A reader from Portugal asks, "Did the people in the Old Testament sing the Psalms too or was it just the Levites?"
We read in the Bible of the angels singing at the creation (Job 38:7) but the brother is asking specifically about human beings. Singing has always been a part of man’s worship of God. It was especially a part of divine worship at the temple. But it seems from the data of Scripture that singing was not confined to the corporate worship of Jehovah; nor was it confined to the Psalms, for there were a few specific occasions in which inspired praise was sung in celebration of recent mighty acts of God.
Moses and the children of Israel sang a song after their deliverance from the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:1-19). The congregation itself sang and the song they sang was given at the time they sang it. Afterwards, Miriam the prophetess led the women in dancing and singing the same song (20-21).
Barak and Deborah, who were not Levites, sang a song at the destruction of the Canaanites in Judges 5. It is doubtful whether Barak and Deborah sang a duet; probably they composed the song and led the victorious Israelites in singing it.
In I Samuel 18:6-7, we read that the women sang a song of triumph celebrating Saul’s and David’s slaying the Philistines. Strikingly, women are highlighted in the three examples of singing just cited: Miriam and the women at the Red Sea, Deborah and the women from "all [the] cities of Israel" (6)—not only the Levitical cities.
At the time of the erection of the temple, music became much more prominent and took on a more fixed form. David, who organized the work in the temple, also appointed professional musicians for the worship of God. He and the musicians wrote the Psalms to be used in worship in the temple.
I quote a few short excerpts from the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), pp. 314-315:
In the accounts in Chronicles, which give the statistics of the Temple ministries, 4,000 of the 36,000 Levites chosen by David for Temple service were musicians (I Chron. 15:16; 23:5). These were the ‘singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals to raise sounds of joy.'
... The choir consisted of a minimum of twelve adult male singers, the maximum limitless. The singers served between the age of thirty and fifty with a five-year training period preceding this.
... Although a good part of the musical performance must have been left to the trained singers and players, the congregation was also musically involved.
Although the Psalms were written especially for the Levites in the worship of God in the temple, they were also intended to be sung by individuals from all tribes, such as the men who went up to Jerusalem to keep the pilgrimage feasts (Ps. 120-134). Many of the Psalms are written in the first person singular and are, therefore, the personal confession of a child of God, male or female, who pours out his or her soul to God.
Further, it is not difficult to imagine that David, who was of the tribe of Judah, wrote Psalm 23 as a young man while out in the pasture with his lyre taking care of his father’s sheep. Nor is it difficult to imagine David penning the words of some of his Psalms as he was trying to find a safe place to hide when Saul was seeking his life.
So it seems reasonable to assume that the Psalms, when written, were the songs that Israel sang, either in temple worship or in family devotions or alone with God.
When our Lord had eaten His last Passover with His disciples and had changed that Old Testament feast to the New Testament Lord’s Supper, we read that they sung a hymn (Matt. 26:30). This hymn that they sang was not what is meant today by a "hymn," but was the singing of Psalms 113-118. The Last Supper was, of course, held in Old Testament days, for the New Testament did not come until Christ had finished His work and had given the fullness of the Spirit to His church at Pentecost. Nevertheless, this singing by Christ and His disciples, most of whom were probably not Levites, was from the Old Testament Psalter, and was sung outside the temple services.
Many understand the various inspired utterances in Luke 1-2 to be songs: the Magnificat spoken by Mary of Judah’s tribe (1:46-55), when she learned she would bear the Messiah, which is similar to Hannah’s prayer when she was given a son (I Sam. 2:1-10); Levitical priest Zacharias’ prophecy when he was released from his dumbness (Luke 1:67-80); the angels praise on Bethlehem’s hillside at the birth of Christ (2:13-14).
In the New Testament, the Spirit is given to all the saints, and singing is an important part of one’s spiritual life that He works in us. All are to sing: men, as well as women; children and teenagers, as well as adults.
Paul, a Benjamite (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5), and Silas sang "praises" to God in the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25)—Psalms that both Jews learned in their earliest days. Undoubtedly singing was a part of congregational worship, for Paul admonishes the saints in Ephesus and in Colossae to sing by the power of the Spirit and with the grace in the heart—and to one another (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
All singing is not limited to corporate worship, for James gives inspired personal advice to the saints when he instructs us to sing Psalms when we are happy (Jam. 5:13).
Singing is a wonderful gift of God. We can express all that lies in our hearts in singing in a way it is impossible to express apart from singing. Singing always has about it and conveys through it sanctified emotions that give a genuineness to our expressions of various aspects of our salvation. We cry out to God for help in trouble; we beg forgiveness when we sin; we marvel in awe at the wonders of God’s creation and at the miracle of our own salvation; we lift up our voices in praise and thanksgiving to Him who dwells on high. Singing can do this in a way prose cannot. It is a great gift. Let us sing with understanding and to God’s glory (Ps. 47:7)!
- Volume: 14
- Issue: 6
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
Address725 Baldwin Dr. B-25
State or ProvinceMI