RPM, Volume 18, Number 35, August 21 to August 27, 2016

A Case for the Continuation of Musical
Instruments in New Testament Worship

By John Barber, Ph.D.

Most of us take instrumental music for granted in our worship services. However, a portion of conservative Protestant churches believe that since instrumental music formed part of the ministry of the Old Testament, which pointed to Christ, musical instruments were abrogated with the finished work of Christ. There is a reason this position is wrong.

Preliminary observations

In the Old Testament, the musicians who served in the worship of God were selected from among the Levites. Although both priests and Levites served God in worship, they maintained different roles. The Levites were principally assistants to the priests in their ministry at the altar and tabernacle (Exod. 28:40-43; Num. 8:19). Thus, Levites were not to overstep their jurisdiction and endeavor to be priests (Num. 16:9-10). Because the Levites were assistants to the priests they were to act under the orders of Aaron and his sons who assigned each man his individual functions (Num. 3-4).

The difference in function is related to a difference in genealogy. The Levites descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah, while the priests descended from Aaron. God instituted the priests after the incident of the golden calf to perform certain sacred duties, including animal sacrifices and various rituals (Exod. 28). Both Levite and priest had to do everything exactly the way God said.

Aaron was also a descendant of Levi and Jacob. In the literature on the subject we consequently often find both the Levites and the priests lumped together under the rubric of the Levitical priesthood. So perhaps a helpful way to understand the difference between the two is to put it this way. All priests are Levites but not all Levites are priests.

Members of the tribe of Levi also served other important functions. They served as guards, teachers of the Law, political representatives, and even judges. Interestingly, the sons of Levi were the only Israelite tribe not allowed to be landowners because "the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them" (Deut. 18:2). As a result, Levites were supported by the tithe (Num. 18:22). But because they served the priests, they were expected to give the priests a portion of their income known as the Maaser Rishon (Num. 18:26-28).

Limitations on the Levites

These introductory remarks lead to a very important point regarding the work of the Levites. Unlike the priests, the Levites were not allowed to come near the tabernacle furnishings, especially the altar, much less lay hands on any of it. To do so would result in death (Num. 18:3). As an added task they were to make sure that no ordinary Israelite touched the most holy things, lest he also die.

The basic responsibilities of the Levites are recorded in Numbers 1:47-54.

The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers' tribe. For the LORD had spoken to Moses, saying, "Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle. So when the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman who comes near shall be put to death. The sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there will be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony." Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all which the LORD had commanded Moses, so they did.

One might wonder how one can care for such important items, and even move them, without touching them? Here is how it worked. If the tabernacle was stationary, the Levites could approach the sacred furnishings, but only after the priests covered them (Num. 18:3). Moving the tent of meeting was a far more elaborate process. The priests had to prepare everything according to the strictest regulations set by the Lord, and only then, could the Levites initiate transportation.

It is worth taking the time to read the detail involved in moving the tabernacle as recorded in Numbers 4:4-15.

This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things. "When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles. Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall also spread a cloth of blue and put on it the dishes and the pans and the sacrificial bowls and the jars for the drink offering, and the continual bread shall be on it. They shall spread over them a cloth of scarlet material, and cover the same with a covering of porpoise skin, and they shall insert its poles. Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for the light, along with its lamps and its snuffers, and its trays and all its oil vessels, by which they serve it; and they shall put it and all its utensils in a covering of porpoise skin, and shall put it on the carrying bars. Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth and cover it with a covering of porpoise skin, and shall insert its poles; and they shall take all the utensils of service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth and cover them with a covering of porpoise skin, and put them on the carrying bars. Then they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. They shall also put on it all its utensils by which they serve in connection with it: the firepans, the forks and shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread a cover of porpoise skin over it and insert its poles. When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.

Be certain to note the meticulous and indeed ornate steps the priests took to wrap up the articles for moving so that the sons of Kohath (a division within the Levites) "will not touch the holy objects and die" (vs. 15). It is clear that the job of the Levites in moving the tent of meeting was one of porterage and not one of cleansing and wrapping the vessels.

Because the Levites were not allowed to touch the holy furniture, other limitations were set on them. The sacred incense was burned only on the golden altar and in the censers of the priests, not the Levites (Num. 16:3:35). In addition, the Levites were allowed to bear the Ark of the Covenant or the mercy seat (Duet. 10:8). But they could do so only after the priests had covered the ark with at least three layers of cloth to safeguard the Levites and also to protect lay Israelites from seeing it (Num. 4:5-6; 18-20). In fact, as the Levites moved the Ark, the general population was to stay about a thousand yards away (Jos. 3:4).

Why were the Levites not permitted to touch the holy objects? It is because each one pointed to some special aspect of the finished work of Christ. Such things were thus sanctified, set apart, made holy, unto the Lord's use. The law against direct contact enforced the concept of God's holiness and that no one can approach God without mediation. The priests, on the other hand, were permitted to handle the sacred objects and to be ministrants of them, such as burn incense before the Lord, because their work typified Christ and his ministry in a special sense. Even so, the priests had to make special offerings for themselves, including the High Priest, before engaging upon their exclusive duties (Exod. 30:10; Heb. 9:7).

Who set apart the sacred objects? Moses. The Bible records, "Now on the day that Moses had finished setting up the tabernacle, he anointed it and consecrated it with all its furnishings and the altar and all its utensils; he anointed them and consecrated them also" (Num. 7:1).

Here is a list of the seven special furnishings of the tabernacle:
Altar of Burnt Offering (Exodus 27:1)
Laver (Exodus 30:18)
Table of Showbread (Exodus 25:23)
Lampstand (Exodus 25:31)
Altar of Incense (Exodus 30:1)
Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10)
Mercy Seat (Exodus 25:17) 1

A provocative question

I will not take the time to detail just how each of these items pointed to the finished work of Christ. Those before me have explained this rich parallelism rather well. Rather, I wish to ask a question to prompt our thinking on the continuation of musical instruments in New Testament worship. It is a simple question: How do you play a musical instrument without touching it?

Now before you jump to answer this question, I want you to take just a moment to think it through. For example, if you are like me—you have played a musical instrument in an orchestra, a band, or a small ensemble—I want you to imagine that group of players. Now ask yourself if at any time you witnessed your fellow musicians play their instruments without handling them.

The obvious answer to the rhetorical question provides the thesis of this investigation.

Although musical instruments were employed in the service of the Old Testament system of worship, the fact that Levitical musicians handled their instruments with regularity is a simple but effective proof of the difference in kind between the instruments and the sacred furnishings and accessories of both the tabernacle and the temple. As a result, musical instruments were not types of the finished work of Christ and are therefore not abrogated by the New Testament.

A brief history of musical instruments in the Old Testament

This fact becomes all the more clear when we look into what Scripture says about musical instruments and the musicians who played them in the tabernacle and in the temple.

Musical instruments in Israel's religious life did not begin with King David. They were instituted by God, making them of Divine origin. It began when God ordered Moses to make two silver trumpets (Num. 10:1-10). Depending on how the trumpets were blown determined how the people of God were to assemble (the striking parallel between the blowing of the silver trumpets to convene God's people before him, and the sounding of the "trump" on the last day, ought to be evident). The trumpets were also used for success in battle. And they were to be blown "over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be as a reminder of you before your God. I am the LORD your God" (vs. 10). In this case, the blowing of the trumpets in union with Israel's ritual ceremonies was performed, not by the Levites, but by the priests.

Now what does the reader not see in the above list of tabernacle furnishings? The two silver trumpets. That is for the reason that the trumpets were not among the central liturgical objects of Israel's worship. This is further proven by the fact that the trumpets were not in need of consecration as were the seven special furnishings of the tabernacle. It was instead the trumpets that consecrated the people; their comings and goings. Distinctly, then, the trumpets were not Old Testament types of Christ that were invalidated with the New Covenant. In fact, most writers see the trumpets as a type of the gospel that continues in the present period. 2

It is not known with certainty when David expanded musical instruments beyond the silver trumpets of Numbers 10. However, mention of the occasion is made in the record of the dedication of the temple. "The priests stood at their posts, and the Levites also, with the instruments of music to the LORD, which King David had made for giving praise to the LORD—'for His lovingkindness is everlasting'—whenever he gave praise by their means, while the priests on the other side blew trumpets; and all Israel was standing" (2 Chron. 7:6).

Here is a list of the principle musical instruments made by David and his servants and that were in use during the Old Testament period (other such instruments were in use but their identity is unknown and unimportant for this study).

Stringed instruments:

Lutes, harps, and ten-stringed lyres (Ps. 92:3)

Brass and wind instruments:

Reed pipe (1 Kings 1:40; Jer. 48:36),
Flutes
The horn (shofar; 1 Chron. 15:28)
Trumpets (Num. 10:1-10, 2 Chron, 7:6, 1 Sam. 10:5, Ps. 150: 3-4).

Percussion:

Timbrels (Exod. 15:2; 2 Sam. 6:5)
Cymbals (2 Sam. 6:5, Ps. l50:5)
Castanets (2 Sam. 6:5)
Sistrums (a kind of musical rattle; 2 Sam. 6:5)

After years of having lost the ark in battle, David attempted to return it to the most holy place inside the tent of meeting. Some of the instruments in the above list were played during this first and flawed attempt in which Uzzah lost his life. Making matters worse, neither the priests nor the Levites served as musicians as the ark was moved. Instead, "David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, even with songs and with lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals and with trumpets" (1 Chron. 13:8). Being far more circumspect in his second effort to transport the ark, David had the Levites consecrate themselves and appointed them as the singers and instrumentalists (1 Chron. 15:16-24).

Between the return of the ark, and the building of Solomon's temple, David made certain that throughout this period the Levites alone ministered music in the tabernacle. It says, "Now these [Levites] are those whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the Lord, after the ark rested there. They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they served in their office according to their order" (1 Chron. 6:31-32).

1 Chronicles 23 is very important as it specifies further developments in the Levitical class of musicians. Nearing the end of his reign, as David is transferring power to his son Solomon, he reorganized the lower priests. He set 4000 Levites aside as instrumentalists for the purpose of "giving praise" (vs. 5). He lowered the age limit a man could begin to serve as a Levite to 20. He did so because a stationary temple required a greater work load and thus the need for more and younger men to assist the priests. The important thing to note is that David's restructuring was not libertarian. It was intended to better serve and to maintain the proper lines of authority between Aaronic and Levitical priests as established by Moses. So the Levites are, as in the days of the tabernacle "to assist the sons of Aaron with the service of the house of the LORD" (1 Chron. 23:28). This means that during the later reign of David, the rule that the Levites are to serve the priests, and are not to handle the holy things, is still in force.

To repeat, if the sacred objects under the old administration were not to be touched in that they were types of the finished work of Christ, how were the Levites able to play their instruments and live to play another day?

Some writers insist that God disapproved of David's exploitation of such instruments citing the Prophet Amos, who decried those "Who improvise to the sound of the harp, And like David have composed songs for themselves" (Amos 6:5). However, the sin Amos is concerned with is not the writing of songs or the use of lyres and harps and such, but the humanistic use of music to the glory of self rather than to the glory of God. Were David's instruments an unauthorized venture they would have been swept away by the religious reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah (2 Chron. 31, 34).

The lists of furnishings and accoutrements

The biblical accounts of the temple at Jerusalem propose the same conclusion on the enduring place of musical instruments in the worship of God's people today.

Solomon's temple, built in the mid-10th century BC (the fourth year of Solomon's reign) was an immensely elaborate structure. 1 Kings 6-7 record the building and the contents of the temple. 1 Kings 7 and 2 Chronicles 2-5 also provide a detailed record of the compartments of the temple and their luxuries and, more importantly, the central holy furniture that, as in the days of the tabernacle, typified Christ. 2 Chronicles 6 remembers the dedication of the temple.

From the account in 1 Kings 7 comes an important point. It says, "Thus all the work that King Solomon performed in the house of the LORD was finished. And Solomon brought in the things dedicated by his father David, the silver and the gold and the utensils, and he put them in the treasuries of the house of the LORD" (vs. 51). Here we see that when appointing the temple in all of its holy splendor and necessary furnishings, Solomon had calculated and accounted for all the things his father David had dedicated to the service of the Lord.

In the records of the construction and contents of Solomon's temple, where is any mention made of the musical instruments of David? They are not cited because they are not inherent to the temple system of signs and symbols. In fact, the account of the contents of the temple reveals a great many things such as palm trees which, although not key furnishings, did nonetheless have important allegorical meaning. 3 Now it could be argued that the musical instruments are not mentioned because they are not furnishings. However, if the musical instruments of David ought not to be continued today because of their important function in the temple system, then why does Scripture fail to mention them but takes the time to mention palm trees? Perhaps we should remove palm trees from our church vestibules.

Furthermore, if, according to the counsel of some, express mention of the instruments need not be made in order for us to understand that they were automatically swept away with the passing of the old ways of worship, then why does the Chronicler go to such extreme lengths to account for anything, if everything passed away with the old system? The comprehensive and itemized account of the temple furnishings serves to reveal Solomon's care to put in place all those things God ordained for the service of his glory, and which find ultimate meaning in the Savior. That the musical instruments are not reported is highly suggestive of the fact that although they served the glory of God in both tabernacle and temple, they were not integral to the sacrificial scheme that pointed to Christ.

Answering a critique

A leading proof text for the cessation of musical instruments beyond the Old Testament period is taken from the musicians themselves who played during the time of Hezekiah's reforms. Here we read, "While the whole assembly worshiped, the singers also sang and the trumpets sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished" (2 Chron. 29:28).

The point that has been drawn from this passage is that because the musicians stopped playing when the burnt offering stopped, musical instruments stopped when the sacrifice of Christ stopped. I seriously do not mean to be facetious. But what were the musicians supposed to do, keep playing? The music ended for a reason any church musician understands. The players stopped because the liturgy was simply moving to the next point in the service, when "at the completion of the burnt offerings, the king and all who were present with him bowed down and worshiped (vs. 29).

Chronicles and Ezekiel

Changes to the Levitical class recorded in Chronicles and Ezekiel do, however, if read a certain way, present a challenge to the thesis of this paper. Sticking with my desire to keep the cookies on the low shelf, suffice it to say that with David's restructuring of the Levitical class may have created some bleed over between the roles of priest and Levite. If David's changes permitted Levites to touch things they were not previously permitted to touch, then my idea was good while it lasted.

For example, the Chronicler records that the furnishing and the utensils of the sanctuary were in the charge of "them" (1 Chron. 9:28). Who is "them?" The previous verses (17-27) identifies the Levites in their role as gatekeepers of the tent of meeting. If an added duty of the Levites is to minster the sacred objects directly, then there was a whole lot of touching going on. The truth, though, is that the text is merely telling us that the physical charge of these things fell to the Levites while, according to verse 30, it was the priests who, per law and custom, did the hands-on job of preparation (cf. Lev. 2:2).

Ezekiel's vision includes a time of punishment upon those whom he identifies as Levites. These committed apostasy when they conspired with the idolatrous kings of Israel and Judah to make offerings to foreign gods. Still, "Yet they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having oversight at the gates of the house and ministering in the house; they shall slaughter the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister to them" (Ezek. 44:11). This does not sound like a punishment at all, but an expansion of the rights of Levites to make previously unsanctioned sacrifices. If these are Levitical priests, then the earlier distinction between Levite and priest is here rescinded, and again my theory fails.

The matter is solved when we understand that these are not true Levites, but are priests who, due to their unfaithfulness, were demoted to the rank of Levite, yet who kept some of their privileges. The full rights of priest have been removed from them. For God says, "And they shall not come near to Me to serve as a priest to Me, nor come near to any of My holy things, to the things that are most holy; but they will bear their shame and their abominations which they have committed. Yet I will appoint them to keep charge of the house, of all its service and of all that shall be done in it" (vs. 13).

Contrasted with these bad priests are "the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok." These "kept charge of My sanctuary when the sons of Israel went astray from Me" (Ezek. 44:15). They are permitted to "come near to Me to minister to Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer Me the fat and the blood" (vs. 15). Further responsibilities includes entrance to the inner court (vs. 21). Is the prophet saying that in the second temple Levites will assume the role of priests previously unknown in the first temple?

Not at all. We need to ask, who is Zadok? Is he a Levite or a priest? He is a priest (1 Chron. 15:11, 2 Sam. 8:17). After Solomon finished construction of the temple in Jerusalem, Zadok was the first High Priest. The reason Ezekiel refers to "the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok" is because in Egypt the Levites were the only tribe who remained faithful to God, ardent to protect the Law around the incident of the golden calf (Exod. 26:29). Later in Israel's history, it was Zadok, together with the Levites, who came to the aid of David during the revolt of his son Absolom at Hebron (1 Chron. 12:28-28). Thus, Ezekiel is not recognizing a new and higher position for the Levites in the second temple (or in the eschatological temple). He is recognizing the favored place of the Levites and Zadok as friends of God. The phrase, "sons of Zadok", highlights in the closest possible way the old place of service of the Levites to the High Priest.

The New Testament Witness

Much has been said about the lack of any reference to musical instruments in the New Testament and that this absence is further proof of the cessation of such instruments for contemporary worship. I could say a great deal in reply to this criticism, but instead I will focus brief attention on only two points.

For one, some assume that because Paul's encouragement that we go about "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19) makes no mention of horns, lyres, stringed viols, cymbals, and more, means, in the Apostle's mind, that the human voice is the only approved musical instrument in the New Testament. I have always found this argument particularly impulsive in that it fails the simplest test of basic biblical hermeneutics. Paul is giving instruction that applies to all the people. Now, did every Christian at Ephesus play a musical instrument? Then how could a command that applies to "one another" be practiced? Obviously, Paul's point is to stimulate a Spirit of personal and corporate joy among Christians, not to limit congregational music to singing.

The larger issue is this. As early as AD 35, the Roman Senate declared Christianity strana et illicita (strange and unlawful). 4 Among the three categories of suspect religious groups, this was the worst category a group could be placed in. If caught, it gave the Roman authorities the legal right to have any Christian put to death. Why then would an assembly of outlawed people blow trumpets and smash symbols together when Roman soldiers were likely nearby? This is the main reason early Christians did not play musical instruments during worship. 5

In the hope of encouraging biblical expressions of worship, not to incite bedlam as is increasingly common in today's evangelical churches, let me end with reminding the reader of this examination's basic premise. Because musical instruments were not part of the special furnishings of the tabernacle or of Solomon's temple, they cannot be considered types of the finished work of Christ and therefore are not abrogated by the New Testament.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Notes:

  1. Although the Mercy Seat was part of the Ark of the Covenant, it is generally listed separately in that it was created as a lid for the ark.
  2. For example, Samuel Mather, The Figures and Types of the Old Testament (London: Printed for N. Hillier, 1705), 488.
  3. The Hebrew word for palm tree is tamar (Exodus15: 27). Tamar is thought to be associated with wisdom and/or goodness. Carved images of palm trees and cherubs appeared together in Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:29-35).
  4. Full-scale persecution of Christians did not begin in earnest until the reign of Nero. The bloody persecution of AD 64 is well documented.
  5. It is true that the early Christian communities experienced periods of relative rest from persecution, depending largely on which Emperor was in power or which governor ruled from province to province. It is also true that readings on the early persecutions vary in temperament depending on a writer's affinity toward Christianity in general. Given these factors, the best source on the early persecutions remains Eusebius, Church History, electronically filed at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2501.htm
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