Musical Instruments in Psalm 150
By Richard Bacon
Copyright © 1997 The Blue Banner (From The Blue Banner, Volume 3#3-4, 1994)

[See also a more recent article containing Dr. Bacon's response to some questions about this article, Interpretation of Psalm 150.]

The question sometimes comes up of the propriety of singing without the use of musical accompaniment. Psalms 149 and 150 are pointed to as justification for this concern. But let's stop and think about that for a moment. We not only sing about musical instruments; we also sing about such things as the lampstand, shewbread, and binding the sacrifice to the horns of the altar (Psalm 118). However, we do not actually do any of those things because they were weak and beggarly elements of the ceremonial law. They are some of the ordinances that were nailed to Christ's cross, and because they were, those forms no longer apply to us. As much as I appreciate musical instruments, instruments are no long a part of the public worship of God. This fact does not make the use of instruments 'evil.' Far from it. Instruments can be employed, just as a rock can be employed, for good or evil. Musical instruments are indifferent in that respect. However, because musical instruments were brought into the temple worship particularly at the behest of David, as a prophet, they have passed away with all the aspects of the Levitical worship.

Do you know why David instituted the use of musical instruments and choirs in the temple? The various courses of Levites had various things to carry from the Tabernacle when they were in the wilderness. Whenever the Tabernacle was moved, which it was for forty years, and a few times afterwards, various courses of Levites had different things to carry. David designed to move the worship of God out of a tent and into a permanent dwelling. The Levites were seemingly out of work. But not according to God, who said some of the Levites would play musical instruments. They would play cymbals, viols, coronets, and all manner of musical instruments. The instruments were associated with the sacrifices, moreso than with singing (Carefully read 2 Chronicles chapter 29 for confirmation of that). So when the Levites sang Psalm 150, they sang about associating these instruments with the sacrifices. In a treatise against musical instruments in God's worship, G. I. Williamson makes this comparison: You have in the Old Testament a grand show. There was a grand show going on at the sacrifices, and there was a sound track for the show. Now, when the show goes away, what goes away with it? The sound track.

So it is not that we think musical instruments are evil, or that we think creation per se is evil. We enjoy art. But when that art is a violation of the second or seventh commandment, we eschew it. A picture can be good or it can be evil depending upon the use to which it is put. And the same thing is true of musical instruments. RB


By Richard Bacon
Copyright 2003 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

FPCR received the following letter with some questions relating to the short article Musical Instruments in Psalm 150.

From Mr. P. to Pastor Richard Bacon:

I read your article on Psalm 150. While I agree that in the Psalm we sing about musical instruments, in addition we sing about Praise using musical instruments. Is praise a part of worship? We may even want to say is praise a circumstance or an element of worship? Unlike Psalm 118 where “Bind the sacrifice with chords [sic] to the horn of the Altar” is stated at verse 27, we are told in Psalm 150 to “Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes” verse 4. In verse 1 we are told where to praise Him: “Praise God in His Sanctuary.” If we interpret this Psalm as just a song being sung about objects we miss the point. This psalm is about praising the Lord and appropriately employing those things described in the passage. I see that you also concluded that musical instruments were associated with the sacrifice in public worship. I think one of the passages that talks about this is 2 Chronicles 29:25-30. While the instruments played before and after the sacrifice, take a look at verse 28 where it described what went on during the sacrifice “So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.” Worship was taking place while the burnt offering was being sacrificed. Today we certainly don’t uphold the ceremonial aspects, but we do celebrate Christ’s sacrifice for us in Holy Communion. Therefore, is it conclusive to us this verse to say that the playing of the instruments were only associated with the sacrifice when worship by the assembly was taking place at the same time?

Dear Mr. P.

Thank you for your note. My concern with the use of musical instruments is not whether they can be utilized for praising God. The fact is that every lawful activity we undertake can be utilized to that end. The question comes down, rather, to one of what God has commanded us to use in NT public worship (I deliberately distinguish NT worship because I want us to see that the ceremonies of OT temple worship have passed away). If God has commanded us to use something in his worship in these days, then we must by all means use it. If he has forbidden that we use something, then we must refrain from its use. On these two points, virtually all who name the name of Christ are agreed. Where the disagreement generally arises is over things that God has neither commanded nor forbidden.

I would suggest to you that there were no musical instruments properly in the worship of God prior to the silver trumpets of Numbers 10:10ff. Further, the players of the musical instruments in the tabernacle/temple were made such in the temple because they could no longer be “porters.” You may recall that when God “dwelt in tents” that it was incumbent upon certain courses and families of Levites to carry the tents and furnishings from place to place as the tabernacle moved (Numbers 1:51; 4:15-33). When the temple was constructed along King David’s plan, the porters were no longer necessary. So, those very porters became the players of musical instruments in the temple (1 Chronicles 23:5, 26). It was therefore a Levitical, and I would argue, therefore, a ceremonial function. But even if one were to regard the playing of instruments as having some recourse in NT times, I think he should be willing to defend who, other than Levites, might properly and lawfully perform the function. There are no longer Levites — the only ordained offices in the NT being those of elder and deacon.

To consider your more specific question: I would say that praise is not only a part of worship, but more so that every part of our worship should involve praise. The question remains of how God has ordained that praise to take place. Certainly, we should sing “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), making melody in our hearts. But if melody is being made by an accordion or piano, what need is there to make melody in our hearts? It seems to me that if praise requires the use of musical instruments, then Paul and Silas were not truly praising God in the jailhouse in Philippi, and the disciples and Jesus were not really praising God in the upper room following the last supper, etc. We know that they were truly praising God in song, therefore musical instruments cannot be required. But the regulative principle of worship indicates that if something is not required, then it is by that very omission forbidden.

The only place, then, for musical instruments, is as a circumstance. A circumstance is something that accompanies another action and makes it possible, but is not part of the action itself. Thus, we are commanded to assemble, but the “where and when” beyond saying simply the first day of the week are circumstances. We must have them for the action to take place, but they are not part of the assembling itself. Now look again carefully at Psalm 150. The use of musical instruments in Psalm 150 is decidedly not circumstantial — it is commanded (with the “sanctuary” being spoken of clearly that of the temple, not the NT church — be careful not to confound categories because the words are the same — the Bible nowhere calls the NT assembly the “sanctuary”). But if it was commanded, then the Levites had no option to leave it out. In the NT we must regard those instruments as either commanded or circumstantial. But if we use Psalm 150 to justify their use, we are implicitly claiming that they are commanded. But if they are commanded, then Scripture requires the use of all of them, not just a “piano” (in fact, I don’t think the instruments that we today call “organ” and “piano” existed at the time Psalm 150 was written). So, on what basis can we generalize and say “this just means musical instruments?” It seems highly arbitrary to me to maintain that the use of musical instruments is warranted, but not required and further, that the requirement is not for the instruments there mentioned, but for instruments of one’s own devising.

For more information on this subject, one may read John Girardeau's work Instrumental Music In Public Worship. Girardeau does an excellent job of demonstrating that musical accompaniment to singing cannot rightly be regarded as a circumstance of worship.