We’ve covered nearly every Old Testament passage dealing explicitly with instrumental music. We now need to fit them into the larger, overall narrative of scripture.
One theme that jumps out of text is that David instituted instrumental worship at the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, which was later continued at the Temple under Solomon. Now, when I was growing up in the Churches of Christ, it was frequently argued that David’s decision to use instruments was wrong. After all, the Law of Moses nowhere authorizes instruments in the Tabernacle.
And if you were brought up under the Regulative Principle hermeneutic (silence is a prohibition), that would make sense, because there is no authority for instrumental music in the Law of Moses. But it’s obviously not true. Yes, it’s true that the Mosaic Law does not authorize instruments in the worship of God. It’s just not there. But God plainly approved the use of instruments at the Tabernacle and Temple.
God inspired the composition of psalms to be sung to instrumental accompaniment. God inspired the playing of instruments!
(1Ch 25:1-6 ESV) David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. … 3 Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD. … 6 They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king.
Moreover, whenever a king of Judah restored the worship of God, the restoration was marked by a restoration of instrumental music — often with explicit reference to David’s role in instituting instrumental worship —
(2Ch 29:26-28 ESV) 26 The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. 27 Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. 28 The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished.
(2Ch 34:12-13 ESV) 12 And the men did the work faithfully. Over them were set Jahath and Obadiah the Levites, of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to have oversight. The Levites, all who were skillful with instruments of music, 13 were over the burden-bearers and directed all who did work in every kind of service, and some of the Levites were scribes and officials and gatekeepers.
And when the Temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah —
(Ezr 3:10 ESV) 10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel.
Now, that’s an interesting thing. You see, God was not in the habit of amending the Law of Moses! Why make the change? And it clearly came from God —
(2Ch 29:25 ESV) 25 And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets.
But why? You see, David was a flawed man, but a man of God. And God chose to reveal through him much about the Messiah and the new covenant he would bring. David wrote Psalm 51, which teaches a view of grace anticipating the new covenant. David wrote several psalms that are frequently cited in the New Testament as references to the Messiah. Indeed, while David was not the first prophet to speak of the Messiah, there was a massive flowering of Messianic prophecy through David. After all, Jesus would later come to claim the throne of David!
The Old Testament was written over a period of at least 1,000 years, and as the prophets wrote its pages, God revealed more and more about himself and his Son and God’s plans for the world. The direction of the Old Testament is toward Jesus. The direction of Old Testament doctrine is toward the new covenant.
So why would God add instrumental worship to the Tabernacle/Temple about half way through Old Testament times? If he was revealing more and more about himself and pointing Israel toward a new, better covenant through Jesus, why add instrumental music to the Tabernacle and Temple?
Well, it’s just not very likely that the same God who revealed so much about Jesus and the new covenant through David would use David to push his worship away from the new covenant model. But there still must be a reason for the change. What might that be?
* Although God didn’t allow David to build the Temple, he did allow David to bring the ark to Jerusalem and to establish Jerusalem as the center of the worship of God. And it was under David that the borders of the Promised Land were finally secured and God’s command to Joshua to take the land for God was finally completed. Therefore, the Tabernacle in Jerusalem became a place of celebration. The mission was accomplished! God’s worship was firmly established in his holy land. God had fulfilled his promises to the people given through Abraham and Moses.
* Contrary to the arguments of many, instrumental music was not an acquiescence to a primitive, idolatrous people. The time of David and Solomon was the height of Yahweh worship! God’s king sat on the throne, and God promised to establish that throne forever. The people were united under a single king devoted to God. And Hebrew literature flowered. This was a sophisticated culture where books and poems to God were written that echo throughout history even today. The culture that produced Psalm 23 was not a primitive, idolatrous culture. No, this was the worship of God at its best, done according to his Law, not to be exceeded at any time during the old covenant.
* In that culture, you just couldn’t celebrate without instruments. God wanted his worship to be positive, upbeat, encouraging, and a celebration of all that God had accomplished for his elect people. And that meant instruments.
Now, God does not need our singing or our playing. (He sure doesn’t need my singing!) But he wants his people to understand that he is a great God, a God who wins victories, a God who keeps his promises, and a God with a plan for his people that extends into eternity. And the worship of God therefore must reflect these truths. In the late bronze age of Israel, the culture required instrumental music to teach this all-important lesson. And so, God gave instructions to do just that.
The purpose of worship was established by God’s purposes for his elect people. The means of worship was determined, not by the silences of the Law of Moses, but by what would accomplish those purposes in that time and place.
Indeed, God through David was pointing Israel toward the new covenant — a covenant defined not by a book of law but by a living Spirit —
(2Co 3:3-8 ESV) 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
God showed Israel that forms and patterns of worship will change, because such incidentals are governed not by the letter of law but by a life-giving Spirit. And so, through the Spirit, God transformed the worship of Israel. The Law of Moses didn’t change, but the Spirit nonetheless moved to change how God would be worshipped in light of new circumstances and new times. And this pointed the people away from “the letter” and toward the Spirit.
As always, God was pointing toward Jesus and the new covenant that would come through him — “a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.”