20 Apr 2023

Psalm 33: Lutes, Temple, Trust & Worship

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Faith, Music, Patternism, Psalms, Worship
Lute on Jerusalem Street

REJOICE in the LORD, O you righteous
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the LORD with the lyre:
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”
(Psalm 33.1-3).

Normally I’m pretty much finished with my sermon by Wednesday. This week however I am still struggling with our text for Sunday, Psalm 33. It is a magnificent Psalm dominated by the Hesed of Yahweh, the faithfulness of Yahweh (the basis of our “new song”), and our response of trust in God’s name and hope in God’s Hesed (vv. 5,18, 21). It is no wonder that Rabbi Saul of Tarsus can tell the Gentile readers of the Letter to the Romans that salvation has always been by grace through faith, it is all over the Psalms. As it is brilliantly on display in Psalm 33.

But it is the opening that has been intriguing me all week. Psalm 33 begins with five imperatives to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. The five imperatives are:

1) Rejoice (v.1)

2) Praise him with the “lyre” (v.2)

3) Make melody with the ten stringed “nebel” (v.2b)

4) Sing (v.3a)

5) Play (v.3b)

David Mitchell, a Hebrew scholar and archeomusicologist, devotes a whole chapter to the instruments in the Psalter in his book The Songs of Ascent: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples. This “nebel” is sometimes translated as “harp” (NRSV). But it is sometimes translated as “lute.” It is interesting that “nebel” also is used for a bag that holds wine, a wineskin. So a good number of experts believe (with iconographic evidence) that this instrument is in fact closer to what we call a lute than a harp. It has that bulbous resonating end that the ten strings are over. It is sort of like a guitar.

Egyptian Musician playing a Lute

When we look at the Greek in the Septuagint for Psalm 33 (32 in the LXX) we find the 2nd Person Aorist Imperative (it is active and plural) ψάλατε in v.3 This is the very term used by Rabbi Paul in Ephesians 5.19, ψάλλω. We are to “sing” (ᾄσατε) and to ψάλατε with that ten stringed lute. The term is used in v.2, ψάλατε αὐτῷ. We play/strum/make melody to him.

The Psalmist, and I assume the Holy Spirit if we believe in inspiration (and Jesus if we believe the Hebrews Writer), believes it is possible to actually praise/worship God with the lyre (v.2a, NRSV). Indeed it is an “imperative.”

It would seem also that the Psalmist/Holy Spirit/Jesus sees no conflict between the imperative to rejoice, the imperative to praise with lyre, the imperative to strum the ten string lute (skillfully!), and the imperative to sing, and the imperative to play. These all reflect the same reality. They all are expressions of giving worship to the God of Israel. They are all worship. All of these imperatives flow into the creation of the “new song” that is delving deep into Yahweh’s Hesed as our hope and exhorting us to “trust/have faith in” Yahweh’s “holy name” (v.21). In context, it would seem that Psalm 33 is itself the “new song” that is enthusiastically offered to glory of God on the strings of the harp and lute.

Sacrifices were almost always eaten by the worshipers. Only a small portion was literally burned on the altar. Most of the sacrifice was eaten in a shared meal between the worshipers and God. The sacrifices represent a table where Yahweh and the Gathered People eat and drink in God’s Presence (as we see in Exodus 24.9-11). It is a profound moment of communion/fellowship with the God of Israel. This sacrificial meal is surrounded by singing and music in the Bible.

The music of the Psalms, it seems to me, share in the cosmic dimension of the Temple. The space of the Temple mysteriously merges into God’s heavenly abode and they are joined in the Temple, at the Table, in the singing and the playing. Our communing, our singing, even our playing merges into and joins that of the heavenly host and of all the creatures and creation of God. That is our worship joins hands in fellowship with the heavenly host that is already in worship. What we do here in worship reflects what is done in heaven (i.e. the realm of God). In fact, the Temple is heaven on earth and when we enter the Temple we are mysteriously entering into the abode of God.

Is this not what we see in Hebrews (12.22-24) and the Revelation of John? Note this language in light of Psalm 33.1-3.

But you have come [perfect tense] to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angles in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new/renewed covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrew 12.22-24).

And the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders …” (14.2-3)

standing besides the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the Song of Moses, the servant of God, and the Song of the Lamb …” (15.2-3)

Sounds an awful lot like what the Psalmist in Psalm 33 is saying to the People of God.

The “harps of God,” as John calls pull us into deep worship of the God who is all faithful and full of Hesed as Psalm 33 declares. We return our gratitude by trusting in Yahweh’s holy name, hoping in God’s never exhausted Hesed, and by singing a new song with all of heaven and earth … with everything we have. Maybe even Lutes.

Further Reading

For an exegesis of Hebrew 12 see John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, Johnny Melton, A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Divine Encounter (pp. 139-143).

Jesus of Nazareth, the Psalms, and Instruments

Israel, David, Music: Caricatures, Misrepresentations and Unity

What are the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Ephesians 5.19?

Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced

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