Musical Instruments in Worship: Biblical Evidence

Musical Instruments in Worship: Biblical Evidence July 2, 2018

John Calvin’s extreme position that music in worship is rank idolatry is wrong in light of the following biblical data.

* * * * *

With regard to musical instruments in a context of worshiping God, we have the model of David and others of his time worshiping God with harps, tambourines, etc.:

Psalm 33:2 (RSV) Praise the LORD with the lyre, make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!

Psalm 71:22 I will also praise thee with the harp for thy faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. (cf. 57:7-9; 81:1-2; 92:1-3; 108:1-3; 144:9)

Psalm 150:1-5 Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
[2] Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
[3] Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
[4] Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
[5] Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Many of the Psalms mention “stringed instruments” and in one case, “flutes” at their start, implying (or so it seems to me) that the Psalm was accompanied by instruments (e.g., Psalm 5: “To the choirmaster: for the flutes. A Psalm of David”; Psalm 6: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments . . .”). Therefore, John Calvin’s contention that a Psalm can only be properly sung is not even consistent with what the Psalms themselves teach (see also Psalms 4, 54-55, 61, 67, 76; cf. Hab 3:19).

We also have the evidence of the extensive musical instrumentation accompanying the ark of the covenant (where God was specially present, in a way somewhat like eucharistic presence at the Mass), as described in 1 Chronicles 15. There is no hint of disapproval in the text, as if this was something frowned upon by God as idolatry:

1 Chronicles 15:14-28 So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. [15] And the Levites carried the ark of God upon their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD. [16] David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brethren as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy. [17] So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Jo’el; and of his brethren Asaph the son of Berechi’ah; and of the sons of Merar’i, their brethren, Ethan the son of Kusha’iah; [18] and with them their brethren of the second order, Zechari’ah, Ja-a’ziel, Shemi’ramoth, Jehi’el, Unni, Eli’ab, Benai’ah, Ma-asei’ah, Mattithi’ah, Eliph’elehu, and Miknei’ah, and the gatekeepers O’bed-e’dom and Je-i’el. [19] The singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were to sound bronze cymbals; [20] Zechari’ah, A’zi-el, Shemi’ramoth, Jehi’el, Unni, Eli’ab, Ma-asei’ah, and Benai’ah were to play harps according to Al’amoth; [21] but Mattithi’ah, Eliph’elehu, Miknei’ah, O’bed-e’dom, Je-i’el, and Azazi’ah were to lead with lyres according to the Shem’inith. [22] Chenani’ah, leader of the Levites in music, should direct the music, for he understood it. [23] Berechi’ah and Elka’nah were to be gatekeepers for the ark. [24] Shebani’ah, Josh’aphat, Nethan’el, Ama’sai, Zechari’ah, Benai’ah, and Elie’zer, the priests, should blow the trumpets before the ark of God. O’bed-e’dom and Jehi’ah also were to be gatekeepers for the ark. [25] So David and the elders of Israel, and the commanders of thousands, went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD from the house of O’bed-e’dom with rejoicing. [26] And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. [27] David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers, and Chenani’ah the leader of the music of the singers; and David wore a linen ephod. [28] So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres.


2 Samuel 6:2-5 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Ba’ale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. [3] And they carried the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abin’adab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahi’o, the sons of Abin’adab, were driving the new cart [4] with the ark of God; and Ahi’o went before the ark. [5] And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (cf. 1 Chron 13:8)

1 Chronicles 16:37-42 So David left Asaph and his brethren there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister continually before the ark as each day required, [38] and also O’bed-e’dom and his sixty-eight brethren; while O’bed-e’dom, the son of Jedu’thun, and Hosah were to be gatekeepers. [39] And he left Zadok the priest and his brethren the priests before the tabernacle of the LORD in the high place that was at Gibeon, [40] to offer burnt offerings to the LORD upon the altar of burnt offering continually morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the LORD which he commanded Israel. [41] With them were Heman and Jedu’thun, and the rest of those chosen and expressly named to give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever. [42] Heman and Jedu’thun had trumpets and cymbals for the music and instruments for sacred song. The sons of Jedu’thun were appointed to the gate.

1 Chronicles 23:5 four thousand gatekeepers, and four thousand shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments which I have made for praise.

1 Chronicles 25:6 They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.

2 Chronicles 5:12-14 and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jedu’thun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with a hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters; [13] and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the LORD), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever,” the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, [14] so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God.

Note that the glory of the Lord filled the temple in response to the praise of musical instruments and voices; thus it was pleasing to God. See also:

2 Chronicles 7:6 The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the LORD which King David had made for giving thanks to the LORD — for his steadfast love endures for ever — whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets; and all Israel stood.

2 Chronicles 29:24-28 and the priests killed them and made a sin offering with their blood on the altar, to make atonement for all Israel. For the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel. [25] And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets. [26] The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. [27] Then Hezeki’ah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. [28] The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.

2 Chronicles 34:12 And the men did the work faithfully. Over them were set Jahath and Obadi’ah the Levites, of the sons of Merar’i, and Zechari’ah and Meshul’lam, of the sons of the Ko’hathites, to have oversight. The Levites, all who were skilful with instruments of music,

Nehemiah 12:35-36 and certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets: Zechari’ah the son of Jonathan, son of Shemai’ah, son of Mattani’ah, son of Micai’ah, son of Zaccur, son of Asaph; [36] and his kinsmen, Shemai’ah, Az’arel, Mil’alai, Gil’alai, Ma’ai, Nethan’el, Judah, and Hana’ni, with the musical instruments of David the man of God; and Ezra the scribe went before them.

[cf. Judith 16:2; 1 Maccabees 4:54; 13:51]

In all passages where cymbals are mentioned, it is in the context of a religious ceremony. For example:

1 Chronicles 16:4-5 Moreover he appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the LORD, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel. [5] Asaph was the chief, and second to him were Zechari’ah, Je-i’el, Shemi’ramoth, Jehi’el, Mattithi’ah, Eli’ab, Benai’ah, O’bed-e’dom, and Je-i’el, who were to play harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals,

1 Chronicles 25:1 David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service certain of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jedu’thun, who should prophesy with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. . . .

Ezra 3:10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel;

Nehemiah 12:27 And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.

If musical instruments used to worship God were okay and approved by God then, they didn’t suddenly become evil in the new covenant. If it wasn’t (necessarily and always) idolatry then, it wasn’t, by the same token, after Jesus, either. Idolatry resides in the heart, which is why an argument that a musical instrument is always idolatrous in a church setting is absurd. One can’t possibly logically arrive at that conclusion (from the biblical data).

Moreover, there is an essential difference between judging voices alone to be appropriate or aesthetically pleasing and proper for a church service, minus instruments (as was apparently the case in the Catholic Church up until the early Middle Ages), and contending (as Calvin did) that any instrument used at church must be idolatrous and absolutely forbidden on those grounds.

It’s the difference between musical and liturgical aesthetics and positive legalism or prohibitions based on an additional factor (supposed intrinsic idolatry). The first thing doesn’t contradict the Old Testament record of instruments used in praise and worship; the second does. Since God doesn’t contradict Himself, the entire “no instruments at church because they are idols” argument must, therefore, be abandoned.


[in the combox] There is no indication that God ever saw anything wrong with such worship [in the old covenant]. The things that were wrong in some Old Testament worship practices were sacrificing to other gods, or offering a wrong animal for sacrifice (say, a pig), or not having a proper attitude in the heart, or committing immorality and then presumptuously worshiping God, as if the two things were unrelated (spiritual pride and hypocrisy, or double-mindedness). That is what God condemned, not musical instruments.

Secondly, Old Testament worship can’t be so easily separated from the new covenant, since we know that Jesus, Paul, and other apostles continued to observe the feasts and pray in the temple, and attend synagogue worship as well. Jesus observed Pharisaical customs, and Paul called himself a Pharisee after he became a Christian, three times. Therefore, there is no way to separate Old Testament worship completely from the new covenant period, saying it was “fulfilled”. We have the Mass, but even that developed from the Old Testament Passover ceremony.

Calvin simply has no argument, and what he produces is flimsy as a wet noodle. The argument isn’t merely that David had instruments, therefore it was accepted by God, but that there is no indication it was never not accepted as part of worship, or regarded as idolatry, and there is the instance of direct divine approval  (1 Chronicles 23:13-14: see above).


See also:


(originally 3-22-10)

Photo credit: King David Playing the Harp, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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