Posted by: rcottrill | January 23, 2011

Sacred Music in the Old Testament

Sacred music, music dedicated to God’s glory, has been around for a long time. Both vocal and instrumental music were used in the Jewish temple in ancient times. And the choosing and training of musicians, and other elements of music back then, suggest sound principles for ministry in the Church Age.

Overall, one gets the impression of careful preparation of the music in Israel, of a high standard of excellence, and a strong sense of responsibility before God–any or all of which are sometimes lacking today. Consider the following points from First Chronicles:

1) The musicians were specifically chosen for their ministry by those in leadership (15:16). Who chooses the musicians who serve in your church? And are they selected for the right reasons, to engage in this important and spiritual ministry?

2) They were freed from other duties, so they could concentrate on this ministry and make it as effective as possible (9:33). Overworked workers who take on too many jobs will quickly lower the standards, because they simply do not have the time to prepare properly.

3) There was vocal music (15:16, 19), and instrumental music–from stringed instruments (15:16, 20, 21), wind instruments (15:24), and percussion instruments (15:16, 19). (Though it is interesting that drums are never once mentioned in the Bible. I wonder whether they were associated so much with carnal and pagan practices that God’s people avoided them.)

4) The musicians were trained for their work by experienced and skillful leaders (15:22, 27). We are sometimes satisfied to ignore proper training, or leave it to chance. The results are too many times mediocre, and not truly honouring to God who deserves our best.

5) The proper dress of the musicians was also considered (15:27). This can be a major problem in our day. Sloppy or immodest dress detracts from the message and draws attention away from the Lord. Faded or tattered jeans, tight or skimpy clothing, these have no place in the house of God, let alone on the platform. (Do you mean to say you would go dressed in your best to a job interview or a wedding, but not to stand in the Lord’s house and represent Him?)

6) The focus of the music they presented was the Lord Himself (16:6, 8-9; cf. Ps. 22:3). They were offering something “to Him” (vs. 9). They were not putting on a performance to entertain the people. This is surely another major problem today. Consumerism has taken over the church. What will tickle the ear? What will attract a crowd? Hear the words of Archibald Brown from many years gone by:

“The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church of Christ that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for people, with a view to winning them to the ranks….Here now is an opportunity for gratifying the flesh and yet retaining a comfortable conscience. We can now please ourselves in order to do good to others.”

7) The instruments they used were made and dedicated (perhaps exclusively) to that purpose (16:42; 23:5). Too many times today the theory seems to be, “Let’s make our music sound just like the music in the unsaved world. Then people will feel more at home in the church.” My father once asked pointedly, “How come some churches won’t allow liberals in the pulpit, but they’ll allow them on the instruments?” The music of the church ought to be distinctly different, dedicated to its sacred purpose, not simply a clone of what is heard elsewhere.

8. Their work was to be done consistently and thoroughly (16:37). This has to do with faithfulness, and with a serious commitment to duty. Careless tardiness, and absenteeism are not glorifying to God. When you are scheduled to be there…be there! Too many habitually toss God the leftovers, after they’ve used their time, talents and treasures to please themselves. To quote my musician father once more, “God doesn’t want your ‘spare time’!”

9) They were carefully organized, and each knew his responsibility and the schedule for his ministry (25:1, 8; cf. 23:5). This is a function of leadership. It takes time and effort, and some administrative skill. And it is important.

10) They were united in ministry, meaning likely there was a unity in their technical execution, and in their inner heart and purpose (II Chron. 5:13-14; cf. I Cor. 14:15, 33, 40). It is jarring when musicians do not play or sing together. (Usually it indicates more training and practice were needed.) Beyond that, the music of the church should provide an outward picture of the unity and harmony which should prevail in the church. But this takes effort (Eph. 4:3).


  1. This piece reresents some very good work. Thank you. I will be distributing this issue in the congregations I serve.
    I am old enough that my music training in grade school, junior high school, high school, and college were all centered on sacred literature. At 40 I began regular voice lessons that covered ten years.
    Each person has a venue of popular music that we become conscious of at eleven or twelve years old and extends to about twenty years old. In my case the period began about 1951 and extended through the Korean War emphasis on spiritual pop music, to rythym and blues, tight vocal groups,to Fats Domino, Bill Haley and the Comets, and later Elvis Presley. My music tastes were set long before the beetles came on the scene, it ended with the Kingston Trio and Limelighters reintroduction of traditional folk.
    I can’t listen to a radio station that plays pop hard rock with scriptural text very long because it offends my sense of the sacred.
    The schools no longer train our church musicians in traditional sacred music, unless we attend a specialized Christian school or post high school with a sacred music emphasis, executing and listening to traditional sacred music is foreign to most ears.
    Yet, look how people respond to the flash productions of the Halleluia Chorus from Hendel’s great interpretation of the biblical references to the Messiah.
    Keep up the great work,
    Pastor Bill

    • Thanks for your input, Bill. And let me add a few comments of my own.

      So much of modern pop music is so vulgar and immoral that is scares me. Scares me because I know many, many young people are listening to it for hours each day. It is sad, as well, since there is other secular music that is wholesome and enriching, but it is totally beyond the awareness of many youth. I taught a class on philosophy of music one time, and had a student comment, “If it ain’t got drums and guitars, I ain’t interested!” Oh my! What he’s missing!

      And this narrow focus has had a detrimental effect on the music used in some churches. There is an attempt to christianize the popular genre of the day with religious lyrics–often vague, and sometimes unbiblical–and make it a part of the Sunday services. Am I saying that all contemporary Christian music is like that? No, of course not. But preaching appointments have taken me to many different places, and I know what I hear. Many of the principles discussed in my article, Sacred Music in the Old Testament, are being ignored.

      Is it possible that a host of God’s people–and many local churches–aren’t even aware of what the word “sacred” means? I think so. The word means separate, or set apart. Separated from what is worldly, or sinful, and characterized by what is righteous, and edifying. Set apart from common use, and reserved for the service and glory of God. What would the consistent application of that concept do to what regularly happens in the house of God?

      We may tickle the ears of the carnal, but we don’t win points with God for making the music of our churches as much like the pop music of the world as possible. My father led a great quartet, back in the 1940’s. They introduced their weekly radio program with a little-known song of Fanny Crosby’s. It begins, “Here from the world we turn, Jesus to seek.” That’s how believers should feel on entering the house of God.


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