David’s Psalms in the New Testament Church (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

By Clyde Symonette

What was God’s intent for the worship of the New Testament Church? The history of the post-apostolic church helps us understand our Christian heritage, but history does not necessarily reflect God’s intent. History is often a record of humanity’s disobedience to God.

God’s stated intent for New Covenant praise is found in the pages of Old Testament Scripture. Prior to our analysis of those scriptures, however, it is important for us to understand the historical context of the words spoken in those passages. Accordingly, I will begin with a brief history of events leading up to Israel’s non-instrumental tradition.

From Praise to Lamentations

Israel’s worship was not always non-instrumental. In fact, Scriptures reveal Israel’s use of instrument in worship prior to the time of David; under David’s rule, however, praise with instruments was incessant.

When David became king of Israel, he conquered Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem with much fanfare. Scripture records,

(2 Samuel 6:5 NIV) 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.

Among other labels pinned to David, scripture adds, “The man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs” (2 Samuel 23:1 NIV).

The Bible tells us that when David became an old man —

(1 Chronicles 23:1-5 NIV) … He made his son Solomon king over Israel. He also gathered together all the leaders of Israel, as well as the priests and Levites. The Levites thirty years old or more were counted and the total number of men was thirty-eight thousand. David said, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to supervise the work of the temple of the LORD and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the Lord with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.

Following David’s death, his son Solomon built Israel’s Temple. Upon its completion, he set everything in place as David had commanded. So, beginning with the Temple’s dedication, its service included musical instruments (1 Chronicles 25:6; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14).

Unlike that of David, under Solomon’s reign, Israel reverted to idolatry, and with few exceptions, the kings and Jews of successive rulers were marked by idolatry; King Hezekiah of Judah was an exception. Under Hezekiah’s reign, Judah returned to worship of Jehovah God – with instruments. The Bible tells us that he —

(2 Chronicles 29:25 NIV) … Stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with harps and with lyres, according to the command of David and of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for the command was from the LORD through his prophets.

Soon thereafter, however, the Jews returned to idolatry.

In an effort to bring the Jews to repentance, the prophets Amos and Hosea announced Israel’s impending judgment. Amos proclaimed,

(Amos 8:10 ESV) I [God] will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day.

Their growing sinfulness became the subject of the stern warnings of Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – nonetheless, the prophets were ignored and God was about to judge Israel.

Moses had warned Israel,

(Deuteronomy 8:10 NIV) When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

Instead, they worshipped idols. In her judgment Israel was deported to Babylon, and in her captivity, Zion’s songs (i.e., praises) were silenced. The psalmist wrote,

(Psalm 137:1-4 NIV) By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

The words of the psalmist depict an end to what was once exceedingly joyful praise (e.g., Psalm 66:2) and the resumption of Israel’s dirge. Generations of captive Jews lamented,

(Lamentations 5:7-8, 14-15 NIV) Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment. Slaves rule over us, and there is none to free us from their hands. … The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music. Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.

Far removed from a destroyed Solomon’s Temple, the Jews abstained from instruments and celebration. Even after many returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah to build the Second Temple, Jews considered themselves to still be in Exile. In fact, up to the time of Christ, the Jews thought of themselves as being in captivity. N. T. Wright explains

Most first-century Jews believed that the Exile was not yet really over. Yes, they had come back from Babylon, geographically. But the pagans were still on top: first Persia, then Greece, then Syria, and now Rome. No sensitive or intelligent Jew would have dreamed of asserting that the promises of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest had been fulfilled in the various paltry “returns” that had taken place. Israel still needed “redeeming” — which, in their language, was an obvious code for the Exodus. The Exodus was the great covenant moment; what they now needed was covenant renewal.

In their “Exile,” Rabbis came to permit canticles, that is, the chanting of scripture, but in the synagogues, they opposed any form of praise comparable to that found in the Temple. Why? Instruments were viewed as a symbol of Israel’s celebration of God’s favor. The Pharisees, particularly, were mindful of the words of the prophet Amos:

(Amos 6:1,4-7 NIV) Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria. … You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.

Amos is not condemning David or the harp; he is making the point that, as instruments were associated with David’s celebration, Israel’s instruments, wine, and luxurious living, <i>at a time when they should have been grieving over their sins,</i> were acts demonstrating their defiance against God’s judgment. Therefore, the rabbis reasoned, instruments should not be used while the Jews were still in exile.

The Jewish Encyclopedia states,

The desire of many authorities [is] that song should be abstained from in lasting mourning for fallen Zion. (Cyrus Adler, “Music, Synagogal,” The Jewish Encyclopedia Vol. IX (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co. 1905), p. 120).

Hence, the synagogue, until well after New Testament times, was a house of prayer, of scripture study and teaching, and the public reading of the scriptures, which were often chanted to those present. But so far as history records, there was no congregational singing, no instruments, and no liturgy (Jason J. McFarland, Early Christian Singing,” Pastoral Music fn. 12 (Sept. 1, 2010).

Was a continuation of Israel’s lament God’s intent for N.T. Israel; or for the church?

Covenant Renewal

With an understanding that every Old Testament reference to chanting is a reference to lament (for example, Ezekiel 32:16), let’s examine the passages that specifically address God’s intent for New Covenant praise.

According to Jeremiah (c. 31) and Isaiah (c.61), the LORD promised to replace Israel’s laments with David’s joyful praise, praise that includes instruments, under a “New Covenant.” Let’s examine the words of the prophets.

Jeremiah 33:14–18 reads:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line … This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.”

For this is what the LORD says: “David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel.”

Previously Jeremiah wrote:

(Jeremiah 30:8–9 NIV)“In that day,” declares the LORD Almighty, “I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them. Instead, they will serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

Peter declared in Acts 2:22-26 that this “David” is Israel’s redeemer, Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the “righteous Branch sprout” and the one who sits “on the throne of the house of Israel.” Through Jesus, God fulfilled his promises to the Jews.

Now, pay careful attention to what Jeremiah says about the praise of redeemed Israel under “King David”, in contrast to the worship of enslaved Israel:

(Jeremiah 30:19 NIV) From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. (Compare Luke 15:24,25.)

(Jeremiah 31:4,13 NIV) “I [God] will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.”

“Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”

Jeremiah speaks to God’s intent the way early church fathers cannot. He promised that there was a day coming when —

  • The mourning would cease.
  • Zion’s songs would be restored.
  • The tambourines would again be taken up.
  • And maidens and men, both old and young, would dance with the joyful amidst shouts of joy, and glad rejoicing in the bounty of the Lord.
  • Further, Jeremiah tells the Jews when his prophesy would be fulfilled. He writes,

(Jeremiah 31:31-32 NIV) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

Readers should recognize these as the same words the Hebrew writer used to announce the New Covenant to Israel (Hebrews 8:7-12).

Like Jeremiah, Isaiah foretold the restoration of Israel’s praise. He wrote,

(Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV) The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

Who were the “brokenhearted,” the “captives,” and those who “grieved” in Zion? Were they not the ones chanting laments?

When was Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled? Luke tells of the day that Jesus went into the synagogue, read Isaiah 61, and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 NIV).

The New Covenant is “the year of the LORD’s favor,” a comfort for “all who mourn,” and a provision “for those who grieve in Zion.” It bestows on its former mourners “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” What this means is the kingdom is not a continuation of Israel’s lament, in fact, lament was never God’s intent for Israel.

Synagogue Worship After 70 AD

Prevented from worshiping at the Second Temple (Herod’s) after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, eventually the Jews replaced the joyous, celebrative, instrumental worship of the Temple with mournful worship in the synagogue. It was at this time that congregational “singing” became a part of the synagogue, but without instruments.

Eliyahu Schleifer tells us,

The simplicity of the music in the early synagogue was influenced by the halakhic [rabbinic] prohibitions against playing musical instruments, or, under certain circumstances, even singing. These prohibitions stem from three different sources: rules of Sabbath observance; the mourning over the destruction of the Temple; and the struggle against what the Rabbis took to be promiscuity.

Musical instruments and the shofar were considered inseparable parts of the Sabbath service in the Temple; rabbinic law could do nothing regarding their presence there. But the Rabbis could and did prohibit them outside the Temple for fear that playing an instrument on the Sabbath, a permissible act in and of itself, might lead inadvertently to the musician’s tuning it, mending it, or carrying it from one public place to another — all of these being forbidden acts of work. Since the main synagogue service took place on Sabbath mornings, no musical instrument could become an integral component thereof. Even the shofar could not be blown, if Rosh Hashanah occurred on the Sabbath. (Eliyahu Schleifer, Sacred Sound and Social Change: Liturgical Music in Jewish and Christian Experience (University of Notre Dame Press), republished at Jewish Liturgics, Chant Development, “Jewish Liturgical Music, Part II”).

Thus, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish synagogues took up congregational singing, but they banned the instrument as a sign of mourning for the destroyed Temple, to avoid the risk of doing prohibited work on a Sabbath, and to avoid any association with the promiscuous use of instruments by the surrounding pagan culture.

New Testament Fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy

There’s a remarkable contrast between the lament of the Jews and Christian worship. The Christian church saw worship very differently from the First Century Jewish synagogue. The church at Jerusalem worshipped at the instrumental Temple (Luke 24:53). The church at Antioch worshiped together, in Antioch, apart from the Temple (Acts 13:1).

The Christian assembly became a place for “a hymn [Gk. psalmos ], a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV), which was radically different from both the Temple and synagogue.

Paul instructed,

(Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV) And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

The language parallels Psalm 108 —

(Psalm 108:1-4 ESV) My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! 2 Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! 3 I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. 4 For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

The parallelism shows that the time of the Exile is over and now it’s time to “sing and make melody” as God’s people did before! The Kingdom has been restored! The Temple Psalms could be sung once again! The Songs of Zion are restored! After all, many of the Psalms written for the Temple worship were written about Jesus!

Finally, in Romans 15:11, Paul quotes Psalm 117:1 —

(Romans 15:11 ESV) And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.”

“Praise” (aineo) is used very frequently in the Septuagint, in such verses as —

(Psalm 149:3 ESV) 3 Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

(Psalm 150:3-6 ESV) 3 Praise him with trumpet sound; <b>praise</b> him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!

Paul is announcing the end of the Exile and the coming of the Kingdom — a Kingdom that’s characterized by the restoration of true, celebrative worship of God, a worship of praise, in a culture and language where “praise” is inclusive of instrumental worship — precisely as prophesied by Jeremiah.

Conclusion

We sometimes think of the New Testament as book of laws issued to replace the Mosaic book of laws and forget that Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). The Old Testament gives the essential background of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. The Kingdom marks the end of the Exile — a restoration of David to the throne through Jesus and a restoration of the true Temple worship, lost when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and the Jews were taken captive.

This true worship will not be the lamentation of the Exile but the celebration of Jesus on his throne — which allows us to once again to sing the Temple’s Songs of Zion, in celebration of the enthronement of the true King David.

The true Temple is, of course, the church (Ephesians 2:19-22), and wherever the church is, the worship of God is restored and the time of Exile is over.

But it’s not just that we get to sing the Temple psalms, understanding their fulfillment in Jesus; we get to enjoy what the Jews were denied — the ability to praise in celebration of the victory that was won in Jesus through singing and instrumental worship.

The Jews were mistaken to ban instrumental worship from their synagogues, and it is a mistake to do so in the church, because the temple has been replaced by the church — the temple of God’s Holy Spirit — and that worship had been superseded by worship in Spirit and in truth by assembled believers in Jesus.

Mourning was entirely the wrong response. The dawn of the Kingdom and the construction of a new, eternal Temple were cause for celebration — and God, through the Prophets, has taught us how to celebrate such things.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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