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Music and Musical Instruments


I. Musical Instruments.

A. The Bell. (Heb. pa‘amôn). In Exod.28.33-Exod.28.35, where the Lord prescribes the high priest’s garments, he states: “Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die.” The little bells (pa‘amônîm) were either small bells or jingles. This custom typifies the ringing of the bell during the Roman Mass to call the attention of the worshipers to the sacred function in the sanctuary. Bells and jingles on the hem of garments not only were found in Israel but also are used by many primitive tribes in worship.

B. The Cymbals. (Heb. tseltselîm and metsiltayim). The only permanent percussive instrument in the temple orchestra was the cymbal. In the Holy Scriptures, the use of cymbals is solely confined to religious ceremonies—bringing back the ark from Kiriath Jearim (1Chr.15.16, 1Chr.15.19, 1Chr.15.28), at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2Chr.5.13), at the restoration of worship by Hezekiah (2Chr.29.25), at the laying of the foundation of the second temple (Ezra.3.10), and the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem (Neh.12.27).

In Psalm 150 two types of cymbals are pointed out: “Praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.” The “clashing cymbals were of a larger diameter than the “resounding” cymbals, and were two-handed cymbals. The resounding cymbals were much smaller and were played by one hand—the cymbals being attached to the thumb and the middle finger.

In the time of David and Solomon, much stress was laid on the cymbal and percussive instruments. The chief singer of David, Asaph, was a cymbal player (1Chr.16.5). However, in the last century of the second temple the percussive instruments were restricted to one cymbal, which was used to mark pauses only, not to be played while the singing and the playing were going on.

Although these temple instruments were definitely rhythmical in character, it is interesting to note that the rhythm of the melody was largely dependent on the innate rhythm of the words sung, for the content and the spirit of the words dominated the music. The singing and the playing of the instruments was not to perform or entertain or to elevate a lover of refined art, but rather to serve as a highly exalted form of speech. Rhythm proved important only in nonreligious music, and the Jews also made a distinction between what they called spiritual music of the highly educated and the popular music of the masses.

C. The Harp (Heb. nēbhel). In 1Sam.10.5 Samuel the prophet tells the newly anointed King Saul that he would meet “a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they [would] be prophesying.” This is the first time the nēbhel is mentioned in the Bible. This large harp, like the lyre, was made of berosh and almugwood, but the harp had a resonant body. According to Josephus, the harp was played with the fingers and had twelve strings, in contrast to ten strings of the lyre, which was played with a plectrum.

The harp was often used at secular festivities. Isaiah the prophet complains, “They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of his hands” (Isa.5.12). Amos the prophet writes of God’s protest: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos.5.23). And in Amos.6.1, Amos.6.5 he prophesies woe to Israel, complaining, “You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments.”

D. The Lyre (Heb. kinnôr). Jewish historians ascribe the first use of musical instruments to the seventh generation after the creation of the world. Gen.4.21 states that Jubal, son of Adah and Lamech, offspring of Methushael, son of Mehujael, son of Irad, son of Enoch, son of Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn “was the father of all who play the harp [kinnôr] and flute.” The kinnôr was the famous instrument on which, later on, King David excelled, and which has erroneously been called “King David’s harp.” The kinnôr was a stringed instrument, but it had no resonant body like the harp. It was a lyre, and whether its original form was square or triangular is not known due to the ancient commandment to refrain from the creation of images. No representation of musical instruments and no original biblical melodies have come down to us. The kinnôr was made of wood—David made it of berôsh, but in 1Kgs.10.12 it is recorded that Solomon made some of almugwood for use in the temple. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the kinnôr had ten strings that were plucked with a plectrum, and they were probably tuned pentatonically, without semitones, through two octaves.

The kinnôr was used on joyous occasions; for instance, it is stated in Gen.31.26-Gen.31.27: “Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘What have you done? You've deceived me, and you've carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of tambourines and harps?”' The Jews refused to play the kinnôr during the Babylonian exile. They suspended their kinnôrîm on the willows; how could they “sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps.137.4). The kinnôr was light and spirited, and when the prophets of old admonished the people, they threatened that the kinnôr, the symbol of joy and happiness, would be silenced unless the people repented from their sins. The kinnôr was one of the temple orchestra instruments, and its tone is described as sweet, tender, soft, and lyrical. 1Chr.25.3 states that Jeduthun and his sons prophesied with a kinnôr; and 1Sam.16.23 says about David and Saul: “David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” The kinnôr was also a popular instrument among the more cultured classes in Israel.

E. The Oboe (Heb. chālîl). In 1Kgs.1.40 it is stated that after Zadok the priest had anointed Solomon, “all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound.” The pipe (chālîl) was a double-reed instrument and is the biblical equivalent of the modern oboe. It was probably also a double-pipe instrument, whose pipes could be blown individually as well as simultaneously. There is no mention of this instrument as having been used in the services of the first temple. In the second temple two to twelve oboes (chalîlîm) were used on twelve days of the year—at first and second Passover sacrifice, on the first day of Passover, at the Feast of Weeks, and in the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles. The oboes were played at joyous festivities as well as mourning ceremonies. When Christ entered Jairus’s home to restore life to his dead daughter, he found the funeral oboes in action. In Israel even the poorest men hired at least two oboes for the funeral of their wives.

F. The Pipe. (Heb. ‘ûgabh). The shepherd’s pipe (nasb, neb, rsv), flute (mlb, niv), or organ (kjv) is the other musical instrument mentioned in Gen.4.21. It is not mentioned in the list of the musical instruments that were used in the temple. There are only three other OT references to ‘ûgabh (Job.21.12; Job.30.31; Ps.150.4).

G. The Psaltery (Heb. ‘āsôr, from the Hebrew word for ten). The harp (nēbhel) is often associated with the psaltery. The psaltery is mentioned twice in the Psalms in connection with the harp (Ps.33.2; Ps.144.9) and with both harp and lyre (kinnôr) in Ps.92.3.

It is generally accepted that this was a ten-stringed, rectangular zither. To the early church fathers this psaltery was symbolical: the ten strings, the Ten Commandments; and the four sides, the Gospels.

H. The Shālîsh. The word shālîsh has been the most disputed musical term of the Hebrew language. The word is clearly connected with the Hebrew word that means “three,” and it has been translated many times as triangles, triangular harps, three-stringed instruments, and three-stringed lutes (even three-stringed fiddles and a kind of pipe). Of its twenty-one OT occurrences, only once is it perhaps a musical term (1Sam.18.6), and there it is translated “lutes” in the NIV (instruments of music kjv, rsv; musical instruments nasb; lyre jb): “When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes.”

I. The Sistrum, or Rattle. (Heb. mena‘an‘im). This term occurs only in 2Sam.6.5, where NIV translates it “sistrum” (cornets kjv; castanets jb, nasb, neb, rsv): “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” This seems to refer to an instrument that is to be shaken, perhaps the sistrum, a rattle of Sumerian origin, which consisted of a handle and a frame with jingling crossbars.

J. The Tambourine (Heb. tōph). The tōph was a small drum made of a wooden hoop and probably two skins, without any jingling contrivance like the modern tambourine. It was a rhythm-indicator and was used for dances and joyous occasions as well as religious celebrations. 2Sam.6.5 states that David employed the tōph at the installation of the ark in Jerusalem. It is not listed among the musical instruments either of the first or second temple, despite its being mentioned three times in the Psalms: Ps.81.2; Ps.149.3; Ps.150.4. The tōph was played primarily by women: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing” (Exod.15.20); Jephthah’s unfortunate daughter came out to meet him “dancing to the sound of tambourines” (Judg.11.34); and the women of Israel, coming to greet King Saul after David had killed Goliath, came “singing and dancing...with tambourines and lutes” (1Sam.18.6).

K. The Trumpet (Heb. shôphār or qeren). The only temple instrument still being used today in the synagogue is the shôphār or qeren. Originally, it was a ram’s horn without a mouthpiece. It was used chiefly as a signal instrument in religious as well as in secular ceremonies. One single incident stands out in conjunction with the blowing of the shôphār. This is recorded in Josh.6.20: “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city.” Gideon the judge frightened his enemies, the Midianites, by the sound of the Lord’s horns blown by three hundred of his men (Judg.7.16-Judg.7.22). The blowing of the shôphār was even attributed to the Lord himself, in order to frighten his enemies and to gather the scattered remnant of Israel to his sanctuary. Thus Zechariah says, “The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet...the Lord Almighty will shield them” (Zech.9.14-Zech.9.15).

During the latter part of the period of the second temple, two types of shôphār were in use: the curved ram’s horn and the straight (female) mountain goat’s horn. The Talmudian tractate Rosh-hoshana 3:2-6 gives a detailed description of the shôphār: “All shofars are valid save that of the cow. The shofar blown in the temple at the New Year was made from the horn of the mountain goat, straight, with its mouthpiece overlaid with gold. At the sides of them that blew the shofar were two priests that blew upon the silver trumpets. The shofar blew a long note and the trumpets a short note, since the duty of the day fell on the shofar. The shofar blown on New Year’s Day was to remind God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and especially of Isaac’s sacrifice and of the ram that was substituted for him (Gen.22.13).

“The shofars blown on days of fasting were ram’s horns, curved, with mouthpieces overlaid with silver. Between them were two priests who blew upon silver trumpets. The shofar blew a short note and the trumpets a long note, since the duty of the day fell on the trumpets. The Year of Jubilee is like to the New Year in the blowing of the shofar. Today, the sound of the shofar is to stir the hearts of the Jewish people to awe and reverence and to remind them of their duties to God. As a matter of fact, the Shofar Song is a simple but beautiful call to worship.”

L. The Trumpet (Heb. chatzōtzerâ). “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Make two trumpets of hammered silver, and use them for calling the community together and for having the camps set out....When you go into battle in your own land against an enemy who is oppressing you, sound a blast on the trumpets. Then you will be remembered by the Lord your God and rescued from your enemies. Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed feasts and New Moon festivals—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God”' (Num.10.1-Num.10.2, Num.10.9-Num.10.10).

Both the trumpets and the shôphār were blown by the priests and not by the Levites, who were, so to speak, the professional musicians of the temple. Both these instruments served the same function of signaling.

Jewish historian Josephus has described the trumpet as a straight tube, “a little less than a cubit long,” its mouthpiece wide and its body expanding into a bell-like ending. The form of the trumpet is still preserved on the Jewish coins of the latter part of the period of the second temple. When, in a.d. 70 the Romans erected an arch for Emperor Titus after his conquest of Jerusalem, they depicted on it his triumphant return to Rome with the holy objects robbed from the temple, among them a trumpet, which corresponds exactly to the description of Josephus.

Two of these silver trumpets were the minimum requirement for the temple service; the maximum, 120. 2Chr.5.12 states: “All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives, stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets.”

M. Nebuchadnezzar’s Orchestral Instruments. Finally, a word about the orchestral instruments of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, as described by Daniel: “As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up” (Dan.3.5). The Hebrew words for the above mentioned instruments would be the qeren (horn or trumpet), the mashrôqîthâ (a pipe or a whistle), the qathrōs (a lyre), the sabbekhâ (a kind of harp), the pesantērîn (a psaltery, a stringed instrument that was used to accompany the Psalms), the symphonia, which means a combination of sounds, or just orchestra. “If we accept the Aramaic text of the book of Daniel,” says Curt Sachs, “the King’s subjects heard the various instruments first singly and then all together, a performing custom of the orchestras of the East. The addition, ‘all kinds of music,' may refer to drums and other percussion instruments. The people were thus instructed to wait for the horn signal, followed by solos of pipe, lyre, harp, and psaltery, after which the ‘all kinds of music' (percussion instruments) would join the solo instruments in a sumphonia of sounds, which was the signal for them to fall down and worship the golden image.”


A. The History of Hebrew Music.

1. The Time of David. The history of Hebrew music, as well as the history of Israel’s higher civilization in general and the organization of the musical service in the temple, began with King David’s reign. To King David has been ascribed not only the creation and singing of the psalms, but also the invention of musical instruments. 2Chr.7.6 mentions “the Lord’s musical instruments, which King David had made for praising the Lord”; and according to 1Chr.23.5, David himself said to the princes of Israel, to the priests, and Levites, “Four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.”

King David chose the Levites to supply musicians for the holy temple. Out of the thirty thousand who were employed at this time, the impressive number of four thousand was selected for the musical service. 1Chr.15.16 states, “David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals.”

Solomon's Temple|Solomon’s Temple. Years later, when King Solomon had finished all work for the temple and brought in all the things David his father had dedicated, the priest and the congregation of Israel assembled before the ark, and the musical service was begun by the Levites. 1Chr.25.6-1Chr.25.7 relates that the number of them who were instructed in the songs of the Lord was 288, divided into twenty-four classes. On the day of the dedication of the temple, “all the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: ‘He is good; his love endures forever.' Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2Chr.5.12-2Chr.5.14). When the king and the people had offered their sacrifices, the Levites began to play, “the priests blew their trumpets, and all the Israelites were standing” (2Chr.7.6).

In Solomon’s temple the choir formed a distinct body. They were furnished homes and were on salary. Ezekiel says they had chambers between the walls and windows with southern views (Ezek.40.44). The choir numbered two thousand singers and was divided into two choirs. The Psalms, according to the Mishna, were sung antiphonally. The first examples in the Bible of antiphonal or responsive singing are the songs of Moses and Miriam after the passage through the Red Sea (Exod.15.1-Exod.15.27).

There were three forms after which the Psalms and the prayers were rendered in the temple. First, the leader intoned the first half verse, whereupon the congregation repeated it. Then the leader sang each succeeding half line, the congregation always repeating the same first half line, which thus became a refrain throughout the entire psalm. Second, the leader sang a half line at a time, and the congregation repeated what he had last sung. The third form was responsive in the real sense of the word—the leader would sing the whole first line, whereupon the congregation would respond with the second line of the verse. In ancient times the people, primitive as yet, would respond with but one word as a refrain to tributes and praise. Refrains such as Amen, Halleluyah, Hoshiannah (“Oh, help!”), Anenu (“Answer us!”) were mostly used in public worship. In later times a higher musical development of the people is shown in their response with phrases rather than single words as in Ps.118.1-Ps.118.3 and Ps.136.1-Ps.136.26.

3. The Second Temple. The orchestra and the choir personnel were greatly reduced in the second temple. The orchestra consisted of a minimum of two harps and a maximum of six; a minimum of nine lyres, maximum limitless; a minimum of two oboes and a maximum of twelve; and one cymbal. The second temple choir consisted of a minimum of twelve adult singers, maximum limitless. The singers, all male, were between thirty and fifty years of age. Five years of musical training was a prerequisite to membership in the second temple choir. In addition to the male adults, sons of the Levites were permitted to participate in the choir “in order to add sweetness to the song.”

4. The Time of Christ. The musical service in the temple at the time of Christ was essentially the same as that in King Solomon’s temple, with the exception of a few minor changes in certain forms of singing. There were two daily services in the temple—the morning and evening sacrifices. The morning sacrifice began with burning incense on the golden altar within the Holy Place. The offering of incense took place before daybreak, and the priest on whom the lot had fallen for the most honorable service in the daily ministry was alone in the Holy Place while burning the incense; the congregation was praying outside the gates of the temple at the time of incense offering. The morning sacrifice followed. The president would direct one of the priests to ascend some pinnacle to see if it was time to kill the daily sacrifice. If the priest reported, “The morning shineth already,” he was asked again, “Is the sky lit up as far as Hebron?” If so, the president would order the lamb, which had been kept in readiness for four days, brought in. The elders who carried the keys now gave the order to open the gates of the temple. As the last great gate opened, a signal was given to the priests to blow three blasts on their silver trumpets, calling the Levites and the representatives of the people to their duties, and announcing to the city that the morning sacrifice was about to be offered. Immediately after this the gates to the Holy Place were opened to admit the priests who were to cleanse the candlestick and the altar of incense. The opening of these great gates was actually the signal for the slaughter of the lamb without blemish. Following a prayer, the Ten Commandments were recited, and this was followed by the Jewish Creed “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut.6.4-Deut.6.9).

After the priestly benediction, found in Num.6.24-Num.6.26, the meal offering was brought, and oil added to it. Having been previously salted, it was laid on the fire. Now the high priest’s daily meal offering was presented, which consisted of twelve cakes broken in halves. Twelve halves were presented for the morning sacrifice and the other twelve for the evening sacrifice. Finally came the drink offering, which consisted of wine poured at the foot of the altar.

With the sacrificial acts over, the ‘ûgabh was sounded, which was the signal for the priests to prostrate themselves, but for the Levites it marked the beginning of the musical service. Two priests would now take their stand at the right and left of the altar and blow their silver trumpets. After this, these two priests would approach the cymbal player and take their stand beside him, one on the right and one on the left. When given a sign with a flag by the president, this Levite sounded his cymbal, and this was the sign for the Levites to begin singing a part of the daily psalm accompanied by instrumental music. Whenever they stopped singing, the priests would again blow their trumpets, and the people would prostrate themselves. Not only psalms were sung but also parts of the Pentateuch. The psalm of the day was sung in three sections and at the close of each the priests would blow three fanfares on their silver trumpets, a signal for the congregation to bow down and to worship the Lord.

With the singing of the daily psalm, the morning sacrifice came to a close. The evening sacrifice was identical to the morning sacrifice, with the exception that the incense offering followed the evening sacrifice, at sunset. Thus they began and ended the day with prayer and praise, of which the burning of incense was symbolical.

The word selâh, which is found so frequently in the Psalms, is another word that has not been satisfactorily explained. Whether it means an interlude, a pause, or a cadence, is not known. Many scholars believe it indicates a musical interlude by the temple orchestra.

C. The Dance (Heb. māchôl). Dance was considered an integral part of the religious ceremonies in ancient Israel. This Hebrew word is found in the Holy Scriptures associated with the word tōph or timbrel: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing” (Exod.15.20); and again, “When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines!” (Judg.11.34). “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might...” (2Sam.6.14). Religious dancing fell into disuse in the Jerusalem temple, and it is mentioned only twice in Psalms (149:3; 150:4). On the Feast of Tabernacles, at the celebration of “water libation,” prominent men would dance, displaying their artistic skill in throwing and catching burning torches. The custom, however, of a procession around the sanctuary or around the altar on the Feast of Tabernacles was retained in the temple, accompanied with singing.——LGO