Instruments of Praise and Glory
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They saw Your ways, O God, the ways of my God, my King in sanctity. Singers went first, minstrels afterwards, in the midst of maidens playing timbrels—Psalm 68:25,26, JPV {Footnote: JPV — Judaica Press Version, by Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg.}

Daniel Kaleta

We do not know exactly why God created man. We do know that those who are called by his name—and eventually all men will be—have been created to become the instruments of glory to their Creator: “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth; every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6,7, JPS {FOOTNOTE: JPS — Jewish Publication Society’s Hebrew Bible in English.}).

Moses identified the greatest commandment for mankind: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God; the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD, your God, 1) with all your heart, and 2) with all your soul, and 3) with all your means” (Deuteronomy 6:4,5, JPV). Love cannot be muted; it seeks ways to express itself. We desire to love God with all our heart, that is, with our emotions and intellect. We desire to demonstrate to him our love with all our soul, that is, with our outlook on life and our conduct. But also we desire to love him with all our means (strength), or through our works that can be noticed by others, and thus influence them in a positive way.

The most beautiful instrument for expressing our emotions toward God is undoubtedly our voice. The Creator so designed our vocal organs that by modulating their sound we can speak words that are understandable to others. Evidently though, just the ability to communicate was not the only criterion, since God also equipped us with the great capabilities to accurately control the pitch, as well as volume and tone, of the sounds we utter. This means that our voices have been created for singing, to both a child in its crib and our Creator. Singing combines the communication aspect of speech with the beauty of harmonic sounds arranged in a system based on timing.

Man’s creative mind discovered there are other ways to produce sounds besides the larynx. An object struck by another makes a sound related to the materials as well as the force and pattern of the strike. A taut string stretched across a piece of wood can produce harmonious vibrations with finger movements. A column of air in a thin pipe can be vibrated by lip movement, or by the vibration of reeds made of thin plates, or by an air stream blown from the mouth. When we watch a child’s development and his or her great curiosity for sound and the acoustic world, we can appreciate how quickly the tools used for making music must have developed from the beginning.

Movement is also a natural way of expression. We see it from a child’s first mimicking and gesture making, to our body language in expressing mood and state of mind, to a rhythmic motion of the body or its parts in an artistic expression of emotion or storytelling. Someone humming while they work often moves to the rhythm of the sounds. Sometimes the opposite is true: we use it to make a mundane repetitive activity more bearable; e.g., when marching we sing because music attenuates our motions and makes them more rhythmical and dynamic.

In the title given to Psalm 68, the author presents the image of a jubilant, holiday procession making its way to the temple while praising God with all the possible means of artistic expression. The singers are at the head of the procession; at its end are musicians with their instruments. In the middle of the procession are the dancing maidens, marking the rhythm on their drums. When viewing such a march, one could recognize and understand the words of what was being sung. The listeners’ ears received the beautiful sounds of the melody accompanied by the instruments, and their eyes were delighted with the harmonious beauty in the human motion expressing God’s glory.

Such is a wonderful way of expressing love: 1) with all your heart—through singing; 2) with all your soul—through dancing; and 3) with all your strength—through playing instruments. This expression is complete: it simultaneously involves two of the most powerful senses, hearing and sight. It does that to stimulate the heart to both an intellectual and an emotional response. These in turn follow from the analysis of the words understood, and from the emotions contained in the system of sounds that proceed from the voices of the singers, and from the musicians’ instruments. These feelings are amplified with the sight of dance, which in itself is capable of expressing both intellectual and emotional messages.

Just as our human nature is described by biblical writers in three ways—heart, soul, and strength—to express our internal state, the instruments used in biblical (and modern) times can be divided into three groups. The first group, the most “intimate,” comprises the stringed instruments. An example of this group is the harp of David, which in Hebrew is kinor. In modern Hebrew, kinor denotes first and foremost a violin, the instrument of the heart, perhaps the one most capable of expressing the state of the soul, second only to the human voice itself. The second group has the percussion instruments. The drums (Hebrew: tof) were first mentioned in the Bible to praise God in music (Exodus 15:20). These types of instruments use as their vibrating element a taut membrane, or a piece of metal or hardwood. It would be natural to associate percussion instruments with our bodies, and the praising of God on these instruments, with us loving him with all our soul (Hebrew: nephesh, live, being). In the third group one finds the wind instruments, with their most important representative, the shofar (an animal horn) and the silver trumpet. Because their sound was loud, they were used to transmit messages across long distances and aptly correspond to the body’s strength. However, they were equally used to compose and perform music at feasts and solemn occasions for praising God. Other types of these instruments, such as flutes and pipes, have a calming effect when played and were played by shepherds while resting their flocks.

If singing, dancing, and musical instruments are natural ways of human expression, it should not surprise us that those who love God desire to use these same ways to express their praise for the Creator, and to do it publically in a congregation of fellow believers. This then can be a meaningful part of a solemn service to God in a gathering of the Lord’s people. If the instruments are naturally divided into three groups and each is capable of expressing a different range of emotions, it is natural for those who are worshiping God to want to praise him on any instrument they play. Yet we know that the use of some instruments, as well as of dance in God’s service, has been met with some resistance and opposition in the church.

 “Cain-ish” Origin of Instruments

The use of musical instruments in God’s service can invoke negative emotions because of their association with godless entertainment. A similar feeling may also occur with dancing. There is also a negative reaction because instruments and dance were frequently used in idol worship in the Scriptures and more recently have often been connected with ceremonial excesses in many large churches.

A negative association with using musical instruments began in Genesis. The first two sons of Adam and Eve specialized in farming: Abel tended livestock while Cain tilled the ground. As a natural consequence, Cain’s descendants, tied more to land, founded cities the first of which was built by Cain himself (Genesis 4:17). His descendants brought typically city-like activities into the human culture, such as crafts and music. Jubal, a descendant of Cain, was “the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute” (Genesis. 4:21, JPV). Thus he was either a teacher or a promoter of some kind of a harp or a lyre (the kinor) and some wind instrument, or a pipe (Hebrew: ugav), or possibly was their inventor. Perhaps to the more reverent generations of Seth these instruments might have been associated with the rejection of Cain. Note, however, that Jubal’s father Lamech appears honorable.

During Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Miriam praised God playing the drum, and was accompanied by other Israelite women who also played drums and danced, or possibly played pipes. Later, however, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai and saw them dance (Hebrew: mekolot, Exodus 32:19, possibly with pipe accompaniment), he became angry and broke the first tables of the Ten Commandments.

Already at Mount Sinai, the shofar, a holy instrument, could be heard (Exodus 19:16, 19—Strong’s #7782), and the silver trumpets were used to call convocations for, and to add splendor to, feasts and sacrifices (Numbers 10:2-10). Yet, it was only in the days of David when instruments were formally introduced into the temple worship (1 Chronicles 16:4-6). The Bible tells us that as many as four thousand Levites praised God with the instruments made upon David’s order (1 Chronicles 23:5). Accompanied by the sounds of many instruments, David, dancing, or actually twisting and jumping (2 Samuel 6:14-16; 1 Chronicles 15:28,29), brought the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion. At that time, though, the royal daughter Michal, who despised the former shepherd who had once been a court musician, criticized that way of praising God. David said that she was wrong: “I will play before the Lord” was David’s brief reply to Michal’s challenge (2 Samuel 6:21).

After the Romans destroyed their temple, the Jews in mourning forbade the use of musical instruments in worship. To this day among orthodox Jews it is forbidden to play an instrument on the Sabbath. Even hiring a non-Jew to play in the synagogue would be considered a violation of the peace of the Sabbath. The only exception is a wedding ceremony during which non-Jews can play instruments on the Sabbath day. In the nineteenth century there was an attempt to introduce the organ into a synagogue to accompany singing. When Israel Jacobson attempted this at a reformed synagogue in Berlin in 1815, he caused so much outrage in the Jewish orthodox community that Emperor Frederick William III had to close that place of worship.

The first Christian churches, though not restricted by the resolutions of the Sanhedrin regarding the use of musical instruments, still did not use any instruments for over a millennium, and even then limited singing to just one vocal part. It was not until the Middle Ages that the organ was carefully introduced to give the correct pitch, or to quietly accompany the singing. Officially churches did not allow the use of the organ until the sixteenth century. Then gradually other instruments were allowed. In the Roman Catholic Church a bishop’s permission was required to use any instruments in the service. Some instruments, however, have never been permitted.

Within the Bible Student fellowship, there were mixed emotions when a group of young people used a drum in a praise service at an International Convention in Poland several years ago. That has changed recently as instrumental accompaniment takes place in most Polish Bible Student classes to assist with singing. However, it is still rare to hear instrumental music alone unless the music reflects melodies of known hymns, and therefore is associated with the sentiments of the corresponding words. In most classes, though not all, dance is not an acceptable part of a praise service.

Does this mean that instruments and their use, or even dance, are evil in themselves? Certainly not. There are approximately two hundred passages in the Scriptures where praising God with the use of musical instruments and dance is encouraged. Even when the sounds of instruments are not directly associated with any religious wording, they can still express an ideal of objective beauty, which is an element of our likeness to God. It is more the kind of music and style of playing than the instrument itself that causes negative connotations.

Sound is invisible. The plucking of an inanimate string awakens a sound that is full of life, fueled by the musician’s emotions. A trumpet player, by vibrating a column of air in his instrument, creates a great amount of energy capable of traveling far distances. All these sounds can be assembled together in more complex systems, thus creating new, heretofore non-existent combinations of sounds. This vibrating air can cause tears in listeners, or invoke pervasive feelings of happiness. There is no reason why this ability to create beauty, to stimulate the greatest emotions, should not be used in God’s service. The same may be said for dance.

In much the same way as we can use the God-given instruments of our heart, soul, and strength to demonstrate our love for him, so we can bring glory to our Lord by using musical instruments to praise him. Every human-invented instrument can be an instrument of God’s praise if the heart, the soul, and the strength of the player are immersed in God’s love.

      Praise Him with a shofar blast, praise Him with psaltery and lyre.
Praise Him with timbres and dance, praise Him with stringed instruments and flute.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals, praise Him with resonant cymbals.
Let every soul praise God. Hallelujah!

                —Psalm 150:3-6, JPS