"How exactly should I read the Bible?"
It's one of those questions that we kind of just have to keep coming back to, over and over again. One of the reasons why this question can be so troublesome for people, though, is the fact that very often, people with influence in church circles misuse scripture, implicitly teaching people across multiple generations to look for lessons and applications that simply aren't there in the text.
So when we come to passages like 1 Samuel 16, 1 Chronicles 13-15, and 1 Kings 3:15, it's often too easy to begin looking for application points, life lessons, and prohibitions when we should really be looking for the flow of the overall story and the kinds of questions the narrative raises. Today we'll especially be looking at the story in 1 Samuel 16, and the way that reading the story in narrative context can completely change the significance of the passage.
1 Samuel 16
Sometimes, people will read 1 Samuel 16:14-23 as a warning about the power of music. Saul was being periodically tormented by an evil spirit. The logic goes that if David playing music was able to chase that evil spirit away, then two things must follow: first, that David must have played good or acceptable music, and second, that the opposite must also be true, and playing the wrong or unacceptable kind of music can potentially invite an evil spirit to come.
There are several problems with taking the passage this way. First, David's music is not described for us in any kind of detailed way, apart from the fact that he played it on a lyre.
However - and this point can't be stressed enough - simply listing an instrument is not enough to tell us what the music sounded like. Flute music can be folk, classical, jazz, and any other number of styles. Those distinctions do not depend so much on the instrument itself as on the playing style, scales, modes, time signatures, and other elements that the musician chooses. And a hugely important piece of the equation is culture. Without additional information, there simply is not enough detail in the text to tell us what kind of music David played - with one possible exception that we will note below.
But if there is not enough information there for us to gain practical instructions about how to conduct music in church, then what is the purpose of this passage? What does it mean? To answer that question, we have to refuse to ignore the first half of the chapter.
Leading up to 1 Samuel chapter 16, Saul has demonstrated that he's not really up to the task of being a good king for Israel. In chapter 15, God rejects Saul as King. So in the start of chapter 16, God sends the prophet Samuel out to Bethlehem to meet with a man named Jesse. Jesse introduces Samuel to all of his sons, but surprisingly, God identifies the youngest and seemingly least impressive son, David, as the one who He has chosen to become the next king of Israel. Samuel anoints him there, and then just leaves. And the scene suddenly cuts to Saul being tormented by "an evil spirit from the Lord."
When we read 1 Samuel 16 in it's full context, we start to realize that the second half of the chapter answers a question raised by the first chapter: If this small-town kid is supposedly going to be the next king of Israel, when and how is he going to get into the palace? How is that transition from rural shepherd boy to royal courtier going to happen?
The context of the story demonstrates that God is orchestrating events taking place around these characters in order to accomplish his purposes. David's reign as king goes on to be highly significant. He is perhaps the most celebrated and successful of Israel's kings, depending on how you rank him compared to his son Solomon. And, David goes on to become one of the ancestors of Jesus, the Messiah. In fact, one of the Messianic titles given to Jesus is "Son of David" (Matthew 21:8-10). When we read this piece of scripture in context, we begin to unravel it's Messianic implications. God is guiding the history of his chosen people towards an ultimate goal - the true king of Israel who will save the people from their sins and draw all of humanity back to God.
When we look at scripture carefully and in context, we can usually avoid misinterpreting passages and pulling out applications that were never meant to come from the text.
What do we know about ancient Hebrew music?
So, about that exception we mentioned in paragraph 5 above: the story does not tell us about the sound of David's music. But it does implicitly tell us, by virtue of what part of the world the story takes place in, what culture produced the music David would have been familiar with. Just like most other regions on earth, the part of the world known as the Middle East - perhaps more correctly described as modern South-West Asia - has certain discernible musical trends and qualities that tend to characterize the music of all the people groups in the same general area. This makes sense when you consider that most people living in the same general geographic space would likely have access to the same plants and animals to make instruments out of, and would also likely have similar day-to-day lived experiences to express in their music.
So when it comes down to it, one fact that should actually be quite obvious to us tends to be often forgotten or overlooked: the kind of music that David played, the kind of music used in worship and cultural celebration in ancient Israel, and definitely all of the examples of music that the Israelites would have considered "holy," all would sound to modern Western ears like Middle Eastern music. Now, "Middle Eastern" is probably too broad of a designation that generalizes too much from an outside perspective. However, we can note certain musical scales, modes, tonalities, rhythmic tendencies, and so on, that are more common in this part of the world than in others.
To be clear, we cannot completely or perfectly reconstruct what music would have sounded like during the time of the Hebrew Bible or even of the New Testament. All we can do is follow the historical clues and trace the cultural influences back to their origins. This, ultimately, is not done by conjecturing about what instruments are or aren't permitted by narrative passages in the Bible, but by consulting trained musicologists, anthropologists, and music historians.
The Scripture doesn't mean what it never meant
But above all else, we should recognize that there are no passages anywhere in the Bible that prohibit or forbid specific kinds of musical sounds or instruments. Any attempt to make a case for this almost always twists the scripture way outside of it's intended scope. To read the Bible while trying to make it say what we want it to say is to miss the point of reading the Bible. We need to let the scripture speak on it's own terms first, and ask ourselves what the authors of the text are trying to emphasize.
- Read 1 Samuel 16. What do you notice in the story that is new? What do you notice that is perhaps strange or confusing? What do you think the overall lesson of the chapter is?
- Compare your reading of 1 Samuel 16 to the famous David & Goliath story in the following chapter. Does the text ever indicate that we should kill giant people like David did? Or does the episode only serve to move the story along? Have you ever concluded that God wanted you to go do what David did in this chapter?
- Read 2 Kings 3 and take note especially of verse 15.
- Describe the primary action in this chapter. What is going on?
- What role does music play in this chapter? Does the text ever hint that music always has to be used in this way?
- Compare this with Acts 2:1-4.
- In 1 Chronicles 13-15, there are tambourine players who seem to disappear between the first attempt to transport the Ark of the covenant in chapter 13 and the second attempt in 15. Does this mean that the Bible forbids tambourines?
- Compare the story in 1 Chronicles 13-15 to the same story told earlier in 2 Samuel 6. What instruments are and aren't listed in each instance? Do the authors of these passages list all the instruments present every time they mention instruments?
- What do you think is the significance of David's interaction with Michal in 2 Samuel 6? Is this passage merely descriptive, or does the fate of Michal carry a warning about judgment? How would you determine if you were to take this passage prescriptively or descriptively?
Read more about Biblical music here.
Read more specifically from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective on music here.
Read briefly about the use of Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian modes in Jewish musicology here.
Rick Beato on Phrygian Major and how to compose music with it:
Israeli music group Miqedem, playing Psalm 150 in a scale that is not exactly Phrygian Dominant, but is fairly similar and very indicative of the musical sounds native to that region of the world: