Friday, September 28, 2007

Exegesis: What Does the Bible Say About Music?

A common assumption among modern Christians is that music is completely a matter of personal preference. God, by this reckoning, does not much care about the style of music, as long as we worship Him.

That idea runs contrary to the Biblical presentation of the nature and character of God. In the Old Testament, God scripted every aspect of worship and demanded that all be done exactly as He had commanded. Moses built the tabernacle and Solomon the temple according to the exact plans that God revealed. For that God to suddenly step back and say “whatever” seems a stretch.

In fact, there is considerable solid and consistent teaching on music in the Bible. There is a thread stated in Ephesians 5:19 that flows pretty consistently throughout the scriptures. There are two key themes that we will see in almost every scripture that deals with music. God has not left us to fend for ourselves as we deal with musical issues. The will of God is clearly stated in scriptures.

Ephesians 5:19

The most significant New Testament teaching on music is Ephesians 5:19. At the risk of stating the obvious, it follows verse 18. “Be filled with the Spirit.” That is a present tense command that carries with it the idea of a continual experience. We are to walk continuously, daily, regularly in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I can only be what I am supposed to be by walking the constant power of God’s Spirit.

Verses 19, 20 and 21 are participial clauses (though they appear as separate sentences in some translations). Each of them describes an evidence of the fullness of the Spirit. If you are filled with the Spirit, you will do what is described in these verses. If you are not doing what is described here, you are not filled with the Spirit. It is that simple. Verse 20 tells us that a heart of gratitude regarding all of life’s circumstances, even the hard ones, is evidence of fullness. Verse 21 tells us that a deep commitment to one another in the Body of Christ (submitting to one another) is further evidence.

But verse 19 describes the first evidence of the fullness of the Spirit. “(Be filled)…addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, it will be expressed in a heart of worship and praise. You will have a song of joy in your heart.

Notice that there are clearly two clauses in this verse which imply two completely different actions. First, we are to address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Second, we are to sing and make melody in our hearts to God. Music is designed for a two-fold purpose. We are to use music to admonish and teach the deep truths of the faith to one another. And we are to sing praise directly to God from our hearts. Music should stir both the mind and the heart. It should instruct both the intellect and the emotions.

I have heard all my life that the hymns are superior because they instruct us about doctrine. I have also heard criticism of praise and worship music because it lacks depth and is repetitive and emotional. One writer criticizes much modern music as “silly love songs to Jesus.”

But worship music should do both. We do not have to choose one way or the other. We can sing the deep theological treatise “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and we can sing simpler choruses that help us meditate on those themes.

There has been a lot of discussion on the distinctions between psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The exact distinction is hard to pin down. The Hebrew word which is the root of our word “psalms” refers to music played with a stringed accompaniment. It means to strike or pluck the strings. The psalms would be read or sung while the musician strummed a harp or lyre (something akin to a guitar). It seems likely that here the reference is to the Old Testament psalms which were still used in Christian worship. The word “hymn” means song of praise. A hymn focuses praise on our glorious and worthy God. In this context, the word probably refers to New Testament music, the songs of praise written in the early church. Am I the only one who sees the humor of the fact that, if this interpretation is right, the “hymns” here are the new music. “Songs” is the Greek word “ode” and is the most general of these words. It probably refers to all music that moves the spirit of the Spirit-filled Christian.

Two points can be clearly made from Ephesians 5:19. First, there are two purposes of music. Music in the church must fulfill one of these two purposes. It is designed to instruct the Body of Christ about the greatness, glory and love of God. It is also designed to unite the hearts of the Body of Christ in direct praise to God.

Second, God is pleased by a variety of music. He likes psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of all sorts. The Bible approves, as we will see, of many different kinds of music. The idea that there is a certain musical or worship style that is the only one that pleases God has no support in scripture.

Music in the Bible

While Ephesians 5:19 may be the key New Testament teaching on music, and music is never one of the major subjects in scripture, there are several passages in the Old Testament that can shed light on this study. They consistently support the themes of Ephesians 5:19.

Music was designed into God’s creation – the wind howling in the trees, the birds singing, the percussion of thunder and lightning. It was a gift of God given to humanity for the purpose of praise.

After a brief look at Psalm 150, we will survey the Bible’s teachings on music.

Psalm 150

The last psalm is a summary of the thesis of the entire book. It begins and ends with the most common command in scripture – hallelujah! Hallelujah is a Hebrew imperative, a command. Hallel is a Hebrew verb that means “praise.” The “u” makes it a second person imperative. “Jah” is an abbreviation for Yahweh (Jehovah) the Hebrew name of God. So, this word, which appears 13 times in this psalm, commands us to devote our lives to the praise and worship of the one true God. This is the highest calling any human being can answer. As we will see when we study Revelation 4 and 5, it is our eternal destiny.

There are two reasons to praise God stated in verse 2. We are to praise him for the greatness of his character; his holiness, his love, his glory. We are also to praise him for the mighty deeds he has done on our behalf.

Then, in verse 3 through 5, the Psalmist describes different ways to praise the same Lord. We are to praise him with the grand blast of the trumpet and with the soft beauty of the harp and lyre. We are to lose ourselves in the celebration of God with tambourines and dancing (did I, a Baptist preacher, say the “d” word?). We are to praise him contemplatively, with strings and pipe. Finally, we must praise call everyone to praise with the loud, crashing cymbals. Soft and loud. Contemplative and wild. There are many ways to praise the Lord.

Music is God’s gift to humanity that we might voice his praise.

Exodus 15

As best I can tell, Exodus 15 is the first song of the Bible. After the Exodus, after God parted the Red Sea, brought Israel through on dry ground and then destroyed the pursuing armies of Pharaoh, Moses led Israel in singing a song of worship and praise. Certainly, music is mentioned previously, but this is the first full song we have.

It is what we would call a hymn. It is a song directed in praise to God and recounts the greatness of God’s deeds on behalf of Israel. The theology is intense and in depth. It was sung to commemorate the greatness of God and to help Israel remember that greatness.

I can hear the applause of the traditionalists at this point. “See, God likes hymns of deep theology and thoughtfulness!” Yes, he does.

But look at verses 20 and 21. After the great hymn of Moses, Miriam and some other ladies sang out in a very different style. They got out tambourines and started dancing to the Lord. They took a small snippet of Moses’ great hymn and sang a worship chorus. It seems obvious from the context that they sang this snippet repeatedly.

In other words, after the deep hymn, they took time to reflect on the greatness of God and express it in celebration, in wild joy.

Again, you see our two themes buttressed in this passage. There are two purposes in music – the instruction of the people (Moses’ song) and the worship of God (Miriam’s celebration). And there is a great variety in the form of music that is used to praise and worship God. True Christian worship does not choose between the deep hymn of truth and the joyous celebration – it incorporates both.

The Flow of Worship

There is another important lesson seen here that is crucial throughout the scriptures. Worship should never seek to appeal to or manipulate emotions. It should begin with the contemplation of the greatness of God – his character and his mighty acts on our behalf.

However, when we truly consider what God has done, it will bring emotion to the surface – sorrow, repentance, joy. While worship should not make emotion the goal, neither should it stifle that emotion.

That is the flow of biblical worship. It starts with the contemplation of the greatness of God and then culminates in the powerful expression of worship and praise.

Temple Worship: 1 Chronicles 25

In 1 Chronicles 25, David organized the musicians of Israel in preparation for the building of the temple. He formalized and established the ministry of worship. We learn several things from the organization of temple worship.

First, we again see the dual purpose of worship music. Israel’s music ministry was led by three music guilds, headed by Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun. Jeduthun is said, in verse 1, to prophesy with lyres, harps and cymbals. The prophetic ministry is the horizontal purpose of music – teaching the things of God to the people of God. In verse 5, the sons of Heman were responsible for the praise and worship of God, the vertical ministry of music.

We also see the variety of musical styles. God did not establish one guild for music, but three. Asaph was under the direct supervision of David. Jeduthun was focus on instrumental music and Heman on praise.

There is one more important aspect we see in this passage. The music leaders of Israel, according to verse 7, were “trained and skilled.” They studied their craft and became as good as they could be. Excellence in church music is a noble goal, as long as that excellence is developed in an environment of humility.

1 Corinthians 14

There is very little reference to music in the New Testament, an interesting truth in light of our cultural preoccupation with music in the church. Worship is not synonymous with music. You can worship without music, and you can sing without worshiping. But in his discussion of order and propriety in church worship in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul refers to music a couple of times.

In 1 Corinthians 14:15 says that we sing with both our mind and our spirit, reinforcing the concept of the flow of worship spelled out above. Worship starts in the mind, with the consideration of the glory of God and moves to the spirit, to the joyful expression of the heart’s praise to God.

Verse 26 has an important warning to all musicians. Singing or playing well is a wonderful gift, but it can also be accompanied with pride and the temptation to glorify self. God will never share his glory and we are on dangerous ground when we use the worship service to glorify ourselves. This verse warns us that all things must be done for the glory of God and the building up of the body of Christ; a warning all who lead worship should heed.


It is amazing to me how consistently the themes of Ephesians 5:19 are carried through the Bible's teachings on music. Music has two purposes: instructing God's people, and expressing worship to God. And there is a consistent theme of variety in styles of worship throughout scripture.

Next Time

A survey of music in the Bible is not complete without an examination of Revelation 4 and 5, which describe heavenly worship. In my next blog, I will explore that powerful scripture in depth.


jen said...

Dave said, "It seems obvious from the context that they sang this snippet repeatedly. "

So I say from the bottom of my heart..."yes Lord, Yes Lord, yes yes Lord. Yes Lord,yes Lord, yes yes Lord. Yes Lord,yes Lord, yes yes Lord amen."

Dave Miller said...

I hope my dad doesn't read this.

Todd Bacon said...

I concur: "Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes yes Lord, Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord, yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord amen.

Dave Miller said...

I may have to install comment moderation to keep Bacons out.

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