Music in Scripture – An Overview

Copyright (c) 2010 Robert Hinchliffe

In the words of the final Psalm, No.150 we read:

“Praise him with trumpets. Praise him with harps and lyres. Praise him with drums and dancing. Praise him with harps and flutes. Praise him with cymbals. Praise him with loud cymbals. Praise the Lord, all living creatures! Praise the Lord!”

The Psalms are often referred to as the Old Testament hymnbook. This psalm would suggest that instrumental music as well as vocal music was widely used as part of worship in those days. We can certainly look to the psalms for information about the use of music in scripture.

The previous Psalm, No.149, also makes a number of allusions to music in worship:

“Sing a new song to the Lord”

“Praise him with dancing; Play drums and harps in praise of him.”

“Let God’s people rejoice in their triumph And sing joyfully all night long.”

Other psalms too make reference to both vocal and instrumental music being used in worship and at other times of religious celebration. It would seem that the use of what today we would refer to as “worship bands” were very much in evidence.

Other examples of music in scripture occur elsewhere in the Old Testament. We regularly read of occasions when music is used. After the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army we encounter the passage often referred to as the “Song of Moses”:

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: I will sing to the Lord, because he has won a glorious victory; He has thrown the horses and their riders into the sea. The Lord is my strong defender; he is the one who has saved me. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will sing about his greatness.”

When the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem during the reign of King David, there was a great procession, led by the king himself, when the glory of the occasion was enhanced by the use of music. In Chronicles we read of the rededication of the Temple where music again played a huge part in the worship and in the celebrations which surrounded it; all adding to the grandeur of the occasion.

The New Testament gives us far fewer references of music in scripture. In his letters to both the Ephesians and the Colossians, Paul refers to the use of psalms, hymns and sacred songs. When Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi we are told that they passed the time by “praying and singing hymns to God”. We also read in the Gospels that after the Last Supper the Disciples “sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives”.

These are the main references to music in scripture to be found in the New Testament. It must be remembered that the situation was very different for the early Christian church when compared to the long established Jewish tradition. The early Christian Church was run on a house-church basis so the use of music on any significant scale was simply not possible. It would appear that some psalm and hymn singing was part of worship but on a very small scale.

As the church grew over the next few centuries a music tradition developed which has produced a massive repertoire of wonderful music in many styles and idioms; – a fantastic resource on which we can draw today.

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