Music in Worship

Throughout church history, various disputes have erupted over particular practices in worship. Frequently, these conflicts have promoted an inquiry into general principles of worship, in order to assess the particular practices in question. Among the many controverted subjects during the Reformation, there were disputes over the Roman Catholic mass, the correct posture for receiving the Lord’s Supper, the use of ministerial vestments, the observance of ecclesiastical festivals, etc. In the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, conflicts have persisted over the use of non-canonical hymns, instrumental music, ecclesiastical holy days, and crosses. We offer the following observations, in an effort to evaluate the issues in conformity with the scriptural law of worship.

Instrumental Music in Worship

Throughout the scriptures, mankind is instructed to worship God only in the manner prescribed in God’s word. When Moses revealed the details of tabernacle worship, there was anticipation that the portable tabernacle would eventually give way to a permanent place of worship (Deut. 12:5-14). Nevertheless, in both settings, the public ordinances were conducted under the Levitical priesthood. The priests offered the prescribed sacrifices; and certain priests were also designated as musicians.

When David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he learned the importance of seeking the Lord according to the “due order” of God’s word. Part of the priestly order of the Old Testament included the appointment of Levitical musicians in both the tabernacle and the temple (1 Chron. 15:12-13).

After bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David left priests “to minister before the ark continually, as every day’s work required” (1 Chron. 16:37, 42). These priests included those making sacrificial offerings, and “with them Heman and Jeduthun with trumpets and cymbals for those that should make a sound, and with musical instruments of God” (1 Chron. 16:37, 42).

When David divided the courses of the priesthood, the divisions included those “who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals,” etc., “for song in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God” (1 Chron. 23:6ff.; 25:1; 25:6).

When David delivered to Solomon the divine pattern for the temple, it included “the courses of the priests and the Levites, and for all the work of the service of the house of the Lord” (1 Chron. 28:12-13, 19, 21).

When the temple was dedicated, the ark of the covenant was placed within it. The Levitical musicians made a great sound of praise, and the Lord filled the house with a cloud of glory. During the feast of dedication, “the priests waited on their offices: the Levites also with the instruments of music of the Lord, which David the king had made to praise the Lord” (2 Chron. 5:12-14; 7:6).

Throughout these narratives, it is absolutely clear that the musicians and their instruments were not employed simply from the aesthetic tastes of the king or the people. Rather, the musicians were selected in conformity with the divine pattern for worship delivered to David. Some of these heavenly directives came by “Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet;” and all the details were by “the commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (2 Chron. 29:25).

Moreover, it is indisputable that these musicians were part of the Levitical priesthood. They ministered near the ark of the covenant, the meeting-place between God and his people.

Throughout the history of Israel, there were many seasons of apostasy. When the people later repented of their wickedness, temple worship was restored according to biblical law. Such reforms required a resumption of priestly duties which had been neglected.

During Hezekiah’s reform, the king directed the Levites to cleanse the house of the Lord and resume the offerings and sacrifices. Also, “he set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets. And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets” (1 Chron. 29:1-24; 2 Chron. 29:25-26; cf. 30:21).

Again we see conformity to the divine pattern for worship, down to minute details. Even the instruments themselves were not chosen haphazardly, or according to personal taste. There is a specific reference to “the instruments of David.” Similar language is used elsewhere: “the musical instruments of David, the man of God,” and even, “musical instruments of God” (2Chron.29:26; Neh. 12:36; 1 Chron.16:42). Such statements indicate that the particular instruments were selected by the Lord himself, in order to fulfill his own purposes.

The priestly character of the musicians is again underscored in the reform conducted by King Josiah. The house of God was repaired, “and the men did the work faithfully” under the oversight of Jahath and Obadiah, etc., “and other of the Levites, all that could skill of instruments of music” (2 Chron.34:12).

During Nehemiah’s reform, after Israel’s captivity, there is further evidence of the priestly character of the instrumental musicians. “At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries and with harps. and certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets. and his brethren. with the musical instruments of David the man of God” (Neh. 12:27, 35-36).

There are additional references to musical instruments in the Old Testament narratives and the Psalms. But these appear to be further references to temple services, or to the use of instruments in conjunction with prophetic offices, or to musical pursuits associated with everyday life (Ps.150:1-5; 81:2-3; 1Sam.10:5-6; 16:14-23; 18:6,10; 19:9; 1 Chron.25:1-3).

Musicians should always seek to glorify God with their music; that principle is not con tested. The real question before us is whether musical instruments were ever commanded by God as ordinary implements in worship apart from their use in the temple services (Ps.33:2-3; 57:7-9; 1 Cor.10:31).

After examining these Old Testament narratives, we should note the following facts:

1. The appointment of tabernacle and temple musicians came under divine direction as part of the biblical pattern for worship.

2. These musicians were all Levites, ministering near the ark of the covenant, the meeting-place between God and his people.

3. The specific instruments used by the Levitical musicians were dictated by divine inspiration.

As we examine New Testament passages relevant to this subject, we discover certain ele ments of discontinuity, as well as some aspects of continuity with the Old Testament.

The most prominent feature of discontinuity is the replacement of the Levitical priesthood and the temple ordinances.

Christ has come as “a priest after the order of Melchisedec,” and his superior priesthood takes precedence over the Levitical priesthood. “The priesthood being changed” (Heb. 5:6,10; 7:11), the courses of Levitical priests, including the musicians, no longer minister in the tabernacle near the ark.

Moreover, “the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” The old covenant had “ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.” The ninth chapter of Hebrews contains a description of the furniture in the tabernacle, and the ark; all of these items had significance as “a shadow of heavenly things,” “figures of the true” tabernacle in heaven (Heb. 7:12; 9:1; 8:5; 9:24).

The Levitical sacrifices and ordinances were types which were fulfilled in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But now, Christ has come as our high priest, “by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands.” As our high priest, Christ “needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s.” No, Christ was “once offered to bear the sins of many,” and “when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 9:11; 7:27; 9:28; 1:3).

It is striking to recall that the instrumental musicians in the public worship of the Old Testament were all Levites, ministering in tabernacle or temple ordinances. The priestly services of the Levites have been replaced in the New Testament. Therefore, the burden of proof rests with the proponents of instrumental music; they must prove a divine warrant for such service apart from tabernacle or temple ordinances, if they wish to introduce instrumental music into new covenant worship. Without such a warrant, it is improper to reintroduce such ceremonial observances back into public worship.

Moreover, should the proponents of instrumental music establish a warrant for their use in public worship, it would seem incumbent upon them to restore only the “instruments of David,” or such specific instruments as were divinely ordained for use in worship. By any scriptural measure, they would not possess a blanket endorsement to use all musical instruments, according to subjective preferences.

Within the New Testament, we find certain elements which correspond to the priestly service of the Levites in the Old Testament. These elements of new covenant practice provide continuity with the old.

For example, in the New Testament, we are taught that all Christians are made “kings and priests unto God” ­ “an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:5). As priests, Christians present their bodies “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) as a reasonable service unto God. They “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:15). And they speak to one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts”(Eph. 5:19). (Note that the melody which is specifically enjoined is in the heart.)

These actions reveal the true priestly service of the New Testament, as expressed in the life of the believer. These actions reflect the legitimate continuity between the Levitical forms of the Old Testament and Christian piety in the New Testament. All too often, however, a preoccupation with outward Levitical forms and liturgies has been marked by a neglect of the practical godliness. It has always been so with Rome; and it is presently so today among professing Protestants who are obsessed with liturgies.

In commenting on Psalm 81:3, John Calvin observed:

The Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. From this, it is apparent that the Papists have shown themselves to be very apes in transferring this to themselves.

In a similar vein, Calvin remarks upon Psalm 33:2.

I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple. For even now, if believers choose to cheer themselves with musical instruments, they should, I think, make it their object not to dissever their cheerfulness from the praises of God. But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him.

For a summary of the typical nature of instrumental music in the Old Testament, the reader may find it helpful to consult John L. Girardeau’s classic work,  Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Richmond, 1888).  

Girardeau explains,

“The instrumental music of temple-worship was typical of the joy and triumph of God’s believing people to result from the plentiful effusion of the Holy Ghost in New Testament times.

“[I]t pleased God to typify the spiritual joy to spring from a richer possession of the Holy Spirit through the sensuous rapture engendered by the passionate melody of stringed instruments and the clash of cymbals, by the blare of trumpets and the ringing of harps. It was the instruction of his children in a lower school, preparing them for a higher.”

Excerpted with permission from “Biblical Worship” by Kevin Reed.

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