I have been thinking a lot lately about how communities, cultures, governments, and individuals can so easily get stuck in cycles. Small cycles sometimes, other times very large. I suppose part of this is that we are creatures of habit, to a degree. We also tend to make the same mistakes others made in the past. History class educators always reminded me that we look to the past so that we can learn what NOT to do. How quickly we forget our education, and how greatly many of us remain ignorant to so much of it. I cannot claim to know very much, though I believe I have had some very excellent teachers and professors throughout the years. Yesterday, I was in a conversation and remembered a paper I had done for my music history class in college. It was on the Jewish synagogue music during the 1st century A.D. Immediately, I searched for it, found it, and read it. Some of this may bore you, but I challenge you to read it and learn a little bit about our history of worshipping God.
Before the temple of Yahweh was destroyed in 70 A.D., many different instruments were used in abundance to praise and worship Him in the temple and in synagogues. They were used alongside vocal chant. You likely have learned this from reading the Psalms. Trumpet, lute (a stringed instrument, kind of similar to a guitar), harp, and cymbal instruments are mentioned frequently. Various aerophones, which are wind instruments that produce sound by causing the air to vibrate, were used primarily for signaling and announcing. The shofar and trumpets are great examples. Chordophones are stringed instruments (like the guitar and violin) which were played to accompany the vocal chant. The harp, lute, and lyre are the main instruments we know musicians played.
Percussive instruments included the toph (a tambourine), cymbals, and sistrum. A sistrum was typically made of a metal frame with transverse metal rods that rattled when the instrument was shaken.
Okay, so, are you taking this in? Can you just imagine the incredible instrumentation?
I love how Psalms 81:1-3 expresses a call to worship:
“Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob! Begin the music, strike the tambourine, play the melodious harp and lyre. Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon, and when the moon is full, on the day of our Feast.”
The vocal chant singing would have been so interesting to experience. Their voices would have been harsh, gutteral and nasal. This was due to the lack of vowels in the Hebrew language, but also because the instruments accompanying their voices were so often percussion-type and encouraged that kind of tone. This definitely makes me think the musical praise and worship could have been very vibrant and passionate.
Also, it has always been so interesting and awesome to me that all of the musicians were well trained. They were professionals. They gave their lives for the worship and praise of Yahweh. They practiced regularly, worked to better play their instruments and sing, and they sought after the Lord’s heart. It was their livelihood and their honor.
However, their routines were shaken up. I wonder how many of them left their ministry when Jesus came around. I wonder if some of them stayed with it, and how it affected their song writing and playing. We know between Jesus and the disciples, many began to follow Christ. They gathered in each other’s homes and shared everything. I wonder how it impacted the synagogues and temple. It would have been something to witness, let alone be a part of. Surely, they were in some kind of transition when Jesus swept through and started changing hearts while making some of the Pharisees and other leaders angry.
Then, we know there was a drastic change not terribly long after Jesus was crucified and risen. Jewish Christians were driven out of town by persecution. Gessium Florus hated the Jews, but ruled Judea. He killed 3,600 citizen in Jerusalem in 66 A.D. The Jews revolted, one thing led to another, and war commenced. (The Christian Jews pretty much stayed out of it. It created a large wall between the Jews and Christian Jews.) The Jews fought hard, but their temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Jews were slaughtered or sold as slaves. Instruments were lost or destroyed. Their world was completely falling down around them. As the remaining Jews tried to rebuild, some major changes were made to their synagogues and the way the worshiped God through music.
After 70 A.D., no Christians were permitted to enter the synagogues. Women were slowly removed from being allowed to sing. Apparently, women and men singing together created an association and symbolization of sexual unification…and women were encouraged to keep quiet in general. So, only men were allowed to sing. Also, solo song performance was used less and less. This had been used prior to the destruction of the temple, but it was phased out. Pharisees put an end to notated music, too. Basically, they required the music to be simple, repetitious, and easily memorized. Also an very incredible change was that musical instruments were no longer allowed. That’s right. A Capella. Only voices could be used to worship and praise Yahweh. So, basically, their worship time was men singing very simple songs, pretty much by heart, without any accompaniment. What a stark contrast to years prior with men and women singing alongside each other accompanied by so many jubilant instruments! I have not done enough research on early Christian church music to share a great deal about it, but I would imagine they had some of their musicians sharing songs of faith, praise, and hope…even if it was in someone’s house or on the road to some new mission.
I think the Pharisees were scared. They had lost some of their fellow worshippers to a new movement of faith, had their people massacred and their worship center destroyed. Their world had completely been shaken up by Jesus, who not only healed on the Sabbath (which was horrible to them), but challenged their mindsets and their manmade rules. Jesus came to make Yahweh’s message clear and provide a solution to an ever-present problem: we are messy, sinful, selfish people who could never ever live holy enough to be in the glorious presence of God face to face. I do not understand HOW the son of God being sacrificed by God’s chosen people fixed this. I know there are theologies and theories out there. However, it is obvious to me that humans are so fallible, so prideful, and so selfish. I am grateful that Jesus said He is enough and was the way to have fellowship with Yahweh for eternity.
So, here is what I draw from this small tidbit of Jewish history: musical worship of God has changed a lot throughout all of time. We have circled back to some things from time to time. We have made crazy associations and crazy decisions based on fear. Sometimes fear of losing people, sometimes fear of losing control, sometimes fear of something different, or sometimes fear of the unknown. We have valued things of little to no value much too much. And we have so often ignored God’s voice (the Holy Spirit) because we just do not want to be embarrassed for being wrong or reprimanded for being disobedient.
It is so easy to make the same mistakes over and over. It can be terribly difficult to break the patterns we’ve learned to find comfort within. However, I think that is just what God wants us to do: break our religious patterns and show us something new that can benefit His Kingdom. Holiness does not change. His worthiness does not change. Our sinful nature does not change (though our responses can). So much else changes around us, though. There are so many new ways of communicating, building, restoring, and creating. Some can really benefit the Kingdom of God. It can be scary to utilize new methods or revive old ones, but if we weigh against the Word of God and truly pray for God’s guidance, we can discern whether or not they are beneficial. And if we are willing to sacrifice for His Kingdom, then with the Holy Spirit’s directing and the Word’s power, hearts can be changed, lives can be renewed, strongholds can be broken, and God can be exalted. Hallelujah! And as long as the songs lift up His Name and speak words of truth, the music can be as simple, complex, extravagant, jubilant, or sweet as we desire. There is no law against making music for Him in His kingdom, and for my musician hands and voice, that is something to rejoice about. 🙂