Bible Study

The Power of Music in the Bible


Music in the Old Testament

Throughout the long historical period covered by the Bible, many references to music are found in the lives of its peoples and cultures. Music took place in almost all activities in the life of the people of Israel.

The oldest reference to music is found in the list of the descendants of Cain in the book of Genesis:

Adam gave birth to Jabal, from whom descended those who live in tents and raise cattle. Jabal had a brother, Jubal, from whom all those who play the harp and flute are descended (4.20, 21, DHH).

Some ancient songs are related to specific events such as victory over enemies (Ex 15.1-18; Judges 5.1-31) or the ritual near a well (Nm 21.17, 18). Other references suggest vigorous music accompanied by physical movement — musical instruments, song, and dance:

Then the prophetess Mary, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine, and all the women followed her, dancing and playing tambourines, while she sang to them:

Sing in honor of the Lord,
who had a wonderful triumph
by sinking horses and riders into the sea »
(Ex 15.20, 2, DHH1).

In other books of the Old Testament it can be clearly seen that music also had its place in a wide variety of contexts. Trumpets sounded during the taking of Jericho (Jos 6). The music helped to evoke the states of ecstasy or the state of mind conducive to prophesying (2 R 3.15ff.). From his youth David is characterized as a musician; Among other things, he could calm the tormented mood of King Saul (1 S 16.14-23). After having defeated Goliath, the people celebrated the event with song and dance:

However, when the troops returned after David killed the Philistine, women came out from all the cities of Israel to greet King Saul, singing and dancing happily with tambourines and cymbals. And while they sang and danced, the women repeated: “A thousand men killed Saul, and 10,000 killed David” (1 S 18.6, 7, DHH).

Later, when David rescued the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to Jerusalem in triumph, everyone celebrated with great enthusiasm:

Meanwhile, David and all the Israelites went before God singing and dancing with all their might, to the sound of the music of harps, psalteries, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals (2 S 6.5, NASB).

Music and dance were present in the celebrations, both large and small, that marked the important events in the life of the town. In the field work, the workers sang to keep up with their work and complete the day’s duties on time. However, as Israel evolved from being a tribal, nomadic, pastoral society to becoming an urban culture, music changed and became more complex and institutionalized.

This is observable in the development of the cult in Jerusalem. When the ark was installed in Jerusalem an official corps of trained musicians and singers was established to lead the worship (1 Chron 16.4-7, 39-42). Music played a vital role in the worship in the Jerusalem temple; in particular, the psalms occupied a very important place. Phrases that head many psalms such as “Psalm of Asaph” or “of the sons of Korah” relate them to certain musicians’ guilds, while other headings such as “to the leader: with stringed instruments according to Seminit” may indicate a certain melody in particular. Some titles indicate that the psalm is of a particular type such as “lament.” In fact, the analysis of the psalms in their different “genres” constitutes an important study in itself.

Pilgrimage to holy places was a common activity among the Israelites. Along the way they sang songs appropriate to the theme of their pilgrimage, such as the “songs of the ascents” —Psalms 120 to 134— that extolled the opportunity to “go up” to Jerusalem and worship in the temple of Jerusalem, in Zion . These songs were probably associated with the three great agricultural festivals (Ex 23.17; Deut 16.16). It was certainly very shocking to the common Israelite to participate in the pilgrimage and worship in the temple. Furthermore, it was an event with great aesthetic appeal and symbolic importance; for example, the trumpets represented God’s authority, majesty, and power.

In some books such as Amos it is indicated that the music was becoming more formal; “Professional” musicians were hired to form choirs and orchestras that served in the various temples and holy sites, and in the palace. However, the high quality of the musicians did not necessarily represent that the music was accepted by God. During Amos’ visit to Bethel, he preached against the injustice in that society and the emptiness of worship in the temple there. God’s message to the worshipers was:

I hate and despise religious festivals
that you celebrate;
I dislike their solemn meetings.
Keep the noise of your songs away from me!
I don’t want to hear the sound of their harps! (5.21, 23, DHH).

The synagogue as an institution seems to have begun during the period of the Babylonian captivity. The word itself means “place of assembly,” and it did not necessarily imply a specific building or place – that was later, in the middle of the third century BC. Synagogue worship was adapted from the style of temple worship, but organized and conducted by lay people, not heirs of the priestly line. The services included readings from the Law and the Prophets, Psalms, teaching, prayer, and the final blessing.

Music in the New Testament

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 it caused the Jews to develop new forms of musical expression. By then restrictions had already been imposed on the public use of music and dance in the celebration of Saturday. As a result of Greco-Roman power and culture, restrictions were further increased. Only in Luke 7.32 and Matthew 11.7 is the use of the flute and dance specifically mentioned in the New Testament, and the passage in Luke mentions it in the context of children’s games.

Music in the synagogue served an emotional support function and as a teaching tool for the maintenance of the Jewish faith and lifestyle. The temple choirs no longer existed and instrumental music was banned in the synagogue. The psalms, prayers and readings were intoned recitatively, that is, they were recited in a high tone similar to a litany. The text was sung on a single note, with simple melodic variations indicating the grammatical structure. Probably the first Christians adapted to their own worship what they already knew about music in the synagogue, in the form of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and praising the Lord (Eph 5.19).

The borrowing of synagogue worship, both hymn and choral singing, contributed to the emotional community feeling necessary for the edification of the new Christian movement. Many of the early Christians used to congregate in the local synagogue and must have been familiar with that form of worship. They knew the same hymns and were adding new songs that reflected their new faith in Jesus. The words of some early hymns appear in the New Testament. The nativity narrative that appears in the Gospel of Luke includes the song of Mary (the Magnificat), the song of Zacharias (the Benedictus), and the song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis). The words of other early Christian hymns are mentioned in some New Testament epistles (Phil 1.5-11, 1 Tim 3.16, 1 P 3.18-22). We find other hymn fragments in Revelation 4.1; 5.9–10, and the songs of victory and confidence in Revelation 7.15–17; 11.17-18.

As the Church grew and the gospel spread in other cultures, other musical influences were introduced. However, there was opposition against instrumental music and dance, because they were associated with pagan religions, the spectacles of the Roman Coliseum, dissipated life and immorality. In subsequent centuries, Christians have not only developed their own musical forms and distinctive expression, but have also drawn on the musical traditions of many cultures. Through successive generations Christians have argued over the types of music and musical expressions appropriate to the context of God’s Word and the worship of God.

Musical instruments in the Bible

The study of musical instruments that were used during the Biblical period, especially in the Old Testament, is really difficult. Several of the Hebrew words that refer to instruments do not match instruments known or used today. The list that follows shows how tentative the classification of musical instruments cited in the Bible remains today: [1]

Lyre, (nevel)
Lyre, kinnor, harp
Horn, ram’s horn, sofar
Trumpet, horn
Flute, tube
Bagpipe (or: timpani, big drum)
Shaker, tambourine
Rattlesnake, bell
Drum, manual drum, framed drum

It should be noted that the trumpets were blown by the priests; the harps, lyres and cymbals, the Levites; and the other instruments, the other Hebrews (Ps 150.3-5). The translation of the terms for these musical instruments is usually addressed in three ways: (a) with descriptive phrases; (b) with terms of local instruments; and (c) with generic terms accompanied by a borrowed word.

String instruments or chordophones

Lyre, nevel, harp: The lyre consisted of a neck that comes out of a resonance box. The strings were drawn from the end of the neck along their entire length and above the soundboard. The body of the lyre was made of wood and the strings of animal intestines (perhaps sheep). The number of strings varied. The strings were plucked either with the fingers or with a small piece of ivory or metal to produce a sound that resonated, probably in a lower register than that produced by the kinnor (“harp” in RVR and DHH).

There is considerable uncertainty in the identification of the various chordophones. Confusion increases due to the fact that the different terms are often used interchangeably or in parallel (cf. nevel and kinor in 1 S 10.5; 2 S 6.5; Ps 33.2; 57.9; 71.22; 92.4; 108.3; 144.9; 150.3) . In several Psalms (33.2; 92.4; 144.9) nevel is linked with the word asor, which could indicate “of ten strings.”

In the translation, a certain cultural adaptation must be made, since cultures differ from each other in terms of form, number of strings and function of their instruments. An equivalent instrument in the target language will have to be chosen. In most cases the most accurate translation will be the “lyre” or some equivalent small stringed instrument, in which the strings are stretched over a box and plucked. In some passages, however, the nevel appears to be a larger, lower-pitched version of the kinor. In this case the closest equivalent in many cases will be a small harp. In some cases it will be necessary to expand to “stringed instrument called harp”, while in others it will suffice to say “stringed instrument”. The “harp” discussed here was considerably smaller than the modern instrument of the same name in modern orchestras. The biblical instrument could be held in one hand and played with the other. The translation should avoid a word that designates an instrument that is too large.

Lyre, kinor

This instrument consisted of a resonance box from whose extremities two arms protruded, supporting a cross piece. The strings ran down from the cross piece into the soundboard. As with the nevel, the number of strings could vary. Its variable thickness and tension gave the instrument a range of notes. The lyre used to be made of wood. The strings were made from the intestines of animals (perhaps sheep). The strings were played with the fingers or with the help of a small “stick” or plectrum. The kinor in particular is often represented as an instrument that accompanied songs.

Wind instruments or aerophones

They are instruments that emit sound through the vibration of the air in, through, or around them. This category includes two classes of instruments: (1) those in which the lips of the player produce the vibration of air in the instrument, and (2) those in which the point of entry to the instrument produces the vibration of the air.

Horn, ram’s horn, sofar

Wind instrument made of animal horns, usually male sheep or ram. The animal’s horn was softened so that it could be molded. The tip of the horn was cut to leave a small opening through which the user blew. The vibration of the lips produced the sound.

The ram’s horn served two general purposes: (a) It was played in certain religious contexts, not as a musical accompaniment for worship but to announce important events. Some of them were the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the Day of Atonement, the entry of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, and the coronation of kings. It also served the prophets as a symbol of a call to repentance (Am 2.2; 3.6; Hos 5.8; 8.1; Jl 2.1, 15; Zec 1.16). (b) The ram’s horn served as a signal or alarm when an armed conflict was approaching. Those references are especially common in prophetic books.

Trumpet, horn

Wind instrument, frequently used to emit signals, especially in connection with wars. It was made of metal (the trumpets mentioned in Nm 10 were made of silver). It was a straight and narrow tube, about 40-45 cm. of length. One end had a mouthpiece, while the other flared into a bell shape. The sound was produced by blowing into the mouthpiece in such a way that the lips would vibrate. The vibrations were amplified as they passed through the widened part of the tube.

The purpose of the trumpet in Israel was primarily to send signals. Numbers 11.1-10 list a number of occasions when trumpets were to be used, including warning people to break camp, calling people to gather, calling only leaders to meet, when to leave for battle and for liturgical purposes during certain festivals. It is significant that it was the responsibility of the priests to blow the trumpets.

Flute, tube

Wind instrument that consisted of a tube with a series of holes for the fingers that were used to modify the tone. Some were made of reed and could have different shapes: the tube could be a cylinder or more in the shape of a cone. There were several instruments made from a single tube, while others had two tubes next to each other. Double tubes were often mounted in a V shape, with two separate reeds. One of them had several holes while the other had a single hole and acted as a kind of sustained tone. Some pipes or flutes were made from other materials, such as wood, ivory, bone, or metal.

The sound was produced, in the case of the flute, blowing through an opening that led to an interior hollow that extended throughout the instrument; in some cases the hole was at the end of the instrument while in others the hole was on the side of the instrument, towards one of the extremities. In the case of the reed tube, a column of air was circulated by blowing a reed device that made it vibrate.

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