several places. The gospel story begins with a hymn of praise on the lips of the heavenly host, "Glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14). Reading the lesson from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-20), Jesus probably intoned it according to the custom of the time. The Gospels record that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn after the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26), probably the "Great Hallel" (Psalms 113-118) of the Passover tradition. Luke records that Paul and Silas were singing hymns in prison at Philippi when an earthquake occurred (Acts 16:25). Paul urges the Christians of Ephesus and Colossae to give thanks to God in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Describing the assembly of the church of Corinth, he remarks that "everyone has a psalm" (1 Cor. 14:26) which must blend with the contributions of other worshipers in an orderly service. Perhaps "psalms" were the biblical psalms, while "hymns" could have been Christian music in praise of Christ and "spiritual songs" more spontaneous worship expressions.

Luke quotes several hymns in the beginning chapters of his Gospel. In addition to the Gloria in Excelsis mentioned above, he includes the Magnificat or Song of Mary (1:46-55), the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah (1:67-79) and the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon (2:29-32). Although spoken by several figures in the story of Jesus' birth, these hymns came to be used in Christian worship at an early period. Paul quotes what may have been another song, "Awake, O sleeper," in Eph. 5:14. Scholars have suggested that other passages in Paul's letters are based on primitive Christian hymns in praise of Christ, such as Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and 1 Timothy 3:16. Such hymns may have been composed to reinforce Christian teaching about the nature of Jesus' Messiahship. The Hosanna hymn of the crowds at Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9, based on Psa. 118:26) became part of the historic Christian eucharistic celebration.

Musical expression of Christian worship reaches its New Testament climax in the hymns of the Revelation to John. In John's vision, acts of praise before God's throne accompany the dramatic unfolding of events on earth. These hymns glorify the Creator (4:11), proclaim the worth of the Lamb (5:9-10; 5:12), extol both the Father and the Son (5:13; 7:10; 7:12), celebrate God's triumph over the enemies of his people (11:16; 11:17-18; 12:10-12; 19:1-3; 19:6-8), and proclaim his justice (15:3-4; 16:5-7). Additional songs celebrate the defeat of the unfaithful city, persecutor of the saints (chapter 18). This pageant of praise is initiated by four living creatures drawn from the vision of Ezekiel, singing words derived from Isaiah's vision in the temple (Rev. 4:8). It expands to include the elders of the covenant people, the hosts of heaven, and eventually every creature. Perhaps these hymns reflect the actual worship practice of the church near the end of the first century. If so, the Revelation offers a window not only into the judgments of God in the earth but also into the development of Christian liturgy and hymnody.

The New Testament does not supply enough detail to reconstruct the exact musical content of developing Christian worship. We should avoid the temptation to project the practices of later centuries back into Bible times. One question is the degree to which Israelite musical practices, including the use of instruments, offer a clue to what was thought appropriate in the New Testament church. Since the Hebrew Scriptures were still the authority for teaching and practice (1 Tim. 3:16-17), their broad principles regarding music must have remained the norm. The young church was a community under persecution, and could not apply the full resources of biblical celebration to its worship assemblies. Nevertheless, the evidence shows that music played a vital role in the worship of the emerging Christian community.