If there’s a stereotype about church, it’s of an old creaky building with an organ playing softly while people scurry about with hushed voices. There was a good reason for the stereotype. The church can be a place of meditative prayer and the serene mood creates an atmosphere for this. But that’s not the whole story. This week, I was reading about the first introduction of music to the worship of God in ancient Israel. And it changed some of my preconceptions about God, music and the worship He desires. Let me explain.
Interestingly, music is one aspect of the life of faith where people seem to take the initiative, rather than God. For example, in the Old Testament God goes to great lengths to detail the kind of sacrifices people should bring, the amount of money they should offer and the various steps they should take in approaching Him. But when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea, God didn’t have to tell them to sing. The song of Moses in Exodus 15 is a joyous response to God’s mercy and love. Moses and the people aren’t told to sing; they can’t help but sing!
When the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant is finally settled in Jerusalem, David has a similar response. Much to the consternation of his wife, David famously dances in joyous celebration (1 Chronicles 15:29). She feels that he should be acting with greater dignity, but he will have none of it. Again, it’s not that God has commanded him to dance and celebrate; he just can’t help himself. He is so filled with love and gratefulness to God that it must find expression. And he also institutes something new.
David gathers together all of the Levites and appoints singers and players of musical instruments. Up until this point, Israel had expressed its thankfulness in sacrifices, tithes and offerings, but now David wants the house of God to also be filled with songs of praise. It’s no surprise that David himself would write many of the songs that would be sung. But it’s interesting how the music itself is described.
In 1 Chronicles 15:16, it says, “David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.” Did you catch it? He commands them to “play loudly.” And as if to ensure that, he has people play cymbals, which seem to defy quiet performance. At this point, you’ll probably protest. ‘Paul, I think you’re making too much out of this verse.’ And, of course, I am. Except this isn’t an isolated verse. In v. 28, when it describes the resulting songs of praise it says, “So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres.” Were they really shouting? And now they’ve gotten horns and trumpets to accompany the cymbals. And what was the result? You saw it, right? “Loud music!”
Maybe all this shouting and loud music is just in a couple of verses or it was just a David thing. It doesn’t seem so. In the days of King Jehoshaphat, it says, “the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice” (2 Chronicles 20:18). In Psalm 33:3, people are commanded to sing a new song to the Lord, “with loud shouts.” Then, in Psalm 150, after calling for people to praise God with dancing and trumpets and other instruments, it adds, “Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” Ouch! Finally, Zephaniah 3:17 says of God Himself, “he will exult over you with loud singing.”
So, what’s the point of all of this volume? I think the biblical descriptions are pointing to two things. First, I think the desire was for worship to ring out from the temple to the surrounding neighbourhoods and communities. They wanted the world to hear how great God is. I remember a group I led in a church member’s home in Japan, and before we sang, she always opened up all her windows because, she said, “I want my neighbours to hear.” I think the second reason for the volume is that praise ought to be exuberant! Timid, half-hearted, weak voices mumbling words of worship are a totally inappropriate response to the incredible grace of God.
Don’t worry, I’m not planning on adding a cymbal troupe to our Sunday morning worship. Loud crashing sounds and piercing trumpet blasts probably work better in an open-air temple court than they would in our enclosed sanctuary. But I would encourage you to remember these verses when you open your mouth to sing. I can’t imagine what would move God to delight in us with loud singing, but surely He’s worthy of every ounce of volume we can offer Him. When you sing on Sunday, remember that God likes it loud.
In awe of Him,