Music has been defined in the broadest terms as sounds organized to express a wide variety of human emotions. The term itself is derived from Greek mousike (the art of the Muses), but historically music has been used for aesthetic, communicative, entertainment, or ceremonial purposes. With nearly 150 passages making reference in one form or another, the Bible has a lot to say about music. One of the largest and most quoted portions of Scripture is a collection of songs: the Book of Psalms.
Music in the Bible was never for personal gratification and enjoyment. Rather, it is a gift from God, directed to God, in response to his creative and redemptive acts, and designed for God's glorification and enjoyment. Redeemed humans sing (Exodus 15:1-2; 2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 30:4; 40:3; 95:1; 107:8; Ephesians 5:19; Revelation 19:6-8) and all of creation sings (Psalm 96:11-12; 98:8, 103:22; 104:12; Isaiah 35:2; 42:1-12; 44:23). The only time angels are mentioned singing is in Job 38:7 (the rest of the instances use the word "say" not "sing").
Music is also not used in the Bible for the purpose of evangelism. The Gospel calls for pure, clear, forthright, intelligent and persuasive presentation of the character of God, the condition of man, and the cross of Christ. The primary vehicles for this message are preaching and witness, both of which rely heavily on the spoken word.
Other uses for music in the Bible:
- to announce the judgment of God (Exodus 19:13-19, 20:18; Isaiah 27:13; Zechariah 9:14; Matthew 24:31; I Corinthians 15:52; I Thessalonians 4:16; Hebrews 12:19; Revelation 8:2-9:14; 10:7; 11:5)
- to instruct the Israelites to begin marching (Numbers 10:2-10)
- to welcome a holy feast day (Leviticus 23:24)
- to call the Israelists to battle (Judges 3:27)
- to express sorrow, such as at a funeral (II Samuel 1:17-27)
- to herald the anointing of a new king (II Samuel 15:10)
- to express joy, such as at a wedding (Jeremiah 7:34)
One of the biggest issues that churches debate today is around musical styles and preferences. Does the Bible address this question?
How shall we then sing?
... with voice and instruments (1 Chronicles 23:5; Psalm 33:2-3; 71:22-23; 144:9) ... with gladness (2 Chronicles 29:30) ... with a whole heart (Psalm 9:1) ... with thanksgiving (Psalm 147:7)
Quantity vs. quality of sound?
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" - a phrase that occurs 7 times in Psalms in the KJV (66:1; 81:1; 95:1-2; 98:4,6; 100:1) - has often been used to justify cacophony in worship, but it is probably mistranslated and would be better rendered "shout joyfully". God does not delight in loud "noise" per se (as noise presupposes unintelligible sound) but rather in jubilant song and triumphant praise. This is underscored by Psalm 33:3 - " Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts."
Two places when Old Testament music degenerates to noise making: Amos 5:23 "Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen." and Ezekiel 26:13 "And I will stop the music of your songs, and the sound of your lyres shall be heard no more." Unfortunately, the ESV translates the Hebrew word hâmôn as music, when it is probably more correctly understood to be "noise" or "tumult".
Music as noise in the New Testament occurs in Matthew 9 when Jesus came to the house where there was a crowd of professional mourners, and the gospel writer captures the incoherent sounds with the Greek verb thorube? meaning "tumult" or "clamor".
"New" in age or "new" in quality?
Six times in the Psalms, once in Isaiah, and twice in Revelation, the Bible speaks of singing "a new song", leading some to suggest that the church and Christians must be constantly composing and pushing the edge of musical styles. However, both the context and the language make it clear that the "newness" of the song does not rest in the lyrics or melody, but in the experience of the divine.
The Greek word used in Revelation 5:9 and 14:2 is kainos, in contrast with the word neos. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains the difference: "Neos is what is new in time or origin,... kainos is what is new in nature, different from the usual, impressive, better than the old."
- Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?, by Vell Rives