A study into the Bible’s musical references reveals great richness and diversity. Scripture describes music of varying styles and intents. It speaks, for example, of the music of masses (e.g., the “joyful noise” of a congregation), as well as that of the skillful, well-rehearsed virtuosi (1 Samuel 16:16-18; Psalm 33:3; 1 Chronicles 15:22; 25:7; 2 Chronicles 23:13; 34:12). The Bible does not only approve of “sacred” music, though many of its references show how music plays a significant role in the worship of God. It reveals how important God considers music and why. It describes many physical and spiritual benefits that we can receive from music.
One important biblical truth we must consider briefly before moving into our overview of biblical music is that the world, as a whole, is temporarily cut off from God and deceived by Satan, the god of this world (Revelation 12:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4). We must also recognize that, during this present age, God calls a few out of the world, to be separate from the world (e.g., 2 Corinthians 6:14-17).
In such a world, we find that music in false religion has posed a danger for those whom God calls. In fact, the first chronological reference to music—as discussed in the first chapter—is Jubal’s misuse of music. The context shows that this was one of several human activities that introduced pagan practices.
After the great Flood, Ham’s sons Cush and Mizraim migrated into the area known today as Egypt. Alexander Hislop, author of The Two Babylons, believed Cush was actually the famous Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, credited as the “‘inventor of music’ and author of books and chants to the gods” (New Oxford History of Music).
The primary use of music in this culture was religious. Even secular music had heavy religious overtones. What was the Egyptians’ religion? They worshiped Osiris—another name for Nimrod. The New Oxford History of Music tells us, “Osiris … was responsible for teaching the world the arts of civilization. … What enabled him to accomplish this was his ‘persuasive discourse, combined with song, and all manner of music.’ (That gods were ever musically inclined is, of course, a universal tale.) Osiris was the ‘Lord of the sistrum,’ an instrument specially dedicated to the goddess Hathor, the later Isis [Nimrod’s mother, Semiramis].” The Mesopotamians and Greeks sang praises to the same beings, just using different names.
It is true that some of the Egyptians’ culture came from the great godly patriarchs who influenced them centuries earlier, namely Abraham, Joseph and Job. Moses was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), which probably included some of that God-inspired instruction. But Egyptians were also known for using music in a way expressly forbidden by God—to bring about some sort of trance or spell. This is called “enchantment” (from the Latin incantare: upon, or into, singing), which God forbids (Leviticus 19:26). In Deuteronomy 18:9-11, God commanded Israel not to allow anyone who “useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch ….” The word “witch” means someone who uses enchantment; Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon states: “to use magical songs, to mutter.”
Music’s use within this pagan worship is simply a devilish counterfeit of what God intended. God’s chosen people have often let the perversions of surrounding pagan cultures rub off on them—whether it was the frenzied singing of the Israelites around the golden calf (Exodus 32:4-5) or their bowing to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue when they heard the sound of his orchestra (Daniel 3:5-10).
Consider Israel’s worship of the golden calf—an idol common in Nimrod-worship. The problem with the music was not only that it was used to worship the wrong god: It was also that the “music” emitting from the people’s voices could actually be mistaken for “a noise of war” (Exodus 32:17-18).
How much of the music in today’s society would Moses and Joshua consider the “noise of war”? Even in religious music, how much do people simply succumb to emotion and lose control of their minds—while broadcasting unbiblical lyrics and ideas into listeners’ minds?
This is not to say that only “religious” music is appropriate, or that it should only be composed by God’s people. Many artists have been able to harness the laws of art to create paintings that are inspiring, and to create architecture that is impressive and stable. Many have used music, the science of sound, to write beautiful and edifying songs and compositions. As the August 1982 Plain Truth said, “To say one should reject all art produced by unconverted minds—minds of people cut off from the knowledge of God—would mean that most art on Earth would have to be rejected, since humanity as a whole has been cut off from God. This is certainly not the criterion for making a judgment. Even the Apostle Paul was familiar with and quoted from the poetic artistry of the pagan Greek writers (Acts 17:28). … We should appreciate that which is an expression of the spirit in man, that which reflects his incredible potential and God-like creative talents (emphasis added throughout).”
In a world cut off from its Creator, God began working with one nation at first. The reasons for this are made clear in Mr. Armstrong’s book Mystery of the Ages (free upon request). Ancient Israel’s exposure to God’s laws and way of thinking gave it certain advancement beyond the nations around it.
As one psalmist declared, “Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Psalm 119:98-100). Men and women living in accordance with revelation of God’s law would have had more understanding and more wisdom even in physical matters than those cultures we tend to consider most “advanced.” Those Hebrew patriarchs with whom God formed a special spiritual bond were wiser than these ancients because of the principles of law revealed by the Creator of the universe. And then, as they exemplified and shared those principles, this deeply impacted other cultures.
In the Introduction, we discussed Abraham’s massive cultural impact on the world. This impact appears to have continued into the time of his grandson Israel (originally named Jacob). In one archaeological example, discussed by Joachin Braun in Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine, we find evidence of a Mesopotamian king contracting with “learned, highly professional singers/musicians” from the West around 1774–1761 b.c., the time of Jacob.
A reference to music and the instruments of Jacob’s day can be found in Genesis 31:25-27. This shows that “in the time of the patriarchs, music accompanied the cheerful events of life” (Sendrey, op cit).
Moses, Master Musician
One great-great-grandson of Jacob (through his son Levi) was Moses. Moses’s princely training in the Egyptian court would have included music. After leading the procession of the Israelites through the Red Sea, he led the performance of what Sendrey called “the first religious national song found in the Bible.”
This song is recorded in the first 21 verses of Exodus 15. Haïk-Vantoura said this song “fully demonstrates that the Hebrews were a musical people from the dawn of their history” (op cit).
Verse 2 declares that “The Lord is my … song.” The word “Lord” here is the lesser-used of the Hebrew words translated as such: Instead of yhwh, it is simply yh, or Jah. This name is used most often in the Psalms and typically in the context of singing God’s name (e.g., Psalm 68:4). It is the name of God used in the popular Hebrew expression “Praise ye the Lord”: Hallelujah (not Halellujahweh). And how amazing that the Hebrew expression Hallelujah has continued in its original form since biblical times—crossing all language barriers—and is still used to extol God’s name today!
Moses was not only famous for the song at the Red Sea. One of his prayer songs was also canonized, in the book of Psalms. Psalm 90 is “A Prayer of Moses the man of God.” The Anchor Bible confirms that “the numerous instances of archaic language clearly point to an early … composition.” This analysis draws similarities between the opening verses of this psalm and Moses’s writings in Genesis 2:4; 3:19 and Deuteronomy 32.
Deuteronomy 32 is another song of Moses—one that God commanded Moses (in chapter 31) to write at the end of his 120-year-long life. It was intended as a warning against turning away from God. Deuteronomy 31:19 and 21 read, “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel. … And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness ….” The next verse says Moses “wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel” (verse 22). The Hebrew indicates that Moses literally wrote down this song. Of course, only the lyrics have been preserved.
Moses is referenced as a musician much later in the Bible. Concerning music sung in heaven, Revelation 15:3 reads: “And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.” No other composer in biblical history can claim the honor of having his music performed in heaven! Of course, some doubt the literalness of this verse, but not only does it state that they “sing the song of Moses … and the song of the Lamb,” but it also gives the lyrics! So Moses not only had a monumental impact on Hebrew history and music, he also impacted the music of the third heaven.
Moses’s final composition is tied directly with the charge he gave Joshua. Joshua was to ensure the people learned this song and kept it alive in their traditions. After recording the lyrics, Deuteronomy 32:44 discusses Joshua’s part in teaching it: “And Moses came and spake all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Hoshea [Joshua] the son of Nun.”
To ensure his legacies, musical and otherwise, were safe with Joshua, God had Moses write it down and “rehearse it in the ears of Joshua …” (Exodus 17:14). The word “rehearse” resonates with musicians, no doubt. The instruction to “rehearse it in the ears of Joshua” indicates an oral passing of information, in addition to the “memorial in a book.” As detailed as our modern system of musical notation is, there are countless aspects of performance that simply cannot be notated but must be transferred orally.
We can safely surmise that this music survived well during Joshua’s administration, for Joshua 8:35 says, “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel ….” Although musical performances are not mentioned, musical instruments are a key feature of the most famous story in the book of Joshua. The ram’s horn, or the shofar, was used as a functional instrument in the battle for Jericho.
The next specific musical reference in Scripture is found in the book of Judges, with the righteous judge Deborah. After leading the people to victory, she and her captain Barak sang a victory song to God (Judges 5:1). Deborah was to “utter a song” (verse 12)—the word for utter means to lead, guide or arrange in order.
Verse 3 reads: “… I, even I, will sing unto the Lord; I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel.” This song shows the importance of singing in Israel’s culture. Two different words are used here for singing. The first is shiyr, which literally means singing. The second is zamar, and though translators commonly rendered this word as “sing praise,” it literally means to pluck. This implies that singing was typically accompanied by a stringed instrument, so much so that one word for sing indicates plucking.
Deborah was “a prophetess” (Judges 4:4), an office also ascribed to Miriam in the song of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20). In the Old Testament, prophets and seers were generally well skilled in the musical and poetic arts and were likely master poet-melodists. According to Gesenius’, the word for prophesy can mean “to pour forth words abundantly” or even “to sing.” This connection may be particularly true of the women in God’s service: Of the four godly prophetesses mentioned in the Old Testament, two are noted for their musical abilities. The other two may have possessed that office for similar reasons. The fact that these women were used in such a powerful way in a powerful office indicates that they were endowed with certain abilities that suited them for the job, including leading others in praise of God. A woman’s character and ability to be used by God would have been more of a deciding factor, though, than her musical gifts.
What Miriam and Deborah also show us is that God does not reserve musical reverence and worship for men only.
Samuel’s mother, Hannah—another powerful woman of the Bible, and by implication a prophetess (who did have a vision of the future)—may have also been a skilled musician. Her prophetic uttering is one of the great poetic passages of the Bible (1 Samuel 2). Not only does it read like a psalm, it is later heavily paraphrased in Psalm 113.
After Deborah, and until Hannah’s son Samuel, the time of the judges is sparse on musical references. There is the paralyzing sound of 300 ram’s horns in Gideon’s famous battle (Judges 7). There is an explicit reference in Judges 11:34, where Jephthah’s daughter meets him “with timbrels and with dances.”
This was a dark time in Israel’s history—with few exceptions. Judges 21:25 reads: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” This religious free-for-all was reflected in the decline of music in the nation during this period.
Only Deborah’s song and Hannah’s psalm-like prophecy were recorded during the time of the judges. However, while Hannah’s son grew (during a time of “no open vision”—1 Samuel 3:1), things would begin to change. Samuel—a Levite and the last of Israel’s judges—began a school and institutionalized music instruction in a dramatic way.
The college this prophet founded reached a certain height in influence by the time of Israel’s first monarch. The first verses of 1 Samuel 10 detail how Saul was to receive God’s Spirit and eventually be anointed king. At one point he would “come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy: And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man” (verses 5-6).
Samuel’s company of the prophets “represents doubtless the first public music school in human history,” Sendrey wrote. “Samuel’s prophecy … shows which instruments have been taught in this ‘Conservatory of music.’” These instruments likely represent four families or categories of instruments—much like how we describe instruments today. And because all these instruments are named together, they were assuredly played together.
Lange’s Commentary states, “The music which went before them shows that, in these societies, religious feeling was nourished and heightened by sacred music, though music was also elsewhere cultivated. The four instruments which accompanied them indicate the rich variety and advanced culture of the music of that day.”
Again, we see music aiding in the prophesying. 2 Kings 3 shows music explicitly linked to prophetic inspiration, when Elisha required a minstrel before prophesying. “And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him” (verse 15).
Samuel Davidson’s An Introduction to the Old Testament states, “Music and song were employed, partly to attune the mind to calmness and raise it by the soft harmony of numbers to the contemplation of the divine. As has been well said, music brings a tone out of the higher world into the spirit of the hearer.”
Joseph Dheilly wrote: “Thus we can see that the state of ecstasy does not in itself constitute prophecy but is, at most, a contingent setting for it, and so the nature of the prophetical office is already clarified a little” (The Prophets).
1 Chronicles 25:1-4 show King David appointing men to prophesy specifically with music. These men “prophesied with a harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord” (verse 3).
So when Samuel told Saul that he would “prophesy with them,” did that mean Saul would suddenly start speaking great spiritual maxims that he hadn’t before understood? Would he suddenly start having visions of the future and expound on them? It is likelier that he would join in this musical performance, singing along with the students, and that God could use the resulting euphoria to prepare Saul’s spirit to receive God’s Holy Spirit. The case of Elisha was similar in this regard.
Another example of this “company of prophets” may support the idea that Saul was prophesying by joining in the music. 1 Samuel 19:20 relates a time in Saul’s kingship when he sought to arrest David: “And Saul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as appointed over them, the Spirit of God was upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.” The company of prophets may well have been prophesying through their powerful sacred music, and these servants of Saul became so moved by it that, instead of going after David, they participated.
However it happened, this passage shows this school was having quite an impact on the nation. Clearly its curriculum was not just confined to religious subjects; the arts were part of the course material—especially if music was so vital in prophesying!
“Song and music and dance were interwoven in some sacred union,” Arthur Penrhyn Stanley wrote in The History of the Jewish Church.
These schools helped reshape Israel’s future! When Samuel was a boy, there was “no open vision,” religion was in shambles, and there is little reference to music. About a century later, during King David’s rule, literally thousands of people were involved in skillful music-making (see 1 Chronicles 23:5). The rich musical culture during David’s reign implies robust, structured musical education. As Sendrey said, it would “scarcely be conceivable without an adequate preparatory work of musical educators” (op cit). 1 Chronicles 9:22 suggests that the tabernacle service in the time of David, and the temple during Solomon’s rule, was heavily impacted by Samuel’s schools.
Sweet Psalmist of Israel
Though music was a big part of Saul’s spiritual beginning (1 Samuel 10:9-10), it did not play an important role in his kingship. The further from God he grew, surely the less interested he became in music, and the more the arts of Israel suffered.
When Saul became troubled with an evil spirit, his servants suggested he bring a musician into his court, “a cunning player on an harp,” to drive the evil spirit away, and Saul consented (1 Samuel 16:14-17). Though he was the king of God’s nation, apparently there was not one skilled musician employed in all his court. It appears Saul, and consequently Israel, was at a spiritual and musical low point.
A modern parallel can be seen in the demise of the global religious and humanitarian empire of Herbert W. Armstrong. After his death, Church leaders said (in a court deposition) that the cultural foundation’s concert series “had nothing to do with the mission of the Church.”
Music was not off to a good start in the monarchy. Nothing really was. But God would find a solution in a young harpist from Bethlehem.
One of Saul’s servants suggested David be Saul’s harpist (1 Samuel 16:18). He said this son of Jesse was brave, fit and “prudent in matters”—meaning eloquent or articulate, as we would expect any master poet-melodist to be (though perhaps not as a teenager). Topping the list was his “cunning in playing.” That phrase literally means to be skillful in striking the strings, and connotes the ability to teach. David was already quite advanced on this instrument—what we would consider a musical prodigy. He probably wasn’t the only shepherd-harpist around, but he was highly skilled and possessed all these other attributes that would suit him for life in the royal court.
What David did for Saul constitutes the earliest recorded instance of “music therapy.” (For more on this astounding subject, refer to the July 2010 Trumpet magazine’s article “Well-Toned: A Whole New Meaning.”) His music restored Saul temporarily, and for that, David found favor with the king.
A little later, David defeated the Philistine giant Goliath and was promoted to an even greater position (1 Samuel 18:5). Verses 6-7 describe how David’s exploits affected the music of his day: “And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” This antiphonal song (one group singing and another group answering) became quite popular in Israel.
In spite of Saul’s newly formed animosity toward David, David continued to play harp for him “as at other times” (verse 10). The Hebrew indicates this was day by day, or a daily activity for David. Not only would David have performed daily, but he would also have practiced daily—the only way to master any instrument. Psalm 61:8 shows that music factored into David’s “daily … vows.” The Anchor Bible translates it: “Then will I always hymn your name, fulfilling my vows day by day.” The Bible strongly indicates that music was a daily activity for David.
Not long after, David had to flee for his life from Saul. He was soon in the company of Samuel and his students (1 Samuel 19:18). The Bible does not indicate that David enrolled in Samuel’s liberal arts institution, but clearly he was strongly influenced by this company of prophets. He may have met Samuel’s musical grandson Heman here, and possibly even the other prophets who would assist in his reign: Nathan, Gad, Asaph and Jeduthun.
Later David fled to Gath, whose king was Achish (1 Samuel 21). There, we pick up another remarkable fact about Israel’s music: “And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” (verse 11). The king of Gath knew the lyrics of the song, how it was sung (“one to another”), and how it was performed (“in dances”). The same question was asked later by the Philistines (1 Samuel 29:5). What made David famous to the neighboring peoples was the popular song about him! In our 21st-century world, it is difficult to appreciate how extraordinary it is for a song to be known miles away in neighboring lands in a time without mass media.
While on the run, David composed some profound psalms. Psalm 56 has the inscription “when the Philistines took him in Gath.” This may also correspond to Psalm 34 since, in Gath, David feigned madness for Achish—likely the same “Abimelech” noted in the inscription of this psalm. In Psalm 57 (written while “in the cave”) David wrote: “Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp: I myself will awake early. I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations” (verses 8-9). He wrote Psalm 59 “when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him,” as the inspired inscription reads. He promised to “sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning: for thou hast been my defence and refuge in the day of my trouble” (verse 16). David also wrote Psalm 142 while in a cave; Psalm 52 and 54 were likely penned while on the run.
Once delivered from the hand of Saul, David penned the masterful Psalm 18, recorded also in 2 Samuel 22.
Years later, David established his kingdom in Jerusalem. Psalm 132:1-6 show how motivated David was to bring the ark of the covenant to the nation’s new capital. In his first attempt to transport the ark, “David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets” (1 Chronicles 13:8). Though there was much enthusiasm in this celebratory processional, there were problems. Not only was David transporting the ark contrary to the way God commanded it be carried, there appears to have been a problem with the music too. The chronicler notes that “all Israel played … with trumpets.” Not only were certain Levites carrying the ark improperly, many were blowing trumpets that only the priests were to blow (Numbers 10:1-8). When Uzzah, the cart driver, died after reaching out to steady the ark, David left the ark in the house of Obededom for three months.
The account of David’s second, successful attempt to carry the ark into Jerusalem is recorded in 1 Chronicles 15. David realized: “None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites: for them hath the Lord chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister unto him for ever” (verse 2). Notice what this correction did for the music of the nation. Verses 5-10 list the chief of each main Levitical branch and how many from that order, or family, would help transport the ark. Zadok and Abiathar the priests were to sanctify themselves, along with the chiefs of those Levite families, to “bring up the ark” (verses 11-12). Priests also had the responsibility of blowing the silver trumpets (verse 24). Eight Levites played (per the Hebrew) neballim al Alamoth (verse 20), which indicates a bagpipe-type instrument. Verse 21 shows that six others were playing their strings, probably in octaves (as described in Chapter 2), in order to be prominent in the texture.
Everything was structured correctly so that God was pleased and blessed the occasion (verse 26).
David’s Music Staff
1 Chronicles 15:16 shows how these musical assignments were made: “And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of musick [literally, singing], psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy.”
The chief Levites chose the musicians: “So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of the sons of Merari their brethren, Ethan the son of Kushaiah” (verse 17). These three were all singers (verse 19), and they also did “sound with cymbals of [bronze].”
Heman was the grandson of Samuel (1 Chronicles 6:33.) Ethan is elsewhere called Jeduthun, meaning “praising”—it appears his office became his name. Asaph, listed first among these three, was a Levitical poet-prophet who wrote several psalms. Once the ark had rested, 1 Chronicles 16:5 states that Asaph was “the chief” of the instrumentalists; he “made a sound with cymbals,” likely referring to a leadership position like a conductor. Sendrey said this role required Asaph to give “the signal with cymbals to start singing” (op cit). The Moffatt translation renders it: “Asaph always beating time with cymbals.” God’s way, and the organizational logic of music, requires someone to lead—to establish and maintain tempo—either in rehearsal or performance or both. Based on his psalms, Asaph appears to have had a strong understanding of God’s government (Psalm 75:6-7; 78:70-72; 80:1).
Along with the instrumentalists were other singers. We read of Chenaniah who, in this event of bringing up the ark, “was for song: he instructed about the song, because he was skilful” (1 Chronicles 15:22). Verse 27 says he was “master of the song with the singers”; he was likely the choirmaster. The Hebrew infers that he instructed the singers in how to get more power and resonance out of their sound—to “lift up” their voices even more.
Verse 28 reads: “Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, and with sound of the cornet [shofar], and with trumpets, and with cymbals, making a noise with psalteries and harps.”
David was also seen “dancing and playing” during this celebration (verse 29). This is not the typical Hebrew word used to describe dancing in the Bible: It refers to children dancing or the skipping or springing of animals. The parallel account in 2 Samuel 6:14-16, which says David was “leaping and dancing,” uses another unique Hebrew word that means whirling. It is used along with the word for leaping, which means to be light, agile and to jump as a gazelle. Perhaps this was the first “highland fling” that caught on and found deep cultural roots in the Celtic lands where the throne of David later migrated. It is also probable that this form of dancing impacted other folk styles, such as those of the Slavic peoples, in those regions through which the Israelites journeyed following their release from Babylonian captivity.
1 Chronicles 16:1-4 show the ark resting in a tent and David selecting the musician-Levites who would praise God near the ark. He wrote a psalm after the ark arrived in its permanent home and “delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord into the hand of Asaph” (verse 7). The phrase “into the hand of Asaph” could refer to a literal handing over, but it more likely could be a musical term: that Asaph would use his hands to conduct—like conductors do today—or even the ancient practice of chironomy—the use of hand signals to direct a vocal performance. The genealogical record in 1 Chronicles 6 says, “And these are they whom David set over the service [literally, hand] of song in the house of the Lord, after that the ark had rest” (verse 31).
The composition referred to in 1 Chronicles 16:7 is also found in the book of Psalms in three places: Psalm 96; 105:1-15; 106:47-48. It contains various references to singing (shiyr) and plucking (zamar) in praise of God. 1 Chronicles 16:33 includes nature in the praise: “Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord, because he cometh to judge the earth.” “Sing out” is translated from the same Hebrew word used in Job 38:7 for the angels’ singing; it usually means singing out for joy. It is used heavily in Isaiah, typically in reference to prophecies about Christ’s future rule on Earth.
The three Levites who prominently supported David—Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun—are listed also in 1 Chronicles 25. Verses 1-6 show that these men prophesied with harps. Their families followed in this tradition. Asaph is mentioned first, and his four sons were under his “hand”; they “prophesied according to the order [hand] of the king” (verse 2). Jeduthun’s six sons prophesied with harps “to give thanks and to praise the Lord” (verse 3). Heman—called “the king’s seer in the words [or business] of God [Elohim]” (verse 5)—had 14 sons and three daughters who were gifted in singing and served that way in the temple. This shows that Levitical women served in musical functions in the temple.
The 24 sons of these three men led a rotation of “shifts,” or “courses,” of musical service. Each joined 11 other Levites, making 12 Levites per course, 288 men in total (verse 7). This verse says these 288, who “were instructed in the songs of the Lord,” were cunning—as was David on the harp. These were brilliant musicians—real professionals—so they could achieve the highest standard in music-making around the ark that symbolized God’s presence.
One other notable group in David’s musical team are the “sons of Korah,” named in the inscription of 11 psalms. Certain “Korhites” joined David early on in Ziklag (1 Chronicles 12:6), and 1 Chronicles 26:1, 19 also refer to “sons of Kore” serving David. Later this branch of musicians continued to serve the throne, participating in Jehoshaphat’s famous singing army (2 Chronicles 20:19-21). Their descendants also lived through the Babylonian captivity. In his list of the Levitical families that repopulated Jerusalem after the captivity, Ezra mentions a “son of Korah” (1 Chronicles 9:19).
Besides a profound function in the tabernacle service and the true worship of God, music also had other uses during David’s reign. 2 Samuel 19:35 indicates that David employed musicians in his royal court: “singing men and singing women.” (Ecclesiastes 2:8 indicates that Solomon did as well.) Music was considered a component of an enriching life, like good food and drink.
2 Samuel 23:1 describes David as “the sweet psalmist of Israel”—a fitting title for this great man through whom God spoke (verse 2). The Spirit of God moved him to compose exquisite poetry. In the New Testament, he is described as a prophet (Matthew 27:35, quoting Psalm 22, written by David). 1 Chronicles 23:5 shows that 4,000 Levites played instruments that David made. He composed much music: 75 psalms have his name directly in the inscription. Because of the psalm mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16, we can conclude that David wrote the psalms that reiterated those stanzas: Psalm 96, 105 and 106. Psalm 72’s inscription coupled with verse 20 shows that David wrote that psalm for Solomon. Psalm 95 has no inscription, but Hebrews 4:7 says David composed it. The same goes for Psalm 2, which Acts 4:25 attributes to David. Psalm 71:13 shares similarities with Psalm 70:2 (by David). Psalm 104:32 shares similarities with Psalm 144:5 (by David), and Psalm 104 begins and ends a lot like Psalm 103 (by David). Psalm 121 is similar to Psalm 124 (also by David).
This great man and musician of God prepared the kingdom for a golden age of creative output when the next king would build a grand edifice—God’s house— and promote a musical culture unlike anything the world had ever experienced.