‘Be filled with the the spirit speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:19)
We can see from this verse from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that singing and music was a central part of Christian worship for the early church 2000 years ago, and has been central ever since. For a large part of the last 2000 years, most people couldn’t read, with only the rich getting a formal education. Hymns and songs with their catchy melodies would be one of the main ways that people would learn about God and Jesus. It is much easier to remember a song than to memorise a piece of scripture. Hymns and songs were and are vital because they build up the church and they instruct us. They speak to the heart and to the mind.
Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws. (Andrew Fletcher – 17th century writer and politician)
Songs are incredibly powerful more so than laws! They mold us from the inside, Paul recognises this and so sees how important it is to make sure that we prioritise sung Christian worship as a central part of living out our faith. If you want to know about the ethics of the Old Testament read the Psalms, not the laws!
The priests in ancient Israel were musicians! That may come as a surprise to many. Learning to be proficient in playing a musical instrument hardly takes priority over Greek in most seminaries today!
The temple of Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon was completed in 959 BC. The Book of Chronicles (dated variously between 500 BC and 325 BC), in the Bible, tells us what happened at the consecration of the temple soon after 959 BC:
All the Levitical-priest singers (Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives) stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, 14 and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)
God became mysteriously present (mystically present: “the glory of the Lord”) when the musicians and singers performed.
Perhaps the best known word from ancient Hebrew is Hallelujah. The word Hallel comes from ancient temple worship. The word Hallel means “praise” and Hallelujah means “praise the Lord” with music and song. The word often comes at the beginning and end of the Psalms. The Book of Psalms (in the Bible) is the song book of ancient temple worship. The Hebrew root Hallel, however, means not only “praise” but also “shine”. The biblical scholar Margaret Barker says that the word Hallelujah at the beginning of Psalms was probably an instruction to the priest-musicians to cause the Lord’s face to shine: Lord Shine! It’s an invitation for God to be mysteriously (mystically) present. God’s shining face, according to Margaret Barker, is what we nowadays would call “enlightenment”.
Revd Dr Peter Pimentel