Instruments Make the Man

Instruments Make the Man September 16, 2014

Samuel tells Saul he will meet prophets coming down from a high place (from worship) playing instruments – harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre (1 Samuel 10:5). Each of these has a history; and the history of each is woven with Israel’s maturation as a people. Israel’s musical development tracks her development as the people of God.

Jubal, a descendant of Cain (Genesis 4:21), was the father of music. There is precious little music among the descendants of Seth. When Moses built the tabernacle, he had silver trumpets made (Numbers 10), and the law prescribes the ram’s horn (shofar) for other occasions. Yahweh was the first trumpet-player (Exodus 19:16), and trumpets were made to imitate his overwhelming voice. A trumpet sounds by vibrating, moving air, and that links with the trumpet-voice of the Spirit, who is the wind of God.

Specifically, Jubal invented the lyre (kinnor). Laban has lyres (Genesis 31:27), but we never see any Israelite with a lyre until 1 Samuel 10. David, of course, is a skilled lyre-player (1 Samuel 16:16, 23), and when the temple is built lyres are played in the dedication ceremony (2 Samuel 6:5; 2 Chronicles 5:12) and the continuing worship of the temple (1 Chronicles 15:16, 23, 28; Psalm 33:2; 43:4; 49:4; 57:8; 71:22; 81:2; etc.). A lyre is a royal instrument not only because of its association with David, but also because of it must be played with the royal organ, the hand and more specifically the fingers.

Jubal also invented the pipe (‘ugav). The latter figures little into the Old Testament (cf. Job 21:12; 30:31; Psalm 150:4), but the related “flute” (chaliyl) is slightly more common in Israel’s history. Like the trumpet, it sounds by vibrating air, and like the trumpet it is one of the Lord’s voice – here not a voice of command but the voice of divine lamentation (cf. Jeremiah 48:36). Flutes were also played at celebrations (1 Kings 1:40; Isaiah 5:12). Unlike the trumpet, the flute doesn’t appear in the Old Testament until the kingly period. Perhaps we are to conceive it too as an instrument played by a skilled (wise) kingly hand.

The word translated as “harp” (nebel) first appears in 1 Samuel 1:24 and 10:3, referring not to an instrument but to a “jug” of wine (cf. 1 Samuel 25:18; 2 Samuel 16:1). The fact that the same word covers both may have to do with similarity of shape or construction. Whatever the source, the play on the two meanings seems to be at work in 1 Samuel 3-5, where Saul meets a man carrying a nebel of wine and then a group of prophets playing on a nebel. This creates an association between the harp, wine-drinking, and kingship. Kings play harps because kings drink wine; and vice versa. Unlike prophets, who may be passive trumpets or flutes through whom the Spirit blows, kings make music with a hand.

Tambourines (tof) are the earliest instrument among the Israelites. After Yahweh overthrew Pharaoh at the Sea, Miriam the prophetess and the women went out playing “timbrels” and dancing (Exodus 15:20). Later, Jephthah (Judges 11:34) and Saul (1 Kings 18:6) are greeted after victory by women playing tambourines, and other musical instruments. Tambourines are naturally linked with dancing (Exodus 15:20; 2 Samuel 6; Psalm 149:3; 150:4), and are often in the hands of women. When Israel appears before Yahweh with tambourines, they are taking the role of Bride, rejoicing in the victories of her divine Husband. Tambourines may be played by hand, but they don’t require the manual dexterity required for a lyre or harp. They are not kingly (or queenly) instruments, but simply bridal.

We may venture this speculation: Israel’s music advances from rhythm to melody as it moves from tambourine to lyre and harp; it moves from the single, loud note of summons from a trumpet to the more varied sounds of stringed instruments. As Israel’s music goes, so goes Israel, advancing in skill and wisdom to become Yahweh’s kingly people.


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