Chapter 4

Music of the First and Second Temple Periods

From the booklet How God Values Music
By Ryan Malone

Like his father, Solomon was a composer-king. He wrote 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32). Modern music history tends to remember the composers with prolific output, such as Vivaldi, who wrote over 500 concerti, or Schubert, who composed 600 lieder. If Solomon lived in Western Europe during the past 300 years, we would likely have considered him one of the greatest composers of history. Yet his compositions remain unpreserved, and no recordings exist.

One of Solomon’s many songs is called “the song of songs” (Song of Songs 1:1). The expression implies “the most beautiful song.” (For more on this book of the Bible, request our free booklet The Song of Songs—God’s Greatest Love Song.)

Solomon also mentioned music in his proverbs: “the righteous doth sing and rejoice” (Proverbs 29:6). In Proverbs 1:20 and 8:3, Solomon describes how wisdom “cries out,” a word often translated to sing or shout for joy. In Proverbs 25:20, he speaks of music’s effect on moods: Singing a joyful song to a sad person without any feelings of sympathy is like pouring vinegar on baking soda—it produces agitation! Solomon had the wisdom to know how to select music for a particular occasion. He likely learned that from his father, the first biblically recorded music therapist.

Solomon also authored Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 1:1). This book makes several references to music: “a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), “the song of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:5), “the serpent will bite without enchantment” (Ecclesiastes 10:11), and a reference to “the daughters of musick” (Ecclesiastes 12:4). This book also shows that Solomon was a patron of the arts (Ecclesiastes 2:8).

Solomon’s reign was a golden age for Israel’s music. His coronation was marked with the sound of the shofar, shouts of “God save king Solomon” as well as those who “piped with pipes, and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth rent with the sound of them” (1 Kings 1:39-40). This indicates that much of the populace had musical prowess. And the sound of this celebration had a seismic impact on the land!

First Temple Grandeur

If the Earth shook at his coronation, Solomon’s reign caused an even greater cultural earthquake. This was largely because of the construction of the temple. The dedication ceremony for this edifice stands as one of the most glorious musical occasions in history.

2 Chronicles 5:2 records how Solomon gathered the Levites to bring in the ark. “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place: (for all the priests that were present were sanctified, and did not then wait by course: Also the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, of Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets:)” (verses 11-12). What an ensemble: 120 priests blowing silver trumpets—probably more than any modern human being has ever heard performing together!

Verses 13-14 describe how grand this performance was: “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God.” Here again, “as one” does not mean everyone playing the same pitches; it speaks of the unity and precision of the performance. What a powerful occasion!

After this, Solomon resumed the same priestly and Levitical courses that his father had ordained (2 Chronicles 8:14).

Music of the Righteous Kings

Despite its grandeur, the kingdom of Israel headed toward disaster due to King Solomon’s apostasy (1 Kings 11:6). Through the influence of his many pagan wives, Solomon allowed pagan idolatry in Israel (verses 7-8). After his death, Israel declined into even deeper sin. Under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the kingdom divided: Jerusalem’s throne ended up ruling only the tribes of Judah, Levi and Benjamin. A man named Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s servants, led the secession of the other tribes.

Jeroboam’s revolt deeply affected the music of Israel. He and the people of Israel rejected the legacy of David—not only as king, but also as musical overseer, organizer, composer, instrumentalist, conductor, craftsman and teacher (1 Kings 12:16). Jeroboam prevented people from visiting the center of musical development in the region and no doubt allowed—or caused—pagan musical practices to enter the land—just as the golden calves engendered raucous music and orgiastic dancing in Exodus 32. And Jeroboam rejected the most qualified and trained musicians from serving in the religious order.

Israel’s music entered into oblivion! Consider this: The Bible is silent about the music in the northern kingdom of Israel—which was “without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law” (2 Chronicles 15:3). In the Bible, music correlates with the spiritual state of the nation. Even in Judah—where the Levites, temple and lineage of David remained—music is mentioned only during the reigns of righteous kings.

One remarkable example is found in the reign of Jehoshaphat. Facing a dangerous alliance of enemies, Jehoshaphat “set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3). After the king’s heart-rending prayer, God’s Spirit moved on a Levite from the family of Asaph (verse 14). This man told Judah that the battle was God’s; they would not have to fight. His words inspired great rejoicing (verse 19).

Notice what followed: “[Jehoshaphat] appointed singers unto the Lord, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the Lord; for his mercy endureth for ever” (verse 21). The outcome was dramatic: “And when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten” (verse 22).

Godly music is an effective defense in spiritual or even physical warfare! David used it while running from Saul, writing in Psalm 32:7, “[T]hou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.” Godly music warded off evil spirits from King Saul, and here it accompanied the defeat of an entire military alliance—because of what it moved God to do. In the New Testament, music moved God to loosen the shackles of prison (Acts 16:25-26). Psalm 149:6 equates the “high praises of God” to a “twoedged sword.” Singing and praising God is an aspect of spiritual warfare.

Another dramatic mention of music in the Jewish kingdom is found at the coronation of Joash, orchestrated by Jehoida the priest. Jehoida had been protecting the young heir to the throne while it was temporarily hijacked by the wicked Queen Athaliah. Once the timing was right, he acted shrewdly to install the 7-year-old king on the throne.

“Now when Athaliah heard the noise of the people running and praising the king, she came to the people into the house of the Lord: And she looked, and, behold, the king stood at his pillar at the entering in, and the princes and the trumpets by the king: and all the people of the land rejoiced, and sounded with trumpets, also the singers with instruments of musick, and such as taught to sing praise. Then Athaliah rent her clothes, and said, Treason, Treason” (2 Chronicles 23:12-13).

Here we get a glimpse of the temple music service as directed by Jehoida the priest—which included “such as taught to sing praise.” In spite of Athaliah’s rule, he had set up a music education program in the temple for those who “taught.” Once Athaliah was deposed, Jehoida “appointed the offices of the house of the Lord by the hand of the priests the Levites, whom David had distributed in the house of the Lord, to offer the burnt offerings of the Lord, as it is written in the law of Moses, with rejoicing and with singing, as it was ordained by David” (verse 18). Jehoida’s service to the throne was so great that he was buried among the kings (2 Chronicles 24:16), whereas the king he served was not (verse 25).

More noteworthy musical activities in Judah occurred during the reign of King Hezekiah. Within his first year, he repaired and cleansed the temple (2 Chronicles 29:3-16). He involved the Levites in this process, including the three musical branches of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun (verses 12-14). He eventually patterned the music program after David’s organization (verses 25-26).

“And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt offering upon the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel” (verse 27). These instruments “by” (or by the hand of) David were used to perform the “songs of the Lord.” This music connected Israel with the Creator of the universe!

“And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had made an end of offering, the king and all that were present with him bowed themselves, and worshipped. Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped” (verses 28-30). The people likely sang from the Psalms—at least the lyrics of David and Asaph. The fact that “the service of the house”—i.e., the musical order—came together so quickly was cause for great rejoicing (verses 35-36).

During that year’s Passover celebration, “the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, singing with loud instruments unto the Lord” (2 Chronicles 30:21). Notice verse 22: “And Hezekiah spake comfortably unto all the Levites that taught the good knowledge of the Lord ….” It appears Hezekiah complimented the Levitical musicians and referred to music as “the good knowledge of the Lord.” Again, music came from direct revelation, inspiration and creation of Almighty God, and these performers had to look to God for such “good knowledge.”

Judah’s final righteous Davidic king was Josiah, who had to reverse much of the evil caused by the two kings preceding him. In this restoration, he too employed Levites who were skillful musicians (2 Chronicles 34:12). King Josiah was well loved by the musicians of his day. When he died on the battlefield at age 39, “Jeremiah lamented for Josiah: and all the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel: and, behold, they are written in the lamentations” (2 Chronicles 35:25).

These lamenting songs were “an ordinance in Israel,” possibly performed annually, and “written in the lamentations”—that is, the Lamentations of Jeremiah (see Lamentations 4:19-20; for a full explanation, read Chapter 2 of Lamentations: The Point of No Return).

Jeremiah—Custodian of the Throne

At this point in the chronology, Jeremiah enters the picture—the prophet who was on the scene when Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s temple. The Babylonian king killed all royal Jewish males, but he did not kill the princesses of the Jewish throne. These “king’s daughters” remained with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 41:10; 43:6). As Mr. Armstrong explained in The United States and Britain in Prophecy, God had commissioned Jeremiah to take a Davidic princess to a nation of Israel—to “overturn” David’s throne into what we now call Ireland.

Jeremiah went to Ireland not only with this princess, but also with the ark of the covenant, the stone of destiny and David’s harp. Transplanting the unbroken royal lineage included the task of transplanting the music and culture of the throne! The harp, the national symbol of the Hebrews, remains the national symbol of Ireland to this day and appears on royal emblems throughout the British Isles.

As with Israel and its surrounding nations, ancient Ireland had a remarkable cultural impact on the rest of Europe. Abundant evidence proves this point, particularly the superiority of Irish music and of its colleges’ music instruction in Europe’s early history. The most convincing proof comes from Vincenzio de Galilei, who wrote that Italy received the harp from Ireland: “This most ancient instrument was brought to us [Italians] from Ireland, where such are most excellently worked and in a great number; the inhabitants of the said island have made this their art during the many centuries they have lived there and, moreover, it is a special undertaking of the kingdom; and they paint and engrave it in their public and private buildings and on their hill; stating as their reason for so doing that they have descended from the royal Prophet David” (Dialogo Della Musica Antica; emphasis added).

Second Temple Renaissance

Seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:10), Persia’s King Cyrus sent Jews back there to reconstruct the temple (Ezra 1:1). When the temple was restored, so too was the rich Davidic musical tradition for the temple service.

Ezra meticulously lists the first wave of repatriates—128 of whom were “[t]he singers: the children of Asaph” (Ezra 2:41). These musicians warrant special mention probably because of their lineage back to the great musical servant of King David: the Levitical Prophet Asaph. Nehemiah, who years later found a record of the same lists, records that the number of Asaphite singers who returned with Zerubbabel was 148 (Nehemiah 7:44).

These lists underscore the significance of the singers. Nehemiah 10 also distinguishes this special guild among the people: There is family name after family name, and then, in verse 28, mention of certain occupations: porters, Nethinims (a specific class of temple servants) and singers. Both Ezra and Nehemiah note that among the servants who returned was a group of at least 200 “singing men and singing women” not necessarily associated with “temple” music (Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67). The temple singers had their own villages and cities (Ezra 2:70; Nehemiah 12:28-29), which would have facilitated more convenient rehearsal schedules.

Singers and other musicians feature prominently throughout the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah. After Zerubbabel set the altar “upon his bases” (Ezra 3:3) and laid the foundation of the second temple, a special dedication ceremony was held. Verse 10 states: “And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David king of Israel.”

Zerubbabel, with the help of the high priest Joshua, reestablished the musical temple service as David had organized it. Despite the absence of his throne, David’s musical instructions were still being followed. The musicians performed together by course and sang lyrics similar to those sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (verse 11).

Several decades later, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, another wave of repatriates returned. Leading them was Ezra, the skilled scribe from the honorable priestly lineage of Zadok and Aaron (Ezra 7:1-6). He came to “beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem” (verse 27)—enjoying the full support of the Persian king. Verse 7 shows that “singers” joined, and with Artaxerxes’s express endorsement (verse 24).

Nehemiah’s ‘Good Deeds’

About 13 years later, Nehemiah came to repair the wall and palaces bordering Jerusalem. This he accomplished in a remarkable 52 days, after which, he records, “Now it came to pass, when the wall was built, and I had set up the doors, and the porters and the singers and the Levites were appointed” (Nehemiah 7:1).

Nehemiah 12 describes these musicians in action when the wall was dedicated: “with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (verse 27). Verses 31-35 indicate that Nehemiah appointed two great companies in some sort of antiphonal performance. Among “certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets” was a “son of Asaph” (verse 35). Nehemiah listed eight others “with the musical instruments of David the man of God, and Ezra the scribe before them” (verse 36). The Hebrew actually means “singing instruments,” indicating either that the instruments were used to accompany singing or—as is still common today—the sweet timbre of bowed string instruments. Even wives and children got involved in this performance, which was so grand that “the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off” (verse 43).

Music was simply an essential activity of the temple—raised from the ruins of captivity! (verses 45-46).

Later, Nehemiah led an effort to repopulate Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1). Of the Levites chosen to live in the city was a son of Asaph who was “the principal to begin the thanksgiving in prayer,” and a son of Jeduthun (verse 17). Verses 22-23 add, “Of the sons of Asaph, the singers were over the business of the house of God. For it was the king’s commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day” (verse 23). The singers were supplied these daily needs throughout the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12:47).

During Nehemiah’s absence from Jerusalem, however, the musical service was threatened. Nehemiah 13:5 shows that there was a great room where resources and sustenance were set aside for the singers, porters and priests. The high priest, Eliashib, drove these godly servants from the room and gave it to his ally Tobiah—an enemy of Nehemiah. This prevented the singers from receiving proper compensation and forced them to return to working their fields. This grieved Nehemiah, and he asked, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” (verses 8-11). He wanted the singers to be able to focus on their music!

Nehemiah “contended … with the rulers” and corrected the matter, restoring proper payment to these servants (verses 11-13). In verse 14, Nehemiah prayed: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.”

How clear is the importance of music to God’s people throughout the Old Testament! And as we will now see, this same pattern holds true in the New Testament.

Continue Reading: Chapter 5: Music in the New Testament