Praise Him with Timbrel and Dance?

Eurydice V. Osterman

Because God is not the author of strife and confusion, one can be sure that the enemy, Satan, has adopted the dance and drums as tools to try to divide, confuse, and ultimately conquer the people of God.

It has been said that the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to study and know every minute detail of the authentic. Thus, when a counterfeit surfaces, it will be easy to detect. This principle can very easily be applied when seeking to discover the "truth" about the many controversial issues on music and worship that exist today.

Centuries ago, God expressed this very sentiment through the prophet, Isaiah, when he said, "to the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:20). It is for certain that if God could forsee the need of a plan of salvation, he foresaw the rise of these controversies and has therefore left instructions and guidance on these issues through his word.


Dance plays a functional role in the lives of many groups and the world. There are dances for weddings, births, funerals, planting and harvesting crops, and many other events. While in attendance at a banquet a few years ago, I watched youth from East Africa perform some of these dances.

It was intriguing to note that while these youth had never been to their native country, they had learned these dances from parents who wanted to preserve their heritage.

Among other dances that play an important role in the lives of others are those performed during the festive Bahamian Junkanoo Christmas Celebration (dating back to the days of slavery), the New Orleans jazz band accompanied funeral processions, and the Zulu dances performed during Mardi Gras.


As a country, the United States does not have a native dance probably because it has been a melting pot for all nations and peoples. Dance in the United States is associated with entertainment more than with day to day living experiences. Most are only fads (a characteristic of entertainment) that come and go with the passing of time. The list is long and could include the Boogie Woogie, Charleston, Soft Shoe, Twist, Mashed Potatoes, Disco, and many more.

Because of dances' historical association with entertainment, many of the behavioral characteristics of secular dancing are transferred to "holy dance." The main difference lies in the changing of a word or two (O Jesus or O baby) to fit the environment (church or dance hall). Otherwise, the sound, feelings, emotions, moods, and behavior engendered by the music are the same. And, it appears as though the spirit is only alive and well as long as there is music. Without it, there are those who feel that they just have not had "church."


After studying the Biblical references to dancing, several interesting observations can be made. The first reference occurs in Exodus 15:20 when Miriam and the other women took the timbrels [drums] and led the Israelites in dancing and songs of praise to God for deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

The separation of men and women into distinct bands was an Egyptian custom, as likewise was the performance of dances by groups of men and women, who accompanied their steps with music.

SDA Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 573.

The Israelites had adopted dancing into their culture as a result of the pagan influences they were exposed and subjected to for over four hundred years.


The phrase, "praise Him with the timbrel [drums] and dance" (Psalms 1.50:4) has been a source of controversy for quite some time. In order to defend and/or condone the "holy dance" (including drums), there are those who use the argument that David "danced before the Lord," forgetting that he was in a parade of elders who were bringing the ark back to Jerusalem when he "danced before the Lord."

This was a victory celebration and not a worship service. Here, just as when David slayed Goliath, it was customary to meet the returning armies with singing and dancing (1 Samuel 1:6; 2 Samuel 6:14-16).

The only reference to dancing in worship is recorded in Exodus 32:19 and refers to pagan worship, that performed around a golden calf. Not only did the people dance, they also took off their clothes, and were almost repudiated by God as a result.


Psalm 149 is an exhortation of praise to God for his love to the church - a body of people. It describes the daily circumstances, situations, and occasions for praising God (in the sanctuary, as Creator and King, upon their beds, with a two-edged sword when going to execute vengeance upon the heathen, etc.). Psalm 150 appears to be a continuation of this Psalm, and merely describes some of the instruments that were used during that time.

In these two chapters, the word "dance" comes from the Hebrew word which is more correctly translated pipe. The term signifies an instrument (such as a flute) which was combined with the timbrel [drum] and the harp (the national instrument of the Hebrews) because the latter was considered to be a joyful instrument. In the Old Testament the pipe was associated with merrymaking and praise. In this context, "dance" clearly refers to an instrument, not a physical activity.

It is worth noting that of the many instruments listed for use in the sanctuary, the timbrels were not included among those cited. (I Chronicles 16:42; 23:5; 25:6, 7; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 13; 29:25, 26). A possible explanation could be that by nature, the drum is not a melodic instrument. Throughout the Bible there are numerous references to singing and making "melody" with the voice and with instruments, which drums are incapable of doing. Because drums tend to excite the emotions and carnal nature through accentuation of the beat (especially in contemporary music), the Bible does not record them as having been used in the sanctuary worship service.

Another explanation could be that God, looking ahead, could foresee that the issue of the use of drums in the sanctuary would be problematic. Hence, he clearly omitted listing them in scripture. This, however, does not mean that drums are bad or evil. On the contrary, drums can indeed be effectively used when orchestrated under controlled conditions. However, that is usually not the case, especially in the music of today. They are generally engaged from the beginning to the end of a piece as if they were a melodic instrument, and are usually played loudly, accenting the weak beats, a practice which has been proven to be detrimental emotionally and physically.


Most of the activities, events, customs and rituals recorded in holy writ are secular in nature, but are mistakenly interpreted as being "religious" simply because they appear in the Bible. Culture and tradition are often used to justify the use of the dance and the drums in worship.

However, in Mark 7:7, Jesus condemns adopting rituals and other practices which do not have a Biblical basis, and sanctioning them as sacred elements of worship (see also Galations 3:2; Colossians 2:8). When examining the context in which references to the dance and drums appear, it is clear that they are all secular in nature. One example is the most humorous incident recorded in the Bible when the bachelors of the tribe of Benjamin hid in the vineyards waiting for the dancing virgins to pass so they could capture them as their wives and thereby preserve the tribe (Judges 11:34, 39; Matthew 14:6, 21:16-25).

Because God is not the author of strife and confusion, one can be sure that the enemy, Satan, has adopted the dance and drums as tools to try to divide, confuse, and ultimately conquer the people of God. Studying and examining the minute details in God's word about the first reference to musical instruments (Genesis 4:21), the examples of the patriarchs and prophets, the earthly sanctuary service, Jesus and the Disciples, the early church, and the description of heaven itself makes clear that dance and the drum were not sanctioned by scripture as being appropriate for use in sacred worship.

Eurydice Osterman received her B. Mus. and M. Mus. degrees from Andrews University. She completed a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Alabama in 1988. Osterman, professor of music at Oakwood College, is a prize-winning composer and frequent guest conductor. She has been at OC since 1978.

This Article was printed in the Autumn 1995 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association.