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The Godly Purpose for Music

Forerunner, "Ready Answer," August 2004

"Then David and all the house of Israel played music before the Lord on all kinds of instruments."
II Samuel 6:5

Few subjects have generated more conflicts than the kinds of music one should listen to or the kind of music best suited for church music. One church member even thought that no music would be the best kind for church services. A former faculty member and I were discussing the potential universal unifying power of music. I had quoted the poet Longfellow who proclaimed, "Music is the universal language of mankind."

"Universal—hah!" he said. "Music has caused more friction and hard feelings between people than has anything else." He added, "The most heated quarrels I have had with church members revolved around music matters."

Because of music's intense, emotion-arousing characteristics, some religions have dispensed with music altogether. The Friends (or the Quaker religion), the church that Herbert Armstrong came out of, prohibit both choral and instrumental music. One of my former professors, who also had been a Quaker most of his younger life, did not hear a symphonic work until he was 18. The Russian Orthodox Church as well as the Orthodox and Conservative Synagogue absolutely prohibit orchestral music.

Since music can be such a bone of contention, it behooves us as members of God's Family to understand what His Word says about the subject.

Music's Biblical Role

Music plays a huge role in both the New and Old Testaments. The Bible's first reference to music is found in Genesis 4:21: "His [Jabal's] brother's name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute." Of course, the real beginning is described in the book of Job, ". . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7).

Throughout Scripture, music has been explicitly and implicitly demonstrated to be a gift or blessing from God Almighty. It is through this gift that man can render praise and thanksgiving to Him, as well as give expression to his emotions—from the most profound sorrow to the most exhilarating joy. Music has proven to be a powerful, mood-altering agent intended to be used with responsibility and care. It can stir the emotions, charging the hearer with a vitality and strength which, in some cases, were previously lacking.

The brave Finns were stirred to action by the strains of Finlandia and the Karelia Suite. In Russian-occupied Finland, Sibelius' Finlandia was banned because it stirred up too much patriotism and fighting spirit. Hitler charged his emotional batteries by listening to recordings of Wagner's music (particularly rousing overtures and preludes from works such as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). During the Korean War, the Communist Chinese and the North Koreans experimented with producing states of confusion and distress through dissonant music.

Truly, music has the capacity to mirror or duplicate our emotions. Perhaps the most productive kind of mood altering is recorded in I Samuel 16:18-23. King Saul had a severe emotional problem. Saul's servants say, "Surely, a distressing spirit from God is troubling you" (I Samuel 16:15). The account suggests that Saul was a moody man (perhaps what we would call "bi-polar" today) who frequently cycled into depression, especially when negatively influenced.

Saul's servants suggest a remedy in I Samuel 16:16: ". . . seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp; and it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well." The results occur in verse 23. "And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him."

We cannot conclude from this account that David was singing some knee-slapping rendition of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" or "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." David's son, Solomon, was inspired to write, "Like one who takes away a garment in cold weather, and like vinegar on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart" (Proverbs 25:20). Solomon does not contradict his father at all but merely qualifies the kinds of songs used.

A major reason for the powerful, mood-altering properties of music consists of the massive network of auditory nerves in the human ear. In the words of psychiatrist Edward Podolsky,

The auditory nerves—the nerves of the ear—are more widely distributed and have more extensive connections than those of any other nerves of the body. There is scarcely a function of the human body which may not be affected by musical tones.

Even so, in order for a song or melody to be effective, it must match the mood of the individual. Music therapists call this mood-matching the isomodic principle. Saul's mood was sad or distressed. David played melodious, melancholy songs on the harp. When the mood was matched, Saul's negative spirit was neutralized. David could then direct Saul's moods to more cheerful strains.

I know this from personal experience. When I find myself in an unhappy mood, knee-slapping, hoedown music is initially painful to endure. On the other hand, listening to a melancholy work like Artur Gelbrun's Lament For the Victims of the Warsaw Ghetto or Brahms' A German Requiem actually has a stabilizing, soothing effect.

The true majesty of the Psalms stems from the variety of moods, ranging from deep despair (Psalm 69) to the heights of exhilaration and praise (Psalm 150). Realizing the importance of music in directing people's emotions, King David, a man after God's heart who composed many of the Psalms, commissioned a special troupe of musicians. It is significant and instructive to note that those in the music service were relieved from other duties: "These are the singers, heads of the fathers' houses of the Levites, who lodged in the chambers, and were free from other duties; for they were employed in that work day and night" (I Chronicles 9:33).

We should not read into this scripture that David was creating a kind of snobbish, elite sub-culture. We can see, however, the importance God places on the musical activities.

Heavy Emphasis

Unfortunately, in the church's scattered state today, musical activities receive either a low priority or they are non-existent. In contrast to the lack of emphasis that a good share of the brethren place on music, the Levites certainly spared no expense and effort:

. . . and the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets. . . . (II Chronicles 5:12)

Those religious institutions that ban instrumental music must purposely overlook the last portion of this verse.

Likewise those religious institutions, particularly of the evangelical or Pentecostal variety, overlook the next portion of this passage, which suggests that music designed to honor God should be dignified and free of dissonance and cacophony:

. . . indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying "For He is good, for His mercy endures forever," that the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud. . . . (verse 13)

Notice what happened as a result of this superb musical offering: ". . . so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God" (verse 14). The music actually created the atmosphere for God's Spirit to fill the Temple.

We read about a similar incident involving a request by Elisha: "'But now [he said] bring me a musician.' And it happened, when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him" (II Kings 3:15). In both cases, music set or surcharged the atmosphere, enhancing the efficacy of God's Spirit.

Music could be considered a variety of sacrifice, serving the same function as incense or the sweet savor of animal sacrifice. The Scriptures give ample evidence of the sacrificial property of music. Notice in Revelation 5:8-11 that music is rendered to God in much the same way as incense or prayers:

Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying:

"You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to
God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth."

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.

Notice the number of this assembly in verse 11: "ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands." One thousand times one thousand is a mere million. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir would disappear into nothingness swallowed into this multitude! Music constitutes a standard fixture in God's throne room:

And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. And they sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures and their elders. . . . (Revelation 14:2-3)

These verses go against the pet theory of one man in the Minneapolis Spokesmen Club who mistakenly believed and said, "Everybody knows that symphonic music is of Satan the Devil. In the World Tomorrow there will just be the man and his guitar." I think his mind short-circuited when Herbert Armstrong constructed one of the finest symphony halls on the face of the earth, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertegebauw Orchestra, and even the Ambassador Chorale and Symphony.

God's Word has shown us the following things about music:

1. Music is a gift and blessing from God.

2. Music is a powerful, mood-altering agent.

3. Music is used to praise God and to create an atmosphere to receive God's Spirit.

4. Music involves sacrifice.

Those who have committed themselves to the music program at the Feast of Tabernacles must realize that sacrifice is required. The sacrifice involves time, energy, and work—in some cases, hard work. Some of us have grumbled over the years about the sacrifice to get to rehearsals on time, realizing how much time it takes to learn the music. Though music requires sacrifice, the exhilaration and joy from an acceptable musical sacrifice well makes up for the effort.

© 2004 Church of the Great God
PO Box 471846
Charlotte, NC  28247-1846
(803) 802-7075

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