Those of you visiting with us today for the first time may have been struck by the absence of musical instruments. You may wonder why we don’t have them. It is not a matter of talent – we have lots of people here who play instruments very well. And you may wonder if it is just a peculiar custom or tradition. It is not, at least for me. It is a matter of principle.
However, I know that there is concern, maybe even skepticism, among some Christians about this position. I think that there are two basic beliefs which underlie some of the skepticism about opposition to instrumental music. First, the belief that God allowed them throughout the OT, which gives us reason to think they should be okay today. And second, the fact that this seems to be just a peculiar tradition of the “church of Christ.” If nothing else, today I hope to dispel those two assumptions.
What I want to do today is build on the lesson two weeks ago regarding the sufficiency of the Scriptures – sola scriptura – and the lesson last week on the authority of the Scriptures, and apply those principles to this topic.
Instruments in the Old Testament
Let’s begin with the use of instruments in the worship of Israel in the OT. I think I have always had this nebulous assumption that it was just “anything goes” when it came to instruments in OT worship. My assumption could not have been further from the truth.
The first instructions God gave Israel for instruments in worship was in Numbers 10:
1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 "Make two silver trumpets. Of hammered work you shall make them, and you shall use them for summoning the congregation and for breaking camp. 3 And when both are blown, all the congregation shall gather themselves to you at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 4 But if they blow only one, then the chiefs, the heads of the tribes of Israel, shall gather themselves to you. 5 When you blow an alarm, the camps that are on the east side shall set out. 6 And when you blow an alarm the second time, the camps that are on the south side shall set out. An alarm is to be blown whenever they are to set out. 7 But when the assembly is to be gathered together, you shall blow a long blast, but you shall not sound an alarm. 8 And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets. The trumpets shall be to you for a perpetual statute throughout your generations. 9 And when you go to war in your land against the adversary who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. 10 On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the LORD your God."
I wanted to read that lengthy descriptions so you could see just how specific God’s instructions were:
1. The specific instruments, two silver trumpets.
2. Who it was to use them, the sons of Aaron.
3. When and how they were to be used.
Now as you know, the Law of Moses gives us an extremely detailed account of the construction of the tabernacle, every piece of furniture, clothing of the priests, and all the different offerings. But in all of the Law, the only instruments ever recorded that God designated for Israel to use in its worship were these two silver trumpets. God gave Israel these instructions in the time of Moses, around 1440 BC. And until the time of David, four centuries later, these are the only instruments God designated for use in the public worship of the nation.
David of course is introduced to us as a skilled musician, providing soothing music to King Saul. He was the sweet singer of Israel, and he put his keen musical skills to work by inventing more instruments for use in the worship at the tabernacle.
When the Bible describes the movement of the ark into the tabernacle at Jerusalem, the text says:
1 Chron. 16:4 Then he appointed some of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. 5 Asaph was the chief, and second to him were Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, who were to play harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, 6 and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God.
Four centuries after the last instruction was given to use instruments (the two silver trumpets), David arranged for there to be instruments used in conjunction with those trumpets at the tabernacle.
At the end of his life, David was disappointed that God did not allow him to build the temple, but he did the next best thing. He helped lay out the plans for the new sanctuary that his son and successor, King Solomon, would build. And notice what David says as he turns the reigns over to Solomon:
1 Chron. 23:1 When David was old and full of days, he made Solomon his son king over Israel. 2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 The Levites, thirty years old and upward, were numbered, and the total was 38,000 men. 4 "Twenty-four thousand of these," David said, "shall have charge of the work in the house of the LORD, 6,000 shall be officers and judges, 54,000 gatekeepers, and 4,000 shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments that I have made for praise."
So David specifically claims to have invented the instruments which he then planned for the priests to use. Some opponents of the use of instruments have latched on to phrases like this to make what I think is a very bad argument, that David created these instruments on his own and was wrong. In Amos 6:5 the prophet pronounces woe on those who:
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music
A British Methodist named Adam Clarke, who lived in the late 1700s, made this comment on that passage in Amos:
I believe that David was not authorized by the Lord to introduce that multitude of musical instruments into the Divine worship of which we read, and I am satisfied that his conduct in this respect is most solemnly reprehended by this prophet; and I farther believe that the use of such instruments of music, in the Christian Church, is without the sanction and against the will of God that they are subversive of the spirit of true devotion, and that they are sinful.
While I agree with his view of instruments for churches, I do not agree with his assessment of David’s invention of them, because of what is stated in the account of the reforms of Hezekiah:
2 Chron. 29:25 And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets. 26The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. 27Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel.
Here the text specifically says that the instruments of David were invented according to a commandment from the Lord. They were not just David’s idea – they were God’s idea.
Further, notice the historical context here. It is the time of Hezekiah, when the nation of climbing out of apostasy. When the king wants to put the temple back in order, his guideline is what David commanded. And if you remember your Bible chronology, Hezekiah lived 300 years after David. Once again, it wasn’t “anything goes” in the use of instruments in the OT. They used only the instruments God commanded them to.
Now, jump ahead two hundred years to the time of the return from Babylonian exile (the time of Zechariah which we are studying on Wednesday nights). Once more there is a need to restore, or actually completely rebuild the temple.
Ezra 3:10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel.
And then the final wave of reform, when Nehemiah led the people in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem 80 years later:
Neh. 12: 24 And the chiefs of the Levites: Hashabiah, Sherebiah, and Jeshua the son of Kadmiel, with their brothers who stood opposite them, to praise and to give thanks, according to the commandment of David the man of God, watch by watch. I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks. One went to the south on the wall to the Dung Gate. 32 And after them went Hoshaiah and half of the leaders of Judah, 33 and Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, and Jeremiah, 35 and certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets: Zechariah the son of Jonathan, son of Shemaiah, son of Mattaniah, son of Micaiah, son of Zaccur, son of Asaph; 36 and his relatives, Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah, and Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God. And Ezra the scribe went before them. 45 And they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon. 46 For long ago in the days of David and Asaph there were directors of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
I have to tell you I am completely embarrassed that in all these years of study I have never noticed what is stated over and over and over again- Israel only used the instruments that God commanded them to: the two silver trumpets of Moses, and then the instruments given by David. And this was always in the context of tabernacle or temple worship.
The only exceptions I know of to this are three references to prophets using instruments (Ex. 15:20; 1 Sam. 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15). But in so far as Israel’s corporate worship was concerned, here is what we learn in from the OT:
1. Musical instruments were specifically legislated by God. Their use was not left up to the discretion of the people. Their use was commanded by God. To put it another way, why did they use instruments: because God told them to.
2. For the first four hundred years of Israel’s history all they used in tabernacle worship was the two silver trumpets. Why did they use those trumpets? Because God told them to. Why didn’t they use any other instruments? There was no word from God. If God had not commanded them to make the trumpets, they would not have used them.
3. For the next thousand years of history Israel only used what David had commanded. Why did David give them additional instruments? Because God commanded it.
With such a clear emphasis on the command of God as the reason to use instruments, the obvious question for us when we come to the New Testament is, has God given us instructions to use instruments when we assemble for worship?
Music in the New Testament
Of course, someone might assume that it doesn’t make a difference whether instruments are in the New Testament or not, since the fact that they are in the Old Testament is all we need to know we can use them today. And yet when you consider how closely instrumental music was linked to the tabernacle/temple, that is not a very good assumption.
In fact, as Jesus taught the Samaritan woman in John 4, one of the unique features of new covenant worship was that it would not be limited to one centralized location.
John 4:21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
That was a radical statement for Jesus to make in light of the fact that for a millennium, since the time of David, there had been a central sanctuary at Jerusalem where the people were to worship. Jesus’ words can only mean there is a new covenant coming, with new arrangements for worship.
Further, as the Book of Hebrews teaches, through His death on the cross Jesus replaced the Mosaic system of tabernacle worship and ritual through His death on the cross.
Heb. 8:1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.
And while the NT does talk a lot about the church as the temple of God, it is of course a spiritual house compromised of Christians, living stones built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, offering spiritual sacrifices, like singing. Notice how the end of Hebrews makes a sharp distinction between the OT tabernacle and our service as Christians:
Heb. 13:10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
Since the NT emphasizes so strongly the difference between the old and new covenants, it is not enough for us to assume that just because Israel did something in response to God’s commands in the old covenant that we can do the same thing as His new covenant people.
In fact, in there is anything we should gather from the OT, it is that we should only do what God commanded, just as Israel only used the trumpets God revealed to Moses and the instruments God commanded David.
And this is the heart of the case against instruments for us. The New Testament gives us zero indication that the early Christians used instruments in their worship. There are many references to singing –
1 Cor. 14:15 I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
James 5:13 Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
So we are to sing from the heart to glorify God and edify each other. But nowhere in the NT did God give us the kind of instructions He gave to Moses or David, to incorporate instruments into our worship.
You may be aware that there is one passage that is sometimes used to support the use of instruments in our worship.
Eph. 5:19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.
There are two words in this verse that those who advocate the use of instruments argue support their case. First, Paul says that we are to sing “psalms.” Since many psalms mention instruments, therefore we can use them today. And indeed many psalms do:
Psalm 149:3 Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!
4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with salvation.
5 Let the godly exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their beds.
But since the psalms were the hymnal of Israel, and Israel lived under a different covenant than us, we would expect that not everything in the psalms would be applicable to us in the same way that it was to Israel. Psalm 149 goes on to say:
6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishments on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with chains
and their nobles with fetters of iron
Does anyone here think that is church’s responsibility to take two-edged swords and slaughter the nations?
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
as Psalm 51 suggests?
Of course not. The wide mention of instruments in the psalms is what we would expect since the psalms were predominantly sung at the temple, but that proves nothing regarding worship under the new covenant.
Back to Ephesians 5, the other word in verse 19 that sometimes is employed to justify instruments is the Greek word psallo, translated as “make melody.” It is argued that since that word means to pluck the strings of an instrument that Paul is endorsing their use. Of course, if that is what the words means, Eph. 5:19 doesn’t just permit their use – it commands their use. And I don’t know anyone who takes that position. Nor do I know of an English translation that renders it “play an instrument.” Paul tells us what the instrument is in the text: “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” We are to engage the heart as our instrument when we worship.
When I was in grad school I took classes at a school where I would have had much in common with the faculty in terms of what I believed, except for this issue. And I got teased a little bit for being “anti-piany,” as they put it. One day we had taken a break in class, and one of the students said, “Let’s debate the use of instruments. Why do you think they are wrong?” I replied that since he thought they were right he should make the case for their use. And as soon as he started to use the psallo argument our professor interrupted him (who would have agreed with him by the way on the issue) and said, “That is not what the word means, and if it did mean that it would be a command and not an expedient. The final word on this question is that the Bible is silent about it.” He’s right.
The truth is that the word psallo did at one time refer to playing an instrument, but its meaning changed over time, from playing an instrument, to playing and singing, and then just to singing. We have a word in our language that went through a similar evolution. Today “lyric” refers to the words to a song. But it comes from the word “lyre,” which was a stringed instrument. It no longer has that connotation.
As my professor said, the final word on this matter is that the Bible is silent about the use of instruments in the new covenant. Even the most cynical would have to agree that instruments are conspicuous by their absence in the NT since all of the earliest Christians were Jews who had a long heritage of their use in the temple. This omission is even more glaring when you consider that most Christians in the first century were Gentiles, and instruments were widely used in Greco-Roman culture, especially in pagan rituals.
Well, someone may argue that since their use was so common in the OT that it was just assumed that Christians would use them. There is a way to test this idea. We have historical evidence we can look at to see if there are allusions to their use outside of the NT.
The Historical Evidence
Let’s begin with the period leading up to the NT. When the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the Jews were dispersed around the world, worship as it had always been known was impossible. Instead, Jews in various places around the world began to assemble together for prayer and the study of the Law, meetings that came to be known as synagogue. Since this arrangement was not a substitute for the temple, the Jews did not carry over practices specific to the temple. They did not offer sacrifices in the synagogue; they did not make burnt offerings in the synagogue; and most significantly for our study, they did not use instruments in the synagogue. In fact there is some question as to whether they sang in all synagogues.
Even today Orthodox synagogues do not permit the use of instruments.
Services in orthodox synagogues are conducted entirely in Hebrew, with the exception of the sermon. Furthermore, singing is not accompanied by a choir or musical instrument. In Reform synagogues, services are carried out in a mixture of Hebrew and English and singing is sometimes accompanied by a choir or instrument such as an organ.
So what this means is that from the time of the destruction of the temple until its rebuilding a few years before the time of Christ – a period of over 500 years! - when Jews were gathering to worship in the synagogue they were not using instruments. And this information is especially telling regarding the use of instruments in churches, since everyone acknowledges that the early Christians adopted the basic format of the synagogue as the format for their worship.
Instruments are not in the NT, and they were not used in the five centuries before the NT. But what if they were used by the early Christians but just weren’t mentioned in the text. Well, again, all we have to do is read the historical evidence of early Christian practice.
And what the data shows is that not only did the early Christians not use them for the first six hundreds years of church history, but in the words of one music historian,
“The antagonism which the Fathers of the early Church displayed toward instruments has two outstanding characteristics: vehemence and uniformity.” (James McKinnon, The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chants).
At this point I could spend an hour just reading quotations from the early Christians expressing their adamant opposition to the use of instruments. But for now let me just summarize the evidence like this:
1. There is no evidence of any Christians using instruments in the worship assembly for the first six hundred years of church history – the first recorded use was in 670 in Rome.
2. Even then, they were not widely used for another 600 years. As late as the 13th century, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The Church does not use musical instruments such as the harp or lyre when praising God, in case she should seem to fall back into Judaism.”
3. In the Protestant Reformation, many of the key leaders were virulently opposed to the instrument.
So here is the point of all this evidence. Instruments are not found anywhere in the pages of the NT. They are not found in the 500 years before the NT. And they are not mentioned in the 600 years after the NT. In over a thousand years of history we do not have a scintilla of evidence that God’s people were using instruments. Nada –nothing.
Someone may say, “Well history doesn’t prove anything.” Well, if you are trying to advocate the use instruments, you better hope it does, because you sure aren’t going to prove anything by the NT. Those who dismiss this evidence should ask themselves if they would feel differently if the evidence were the other way around. What if there were all kinds of references to the early Christians using instruments? Are you trying to tell me that advocates of instruments would just ignore that? Of course not. Well neither can we ignore the unanimous testimony of history that Christians did not use instruments for a period that is three times as long as the entire history of America.
That has obviously changed by our own day and time, although there are still many fellowships that do not use the instrument (the Orthodox church, Primitive Baptists, some conservative Presbyterian churches, and until recently some Mennonite churches). In fact one of the most helpful books I have ever read on this topic was written in 2005 by an Baptist.
And his summary of this issue is right on target:
The issue before us is nothing less than a matter of sola scriptura. Will we look to the Scriptures alone to govern our thinking in regard to musical instruments in worship, or will we look to human reasoning? Will we leave this issue where God has left it, or will we add our own thoughts to His word? (John Price, Old Light on New Worship, p. 230).
If we are to go by what is only found in the Bible, and we are not to add to Scripture, it is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that since the NT makes no reference to instruments in worship assemblies that we as a church that wants to submit to the headship of Christ should not use them.
Since most of you hear probably already agreed with the position I have taken, I feel like I need to say something that would challenge you as well, so that no one can leave here today feeling like you are off the hook. Our worship cannot be defined simply by what we are against, or what we do not do. While the outward forms have changed over time, one constant in what God has always wanted from His people is worship that comes from the heart, passionate praise from people who are completely devoted to Him.
Look at this passage in Rom. 12:
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This simple verse speaks volumes about genuine worship:
1. It says that worship is first and foremost about what we give rather than what we get. The NASB translates the last phrase “spiritual service of worship”. We are not to come here and sit around like spectators, or like customers who want to be served. We are coming to render the service. This is not a day off – its is the day when we do our most important work of all, serving as spiritual priests in God’s holy house.
2. It also means that what we do in our public assemblies should be a reflection of the kind of people we are all week. We don’t just offer this service once, like an animal sacrifice in the old covenant. We are living sacrifices, giving our bodies to God at all times. If you are one kind of person here today and a completely different kind of person the rest of the week, your worship is a sham, and while you might be fooling some of us, you are not fooling God.
3. And most importantly, this verse says that worship is promoted by what God has done for us. Paul’s appeal for worship stems from “the mercies of God.” Our worship is a reflection of our awareness of and appreciation for what God has done for us. If you don’t think much about what God has done for you, if you don’t dwell on the many mercies of God, then your worship will be infrequent, superficial, and insincere. But if your heart is aflame with love for God for what He has done for you, then your worship will be just what God wants.
And worship should always be about what God wants.