Instruments used ironically
Various writers use instruments as symbolic of a man’s contentment, often in an ironic sense. Thus, a rich man who is evil is often spoken of as enjoying instrumental music despite failing to honor God. The point in such passages is not that instrumental music is evil but that those blessed by instrumental music should remember to honor God. The irony arises from the conflict between living a blessed life (symbolized by instrumental music) despite not deserving the blessings.
(Job 21:7-13 ESV) 7 Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? 8 Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes. 9 Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. 10 Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and does not miscarry. 11 They send out their little boys like a flock, and their children dance. 12 They sing to the tambourine and the lyre and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. 13 They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.
Thus, Job no more condemns instruments than he condemns safety as home, having many children, or having fertile cows.
Isaiah condemns those who celebrate with instruments while not honoring God.
(Isa 5:12-13 ESV) 12 They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. 13 Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge; their honored men go hungry, and their multitude is parched with thirst.
Isaiah sarcastically urges Tyre to “take a harp” to enjoy its days pending God’s destruction.
(Isa 23:15-16 ESV) 15 In that day Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, like the days of one king. At the end of seventy years, it will happen to Tyre as in the song of the prostitute: 16 “Take a harp; go about the city, O forgotten prostitute! Make sweet melody; sing many songs, that you may be remembered.”
Amos demands that the people stop playing the harp, not because it’s wrong but because God will not accept the worship of the unrighteous even if holy in form. Amos also rejects the offering of fattened animals, even though such offerings are commanded.
(Amo 5:21-24 ESV) 21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos later condemns those who take their ease or enjoy instrumental music when God is planning to destroy them for their sin. His condemnation is not the instruments but the attitude of living in luxury when the people ought to be in mourning.
(Amo 6:1-8 ESV) “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! … 3 O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence?
4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, 5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, 6 who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.” 8 The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds, and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.”
Amos no more considers instrumental music inherently sinful than he condemns eating lamb. He condemns the pride that is leading to the fall of God’s people. People should not celebrate while living lives that displease God!
The loss of instrumental music is a sign of unhappiness or God’s displeasure
Job cries —
(Job 30:31 ESV) 31 My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.
Isaiah’s prophecy of the fall of Babylon includes —
(Isa 14:11 ESV) 11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers.
And Ezekiel says regarding the fall of Tyre —
(Eze 26:13 ESV) 13 And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more.
When Isaiah prophesies God’s destruction of the earth at the end of time (see John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Book of Isaiah Chapters 1 – 39, pp 444 ff), he describes it in terms of the end of instrumental music as punishment for violating God’s “everlasting covenant.”
(Isa 24:7-10 ESV) 7 The wine mourns, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh. 8 The mirth of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased, the mirth of the lyre is stilled. 9 No more do they drink wine with singing; strong drink is bitter to those who drink it. 10 The wasted city is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter.
The same idea is found in the Revelation, where the fall of Rome (Babylon) is prophesied.
(Rev 18:21-23 ESV) 21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; 22 and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, 23 and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.”
The general theme is that God’s pleasure leads to celebration, which leads to instrumental music. When a person or a kingdom suffers God’s displeasure, they are no longer able to celebrate with instruments. Thus, the absence of instruments demonstrates God’s unhappiness and hence the need for the people to mourn and repent.
When people who ought be mourning because of their sins celebrate with instruments, God is unhappy. Their use of instruments evidences their obtuse, foolish refusal to understand and respond to God’s unhappiness.