Instrumental Worship in the Old Law
From “Singing with the Mind” by Luke Moyer Moyerpress 2019 p207-214. Published here by the author.
The discussion over the use of instruments in worship has been a hot topic over the last thousand years. One might think its been a discussion only within the last century, but instrumental practice in Christian worship traces back many generations. Our question here specifically regards instruments in public worship assemblies. We have been arguing throughout this book that the message of music is of primary value, and that mode is not doctrinal. If that is the case, why is there a discussion on instruments? Well, also stressed is that mode, though not itself part of doctrine, does impact the message by reason of communication. There are third party factors to our communication that change the legitimacy of our actions. Consider clothes, for example. One may be authorized to stand before the Lord’s people and say: “Jesus says to drink the cup.” But what if he is wearing a Budweiser shirt? Does that change the message at all? So too with our music do factors of method impact the message. If method exceeds the boundaries of what God has asked then the message is in an unscriptural context. However scriptural the message may be, it shall never lead people to its purpose if done in a way contrary to God’s will.
The question is one of authority. If a mode of music is accompanied with lack of authority, then the message will be tainted. This issue is hard for advocates of both sides to approach fairly. It is inherently an emotional topic. People feel very passionately about the conclusions they arrive at. There is no home-run scripture reference. There is no simple three-point argument which solves all the questions. In order to achieve a well-reasoned answer, we must consider fundamental principles in scripture.
Silence has often been used to approve instruments in worship. Since God didn’t say not to, then it must be okay. The counter argument is that silence does not authorize or show approval. The biggest difficulty in applying those arguments to this discussion is not the argument about silence itself, but the misconception of what silence is. Silence is silence, and cannot be the basis for any justification. The only appeal we can make to approve an action (or condemn it) is based upon what is revealed. Just because a topic is not explicitly mentioned in one place does not mean the author is silent elsewhere. God does not mention instruments in the terms we might look for, but He has indeed informed us about their use. We must realize that God has not been truly silent about instruments in worship. Only when we understand what He has said about it can we draw necessary conclusions about what He has not said.
Those who argue for the authority of instruments (that is, that God has granted authority to the church to use instruments in assembly worship) will appeal to the Old Testament practices. Since Jewish worshipers used instruments, we ought to be allowed to as well. This argument is flawed from several points. The first being that we are no longer under the Old Law. We cannot look to every Old Testament example as authority for our actions. We must recognize the context of those practices. Jesus has fulfilled the Law in every way, and so there are things that no longer apply to worship. Sacrifices are done away, as well as incense, tithing, and all other Law stipulations about temple worship (Hebrews 9). To bring back temple music practices might as well bring back sacrifices and priesthood as well. Instruments were integrally connected to the worship of the temple. They did not have one without the other, and we cannot bring back one without the other.
The second flaw with the supposition that Old Law instruments authorizes modern instruments is that we lack the necessary requirements to even do what they did. Once God officially allowed music at His worship, He designated, through David, a specific set of instruments. The only way we would be in keeping with bringing back instruments is by actually bringing back those particular ones: the Lyre, the Harp, the Tambourine/Cymbal, and the flute. To suggest that other instruments are acceptable requires showing that those instruments were themselves nothing special. We must show that other instruments were used or would have been acceptable. The problem is that those are the only ones we find. There is no principle other than using those instruments. Just like God chose Levites to the exclusion of the 11 tribes, and then chose the family of Aaron to the exclusion of the other families of Levi, so too God chose specific instruments to the exclusion of all others. If modern church priesthood would be unacceptable on the basis of Aaronic bloodline, so too would modern rock or orchestra concerts be inappropriate for the same reasons.
Likewise, God’s official pronouncement of the instruments through David were in direct conjunction with the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple built to house it. Even the Jews, ancient and modern, recognize that the instruments are connected to the divine regulations of the earthly sanctuary. Just as sacrifices could not be offered apart from the alter of God, instruments could not be played apart from His temple.
Context of Prophecy
Another elaboration on this principle considers who was doing the playing. We know that Saul and Uzziah were each condemned for trying to officiate the sacrifices instead of God’s chosen servants. Why do we think this principle goes away? One may argue: but we are all priests of God, therefore any may fill this role. The problem is that first: All of Israel were called priests of God too, but all were not authorized to play or offer sacrifices. Second: Not even all Levites/priests were authorized to perform every function of the Temple worship. There is a principle of delegated authority to certain men to accomplish certain tasks. This isn’t that hard for us to understand. There are many things done in the Bible that we refuse to copy today, not because the action is evil, but because we are not authorized to do so. Consider this example: A CEO of a company tells a leading executive to take the CEO’s own company car out to a vendor and pick up supplies. Now, you, as an employee hear this. Do you suppose that the CEO has established a principle by which you and any other employee can use the CEO’s company vehicle whenever you want to go to a vendor? We recognize the disastrous consequences when we apply this logic to such things.
We must always operate within the roles we have been given. I challenge you to look for occasions of instrumental worship in scripture and note the players:
Exodus 15:20 – Miriam: Prophet
1 Samuel 10:5 – Prophets
1 Chronicles 13:8 – Free for all = God’s disapproval
1 Chronicles 15:13-21 – Dedicated Levites
1 Chronicles 23:5; 25:1-6; and 2 Chronicles 29:25-26 – Dedicated Levites (above) = prophets and authorized families with authorized instruments
2 Chronicles 5:12-13 – Ordained Family
2 Chronicles 20:28 – Unstated, in the Temple
2 Chronicles 23:13 – Dedicated singers
2 Chronicles 30:21 – Levites and Priests
2 Chronicles 34:12 – Named/Authorized Levites
Ezra 3:10 – Sons of Asaph (Authorized family)211 Appendix C.2 Instruments in Worship
Nehemiah 12:27-30 – Levites, “sons of the singers”/Authorized family
Nehemiah 12:35-36 – Priests, Son of Asaph and family
Nehemiah 12:45-47 – Singers according to David’s command from family of Asaph
Numerous Psalms. Psalms were performed at the Temple. Examples of specifically mentioned performers:
Psalm 49:4 – sung by sons of Korah (aka Heman’s Family = Authorized family)
Psalm 57:8 – David – Prophet
Psalm 81:2 – Asaph (Authorized prophet)
Revelation 5:8 – Twenty Four Elders with Crowns before the Lord’s throne = Directly authorized for every action taken.
Revelation 15:2 – Harps of God = expressly commanded by God
This list may be incomplete, but shows the sense of what is going on in scripture. The overwhelming attribute of all of these is not that the players wanted to praise God as they wish; thought it would sound nice to play; nor played only in Temple worship (though Temple practice is arguably the crux of all instrumentation). The overwhelming connection to all these is expressed authorization. The one case (1 Chronicles 13:8) where just any Israelite could play, God shows his disapproval, and David corrects that action specifically in regards to the instrumentation process and the players.
The second overwhelming theme is what makes the players authorized. Miriam, David, Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their families, are all called prophets. The families of the Levites who continued the worship activities after their forefathers were likely considered prophets, but if not, were directly authorized by God Himself through David to do that work. The only real unusual circumstance is in Revelation. But there are only two cases where harps are actually used. One set is owned by the 24 elders, who, like the winged creatures, have the authorization to be in God’s presence and praise Him. The second set of harps are called Harps of God, which implies God’s direct will in the matter. Not to mention we have no grounds to say that those are physical instruments. They exist in a spiritual plane and are described by and through “signs” (Revelation 1:1). We cannot take a look into John’s vision, which uses material things to describe the immaterial, and make conclusions about modern worship practices. Also within John’s Revelation are a cacophony of noises, sights, and actions. All of these were intended to be symbols of greater spiritual truths.
God’s Will Today
Is God really so silent about instruments in worship? Those who we know played are all identified specifically as being authorized to do so, most of the time being a prophet. Whoever assumes just anybody can pick up an instrument today and please God has not carefully considered this thread. Only authorized persons can do something so specifically, just like the priests who carried out the duties of the temple. We must always be mindful of our roles. If one can prove his prophetic inspiration, prove his divine authority to prophesy with an instrument, can produce an instrument which has a divine stamp of approval, and can play it in a setting which God has granted approval to do so, then I would not be opposed to his playing the instrument. Until then, it is dangerously presumptuous and at best the epitome of a lack of wisdom and understanding (again see Ephesians 5:15ff), and at worst is bringing defiled fire before the Lord “which He had not commanded.” If Old Testament ritual is our pattern for instruments, then the pattern of punishment for unauthorized materials is a consuming fire (Leviticus 10), for unauthorized personnel is a consuming chasm (Numbers 16), and for unauthorized location is eternal condemnation (1 Kings 12:25ff; 13:33-34). The Old Testament is not the friend of one who wishes to justify worship instruments. Personally, I do not wish to risk the consequences based on silence (that is, “I don’t know, therefore I will do”).
When we get to the fulfilled system of grace, God has told us through Paul what we ought to use to sing. In all those examples listed above, there are certain instruments which they are authorized to use. 2 Chronicles 29:25-26 says that all the instruments and singers were each specifically commanded by God’s prophets. In the new covenant He has not left us without a fulfillment. Some will attempt to hold a case with the word “psalm.” Psallo at some points of Greek history has meant to pluck. By the first century it came simply to mean ‘sing.’ However, if one is so adamant to retain Psallo as ‘to play with instrument,’ I would again direct their attention to God’s specific command for what to pluck, and who plucks it.
Ephesians 5:19 says very clearly that we are to sing (or if you insist, “pluck” with an instrument). The instrument is the heart. That is not a cop-out answer. Remember how specific God has been about what instruments to use? Here we are told to make melody and Psallo with the heart. The result of playing the heart is vocal expression. To insert any other instrument here is beyond innocent. Good intentions are not enough to overwrite God’s stated will. A command of God to play certain instruments excludes all others. We are to sing, and accompany our voices with the heart. Who is to sing and play? As many as are included in “one another.” The pattern of instrumental music is to substitute voice for the tool. To lay down the voice is a dangerous path. To lay down the heart is even more dangerous. To lay down both for the sake of an instrument is right out untenable. All those who play the instrument (and worship while listening to one) claim that the heart is involved. But just as the condemned Pharisee “said to himself ” his prayer of self-glorification (Luke 18:11-14), the only audience whom we know enjoys and is glorified by our instruments is ourselves. To praise God from the heart means that we go about it His way. If we cannot know that God wants it, and then we do it “from the heart,” then our heart has been revealed to be about us rather than Him.