12 Jul 2022

Jesus of Nazareth, the Psalms, and Instruments

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Music, Psalms, Worship

Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous;
it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the Lord with the harp;
make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully, and shout for joy
(Psalm 33.1-3)

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the
King, the LORD

(Psalm 98.4-6)

I was sitting on my couch meditating on my daily Psalm reading (Psalms 98-102). I had some music playing in the background as I often do. An album came on I have not heard in a while. It was one of my favs for a few years. “City on a Hill” has material by Third Day, Caedmon’s Call, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer and others.

I found myself just leaning back and letting the music flow through my mind and fill my body. I was uplifted. In fact I was literally drawn into the worship of the One who is enthroned upon Israel’s praise (Ps 22.3). Chronicles captures it like this,

in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying,

‘He indeed is good
for His loving kindness [hesed] is everlasting,

then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud” (2 Chron 5.13).

Worship. Song. Music. The Glory of the Lord.

After a few minutes, my mind returned to this morning’s Psalm reading. Music filled me. Music is not merely vocal. Music is not merely instruments. Music is both. Music connects the entire human with the glory of the Lord.

Replica of the Lyre of Meggido dating to about 1000 BC

The Psalms are both. They are music. There are plenty of instruments in the Psalms. Instruments are mentioned in the Psalms and in their headings (Headings in the Hebrew Bible are literally the first verse of the psalm). Instruments appear already by Psalm 4.1, “with stringed instruments.”; 5.1, “for the flutes“; 6.1, with stringed instruments“; 54.1, “with stringed instruments“; etc. In the temple, King David, at the command of God, had 4000 Levites trained (yep trained) as both singers and instrumental musicians (1 Chron 23.5). He divided them into 288 courses (that is groups of 13) under the leadership of Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman.

There seems to be nine basic instruments mentioned in the Psalms themselves which can be divided into three basic kinds of instruments:

  • stringed instruments
  • wind instruments
  • percussion instruments.

The “lyre” (kennor) we know what this instrument looks like and even what it sounds like. Depictions of temple “lyre’s” can be found on Jewish coins from the Bar Kokhba period and Semite’s playing them in ancient Egyptian art. Right in Israel the “Lyre of Megiddo” was excavated by Gordon Loud in the 1920s that dates to about 1000 B.C, nearly contemporary with David. We find specific references to this beautiful instrument in 33.2; 43.4; 57.8; 71.22; 81.2; 92.3; 98.5; 108.2; 137.2; 147.7; 149.3; 150.3 among others.

Several different kinds of wind instruments are mentioned. The “pipes” (halil) are typically translated as “flutes.” This is another ancient instrument we know what it looked like thanks to archeology. An Israelite terracotta figure is playing one of these instruments. These instruments were used in the Psalms and during the holy festivals of Israel. Isaiah speaks of the gladness of God’s people ascending the Mount Zion to the sound of the “halil” on the night “holy festival is kept” (Isa 30.29).

In Jesus’s temple the “halil” was played during those festivals and sacrifice. Jesus and his disciples would have heard it the night of the Last Supper. We learn in the Mishnah,

On twelve days in the year was the halil played before the altar: at the killing of the first Passover sacrifice, at the killing of the second Passover sacrifice, on the first festival day of Passover, on the festival day of Pentecost, and on the eight days of the Feast [of Sukkot/Tabernacles].”

The “trumpets” are of two varieties: the shofar and silver trumpets. We know exactly what the latter looked like in Jesus’s day and the early church. For 2000 years the Arch of Titus, near the Coliseum in Rome, has depicted booty laden Roman soldiers carrying off the sacred vessels of the Temple: the Menorah, the table of shewbread, and the sacred trumpets.

Coins minted during the years of Simon bar Kokhba depicting temple lyre of the first century

With these sacred trumpets (and all these instruments), the Way would be quite familiar. According to the Book of Acts, the Way gathered daily “worshiped in the Temple” (Acts 2.46, NLT) and gathered for “the prayers” at the “hour of prayer, three o’clock in the afternoon” (Acts 3.1-2, NRSV). The “hours of prayer” coincided with the daily sacrifices at Jesus’s temple: at 9 am and at 3 pm. These trumpets were used as part of the sacrificial and prayer service.

They never sounded less than twenty-one tekia in the temple, and never more than forty-eight. Every day they blew twenty-one tekia in the temple, three at the opening of the gates, nine at the daily morning sacrifice, and nine at the daily evening sacrifice. At the additional sacrifices they sounded an additional nine; and on the eve of the sabbath they added six …”

During Jesus’s day and the early Way, an additional instrument was used in the Temple. When I learned this I was just stunned. That is the “magrefah.” The “magrefah” was an early organ. The Mishnah tells us the organ was placed between the Temple portico and the altar (M.Tam 5.6).

The Gospels depict Jesus as zealous for “my Father’s house” (Jn 2.16) and frequently there. He even made it to Hanukkah which celebrates the renewal of the Temple by the Maccabees (Jn 10.22ff). In the Court of Women, where rabbis like Jesus would teach regularly and participate in worship, there were fifteen steps. On these steps the Levites would gather and lead the pilgrims in worship and the women (and men) would dance in joy before the Lord. The Psalms they played were the Songs of Ascents perfectly blending music; vocal and instrumental.

My mind went wandering all because a song came on. Most of today’s disciples know very little about the Psalms and even less about the Temple. Jesus’s temple was alive with music, the praise of Yahweh. As the Psalter ends,

Let everything that has breath, praise Yahweh.”

Blame the old CD

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