Instrumental Music in the Old Testament: Part 1 (Celebration)

I’m not sure how far I’ll go with this, but I thought it might be helpful to cover the Old Testament perspective on instrumental music. The teaching of the Law and the Prophets has often been misrepresented, and yet it’s not that difficult to dig out what the ancients thought about instrumental music.

Now, the classic argument against instrumental music in Christian worship includes these elements (among others) —

* The Old Testament’s clear approval of instrumental music in the Temple is irrelevant. The Law was hung on the cross!

* The disapproval of instrumental music in Amos 6:3-7 proves God’s disapproval of instrumental music. The scriptures are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

* Instrumental music is not an aid to worship but an act of worship as shown by David’s exhortations to “praise” God with instruments in, for example, Psalm 150.

Besides being a bad reading of Amos (based on an unfortunate interpretation in Adam Clarke’s 18th Century commentary), as we’ll cover in a future post, the foregoing assertions are more than a little inconsistent. You can’t both hang the Old Testament on the cross and cite it as authority for your claims!

Obviously enough, the Old Testament is very relevant to New Testament studies — which is why Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the other New Testament authors routinely and repeatedly quote from and allude to the Old Testament. Just as obviously, we can’t blindly emulate everything taught in the Old Testament. Some things have changed! But then, neither can we pick and choose merely to suit the convenience of the argument we want to make. That’s cheating. When we pick and choose, it must be for good reasons based on a mature understanding of the New Covenant and its relationship to God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses. And that requires, at a dead minimum, context. And so we’re going to talk a little context here.

The beginning of instrumental music

(Gen 4:20-21 ESV) 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.

In the generations of Cain, we are told that musical instruments begin with Jabal. The comment is neutral. There is neither obvious approval nor condemnation, but for some reason, God thought it important to mention this in the inspired text.

Instrumental music used in celebration

In the Old Testament, instruments are uniformly used for celebration — which might be celebration of God in worship or any other kind of celebration.

Laban chastises Jacob for leaving him without a proper farewell party — a party that would include instruments.

(Gen 31:27 ESV) 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre?

Miriam, a prophetess, led the women in song with tambourines to celebrate the parting of the Red Sea.

(Exo 15:20-21 ESV) 20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

In a tragic story, we read of Jepthah’s daughter celebrating his return from battle with instrumental music —

(Jdg 11:34 ESV) 34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.

Instruments were used by schools of prophets in their prophesying, long before the Temple and quite apart from the Tabernacle.

(1Sa 10:5 ESV) 5 After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying.

After a defeat of the Philistines, the people celebrated the victory with instrumental music.

(1Sa 18:6 ESV) 6 As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments.

When Solomon was coronated in response to God’s command, the people celebrated with instruments.

(1Ki 1:39-40 ESV) 39 There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” 40 And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.

After Jehosophat won a military victory, the people celebrated with instrumental music.

(2Ch 20:27-28 ESV) 27 Then they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Jehoshaphat at their head, returning to Jerusalem with joy, for the LORD had made them rejoice over their enemies. 28 They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets, to the house of the LORD.

Isaiah prophesies God’s defeat of the Assyrians — so mighty that each blow delivered by God will be celebrated with instrumental music.

(Isa 30:31-32 ESV) 31 The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of the LORD, when he strikes with his rod. 32 And every stroke of the appointed staff that the LORD lays on them will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres. Battling with brandished arm, he will fight with them.

When Nehemiah finished rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, he and the people celebrated with instrumental music.

(Neh 12:31-36 ESV) 31 Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks. One went to the south on the wall to the Dung Gate. 32 And after them went Hoshaiah and half of the leaders of Judah, 33 and Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, and Jeremiah, 35 and certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets: Zechariah the son of Jonathan, son of Shemaiah, son of Mattaniah, son of Micaiah, son of Zaccur, son of Asaph; 36 and his relatives, Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah, and Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God. And Ezra the scribe went before them.

When the foundations of Temple were rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, they celebrated with instruments.

(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.

As we’ll see as we go through the remainder of the posts, instrumental music in the Old Testament is always used in celebration. Sometimes it’s inspired by the Spirit and sometimes not. But it’s always celebrative. When instrumental music is used in worship, it’s celebrative worship.

The only exception is bitter irony — when prophets condemn people for celebrating with instruments when they ought to be in mourning.

Therefore, we’ll find that the absence of instrumental music indicates mourning and God’s displeasure. To lose instrumental music is to be cursed by God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Instrumental Music in the Old Testament: Part 1 (Celebration)

  1. Jay,
    I look forward to this series. I would make two observations.

    1) Genesis 4:20-21 is in the line of Cain, not that of Enoch who was descended from Seth. This factoid does not affect your point, but is offered in the interest of absolute accuracy.

    2) Exodus 15 is the first mention of singing in worship to God – and it included instruments. It was also led by a woman, which might be of interest as well.

    I appreciate that you are not throwing all of the Old Testament out! What first started me on the road that questioned the coc traditional conclusions on IM was the fact that there are quotations from the Psalms that speak of singing to God's name among the Gentiles (Rom 15:9 from Psalm 18:49) and Jesus singing in the midst of the congregation (Heb 2:12 from Psalm 22:22).

    As used here, it seemed to me that "singing" should mean the same as it meant in the Psalms – and the words used in the Psalms were also used of singing with instruments.

    Add to that the fact we are told to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" would seem to indicate that the singing of psalms would be at least similar to the singing of psalms under the OT, which of course at least some times included instruments.

    I look forward to more.


  2. Anonymous says:

    My favorite part of your post is “You can’t both hang the Old Testament on the cross and cite it as authority for your claims!” Would you consider a couple of other questions? Where does the New Testament authorize instrumental music in the Sunday morning worship service? Where does the New Testament authorize a cappella music in the Sunday morning worship service?

  3. Price says:

    It's been my personal experience that there is very little "celebration" in worship services today.. Most CoC's that I've attended over the years are more reserved and some might say reverent…certainly there has never been any dancing in the isles except once when my dad got a hold of me on the way out the door to find a switch.

    I was reminded of the story in II Samuel 6 of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem…and how they celebrated the Lord with dancing and instruments. The passage says that David danced before the Lord "with all his might." When he later rebukes Saul's daughter Michal he says in layman's terms….you ain't seen nothin' yet !!

    Forgetting for a moment the use of Instruments or of Dancing in celebratory worship…what about the JOY ? Where has the Joy gone ?? Must we be delivered from the Philistines or Babylonians once again ? I've been in some churches where the only noticeable difference between worship and a funeral was the casket…And, where'd the rules pop up about not clapping or raising your arms in praise? What constitutes too much wiggle in your step as you sing ? Foot tapping might be OK since it originated from the beloved country western genre.. .but, for heaven's sake don't add any melodious "uh huhs or "yes Jesus'" between the lines…and the words printed in a book are appropriate…but not projected on a wall… UGH !!

    Thanks Jay for reminding us of what it once meant to worship with our hearts full of joy !!

  4. Price says:

    @ dwiholt….Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 See the discussions here recently and at where Jay also participated with many others discussing your very question…

  5. Jay Guin says:

    This is just a test.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    This is another test

Comments are closed.