The Biblical Injunction on Music?
Music, Religion and some Questions of Scripture
by Alastair McIntosh
in the Stornoway Gazette,
22 May 1997, p. 8.
there have been a number of articles in the national press about some church
leaders in Lewis and Harris being of the opinion that the use of musical
instruments and the singing in worship of songs other than the Psalms is
“unbiblical” (eg. The Herald, 7 May, p. 9). Such reports cause much hilarity
to those who are not in sympathy with their cultural context, and a certain
amount of puzzlement to others of us who are often asked to explain these
aspects of a culture which has, in so many ways, deeply nourished us.
is written that the daughter of Herodias danced for the head of John the Baptist
(Mark 6:22 etc.), and I remember being told in primary school that this
“proved” dancing to be a sin. This seems to me like arguing that because
Jack the Ripper used a knife, we should henceforth dine only with forks.
far as I can see, in his few mentions of dance, song and music, Jesus himself
never even hinted at condemning them. On the contrary, his parables used the
imagery of the wedding feast and he made what would appear to be a rather
favourable reference to music and dance at the feast for the prodigal son (Luke
15:25). The Book of Revelation, though it is a text that I would confess not to
understand well, has several mentions of the heavenly host playing harps.
for non-Scriptural song, both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 advocate
singing not just the Psalms, but also “hymns and spiritual songs, singing and
making melody in your heart to the Lord”.
with musical instruments. Psalm 33 for instance urges that we should “Sing
unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise,” and it specifies that
the skilful playing should be with harp, psaltery and “an instrument of ten
strings”. What is the problem, then, if a minister of the Free Church or
anybody else for that matter plays a guitar in worship? And if the playing is
outside of a context of worship,
how is this worse than any other secular act that does not merit special
happen to be of the personal opinion that no musical instrument can match the
unaccompanied voices of a congregation giving praise in Gaelic Psalm. Also, as a
Quaker by convincement, I particularly appreciate the value of complete silence
in waiting on the “still small voice” (1 Kings 20:12). Music may therefore
be desirable, but it is not always essential. Surely, then, there is room in
life at appropriate times to have the Psalms, and silence, and also “a new
song” complete with the loud strumming of instruments.
is true that Amos at his most splendid proclaims on behalf of God: “I hate, I
despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... Take
away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your
harps.” But this was in the context of a passion for social justice where God
wanted not a show of pseudo-piety, but wanted people to “let justice roll down
like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:21-27 NRSV).
would be no more meaningful to derive a universal condemnation of music from
this than it would be to condemn church general assemblies because they fit the
description of “solemn assemblies”. Amos is quite clear that God’s anger
here is directed against those who, as soon as their regular period of worship
is over, get back to business where they “grind the destitute and plunder the
humble” (8:4-7 NEB). Their music, song and sacred ceremonies were therefore
unacceptable because they came from hypocritical hearts.
offended a God who is always on the side of the suffering. In the presence of
suffering, God wants not frivolous displacement activity, but appropriate
responses like, for example, songs that salve the wounded heart by sprinkling it
with joy, and full-blooded protest songs that fire it up again with the
precision targeted passion of a prophetic theology of insistence.
word, “protest”, originates from pro-testari
- to “testify for” something. That is precisely what many of the Psalms
are. They are positive testimonies. And so are many “a new song” used by the
churches worldwide today, and used also by what might be termed “secular
society” but which, bearing in mind Jesus’ warning about those who call
“Lord, Lord” too readily, we should be wary of being too judgemental about
there are times when it is right and proper to pick up a musical instrument, or
to dance, or to sing a song even, like the bards, with words that may come in
the inspiration of the moment? Surely this is a part of humankind’s chief end
being about the enjoyment of God, as
well as glorification. Yes, idolatry as that which leads away from authentic
spiritual reality is an ever present danger. But given Jesus’ theology of
serial forgiveness, is it not untrusting to hide away and repress what is
hopefully a Providential source of joy, rather than risk putting a foot wrong?
would actually go as far as to wonder if this understanding of forgiveness is
what makes true dance and the deepest flow of music from the heart possible. It
is why a popular contemporary hymn calls Jesus the “Lord of the Dance”. Only
by relaxing out of our various uptightnesses by accepting that we are acceptable
as we come “roughhewn to the carpenter’s bench”, can we dare to start to
dance in the deepest sense; can we start to live life, and live it
“abundantly” (John 10:10). Incarnation is about embodiment; not distanced
otherwordliness (Luke 17:21; John 2:21). Is that not the central Christian
message, or am I most terribly deluded and a danger in the columns of this
the light of the above, can some reader please edify me as to whether I have
missed something in the Bible? Let me add that in putting forward this analysis,
I do not wish to give the impression that I personally live wholly by the gospel
and am devoid of motes - far from it! But I would like to understand more about
the basis of strands of religious thought that are repressive of the arts both
within and outwith the churches.
in many of its forms is deeply important to me and when home on Lewis I should
like to think that this is a love that does not need sit hidden or
uncomfortably, even in the company of esteemed and highly traditional elders and
clergy. I should also like to think that children learning music or dance in the
schools today have some theological counterpoint to the “dancing is a sin”
kind of put-down that some of us were subjected to three or four decades ago.
is there a Biblical passage that outweighs all the others in showing these arts
necessarily to be “worldly” in the idolatrous sense of that word? Or are the
respected religious teachers to whom the national press refer actually raising
an issue which might be justified on aesthetic grounds of personal taste, and
might be a part of much post-Reformation Hebridean church custom, but is,
nevertheless, not Scriptural?
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