Instrumental Music in the Old Testament
There is an old story about a preacher who was standing outside a church building on a Sunday morning. A congregant approached the door of the church building with a bull. The preacher asked what the man was going to do with the bull. “I’m going to sacrifice it in worship this morning,” the man said. The preacher said, “You can’t do that.” “But, it’s in the Old Testament,” the man said. “Well,” the preacher said, “the Old Testament has been done away with–you can’t do that.” Another person approached the church with a bowl full of incense. Again, the preacher said, “What are you going to do with this incense?” “Well, I’m going to offer it with my prayers as Moses instructed.” “You can’t do that,” said the preacher. “But, it’s in the Old Testament,” the man said. “Well,” said the preacher, the Old Testament has been done away with–you can’t do that.” Another person approached the church building with a piano. “What are you going to do with that?” asked the preacher. “I’m going to play it with our singing this morning because David used a harp in the Old Testament.” “OK,” said the preacher, “bring it right on in.”
Obviously, that story is apocryphal, and I don’t think that any of our good friends caught up in the error of instrumental music stop to think of the inconsistency the issue creates. There are very few denominations that use incense, candles, bowls for washing, and the like in their worship, yet there are many who use instrumental music based, in part, on its use in the Old Testament. There are no denominations of which I am aware that use animal sacrifices in their worship.
The problem is, of course, that the Old Testament, with all of its ceremonial regulations, has been done away with.
“The priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Heb 7:12). The Law had been to be changed for Jesus to serve as our High Priest–Jesus came from the tribe of Judah and Old Testament priests were required to come from the tribe of Levi. One from the tribe of Judah could never serve as a priest under the Old Testament: “It is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb 7:14). Additionally, as we will see this evening, only the priests were to play musical instruments in the temple worship. Since the priestly worship has been taken away, instrumental music has been taken away from worship as well.
“In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13).
It is our premise this evening, because of the teaching of the New Testament, that we cannot go to the Old Testament to find what God would have us do; God has outlined the order of the church solely in the New Testament. However, we recognize that the Old Testament often has principles which apply in any age–e.g., God is the Creator, men are made in God’s image, God has always expected people to follow his will, and God punishes disobedience. Therefore, we will look to the Old Testament for principles which apply to the New Testament about instrumental music. As we do so, we will ask two questions: What does the Old Testament say about instrumental music? and What can we learn about Old Testament teaching on instrumental music?
What does the Old Testament Say about Instrumental Music?
I have heard many brethren say that instrumental music in the Old Testament was never commanded by God, that it was an allowance to the hardness of hearts, something like divorce. I’ve always found it quite odd that brethren would say that the use of instrumental music in the Old Testament was a concession on God’s part when He told people to use such music at set times. I believe some brethren have feared that saying God commanded instrumental music in the Old Testament would leave some wiggle room to say that it was allowed in the New Testament. However, God commanded much under the Old Testament which is no longer in effect today: circumcision, animal sacrifices, annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and the dedication of the firstborn.
Tonight, I want to examine several passages which show that God absolutely commanded instrumental music in the Old Testament and failure to use instrumental music would have been sin. You might be thinking the same thing I’ve thought for years: “Whether or not instrumental music was commanded or a concession to the weakness of flesh is a moot point, for God hasn’t authorized it in the New Testament.” I believe firmly that God never authorized musical instruments for His worship in the New Testament, and I believe that their use is sinful. However, I also believe that the Old Testament commands to use instrumental music have serious implications for New Testament worship. So, I believe it’s important first that we look at God’s commands to use instrumental music in the Old Testament and then we’ll talk about the implications.
God commanded Moses to use the trumpet in the tabernacle worship. Numbers 10:1-10. God not only commanded Moses to use these musical instruments in the tabernacle (the tabernacle use is obvious, for they were to be sounded over burnt offerings), but He also instructed Moses about how to construct them: “Make two silver trumpets for yourself; you shall make them of hammered work” (Num 10:2).
God specified much about these instruments:
- Notice that in verse 1 Moses was to make two trumpets for use in the tabernacle. What if Moses had hammered three trumpets to use in worship? What if he had said, “Lord, two trumpets are going to give me a headache, so I’m just going to construct one”? Do you honestly believe that God would have been pleased?
- Only priests could blow these trumpets: “The sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets; and these shall be to you as an ordinance forever throughout your generations” (Num 10:8). What if Moses had blown the trumpets? What if a descendent of Judah, as was the Lord Jesus, had blown the trumpets?
- Those two trumpets were the only instruments ever authorized for use in tabernacle worship. Moses, you recall, was raised in Egypt as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and the Egyptians in his time had a variety of musical instruments. However, he only used the two trumpets as commanded by God. Why? We’ll return to that question a little later.
Until the time of David the two trumpets were the only musical instruments used in public worship; however, God revealed to David to begin using other musical instruments.
1 Chronicles 16:5-6.
As David realized he was nearing the end of his natural life, he instructed the leaders of Israel to help Solomon. He said about the Levites whom he had counted: “Four thousand were gatekeepers, and four thousand praised the Lord with musical instruments, ‘which I made,’ said David, ‘for giving praise’” (1 Chron 23:5). Throughout the Old Testament, we read of individuals striving to worship appropriately at the temple. We repeatedly read that they had priests play musical instruments according to the commandment of David. Take two texts for example: Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:36.
This is an important question that we need to answer: Why did David bring these instruments into the worship at the temple? I have heard people in the past say that David brought these instruments into the worship of God simply because he was a musician, he liked them, and so he brought them in. That is simply not right: 2 Chronicles 29:25-26. David did not introduce musical instruments because he liked them or because he wanted to, but because God told him to do so. Thus, when we read that people were following the command of David or using David’s musical instruments, they were following the command of God.
What Should We Learn about Instrumental Music in the Old Testament?
In worship, God never left instrumental music to the devices of man. There have been several who have said that God doesn’t really care if we use instruments or not. There have been many of our brethren who have argued that if God had simply said in the New Testament, “Make music,” that we would be free to worship however we wanted.
Quite honestly, I don’t think either of those viewpoints totally captures what we learn from the Old Testament:
- God placed has placed instrumental music under His authority–He told Moses precisely how many silver horns to make and he told David precisely what instruments to bring into the temple.
- Neither Moses nor David was free to use whatever instruments he desired in worship.
That speaks volumes when we come to the New Testament where instrumental music in worship is never once mentioned. In the Old Testament, God said, “Here’s the instrument you are to use and here’s how you are to use it.” But, when we come to the New Testament, God never says that we are to use a mechanical instrument, but we are to use the instrument of our hearts.
God never authorized talented musicians to play the musical instruments in the Old Testament. The priests were to blow the trumpets in the tabernacle and Levites were to play the instruments in the temple.
Because the priesthood has been abolished, there is no special class of priests separated from the rest of the people. “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). All of us are priests–God has not authorized a separate class of Christians as He did among the Jews–and the major function of priests has always been to offer sacrifices to God. As priests our function is to offer spiritual sacrifices and worship to God. Instead of having one or two people playing for everyone else, we all play on the instrument of our own hearts as we sing: “Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19).
Since God commanded specific instruments in the Old Testament, if He wanted them in the New Testament, doesn’t it stand to reason that He would tell us precisely what instruments He wanted and how we were to use them?
Let us come together and worship God precisely has He has commanded us and to do so as His priests? Do you need to come tonight and become a priest of God by coming to Jesus?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.