Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 3-8


Ancient Comment on Instrumental Music in the Psalms

William Green

 

The discussion of instrumental music in worship has gone on throughout all periods of church history. Ancient writers generally contrast the spiritual songs of Christian worship with the instruments used in the Jewish and heathen temples. The objection to such music continued in the Catholic Church as late as the time of Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), and it was renewed by various reformers, including the illustrious Calvin. The history of the controversy is described at length, with extended quotations from many authorities, by M. C. Kurfees in his book, Instrumental Music in the Worship (Nashville, Gospel Advocate, 1911, 1950). It is the purpose of this article to study further the views of ancient Christian writers, in particular the comments they chose to make on various Psalms where instrumental music is mentioned.

During the second century Alexandria, in Egypt, became a great center for Christian learning. The chief representatives of the Alexandrian school are clement of Alexandria (about 150-210 A.D.) and Origen (about 185-254). These men and their successors made great use of allegory in explaining the history and institutions of the Old Testament. That is, they took the words as not only having a literal, or historical meaning, but as having also a hidden meaning, serving as figures, or types, of things which are revealed and fulfilled In the New.

For the allegorical meaning of the Hebrew instruments Clement lays down the pattern which others were to follow. After denouncing the pagan use of instruments in their licentious festivals he continues:

"The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings: ‘Praise him with the sound of trumpet,’ for with sound of trumpet he shall raise the dead. ‘Praise him on the psaltery,’ for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord; ‘And praise him with the timbrel and the dance,’ refers to the church meditating on the resurrection of the dead. ‘Praise him on the chords and organ.’ Our body he calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings by which It has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human Voices. ‘Praise him on the clashing cymbals.’ He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips. . . The one instrument of peace, the word alone by which we honor God, Is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute."1

Systematic commentaries on the Psalms and other books of the Bible begin with Origen. Of his commentary on the Psalms only fragments remain, but its general character appears in the work of Eusebius, the well-known church historian of the time of Constantine (about 825 A.D.). In his commentary on the ninety-second Psalm he writes:

"Formerly when those of the circumcision worshipped God in ordinances which were symbols and figures of things to come, it was not out of place to sing hymns to God with the psaltery and lyre, and to do this on the sabbath day. . . But we in an inward manner keep the part of the Jew, according to the saying of the Apostle (Rom.8:28) . . . We render our hymn with a living psaltery, a living lyre, in our spiritual songs. For the unison song of the people of Christ is more pleasing to God than any musical instrument. Thereby in all the churches of God with one mind and heart, with unity and agreement in faith and worship we offer to God a unison melody in our singing of Psalms. Such psalmodies and spiritual lyres we are wont to use, since the Apostle teaches this, saying, ‘In psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.’ By another interpretation the lyre might be the whole body, by whose movements and deeds the soul offers its appropriate hymn to God."2

Of all the Greek writers whose commentary on the Psalms is extant, by far the best known is Chrysostom (345-407), for a time arch-bishop of Constantinople. In his exegesis of Scripture he follows the school of Antioch, proceeding from a grammatical and historical study of the text to its practical application to the needs of the time, without the elaborate allegory which belonged to the school of Alexandria. In a number of passages his homilies on the Psalms contrast the ritual of the Jewish worship, including their instrumental music, with the spiritual worship of the Christians. In an eloquent sermon on the forty-second Psalm he speaks of the usefulness of the Psalms and spiritual songs:

"If you enter into the sacred chorus of God you will be able to stand by David himself. There is no need of lyre there, nor of stretched strings nor plectrum, nor of musical skill, nor of any instruments. But if you choose, you will make yourself the lyre, putting to death the members of the flesh, and making a great harmony ‘of the body with the soul."3

And on Psalm 144:

"‘Upon a psaltery of ten strings will I sing praise to thee,’ that is, I will give thanks to thee. Then there were instruments with which they offered up their songs, but now instead of instruments the body is to be used. For now we sing also with the eyes, not with the tongue alone, and with the hands, and the feet, and the ears. For when each one of these members does that which brings God glory and praise . . . the members of the body become a psaltery and lyre, and sing a new song, not with words, but with deeds."4

And on Psalm 149:

"Many people take the mention of these instruments allegorically and say that the timbrel requires the putting to death of our flesh, and that the psaltery requires us to look up to heaven (for this instrument resounds from above, not from below like the lyre). But I would say this, that in olden times they were thus led by these instruments because of the dullness of their understanding and their recent deliverance from idols. Just as God allowed animal sacrifices, so also he let them have these instruments, condescending to help their weakness."5

And finally, on Psalm 150:

"Therefore, just as the Jews are commanded to praise God with all musical instruments, so we are commanded to praise him with all our members- the eye, the tongue, the ear, the hand. Paul makes this clear when he says, ‘Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual service.’ The eye praise’s when it does not gaze licentiously, the tongue when it sings, the ear when it does not listen to wicked songs and accusations against a neighbor, the mind when it does not devise treachery, but abounds in love, the feet when they do not run to do evil, but to carry out good works, the hands when they are stretched out, not for robbery and grasping and blows, but to give alms and to protect those who are wronged. Then man becomes a tuneful lyre, offering up to God a harmonious and spiritual melody. Those instruments were then allowed because of the weakness of the people, to train them to love and harmony, and to stir up their mind to do with pleasure the things that bring profit, for God wished through this sort of persuasion to bring them to a great zeal for him. For knowing their base and careless and indolent nature, God employed craft to arouse them from sleep, mixing the sweetness of melody with the toil of service."6

It seemed to some that this argument about the allurements of music as God’s temporary device to arouse a dull and unresponsive people would apply equally against the continued use of singing in the church. This objection is considered in an anonymous work, of uncertain date,’ called "Questions and Answers to the Orthodox":

"Question: If songs were invented by unbelievers to seduce men, but were allowed to those under the law on account of their childish state, why do those who have received the perfect teaching of grace in their churches still use songs, just like the children under the law?

"Answer: It is not simple singing that belongs to the childish state, but singing with lifeless instruments, with dancing, and with clappers. Hence the use of such instruments and the others that belong to the childish state is excluded from the singing in the churches, and simple singing is left. For it awakens the soul to a fervent desire for that which is described in the songs, it quiets the passions that arise from the flesh, it removes the evil thoughts that are implanted in us by invisible foes, it waters the soul to make it fruitful in the good things of God, it makes the soldiers of piety strong to endure hardships, it becomes for the pious a medicine to cure all the pains of life. Paul calls this "the sword of the spirit," with which he arms the soldiers of piety against their unseen foes. for it is the word of God, and when it is pondered and sung and proclaimed it has the power to drive out demons."7

The writings of Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus (Kyrrhus) in Syria, belong to the generation which followed Chrysostom, in the second third of the fifth century. His Biblical commentaries are recognized as among the best produced in the ancient church. On Psalm 150 he writes:

"‘Praise him with psaltery and harp . . .’ These instruments the Levites formerly used when praising God in the temple. It was not because God enjoyed their sound, out because he accepted the purpose of their worship. For to show that God does not find pleasure in songs nor in the notes of instruments we hear him saying to the Jews: ‘Take thou away from me the noise of’ thy songs, for I will not hear the melody of thy instruments.’ He allowed these things to be done for the reason that he wished to free them from the deception of idols. For since some of them were fond of play and laughter, and all these things were done in the temples of idols, he allowed these things in order to entice them. He used the lesser evil in order to forbid the greater, and used what was imperfect to teach what was, perfect."8

Another treatise of Theodoret’s, "On the Healing of Greek Afflictions," is an apologetic work in which one chapter is devoted to the pagan sacrifices. When Christians condemned them, the pagans pointed, to the law of Moses, where animal sacrifices similar to their own were commanded. Theodoret explains this as a concession to the Israelites when they were first delivered from bondage:

"So it was not in any need of victims or craving odors that God commanded them to sacrifice, but that he might heal the sufferings of those who were sick. So he also allowed the use of instrumental music, not that he was delighted by the harmony, but that he might little by little end the deception of idols. For if he had offered them perfect laws immediately after their deliverance from Egypt, they would have been rebellious and thrust away from the bridle, and would have hastened back to their former ruin."9

The writers of the Western church reproduced in Latin much that was traditional in the commentaries of Greek writers. Ambrose and Jerome in particular were indebted to Origen and those who followed him in the East. And the work of all these writers is gathered up in the great work of Augustine. His Enarrationes, or Sermons on the Psalms became one of the most popular works for readers of the Middle Ages. On Psalm 33, verse 2, he comments:

"‘Confess to the Lord with the harp,’ that is, confess to the Lord presenting your bodies to him as a living sacrifice. ‘Sing praises to him with the psaltery of ten strings,’ that is, let your members be subject to the love of God and love of your neighbor, In which the three and seven commandments are kept."10

Augustine, elsewhere explains that the first three of the ten commandments depend on the love of God, the last three on love of one’s neighbor. The sabbath, it may be added, was (like the instruments of music) allegorically explained as a cessation from the works of sin. A second sermon on the same Psalm was delivered at Carthage, in a shrine constructed as a memorial to the martyr Cyprian, who had once been a bishop of that city. When the masses were converted in the time of Constantine, they brought with them habits of celebrating vigils in honor of the dead, in which instrumental music and other practices foreign to the church played a part. These had been generally suppressed by Augustine’s time, and he makes a reference to them in this sermon:

"‘Confess to the Lord with the harp, sing praises to him with the psaltery of ten strings’-these are the words we were, just now singing, expressing them with one voice, and teaching your hearts. Has not a rule been established in the name of Christ with reference to those ‘vigils’ of yours, that harps (citharae, that is, lyres) should be excluded from this place? And here the order is given to play those instruments - ‘Confess to the Lord with the harp, sing praises to him with the psaltery of ten strings.’ But let no one turn his heart to the instruments of the theater. Each one has in himself the instruments which are commanded, as it is elsewhere said: ‘In me, O Lord, are the vows of praise which I shall return to thee’."11

On Psalm 150 he writes:

"‘Praise the Lord in his saints.’ These very saints are thereafter meant in all the musical instruments. ‘Praise him with the sound of the trumpet,’ on account of its surpassing clearness. ‘Praise him with psaltery and harp.’ The psaltery is one praising God for things above,, the harp one praising him for things below; that is, for heavenly and earthly things, seeing that God made heaven and earth. On another psalm we have already explained that the psaltery has its sounding wood above, to which the series of strings is attached in order to give a better sound, while the harp (cithara) has the wood beneath."12

It is clear from the passages studied in this paper that there was a remarkable consensus among the principal writers of the ancient church on the subject of ‘instrumental music. If the Old Testament enjoined the use of such instruments, they were interpreted as types of the spiritual worship of the New Testament, just as the sacrifices of the law were taken as types of the sacrifice of Christ, and the Christian’s sacrifice of his own body.

Notes

1 Clemens Alexandimus, Paedagopus 2, 4. The Greek text is in Patrologia Graeca 8,441 f.; translated in Ante-Nicene Fathers 2,248 f. It is reprinted in Kurfees, 129. On the allegorical interpretation of the Psalms, see Johannes Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen Antike und christlichen Fruehzeit (Munster, 1930), 87 f. For much of the material in this article I am indebted to this excellent study.

2 In Psalm. 91 Patrologia Graeca 23, 1171 f. What appears as Psalm 92 in the Hebrew, and most English Bibles is numbered 91 in the Greek, ‘Latin, and modern Catholic Bibles, and this is the numbering of the Patrologia. Similar discrepancies in numbering will appear in following footnotes. The translation is my own.

3 In Psalm. 41 PG 55, 158.

4 In Psalm. 143 PG 55, 462 f.

5 In Psalm. 149 PG 55, 494.

6 In Psalm. 150 PG 55, 497.

7 Quaestiones et Responsiones ad Orthodoxos 107 PG 6, 1354. Some manuscripts ascribe this work to Justin Martyr (about 150), but it is generally recognized as a much later work. It has been ascribed to Theodoret (who died about 458), to Diodorus of Tarsus (about 370), and left as an anonymous work of about 400. One sentence is translated in Kurfees, 193 f.

8 In Psalm. 150 PG 80, 1996.

9 Graecarum affectionum curatio 7 PG 83, 997; compare the section 996-1001.

10 In Psalm. 32 Enarratio I, 2 Patrologia Latina 36, 275.

11 In Psalm. 82 Enarr. II Sermo I, 5 PL 36, 279.

12 In Psalm. 150, 5 f. PL 37, 1964. In his sermons Augustine was especially fond of allegory. In at least five sermons he mentions the psaltery of ten strings as being the ten commandments. The psaltery with its wood above, the cithara below, is also mentioned at least five times.

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