In a past post, I referred to an artist’s representation of travelers in route to Jerusalem to observe a Holy Day. While pictures and the descriptions offered by various authors are helpful, there is something missing—the sounds of worship and jubilation. I regret I can’t flip a switch, and give the reader a sight-and-sound experience, first century-style; I can, however, present examples of how music played a prominent part in the worship of God.
Some early expressions
- To begin, let’s revisit a scene we all know well—when God delivered Israel from Egypt: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song…” (Exodus 15:1); “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (verse 20).
- Deborah’s song in Judges 5 after Israel prevailed against Jabin, the king of Canaan.
- Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is also referred to as her “song,” or psalm of thanksgiving and praise, by several commentaries, including Barnes’ Notes, Keil & Delitzsch, and Adam Clarke’s.
- When King David purposed to bring the ark of God back to Zion, he and “all the house of Israel played music before the Lord on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, and on stringed instruments, and on tambourines, and on sistrums, and on cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5).
- In my KJV Bible the heading for Luke 1:42 reads: “Mary’s song of thanksgiving.”
All these examples lead me to conclude music was very much a part of an individual’s act of worship. (I believe that holds true today.)
It is no wonder that psalms—whether chanted or sung—were a part of the three festival seasons. Mary Ellen Chase, in her book, The Psalms for the Common Reader (1962), writes about a group of psalms commonly referred to as “Psalms of Ascent,” “Psalms of Degrees,” or in her terms, “pilgrim songs.” These are Psalms 120 through 134. She says, “No other type of psalm, especially in terms of human significance, rivals or perhaps equals in appeal that type known as the pilgrim song. As its title suggests, it was a psalm sung by those who had journeyed from their homes, sometimes in distant places, to Jerusalem for one or more of the great festivals of the year” (page 58).
A note in The Woman’s Study Bible regarding Psalm 120 says, “They [the songs of ascent] probably were sung by worshipers as they went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the great festivals each year.”
Anne Punton writes, “What did Jesus see as he looked around the Temple during Succot? The altar of sacrifice was decorated with willow branches. Processions of worshippers circuited the altar waving willow branches while choirs of Levites sang psalms to instrumental accompaniment” (The World Jesus Knew, 1996, page 113).
The importance of music
Musical training was a priority in some families. “Music was played for all festivals and festivities, often as an accompaniment to singing or dancing. As a part of their education some Jewish children were taught to play one or more musical instruments, including the cymbals, flute and lyre” (Jesus and His Times, Reader’s Digest, page 154). The chapter continues, “In addition, a girl would probably have learned to sing and dance, and to play on an instrument….Music was permitted and even encouraged, provided that it was connected with religious festivities” (page 155).
One of my favorites
Psalm 122, a song of degrees by David, seems to embody the heartsong of all who traveled year after year to observe the commanded festivals in Jerusalem. I only wish I could have heard it sung.
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet have been standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem is built
As a city that is compact together,
4 Where the tribes go up,
The tribes of the LORD,
To the Testimony of Israel,
To give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5 For thrones are set there for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
8 For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
9 Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good.