King David and Music

IF THERE is one name that brings to mind the music of Bible times, it is that of David, a remarkable man who lived some 3,000 years ago. In fact, much of what we know about music back then comes from the Bible’s record of David’s activities​—from the time he was a young shepherd to when he became a king and an able organizer.

There is a great deal that we can learn about music in Bible times through David. For example, what sort of instruments were played, and what types of songs were sung? What role did music play in David’s life and, on a larger scale, in the nation of Israel?

The Place of Music in Ancient Israel

Mouthing the words of a song often brings to mind the melody that accompanies them. The Bible contains the lyrics of numerous songs, the music of which regrettably remains unknown. It must have been beautiful, even sublime. The poetic loftiness of the book of Psalms suggests that the music that accompanied them was of equally great beauty.

As far as the instruments are concerned, the Bible describes them only briefly. (See the box  “Instruments in Bible Times.”) Even what type of harp David used is not known for certain. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that the Israelites invented several instruments, such as rare and precious wooden harps.​—2 Chronicles 9:11; Amos 6:5.

One thing is sure, however. Music occupied an important place in the life of the Hebrews, especially in their worship  of God. Music was performed at coronations, it was used in religious ceremonies, and it played a part in warfare. It also enchanted the royal court, enlivened weddings and family gatherings, and provided atmosphere during the festivals of the grape and grain harvests. Sadly, music was also associated with places of ill repute. Finally, when death struck, music consoled the survivors in their grief.

In Israel, music played yet other roles. It was known to elevate the mind and make prophets spiritually receptive. It was at the sound of a stringed instrument that Elisha found divine inspiration. (2 Kings 3:15) Music was also used to mark events on the calendar. New moons and festivals were announced with the sound of two silver trumpets. On the day of Jubilee, the sound of the horn proclaimed freedom to the slaves and the return of forfeited land and houses to their owners. How joyful the poor people must have been when they heard music announcing the return of their freedom or possessions!​—Leviticus 25:9; Numbers 10:10.

Certain Israelites must have been exceptional musicians or singers. In fact, according to an Assyrian bas-relief, King Sennacherib asked for a tribute from King Hezekiah in the form of male and female musicians. It seems that they were first-class performers. But it was David who stood out among all virtuosos.

A Remarkable Musician

David was remarkable in that he was both a musician and a poet. Over half of the psalms are attributed to him. While a boy, he was a shepherd, and his sensitive and perceptive mind was nourished with the pastoral scenes of Bethlehem. He had known the simple joys of listening to babbling brooks and the bleating of lambs responding to his voice. Touched by the beauty of this “music” in the world around him, he took up his harp and raised his voice in praise to God. What a moving experience it must have been to hear the music that David composed to Psalm 23!

As a young man, David played the harp so beautifully that he was recommended to Saul, the king, who took him into his service. When Saul was seized with anguish and mental agitation, David came to him and produced on his harp the melodious and restful refrains that calmed the heart of the king. The dark thoughts that haunted Saul vanished, and his agitation left him.​—1 Samuel 16:16.

 Music, which David loved so much and which filled him with happiness, sometimes caused problems. One day, when David and Saul returned victorious from their combat with the Philistines, triumphant and joyful music came to the ears of the king. The women were singing: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” At this, Saul became so angry and jealous that he “was continually looking suspiciously at David from that day forward.”​—1 Samuel 18:7-9.

Moved by Music

David’s divinely inspired compositions excelled in many ways. His songs include both contemplative and pastoral psalms. They range from expressions of praise to narrative history, from the joys of the grape harvest to the pomp of the palace inauguration, from reminiscences to hope, from request to entreaty. (See Psalms 32, 23, 145, 8, 30, 38, 72, 51, 86 and their superscriptions.) At the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, David composed a dirge, called “The Bow,” beginning with the words: “The beauty, O Israel, is slain upon your high places.” The tone was gloomy. David knew how to express a wide range of feelings, both in words and in music on his harp.​—2 Samuel 1:17-19.

With his exuberant personality, David loved joyful, lively music that was highly rhythmic. When he brought the ark of the covenant up to Zion, he leaped and danced with all his power to celebrate the event. The Bible account indicates that the music must have been extremely rousing. Can you  imagine the scene? It brought recriminations from his wife Michal. But it did not matter to David. He loved Jehovah, and this music, which filled him with such joy, caused him to leap before his God.​—2 Samuel 6:14, 16, 21.

As if all of this were not enough, David also distinguished himself by developing new musical instruments. (2 Chronicles 7:6) Overall, David seems to have been an exceptionally gifted artist, being an instrument maker, a poet, a composer, and a performer. However, David did even greater things.

Singing and Music at the Temple

A legacy of David was the organization of singing and music in the house of Jehovah. At the head of 4,000 singers and musicians, he placed Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (apparently also called Ethan). David associated them with 288 experts, who trained and supervised the rest of the group. The 4,000 singers and musicians were all present at the temple for the three large annual festivals. Imagine the grandeur of that magnificent choir!​—1 Chronicles 23:5; 25:1, 6, 7.

At the temple, only men sang. The expression “upon The Maidens,” in the superscription of Psalm 46, suggests high-pitched voice or instrument. They sang in unison, as indicated at 2 Chronicles 5:13: “The singers were as one.” The songs could be melodies, such as Psalm 3 and many other psalms of David, and sometimes included refrains, such as the one at Psalm 42:5, 11 and 43:5. Songs using antiphony, in which choirs and/​or soloists responded to one another, were also much appreciated. This is the case in Psalm 24, which was no doubt composed for the time when David brought the ark of the covenant to Zion.​—2 Samuel 6:11-17.

Singing, however, was not restricted to the Levites. It was the people who sang when they went up to Jerusalem for the annual festivals. This is perhaps what is meant by “A Song of the Ascents.” (Psalms 120  to 134) In Psalm 133, for example, David exalts the brotherhood that the Israelites tasted in those moments. He opens with these words: “Look! How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” Try to imagine the music that accompanied this song!

Music and Worship of Jehovah

One tenth of the Bible is made up of such songs, and the book of Psalms encourages all humans to pour forth praises. (Psalm 150) Music has the power to cause one to forget life’s worries, and singing can act as a balm to wounded hearts. However, the Bible also recommends that those who are in good spirits sing psalms.​—James 5:13.

Singing is an act by which one can express one’s faith and love for God. The night before Jesus’ execution, he and the apostles concluded their meal with singing. (Matthew 26:30) What a voice the Son of David must have had​—he who had known the glorious singing of God’s heavenly court! It is likely that they sang the Hallel, Psalms 113 to 118. If so, with the apostles, who were unaware of all the events that were about to take place, Jesus would have sung out loud: “I do love, because Jehovah hears my voice, my entreaties. . . . The ropes of death encircled me and the distressing circumstances of Sheol themselves found me. . . . ‘Ah, Jehovah, do provide my soul with escape!’”​—Psalm 116:1-4.

Man is not the inventor of music. The Bible describes music and singing in the heavens themselves, where spirit creatures play figurative harps and sing praises around Jehovah’s throne. (Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:2, 3) Jehovah God gave music to mankind, implanting in their heart a feeling for music and the irrepressible urge to express their sentiments by playing an instrument or by singing. For the man of faith, music is above all a gift from God.​—James 1:17.

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“In the day of your rejoicing and in your festal seasons . . . you must blow on the trumpets.”​—NUMBERS 10:10

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“Jehovah is my Shepherd. I shall lack nothing. In grassy pastures he makes me lie down; by well-watered resting-places he conducts me.”​—PSALM 23:1, 2

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“There were . . . four thousand givers of praise to Jehovah on the instruments that David said ‘I have made for giving praise.’”​—1 CHRONICLES 23:4, 5

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David expressed a whole range of feelings both in words and in music

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“Praise Jah, you people! Praise him with the tambourine and the circle dance. Every breathing thing​—let it praise Jah.”​—PSALM 150:1, 4, 6

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 Instruments in Bible Times

Stringed instruments included lutes, harps, and ten-stringed instruments. (Psalm 92:3) They were tuned to Alamoth and Sheminith, expressions perhaps referring to upper and lower octaves. (1 Chronicles 15:20, 21, footnote) Among the brass and wind instruments were the pipe, the flute, the horn, as well as trumpets, which were ‘loudly sounded.’ (2 Chronicles 7:6; 1 Samuel 10:5; Psalm 150:3, 4) At the temple dedication, trumpets and singers were “causing one sound to be heard.” (2 Chronicles 5:12, 13) This seems to mean that they were in tune and that there was no discord. Percussion instruments included tambourines and sistrums, a kind of musical rattle, as well as “all sorts of instruments of juniper wood.” There were also cymbals​—small ones “of melodious sound” and large ones called “clashing cymbals.”​—2 Samuel 6:5; Psalm 150:5.


Above: Detail from the Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy, depicting trumpets taken from the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Coins dated about 130 C.E., featuring Jewish musical instruments

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Coins: © 2007 by David Hendin. All rights reserved.