Q: Doesn’t the Bible tell us to praise God with various instruments of music? (Psalm 149:3; 150:3-5; etc.)
The OT book of Psalms is set in a pre-Christian, Jewish context (cf. 14:7; 20:1-3; 147:19; etc.). As a matter of fact, it was part of Israel’s law. In John 10:34 and 15:25 Jesus quoted from the book of Psalms (viz. 82:6; 69:4) and included it in the Jewish “law.” Not only do we find musical instruments in the book of Psalms, but also animal sacrifices (20:3; 50:5, 8; 66:13-15), Levitical priests (132:9), the ark of the covenant (132:8), dancing (149:3; 150:4), and pleas for retributive justice (5:10; 10:15). Consistency demands that if musical instruments are borrowed from the Psalms, these other Jewish items must be taken as well. But Paul says concerning this law: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident ...” (Gal. 3:10-11 NKJV). To illustrate that the book of Psalms does not provide a pattern for Christian activity, compare what David wrote in Psa. 18:37-40 with what Jesus taught in Matt. 5:43-48. (NB: The recording of a statement or event is not equivalent to sanctioning it. We can learn from and be edified by the basic principles in the Psalms [Rom. 15:4] without adopting Jewish conventions). The pattern for Christian worship is the new covenant of Jesus Christ, not the book of Psalms or any other part of the old Jewish law.
Q: Since Christians are to sing “psalms” (Eph. 5:19; Jas. 5:13), and psalms are set to music, wouldn’t this suggest that Christian singing is to be accompanied by instrumental music?
A psalm (Greek psalmos) is simply a poetic verse that can be read, quoted, or sung. While it is possible for a psalm to be set to music and sung with musical accompaniment, the music itself is supplementary to, not inherent in, the psalm. A psalm is comprised of words. Words cannot be played on an instrument, therefore a psalm that is set to music is designed to be sung, irrespective of any potential accompaniment. Incidentally, most of the OT psalms that were set to music were simply sung with no added musical consort (cf. Psa. 7:17; 9:11; 30:4, 12; 57:9; 59:16-17; 66:1-8; 101:1; et al.). When “psalms” are mentioned in the NT as part of worship, Christians are never directed to “play” them. Rather, the instructions specify “speaking,” “teaching,” “admonishing,” “singing,” and “making melody in your heart.”
Q: Do the harps in heaven (Rev. 5:8; 14:2; 15:2) make mechanical instrumental music in Christian worship acceptable on earth?
The book of Revelation is a highly symbolic book, and many of the symbols were borrowed from the Old Testament. A symbol is something that stands for or represents another thing. For example, “horns” (Rev. 5:6; 12:3; 17:12) represent power or strength (cf. Psa. 75:10; 92:10), “locusts” (Rev. 9:3, 7) are symbols of destruction and devastation (cf. Ex. 10:4-6; Isa. 33:4), “Babylon” (Rev. 16:19; 17:5; 18:2) stands for the oppressors of God’s people (cf. 2 Kgs. 25:21; Dan. 1:1), "trumpets" (Rev. 1:10; 4:1; 8:13; 9:14) symbolize a call to attention or warning of judgment (cf. Josh. 6:5; Neh. 4:20; Jer. 4:19; 6:1; Ezek. 33:3), etc. To take one of these symbols literally to justify a particular modern-day practice is to stretch these passages beyond their intended meaning.
In Rev. 5:8 “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense ...” The harp figure evokes the thought of a beautiful sound (cf. 1 Sam. 16:23), and the golden bowls of incense suggest a pleasing aroma (cf. Psa. 141:2). But what do these symbols represent? The text goes on to explain, “... which are the prayers of the saints.” When prayers are offered to the Lord, without the use of a literal harp or golden bowls of incense, the prayers themselves are like a beautiful sound and a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
In Rev. 14:2 John heard something coming from heaven. Although the Greek word phônên means “voice” (NKJV), it can also be translated “sound” (NIV). Three times in this verse the Greek word hôs (“like” or “as”) is used as John likens what he heard to the following things: (a) it was like the sound of many waters; (b) it was like the sound of loud thunder, (c) it was like the sound of harpists playing their harps. Since descriptive symbols are clearly being used, the supposed “harp playing” is no more literal than the Lamb, Mount Zion, the 144,000 male virgins, the waters, the thunder, or any other symbol used in this chapter. The voice John heard was powerful (like many waters), and loud (like thunder), and beautiful (like harpists playing their harps). And what were the 144,000 male virgins doing? Not keeping company with a literal baby sheep or splashing in water or generating thunder or plucking harp strings. “And they sang a new song ...” (v. 3).
The “harps” in Rev. 15:2 are not being strummed as an offering of worship. In this highly figurative scene the “harps of God” simply represent the jubilation and triumph of God’s people in view of the harsh judgment against their enemies (cf. 2 Chron. 20:27-28; Neh. 12:27; also Job 30:31; Psa. 137:1-2).
Furthermore, whatever might be going on in heaven does not set a precedent for human activity on earth. For example, the fact that there is no marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30) has no bearing on the Christian in this present life. Every verse in the NT that pertains to music in Christian worship clearly specifies vocal praise.--Kevin L. Moore
Related posts: Music & the Bible History, Questions About Music 2, Questions About Music 3
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