Instrumental Music in the Old Testament, Part 2.5 (Psalm 81)

HistoryGuy posted a comment suggesting that Psalm 81 refers to a statute regarding instrumental music at a time long before David. I’d never studied Psalm 81 before. It’s an interesting and important study.

Although HistoryGuy and I disagree as to the implications of this fact, I think he’s right that the Psalm refers to an ancient statute regarding instrumental music.

Here’s my take:

(Psa 81:1-5 NAS) For the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of Asaph.

Sing for joy to God our strength;
Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
2 Raise a song, strike the timbrel,
The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
At the full moon, on our feast day.
4 For it is a statute for Israel,
An ordinance of the God of Jacob.
5 He established it for a testimony in Joseph
When he went throughout the land of Egypt.

Asaph was an inspired composer of psalms and a contemporary of David. He is urging the people to celebrate God through song, shouts, and instrumental music on the feast days commanded by the Law of Moses.

Verse 3 refers to the “new moon,” and the Jews were to celebrate a new moon festival. John Calvin explains,

Under the new moon, by the figure synecdoche, is comprehended all the other high feasts.

Now, “Joseph” in v. 5 is parallel with “Israel” in v. 4, and is a poetic synonym for Israel. Psa 77:15, 80:1 (in Hebrew poetry, “Joseph” is also used of the Northern Kingdom, because the tribes of Mannaseh and Ephraim, descended from Joseph, were among the largest of their tribes). It’s not a reference to the person Joseph.

Charles Spurgeon comments,

The nation is called Joseph, because in Egypt it would probably be known and spoken of as Joseph’s family, and indeed Joseph was the foster father of the people.

In v. 4, Asaph refers to “a statute for Israel, An ordinance of the God of Jacob.” “Statute” and “ordinance” are references to laws. Therefore, Asaph is referring to a law that the people worship God.

V. 5 refers to “testimony,” which is used as a reference to commandments in the Law of Moses. For example, the Ten Commandments are referred to as the “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (Exo 31:18 NAS).

Calvin explains the reference to passing throughout the land of Egypt —

It is a common form of expression to speak of God as going forth before his people, as a shepherd goes before his flock, or as a general before his army. When it is said ABOVE the land of Egypt, … I understand the language as meaning simply, that the people, having God for their conductor, passed freely and without obstruction through the land of Egypt, the inhabitants having been so discouraged and dismayed as not to dare to make any opposition to their passage.

Thus, the passage speaks of the Exodus and the statutes God gave the people during that time. The rest of the Psalm is a rebuke against following false gods, when the true God should be worshiped as described above.

Adam Clarke and Charles Spurgeon both point out that the Law of Moses specifically commanded instrumental worship for certain feasts, including on the first day of a month (Hebrew months began with the new moon). Here are the commands:

(Num 10:10 NAS) 10 “Also in the day of your gladness and in your appointed feasts, and on the first days of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be as a reminder of you before your God. I am the LORD your God.”

(Num 29:1 ESV) “On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets … “

(Lev 23:24 ESV)  24 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation.”

Now, the only instruments commanded for new moons and other festivals are trumpets, but also commanded are “a memorial” and a “holy convocation” and a “day of your gladness.” And yet Asaph interprets this ordinance as compelling much more —

(Psa 81:1-3 NAS) Sing for joy to God our strength;
Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob.
2 Raise a song, strike the timbrel,
The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.
3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
At the full moon, on our feast day.

Why should Israel engage in such instrumental worship?

(Psa 81:4 NAS) For it is a statute for Israel, An ordinance of the God of Jacob.

But the statute and rule speaks only of trumpets!

Therefore, the commands to be glad and to have a holy day imply authority to use the tambourine, the lyre, the harp — as well as the trumpet.

The old Regulative Principle (silence is a prohibition) would compel us to conclude that “trumpets” means “trumpets only.” But Asaph teaches that “trumpets” means “trumpets plus singing, shouting, and other instruments.”

And I think Asaph understood the heart of God.

Now, Calvin, Clarke, and Spurgeon are all very well respected Calvinist scholars and proponents of the Regulative Principle. And they all disagree with my conclusions, even though we agree on the exegesis, that is, the literal meaning of the passage.

They reject instruments by concluding that God commanded the instruments via Psalm 81! But, of course, Asaph is plainly referring to statutes and ordinances already made hundreds of years before — as they themselves conclude. In fact, a psalm is not a statute or an ordinance. The Law of Moses is.

Asaph was not referring to obedience to his new command but to commands given by Moses. And that fact contradicts the Regulative Principle — a man-made doctrine. He was not issuing new, amended law, but explicitly referring to law made long ago.

Here are their commentaries —




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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7 Responses to Instrumental Music in the Old Testament, Part 2.5 (Psalm 81)

  1. Tom Forrester says:

    This psalm is instruction for the chief musician or choirmaster. Since joyful and sweet are words used in this passage to describe this shouting, singing and playing of the instrument, it would appear that his job is more than simply making sure everyone sang in unison on the same beat.

    Perhaps his job was to use all these things at his disposal to bring joy and gladness to the hearts of the congregation while praise was being offered to God. Music is more than just a sterile command to fulfill. Just think of what music does and why we enjoy is so much.

    Music arouses and excites the heart while at the same time centering us. It brings sweet memories, comfort and peace. It helps us focus the rest of our being on the love and joy found in Him. This is the part that hasn't changed between testaments. God certainly wants our intellect in our praise to Him. But he also wants our heart and emotions and every fiber of our being. Music to our ears.

  2. Price says:

    Tom…you said. "Music is more than just a sterile command to fulfill." Sounds like what the whole Christian life should be about. Excellent observation. Thank you for sharing that.

  3. aBasnar says:

    I rather think the other instruments were added to the trumpets, and thus they became included in this ordinace in whiche they were not included before. Since every bolt of the tabernacle was made according to very specific commands, and the trumpets were among the items of the tabernacle, I believe that silence was prohibitive until the time of David when a new era (or dispensation) began.

    This dispensation was marked
    a) by having a king chosen by God from which the Messiah should come
    b) by a "new covenant" with the house of David
    c) by moving the tabernacle from Shilo to Jerusalem
    d) by an ear of peace under Salomo
    e) by a new temple structure

    I think it is important to state that a covenant between God and a person or a people brings about a change in their relationship, which normally is expressed by a change in the Law. So circumcision came after God made another covenant with Abram, where he also changed his name.

    And in this temple some items of the tabernacle were multiplied
    a) Everything became enlarged (except the ark of the covenant)
    b) two colums (Boas and Yachin) were added
    c) there were now ten lampstands instead of just one
    d) etc …

    Wouldn't it fit into this picture to assume that the "sound" of worship was changed, too? For me this is by far more convincing than to suggest that other instruments were included under the header "trumpets".


  4. Price says:

    Question… Does the "statute" described by Asaph require the Israelites to play their instruments inside the courtyard of the tabernacle or could it have been understood to be somewhere outside of the courtyard, perhaps throughout the camp ? Seems like with all the animals being lead in for slaughter and what must of been a very chaotic type atmosphere, that trying to worship God would have been very difficult.. Imagine having to circumnavigate piles of bull and goat dung and trying to worship over the sound of animals being slaughtered..Ugh !!

    Also, David obviously had a harp, and learned how to play it skillfully before God required instruments in the Temple.. Where'd he get the harp? Who taught him to play? Seems clear that musical instruments were a part of everyday life and that people like David would have used them as an accompaniment to individual or small group worship…right ??

    It seems clear to me that musical instruments were being used in praise and worship within the community of believers and God just brought the practice indoors with his command for them to be used in the Temple… Does the aversion by some to musical instruments within the walls extend beyond the walls of the church building as well or do most people who don't like IM think it applies in any praise to God wherever it might take place ?? Like say, singing along in your car to Christian music….

  5. Jay Guin says:


    I don't believe that David ushered in a new dispensation. Rather, God fulfilled promises made in the Law through David and Solomon.

    God did make a covenant with David —

    (2Sa 7:8-16 ESV) 8 Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.'"

    The elements are —

    * A great name for David
    * A secure location for Israel
    * Son will build the temple
    * Throne established forever

    But this did not create a new dispensation. These elements are anticipated in the Law, which remained in effect.

    (Deu 12:10-14 ESV) 10 But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the LORD. … 13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, 14 but at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.

    The establishment of Jerusalem as the home of the ark and the Tabernacle was in fulfillment of this command.

    (Deu 17:14-20 ESV) 14 "When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. … 18 "And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel."

    God offered the people the opportunity to have a king after they came into the land, and promised to establish his throne if he'd follow the Law.

    Thus, the events described in God's covenant with David were in fulfillment and furtherance of the Law, and not a new dispensation.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Deu 17:14-20 ESV) 14 "When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,' 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose.

    Because they had been turned over to worship the starry host and sentenced to be returned "beyond Babylon" this is a retrospective to define how the kings destroyed the nation or a statement of fact that they WOULD reject God.

    Remembering that Christ in Spirit spoke through the Prophets and repudiated all that the Civil-Military-Priestly class did as, the Jewish Encyclopedia confesses, their role to quarantine the worship of the Starry host defined in Amos and Acts 7. The godly people attended qahal, synagogue or Church of Christ beginning in the wilderness as A School of The Word.

    "But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord. 1 Samuel 8:6

    And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. 1 Samuel 8:7

    According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day,

    wherewith they have forsaken me,
    and served other gods,
    so do they also unto thee. 1 Samuel 8:8

    Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them. 1 Samuel 8:9"

  7. Anonymous says:

    Psa. 81:2 Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery.

    Psa. 81:3 Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day.


    Num. 10:2 Make thee two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shalt thou make them: that thou mayest use them for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps.
    Num. 10:10 Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; that they may be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the LORD your God.

    However, Christ in the prophets say that God did not command sacrifices or burnt offerings: this would be a very low view of the God of the universe.

    Psa. 81:4 For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob.

    Num. 10:8 And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance for ever throughout your generations.

    Psa. 81:5 This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out through the land of Egypt: where I heard a language that I understood not.

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