Does music matter to God? Should it matter to us?
We are living in a day when people — even Christians — see music as unimportant. Enjoyable, yes; but necessary or important? No.
We see this kind of thinking all around us. Music education is now considered extracurricular in schools. It’s extra. It’s not important. Support for the arts is waning in communities. Whereas families once viewed music as the highlight of the home, most families today have no interest.
This kind of thinking has, of course, influenced the church as well. What we believe theologically is important. How we live is important. But music? It’s just something extra God has given us merely for enjoyment. This certainly has ramifications for worship, then. If music is merely for enjoyment and is unimportant, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of music we use in worship. God just doesn’t really care.
Or does he?
I would like to demonstrate Scripturally, theologically, spiritually, and historically that music does indeed matter. It matters to God, and it should matter to us.
Music Matters Scripturally
If we want to discern whether music matters to God, we must first examine the Scriptures. What does the Bible have to say about music?
The Bible refers explicitly to music around 1200 times (ESV). Now that in and of itself is not necessarily significant. The Bible refers to plants around 1000 times as well. But when we consider the kinds of things that are linked with music in the Bible, or the contexts in which we find music in the Bible, it is clear that music matters.
First, in the Bible music is highlighted as an important part of worship, both Old Testament Temple worship and New Testament Church worship.
In the Old Testament we find record of much of what went on in Jewish society. Israel was a theocracy, so their religious, civil, and social activities were all intertwined. Much of what went on in their society was related to their relationship with Yahweh, but wasn’t necessarily set apart specifically for corporate worship. This is certainly true of some of the music we have recorded for us in the Old Testament. Music is used for all sorts of purposes in the Bible: there are work songs,1 war songs,2 love songs,3 songs for entertainment,4 and songs of derision, mourning, and lamentation.5 Since religion and society were intertwined in Jewish culture, the Old Testament relates many common uses of music in everyday life.
But some things were set apart specifically for corporate worship in the Temple. Before David’s death, God allowed him to organize the Temple worship that would come to fulfillment under Solomon. We find this organization in 1 Chronicles 22 and following. Only the Levites were permitted to do work in the Temple, and at that time there were 38,000 men 30 years old and up. David divided these men for specific tasks: 24,000 were to be in charge of the work in the Temple, 6,000 were to be officers and judges, 4,000 were to be gatekeepers, and 4,000 were to praise the Lord with the musical instruments that he had made for that purpose (1 Chronicles 22:1-5). We find two things of interest in this. First, that only Levites were allowed to perform music in the Temple, and second that God specifically says that He had designed music for His praise.
He then gives these groups of men specific instructions about how they are to go about leading worship in the Temple, and in chapter 25, he specifically addresses the musicians.
1 Chronicles 25:1-7 David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was: 2 Of the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah, and Asharelah, sons of Asaph, under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied under the direction of the king. 3 Of Jeduthun, the sons of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD. 4 Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel and Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, and Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, Mahazioth. 5 All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer, according to the promise of God to exalt him, for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. 7 The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all who were skillful, was 288.
It is quite significant that David took so much time, under direction from the Lord, to set apart these Levites for the purpose of making music in the Temple. Furthermore, it is interesting to note how connected this music is with prophesy — direct revelation from God. So in the organization of the Temple worship in the Old Testament, God ordained that there be priests and leaders and gatekeepers and musicians, and these musicians were specifically involved in leading the corporately gathered people in praise of God. God set apart music as one of the things he deemed important for His worship. He didn’t set apart farmers or shepherds or builders; he did set apart musicians. We see this clearly in the instructions for Temple worship and in the Psalms as well.
This is reflected also, then, in New Testament Church worship:
Ephesians 5:19 Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.
Here, in the epistle most directly focused on the Church, we find a command to include music in our church worship. The parallel passage in Colossians 3:16-17 makes this congregational emphasis even more clear with its discussions in this context of the church as one body. The terms used here signify both vocal and instrumental music — “singing” being a translation of a term to signify vocal singing, and “making melody” a translation of a term meaning to play on a stringed instrument.
So both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, music (both vocal and instrumental) is directly connected and even commanded for corporate worship along with preaching, praying, giving, etc. We’ll look more later at why God set apart music for congregational worship, but for now it’s at least instructive that He did.
This in itself should signify the importance and significance of music.
Second, in the Bible music is highlighted as an important vehicle to communicate God’s truth.
The parallel passage to Ephesians 5:19 addresses a second Scriptural purpose for music that is found throughout the pages of the Bible.
Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Music is often highlighted as an important vehicle for the communication of God’s truth. Here the Church at Colossi is commanded to let the Word of Christ dwell in them, music being an important accompanying vehicle. I’ll mention in a moment that I don’t believe that teaching propositional truth is all that is in view in this verse, but that is certainly part of the power of music — it can accompany and enhance God’s truth.
Songs throughout the Bible are filled with God’s truth. Just survey the Jewish hymnal — the Psalms — and you will find enough theology to fill a systematic theology. God could have presented that truth in any number of ways, but he chose to do so with art — poetry set to an appropriate tune.
We can find many examples of this in the New Testament as well. There are many passages in the epistles that scholars agree were written in a distinctly poetic form and likely set to music and sung in the early church: Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, John 1:1-18, Ephesians 1:1-11, 2:14-16, Colossians 1:15-20, and Hebrews 1:3.
Sacred songs are important vehicles for the communication of God’s truth to His people.
Third, in the Bible music is highlighted as an important means for expressing beauty, and thus leading us to know Supreme Beauty.
The glory of God is one of those sometimes nebulous concepts that we don’t often really get our minds around. But when we look at the kind of language that is used in Scripture to describe God’s glory, it is clear that the idea that most closely connects with glory is the idea of beauty. The Bible is filled with aesthetic terminology to describe God. God’s glory is His beauty, and his beauty is magnified when His people delight in lesser forms of beauty. In the Bible, beautiful music is often used as a way to magnify and praise the beauty of God Himself.
And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the LORD, and who should praise the beauty of holiness (2 Chronicles 20:21).
They shall lift up their voice, they shall sing; For the majesty of the LORD They shall cry aloud from the sea (Isaiah 24:14).
It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, The excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, The excellency of our God (Isaiah 35:2).
Fourth, in the Bible music is highlighted as an important tool to sanctify our emotions.
One of the most well-known accounts of music’s affect on people in the Bible helps us see the final Scriptural benefit of music. In 1 Samuel 16:23 David uses music to sooth Saul’s uneasy emotional state. We see the same kind of thing happening in Acts 16:25 when Paul and Silas were in prison. Instead of letting fear and depression take over them, they sang hymns. James 5:13 also talks about the emotional benefit of singing — it helps us express cheer.
We’ll talk about this more in a moment, but the Bible highlights music’s ability to express and change emotion. I think this is the primary thrust of Colossians 3:16. The “teaching” that occurs through music is more than just teaching propositional truth to the mind. That can’t be the only thing in view here because (a) there are other better means to teach the mind than with music, and (b) the parallel passage, Ephesians 5:19, talks about pure instrumental music. Music by itself doesn’t teach the mind; music teaches the emotions. I’ll elaborate more on this point in a moment.
In summary, the Bible does not mention music merely as something neutral for our enjoyment or something mundane and unimportant. The way music is handled in the Scripture highlights its significance and importance.
I’d like to elaborate more on two of these points from a theological perspective. First, God’s glory and music’s beauty, and second, the way music can express and teach our emotions.
Music Matters Theologically
First, beautiful music points us to God.
As I noted earlier, God is Supreme Beauty. When the Bible talks about God’s glory, the best equivalent idea to express that glory is beauty or magnificence or splendor. Here are some additional biblical descriptions of God’s beauty:
Have you an arm like God? Or can you thunder with a voice like His? Then adorn yourself with majesty and splendor, And array yourself with glory and beauty (Job 40:9-10).
O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth (Psalm 8:9)!
One thing I have desired of the LORD, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to inquire in His temple (Psalm 27:4).
You are fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Your lips; Therefore God has blessed You forever. Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, With Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride prosperously because of truth, humility, and righteousness; And Your right hand shall teach You awesome things (Psalm 45:2-4)!
Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty (Psalm 104:1).
All Your works shall praise You, O LORD, And Your saints shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom, And talk of Your power, To make known to the sons of men His mighty acts, And the glorious majesty of His kingdom (Psalm 145:10-12).
It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, The excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, The excellency of our God (Isaiah 35:2).
For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty (Zechariah 9:17; ESV)!
According to Thomas Aquinas, beauty is something that pleases when it is apprehended. It is something that has objective qualities that cause pleasure in an observer. It is possible to take pleasure in things that are not beautiful; we may take pleasure in something because of what it can do for us. But when we take pleasure in something merely for its beauty, we call that disinterested pleasure — a non-utilitarian pleasure in an object. This is the essence of aesthetic pleasure — delighting in something just because of its intrinsic worth, not because of what it can do for us.
This is why the Bible commands us to take pleasure in God. Psalm 37:4 commands us to delight in the Lord. When we delight in God, we are delighting in His beauty simply for who He is.
Since God is Supreme Beauty, it follows that all lesser forms of beauty come from Him. In other words, an earthly object is beautiful because it reflects the beauty of God. Because of this fact, lesser forms of beauty can point to the Ultimate Source of beauty:
Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Romans 1:20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
God’s creation, which reflects His beauty, declares and proclaims His beauty. This can be said for anything that is beauty as compared to God’s beauty, including beautiful music. Thus, as Psalm 19:1 and Romans 1:20 make clear, beauty in music can be a form of general, non-salvific revelation of God.
Second, beautiful music magnifies God’s beauty.
Furthermore, when we delight in an earthly object because it is beautiful, we are affirming the objective nature of God’s beauty. In other words, when we take delight in certain music because of its beautiful properties, we are implying that it is indeed worthy of delight. And since those properties are worthy particularly because they are part of God’s essence, we are affirming that He is ultimately worthy of our delight. This may be one of the reasons Paul commands in Philippians 4:8 to consider things that are “lovely,” “worthy of praise,” and “admirable.”
The converse of this is true as well: if we call something beautiful that does not possess the properties of God’s beauty, we fail to bring God his due glory.
Beauty is not, therefore, incidental or unimportant. We must concern ourselves with what is beautiful and what is not since it affects how we glorify God. And since music, as an art form, can either express beauty or ugliness, music matters.
Music Matters Spiritually
The essence of our relationship with God is not primarily what we know or how we act. We must know God to have a relationship with Him, but plenty of people, including Satan himself, know a whole lot of doctrine about God without having a relationship with Him. If someone does have a relationship with God, he will reflect that relationship with how he lives, but plenty of people live good lives without knowing God personally.
What marks a true believer is what is in his spirit — his emotions. A true believer not only knows God and tries to obey God, but he also loves God. Christ said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our being (Matthew 22:37). God cares not only about what we know about Him and how we act, but also how we feel about Him.
Music is often called the language of emotion, and for good reason. Both the Bible and our common experience attest to the fact that music and emotion are closely related. William Edgar notes that “of the more than six hundred references to music in the Scriptures, the great majority connect it with some kind of emotional experience.” We have already noted some of this.
So with regard to our spirits — our affections — music has two benefits:
First, music gives us a language to express affection to God.
Mere words are often inadequate to express what we feel. Men especially know what this is like. Our wives want us to express to them how we feel about them, and we do truly have deep feelings about them, but we just don’t know how to put it into words. So we do something or buy something to express what words can’t express.
Music, because it is a metaphor of emotion, is a wonderful means for expression of emotion when words just won’t do. This is certainly true for husbands and wives, but it is also true about our affection for God.
When we consider truth about God, and we feel deeply about that truth, music gives us a language for expressing those feelings with more than just words.
Second, music teaches us what we should feel about God.
But often when we consider truth about God and his works, we’re not quite sure how we should be feeling. Or perhaps our initial feelings are immature or even wrong. The second power of music, as we have already seen from Colossians 3 and the incident with Saul and David, is that it can teach us what we should be feeling. Music can change and alter our emotions so that we feel what we should be feeling. So when we combine music with rich, doctrinal truth, the music takes that truth and helps to take it past just our intellectual understand and penetrate our hearts.
This is why music matters! It is not incidental or unimportant. It is not something neutral merely for our entertainment. Music is essential to the Christian life. Scripture makes that clear, a theological understanding of beauty and glory makes that clear, and an understanding of how music reaches the heart makes this clear. Music matters.
Still some might insist that music doesn’t matter. That it’s unimportant. Well if the biblical, theological, and spiritual proof didn’t convince you that music matters, listen to voices from church history.
Music Matters Historically
“Music and notes, which are wonderful gifts and creations of God, do help gain a better understanding of the text, especially when sung by a congregation and when sung earnestly.” Luther
“We have put this music to the living and holy Word of God in order to sing, praise and honor it. We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are bade better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.” Luther
Paul Westermeyer, professor of church music at Luther Seminary – “Luther was not simply fond of music. Luther thought music has a theological reason for being; it is a gift of God, which comes from the ‘sphere of miraculous audible things,’ just lkke the Word of God. Music is unique in that it can carry words. Since words carry the Word of God, music and the Word of God are closely related . . . It almost seems as if Luther sees music in its own right as a parallel to preaching . . . but the weight falls on its association with the Word and words that carry the Word.”
Martin Luther’s four defenses of sacred music: “Because it can be combined with the Word; because it enters the senses pleasantly; because it moves the spirit directly; and because it aids in the memory’s retention of the text.” – Oskar Sohngen, “Music and Theology: A Systematic Approach,” in Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, ed. Joyce Irwin. Journal of the American Academy of Religion Thematic Studies, vol. 50, no. 1 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 14.
“And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels. But when anyone wishes to judge correctly of the form which is here presented, we hope that it will be found holy and pure, seeing that it is simply directed to the edification of which we have spoken. Now among the other things which are proper for recreating man and giving him pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the principal; and it is necessary for us to think that it is a gift of God deputed for that use. Moreover, because of this, we ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting it our condemnation, where it was dedicated to our profit and use. If there were no other consideration than this alone, it ought indeed to move us to moderate the use of music, to make it serve all honest things; and that it should no give occasion for our giving free rein to dissolution, or making ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it should not become the instrument of lasciviousness nor of any shamelessness.” – Preface to Genevan Psalter
“The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music.”
Does music matter? Does it matter to God? Should it matter to us? In my opinion, the evidence is overwhelming. The Bible’s hundreds of references to music and its power and benefits, a theological understanding of the beauty and glory of God being reflected in beautiful music, music’s ability to give us expression for our affection to God and teach us what we should be feeling about God, and the testimony after testimony of Christian leaders throughout history all attest to the fact that music matters. Why, all of a sudden, in the 20th and 21st century do we insist that it doesn’t matter?
I’m not at this point making any points about specific music styles or cultures. All I’m arguing is that music is important, and we should take the time to make careful and informed decisions about the music we allow into our lives and worship.
- Num. 21:17-18; Isa. 16:10; 27:2; Jer. 25:30; 48:33; Hos. 2:17; Zech. 4:7 [↩]
- Num. 21:27-30; Ps. 68; 2 Chron. 20:21; Num. 10:35-6; Exod. 15:20; Judg. 5:1; 1 Sam. 21:12; Ps. 24:7-10 [↩]
- Ps. 45; Song of Sol. 2:12; Ezek. 33:32; Isa. 5:1; Gen. 31:27; Jer. 25:10; 33:11; Isa. 23:15-16 [↩]
- Job 21:12; Isa. 24:9; 2 Sam. 19:35; Lam. 5:14; Dan. 6:18; Amos 6:5 [↩]
- Job 30:9; Lam. 3:14, 63; Isa. 14:4; 2 Sam. 1:18-27; 1 Kings 13:30; 2 Chron. 35:25; Ps. 69:12; Job 30:31; Eccles. 12:5; Jer. 9:16-17; 22:18; Ezek. 27:30-2 [↩]