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Hymnody in the Judeo-Christian Tradition

The Beginning

The first mention of music in the Bible is in Genesis 4. Verses 17—22 list Cain’s descendants, and specifically those who began the development of various cultural and social skills. Jabal was “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock,” Tubal-cain was “the forger of all instruments of bronze and silver,” and Jubal was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.”

There is an important truth in this revelation: man creates music; man nurtures cultural forms. Now it is true that music existed before man did. We read in Job 38:7 that “the morning stars sang together” when God created the earth.1 So music, in and of itself, is something that God created and gave to man as a gift. But songs are not created by God; people write songs. And ever since the Fall of mankind, anything that people create is potentially an expression of sin. In fact, just after we read that Jubal was the father of music in Genesis 4, we find the first recorded song in Scripture. This song was not an expression of praise to God or even a wholesome folk song; it was a song of vengeance by Jubal’s father, Lamech:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.

This only goes to demonstrate why we must evaluate all music—music is human expression and can therefore be expression of good or evil.

Old Testament Hebrew Hymns

We cannot consider the development of the Church’s hymnody without first considering the music of the Old Testament Hebrews. Christianity began, of course, as an offshoot of faithful Judaism, especially in its worship forms. Understanding the roots of Hebrew music will help us understand the hymnody of the early Church.

In this consideration, we must be careful not to transplant our perception of Hebrew music today and simply assume that David’s music sounded exactly the same. Hebrew music in Old Testament times was very different than what we know as modern Jewish music. Jewish music today is a complex mix of Western influences (because Jews were scattered all over the world until the early 1900s), Arabic traditions, and certainly some traditional folk influences. And our perception of Jewish music is usually filtered through pop culture and Hollywood.

The other important factor in our consideration of Hebrew hymnody that we must remember is that Israel was a Theocracy; that is, their religion, politics, and social life were all intertwined, unlike our separation of church and state today. This is important because not all of the music recorded for us in the Old Testament was intended for corporate worship. Music is used for all sorts of purposes in the Bible: there are work songs,  war songs, love songs, songs for entertainment, and songs of derision, mourning, and lamentation. Since religion and society were intertwined in Hebrew culture, the Old Testament relates many common uses of music in everyday life. So as we evaluate the hymnody of Hebrew worship, we are limiting ourselves to those songs intended to be sung as part of corporate worship.

Contrary to popular opinion, we do have a fairly accurate idea of what Hebrew hymns would have sounded like. By deciphering markings within the Hebrewsym Scriptures themselves, exploring the kinds of instruments the Bible tells us were used in the Temple, and by investigating various descendants from Hebrew tribes that left Israel prior to the Exile, scholars have been able to reproduce tunes that were used in Hebrew worship.

Play this Psalm

There are several chracteristics to note when we consider the tunes, instruments, and character of Hebrew hymnody. First, Hebrew hymns were text-driven. The fact that the musical notation was part of the accents of the words themselves demonstrates this, along with the fact that the melodies follow the natural rise and fall of the text.

Second, Hebrew hymns were modest. Their melodies are simple and constrained, and the instruments used were of modest character, especially during vocal singing. For example, we know that while louder instruments like trumpets were used to signal various events in Hebrew social life and even occasionally in worship, when the Levites sang in corporate worship, they were accompanied only by softer instruments that would not cover up the words.2 Even their percussion was modest: “only one pair of cymbals was permitted,”3 and they were small instruments used to conduct the group, similar to a conductor’s baton.4 Today’s usage of percussion instruments to mark an even beat would have been impossible in that day since Hebrew music did not have a steady beat like ours does.5 Even their singing was modest, contrary to popular belief that their music would have been loud and noisy.6

Many people have assumed that Hebrew music was loud and raucous because they assume that it was similar to other Middle Eastern music. But our final observation of ancient Hebrew hymnody will clear up this misconception: Hebrew hymn forms were distinct from pagan musical forms. The first two features of Hebrew hymnody that we have already discussed stand in stark contrast to the pagan music of the day. Stapert explains:

. . . Jewish psalmody was word-oriented, a characteristic that set it apart from the music of the sacrificial rites of the Israelites’ pagan neighbors. Pagan sacrificial music typically featured the frenzy-inducing sound of the loud double-reed instruments and the rhythms of orgiastic dancing. Words were superfluous. Temple music was different from pagan music in all these respects: words were primary in it, and they governed the rhythms; instrumental accompaniment was by stringed instruments that supported the monophonic vocal line, perhaps with some heterophonic embellishments,7 but never covering or distracting attention away from the words; instruments were used independently only for signaling purposes, as when trumpets and cymbals signaled the beginning of the psalm and the places at the end of sections where the worshipers should prostrate themselves.8

Play an example of ancient Egyptian music

The cultural forms nurtured for corporate worship would have influenced the non-worship music of ancient Israel as well. We can observe this by the fact that the poetic forms of worship hymns in the Old Testament and the tunes that accompany them are virtually indistinguishable from their work songs, war songs, and love songs. The difference is only in subject matter.

When Israel was taken captive in 586 BC, active cultivation of musical forms would have slowed considerably, especially with the high art music, but the culture of Israel nevertheless remained distinct from their pagan captors. With no Temple, the Hebrews worshiped in Synagogues, and since instrumental accompaniment was associated with Temple worship, singing in the Synagogue was unaccompanied.

Today, we enjoy singing many Old Testament Psalm texts, although you may not realize it. Many hymns by Isaac Watts, for example, are paraphrases of various Psalms. For example, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” is from Psalm 90, “Jesus Shall Reign” is from Psalm 72, and “Joy to the World” is from Psalm 98.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Whether “morning stars” refers to angels or actual stars does not change the fact that music existed before man. []
  2. James McKinnon, “The Question of Psalmody in the Ancient Synagogue,” Early Music History 6 (1986), pp. 162— 163. []
  3. Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p. 256. []
  4. Ibid., pp. 376—377. []
  5. Ibid., p. 377. []
  6. See Ibid., pp. 253—255. []
  7. In other words, melody was prominent, while there may have been some modest harmony. []
  8. Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 153. []