As I was preparing last Lord’s Day sermon, I came across 2Chronicles 29:25-30. From this account of the restoration of Temple worship during the reign of King Hezekiah about 700 years before the coming of Christ, the church today may be able to learn a few things as to how its worship can be acceptable to God. We see here how God regulated Old Testament Temple worship:
1. The Levitical singers and instrumentalists were instituted by God through David and the prophets (2Chron 29:25). David in turn appointed the chiefs of the Levites to pick the musicians (1Chron 15:16). These were music “pros” and theologians mighty in Scriptures, as exemplified by Asaph, composer of 12 inspired Psalms. In fact, these “pros” were led by “Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music,” who was tasked to “direct the music, for he understood it” (1Chron 15:22). They were appointed by David “to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord” (1Chron 16:4-6). Levitical musicians became part of Israel’s worship throughout its history, as we read about them again during the dedication of the rebuilt wall of Jerusalem after the return of exiles from Babylon (Neh 12, particularly Neh 12:27, 35).
One other sidelight for our example. David first instituted the musicians when the Ark of the Covenant was carried back from captivity to Jerusalem. At this event, all those who led the procession were in their “Sunday best,” from David to all the Levites: “David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers” (1Chron 15:27).
2. Only four instruments—cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpets—not any instrument to the liking of people were assigned for use in worship (2Chron 29:25-26). The tambourine (timbrel or tabret), pipe (organ), and all other instruments used in Israel were not approved. The New Testament as well as the early church did not use instruments until the organ was first introduced in the 8th century. But instruments were not used widely in the church until the 13th century, only to be rejected again by the 16th century Reformers. From the Reformation until the latter half of the 19th century, Protestant churches sang without the aid of musical instruments. ((William Woodson, “History of Instrumental Music,” ChristianCourier.com, http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1271-history-of-instrumental-music, 11/02/2010.))
3. Only Psalms—God’s inspired songbook—were sung (2Chron 29:30). Obviously, during the Old Testament period, the only inspired songbook was the Psalter. But we find Jesus, himself the composer of the Psalter, singing psalms about himself (Luke 24:44) when he ate the Passover meal with his disciples (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26). How do we know he sang psalms? When Jews eat the Passover meal, they have a liturgy that includes hymns from Psalms 113-118, called “Hallel” (“Praise”) psalms. Surely, Paul and Silas also sang psalms (“hymns to God”) in the Philippian dungeon (Acts 16:25). As well, Paul and James encouraged believers to sing psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and songs of praise; these were most probably psalms used in the early church (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13).
We have scant information from the early church writings about what they sung. ((I’m indebted to Hughes Oliphant Old’s Worship According to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 33-57, for this brief historical sketch of psalm singing.)) However, Athanasius, Chrysostom and Augustine wrote that the early church sang exclusively (or almost exclusively) Psalms in unison. Hymns were introduced to the early church mostly by heretics such as the Arians, Gnostics and Donatists to promote their false teachings. Beginning in the early 6th century, psalm-singing in unison was replaced by priests chanting Psalms and other uninspired texts. However, it was also during the the medieval period from the 8th century to the 16th century Reformation that much of the great classical hymnology we sing today were written. But the Reformers led by John Calvin restored the complete Psalter to its rightful place in worship, saying:
That which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him… [W]e shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.
After the Reformation, Protestant churches sang exclusively from the Psalter. But during the Second Great Awakening in the mid-1700s when revivalism surged, coupled with the decline of Reformed doctrine and worship, Psalm-singing started to be replaced by uninspired hymns with their easy lyrics and repetitious refrains and tag lines. Today, uninspired, repetitious, romantic, sentimental, trite “love songs to Jesus” and even pop rock are favored over Psalm-singing, which has become practically non-existent in evangelicalism.
4. The Levitical singers sang only when burnt sacrifices were offered, not during the whole worship service (2Chron 29:27-29). When the music and burnt offerings ended, everyone bowed down in silent worship.
If we then ground contemporary worship practices in our worship service on their use in Old Testament Temple worship, we must ask these questions:
1. Can any Billy Bob or Betty Bop be part of the “worship team”? Should the “worship team” and the congregation “come as they are,” wearing T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops to God’s holy convocation?
2. Should we go against overwhelming evidence that for most of the first 1,800 years of church history, instruments were not used in worship? Can we use a cacophony of any and all instruments in the worship service, to the preference and style of the “worship team” and the congregation?
3. Concerning the songs we sing, is God pleased when we sing songs written by anyone, including biblically-illiterate, musically-bankrupt people, which are outright lacking aesthetically, full of errors and not fit for the worship of God?
4. Since the old covenant congregation sang only when burnt sacrifices were offered, should our worship service include singing during the whole service? And if only during a particular part of the service—equivalent to the burnt offerings—which part would that be?
To answer this question, we must first answer another question: “What is the burnt offering and what is its purpose?” The burnt offering ceremony is described in Leviticus 1:3-9. The offerer brings a male animal, without blemish, to the entrance of the Temple, lays his hand on its head, and slaughters it. The priests then throw the blood against the sides of the altar. Then the offerer cuts the animal into pieces and washes the entrails and legs of impurities before the entire animal is burned on the altar by the priests. The Hebrew word translated “burnt offering” is olah (“ascent”, cf Psa 24:3), so the smoke rising up from the altar is “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Lev 1:9).
The whole burnt offering symbolizes two things: (1) atonement for sin, turning away God’s wrath (Lev 1:4); and (2) total consecration of the worshiper to be pleasing to God (Lev 8:28). Christ himself was our burnt offering, sinless (Heb 4:15) and totally consecrated to God, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). By faith, a believer is also enabled to become a burnt offering to God, “a living sacrifice” wholly consecrated to him (Rom 12:1), doing good and sharing things with others, “for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:16). If this is so, the part of our worship service where we offer “burnt offerings” is our Song of Response or Song of Consecration after we listen to the preaching of God’s word, wherein God’s people renew their covenant vows before God.
These two sacrifices—Christ’s and ours—fulfill the old covenant burnt offerings which have become obsolete (Heb 8:13). This is why Calvin taught that instruments belong only to the Temple worship in the old covenant:
To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue.
So, our early church and Protestant heritage should prevent us from using musical instruments in the public worship of God.
But, according to Calvin, if we insist on using them, we are of necessity going back to the “shadows and figures” of the Old Testament. And if we ground the use of instruments on the worship in the Temple, and if the Israelites only sang, accompanied by instruments, during the burnt offering ceremony, then we must of necessity again, burn bulls, lambs or goats in our worship services.
Of course, Calvin would probably prefer lamb kabob, not extremely well-done, blackened lamb chops.