“[David] appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief.”
—1 Chronicles 16:4–5a
One of the greatest gifts God has entrusted to man is the gift of music. Not every person may have a special fondness for music. Nevertheless, it has an almost universal appeal, an appeal spanning all age-groups and all cultures and races. In fact, music existed even before God created the human race. In Job 38, the Lord asked Job this rhetorical question: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” “The sons of God” is a reference here to the angels. They were singing as God was fashioning the earth.
No doubt, Adam and Eve also sang praise to God as they saw and worked in God’s beautiful world.
However, when man fell into, music changed, although man’s desire to make music remained. The first specific mention of music in the Bible is in Genesis 4:21, which says of one of the children of wicked Lamech, Jubal, that “he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” The music man played and sang—as well as the reason for his music—changed when he became a sinner. Now his music no longer praised the Creator. In fact, like other human activities, man’s music was now motivated by sinful desires and even inspired by Satan himself. That’s clearly still the case today. Indeed, it’s evident that much of man’s music today is anti-God and anti-Christian, as it glorifies man as well as all kinds of sinful deviations and practices.
So, although music remains universal, it is no longer universal in serving God’s intended purpose. However, that is not the case for certain persons, namely the children of God, who by His grace have come to know Him and believe in Him, and who have received the gift of His salvation in Christ. They can and should offer music that truly glorifies God and His deeds. Yes, this is one of their highest privileges.
As hymn writer Isaac Watts put it in one of his hymns:
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly King
Shall sound His praise abroad.1
Who was Asaph?
Music and songs of praise to God have been an integral part of the life of God’s redeemed children from oldest times. In Old Testament Israel, music occupied a very important place. King David, Israel’s most noted king, the “man after God’s own heart,” was a lover and writer of music. His chief legacy was the many Psalms he wrote, now included in the book by that name. These Psalms became the songbook of Israel.
Another legacy of David, not to be overlooked, was his promotion of music in connection with the worship at the tabernacle. It was to that end that David appointed certain Levites to function in the ministry of music. The names of these men are cited, along with their ancestry, in 1 Chronicles 6, which says in verse 31–32, “These are the men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there. They ministered with music before the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. They performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them.” Their appointment is again mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:4: “He [David] appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.” And then verse 5 adds, “Asaph was the chief.”
The tribe of Levi had been set aside by the Lord already at Mount Sinai as the tribe responsible for all the activities and ministries connected to the worship of God at the tabernacle. Aaron and his sons were to function in the priesthood. Other Levites were in charge of the tabernacle furnishings and putting up and taking down the tabernacle. But it is interesting and significant that still other Levites were appointed by David to sing and play music at the tabernacle and lead the people of Israel in their offering of musical praise to God.
Asaph was one of the chief of these musicians. He was a Levite who lived during the time of King David. He must have been a man with special musical talent, given him by the Lord. He could play instruments of music as well as compose music and write songs. The book of Psalms, in fact, contains twelve Psalms that are ascribed to Asaph—Psalm 50 and Psalms 73 to 83.
When David brought the ark of God to Jerusalem—after it had been temporarily placed in the house of Obed Edom—the king himself accompanied the Levites who carried the ark. It was a joyful procession, with many of the Israelites marching along or observing the festivities. And David made sure that there was plenty of music in this “parade.” We read in 1 Chronicles 15:19—“The musicians Heman, Asaph, and Ethan were to sound the bronze cymbals.” Another Levite was in charge of the singing of the choirs in the procession. It was indeed a time of joyful praise to God.
The Place for Offering Music
After the ark had arrived in Jerusalem, it was placed on Mount Zion in a tent until it could be housed in the more permanent structure of the temple to be built later by King Solomon. After this joyful event was over, David made sure that as long as the ark was on Mount Zion, there would also be music and singing as part of the worship of God offered there. And so David appointed Asaph and other Levites to continue their musical ministry in Israel. As stated in 1 Chronicles 16:37: “David left Asaph and his associates before the ark of the covenant of the Lord to minister there regularly, according to each day’s requirements.”
This is a noteworthy instruction for God’s people today. It indicates that our worship of God must always include music. We could even say that music has a special place in our worship services today. We can make music anywhere, of course, by ourselves, at home or in school, on the road or at a campground. Making music is not limited to the official worship of God’s people, when they gather together in His house on the Lord’s Day or other special days. We can make melody to the Lord at all times.
But Asaph’s task reminds us that music is one of the essential ingredients of true and communal worship. If there was no sermon in a worship service, we would, no doubt, be very upset, because the preaching and hearing of God’s holy Word is an essential feature of biblical worship. Our Protestant forefathers restored the preaching of the Word to its central role in worship.
In addition to the sermon, there are other essential elements in biblical worship that must never be neglected, such as prayer and the offering of music sung and played in praise to the Lord. This is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Psalms. Psalm 95:2 exhorts, “Let us come before Him with thanksgiving, and extol him with music and song.” Psalm 100:2 urges, “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” Psalm 147:7 tells us, “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God on the harp.”
The New Testament also mentions singing on the part of God’s people. Colossians 3:19 states: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (parallel: Eph. 5:19). Musical praise to God is therefore a necessary aspect of public worship. And what better occasion to offer such praise is there than when God’s people gather together?
The Purpose of Offering Music
God’s people must always keep in mind, however, why they must offer music to the Lord. Why did David appoint Asaph and other Levites to this special task at God’s tabernacle and later in the temple? He did so for one basic reason. It was as a means to praise and acknowledge God. We read in 1 Chronicles 16 that when the ark of God had arrived in Jerusalem, David commissioned a special psalm of thanks to be sung. Verse 7 states, “That day David first committed to Asaph and his associates this psalm of thanks to the Lord.”
It is similar to when we celebrate a special spiritual event such as baptism or profession of faith, or a church dedication. We choose a certain song to sing to God’s praise. I use the word “praise” in a broad sense now. Praise not only extols God for Who He is, but also thanks Him for what He has done. Yes, it even includes expressions of sorrow, and prayers of confession, and pleas for God’s help. All of these ultimately are offered, or should be, to the praise of God.
The Psalm David submitted to Asaph and his associates is identified as a “psalm of thanks to the Lord.” But the true reason for this thanksgiving was praise to God, as indicated in verses 8 through 10 of 1 Chronicles 16: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name.” Our songs of thanksgiving are not offered for selfish reasons—because of the benefits we have received—but are offered to God’s praise. For us the greatest reason for thankful praise is the work of salvation accomplished by Christ for our eternal blessing.
It should also be noted that we do not sing because it is inspiring to sing (even though it is that). But that’s not why we sing. Nor do we sing to inspire others, though it may do that also. We sing to praise God. “Sing to him, sing praise to him,” sang Asaph and the Levites. We must always keep that in mind as we worship. Our “audience” is God. We are singing to and for Him. That would also apply to any soloist or choir or instrument player. They must remember that they are not performing for themselves, because they enjoy doing so, or to please other persons, much less to receive accolades from men. No, their musical rendering is to be directed only to God’s praise. That also includes what we could label songs of confession, songs of lament, or songs of petition (of which there are also many in the book of Psalms), songs where we express our sorrow for or sins and ask for God’s help in our trials.
We do not sing such songs to make ourselves feel good. Nor we do we sing them ultimately for our own benefit. We sing them as an expression of our need of God and His mercy. And when we acknowledge our dependence on Him or confess our failings to Him, it is because we want Him to receive the praise of our hearts and lives. Why do we offer music to God? It is finally all about praise to Him—our Creator, Sustainer, and Savior.
The Practice of Offering Music
We should mention some additional matters, however, related to our musical offering of praise to the Lord. And this might occasion some debate, even disagreement, among Christians. Some have even facetiously called music the “war department” in the church. But it should not be that if we continue to remember what is both biblical and important to maintain.
First, there is the question of what we should sing or play. In the multitude of songs available to us today, it is important to note that the most important criterion is that what we sing presents biblical truth. The words trump the melody—even though melody is also very important. But most importantly, the words of our songs must be true to God’s Word. Otherwise they cannot praise Him, and can even lead us astray from God.
At the same time, singing is so important that melody must not come in the way of our words. It must not detract from our words and thoughts. And hence, singing biblical words to a popular secular tune, associated with unbiblical ideas is, at minimum, a hindrance to our praise. And for those organizing and collating songs for a new songbook, let them be keenly aware that familiar, traditional tunes to songs have a special impact on our souls. Let them be careful in changing words and tunes to familiar songs. That is not to say that God’s people should be unwilling to learn new melodies, even new songs, by which to praise God. I have found some newer songs to be more biblical than some older songs, and their melodies very beautiful.
A second matter of some dispute today is who should sing and offer music to God in worship. Should it be only God’s people as a congregation or can it also be those with special musical talents who sing God’s praise? It is clear that Asaph and his colleagues associated among the Levites were specially gifted in music. They played their instruments of music skillfully. They led Levitical choirs at the tabernacle. And God used their services to His glory.
And so, it is fitting to thank God for those who have special musical abilities—whether in singing or in playing instruments, or in composing music for choirs and others to sing. They are indeed a blessing to the church, and the church can certainly benefit from their abilities at appropriate times as they sing or play music to the Lord. Indeed, they can thereby assist the congregation in praising God and motivate all God’s people to praise God more fervently.
At the same time, let us remember that the Protestant Reformation has given us the legacy of congregational singing as the primary expression of musical praise in the worship of the church. That legacy must be diligently practiced and guarded. Indeed, let that never diminish or be substituted by “special musical ministries.” Since we are all “priests” in God’s service, we are all called to offer God our praise and worship in word and song.
We can thank God for persons like Asaph. May there be many like him in the church today. Yes, may all of us—whatever level of musical ability we have—be Asaphs—musicians in God’s house. After all, won’t all of God’s people one day join together as members of the triumphant church to sing a new song—as John heard sung (Rev. 5:13): “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’”
1. “Come, ye that love the Lord, And let our joys be known”
Rev. James Admiraal is a retired pastor in the URCNA. He served most recently as the pastor of Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI. He also served several years on the board of Reformed Fellowship.