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A Cappella Singing

by Leland M. Haines

There is strong evidence that the only music in the early church was a cappella singing. For one thing, the New Testament speaks only about singing. Jesus and His disciples sang together: "And when they had sung a hymn . . ." (Matthew 26:30; cf. Mark 14:26). Paul wrote, "I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also" (I Corinthians 14:15); "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father" (Ephesians 5:18-20); and "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16). The writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee" (Hebrews 2:12), apparently referring to singing.

In the above passages, there is not a hint of musical instruments. Early church history tells us that instruments were not used. They were a later addition to the church and were brought in without New Testament authority. For several hundred years the church rejected man-made, mechanical means of making music.

In the Old Testament musical instruments are mentioned mainly in relation to celebrations:

  • Singers sung "songs of joy, and with instruments of music" after coming home from war. I Samuel 18:6
  • "David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the Lord with all might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals" at the returning of the ark. II Samuel 6:5
  • "Singers who should play loudly on musical instruments" at the returning of the ark. I Chronicles 15:16; cf. 13:8; 15:19, 28; 16:5. 16:45.
  • Musical instruments were used at the celebration of bringing the ark to the house of the Lord. II Chronicles 5:12, 13
  • Musical instruments were used at the celebration of a victorious war. 20:28 >LI> At the celebration of killing Queen Athaliah, done to put David's descendant Joash on the throne, musical instruments were used. 23:13
  • "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." Ezra 3:10
  • Singers, with cymbals, harps, and lyres were used at the dedication of the wall. Nehemiah 12:27
  • A war song had singers and timbrels. Psalm 68:25,
  • "Sing aloud to God . . . Raise a song, sound the timbrel, the sweet lyre with the harps. Blow the trumpet at" new and full moon feast days. Psalm 81:1, 2
  • "O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The LORD has made known his victory, he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations." 98:1, 2
  • "Sing to the Lord a new song. . . . Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre!" 149:1,3.This is related to a victory (vs. 4, 7-9).
  • "And every stroke of the staff of punishment which the LORD lays upon them will be to the sound of timbrels and lyres; battling with brandished arm he will fight with them" concerning the Assyrians. Isaiah 30:32

  • A reference to musical instruments not associated with singing is: David set apart "who should prophesy with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals in thanks giving and praise to the Lord" (I Chron. 25:1; cf. v. 3).

    There are several Scriptures that refer to singing and musical instruments. One should not assume musical instruments accompanied the singing.

  • David set aside a group "under the father in music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for service of the house of God." Another group were "trained in singing to the Lord." I Chronocles 25:6, 7
  • "The burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David." II Chronicles 29:25, 28
  • "Praise the Lord with 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 33:2, 3 (Note: Verses 16-19 suggest this Psalm is war related.)
  • "To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; . . . Let the nations be glad and sing for joy." Psalm 67:1; cf. v. 4
  • "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." Psalm 71:22
  • "Sing praises to thy name . . ;. to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre." Psalm 92:1-3
  • "Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God upon the lyre." Psalm 147:7
  • "Praise him with trumpet; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!" Psalm 150:3,4
  • The dancing in the last Psalm quotation suggests it is not related to a worship service.

    Later in certain circumstances singing to the harp and David's instruments were condemned: "Woe to them . . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music" (Amos 6:5). This suggests that the Lord did not approve of David's inventions.

    Singing alone is often mentioned (Psalms 7:7; 9:2, 11; 13:1; 18:49; 21:13; 27:6; 30:4; 47:6, 7; 51:14; 57:7, 9; 59:9, 16, 17; 61:8; 63:7; 66:2, 4; 68:4, 32; 75:9; 84:2, 4; 95:1; 96:1, 2; 101:1; 104:33 105:2, 43 108:1, 3; 119:172; 135:3; 137:3, 4; 138:1, 5; 145:7; 146:2; etc.). Edersheim wrote, "Properly speaking, the real service of praise in the Temple was only with the voice. This is often laid down as a principle by the Rabbis. What instrumental music there was, served only to accompany and sustain the song. . . . The blasts of the trumpets, blowed by priests only, formed-at least in the second Temple-no part of the instrumental music of the service, but were intended for quite different purposes . . . According to tradition, they were intended symbolically to proclaim the kingdom of God, Divine Providence, and the final judgment. . . . On ordinary days the priests blew seven times, each time three blasts-a short sound, an alarm, and a sharp short sound (Thekiah, Theruah, and Thekiah), or, as the Rabbis express it, 'An alarm in the midst and a plain note before and after it.' According to tradition, they were intended symbolically to proclaim the kingdom of God, Divine Providence, and the final judgment. The first three blasts were blown when the great gates of the Temple-especially that of Nicanor-were opened. Then, when the drink-offering was poured out, the Levites sung the psalm of the day in three sections. After each section there was a pause, when the priests blew three blasts, and the people worshipped. This was the practice at the evening, as at the morning sacrifice. On the eve of the Sabbath a three fold blast of the priests' trumpets summoned the people, far as the sound was carried over the city, to prepare for the holy days, while another threefold blast announced its actural commencement. On Sabbaths, when, besides the ordinary, an additional sacrifice was brought, and the 'Song of Moses' sung-not the whole every Sabbath, but divided into six parts, one for every Sabbath, -the priests sounded their trumpets additional three times in the pauses of the Sabbath psalm" (The Temple, pp. 50, 51).

    Edersheim further wrote, "As in early Jewish poetry there was neither definite and continued metre (in the modern sense), nor regular and premeditated rhyme, so there was neither musical notation, nor yet any artificial harmony. The melody was simple, sweet, and sung in unison to the accompaniment of instrumental music" (Ibid, p. 51). Thus we see in the Old Testament times the use of music and musical instruments were drastically different from twentieth-century practices. But more importantly, it offers no model for Christian (New Testament) worship.

    In sharp contrast to the Old Testament, we have no record that musical instruments were carried over into the church. The reason for this is the law was fulfilled in Christ. Instruments were rejected along with the burnt offerings, dancing, incenses, sacrifices, etc. This was based on the fact that "the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23, 24; cf. Philippians 3:3). Mechanical machines are not of the Spirit. The aesthetic and entertainment value of musical instruments is well known, but this is not desired in true worship. This goal is "singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart" (Ephesians 5:19). "In spirit" and "your heart" is a spiritual work. In commenting on being cheerful, James wrote, "Let him sing praise" (James 5:13). The aesthetic and entertainment "spirit of the world" (I Corinthians 2:12) must be rejected. This was one of the reasons the early church sang a cappella. It should be noted that the synagogues too rejected musical instruments ("singing was unaccompanied").

    If musical instruments were used in worship, they surely would have been mentioned in the New Testament. The Fathers and church history show they were not used. Their non-mention of musical instruments is not an argument from silence. There are positive statements that we should sing. It makes no sense to say, "Oh, we are not told the churches cannot use them, so they are OK." This is like saying, Christ said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt. 22:38), but since He did not mention war, we can fight for our country.

    There are reasons to expect a difference between the Testaments. One "probable explanation for the contrast between the two testaments on this matter is obvious: The New Testament gift of the Holy Spirit and His inspiration in the believer's heart did away with the need for mechanically produced music" (Bible Doctrine and Practice, Gospel Publishers, Moundridge, Kansas, p. 267).

    Many churches want to use aids in worship to create a spirit of awe in the listener, and herein lays the danger of musical instruments. They can subvert the worshiper. Man-made experiences can replace the Holy Spirit and create a false impression in the hearer.

    There are other practical reasons for a cappella singing. A cappella singing focuses on the words of the song. It is a powerful witness to the they can hear the words. Singing together has a unifying effect on the congregation. It has a unifying effect on the worshipers. It improves singing. The congregation must learn to sing because a piano or an organ does not carry the melody and drown out the singing. Musical instruments cause the singing to deteriorate because singing is quieter so the instruments can be heard. Furthermore, musical instruments are expensive to buy and maintain. Also, if quality playing is wanted, paid, professional organists/pianists are often needed. There are more important uses of money in the church than spending it on unneeded musical instruments.

    Musical instruments do not stop at a piano, but often a piano leads to an organ, guitars, drums, etc. This changes the type of songs used. Usually they go from hymns to secular styles. Songs are chosen more for musical style rather than the words.

    Let us worship the Lord according to Christ's teaching, that is, in spirit and truth, and use a cappella singing to stress the words carried in the songs.

    from The Biblical Concept of the Church, © copyright 1996 by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI. Revised July 2000.


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    July 4, 2000