Music in the Bible

This is a section I’m probably going to cut, because it’s a little theological for that particular context. I am also shamelessly putting this up without many citations or references (but they’re there in my mind). I’m analyzing here the Bible, ancient Hebrew music, etc.

If you’re wondering what it would have sounded like, I can’t help you much. There are some people who’ve tried to “reconstruct” ancient Hebrew music, but we have no real guarantee it sounds remotely close. There are just too many variables. But there are some important things here for a music history course.

Remember what we discussed last chapter. The point of a Classical education is to give you a “liberal” view, a free view, on our own era and the assumptions peculiar to it. Arguments about music in general suffer from dangerous assumptions, like “the way we moderns view music is the only conceivable way.” Arguments about Church music, though, are ten times worse, because we inflict our modern categories on the Bible. We have all sorts of modern categories that we just assume Paul the Apostle would have had. But he was working in a totally different musical universe.

This comes down to the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. (Greek. “Ex” means out of, “eis” means into.) Exegesis is getting some meaning out of Scripture; eisegeis is approaching Scripture with your opinions already made and then finding what you think is there, cramming your meaning into the text. Inevitably, exegesis will determine what the original authors meant by what they say, whereas eisegesis will usually sound like somebody saying, “Well, Paul could be saying X, Y, and Z, which, incidentally, is my opinion too.”

When Paul says that we should sing to one another with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts,” we assume that he’s talking about psalms (like Psalms, the book from the Old Testament), hymns (as in, four-part harmony, “Amazing Grace” sort of hymns) and spiritual songs (anything else with Jesus lyrics). Unfortunately, Paul wasn’t talking about anything of the kind.

“Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are three Greek terms that the Jews and early Christians understood as the three big sections of the Old Testament book of Psalms. Psalms were divided into three sections: psalmata, hymnoi, and odai pneumatikai. Think of them as the three big chapters in the book of Psalms. All three refer to what we’d call “Psalms”. Now, I don’t think that means he thinks we should sing nothing but Psalms. After all, when he says it in Colossians 3:16, he’s saying it a chapter or so after he’s composed a new psalm or hymn himself (“He is the image of the invisible God”). But Paul’s point is clear: Psalms should be the vast majority of what we do. It is, according to him, how we “teach and admonish one another.”

Lots of people try to find some common ground between people who like traditional music and people who like contemporary music. Here’s something I’ve found: neither of them really sing a lot of psalms. Which tradition is more likely to get out a book and sing through Psalm 1 the whole way? And then Psalm 45, maybe? Psalm 110? My guess is that, in America, neither is more likely.

You might not think this has much to do with music, but what Paul says next in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19 is even more interesting. “Singing and making melody” is usually how it’s translated, but more accurately it’s “chanting and plucking a stringed instrument”. The second word (“making melody”) is just simply the Greek word for “pluck”. It’s used in Herodotus and a handful of other places to refer to plucking an instrument. “Making melody” just muddies the waters. As for “chanting” rather than “singing”, this is just a cultural thing: if you went back and actually heard Paul “singing” a psalm, you’d think it sounded a lot more like what you’d call “chanting” than “singing”. That, at least, is one of the things we know about ancient music.

Studying music history teaches you how a culture thought about music differently from how you think about it. Not doing that with Paul has gotten us into some messes: we end up doing eisegesis because we don’t know any better. But then, instead of the Bible forming us, we go to the Bible already formed by our modern era and then just find what we already thought was true.

What are some things about ancient Hebrew music that we can glean from the Bible’s descriptions? There are three basic principles.

1. They Used Lots and Lots of Instrument

Lots and lots. Psalm 150:3-5 describes, in short order, trumpets, harps, lyres, tambourine, strings, flutes, “crashing cymbals” and “resounding cymbals”. The impression you should get is that it was loud and there were lots of them. I Chronicles 16:5-6 describes how it was the full-time jobs of ten guys and their families to play instruments in front of the arc of the covenant in David’s time. These instruments are pretty diverse: lyres, harps, cymbals, and trumpets.

It’s worth remembering that when Jericho fell, there were seven trumpeters playing. These were rams’ horn trumpets, which have no pitch control. In other words, seven guys playing whatever notes they just happened to hit. Rams’ horns are loud and kind of freaky. Seven of them playing at once would have created what we’d call “cacophony”. Apparently God liked it.

This may seem like a silly point, but of the few clues the Bible gives us on music, this is the most important one: God should be worshiped with all sorts of instruments. Ironically, this discussion is largely ignored nowadays. And, there’s some more common ground between the two sides of the Church music debate. Neither side uses that many instruments. A guy on a piano or pipe organ doesn’t come close to what the Bible describes. Neither does a worship team of five guys. Biblical theologians refer to the Davidic instrumental ensembles as “orchestras”. (And it was a full time job, not something you rehearse on Wednesday nights for a half an hour.)

It’s also worth noting that many people go to Psalm 150 with its description of all the instruments and try to justify their worship band by some sort of correspondence with the ancient Hebrew instruments. I once heard a church musician seriously try to justify his band by insisting that each of his instruments had the same number of strings as the ones described in Psalm 150. This is a great example of eisegesis, and the need for some classical education in music. Don’t initially take your categories with you. Our instruments are miles and miles different from theirs.

2. Innovation

David really liked new songs and musical innovation. Psalm 98 says “O sing a new song to the Lord.” That’s echoed earlier in Psalm 96. (Notice: imperative. New songs aren’t just okay, they aren’t just good, they’re required.) David actually says that God put a new song in his mouth in Psalm 40, “a hymn of praise to our God.”

There’s also a bigger point. David brought the tabernacle worship from virtual silence in the Mosaic system to constant and loud noise-making in the Zionic tabernacle. That’s not a move backwards, it’s a move forwards. David was trying new things liturgically. That was good. Of course, later the Northern Kingdom will innovate liturgically in a bad way by putting altars in high places. That wasn’t good. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good, but just because being innovative can sometimes be sinful doesn’t mean we’re allowed to be sticks in the mud. There’s a good way to be new and a bad way.

3. For Different Contexts

Some people think all music should be party music. Some people think all music should be background music. Some people think all music should be the sort of thing you’d sing God in his throne room. The Bible is, actually, a lot more relaxed about it. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus describes party music. Song of Solomon is itself music for love making. There’s music for all sorts of different occasions and different contexts. Party music, background music, throne room music are all appropriate in their venues. Party music in God’s throne room is probably not a bright idea, but neither is throne room music at a party. Probably if you have throne room music at a party, you don’t really know how to party. It’s also worth noting, though, that if you have party music in the throne room, you don’t know how to behave in a throne room.

Take-away Points

  • Eisegesis is common when interpreting the music passages in the Bible, because people like to bring their pet genres of music and justify them using the text, rather than exegesis, getting principles from the text and letting them form our tastes.
  • Ancient Hebrew music used lots of instruments. Much more than most anybody now.
  • David was a great musical innovator, and this was a good thing.
  • There are different contexts for music. The Bible mentions some of these favorably, in their proper context.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it that the modern Church music argument seems to ignore the Scriptural precedent of a sheer mass of instrumentalists? Are our musical forms and genres limiting us in this respect?
  • I Chr. 16 and 25 clearly describe music as the job of these men. Is it feasible for a modern church to fund lots and lots of instrumentalists full time?
  • What kind of liturgical and musical innovation is bad? What kind is good? What’s the standard?
  • Take a handful of your favorite hymns or worship songs. Compare them to Psalm 69:19-28 and Psalm 74. Can you picture those sorts of lyrics fitting a smattering of your favorite worship music? Do you ever sing worship music with lyrics like that? Are dark themes like Psalms 69 and 74 typical in Psalms? Are they typical in your favorite genre of worship music?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Te Deum, Paul Westermeyer
  • From Silence to Song, Peter J. Leithart


  1. diveinscripture · June 20, 2012

    Enjoyed reading, God bless you and your writings.
    “Grow in Grace and Knowledge”.

  2. Ella · March 7, 2014

    Is this part of a thesis or book that you’re writing?

    In college, I took a hymnology class from Paul Westermeyer (who was visiting that term) because it looked interesting; I was one of a very few non-music-majors taking it, but I very much enjoyed it. We did a lot of four-part singing on a whim (‘this one is good, let’s sing a verse’), something I’d never experienced. I haven’t read his Te Deum; I rather regret, now, selling back his Let the People Sing.

Think aloud.

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