The Biblical Doctrine of Music

By Jim Jester

Text: II Chronicles 7:4-6, Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the Lord. 5 And king Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty and two thousand oxen, and an hundred and twenty thousand sheep: so the king and all the people dedicated the house of God. 6 And the priests waited on their offices: the Levites also with instruments of music of the Lord, which David the king had made to praise the Lord, because his mercy endures for ever, when David praised by their ministry; and the priests sounded trumpets before them, and all Israel stood.

Music usually plays a major role in most people’s lives – as much as what we eat, wear, or in our personal relationships. As seen in this passage, it certainly played a major role in Israel.

Music should be addressed from a biblical perspective as well as any other doctrine of the church: the Godhead, the church, justification, sanctification, etc. Did you know there are about 600 references to music in the Bible? That is more than other doctrines we teach on a regular basis. Most people feel that music is a personal issue (and therefore autonomous) and do not know of any Scriptures they can turn to in support of their musical convictions (if they even have any). Do you have any evidence from Scripture to support your philosophy of music?

In the books of Chronicles, we have the most extensive account of music given in God’s Word. We see the administration, organization, and the excellence of music.

The Administration of Music (I Chr. 23)

So when David was old and full of days, he made Solomon his son king over Israel. 2 And he gathered together all the princes of Israel, with the priests and the Levites. 3 Now the Levites were numbered from the age of thirty years and upward: and their number by their polls, man by man, was thirty and eight thousand. 4 Of which, twenty and four thousand were to set forward the work of the house of the Lord; and six thousand were officers and judges: 5 Moreover four thousand were porters; and four thousand praised the Lord with the instruments ‘which I made’, said David, ‘to praise therewith’” (I Chr. 23:1-5 (KJV).

So King David appointed 4,000 musicians for the temple worship. These were divided, like the priests and Levites, into 24 groups; and each served 15 days a year in the temple.

In our opening text (II Chr. 7:4-6), we see that “the priests waited on their offices,” but not only that, “the Levites also with instruments of music of the Lord,” on the occasion of the dedication of the “house of God” (also seen in I Chr. 16). It says that, “David praised by their ministry.” Who’s ministry? The ministry of the instruments that David made to praise the Lord. This puts music at a high level of importance.

Next, we see how these 4,000 musicians were organized.

The Organization of Music (I Chr. 25)

All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king's order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. 7 So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the Lord, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight” (I Chr. 25:6-7).

These 288 singers were instructed in the “songs of the Lord” by their teacher (vs. 8). Notice that they were “cunning” or skillful in their singing. This was an impressive choir.

Which brings us to the next point;

The Excellence of Music (I Chr. 15)

And Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was for song: he instructed about the song, because he was skillful” (I Chr. 15:22).

We see here that Chenaniah, the leader of the Levites, was in charge of the music because he was “skillful.” If, as the two previous verses indicate, that the musicians and singers were skillful, it stands to reason that the music must have been of a sufficiently complex structure as to require some skill in performing it. This aspect is seen wherever we find temple worship in the Bible.

Christian musician, Lenny Seidel, lists the qualities of good music:

  1. Is it well written?
    1. Beautiful melody – interval, up and down.
    2. Rich harmony – joining of many chords.
    3. Subtle rhythm – flow.
    4. Distinct resolution – conclusion.
    5. Colorful interpretation – start, stop, loud, soft.
  2. Does the music match the words?
  3. Is the text theologically correct?

Robert Shaw, minister of music and retired music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, often spoke of the importance of the arts in the church and gave four elements that are a part of worshipful music. Shaw said, “We shall propose concerning our music that nothing but the best is good enough” (both our performing it and the music itself). Otherwise, “God is only mocked, not worshiped.”

Shaw then offered four criteria in defining “best”:

  1. Motivation – or “purity of purpose” of the participants.
  2. Craftsmanship – music for worship must be decently and honestly constructed. It need not be a masterpiece, but must have “at least the mortar, brick and foundation specified in the contract.”
  3. Historical perspective – “music worthy of use in worship will have a heritage” and will endure from generation to generation.<
  4. Revelation – what is the artist trying to reveal? Music for worship should have the possibility of being the “creative miracle of revelation. Art exists to convey that which cannot be otherwise conveyed.”

Shaw made this point,

Jesus was asked, which of the commandments is first of all? And He answered, The Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. He did not say with all your heart, most of your soul, and let’s see, about half of your mind. The truth is that worship should be a heart-wrenching, soul-searing, mind-stretching, and generally exhausting experience. One should not be asked to check his mind at the door should someone get him to the church in time.

He felt that the church, if it wants to keep in touch with a Creator, must provide a home for the arts lest it “wither and drift into irrelevance.”

In the previous chapter (I Chr. 25), we see three purposes for music – it is found in verse 3: “…who prophesied with a harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord.” Have you ever heard someone “preach” with a harp? The word prophecy does not always mean foretelling the future; it usually means forth-telling the Word of God. This puts music on an equal basis with preaching in a church service. Professor Garen Wolf said, “Music is the handmaiden of God’s Word.” By way of illustration, the Bible places the woman as a helper or handmaid, on equal ground, to assist her husband. Just as a woman’s role is subservient (but not inferior) to the man’s role, so music is the handmaid of God’s Word. It is not inferior and something to be used to fill in dead space. That may be fine for a shopping mall, but not for church.

To illustrate, when Robert Shaw took the responsibility of minister of music, he told the congregation that there would be no prelude, offertory or postlude in the church’s new order of worship. To Shaw, music selected for worship is far too important to be used merely to cover up a congregation’s entering and leaving. He wanted, he said, to create each Sunday morning “out of worthy things, a wholeness of beauty and truth, an integrity of sound and sight and reason, which shall be its own reason for being here.” Interestingly, we see in our Scripture, that Jeduthun prophesied (or preached) with a harp. Thus, the Bible points out three purposes for the music of the temple: prophesy, thanks, and praise.

What would you think of a pastor who taught from the same text every Sunday? This is what some churches do with their hymnbook. They have their favorites that they use over and over again. St. Augustine said. “I must have a whole Christ for my salvation; I must have a whole Bible for my staff; I must have a whole church for my fellowship; I must have a whole world for my parish.” And, I would insert in the middle; I must have a whole hymnbook for my worship.

God is worthy of our very best in worship. The best in music is music with a beautiful melody, rich harmony, and flowing rhythm. This is just the opposite of popular music, which has a vague melody, little harmony, and a dominant, driving beat. Robert Shaw believed the arts help us express and communicate ideas in a way not possible through words alone. The feeling and intensity expressed in a piece of music may be remembered long after the sermon is forgotten. He said, “If any one man understood ‘Lord our God have mercy,’ Bach did; or ‘I believe in one baptism,’ Bach did; or ‘grant us peace,’ Bach did.” Believe me, I have forgotten many sermons, but I will never forget the times I heard great pieces of sacred music.

Music has a Moral Impact

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that good music made a person good and that bad music made a person bad. Plato thought that using music to amuse by arousing the emotions was as bad as taking stimulants to offset boredom; a man could become addicted to both. While these ideas are usually scoffed at today, it seems that there is evidence for this. Ever notice that some people must have some sort of noise (music) going all the time?

The Journal of Music Therapy, XXIX, 1992, reports that “Observation of clients at a state mental health hospital by direct care staff indicated that they appeared to act in more inappropriate ways when hard rock or rap music was played in an open courtyard than when easy listening or country music was played.” Time Magazine, December 1975, reports that in a school for unwed mothers in Florida, 964 girls out of 1,000 admitted that they indulged in sexual intercourse while listening to rock music. The term “rock ‘n’ roll” was coined by a disk jockey that borrowed it from the ghetto, where he found it to be a descriptive sex expression. One singer said he knew this music got through to the young people because, “The big beat matches the rhythms of the human body and they will carry this beat with them the rest of their lives.” Another says, “Rock music is sex and you have to hit teenagers in the face with it.”

Many Christian rockers point to scriptures referring to making a joyful “noise”, or singing a “new” song, or the use of “cymbals” in the Bible. However, when these terms are examined in the Bible we find that they do not imply using the world’s system of popular music.

Is “noise” a justification for the loud amplification of rock, jazz, country or gospel music? No; a careful look at the Hebrew text of Psalms 66:1, 81:1, 95:1-2, 98:4&6, and 100:1 reveals that the word noise does not appear, only a word which has been translated “joy” (H7321). We should make joy (or be joyful) unto God, not just noise. In contrast, notice Amos 5:23, “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs.” In this verse, “noise” is a different word (H1995), which is accurately translated.

Just what is a “new” song according to Scripture? “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God” (Ps. 40:2-3). The “new song” is praise to God. The concept of New Song must of necessity include a turning away from the old song. Christians have left the old life behind. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “new” is “chadash” which means to rebuild, renew, or repair. In the New Testament, the Greek word referencing “New Song” is “kainos”, which means “new or differing in character,” which should not be confused with “neos”, which signifies “new in respect to time; that which is recent” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, p. 109). The “New Song” in the Bible is not a call for an up-to-date hit in respect to time (neos), but it is a call to a new character (kainos).

From the study of these words, and how the Bible uses them, we can draw a few conclusions. 1) The New Song should always give praise to God. 2) It should be different in character from the music of the “world” or the person’s old song of the former sinful life. 3) It should be of a more excellent quality than the popular music of the world. God deserves the best and highest level that is within our capability as a musician.

Biblically, we find that music was not based upon rhythm, which is what drums and cymbals are used for today. Drums were not found in the temple worship and the cymbals mentioned were never used as continuous rhythmic accompaniment; rather, they were used much as a conductor uses the baton, as a starting or stopping device. Drums and tambourines were used for secular purposes, such as celebrations, but not in the temple.

Dr. Richard Taylor in his book, Return to Christian Culture, said, “If we don’t want the fruit, don’t feed the root.” This is all that most popular music does – feed the evil root of the world system. Classical music adheres to Classicism, which generally pertains to the highest order of excellence in literature and art and specifically pertains to the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since classical music conforms to certain standards and styles, shouldn’t it be considered Christian? The popular music of our age has no direct link with Classicism. Aristotle said, “Music directly represent the passions or states of the soul.” Moreover, Melanchthon, “When church music ceases to sound, doctrine will disintegrate. Religious music applied to life is a sanctification of life.”

Chrysostom warned Christians against the influence of secular music. He regarded the music of his day as symbolic of everything lewd and degrading. He was writing towards the end of the fourth century when the Roman Empire was within a decade or two of its final dissolution. He saw the focus of all the degeneracy in music – a monstrous power both of reflecting and of acting upon a whole civilization; and said, “It is at the root of acts of violence and dishonor, wars and daily death. Life for those addicted to these things is dishonorable, amusements become less and less desirable, and everything at home is turned upside down.”

Music is Pre-existing

Job (38:6-7) states that “the morning stars sang together” when God laid the cornerstone of the earth. Isaiah (44:23) commands the heavens, the lower parts of the earth, the mountains, the forest, and every tree to break forth into singing unto the Lord. Isaiah (42:11) commands the wilderness, the cities, and the inhabitants of the rock to sing and give glory to God. Even the desert would sing – “It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing…” (Isa. 35:2). But more wonderful than creation singing is the admonishment in Psalm 95:1, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord....”

Jesus spoke of His pre-existence in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was; I Am.” Here is something to ponder – before Adam, before the church, and before preaching; music is. I am not saying that because music came before preaching that it is superior. I have found no evidence from the Scripture that music is a non-issue, second fiddle, or inferior to the spoken Word from the minister. The pre-eminency is the Word, not the means by which it is proclaimed.

Music is God-owned

Since music is pre-existing, then it stands to reason that it belongs to God. He created every good and perfect gift. Satan only perverts God’s creations. Further proof that music is of God is found within the God-breathed Hebrew scriptures. The musical notation found above and below the Hebrew text of the Bible is known as the Te’amim. They are above and below the text, mingled among the vowel points. Comprised of 19 signs, they make up two systems: prose and psalmody. The psalmody system is for poetical texts, including the book of Psalms, Proverbs and most of the book of Job. Therefore, since the text is the Word of God, then, equally, the notations within the text is the music of God. Thus, it could be said that the Bible is meant to be sung, not just read.

Music is Spiritual

If music comes from God then it stands to reason that it is of a spiritual nature. We are spiritual and emotional beings before we develop into intellectual beings. Music will affect us physically/emotionally, spiritually, and hopefully cause us to think. If it does not cause us to exercise our intellect, then perhaps something is wrong with that music. The word “muse” (from which we get “music”) means, “to think.” Conversely, “amuse” (as in “amusement”) means “not to think.”

During the last century, most evangelical churches have thrown out the hymns and great music of the ages, along with the stained glass windows. They have not taken the lead in musical excellence. Let us ask a few questions concerning spirituality. Is it spiritual to dance or bounce around to the world’s beat (even if it is a gospel song)? Can you imagine Jesus with headphones or a “boom box” bouncing to contemporary Christian music? Is it spiritual to follow the trend of popular music, but just following it about ten years behind the times? This is foolishness, for it still leads in the wrong direction. Will it make the congregation more spiritual by eliminating high church music? Rev. Chalfont answered this question when he said, “Singing informal songs does not make a church spiritually ‘alive’ any more than singing formal hymns causes a church to be ‘dead.’ A Christian minstrel show may be a way to replace formalism, but it still fails miserably to put dedication to the will or ‘fire’ in the soul.” This philosophy of appealing to everybody assumes there are no musical absolutes – only relativism.

Holiness and spirituality is both separation and permeation. It is both negative and positive – things we avoid and things we enjoin, including the permeation of our spirits with the Holy Spirit. I Thessalonians 5:21-23, “Prove all things [in music]; hold fast that which is good [in music]. Abstain from all appearance of evil [in music].” It is after this admonition that the promise follows, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Since it is evident that music is of a spiritual nature, we should be concerned about which direction a particular piece of music is leading us. This is true regardless of any words in the music – some music has no words, never the less the effect is real. Some popular music has a spirit towards evil and is meant for satanic worship rather than sacred worship. Most music today tends toward the sensual and worldly but very little leads toward the spiritual and heavenly. The examples are numerous and I have given a few already. However, at this point I want to conclude with a good example: and that is how music is similar to prayer.

Psalm 22:3 says, “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabits the praises of Israel.” Since God is near us when we praise and much of our praise is in music (via hymns) directed to Him, then it is a form of prayer. Wesley Duewel said,

Praise can transform your prayer life. Praise can speed victory in your prayer battles. There is no substitute for praise. Praise honors God, brings joy to the angels, and strikes terror in any evil spirit, which may be around. Praise clears the atmosphere, washes your spirit, multiplies your faith, and clothes you with God’s presence and power.

If our hymn (song, music) is praise directed to God, it may be a prayer; and we could substitute the word music for praise in the above quote. A hymn can transform your prayer life; a song can speed victory in prayer battles; there is no substitute for music. Music honors God, brings joy to the angels, and strikes terror in any evil spirit; music clears the atmosphere, washes your spirit, multiplies your faith, and clothes you with God’s power.

The apostle Paul seems to link music and prayer. In I Corinthians 14:15 he mentions them both, side by side (as two other examples besides preaching), in the context of being understood to the listener. He says (v. 1), “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (NKJV). In this chapter, he stresses the importance of the preacher being understood by the listener. The same is true for when we pray or sing.

In Colossians 3:16, the apostle mentions “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Barnes says, “Singing as here meant, is a direct and solemn act of worship, and should be considered such as prayer.” The clause “with grace” should be “in grace” according to some Greek scholars.

This clause expresses the seat and source of true psalmody, whether in private or public, namely, the heart as well as the voice… The Greek order forbids English Version, ‘with grace in your hearts’; rather, ‘singing in your hearts.’ —Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

Since I am not Greek, I do not see any difference it would make. The Greek word “en” can be translated either way (in or with). [This point also becomes a debate over baptism – is it in water or with water] The main issue, as I see it, is that if your relationship with God is what it should be, then your singing to God, from your heart, is prayer. “Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Ps. 30:4).

On the last day of our Lord’s earthly life, Jesus celebrates the Passover with His disciples. During this commemoration, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper, washes the disciples’ feet, indicates His betrayer, and gives His farewell address and High Priestly Prayer. Then, according to Matthew (26:30), “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives.” Did you ever wonder what that hymn was? We do not know for sure what Jesus chose on that Wednesday evening before His death. However, tradition says it was the Egyptian Hallel (Egyptian Praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118. Psalm 113 and 114 were customarily sung before the Passover meal, while Psalms 115-118 were sung after it. These were chanted by the Levites during the temple service with the refrain “Hallelujah” (halle – praise / lujah – Jehovah).

Like prayer, music instills discipline for trying times. “Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God…” (Acts 16:25), and were delivered. Jesus Christ faced the darkness of the cross singing of the enduring loving-kindness of our God. Perhaps He chose Psalm 116:1-5;

I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. 2 Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live. 3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. 4 Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul. 5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.

Or perhaps Psalm 118:1-6;

O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever. 2 Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever. 3 Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever. 4 Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth for ever. 5 I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place. 6 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?

Jesus went victoriously to the cross because He prayed His hymn. On the other hand, the disciples did not go their way in victory. Even though they said they would not deny Him, we know that they did (Matt. 26:31). Perhaps they sung the hymn but did not pray it for themselves and they lacked the power to stand. Instead, they fell asleep. Jesus found them and said, Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). When you cannot pray your way through, then praise your way through with a hymn. Martin Luther said, “When I cannot pray, I sing.” So pray a hymn, or sing a prayer.


[Amos 8:3 “And the songs of the temple shall be wailing in that day.” The end for Israel has come like “a basket of summer fruit.”]

“Vocal melodies and instrumental accompaniment at that time were commonly conducted using gestures of the hands and fingers. Apparently, the Hebrew Scriptures were sung to melodies conducted by a gestural system, for a transcription of such gestures is still found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. All scriptures, not just the Psalms and songs, could, in principle, have been accompanied by kinnorot and nevalim, for ‘Thy statutes have been my zemirot (songs accompanied by plucked stringed instruments) in the house of my pilgrimage’ (Psalm 119:54, KJV). The vocal melodies preserved by the biblical notation, then, would naturally have been accompanied by the biblical stringed instruments, as tuned to compatible scales and modes.” (John Wheeler)

[The noun hymn is used only with reference to the services of the Greeks, and was distinguished from the psalm. The Greek tunes required Greek hymns. Our information regarding the hymnology of the early Christians is very limited.