Music and the Gospel
H. Lloyd Leno
God gave us the gift of music to be used to proclaim his messages. In order to nurture the talent of music and insure a high level of performance, a music education program is essential to the church. Nothing in regard to the worship of God, including music, is to be left to chance or to the whim of anyone, professional or novice.
Following the first London performance of the Messiah, the composer George Frideric Handel was approached by a nobleman who complimented him for having given such great pleasure to the audience. "I should be sorry, My Lord," Handel replied, "if I gave pleasure to men; my aim is to make them better."
The great difference between the listener and the composer as to the purpose of this particular composition raises the question of whether sacred music has a function other than to give pleasure. Now as then, there are differences of opinion over the purpose of sacred music.
Most people would agree about the purpose of an offertory: to create suitable music for receiving gifts. But what about other aspects of service music, such as the prelude, postlude, special music, congregational singing, and sacred concerts? Would there be any agreement over the purpose of these musical offerings?
A poll about the definition of Worship Music, Gospel Music, and Contemporary Music would probably yield an even wider range of opinions. These differences, I believe, are due to the simple fact that people have different ideas about the two terms, music and gospel.
As my title suggests, I will attempt to show how all music used for religious purposes can and should be related to the gospel. But first, the terms need to be defined and placed in context.
Music is generally defined as a form of communication using an organization of pitch, rhythm and timbre. Often the meaning is specific, perhaps more often it is abstract.
Nevertheless, I would assert that music always says something.
The dictionary definition of music is inadequate. There is something more. I regard music as a divine gift which the Giver had a purpose in giving. My study and experience have led me to conclude that through music God shares with us His creative power, and His high regard and interest in goodness, truth, purity and beauty - all qualities of His character. We are stewards of this gift, one to be used not only for personal enjoyment but also to enhance the quality of life for others.
Webster defines gospel as, "The Christian doctrine of the redemption of man through Jesus as Christ." Gospel has also been more simply defined as 'The Good News." This implies that there must have been "bad news." The bad news was that the universe had been contaminated with sin and there had been a war in heaven over the problem. It was the beginning of the great controversy between good and evil, between God and Satan. The issues in this confrontation were over the character and government of God. In other words, the controversy was about the kind of person God is.
Satan had represented God as arbitrary, severe, and unforgiving - the very attributes of Satan himself. Therefore, Christ's mission here on earth was to clear God of all these charges.1 At the beginning of John's gospel the writer states, "No one has ever seen God; God's only Son, He who is nearest to the Father's heart, has made Him known"(John 1:28 REB). Near the close of his gospel John quotes Jesus Himself as He
defined His mission on earth, "I have glorified You on earth by finishing the work which You gave Me to do… I have made Your name known" (John 17:4, 6, REB).
What does this have to do with music? God's people have always used music as a powerful means of communication. Throughout history, His leaders, musicians, and prophets have used music and poetry to tell people what kind of person God is. If we would follow or accept the example of God's special friends, His prophets, we need to study closely their philosophy and methods.
Moses was the first trained musician mentioned in the Bible. He studied music in Egypt as priests were required to do and became a gifted poet, composer, and singer. He composed the Song of the Sea and led the Children of Israel in singing this song after they crossed the Red Sea. Then, at the end of his life, at God's direction, he wrote a very special song and taught it to the people.2 These two songs were important because they describe God not only as omnipotent but also as the merciful Savior of His people.
When God first called Moses to lead His people, Moses claimed that he was a poor speaker, but obviously he could sing. This man of God became one of the great authors of the Bible, writing not only the first five books of the Bible and the 90th Psalm but also possibly one of the most unusual books of the Bible, the book of Job. In the latter, through the medium of poetry, Moses contrasts the character and personality of Job's friends with Job and God.
Samuel was the next important person to combine music and the Gospel. Under his leadership the schools of the prophets were established. In these schools there was a major emphasis on sacred music and poetry in the curriculum.3
By the time David was anointed King there seem to have been many well educated and experienced musicians and poets in Israel. It is likely that some of these men were the first writers and composers of the Hebrew hymnbook, the book of Psalms.
The rich expressive qualities of all Hebrew poetry and its unique structure make it universally recognized as a major basis of today's sacred literature. Composers of sacred music still find in the Psalms a reservoir of lyrics that speak not only to the heart and soul but also challenge the intellect and the imagination.
What I find most fascinating, is to realize that this very gift was what empowered these creative friends of God to be able to think and write about the Giver of these gifts. Approximately forty percent of the Bible is poetry, much of it intended to be sung. Truly, the authors of the Scriptures present to the perceptive reader a God with an aesthetic personality and character.
The poetry and songs by David, Asaph, and the other psalmists contain some of the most eloquent phrases describing the character of God. Note these passages telling of God's power and might:
You are a God who works miracles, you have shown the nations your power. With your strong arm you rescued your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, they saw you and writhed in anguish; the ocean was troubled to its depths. The clouds poured down water, the skies thundered, your arrows flashed hither and thither. The sound of your thunder was in the whirlwind, lightning flashes lit up the world, the earth shook and quaked.
He divided the sea and brought them through; he heaped up the waters on either side. He led them with a cloud by day, and all night long with a glowing fire. He split the rock in the wilderness and gave them water to drink.
Psalms 78: 12-15
The heavens declare the glory of God
Psalms 19:1 NKJV
God is our refuge and strength.
Psalms 46:1 NKJV
On a more personal level the psalmist declared:
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer and sets me on my high places. Your gentleness has made me great."
Psalms 18:32, 33, 35 NKJV
These poems must have been inspiring lyrics to sing! Through the gift of music, so magnificently developed and exquisitely expressed, these poet/musicians have given us a special insight into the personality and character of God.
David was famous as a musician before he killed Goliath. However, his musical legacy extends far beyond his poetry and music. During his reign as king over Israel his leadership in compiling the Psalms and personal example in music affected not only the spiritual life of an ancient nation but now, even at the close of the twentieth century, his legacy remains a source of artistic inspiration.
We learn more about David's musical experiences and contributions in the two books of Chronicles than in the books of Samuel and Kings. Originally one book, they are unique and important for two reasons. Although they retell most of the same stories found in the books of Samuel and Kings, they tell them from a different point of view and, at times, in greater detail. This history book was edited, if not written, by Ezra for the benefit of the Jews after the return from exile.
The two main purposes of this book were to show that in spite of the disasters that had come on the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, God was still keeping his promises and working out His plan for His people. Also, it describes4 the origin of the worship of God in the temple at Jerusalem and especially the organization of the priests and Levites, who were responsible for the worship services. Th author presents David as the founder of the temple and its services, even though the building of the temple was left to his son Solomon.
As a youth David had expressed his relationship with God in music, and when he was anointed to be the second king of Israel, he seemed to be moved to greater heights of inspiration. Just how he became known as a musician we do not know, but when Saul's servants recommended music therapy for their king, they immediately thought of David. They described him as "a good musician," "a brave and handsome man"; and besides these qualifications they added, "The Lord is with him"(1 Samuel 16:18, GNB).
After he became king, David took charge of the sacred musical life of his people. One of his first accomplishments became an important learning experience. To welcome home the ark of God David encouraged and apparently led the victory parade celebrating this extraordinary and meaningful event. In the ecstasy of the moment he apparently allowed his emotions to take the place of reason, permitting and participating in a celebration that dishonored God. So serious was his disregard for God's holiness that the event ended in the tragic death of Uzzah.
Three months passed before David's anger against God cooled and he realized that the way in which they had celebrated was not in harmony with God's character. David had the courage to admit his error. And when he decided the second time to bring back the ark, he called his leaders together and explained what went wrong the first time: "The Lord our God punished us for not worshipping Him as we should have done" (I Chronicles 15:13 GNB). He then outlined his new plan. This time they would do things right and correctly honor God. Apparently there are limits to personal preferences in worship.
David ordered the priests to carry the ark on their shoulders instead of on a cart, copying what the Philistines had done. These instructions for carrying the ark had been given long before. Then, realizing that music also should honor God, he organized the Levite musicians. He made specific assignments for trumpeters to precede the ark and he appointed a choir director, the players on cymbals, and two kinds of harps. The record says that certain Levites were assigned "to sing and to play joyful music" (I Chronicles 15:16 GNB) but this time the instruments for the dance (hand drums [tambourines] and rattles) were excluded."5 All of this preparation speaks eloquently about David's developing picture of God and his desire to represent Him properly through music.
When the time came for David to organize the total temple service, he again made specific plans for the music. The details and appointments of every aspect of the temple service, including the establishment of a school of sacred music, are outlined in Chronicles 23 and 25. There were 4,000 musicians under the director of twenty-four groups of twelve members each. They were to "proclaim God's messages, accompanied by the music of harps and cymbals, "instruments provided by the king for this purpose."6 The first six verses of I Chronicles 23 contains the list of the persons chosen to lead the worship and the type of service each was to perform. Verse seven concludes by saying, "All these 24 men were experts; and their fellow Levites were trained musicians. There were 288 men in all."
These musicians were employed full time, and as priests they were paid with the tithe. This temple was to be the first permanent church building for the Israelites; and the service, which David planned under God's direction, was considered so important that many years later, on the return from exile, the entire organization of the service, including family appointments, was reinstated.
What does all this careful organization, planning, and education tell us about God and how He regards the gift of music? I believe that it says that God gave us the gift of music to be used to proclaim his messages. In order to nurture the talent of music and insure a high level of performance, a music education program is essential to the church. Nothing in regard to the worship of God, including music, is to be left to chance or to the whim of anyone, professional or novice.
If we were to follow seriously the Biblical model in principle, much more attention would be given to sacred poetry, which along with sacred music, was an integral part of the curriculum in the schools of the Prophets. Finally, I believe it is Biblical to have professional musicians set apart for the service of the church. Not only should they be educated thoroughly in theology as well as music but, according to the Biblical model, they should also be ordained after meeting the same criteria as other ministers.
In listening to people talk about music I have observed that very few people can discuss this subject except in subjective terms. I often hear remarks such as "music is the language of the emotions" or "music is a personal thing." In order to become mature Christians we need to use both hemispheres of the brain to evaluate the music we
use.7 The God who gave us such fantastic intellectual and aesthetic potential certainly would not expect us to leave our minds at the door of His sanctuary, or turn them off once we are inside!
The meaning of the gospel is not just a matter of feeling or personal opinion. Biblical authors have gone to great length to explain its meaning to us. Paul said, the gospel is the power of God for salvation and in it the righteousness of God is revealed. The Good News is that because God is Love, He is gracious, forgiving, faithful and incredibly patient. He demonstrated this by giving His son Jesus to be the ultimate revelation of a God who offers salvation and friendship to all who trust in Him completely.8
What was God's design in trusting us with the talent of music? There is more than adequate evidence in the Bible that music was intended to be much more than a relaxant, a stimulant or a manipulator of human emotions. Furthermore, in scientific and sociological literature there are very convincing studies that are in striking agreement with what Ellen White wrote over a century ago about the influence of music on behavior.9
The kind of music the people used at the foot of Mt. Sinai, at Mt. Peio, and on Mt. Carmel revealed the kind of god they worshipped. The God who inspired Moses, Samuel, and David gives to us today the privilege of proclaiming the truth about Him through music. Paul says in II Corinthians 5:20 that we are Christ's ambassadors. But also, "we have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men (I Corinthians 4:9 NIV). It is our high privilege and honor, then, to represent and reflect the character of God through music. This, in the truest sense of the word, is praise. It is preaching the gospel in its fullness!
H. Lloyd Leno, taught at Union, Walla Walla, and Antillian Union Colleges before his retirement to the Portland, Oregon area. A graduate of Walla Walla College, he received a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from Arizona State University.
1. Ellen White, Testimonies Vol 5, p 738; Desire of Ages, p 22
2. Deuteronomy 32
3. 1 Samuel 10:5-7 and Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 593, 594.
4. 1 Chronicles 15 & 16
5. Suzanne Haik - Ventoura, The Music of the Bible Revealed, BiBac Press, 1991, p. 115, See also 2 Samuel 6:15 and I Samuel 15:16. Chapter 16 includes the song that was sung.
6. 1 Chronicles 23:5 GNB
7. 1 Chronicles 14:15 and Hebrews 5:14
8. Romans 1:16,17; 3:25,26 GNB
9. Ellen White, ''When it suits his purpose he (Satan) can impart to men sentiments that are enchanting." (PP 459) "When put to a wrong use, it (music) is a terrible curse. It excites, but does not impart that strength and courage…" (CT 337) They (the young) have a keen ear for music, and Satan knows what organs to excite to animate, engross, and charm the mind, so that God is not desired" (IT 497). Contrast these recent comments from contemporary sources: High Fidelity Magazine, Nov., 1967: "No industry manipulates the youth with the cool surgical skill of the pop music business… " Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol 20 No. 8: "Boys who like heavy metal music reported a wide range of reckless behavior, including driving behavior, sexual behavior, and drug use. Girls who liked heavy metal music were more reckless in the areas of shoplifting, vandalism, and sexual behavior, drug use, and reported lower selfesteem. Both boys and girls who liked heavy metal music were higher in sensation seeking…."
This Article was printed in the Spring 1996 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association.