Whenever a defense is advanced for something like the historic Reformed understanding of the rule of worship one of the objections that regularly arises is this: if musical instruments are being used in Scripture, we may we not use them now in our worship? This question is a species of the broader question, “if x is done in Scripture (e.g., holy war, dancing in worship, or use of musical instruments), why may we not do x?” Let us consider the broader question first and then this particular question.
The (usually) unstated assumption behind the broader question is this: we are in the same place in redemptive history as the canonical actors. This is an unsustainable assumption. To put it directly: we are not Noah, Moses, David, or Elijah. Yes, Yahweh spoke quietly to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) but you and I are not Elijah. You and I are not the typological Old Covenant mediator (Moses) with whom Yahweh met face to face. In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate. You and I, however, are not actors in the canonical drama. We are recipients of the story and we participate in it, in Christ, by identity but God is not giving new revelation nor is he accomplishing new acts of redemption. There is only one outstanding act of redemption to come that is the glorious, visible, bodily return of Christ.
Yes, David danced before the ark but as Calvin reminded us centuries ago (CO, 7.609) but he did not do so as an example for us to imitate any more than the Israelite holy wars are to be imitated today. The Lord clearly commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20. The Lord commanded “when Yahweh your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword” (v. 13). If we are to be consistent in the way we are reading Scripture, any argument to take the Old Testament musical instruments must also take up the Old Testament command to conduct holy war. Yet, one does not see such an argument. Why not? We know that the Old Testament holy wars were typological (illustrative of heavenly and future realities) and completed with the death of Christ but we are reluctant to apply that logic to the use of musical instruments. Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward, if difficult to read: musical instruments are familiar and pleasant but holy war is unfamiliar and unpleasant.
2 Chronicles 29:25–28 connects inextricably the religious use of musical instruments to the Old Covenant ceremonies that we know to have been fulfilled by the life and death of Jesus:
And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to Yahweh began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished (ESV).
Yahweh commanded the very priests who were shedding the blood of animals also to play musical instruments in religious worship. Those instruments were splattered figuratively (and perhaps literally) with the blood of bulls and goats. Christians regularly appeal to the use of musical instruments under the Old Covenant as grounds for using them today but they recoil when it suggested that we follow the pattern to its logical end.
The book of Hebrews is clear that the Old Covenant worship (cultus) was typological, that it has been fulfilled by Christ and that any return to it is an insult to the finished work of Christ. This argument was at the heart of the Protestant response to the thirteenth-century doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory (satisfying and wrath-turning), memorial, figurative re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Trent’s ratification of the 4th Lateran Council was in direct contradiction to the virtually the entire book of Hebrews.
Yet, when it began to suit us in the 17th century (in the Netherlands) and later in the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles and in USA, we began to do the very thing for which we had criticized the Romanists in the 16th century. We had begun to clean off the blood, as it were, from the types and shadows and to restore them to Christian worship. To be sure, it had been done in the 16th century by the Lutherans but even Thomas Aquinas ridiculed the use of musical instruments by Christians as “judaizing.” Everyone knew that the early church had unequivocally and strongly rejected the use of musical instruments on the same grounds and that, though the organ had been introduced into Christian worship in the 7th century in Spain (in one place), they were hardly used even in the middle ages. They were forbidden from Papal masses as inappropriate for such a solemn occasion.
These examples illustrate the grave biblical, theological, logical, and historical problems with the broader argument: if believers did x in Scripture we may we not do it now? We may not do it now because those actions were peculiar to that period of redemptive history. This is why the apostles did not take the sword against pagans. This is why they preached Christ and called pagans to repentance and faith. This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.
So too, we need to realize where we are. We are not in the canon. We are recipients of the canon. We are not actors in the story except by identification. We are recipients of the story. This basic principles will help us understand how to approach the Revelation.
The question before concerns what the church ought to do in public worship. Christians often ask, “If they did x in Scripture, why may we not do them now?” In part 1 we considered the problems associated with this approach to Scripture, which blurs the line between the canonical history of redemption and us, who are recipients of the benefits of those acts of redemption. We also noted that this approach is almost always employed selectively, even arbitrarily. We are tempted to cherry pick those things that we might like to do, e.g., dance before the ark like David or play the harp in worship like the Levitical priests. Few Christians, however, want to identify the Canaanites in their region, let alone go to war against them nor do they wish to carry a lamb to the front of church and slit its throat. So, in this approach, we may have liturgical dancing and literal harps (or their equivalent) but we may not literally go to war with pagans. This, however is to re-institute, in the New Covenant, Old Covenant types and shadows (Heb 8:5; 10:1; Col 2:17).
A species of the general argument addressed in part 1 is the argument from the Revelation. The question is this: since, in the Revelation, we see instruments being used in heaven, why may we not use them now? There might be a certain prima facie attraction to this argument if we think of the history of redemption. After all, the Revelation was given in the New Covenant, after the fulfillment of types and shadows. Further, we do legitimately appeal to the Revelation 1:10 as evidence for the existence and practice of the Christian’s Lord’s Day.
Despite its attraction of there are insurmountable problems to this approach to the Revelation. First, we must recognize that most of the first three chapters of the Revelation are rather different from the succeeding chapters. We know a fair bit about the actual (not symbolic) churches in Asia Minor to which the Revelation was sent and when (c. 93 AD). On this see e.g., Colin Hemer, Letters to the Seven Churches (1986). So, it is one thing to appeal to Rev 1:10 and another to appeal to chapter 5 as grounds for our practice.
Second, as a general rule, we ought to be careful about how we appeal to the Revelation as a justification for our practice. The Revelation was given by the Spirit, through the Apostle John, to the churches of Asia Minor (and to us) in order to help us get a broad overview of the movement of history between the ascension of our Lord and his return. Its purpose is not to provide detailed practical guidance in worship or in public works (e.g., Rev. 21:21). The Revelation was not given to guide Christians in the details of their practice. As a general rule, when we appeal to a text to answer a question which it does not intend to answer we must be sure that our inferences are legitimate. There are good reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the argument, “we see instruments used in heavenly worship, therefore we are justified in using them in Christian worship.”
Third, those places in which we see references to musical instruments being used are set solidly in the most symbolic literature in all of Holy Scripture. Just for that fact we should be very cautious. E.g., early in chapter 4 as the book shifts to the vision of heaven (this is the Ἀποκάλυψις) heaven is presented to us in symbolic terms:
Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal (Rev 4:4–6; ESV).
Are we to think that there are 24 thrones, elders, literal lightening, literal torches? Probably not. Why not? Because there are not literally “seven spirits of God.” Seven is a perfect number. To say “seven spirits” is to communicate the perfection of God the Spirit. The Apostle John is not teaching us a that God is really one God in eight persons. There is not a literal sea of glass before Christ’s throne. In Revelation 5:13 our Lord is said to be sitting but in v. 6 not only is our Lord said to be standing but he is said to be “a Lamb…”. Our Lord is “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) but he not literally a lamb. There is no literal scroll (βιβλίον). Again, this is not liberalism. This is recognizing the highly symbolic nature of the Revelation. The Belgic Confession (1561; art. 37) recognizes this when it says that the books that are to be opened is a symbolic way of talking about our consciences.
Recognizing the intent and genre of the Revelation, we are prepared to consider the specific question of the function of the instruments. Revelation 5:8 says, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp (κιθάραν), and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (ESV). Please notice that the Revelation itself tells us that these are symbols. There is not literal incense in heaven. Scripture says, “which are the prayers of the saints.” If there is not literal incense then to say or assume that we are to imagine literal instruments is not only implausible but a failure to pay attention to the clear hermeneutical (interpretative) instructions in the text itself. The argument that the heavenly instruments are grounds for our practice now rests on the assumption that the instruments are literal but to claim that they are literal though the incense (and all of the other features of this aspect of the vision) are figurative is nothing but special pleading (cherry picking). If, however, we are concede that the instruments are figurative but they may remain a basis for our use of instruments on earth, then how can we possibly deny those who would demand that we use incense in our worship services? We cannot. On that reading and logic to refuse to use incense would be purely arbitrary.
This entire argument, of course, misses the point of the Revelation. We are arguing about something that never entered the mind of the Apostle John and that is entirely outside the purpose of the Revelation. What we have in chapter 5 is a vision of heaven. To help us think about heaven, to give us a way to understand something that quite transcends our ability to understand fully, John uses images of OT temple worship. John sees a stringed instrument (κιθάραν). In 1 Corinthians 14:7 it is usually translated as “harp.” We see this instrument frequently in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures) as in e.g., Psalm 32:2: “Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (ἐν κιθάρᾳ); make melody to him with the harp of ten strings (ψαλτηρίῳ δεκαχόρδῳ)! See also Psalm 42:4; 56:9; 72:22; 80:3; 91:4 etc. This is the imagery and language from 2 Chronicles 29:25: “And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from Yahweh through his prophets.” The terms used in the LXX vary from the terms John uses but the imagery is identical. The point of John’s vision in Revelation 5 is for beleaguered believers to lift their eyes to heaven to see something of eternity, to see something of the glory of the ascended Lord Jesus, that he lives, that he has indeed conquered, that he is sovereign, and that he is returning.
To be consistent with the logic that would have us using instruments because they are used in heaven, we should have not only to add incense to our worship services and unplug the guitars (the κιθάρα was acoustic, not electric) but a throne, and “living creatures” to name but a few things. It does not seem too much to say that such an approach to the Revelation verges on absurdity.
We may confirm this approach to the cultic-musical imagery in the Revelation by looking at Revelation 15:2, which says “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands” (ESV).
The beast is a figure. The sea of glass is a figure. The image and the number are figures. The harps are figures. These are not patterns for Christian worship. At the very same time this revelation was originally given to the churches in Asia Minor those congregations were singing God’s Word (in response to his Word read and preached) a cappella. We know from early second-century testimony that the early Fathers were opposed to musical instruments. Polycarp at least knew the Apostle John. There is no of any transition from instruments to a cappella singing in the early church. They early Fathers believed that they were following the Apostolic pattern. That fact is not itself definitive but lends credence to the proposed and historic interpretation of the Revelation and to the traditional understanding of the apostolic practice. It would be incongruous to say that the Revelation us instructing us to use instruments when the earliest Christians in the late 1st century and the early 2nd century knew nothing of the sort.
The temptation to find what we want in Scripture can be almost overwhelming at time. The deep emotional attachment that many of us have to musical instruments creates severe problems for the project of recovering early Reformed and early patristic worship patterns. Since, however, we confess that Scripture is the unique and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life we must be willing to criticize even our most dearly held practices, things that we have come to love, that have deep personal significance, by Scripture read in the light of history. More fundamentally, we must adopt a more tenable and sustainable way of reading Scripture generally and the Revelation in particular.
This essay first appeared serially on the Heidelblog in June, 2017.