Music in the Old Testament

In church history, few things have been as divisive as music and worship. However, the Bible is full of music, and speaks a lot to musicians. Many Christians, particularly Christian musicians, have unclear understanding about what the Bible says about music. The Bible includes a myriad of music, and support for musicians. The Old Testament, which records early Jewish history, uses music to celebrate, worship, and tell stories.

Moses’ Songs

Moses Psalm, Psalm 90, is widely used in funeral and burial services. The first six verses speak of the mortality of man, versus the immortality of God. The next six verses, speak of the propensity of man to displease God. The last four verses, conclude with a prayer of forgiveness and favor.

The Red Sea Song, in Exodus 15, was led by Moses’ sister Miriam. She used her tambourine to led the Israelites in praise when they were delivered from Egypt. “Her song was exuberant, full of zeal for all that the Lord had done,” Herbert Lockyer writes in All the Music of the Bible. “God was her strength, and she led the excited throng in celebrating God’s deliverance of their nation….Well over two million voices of men, women and children soared up to heaven that day, each voice filled with gratitude and praise.”

In, The Story of Christian Music, Andrew Wilson-Dickson observes that they could have been near intoxicated by the power of the music. “The impression is of a wild, vigorous and noisy music, inseparable from physical movement. The short lines and simple text indicate plenty of repetition, perhaps simple stepwise melodies constantly returning to a few central pitches. Together with an in0fectious beat, it probably led the ecstatic state which such music can readily induce.”

Music in the Early Jewish Kingdom

In 1 Samuel, David returns from his conquest of the Philistines. The Israelite women greeted him using a tambourine, lyre, singing and dancing, and the simple refrain: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

A similar celebration occurred in 2 Samuel 6:5, when David led the Ark to Jerusalem. Dickson notes this scene must have required a reckless abandonment. “The variety of instruments, with percussion and dance, was evidently a potent mixture…Such release and catharsis demands that the partakers are wholly at one with what is being celebrated, abandoning themselves willingly.”

David also wrote music during this period. In 2 Sam. 1:19-27, he writes, The Song of the Bow, to lament Jonathon’s death. In 2 Sam. 22:2-51, David sings a song of victory. Lockyer writes this is a characteristic example of Hebrew repetition and parallelism. Finally, 1 Chronicles 16 shows David singing a song of thanksgiving.

The Levite Choir

In 1 Chronicles, David arranged a choir of 4,000. The grand musical body performed day and night in the temple, and also special musical services. Israel financially supported them, and they lived in the temple (1 Chron 9:33).

The emphasis on trained musicians was not unique to the Jewish tradition. “There are detailed descriptions from Egypt and Sumeria of temple worship earlier than 2000 BC,” Dickson writes. “Babylon, too, had a similar and long established tradition, with guilds of singers, players and artists all forming part of a learned community–a kind of college, which studied and edited the official liturgical literature.”

David is also widely credited for writing the book of Psalms, although he probably wrote fewer than 80 of them. Over time, they became standardized in liturgies to express praise, thanksgiving, or to make petition and supplication.

Songs of Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah was also a prolific musician. In sixty six chapters, the book enumerates over a dozen songs, clearly distinguishable from poetry.

The Song of the Vineyard. (Isaiah 5:1-7). It begins about God’s love and care for his people. He sings about how much he cared for this vineyard and the time and work he put it into it. The song moves quickly from being a tender song, to speaking of man’s rebellion against such love and the coming judgment.

Song of Judah’s Return. (Isaiah 26). The first six verses are a song of victory and praise. The rest is a hymn of lament and reassurance. Lockyer notes that artistically, it is diversified by changes in speakers, and a larger vocabulary not typical of music.

The Song of the Redeemed. (Isaiah 35:1-10). In the previous chapter, Israel faces judgment. But, in this song we see them bursting forth with song of a God who had redeemed them. Rich with imagery and wrought with joy, Isaiah 35 has been described as peerless.

The Old Testament clearly uses the power of music to speak to the Israelites. Moses and Miriam used it in their early Israelite wandering. The Bible records instances of music and dancing in the early Jewish kingdom. David arranged a choir of Levites who worshiped in the Temple day and night. The prophet Isaiah used songs to communicate messages of God, his love, mercy, and judgment. The Christian musician looking to find support for their art, will find adequate resource in the Old Testament.


Herbert Lockyer Jr., All the Music of the Bible (Hendrickson Publishers, 2004).
Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003).

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