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The Voice of Harpers

The Voice of Harpers
By Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
March  2007

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The question is, did Christ, His apostles, or the Holy Spirit authorize mechanical instruments of music in the conduct of Christian worship. If so, then Christians must comply with the will of God and use them, and to fail to use them in the assembly of the church would be a sin.

Nevertheless, Church historians bear out the fact that the widespread use of mechanical instruments of music in church worship was not practiced by those claiming to be Christians until the middle of the Dark Ages. In the New Testament we see only the use of the human voice to praise God in the assembly of the saints. A few years after the apostles were all gone, there were some who attempted to put an instrument into the worship of the church but they were met with stiff opposition.

McCLINTOCK wrote, “The general introduction of instrumental music can certainly not be assigned to a date earlier than the 5th and 6th centuries; yea, even Gregory the Great, who towards the end of the 6th century added greatly to the existing church music, absolutely prohibited the use of instruments. Several centuries later the introduction of the organ in sacred service gave the place to instruments as accompaniments for Christian song, and from that time to this they have been freely used with few exceptions. The first organ is believed to have been used in the Church service in the 13th century. Organs were, however, in use before this in the theater. They were never regarded with favor in the Eastern Church, and were vehemently opposed in some of the Western churches.” (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, Vol 6, p. 759).

J. W. McGARVEY, a great Bible scholar wrote, “We cannot, therefore, by any possibility, know that a certain element of worship is acceptable to God in the Christian dispensation, when the Scriptures which speak of that dispensation are silent in reference to it. To introduce any such element is unscriptural and presumptuous. It is will worship, if any such thing as will worship can exist. On this ground we condemn the burning of incense, the lighting of candles, the wearing of priestly robes, and the reading of printed prayers. On the same ground we condemn instrumental music.” (J.W. McGarvey, The Millennial Harbinger, 1864, pp. 511-513.)
Again he said, “It is manifest that we cannot adopt the practice without abandoning the obvious and only ground on which a restoration of Primitive Christianity can be accomplished, or on which the plea for it can be maintained. Such is my profound conviction, and consequently, the question with me is not one concerning the choice or rejection of an expedient, but the maintenance or abandonment of a fundamental and necessary principle.” (J. W. McGarvey, Apostolic Timer 1881, and What Shall We Do About the Organ? p. 4, 10).

What do the Scriptures say? Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:17-19, “Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Again, the inspired apostle commanded, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colosssians 3:16).

However, in Revelation 14, John describes some glorious things which he saw and heard. Verses 1-3 read, “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.”

What did John hear? At first, John heard a voice from heaven which he says sounded like “the voice of many waters” and “the voice of a great thunder,” and then he heard “the voice of harpers harping with their harps” and they sang a new song. The “voice of the harpers” evidently means the sound produced by them on their instruments as the following Scripture shows. Does this scene, however, lead us to believe that God wants us to use harps when we assemble to worship? Certainly not! This is not an example of Christian worship, it is a vision of heaven.

Another scene in Revelation 18:1-17 depicts the fall of the city of Babylon. Please read this passage carefully and thoughtfully. Down in verses 21 through 24 it says, “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all. And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee....

“And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.”

Even when you read carefully the scene here presented, there are certain things not easily understood. Of course, the book of Revelation is full of symbols and figures and there are nearly as many opinions on the various objects and events as there are commentators on the book. However, it is not our purpose here to try to give an opinion on the meaning of all the various symbols except to simply say, we see Babylon symbolizing the hold that Satan maintains over men through materialism promoting the lust of the human flesh, the lust of eyes and the pride of life. Does this passage condemn the use of instruments of music like the harp, the pipe and the trumpet in our worship today? No; this passage has nothing to do with how we conduct our worship.

Please observe, that in the latter part of the passage, at the fall of the great city of Babylon she is told that “the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee.” These are understood to mean that ordinary activities and gentle pleasures would cease to be there. Listed along with these instruments of music were other normal occupations and activities. It says, no craftsman, no sound of the millstone, no light of a candle, no voice of a bridegroom or bride will be heard there any more. The instruments played in that scene were no more wicked then the tools of the craftsman, or the miller. The word of God says, “Marriage is honorable in all,” nevertheless, the Lord says that even marrying would end in that place.

We have yet to find a passage of Scripture even suggesting that the Lord despises instruments of music. The Old Testament is full of references to the playing of instruments even in worship of God. But we do not at all see implied here the playing of instruments are what God wants in our worship today. Nevertheless, there are those who are so opposed to instrumental music in general, they try to prove that God despises musical instruments. A passage used by some to prove this idea is found in Amos 6. They lift it out of its context and attempt to prove that God hates instrumental music. They say, “In Amos 6 there’s a ‘woe’ pronounced upon people ‘That would chant to the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David.’”

But let us look more closely at this passage. It says, starting in verse one: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria, which are named chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel came! Pass ye unto Calneh, and see; and from thence go ye to Hamath the great: then go down to Gath of the Philistines: be they better than these kingdoms? or their border greater than your border? Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall.

“That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed. The Lord GOD hath sworn by himself, saith the LORD the God of hosts, I abhor the excellency of Jacob, and hate his palaces: therefore will I deliver up the city with all that is therein. And it shall come to pass, if there remain ten men in one house, that they shall die” (Amos 6:1-9).

If there is a lesson in this for Christians today, it is that God disapproves of the attitude of being “at ease in Zion” and trusting simply in worshiping. Should we believe, from the above passage, that Christians today will be condemned because they sleep in a fancy bed, or stretch on the couch, eat lamb and beef, or sing with a violin, or invented new instruments, or drink out of bowls, or put on cologne? Condemnation comes not from any of these ordinary activities. No, God hates for His people to be so preoccupied with the things of this life, that they fail to have reverence owed Him, respect for His Word, and submission to His Will.

Rather than possessing personal joy and happiness in Christ, and zeal for His Cause, some Christians are passively relaxed... “at ease,” that is, comfortable in this world and with worldly things. God wants His disciples to be up and about His work, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and winning lost souls to Him. Continuing to read in this passage of Scripture leads us to believe that God also condemns those who boast that their accomplishments have been won on their own. Such people leave the grace of God out of the picture and brag about what they have gained through their own strength and ability.

[More later, Lord willing].