Music in the Worship of God

John J. De Waard

The use of music in the house of God is important. The Lord our God teaches us this in His holy Word.

You may have noticed that the Bible does not say much about painting and sculpture. This is doubtless due to the second Commandment, which declares, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness …” But about music the Bible has much indeed to say. It may well be also that music is the most spiritual of the fine arts. Let us then listen to what the Bible says about the use of this, His gift to His people, in His house as His people worship Him.

It was David who, in planning for the building of the temple, planned also for the use of music in the worship in the temple. David is called the “sweet singer” of Israel. We know that he played well on a musical instrument, and that by his art he was able to cool the hot temper of Saul, on at least some occasions. We might suppose that it was under the influence of his own love for the art of music that he decided to give it a place in the worship of God. But this cannot be true. David was a man after God’s own heart. He would introduce in the public worship of God only that which the Lord his God instructed him to introduce. It was therefore under the influence of the Holy Spirit, at the instruction of the Lord Himself, that David made elaborate arrangements for the use of music in the worship of God.

We have an indication of these arrangements in I Chronicles chapter 25, where the number and grouping of the musicians is given. And there we are told that “the number of them along with their brethren who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.” The word translated “skillful” means fully trained. It may be that these two hundred eighty-eight were actually the teachers in a great school of music where others as pupils were prepared for service in the worship of God.

In connection with the singing there was the use of musical instruments—harps and psalteries and cymbals. The musicians had their specific positions and responsibilities during the service of worship.

Why all this attention to music? It is because the heart of the child of God is filled with thanksgiving and praise. Again and again in connection with the praise of God, Scripture sets forth as the reason, like a mighty chorus—“For He is good, for his mercy endures forever.” Music in the house of God is so very important because it is best able to express this praise of the heart rejoicing in its God. Music is not just a simple pleasant sound which lolls the soul to ease. It is not simply a decoration to make the worship service more attractive. It is not just a rhythm which makes one move the feet to keep time. Music in the worship of God expresses a thought. It conveys a truth. It teaches the goodness of God, and that His mercy endures forever. For this reason God commanded the use of music in worship. And David was not disobedient to that command. The people saved by God’s mercy needed music to express what was in their hearts. God ordained it. He commands us to use it thankfully, not as entertainment, not as a means of relaxation or relief, but as an instrument with which to praise the true and merciful God.

So David arranged for the place of music in the service of worship.

And Solomon built the temple. It took him twenty years. The stones for the buildings were shaped and prepared elsewhere. No hammer was heard at the site of the building. The stones were carefully fitted together so that the joints were not seen. Solomon sought out the best workmen he could find. Hiram, king of Tyre, provided skilled help. And when it was finished, there was not a more beautiful structure in the land. It stood in the city of God as a sign declaring to all who saw it how much the people thought of the Lord whom they worshipped.

And then came the day of dedication. The people gathered together. Solomon the king took his place before them and offered that noble prayer of dedication found in the sixth chapter of II Chronicles. And fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And we read that the priests “stood at their posts: the Levites also with the. instruments of music of the Lord, which King David had made for giving thanks to God, because his mercy endures forever, when David offered praises by their ministry, and the priests sounded trumpets before them, and all Israel stood.” It was a day of gladness, a day of rejoicing. And there was music. And the players played on their instruments. And the singers sang. And God was praised, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.

Many years passed, I know not how many. Hezekiah began to reign in his twenty-fifth year. The people had forgotten their God. The worship had become corrupted. But Hezekiah had been listening to the prophet Isaiah, and to his call for repentance. “Come now,” said the prophet, “and let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Under the influence of this preaching Hezekiah began a reform. And in his effort to reestablish the true faith among the people, he reestablished the proper worship of God. And in this connection we read:

“And he stationed the Levites in the house of God with cymbals and with harps and with psalteries, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for so was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets; and the Levites stood with the instruments of David and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also, with the trumpets and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished … And Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and bowed down and worshipped God.” (II Chron. 29:25–30).

There had not been such singing in the house of the Lord for a long time. For there can be no singing where there is no assurance of the redeeming love of God in Christ. When the people returned to the faith of their fathers, the heart could sing once more. And it did, and we hear the joyful sound.

But Israel’s memory was short. A few years after Hezekiah’s reform we again find the temple unused, collecting dirt and dust. Then one day Shaphan the scribe entered the temple, and while looking around found a book. He brought the book, which was the book of the law, to young king Josiah. Josiah had already begun to try and restore the practice of the true religion. When he read this book of the law, he tore his clothes—the eastern method of expressing sorrow and repentance. He sent for the prophetess, who assured him that all the evils spoken of in the book would come upon the people, though not in his day.

King Josiah then earnestly went about restoring, cleaning and dusting the temple, and reestablishing the worship ordained in the book of the law. He again offered the lamb for the sin offering. And he again brought the singers into the temple. For we read: “The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their places according to the command of David and Asaph, and Henan and Jeduthin, the King’s seers.” (II Chron. 35:15).—For God is good, and his mercy endures forever.

Jeremiah came, the young man from Anathoth, and preached to the people. But there were also false prophets, and the people loved to listen to them. False prophets do not make people sing the songs of Zion. Jeremiah’s words were true. The Babylonian king came and took the people away for full seventy years of exile.

In Babylon Ezekiel told the people of the temple. He drew for them in words a picture of the temple where the Lord God was worshipped in sweet song and pure devotion. But he pictured a better temple than the former temple had been. He pictured an ideal temple.

His picture made the people hunger to go back to their city and rebuild their temple. Ezra and Nehemiah led small groups back to the land of their fathers. Their return was an act of faith, and their march through the wilderness a confession of their confidence in the promise of God.

When they reached home they began to build the walls of the temple. “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 direction of David the king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to God. For He is good, and his mercy endures forever” (Ezra 3:10ff).

So it has been. Every time the people came with confession of sin and returned to the Lord their covenant God, they sang praise in obedience to His command. They obeyed the word which came through David and they sang once again in the house of the Lord. But when they departed from the Lord the song died on their lips, because there was no music in their hearts.

When we turn now to the New Testament we again find the people of God singing to their God. As no other deed in history the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus brought joy to the hearts of His disciples. The goodness and mercy of God were never so clearly seen as on that brightest day of the world’s painful history. The strong Son of God came forth from the grave carrying the chains of the power of death—chains He had broken. And the church sang. And songs of praise became the very life of the people. So that the apostle can instruct the people: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).

And what a picture is given us in The Revelation of the church in glory, gathered about the throne of God, singing. There “they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb saying, great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty, just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.” It is a remarkable thing that the whole revelation of God—that through Moses and that through the Lamb—is comprehended in one song. But it is not remarkable that this whole revelation, set to music, will be sung by the church triumphant. Indeed for this we long, waiting the day when we shall all join that great heavenly chorus, praising our God for He is good, and his mercy endures forever.

This song, of course, only the redeemed can learn. Only those who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb can have a part in singing this song. It is the saved who sing. One cannot sing if he is not saved. So, as the seer on Patmos saw the vision of the Lamb on Mount Zion, he “heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps; and they sang as it were a new song before the throne and before the four beasts and the elders; and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty four thousand which were redeemed from the earth” (Rev. 14:13). The redeemed may learn a few notes of that glorious hymn here on earth. But it will truly be “as a new song” that they will sing it in heaven.

Here then we have seen a little of the place which God has appointed for the use of music in the worship His people offer to Him. And we understand that music is not an artificial embellishment, a bit of decoration, in the worship of God. It is the means by which the redeemed declare that their God is good, and His mercy endures forever. Music which does not carry thought, bringing man face to face with the mercy of God toward sinners who merit His wrath, is not worthy of God’s house. But music which gives expression to the hearts love for the wonderful Savior, music which proclaims the eternal mercy of the covenant God, that music has a divinely ordained place in the worship of the people of God, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 26, No 11, December, 1957. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!


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