First, we return to the Psalms —
(Psa 137:1-4 ESV) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
When the Jews were taken captive in Babylon, they refused to engage in instrumental music. After all, instrumental music was thought inappropriate for mourning, as it was a sign of celebration and God’s favor. The Jews while in Exile knew they’d suffered God’s displeasure. And some remembered the several passages that condemned God’s people for playing musical instruments when they should be mourning (quoted in earlier posts).
Jeremiah prophesies that the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile and the coming of the Messiah will result in the restoration of instrumental music —
(Jer 31:2-13 ESV) 2 Thus says the LORD: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. … 7 For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ …
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
In context, as argued in an earlier post, it’s unmistakable that Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant brought by the Messiah. And he’s saying that the Exile will end and then God’s people will celebrate.
Now, when Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the Temple, instrumental music was re-established in the Temple. They could celebrate their return to Jerusalem. But they knew the Exile wasn’t truly over, and God was not fully pleased with his people. The long-promised outpouring of the Spirit had not come. The Messiah hadn’t come, and David’s throne was empty. Indeed, how could they be in the long-promsied Kingdom when they were ruled by Persians (and later Alexander, Seleucids, and Romans)?
Pentecost, therefore, marks the true end of the Exile. Indeed, Pentecost was the festival of first fruits and the anniversary of the giving of the Law of Moses. What better day to initiate a new covenant?
And we read,
(Act 2:46-47 ESV) 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
“Saved” is not merely a reference to getting to go to heaven. It is that, but it’s also the fulfillment of prophetic promises that God’s salvation would come when the Exile ends —
(Isa 35:4-1 ESV) 4 Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
But there’s no mention of tambourines or dancing in Acts. Jeremiah promised tambourines and dancing. Was it not recorded? Or is the language merely symbolic?
Ahh … that’s a good question. It would, quite frankly, be astonishing if First Century Jews, convinced that the Spirit had been out poured, the Messiah had come, and the Kingdom established did not dance. Yes, they danced, because that’s how the people in that time and place celebrated — and they would have celebrated with all their hearts using whatever instruments they could put their hands on. Imagine how we’d react seeing 3,000 souls baptized, and we Americans aren’t inclined to express our emotions! We’d jump and down and scream!
But it’s not recorded. Why not? Well, because Jeremiah’s point is that the time of mourning and lamentation would be ended and a time of celebration would be begun. The Exile would be over! And that happened, exactly as prophesied. The manner of celebration (or of mourning) was not the point. The point was that the Exile would end and God would keep his promises — and his people would celebrate. And they did — and those who read their Bibles still do.
That doesn’t remotely mean that the early church didn’t dance and use instruments. They were Jews, in Judea, and they would have acted as people in that culture acted. They’d have celebrated the day of God’s favor with dancing and instruments.
Now, you can take the absence of instruments and dancing in Acts 2 as either unnecessary, as too obvious to mention to a First Century reader, or else as meaning that Jeremiah was speaking in metaphor. Let’s take the harder case, the metaphor theory.
If Jeremiah spoke in metaphor, we have to ask the key question: why did Jeremiah use the images, metaphors, symbols, or whatever you want to call them of praise, shouting, proclamation, song, dance, and instruments? What do those images tell us? I mean, his point was more than “God will establish his kingdom once again.” The symbols (if symbols they be) mean something. They serve a purpose.
And why did Jeremiah use a string of symbols (if they’re not literal) to make his point?
Well, you have to figure that he saying something like, “When the Exile ends and God establishes his new covenant, the time of mourning will end and the time of celebration will begin — and the celebration will use every means of celebration at our disposal. We’ll celebrate every way we can! With our voices, our bodies, in prose, in poetry, and we’ll be LOUD because it will be (and continue forever to be) the greatest event in the history of the world!” (If you doubt me, read Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.)
You see, read the prophets however you will, the fact remains that they don’t promise a quiet, meditative, pensive, passive experience with God. They sure say nothing that suggests God will lose his pleasure with instruments and demand the end of instrumental worship — a sign of mourning throughout the Old Testament and the Revelation!
No, they promise celebration to the utmost. And until we get that into our thinking, we have no hope of interpreting the New Testament on worship. Rather, what we have done is read our traditions and experiences into the passages, reading backwards. And to prove our point, we read 3rd and 4th Century Christian writers backwards into the First Century New Testament. But backwards is backwards.
Luke and Paul weren’t writing with Augustine and Calvin and Clement of Alexandria in mind. They had Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah in mind. And to correctly understand Paul and the other New Testament writers, we have to read them with the same texts in mind — and not read texts and traditions from centuries later backwards into the New Testament.
The result will be whatever the result is.
But we just have to realize that the New Testament was written in light of the Old Testament and cannot be interpreted as though the Law and Prophets never happened.