Music has traditionally been part of biblical worship, even from the days of the Old Testament. Notwithstanding this, the music that is used in many churches around the world today is most inappropriate for the worship of the thrice holy God and utterly dishonouring to Him. Churches that were once fundamental have also fallen prey to the scourge of unbiblical music in worship. In order to understand why music is used in the worship of God, and to discern if a piece of music is suitable for biblical worship, it is necessary to consider the biblical history of the use of music, as well as its purposes in the worship of God.
Use of Music in Worship: Its History
Music was used in the Tabernacle and later, Temple worship. King David first gave instructions for the formal organization of singers and musicians from the tribe of Levi, in preparation for the bringing up of the ark of God from the house of Obededom to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:12, 16). After the ark of God was set in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it, the appointed Levites ministered before the ark “to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel,” accompanied by musical instruments (1 Chronicles 16:1–6). It is noteworthy that the priests and Levites were commanded to sanctify themselves as the first step in this whole event (1 Chronicles 15:12).
The employment of music in Old Testament worship continued after the time of King David. King Solomon was given the privilege to build the Temple of God. At the dedication of the Temple, singers and musicians were involved in the worship of God (2 Chronicles 5:11–14). 2 Chronicles 5:13 says, “… the trumpeters and singerswere as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; … they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the LORD”. Once again, the sacredness of worship is seen in how the priests were sanctified before they worshipped God and the Levites were arrayed in white linen (2 Chronicles 5:11–12).
In post-exilic days, music was also recorded to have been used at the laying of the foundation for the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:8–13), and the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27). Music remained a mainstay of the worship conducted in the Second Temple, as it was in the days of David and of Solomon (Nehemiah 12:44–47; 1 Chronicles 16:37–42).
However, it must be emphasized that in the Old Testament, only four kinds of instruments—the harp, psaltery, cymbals and trumpet—were allowed to be used in the house of God for worship. Furthermore, the trumpet was employed only for special purposes, and was not used as a normal accompaniment for singing (see 1 Chronicles 25:1–7). Hence, the use of musical instruments was strictly regulated in the worship of God, and the same general principle of restraint must also apply today.
The practice of singing in the worship of God continued from the Old to the New Testament. There are two accounts in the New Testament where singing as an act of worship is explicitly recorded to have occurred: (i) Jesus and His disciples singing a hymn at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:25–30; Mark 14:22–26), and (ii) Paul and Silas praying and singing praises unto God while imprisoned in Philippi (Acts 16:25). Furthermore, numerous passages in the Book of Revelation describe worship that shall be in heaven as God had revealed to the Apostle John, and singing is mentioned in passages such as Revelation 5:9–10 and Revelation 15:3–4.
Use of Music in Worship: Its Purposes
Psalm 92, a psalm or song for the sabbath day, begins thus, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High: To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night, Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.” Psalm 147 exhorts in similar fashion, “Praise ye the LORD: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely. … Sing unto the LORD with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God.”
These verses express that music is a means for worshippers to praise and thank God. That music is used in worship to praise and thank God can also be observed from the foregoing survey of its use in biblical history (see 1 Chronicles 16:4, 41, 2 Chronicles 5:13, Nehemiah 12:46, and Acts 16:25). Moreover, Moses and the children of Israel sang a song of praise to the LORD after He brought them safely across the Red sea (Exodus 15:1–19). Likewise, Deborah and Barak sang a song of praise after the LORD delivered the children of Israel from the king of Canaan (Judges 5). In these examples, God’s attributes and mighty works were declared while He was praised and thanked. Therefore, as one sings a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God in worship, he is also declaring God’s attributes such as His wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, as well as proclaiming the wonderful works of God in the lives of saints (both the saints of old and today). It ought also to be noted that, in Psalm 92, the sound given off in praise is described as a solemn one.
Another purpose for using music in the worship of God is given in Colossians 3:16. God’s Word says, “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 hearts to the Lord.” In other words, Christian hymns and songs can teach and admonish or warn believers in things pertaining to the Word of God. Since the Christian song is a method for “the word of Christ (to) dwell in you richly,” it necessitates the songs used to be full of the Word of God and doctrinally rich and sound. This means that songs that have lyrics that are shallow in meaning (and often repetitive) are not what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he exhorted the Colossian brethren in this manner.
Music in worship is also used to express the affections of the believer towards his God. From Colossians 3:16, it can be observed that the heart must be involved when one sings, and this affection must be directed “to the Lord.” Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” It has been noted that “music provides a language for a right expression of emotion, and good music actually educates our emotions so that they develop to maturity.” (Scott Aniol, Worship in Song, 165). What then ought to be the standard that determines what is good music? The answer is given in John 4:24, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Biblical truth must guide one’s emotions and affections in the worship of God, and in turn, the type of music used in doing so.
There is a place for music in the worship of God. It is, in fact, the biblical pattern established since the time of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, churches today need to have a clear understanding of the purposes established from God’s Word, for incorporating music in their worship services. A failure to do so will open the floodgates to all kinds of music, even worldly ones, that will undoubtedly lead to unbiblical worship and the inevitable falling away. Indeed, the erroneous idea in many modern churches is that music is a tool for them to draw in the crowds. Nothing can be further from the truth. May the music and singing that resound from the congregations who love the Lord be a sweet savour, pleasing and acceptable unto Him. (Shine Forth Missions Journal 2019, “Biblical Worship III”, published by Truth BPC.)
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