Music in the Old Testament

  • The Bible contains over 1000 references to music; mostly in the OT.
  • 31 out of the 39 books in the OT mention music.

The first mention of music among humans is Gen 4:20-22 and it is presented along with other foundations that are essential and basic to human existence.

In Gen 4 we are introduced to 3 sons who were called the fathers of a foundational profession:

Jabal – father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle (Agriculture)

Tubal-cain – the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron (Industry)

Jubal – father of all those who play the lyre and the pipe (Art)

In fact, we see that music PERMEATED the Hebrew culture.  The Bible gives examples of music in virtually every aspect of life, from entertainment to celebration to mourning to corporate worship.

  • Moses and the people sang to celebrate the overthrow of the Egyptians (Ex 15:20-18)
  • Jephthah’s daughter met her father with timbrels and dance upon his return from battle (Judges 11:34) – This was a customary way to greet a loved one returning from war.
  • Women from all the cities of Israel met the conquering David with “singing and dancing” and “with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments.” (1 Sam 18:6-7)

David is the central musician of the Bible

  • David was a passionate musician that gave us the Psalms.
  • As king, David established a professional music ministry among the Levites for Temple Worship.
  • Per David’s instructions, Temple musicians performed their duty on routine as well as special occasions. And like all aspects of Temple worship, the regulations for music were spelled out and rigidly followed.

Important:  Since David issued so many of the specifications, it is important to know that he did so according to the precise instructions of God.

In 1 Chron 28 – David has gathered all the officials of Jerusalem for a hand-off of the temple plans to his son Solomon in their presence.  David describes the plans for several verses and then says to Solomon (vs 19), “All this he made clear to me in writing from the hand of the Lord, all the work to be done according to the plan.”

What kind of instructions?  We learn, for example, that musicians:

  • were appointed according to skill level (1 Chron 25:7)
  • ministered full-time, day and night (1 Chronicles 9:33; 1 Chron 16:4-6 and 37-42; 1 Chron 23:30-31)
  • were paid out of the same tithes that supported the priests (Num 18:24-26; Neh 12:44-47; 13:5, 10-12)
  • assisted the priests (1 Chron 23:27-32)
  • had to be over 30 years old (1 Chron 23:3-5)
  • were skillful and trained (1 Chron 15:22; 1 Sam 16:18; 1 Chron 25:7; 2 Chron 34:12; Ps 137:5)
  • were spiritually consecrated (1 Chron 15:12, 14)
  • were considered ministers of music (1 Chron 16:37, 1 Chron 16:4, 37; 2 Chron 8:14; 23:6; 31:2)
  • used trumpets, cymbals, harps and stringed instrument called “lyres” (2 Chron 5:12-13)

While there hasn’t been a temple with ministering Levites for thousands of years, we can borrow many ideas from David and the Old Testament. For example:

  • Corporate worship was very important and music was part of worship.  (Psalm 149:1)
  • The congregation participated.  (2 Chron 29:28-30)
  • Singing to God took place everywhere, including other countries. (Ps 108:3, 2 Sam 22:50)
  • Singing was for one’s entire length of life. (Ps 146:2)
  • Musicians played skillfully. (Ps 33:3)
  • Those who understood music directed. (1 Chronicles 15:22)

Common words and phrases associated with music for worship in the OT:

  • Pleasant (Ps 135:3, Ps 147:1)
  • Gladness (2 Chron 29:30)
  • Clap your hands (Ps 47:1)
  • Shout for joy and loud songs of joy (Ps 71:23, Psalm 47:1)
  • Thanksgiving – probably the #1 theme of OT music and “giving thanks” is mentioned in the major music verses of the NT (Ps 147:7)

Praise him with trumpet sound;  praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance;  praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals;  praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Ps 150:3-6) — This is what the Psalmist wrote.

Music in the New Testament

  • Over half of the books on the NT don’t mention music at all (15 out of 27):
  • There are only 43 NT verses that refer to music in some way.  Most are incidental mentions, like an angel in Revelation sounding a trumpet to announce a judgement.
  • NINE offer insight into music among believers and in the church (not counting identical parallel passages).  Let’s look at all nine.

First, a necessary definition:  The word hymn derives from Greek ὕμνος (hymnos), which means “a song of praise”.  It is generally addressed to God.

Note also that Jewish Temple worship continued up until 70 AD.  Acts 2 & 3 list examples of the apostles and believers “attending the temple together” (Acts 2:46).  As a matter of fact, while on their way to the temple to pray, (Acts 3) Peter and John healed a lame man and then shared the gospel with a crowd in Solomon’s Portico.  They ended up getting hauled before the temple leaders.  The hearts of the leaders were described by Jesus as “whitewashed tombs”, but those of faith in Messiah still went to the temple to worship and hear the law of Moses read. (Acts 15:21)

Let’s look at the verses.

  1. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26)  The context is at the end of the Passover supper. It was customary to sing the Hallel Psalms, meaning “Praise” psalms, that consisted of Psalms 113-118.
  1. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, (Acts 16:25) Context – Paul and Silas had just been falsely accused, attacked by a crowd, were beaten and then thrown in prison with their feet fastened in stocks.
  1. and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” (Romans 15:9)  The context is a passage showing how Jesus was a servant to the Jews so that the Gentiles would praise God for His mercy on them.  Jesus is the hope of Jews AND Gentiles.
  1. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. (1 Cor 14:15)  The context is teaching on prophecy and tongues. The point in this verse is that the mind should be engaged in all expression in the assembly so that it is clear to the speaker and hearers.
  1. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Cor 14:26) The context is part of teaching that worship should be orderly.
  1. First of the 2 major NT verses on music:  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. (Eph 5:19-21) The context is how to walk in love and get along with other Christians.  The mention of music is part of a longer list of admonitions.
  1.  Second of the two major NT verses on music:  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  (Col 3:16) The context is a call to put on the fruit of the spirit and walk in love, unity and thankfulness.  With music being a hot topic in the modern church, you can see the wisdom of God in placing both of the major NT verses about music.  Both are in the middle of passages giving instruction on how to get along with other believers.
  1. I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise. (Heb 2:12)  The context is a quote of psalm 22:22 in a passage teaching that Christ and believers are all of one heavenly Father, who is God. Even though all are subject to Christ, he humbled himself and called us his brothers.  While not necessarily the main point, we see Jesus singing praise to God in the midst of the congregation.
  1. Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. (James 5:13) The context is assorted instructions addressing the rich, patience in suffering, oaths, praying for the sick and restoring a wandering sinner.

Notice a few things missing?  The NT is silent about any musical office in the assembly.  There are no music regulations. No professionals.  No choirs.  No orchestras or list of instruments. Choirs and orchestras are never forbidden, but they are not mentioned.

A summary of the nine verses:

New Testament music among Christians was orderly, from the heart and for worship, teaching, edification, and evangelism & was an expression of thanks and joy.

Commands and Principles

In addition to the verses that deal with music directly, there are also commands and principles that apply to ALL Christians and ALL of the Christian life.  The commands and principles therefore also relate to music in the life of Christians.

We should do everything for God’s Glory

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31)

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (1 Cor. 6:20)

I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images. (Is 42:8)

Everything we do should be Christ-centered

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  (Col 3:17)

If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11)

We must worship in spirit and truth

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.  (John 4:23-24)

We worship in spirit – From the attitude of the heart flows the outward manifestation of love and worship.

We worship in truth – Our worship must align with Biblical doctrine.

Note the intention is not half truth and half in spirit, but rather 100% of both.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27)

What we should think about

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

Avoid worldliness, works of the flesh and being earthly

This one warrants some extended study because anything less than comprehensive understanding can easily become a misunderstanding.

Paul wrote:  “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:14) – This is a clear biblical command.

As with all other terms in the Bible, we need to look at how scripture defines “worldly” or “of the flesh”.  Most would consider it silly to say, for example, “The world wears shoes, so obviously wearing shoes is worldly (or sinful).”  We don’t get to make up our own definitions for biblical terms.

Prov 30:6 is less diplomatic:  “Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

Isaiah 5:20 – “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.” – Caution is in order when proclaiming something or someone to be worldly.

Deuteronomy 4:2 “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.

The Bible defines worldliness and works of the flesh with detailed lists.  There’s little room for ambiguity.  Further, additional words and phrases were used interchangeably that repeat the same definitions.  In other words, worldliness is synonymous with works of the flesh, works of darkness, defiling, sin, false teachers, earthly, wicked, ungodly and unrighteous.  That also means a study of all these words will equip us to discern what music should be considered worldly.

One does have to be careful with context.  For example, the word “flesh” in particular is used at least 4 different ways.

  • Flesh can be meat like the flesh of an animal.
  • Flesh can mean to live in human skin.  I am here in the flesh.
  • Flesh is used sometimes to indicate someone is unregenerate or unsaved. This is the case in Romans 8.
  • There are “Works of the flesh” or bad things people do.  These are the ones that relate most closely to this study.

Perhaps the easiest way to see how the lists align is to arrange them in a table (see below).  These have been loosely grouped by general category.  The main point is:  If it’s on the list, we want nothing to do with it.

Worldliness Works of the Flesh Works of darkness Defiling


False teachers





sexual immorality Gal 5:19

Rom 13:13

Eph 5:3

Eph 5:5

Rom 13:13

Mark 7:21

2 Cor 12:21

Matt 15:19

Col 3:5

Jude 1:7

sensuality Gal 5:19

Rom 13:13

1 Pet 4:3

2 Pet 2:18

Rom 13:13

Eph 4:19

Mark 7:22

2 Cor 12:21

2 Pet 2:2

2 Pet 2:7

Jude 1:4

adultery Mark 7:21

Matt 15:19

2 Pet 2:14
impurity Gal 5:19 Eph 5:3

Eph 5:5

Eph 4:19

2 Cor 12:21 Col 3:5
passion(s) James 4:1

James 4:3

Titus 2:12

Gal 5:24

Rom 7:5

Eph 2:3

1 Pet 2:11

1 Pet 4:2&3

Col 3:5

2 Pet 2:10

Jude 1:18

obscene talk Col 3:8
evil desire or deceitful desires James 4:2 Gal 5:24

Eph 2:3

Eph 4:19 Col 3:5
orgies Gal 5:21

Rom 13:13

1 Pet 4:3

Rom 13:13
covetousness, which is idolatry James 4:2 Gal 5:20

1 Pet 4:3

Eph 5:3

Eph 5:5

Mark 7:22 Col 3:5

Rom 1:29

filthiness Eph 5:4
crude joking Eph 5:4
Asking wrongly to spend on passions James 4:3
evil thoughts Mark 7:21

Matt 15:19

lust (of the flesh and eyes) 1 John 2:16
anger, fits of anger Gal 5:20 2 Cor 12:20 Col 3:8
wrath Eph 2:3 Col 3:5
malice Col 3:8

Rom 1:29

1 Pet 2:1

slander Mark 7:22

2 Cor 12:20

Matt 15:19

Col 3:8

Rom 1:30

2 Tim 3:3

1 Pet 2:1

gossip 2 Cor 12:20 Rom 1:29
enmity (hostile), malicious Gal 5:20 2 Cor 12:20 Rom 1:20
strife Gal 5:20

1 Cor 3:3

Rom 1:29
jealousy, envy Gal 5:20, 21

Rom 13:13

1 Cor 3:3

Rom 13:13 Mark 7:22

2 Cor 12:20

1 Tim 6:4

Rom 1:29

1 Pet 2:1

rivalries Gal 5:20
dissensions Gal 5:20 1 Tim 6:4
divisions Jude 1:19 Gal 5:20
fighting and quarreling / craving for controversy / friction James 4:1-2 Rom 13:13 Rom 13:13 2 Cor 12:20

1 Tim 6:4

evil suspicions 1 Tim 6:4
foolish talk or corrupt talk Eph 5:4

Eph 4:19

grumblers or malcontents Jude 1:16
abusive 2 Tim 3:2
Murder James 4:2 Mark 7:21

Matt 15:19

Rom 1:29
pride of life (pride in possessions) 1 John 2:16
pride or conceit / insolent / haughty / arrogant Mark 7:22

2 Cor 12:20

1 Tim 6:4

Rom 1:30

2 Tim 3:2,4

lovers of pleasure 2 Tim 3:4
without self control 2 Tim 3:3
lovers of self 2 Tim 3:2
boastful / loud boasts of folly / loud mouthed boasters 2 Pet 2:18 Jude 1:16

Rom 1:30

lying, deceit, false words, false witness Mark 7:22

2 Pet 2:3

Matt 15:19

Col 3:9

Rom 1:29

2 Tim 3:13

1 Pet 2:1

hypocrisy 1 Pet 2:1
sorcery Gal 5:20
drunkenness Gal 5:21

1 Pet 4:3

Eph 5:18

Rom 13:13

disorder / revelry 2 Cor 12:20 2 Pet 2:13
drinking parties 1 Pet 4:3
theft Mark 7:21

Matt 15:19

greedy Eph 4:19 2 Pet 2:3 2 Pet 2:14
ungrateful 2 Tim 3:2
foolish / reckless Eph 5:17 Mark 7:22 Rom 1:31

2 2 Tim 3:4

lawless deeds 2 Pet 2:8
despise authority / reject authority / Bold and willfull / disobedient to parents Jude 1:8 2 Pet 2:10

Rom 1:30

2 2 Tim 3:2

having the appearance of Godliness 2 Tim 3:5
blaspheme / haters of God Jude 1:8

Rom 1:30

deny Christ / faithless Jude 1:4

Rom 1:31

unholy 2 Tim 3:2
heartless / ruthless brutal / treacherous Rom 1:31

2 2 Tim 3:3-4

unappeasable 2 Tim 3:3
unwise Eph 5:15
inventors of evil Rom 1:30
love of money 1 Tim 6:4 2 Tim 3:2
not loving good 2 Tim 3:3
oppose the truth 2 Tim 3:8
and things like these Gal 5:21

Works of the flesh and worldliness produce anger, slander, gossip, hostility, strife, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, quarreling, pride, boasting, hypocrisy, an appearance of Godliness and opposition to truth. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) is:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • goodness
  • faithfulness
  • gentleness
  • self control

Great care is needed to avoid actually *being* worldly while thinking we are opposing worldliness.

We should not cause others to fall into sin

Romans 14 is a critical passage to study when considering music in the lives of Christians.

In context, Paul had just dealt with submission to authorities and walking in love in Romans chapter 13.  He then moved on to not passing judgement on fellow Christians and then exhorted we not cause others to stumble. Let’s start reading at Romans 14:20.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  (Rom 14:20-23)

Picture this scenario… You have studied the scriptures and prayed about it.  The Bible doesn’t say NOT to and in your heart before God you have complete peace that it’s okay. Paul calls you BLESSED in verse 22!

But you know another Christian has arrived at a different conclusion.  What do you do?  Verse 22 tells us, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”

What if another Christian has the matter fully settled in their mind, but you still have doubts?  Verse 23 says it would be sin for you to do the same thing.

We are to model Love, Peace, Unity & Humility

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5)

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Pet 4:8)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Rom 12:10)

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Pet 3:8)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Cor 13:11)

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5)

Don’t Judge other Christians

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  (Matt 7:1-2)

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?  (James 4:11-12)

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Rom 14:10-13)

There are times when confronting sin in other believers is necessary.  When confronting sin, the instruction is always to aim for restoration in humility, gentleness and patience. An exception is mentioned in a passage about church leaders; specifically elders.  1 Tim 5:20 says “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

Don’t elevate tradition over scripture

Anyone who holds to a religious belief that isn’t taught in the Bible can be guilty of elevating that belief over scripture. Let’s look at an example in Mark 7.  The Pharisees and Scribes have just asked Jesus why the disciples were not washing their hands and cookware according to the tradition of the elders. Jesus is answering the Pharisees…

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8; Matt 15:6-9)

Who did Jesus have the most trouble with?  His strongest rebukes were targeted at Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes… in other words – religious leaders!

Any time someone from any side of debate on a religious matter bases their belief solely on what they have always been told instead of on a careful study of the scriptures, if what they have always been told doesn’t align with the scripture then they are elevating a tradition of men above God’s Word.  We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 and search the scriptures ourselves.

We can’t serve God and money

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Luke 16:13 and Matt 6:24)

Whenever it comes down to it, we should side with clear biblical teaching over financial gain every time.


New Testament music among Christians was orderly, from the heart and for worship, teaching, edification, evangelism & was an expression of gratitude and joy.

The Bible teaches us to honor Christ for God’s glory, in love, peace, humility and unity.  Further, our lives are to be free of all biblically-defined works of the flesh, including sensuality, dissension, pride and hypocrisy.

We are not the first Christians. There were thousands of years before us. There were countless wars, debates, creeds, diversions and divisions. For our position on anything to stand up through all eras of history, it must be based solely on the scripture and never on trends.  We size up trends based on the scripture, not the other way around.  Sola Scriptura.  Scripture alone.

By Jeff Apthorp