Some will read the preceding post and find an implicit command to use the instrument. That would be a misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel and the assembly.
Yes, there are incidental references to the psalms that, rightly construed, would permit the use of instruments. But they should not be understood as commands to use the instrument any more than as commands not to use the instrument. The point of the passages is to celebrate the Messiah and the arrival of God’s kingdom. The means of celebration are elastic.
(Eph 5:19 NAS) speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;
The point of the very redundant “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and also the redundant “singing and making melody” is to emphasize that we are to celebrate — by whatever means are appropriate in the setting. We don’t have to be careful that we have all three kinds of music and that we both sing and make melody! This is not checklist Christianity. Rather, the point is that we are free to celebrate his Son with all kinds of singing. The language isn’t about limiting and demanding what we must do but giving us freedom to do what the Spirit compels us to do — if we would just be filled with the Spirit.
You see, we will interpret wrongly every single time unless we start where Paul starts — with the Spirit:
(Eph 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
(2Co 3:17 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
The historical setting
By and large, the early church met in homes. And a Roman home could not hold many — no more than 30 — at a time. Many homes would have been much smaller. Therefore, they met in lots of homes. The Jerusalem congregation would have required hundreds of houses to meet in.
Among the 30 or fewer in the house would have been children and babies. There might have been but 15 or 20 adults or fewer in many assemblies. It would have been very much like modern small group programs.
The assembly often involved a meal — the love feast or agape. Therefore, the assembly would have been no more than could be accommodated for dinner — and serving a meal takes up a lot of space.
And so it’s very unlikely that the typical assembly had instrumental music simply because it’s unlikely a congregation would have enough instrumentalists to place a harpist in each of hundreds of house churches.
Moreover, in an age long before the industrial revolution, instruments would have been very expensive — and they aren’t cheap today. The early church was largely made of slaves and the poor. It’s highly unlikely that there would have been instruments in every house church or even most house churches, even if God gifted many members to play. (And during times of persecution, if instruments came to typify Christian worship, who’d want to be seen on the street taking a harp to a house on a Sunday?)
Rather like today, in a small group or house church setting, the use of the instrument would depend on whether a skilled player was available and whether he or she brought an instrument. And even today, where music is ubiquitous and countless people take guitar and piano lessons, you don’t find a skilled instrumentalist at every small group setting. It would have been much less likely in the early church.
Therefore, for purely practical reasons, it seems likely that most assemblies would have had no instrumental music — not because it was sinful or wrong, but because there wouldn’t have been enough instrumentalists and instruments (surely very expensive in that day) to go around — and because of fear of persecution.
I’ll admit to a measure of speculation here, but it makes sense.
Therefore, it’s easy to imagine that, with Jewish sensibilities becoming opposed to the instrument after the destruction of the Temple and as too closely associated with pagan cults, and with Greek sensibilities tending toward Platonic thought, which preferred the human voice over the instrument, all blended with the increasing influence of Philo and the Alexandrian school of interpretation (allegorical interpretation, highly influenced by Greek thought), the church came to reject the instrument — which was of little value anyway. I mean, giving up the instrument would have nearly been a non-event as the instrument never would have been a major part of Christian worship.
Therefore, going from the occasional use of the instrument during apostolic times to non-use by the late Second Century would not have been a big step at all. It’s not as though they were throwing out pianos in their 200-seat auditoriums! They were an illegal cult, meeting in homes, in secret, among the poor. Instruments weren’t wrong but neither would they have been very practical.
The early church fathers
It’s not surprising that when we start reading condemnations of the instrument in the very late Second Century, the authors refer to their association with paganism but not to scripture as justifying their opposition. Never do the early church fathers argue from lack of authority or assert that the Bible condemns their use. Rather, they speak in cultural terms. Tertullian (ca 200 AD) wrote,
Clearly Liber and Venus are the patrons of the theatrical arts. That immodesty of gesture and bodily movement so peculiar and proper to the stage is dedicated to them, the one god dissolute in her sex, the other in his dress. While whatever transpires in voices melody instruments and writing is in the domain of Apollo, the Muses, Minerva and Mercury. O Christian, you will detest those things whose authors you cannot but detest!
The argument proceeds from the association of the instrument with the sins of the theatre in that culture. Just so, Clement of Alexandria, writing at about the same time, says,
We, however, make use of but one instrument, the word of peace alone by which we honor God, and no longer the ancient psaltery, nor the trumpet, the tympanum and the aulos, as was the custom among those expert in war and those scornful of the fear of God who employed string investments in heir festive gatherings, as if to arouse the remissness of spirit through such rhythms.
His argument proceeds from the association of the instrument with warfare.
And this is exactly what we’d expect if the choice to reject the instrument came out of cultural concerns rather than the supposed absence of authority in the New Testament or secret, oral traditions delivered by the apostles and never written down.