Print
church assembly worship

In this article, I examine what the Bible really says about the subject of singing and using musical instruments in worship.

This is an emotional topic for many people. To help ensure we consider the subject honestly and without predetermined conclusion, let's pause and pray for GOD's blessing.

What is worship, exactly?

Before we dive in, we need to briefly lay the foundation of the biblical concept of worship.

In modern times, when people use the word "worship," they are often thinking specifically about church meetings.

But the biblical concept of worship is much broader in scope than church gatherings.

Our understanding and perspective of what it means to worship helps shape many of our views on spiritual matters, including singing (and arguments for or against the use musical instruments).

Therefore, it is critical that we properly grasp how the Bible defines worship.

Before continuing here, please pause and read my article entitled "What does it mean to worship?"

Approach to this Study

As I began this study on singing and instruments in Scripture, I wanted to examine every passage I could find regarding the subject in order to ensure a thorough and fair analysis, so I searched BibleGateway.com for "sing, song, instrument or musical".

(There may well be additional verses that I have missed. Feel free to leave me a comment at the end of this article if you find one.)

I'm going to break this article down into Old Testament (OT), New Testament (NT), and Secular History sections and offer some concluding thoughts.

Let me stress up front that I'm offering you Scripture followed by my personal observations regarding key findings.

As always, study these things for yourself.

Singing in the Old Testament

In general, I found that verses dealing with singing in the OT can be categorized as:

  1. Rejoicing in GOD's salvation, deliverance or provision,
  2. Prophecy,
  3. Expressions of happiness, and
  4. Expressions of sadness.

Interestingly, Cain's descendant Jubal (Gen. 4:21) is described as the father of all who play the flute and harp.

Note: The clear indication is that this singing and dancing pleased the LORD.

Note: This makes it quite clear that instruments were a part of the will of GOD during this time.

Note: GOD was angry because Uzzah failed to respect the LORD's command that the ark was only to be touched by the priests. Though David had failed to carry it properly, it was Uzzah with whom the LORD was angry.

GOD had not commanded this singing nor the musical instruments which accompanied the transport of the ark, yet we read nothing of GOD being angry or displeased over this.

Note: Here the musical instruments themselves are described as being "of God."

Note: Interestingly, the Passover was observed during the second month of the year rather than the first because the priests hadn't consecrated themselves nor did they have enough time to gather the people throughout the land to Jerusalem (2 Chron. 30:1-5).

The statement is made in v4, "The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly." No indication is given that they sought the counsel of GOD on the matter.

Furthermore, v.17-20 shows that they ate the Passover even though they hadn't consecrated themselves, violating GOD's command. But Hezekiah prayed for the people and 2 Chron. 30:20 says, "the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people."

Then the people decided (on their own) to keep the festival for 14 days instead of 7, and there is no indication that GOD disapproved at all. Their hearts were right.

Conclusions from the Old Testament

  1. Singing has been a significant part of human life and worship throughout GOD's recorded history.

  2. Singing in the OT was a natural expression of emotions—both joy and sorrow.

  3. Singing was often accompanied by instruments as well as dancing, all of which the LORD found pleasing. It seems clear that what GOD is interested in is the expression of the heart and the resulting benefit which comes to the one(s) participating.

Singing in the New Testament

Note: The emphasis of Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 14 was on the importance that the church be edified by what occurred when the church met, including singing.

Note:

  1. These commands in Eph. 5 were given to individuals ("See that YOU walk..."), forming a miniature pattern for Christian living. The text does not indicate that these instructions to sing were dealing specifically with church assemblies. Church meetings certainly provide a logical time for singing, but Paul's instructions were most definitely not exclusive to congregational assemblies.

  2. Our [individual] singing should be a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

  3. Why does the Spirit use all three terms (psalmshymnsspiritual songs)? Note the definitions of the Greek words, per Strong's Concordance:

    • Psalm—a set piece of music, i.e. A sacred ode (accompanied with the voice, harp or other instrument; a "psalm"); collectively, the book of the Psalms—psalm.

    • Hymn—Apparently from a simpler (obsolete) form of hudeo (to celebrate; probably akin to aido; compare abowt); a "hymn" or religious ode (one of the Psalms)—hymn.

    • Spiritual—From pneuma; non-carnal, i.e. (humanly) ethereal (as opposed to gross), or (daemoniacally) a spirit (concretely), or (divinely) supernatural, regenerate, religious—spiritual.

    • Songs—From aido; a chant or "ode" (the general term for any words sung; while humnos denotes especially a religious metrical composition, and psalmos still more specially, a Hebrew cantillation)—song.

    It is my conclusion that GOD chose to use the three types of songs (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) intentionally, that the definition of these words should carry as much weight as other definitions in Scripture, and that we should not seek to "explain away" GOD's choice of words. Also, I conclude that by the Spirit using the word "psalms," He is including the Jewish psalms, which were often accompanied by—even ordered (by inspiration) to be set to—instruments.

  4. The NKJV translates v19 as "speaking to one another...", however, other translations (including KJV and YLT) read "speaking to yourselves." Regarding this Greek word, Strong's says it means, "alone, herself, himself, itself, own."

    Putting all of this together, I understand the Spirit to be saying that when we sing spiritually-focused songs we are teaching ourselves and thereby fulfilling this command whenever we sing or listen to spiritual music—whether with or without instruments.

Note: Colossians parallels Ephesians closely, and as such, we see the same thing in Col. 3:12-17—these instructions (which include singing) are given in the context of individual Christians' lives, not specifically dealing with congregational meetings.

Note: There are instruments in heaven.

Note: The harps in heaven are "of God."

Conclusions from the New Testament

  1. Jesus thought singing was important. It's one of the last things He did before being arrested and crucified.

  2. Singing is to be an important part of the Christian's life. Singing expresses thanksgiving, joy, rejoicing, and it also teaches, corrects and instructs the participant(s) and listener(s). It is my strong belief that it is this result (i.e., the outcome of having learned something, been touched or reminded of a truth or the need for repentance, etc.) that GOD is looking for. I see no indication in the NT that GOD is concerned about whether the singing is accompanied by an instrument(s).

  3. It is important to note that, after Jesus' singing with the apostles, we have no recorded example or details regarding the church singing collectively, with or without instruments (unless you count Paul and Silas singing in prison in Acts 16). 1 Cor. 14:26 says that each individual "has a Psalm" when they assembled, which, as noted previously is a Greek word that indicates the accompaniment of instruments. These songs could have been sung collectively or as solos by individuals, we aren't told.

Secular History

Though not inspired, we can obtain extremely helpful and insightful information by reading the writings of the Christians in the first couple of centuries—those taught by the apostles and by those who knew them.

While the Scriptures are sufficient for us to please GOD, we ought not undervalue the information we can gain from external sources which helps us piece together a more complete picture of history.

Quotes from Early Christians (100-325 A.D.)

The most interesting and detailed reference on the subject of singing and instruments that I could find was from Clement of Alexandria (c. 195). You can read it in its entirety here, but below is an excerpt. Admittedly difficult to ensure a proper understanding, Clement is contrasting worldly and righteous living using a musical analogy.

"Let revelry keep away from our rational entertainments, and foolish vigils, too, that revel in intemperance. For revelry is an inebriating pipe, the chain of an amatory bridge, that is, of sorrow. And let love, and intoxication, and senseless passions, be removed from our choir. Burlesque singing is the boon companion of drunkenness. A night spent over drink invites drunkenness, rouses lust, and is audacious in deeds of shame. For if people occupy their time with pipes, and psalteries, and choirs, and dances, and Egyptian clapping of hands, and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable, beat on cymbals and drums, and make a noise on instruments of delusion; for plainly such a banquet, as seems to me, is a theatre of drunkenness. ...

"The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, “Praise Him with the sound of trumpet;” for with sound of trumpet He shall raise the dead. “Praise Him on the psaltery;” for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. “And praise Him on the lyre.” By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. “Praise with the timbrel and the dance,” refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. “Praise Him on the chords and organ.” Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. “Praise Him on the clashing cymbals.” He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips. Therefore He cried to humanity, “Let every breath praise the Lord,” because He cares for every breathing thing which He hath made. For man is truly a pacific instrument; while other instruments, if you investigate, you will find to be warlike, inflaming to lusts, or kindling up amours, or rousing wrath.

"In their wars, therefore, the Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedæmonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honour God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute, which those expert in war and contemners of the fear of God were wont to make use of also in the choruses at their festive assemblies; that by such strains they might raise their dejected minds. But let our genial feeling in drinking be twofold, in accordance with the law. For “if thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” and then “thy neighbour,” let its first manifestation be towards God in thanksgiving and psalmody, and the second toward our neighbour in decorous fellowship. For says the apostle, “Let the Word of the Lord dwell in you richly.” And this Word suits and conforms Himself to seasons, to persons, to places.

"In the present instance He is a guest with us. For the apostle adds again, “Teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to God.” And again, “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and His Father.” This is our thankful revelry. And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blameThou shalt imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God. “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous; praise is comely to the upright,” says the prophecy. “Confess to the Lord on the harp; play to Him on the psaltery of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song.” And does not the ten-stringed psaltery indicate the Word Jesus, who is manifested by the element of the decad? And as it is befitting, before partaking of food, that we should bless the Creator of all; so also in drinking it is suitable to praise Him on partaking of His creatures. For the psalm is a melodious and sober blessing. The apostle calls the psalm “a spiritual song.”

Finally, before partaking of sleep, it is a sacred duty to give thanks to God, having enjoyed His grace and love, and so go straight to sleep. “And confess to Him in songs of the lips,” he says, “because in His command all His good pleasure is done, and there is no deficiency in His salvation.”

Further, among the ancient Greeks, in their banquets over the brimming cups, a song was sung called a skolion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalms, all together raising the pæan with the voice, and sometimes also taking turns in the song while they drank healths round; while those that were more musical than the rest sang to the lyre. But let amatory songs be banished far away, and let our songs be hymns to God. “Let them praise,” it is said, “His name in the dance, and let them play to Him on the timbrel and psaltery.” And what is the choir which plays? The Spirit will show thee: “Let His praise be in the congregation (church) of the saints; let them be joyful in their King.” And again he adds, “The Lord will take pleasure in His people.” For temperate harmonies are to be admitted; but we are to banish as far as possible from our robust mind those liquid harmonies, which, through pernicious arts in the modulations of tones, train to effeminacy and scurrility. But grave and modest strains say farewell to the turbulence of drunkenness. Chromatic harmonies are therefore to be abandoned to immodest revels, and to florid and meretricious music.

The following quotes are taken from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot.

"By music, we harmoniously relax the excessive tension of seriousness."
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.203

"Let love songs be banished far away. But let our songs by hymns to God."
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.249

"As an example of music, let us produce David, both playing and prophesying, melodiously praising God. Now the Enarmonic suits best the Dorian harmony; and the Diatonic, the Phrygian...Music, then, is to be studied for the sake of the embellishment and composure of manners. For instance, at a banquet, we pledge each other while the music is playing. By song, we soothe the eagerness of our desires, and we glorify God for the copious gift of human enjoyments...However, we must reject frivolous music, which weakens men's souls."
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.500, 501

"We cultivate our fields, praising. We sail the sea, singing hymns."
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.533

"His sacrifices are prayers, praises, and readings in the Scriptures before meals—and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed."
—Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.537

"We offer thanks for our creation by invocation and hymns."
—Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.166

"All our women are chaste. And the maidens at their work sing of divine things more nobly than that woman of yours."
—Tatian (c. 160, E), 2.79

"Pliny [a Roman official] found in the religious services nothing but meetings at early morning for singing hymns to Christ and God, and sealing home their way of life by a united pledge to be faithful to their religion, forbidding murder, adultery, dishonesty, and other crimes."
—Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.18

"After washing the hands and bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God—either one from the Holy Scriptures or one of his own composing."
—Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.47

"Wisdom is praised in hymns, in the places of egress. For the death of martyrs is also praised in song."
—Tertullian (c. 213, W), 3.639

"For who is ignorant of the books of Irenaeus and Melito, and the rest, which declare Christ to be God and man? All the psalms, too, and hymns of the brethren—which have been written from the beginning by the faithful—celebrate Christ as the Word of God, ascribing to Him divinity."
—Eusebius, quoting Caius (c. 215, W), 5.601

"...both by day and by night the holy laws are declared and hymns, songs, and spiritual words are heard."
—Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 238, E), 6.37, 38

"We sing hymns to the Most High alone and to his Only-Begotten, who is the Word and God."
—Origen (c. 248, E), 4.665. [One of the earliest Christian hymns: ANF 2.295, 296]

Other References

Per Wikipedia.org: "The use of instruments in early Christian music seems to have been frowned upon. In the late fourth or early 5th century St. Jerome wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a lyre or flute is like, or to what use it is put. The introduction of church organ music is traditionally believed to date from the time of the papacy of Pope Vitalian in the 7th century."

"In contrast to the Old Testament, there is little reference to music in the New Testament. Jewish practice of temple worship was adapted and reinvented into Christianity. For example, upon their conversion, those who led singing in the synagogue also led it in their new Christian faith. In other words, since 'Christians saw their faith as a completion of Judaism, they were able to continue to use many parts of Jewish liturgy' (Wilson-Dickson 1992). But there is little written evidence of the actual music used in worship by either the Christian or Jewish community from the time of Jesus Christ through the seventh century A.D. Since the two faiths share many common foundations, a look at highly orthodox Jewish worship of the present day when compared with ancient musical sources reveals some possibilities of what ancient Christian music was like. But those Eastern traditions that worshiped in the vernacular especially laid the foundations for traditions that are alive today, even as other strains of Christianity greatly evolved with time. Still, even as Christians were composing an array of new songs that celebrated the particulars of their own faith, the Old Testament continued to be the source of much of Christianity’s musical tradition. Perhaps most notable is the compilation of 150 psalms (traditionally attributed to David, who himself gleaned inspiration from ancient Biblical sources) which “have produced remarkably consistent patterns of musical setting” for some 3,000 years (Wilson-Dickson 1992)." —http://www.randomhistory.com/2008/06/10_christian.html

Conclusions from Secular History

  1. It is unclear whether the Christians of the first few centuries used instruments to accompany their singing of spiritual songs, particularly in church meetings. There seems to be general agreement among scholars that musical instruments weren't used by early Christians, although I have not seen any substantive evidence to support these claims.

  2. It is dangerous to put too much stock in uninspired writers, including myself, regardless of when they lived. At the same time, it's unwise to completely ignore the evidence they provide.

  3. Because many of the earliest Christians were Jews that had followed the Law of Moses, which included instrumental music associated with worship at the temple and perhaps the synagogues, it is likely that they continued in that practice, at least for some period afterward. It is important to note, however, that the Levites were the musicians and singers at the temple.

  4. Many of the early Christians faced life-threatening persecution and, as a result, it is logical to think that they may have avoided drawing the attention of outsiders or government officials. Therefore, it is likely that they would have avoided the use of musical instruments in many situations in an effort to keep the noise down.

Summary Thoughts

GOD's Purpose for Singing

It is important that we seek to understand the heart of GOD—the "why" behind His instructions to sing.

Singing has been a significant part of human life and worship of GOD for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning.

GOD has given mankind the avenue of singing as a means of expressing our thoughts and emotions. He desires our complete devotion, and that we would rejoice in His salvation and provision. Singing is an excellent method of expressing these feelings.

GOD is unchanging (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 6). He accepted worship by song with the accompaniment of instruments (including dancing) in the OT as well as in heaven. Since He does not change, and since there is no mention of instrumental singing in the NT, I find it a logical conclusion that GOD views singing with instruments the same today.

I believe that what GOD is interested in with regard to our singing is the benefit we gain from the teaching, admonition, encouragement and praise of Him! He doesn't need our singing (Acts 17:25) and everything GOD gives us, including our worship of Him, is for our benefit, not His.

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant

Someone says, "What about the fact that all the passages regarding instrumental music in worship are in the Old Testament? We're under the new covenant so those don't apply to us."

It is true that we are under the new covenant and therefore passages such as those dealing with temple worship don't apply to us.

But what about those psalms, such as Psalm 92, Psalm 147, and Psalm 149, which clearly state that it is good to praise the LORD with singing and with instruments? This has nothing to do with the covenant.

We have to be careful to avoid inconsistently choosing certain OT verses to apply to us today and improperly excluding others based on prior convictions.

For example, have you ever heard a Christian argue that Prov. 22:6 (Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.) doesn't apply to us today because it is in the OT? I certainly haven't. Everybody recognizes this to be a universal parenting truth that spans covenants.

Yet, many would argue Psalm 149:1-3 doesn't apply to us. That seems awfully inconsistent to me.

The Silence Argument

Someone says, "But we have no authority for singing with instruments because GOD didn't say (in the NT) that we can use them."

I already explained my thoughts on the Spirit's use of the words "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." Feelings about the word "psalms" aside, GOD is indeed otherwise silent about the earthly use of instruments in the NT. But when we examine Scripture (including several examples in this post), GOD's silence isn't necessarily restrictive. Rather, GOD's silence means that we must individually make a judgment call—we must do our best to properly apply the principles taught in Scripture to make the best possible decision.

As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, you and I make decisions every day on things about which GOD is silent.

GOD is silent about attending college, playing tennis, and eating ice cream, just to pick a few random silly examples to illustrate.

And lest you think these things apply to only individual decisions, GOD is also silent about church buildings, church vans, church kitchens, church gyms, and church staffs.

Thus, people are left to make judgment calls about each of these issues. Some we accept or engage in; others we reject or abstain from.

(For more on my understanding of how to properly interpret the Bible, read this article.)

Public vs. Private Worship

Someone says, "Well, it's fine for someone to sing and listen to instrumental music outside of 'church,' but 'worship services' should be 'a capella.'"

Really? On what Bible text do you base this conclusion?

We've already established that Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 are in the context of individual everyday Christian life. This includes, but is not limited to those times when the church meets. 

Worship is not something we do only when we assemble as a congregation. Worship is as broad as our life. The NT does not distinguish between singing in private versus public worship. We need to be careful to avoid drawing lines where GOD hasn't drawn them.

Christians certainly don't require instrument-accompanied singing in order to please the LORD. Acapella singing fulfills the instruction and has the bonus of being quite beautiful. Our congregation chooses to sing without instruments when we meet.

At the End of All This...

The bottom line is that I have concluded that singing with or without instruments falls is a Rom. 14 issue:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. ... But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 
(Rom. 14:1-10)

One person concludes it would be wrong for them to sing spiritual songs accompanied by instruments, another concludes it is acceptable.

Regardless of your personal conviction, don't judge those who conclude otherwise because GOD hasn't spoken about it in the NT. Be convinced of your own belief, follow your belief on the subject, but don't cause your brother to stumble because of your belief.

Author Info
Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris
Owner, chasingalion.com
About Me
Tim Harris is a Christian writer and teacher currently living in Montgomery, Alabama. He is married to Holly and they have two children. Tim and Holly have hosted a house church since 2010. Tim started chasingalion.com in 2010 to promote the full gospel, encourage other Christians hungry to develop a deeper relationship with GOD, and create a reusable library of spiritual content.

Are you hungry for more?

    – Get fed weekly with our encouraging and challenging emails.

    – Become a patron and download video and audio lessons, slides, Bible study discussion questions and more.

Recent posts

Hits: 17782