Some of earth’s inhabitants have left an indelible impression upon the world. Over the brief span of their mortal years they have so risen above the behaviour or customs of the past as to provide a new standard for generations to come.

 David “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel”

 David the son of Jesse of Bethlehem-Judah was such a person. He was not born into wealth or fame, but the name of “David” is now synonymous with hope, joy and freedom. He was “a man after God’s own heart” and the nation was united and inspired by his brilliance upon the field of battle and by the integrity of his personal behaviour, to friend and foe alike.

One of the richest legacies that David left to Israel was the Psalms and their use in Israel’s worship. From the earliest times of his life, David is presented as a lover of music, “a cunning player on an harp” who, in the court of the melancholy king “took an harp and played with his hand” with such skill and sensitivity that “Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (1 Sam 16:16, 18, 23). David learned the power of music as a medium of inspiration and later conceived the idea of applying this to the nation’s worship in a general and organised manner.

There are earlier examples of the use of instruments in worship. When Miriam led the women of Israel in joyous thanksgiving for the deliverance through the Red Sea, we read that she “took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Exod 15:20). In a similar way Jephthah’s daughter came out to welcome the return of her victorious father (Judges 11:34). In David’s earlier years, when he returned with King Saul from the many encounters with the Philistines, we read that “the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick” (1 Sam 18:6). So the use of instruments among the women of Israel for the exercise of praise and worship was a fundamental practice in Israel long before David.

The significance of David’s contribution is that he took the idea to the centre of the nation. In the very place of worship, he established permanent companies of singers and players of instruments, composed and collected many psalms and spiritual songs and left behind an uplifting and important institution that prevailed throughout most of the period of the kingdom of Judah, and in fact to the period of the Second Temple until its destruction by Rome in AD 70.

So the private experiences and lessons of personal worship developed in the quiet valleys around Bethlehem brought a vitality and beauty to Israel’s national worship for a thousand years duration.

There is another factor in the development of David’s understanding of worship in song. Having narrowly escaped Saul’s murderous intent, David fled to Samuel’s house in Naioth (1 Sam 19), only to be pursued by the king’s men and Saul himself, who all in turn were affected by the spirit of God (1 Sam 19:18–24). The power of the Word of God in music and sing (1 Sam 10:5) no doubt greatly impressed young David—a lesson he would not easily forget. If Samuel and David discussed other matters of the kingdom with its new dynasty—and we know they together chose the families for the keeping of the gates of the Temple (1 Chron 9:22)—then it is very probable that they also gave combined thought to the matter of the singers and players of instruments. In fact Heman, one of the three principal singers was a grandson of Samuel.

The Ark to Jerusalem

The first occasion in which David employed large numbers of singers was on the joyous return of the Ark, for which he had prepared a new tabernacle (tent), in Jerusalem. There were a number of psalms written upon this subject (eg 87, 96, 105, 106—see 1 Chron 16), and it may be that some of these were employed in the songs of thanksgiving that characterised the triumphant return of the Ark. “And David and all Israel played before God with all their might and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets” (1 Chron 13:8). While this first attempt was abandoned, the second occasion was accompanied with even greater musical preparation and accompaniment. David instructed the Levites to appoint specific leaders in song, one from each of the three branches of this tribe. So  from the Kohathites, Heman was appointed; from the Gershonites, Asaph and from the sons of Merari, Jeduthun, sometimes called Ethan (1 Chron 15:17).

It is curious to note that there was then a second order described as “their brethren of the second degree”, half of whom were to play with psalteries “on Alamoth” (or “for the maidens”) and the rest to employ harps “on the Sheminith” (or, perhaps, “for the males”, 1 Chron 15:20–21). So while Heman, Asaph and Ethan were to strike a sharp note upon cymbals (v 19), these brethren of the second order provided harmony with psalteries and harps. Here we have the first description of part-singing, accompanied with various instruments—a kind of choir and orchestra combination. Even the principal instructor in their preparations, Chenaniah, is named, “because he was skilful” (v 22). A man of intelligence in the words and the music was chosen for this historic occasion, to ensure that all was done with a sense of perfection.

In 1 Chronicles 6:31–32 it states:

And these are they whom David set over the service of song in the house of Yahweh, after that the ark had rest. And they ministered before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of the congregation with singing, until Solomon had built the house of Yahweh in Jerusalem… .”

So throughout the remainder of David’s reign there was permanent song about the Tabernacle of the congregation. Now this was not where the Ark was because David had prepared a special Tabernacle in Jerusalem for the ark, whereas the “tabernacle of the congregation” was a little north of Gibeon (2 Sam 6:17; 1 Chron 16:1; 2 Chron 1:3,4). Both places were there for twenty years or so, until Solomon completed the new Temple.

Here we see, then, the practical foundations for this grand institution of the singers in Israel. David the shepherd boy, skilful on the harp, has now greatly and beautifully elevated the worship of the people of God. How pleasant and exciting it would be for worshippers to draw near to the Tabernacles and be roused and elevated in their service by skilful and harmonious singers and musicians solemnly making their praises to Yahweh. A new level of worship had been developed. “O worship Yahweh in the beauty of holiness”—indeed!

The Chief Musician

 But with this new-found organisation there emerged a need to preserve the spirit of glorious worship. Hence David appointed Asaph to the office of Chief  Musician. He was a prophet (1 Chron 25:2) and the Spirit of God aided him in the choice of the psalms for special events and particular themes and in the setting of these psalms to suitable music. Through at least the earlier psalms came the influence of David the king, for Asaph worked “according to the order of the king” or, as the Hebrew signifies, “under the hands of the king”. Thus the foundation of this wonderful combination of music and psalms was established in the early days of Judah’s Kingdom and grew through several centuries, with the same family of Asaph presiding over the program. What a wonderful duty he had in the worship of the God of Israel. How pleasant to be employed in this vital role of leading the nation’s song and praise, or to provide the right “pieces” for the choral work for each occasion throughout the year.

“I have set my affection to the house of my God”

 Of special interest to us are the details of the singers as given in 1 Chronicles 25. Among the Levites there were 4000 singers and musicians!

moreover four thousand praised Yahweh with the instruments which I made, said David, to praise therewith” (1 Chron 23:5).

Clearly this vast number were far more than the limited circumstances of the Tabernacles would have required. David’s mind was in the future, catering for the grander scenes of the “exceeding magnifical” Temple to be built by Solomon his son.

The king saw these singers as performing a vital role in Israel. In the record of 1 Chronicles 25 the three principals are again mentioned, Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, and alongside their names are listed the number and names of their sons, four to Asaph, six for Jeduthun and fourteen for Heman (v2, 3)—a total of twenty four sons the same number as the courses of the priests. Of Eleazar, there were in the days of David sixteen principal priests and of Ithamar, eight—each of these led a company of priests . The order is given in chapter 24. Chapter 25 then goes on to mention that each of the twenty four sons of the principal singers had twelve singers in his ward or lot, making a total of 288 (verses 8–31). The correlation of the two chapters makes it plain that each group of priests was accompanied by a ward of singers. This is a far more detailed and sophisticated arrangement than outlined for the  ceremonies of the Tabernacle or the bringing in of the Ark. King David despite his advanced years, has under the inspiration of the Spirit provided for a beautiful and continuous arrangement to magnify the name of the God of Israel in offering and in song (1 Chron 28:12–13, 19, 21).

The Psalms in Our Worship

  It is truly a phenomenon that these same psalms play a similar role to that which they did in Israel in private and collective worship wherever the brotherhood is found today and have done so for over two thousand years.

Clearly the Hand of God was behind the Psalter and its use in Israel. Let us in our worship, therefore, not forget the gravity and dignity of the Psalms. They are full of lofty and grand principles expressed in holy and exalted terms. They represent a great contrast to the flippant, worldly trends that pass for worship in Christendom today. Too many items being sung in our community sound like, and are, evangelical “pleasant love songs” or “gospel songs” with a few words changed. The right way to praise God must include what He has caused to be left on record in Holy Writ, rather than follow the trends of a sacrilegious world that hastens to Armageddon.

The Future Age

 When all the sensual “music” of this modern evil world has been swept into the abyss of Divine judgment, then no doubt at least some of this beautiful annual program of song and praise will emanate again from the House of Yahweh in the height of Mount Zion.

When our Lord has come there will be once more the restoration of truth in the earth and with it will come the return of the Temple services as in the days of old. Instead of the imperfect voices of mortality, struggling to appreciate the lofty principles of each psalm, there will be new voices singing the old psalms as new songs. Perfected by immortality, the saints will sing as they have never sung before, each individual gloriously equipped to sing in absolute harmony with the thousands of voices beside them. What a glorious day that will be when their King ascends the throne, and the Temple, resplendent in absolute perfection, will open to the strains of multitudes of immortals all lifting up their heart and voice in glory.

When the house of Yahweh is established in the top of the mountains and all people have learned of His laws, then at last the whole earth will burst forth into song and thanksgiving (Psa 96:1–9). Everything that hath breath will respond in fervent praise to the Creator of all things and at last the earth will have rest (Psa 148).

“Musical Instruments of God”

 What remarkable things will have developed from such small beginnings. Will the once shepherd-boy of Bethlehem-Ephratah be set over the glorious song and praise of these immortal choirs? Will he take those same psalms that by the Spirit of God he composed in the days of his obscurity and teach them to the new and everlasting singers in the House of Prayer for all nations? Will the companies of the earth hear and learn these ageless, beautiful songs, together with new songs composed to celebrate even greater triumphs, more universal achievements of David’s greater Son?

Perhaps we could also ask if the same instruments of David’s day will find a renewed role in the Temple of the future? There are many musical instruments mentioned in the Scriptures. David was responsible for the construction of these instruments, but the more intriguing fact is that their design was given by God. Hence in 1 Chronicles 16:42 they are described as the “instruments of God” and in 2 Chronicles 7:6 as the “instruments of musick of Yahweh, which David the king had made to praise Yahweh”. Apparently the pattern for these was given by the Spirit together with all the other details for the Temple and all its furniture, utensils, instruments, courses, and chambers (1 Chron 28:11–21; 23:5). What a remarkable consideration this is. There was a combination of melody and resonance that God Himself desired to hear in His house of worship. These same instruments and organisation prevailed through the whole period of the kingdom of Judah (2 Chron 29:25, 27) and were still in vogue in the days of restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 3:10–11; Neh 12:45–47). Surely the Temple of the age to come will see this beautiful institution, founded by David of old, restored and magnified to the praise of the God of heaven and the rejoicing of all mankind.