Is It Okay to Play? (Part 1)

The Regulative Principle of Worship and Instruments of Music

Intro: Last week we mentioned singing in our discussion of activity of worship. We noted two prominent passages from the NT where singing is commanded. I want to begin by reading these verses together–

Ephesians 5:19 & Col. 3:16. In these verses we noticed some important elements of the command:

  • Christians “speak to one another” and “teach and admonish one another” in song. This underscores the corporate nature of the musical portion of church worship. Singing is an expression of praise for every Christian, not just a few.
  • The songs that are utilized are spiritual songs (hymns, psalms); not secular songs. The words matter, it is not a matter of music alone.
  • Singing is an activity of the heart. In fact, “the heart” in Eph. 5:19 is specifically mentioned as the object of the verb “Psallo” (make melody); literally meaning we are to pluck the strings of our hearts.

Our question for this morning: Why do we not use mechanical instruments of music in our worship? It is not because we cannot afford an instrument or band. It is not because we do not have anyone with musical talent or that we do not like this type of music. Our exclusion of any instruments of music is based on what God wants, not what we want.

I. The Regulative Principle of Worship: This is a phrase that basically means God has not left it up to us to choose how we are to worship Him. Despite our propensity to develop and arrange worship according to what pleases us, God has revealed His specific will in regards to worship. He demands that we respect His choices.

A. Let me reference 2 passages (of many others) one from the OT and one from the NT that present this principle.

1. Lev 10:1-3 – Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. 2 So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. 3 And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.'” So Aaron held his peace. Did God care?

2. John 4:23-24 – 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Proper worship must in truth – truth is not relative, but objective.

B. There are some facts that follow from the regulative principle of worship:

1. God alone has the prerogative to determine how He will be worshiped.

2. He has revealed His will on worship in the scriptures, and it is the final authority on the subject.

3. The central focus of true worship is to please Him and not ourselves.

4. We cannot add to or subtract from His revealed commandments without being guilty of false worship.

C. When we apply the regulative principle of worship to the subject of instrumental music, what becomes glaringly clear (and to which most would agree) is that there is no command in NT scriptures for Christians to use instruments. The instrument (as an object) or playing (as the action) in not mentioned in NT worship. In all 9 occurrences of worshiping in song in the NT, the command (verb) is to sing. The NT is silent about worshiping with an instrument. The conclusion we must accept is that if God did not authorize it – it is false worship. In addition, if playing is commanded or even implied, then it is mandatory, not optional.

II. Musical Instruments in the Old Testament: It is often cited that God’s people used instruments in the OT, and therefore it is OK to use them now. Although we will consider this argument more directly later on, consider the place of instruments in OT public worship.

A. The Tabernacle: The only instrument used in the tabernacle was the trumpet. As with every other element of the tabernacle, its use was regulated by God’s word. Numbers 10:1-2, 8, 1010 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 “Make two silver trumpets for yourself; you shall make them of hammered work; you shall use them for calling the congregation and for directing the movement of the camps. …8 The sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets; and these shall be to you as an ordinance forever throughout your generations…10 Also in the day of your gladness, in your appointed feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be a memorial for you before your God: I am the Lord your God.” What can we recognize from these commands? These instruments were regulated in three ways:

1. The trumpet (including the number of them) was the only instrument authorized to be used.

2. The priests were the only people authorized to use them.

3. The occasions when they could be used were specified (appointed feasts).

a. During the wilderness period, these were the only instruments used in public worship (consider the occasion of Miriam later). It was not until the occupation of Canaan in the days of David that other instruments were added to the public worship.

b. Moses was, no doubt, familiar with the many instruments of Egypt (guild of musicians) that were used in their worship. But he did not see the liberty to add them to Israel’s worship.

B. Days of David: things had changed for Israel – now possessed the land, and the ark was in place in Jerusalem. The Levites were no longer needed to transport the tabernacle. David began to use them as musicians.

1. 1 Chronicles 16:1- 1 So they brought the ark of God, and set it in the midst of the tabernacle that David had erected for it. Then they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before God. 2 And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord. 3 Then he distributed to everyone of Israel, both man and woman, to everyone a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a cake of raisins. 4 And he appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to commemorate, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel: 5 Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals;

a. The narrative at this point does not tell us why David brought other instruments into the worship. We might assume it was because he was a musician himself and liked them. Perhaps a changing culture approved of them. But 300 years later, during Hezekiah’s reign, we find out why. After years of neglect, the temple worship was being restored by Hezekiah. 2 Chronicles 29:25-27 – 25 And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandments of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets. 26 The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. 27 Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel.

1) When Hezekiah restored the worship of the temple he had to deal with the question, should instruments be used, which ones, by whom? He did not assume a liberty. He found that only certain instruments had been authorized; trumpets, with the instruments of David. He limited it to what was “according to the command of David”, which it states in vs. 25 came from the Lord through His prophets.

2) Here is the reason David instituted other instruments and singers. It was commanded by God. Neither the King nor the prophet Nathan had the liberty to alter God’s worship. God regulated His worship. God had revealed to David what He authorized.

3) The conclusion must be that David expanded the use of instruments in Temple worship in response to God’s command, and thus according to the command of David was through the authority of God.

b. When David came to the end of his life and gave the throne to Solomon, he appointed the Levitical singers with his musical instruments to be used in the Temple worship. 1 Chronicles 23:1-523 So when David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel. 2 And he gathered together all the leaders of Israel, with the priests and the Levites. 3 Now the Levites were numbered from the age of thirty years and above; and the number of individual males was thirty-eight thousand. 4 Of these, twenty-four thousand were to look after the work of the house of the Lord, six thousand were officers and judges, 5 four thousand were gatekeepers, and four thousand praised the Lord with musical instruments, “which I made,” said David, “for giving praise.”

1) We learn again of the divine authority in regard to the Temple and its worship, which came through David in 1 Chronicles 28:11-13, 1911 Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the vestibule, its houses, its treasuries, its upper chambers, its inner chambers, and the place of the mercy seat; 12 and the plans for all that he had by the Spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord, of all the chambers all around, of the treasuries of the house of God, and of the treasuries for the dedicated things; 13 also for the division of the priests and the Levites, for all the work of the service of the house of the Lord, and for all the articles of service in the house of the Lord… 19 “All this,” said David, “the Lord made me understand in writing, by His hand upon me, all the works of these plans.” David received a divine revelation.

2) John L. Girardeau, a Presbyterian Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, comments on the above passages: “ When the Temple was to be built, its order of worship to be instituted, David received a divine revelation in regard to it, just as Moses had concerning the tabernacle with its
ordinances …. Instrumental music would not have been constituted an element in the Temple-worship, had not God expressly authorized it by his command.”

c. How did Solomon institute Temple worship after the Temple was built? It was all performed in accordance with God’s command through David. When the ark was brought into the Temple, we read in 2 Chronicles 5:11-13 that …”the priests came forth from the holy place…. and all the Levitical singers … with cymbals, harps, and lyres…accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music.” 2 Chron. 8:14 tells us why Solomon did it this way… Now according to the ordinance of his father David, he appointed the divisions of the priests for their service, and the Levites for their duties of praise and ministering before the priests according to the daily rule, and the gatekeepers by their divisions at every gate; for David the man of God had so commanded.

d. What becomes apparent is that this pattern is repeated continuously in the history of Israel. Leaders of restorations of worship look back to “the command of David” as the divine authority under which musical instruments were to be used. On each of these occasions, the Temple worship had been corrupted and needed to be restored. The people of God were faced with the same questions: How should God be worshiped? Should instruments be used? which ones? by whom? On every occasion, they continued to look back to God’s command through David many hundreds of years earlier.

1) About 170 years after David – Jehoida, the priest; 2 Chron. 23:18Moreover, Jehoiada placed the offices of the house of the LORD under the authority of the Levitical priests, whom David had assigned over the house of the LORD, to offer the burnt offerings of the LORD, as it is written in the law of Moses-with rejoicing and singing according to the order of David.

2) About 380 years after David- King Josiah – 2 Chron. 35:4, Josiah said, “Prepare yourselves by your fathers’ households in your divisions, according to the writing of David king of Israel and according to the writing of his son Solomon.” When the reforms were instituted, we read in 2 Chron. 35:15, ”And the singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their places, according to the command of David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer.”

3) 550 years after David – Zerubbabel and Jeshua instituted worship after the exile in the second Temple. Ezra 3:10the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel.

4) Nearly 600 years after David- Nehemiah Nehemiah 12:24And the heads of the Levites were Hashabiah, Sherebiah, and Jeshua the son of Kadmiel, with their brothers across from them, to praise and give thanks, group alternating with group, according to the command of David the man of God.

i. Nehemiah instituted the trumpets of Moses and the musical instruments of David in 12:35-36, “and some of the sons of the priests with trumpets …. and his kinsmen …. with the musical instruments of David the man of God.”

ii. A few verses later we read (45-46), Both the singers and the gatekeepers kept the charge of their God and the charge of the purification, according to the command of David and Solomon his son. For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chiefs of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

C. What are the conclusions from our study of instruments in the OT?

1. God has always regulated worship. He did not leave it to even kings and priests to determine how He was to be worshiped.

2. The use of instruments was always viewed by God’s people as under His authority, and not as a matter of personal liberty. This perspective does not change throughout the Bible.

3. God specified, through both Moses and David what instruments were to be used, when, and by whom. These commands became the point of reference for each reformation and restoration of temple worship in the OT. The people of God continued to look back hundreds of years to what God had commanded through David in the Scripture, and they brought only those musical instruments into worship. They never assumed they had authority to bring any other instruments into God’s worship without clear divine command.

a. John Girardeau writes in regard to the use of musical instruments in worship, In the Jewish dispensation God … kept the ordering of this part of his formal and instituted worship in his own hands. There is positive proof that it was never made an element of that worship except by his express command. Without his warrant it was excluded; only with it was it employed.

4. I hope that the application of what we have studied to our own time is apparent. If the regulative principle was true then, it is true now. There is no command to play an instrument in the NT. God is silent. He commands singing. How should or can we answer those questions: should we use instruments, which ones, when, by whom?

5. Consider this: Despite the numerous specific references to musical instruments in the OT worship of the Jews, the early church did not use them. Why not? It would have been natural for them to “assume” that God allowed them in worship. As we have seen, God’s faithful people have always understood the regulative principle of worship and the prohibitive nature of His silence.

Conclusion: In a future lesson we will consider the NT perspective on this subject, including the history of instrumental music in the church.

How important is it to do just what God says? What should we teach?

  • Mark 16:16 – 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

From Old Light on New Worship by John Prince