The Odd Fading of Music in the New Testament/Spiritual Meditations

Music is our oldest form of expression, older than language or art; It began with the voice. We have been making music for a very long time. Archaeological evidence suggests that primitive man was using bones, drums and flutes long before the last Ice Age. We do not know to what purpose such instruments were put three hundred centuries ago, though we can speculate on ceremonies and rituals, both sacred and profane.

Music can express our highest ethics, our strongest morality, our noblest sentiments. It frees us from our baser selves, speaks to us of man at peace with himself and God, and reflects the rhythm of a society which has established its faith and security.  The combination of music and speech into the single expression of song has unique power, conveying feelings of great elation or almost unbearable poignancy. When we gather for common celebration and worship, music helps to raise the sharing of feelings to a level of intensity which words alone could not hope to attain.

Every ritual we share calls for its own music: birth, marriage, death, the planting and the harvest, the changing of the seasons, the coming of spring and fertility, the sufferings of illness and the recovery of health. Our first music was doubtless concerned with consecrating these events. And as our societies grew, music to honor leadership came into being – royal processions with musical instruments go back to Egypt and Sumer.

Ancient musical instruments have been found and there are representations of people playing instruments on surviving pottery, sculptures and paintings. Based on the evidence we have; we know that music was as important in ancient times as it is today.

The Ancient Basis for Old Testament Music

The first high culture began around 2500 BC-first Sumeria and Ur (both in modern day Iraq), followed by Egypt, India and China, then by Judea, Greece and Rome. In the ancient world, music rose to its greatest heights in Greece. The word “music” comes from the Greek.  The study of music, along with poetry and athletics, formed the curriculum in early Greek schools.

The first scientific experiments with acoustics and the mathematical relationships of tones took place around 500 BC in the school of Pythagoras. The Greeks gave to the world also the idea of scales with different arrangements of whole steps and half steps. They invented a system of musical notation so that their songs could be written and remembered. Unfortunately, few of the songs still exist, and there is considerable difference of opinion among scholars as to the real meaning of the musical notations.

To our ancestors, rhythms were religious and magical; since the Stone Age, flutes have been endowed with magical significance, and some peoples still use them in rituals associated with storms, crops and death.

The presence of music in the life of ancient Egypt, is abundantly documented in many tomb paintings.  Music was a part of the daily lives of the people as well as an adjunct to the festival and the ceremonial. Large orchestras of flutes and stringed instruments entertained at royal parties and festivals. The army marched to the sound of trumpets and drums. Dancing was done to the accompaniment of smaller stringed instruments.

Percussion instruments began their development many thousands of years ago when early man first clashed together sticks stones and bones to emphasize the rhythms of his clapping hands and feet.  Evidence from art prove the existence of drums at least 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia (current day Iraq & Assyria) and Egypt. Pottery drums and bells survive from about 2500 BC.  

Harps and lyres both appeared about 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt and Sumeria. In Sumeria three stringed harps are portrayed on writing tablets dated 3000 BC. Lyres, clappers and other simple percussion instruments from a few centuries later have been found in Ur, as well as drawings of what looked like trumpets or megaphones.

Cup mouthpiece instruments, like our current day trumpet or trombone, have a very ancient history, found in varying degrees of sophistication throughout the world.

Double pipes are portrayed in the art of Ur, such as shepherds in central Europe still play. With them music could be played on 2 pitches simultaneously, heralding the beginning of harmony.

The heroic stories sung by the Greek poets were accompanied by the sounds of the kithara, a stringed instrument. This was larger than the liar and capable of being heard in the outdoor theaters where entertainment was provided for the citizens.

From their travels in Asia the Greeks brought back a wind instrument, the aulos, with a sound like that of our oboe.

The orchestra of these earlier high musical civilization was reported to be numerous, but even the most enthusiastic descriptions and pictorial representations do not suggest a great variety of instruments, or any music that we would call grandly harmonious. 

shapes of ancient musical instruments

The Oral Tradition

There was plentiful music through the centuries and enough evidence that it was splendid and highly colored. Nobody, including Sumeria and Egypt,  wrote the music down on paper so we cannot perform it now as it was heard then. Music was passed on orally, from teacher to pupil, as a living document, not to be codified.  The resistance to music written down, arrested in its development once and for all, has persisted. For instance, no Asian musician would dream of writing down his composition if the aim were inward contemplation.

For the ancient Greeks, the purpose of music was therapeutic, to purify the mind and harmonize the soul through dancing or song. They believed that each of their modes or scales had its own effect on the listener, some harmful, others beneficial: one inspired courage, another level headedness and so on. They discouraged the writing down of music as detrimental to the activity of the memory. So while classical Greek art can show us the instruments and the representation of music and performance, and the literature can detail for us their theories and systems, we have no inkling how the music sounded.

Music Among the People of the Old Testament

Music was highly respected from the earliest of Hebrew history and the Levite tribe was initially given responsible for its care and performance.  The Jewish harp was the instrument of the Jewish home and the instrument of the poets. David, both as favorite to King Saul and as king himself, played the harp and composed and sang beautiful songs. These songs, the psalms of the Bible, were chanted in the synagogues and later in the early Christian Church. The harp was used in thanking and praising the Lord.  King Solomon, the son of David, frequently enjoyed a multitudes of singers, plus trumpeters and string players, in his orchestra. He started the first conservatory for the training of musicians.

mosaic of kind david playing harp
King David of the Israelites is portrayed in this medieval illustration, playing the harp in the accompaniment of his courtiers.

The Old Testament tells how the walls of Jericho were blown down by the sounding of the seven shofars, made from Rams horns. The shofar is the oldest musical instrument still in use. It is still sounded in the synagogues on high holy days.

Israel’s surrounding cultures were also very musical.  The fierce neighbors of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, went into battle with their instruments strapped to their bodies. Their armies were welcomed home by large choruses and orchestras of hundreds of singers and players. For quieter music, the Assyrians used an instrument of many strings struck with small beaters, like a dulcimer.

The Sumerians cultivated music for sacred rites, including funerals, military triumphs and banquets. It was an art for the elite. The harp and lyre were current from Sumerian times, at first plucked, then bowed with an archer’s bow for greater penetrating power and eventually stopped with the fingers to very pitch. 

With the civilization in the areas of Babylon, Sumer and Egypt, came the production of metal and new instruments were made.

It was at Babylon in Sumeria that King Nebuchadnezzar maintained the famous orchestra listed in Daniel 3 in the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. 

Why so Little Mention of Music in the New Testament?

No civilization held music in as high esteem as classical Greece; it dominated religion, aesthetic, moral, and scientific life.  Musical education was considered essential for a disciplined people.  The primary role of music in Greece was to build character and health.  Interestingly, it was Paul, a Greek, who makes the most references to song and music in the New Testament.

When Rome defeated Greece in 146 BC, it borrowed its music, along with its architecture and sculpture. But the importance of music diminished greatly, for Rome was oriented to the word, the law and the sword. This is apparent by the very few musical references made in the New Testament.

The Romans did invent a kind of army trumpet which they called the tuba which they carried with them on their mighty conquests. They  brought the bagpipe into Europe from India. It became a great favorite with the Romans and could have been what Nero played while Rome burned, although it may have been the lyre or the lute as well.  Music had been associated with sacred mysteries and the Romans are suspected of having robbed the instruments of their reputed magic properties.

Domination by Greeks and Romans must have left some mark on the music of Judea, as it did elsewhere.  Music in the temple of Solomon was choral with instrumental accompaniment, though the use of instruments was banned by the time Christianity became an independent religious sect- perhaps to expunge reminders of the long captivity – a pendulum that may have swung too far.

A Little About Post New Testament Music

When the early Christians began to compose hymns, they fell back on the only music they knew: that of Israel and Greece. From this developed the chants of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. And upon this foundation of ancient music was built, in turn, our own western European musical system.

After the fall of the Roman civilization, another force slowly began to prevail in western culture: and that force was the Christian Church. The church was able to produce its great art emanating from centers in Rome and Byzantium because it had absorbed the prevailing Pagan beliefs, transferring adoration of Greek and Roman gods to the Christian Saints. But the influence of the church on music was a slower process, in fact, nearly 1000 years were to pass before the music we know began to take shape.


Hebrew music of the Old Testament  had absorbed influences from the courts where the Jews had been captive, notably Egypt and Sumeria. It became an integral part of daily life, particularly for royalty.  However, with the coming of the Romans, music took a backseat to conquest, which is evident in its scant mention in the New Testament.  Yet music was not forgotten by the Jewish people; the Talmud says there is a temple in heaven that is opened only through song. 

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Relevant Scripture

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. (Gen 4:21) (He was 7 generations from Adam & Eve)

Let us bring the ark of our God back to us.  David and all Israel went to Baalah of Judah (Kiriath Jearim) to bring up from there the ark of God the Lord. They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it.  David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets.  (I Chron 13:6-8)

After David had constructed buildings for himself in the City of David, he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it. David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their fellow Levites as musicians to make a joyful sound with musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals. (I Chron 15:1,16)

The musicians Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals;  Zechariah, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah and Benaiah were to play the lyres according to alamoth,and Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel and Azaziah were to play the harps, directing according to sheminith. Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it. (I Chron 15:19-22)

Heman and Jeduthun were responsible for the sounding of the trumpets and cymbals and for the playing of the other instruments for sacred song. (1 Chronicles 16-42)

David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals.  All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God.  Along with their relatives—all of them trained and skilled in music for the Lord—they numbered 288. (I Chron 25:1, 6, 7) 

Then Solomon summoned to Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families, to bring up the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Zion, the City of David.  And all the Israelites came together to the king at the time of the festival in the seventh month. 13 The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:  “He is good; his love endures forever.”   (2 Chron 5:2-3,13)

the Lord’s musical instruments, which King David had made for praising the Lord and which were used when he gave thanks,  (2 Chron 7:6)

Hezekiah gave the order to sacrifice the burnt offering on the altar. As the offering began, singing to the Lord began also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel.  The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the musicians played and the trumpets sounded. All this continued until the sacrifice of the burnt offering was completed. (2 Chron 29:27-28 purifying the temple)

The Israelites who were present in Jerusalem celebrated the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with great rejoicing, while the Levites and priests praised the Lord every day with resounding instruments dedicated to the Lord. (2 Chron 30:21)

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do:  As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. (Daniel 3:4-5)

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  (Matt 6:2  Jesus indicates that the trumpet had some use in the synagogues.)

Persecuted, beaten, and cast into prison with Silas; [Paul] sings songs of praise in the prison; an earthquake shakes the prison; he preaches to the alarmed jailer, who believes, and is immersed along with his household (Acts 16:19-34)

 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, (Ephesians 5:19 written by Paul)

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16 written by Paul)


Musical Instruments of the World – Diagram Group

James Galway’s Music in Time by William Mann

The Golden Encyclopedia of Music by Norman Lloyd

The Music of Man by Yehudi Menuhin & Curtis W. Davis

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