No one can read Psalm 150 without experiencing the exuberance of praise. The psalm begins and ends with the Hebrew word haleluyah, meaning "praise Yahweh," usually translated "praise the Lord'' (verses I, 6). * With a single exception, every line begins with the word ' 'praise" (the one exception still contains the word). The mention of musical instruments as fitting vehicles for praising God is as natural today as it was in antiquity. It conjures up a picture of great music profoundly and joyfully rendered on a variety of instruments.
But is this psalm concerned only with praising the Lord in as many ways as possible, or is there a broader message? Can we discern movement and direction in the way the psalm sets forth its commands to praise? Or is each line an independent entity having little to do specifically with adjacent lines? Is the psalmist simply searching his mind for a catalog of musical instruments, or did he choose specific instruments and mention them in a particular order for a purpose? If so, what was his purpose? Certainly, praise to God apart from any additional purpose is perfectly proper, but Psalm 150 may also give us a more unified and coherent look into the scope and purpose of praise.
Verse one tells us that we are to praise God in two places: in His sanctuary and in His mighty firmament. The Israelite understood this to include both the earthly microcosm of the tabernacle, or temple, where religious services of praise were regularly conducted, and also every place spanned by God's creation, the macrocosm ("his mighty firmament"). For us today it means that our praise to God should occur not only in our corporate church services but wherever we are in the world as well. Praise does not end at the church doors.
Thus the first verse of the psalm introduces us not only to the idea of praise but also to an interesting social idea: praise to God transcends the religious sphere of life and enters into every aspect of existence. Praise to God is not only proper, but desired, in places other than those uniquely set apart for worship.
The second verse tells why we are to praise Him: because of "his mighty deeds" and "exceeding greatness" ("his mighty deeds" were His past miraculous acts in history).
In verses 3-5 the theme of the psalm is amplified by reference to several musical instruments and practices well known by Old Testament worshipers. These verses do not contain simply a blind catalog of musical instruments. There is a method to the psalmist's order of terms.
The instruments mentioned in Psalm 150 were in vogue almost three thousand years ago and thus were very different than anything we know today, although our Bible translations use terms we understand today. Most modern Western instruments with which we are acquainted have been developed since the close of the Renaissance, a mere four hundred years ago. Earlier instruments looked, and would have sounded, exotic to us, so much so that on the rare occasions when they are played today, we must develop a taste for them before their sound is pleasing. Many of these ancient instruments are pictured in ancient art, especially in Egypt, and some have even been found in excavations. Even the singing styles of those ancient times may not have been considered beautiful by our present ideas of what constitutes a pleasant musical sound. Like painting, sculpture, and literature, musical style is an ever-changing expression of human feeling. The instruments used to express those feelings change too. But we can be confident, nonetheless, that the emotions and values expressed by these ancient people in their music were similar to those that our modern music elicits in us.
Ancient musical instruments were not orchestral in nature. That is, they were not meant to be played in groups of more than a few players. Music then was softer than is ours today; even instruments considered by the ancients to have been loud were, by our standards, relatively quiet. Singers and their accompaniment probably performed in unison for the most part, or in harmonies that would be foreign to our ears; most assuredly there was no "harmony" as we know it today.
Melodies tended to be chantlike and performed in a vocal tone that may have been quite nasal, unlike any popular or classical styles of our modern western culture. If David himself were to sing for us, his tone would probably be so strange that we would have a difficult time appreciating it. Recently, an ancient song written around 1400 B.C. on a clay tablet and found at ancient Ugarit has been deciphered and performed. You may listen to the song on a recording entitled "Songs From Silence" (Bit Enki Records BTNK 101; see also Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. VI, No. 5, pp. 14-25). Today's tastes would certainly not call the song beautiful.
However, the same emotion that David inspired in Saul by his music can be inspired in us by our modern music. Music is a statement of aesthetic and emotional symbols of values to which a specific culture is conditioned. It is on this level that the musical references in Psalm 150 are meaningful to us today.
The first instrument mentioned in verse three is illustrative of this point. The trumpet, or shophar, was made from a hollowed ram's horn. It was nothing like our modern trumpet made of brass, which has a maximum range of about three octaves. The shophar could muster only one or two notes and could not be played nearly as loudly as modern trumpets, even though it was the loudest of ancient instruments.
Because the shophar could not play melodies, it was used rhythmically to signal the parts of the worship service, the Sabbath hours, and the beginning of religious feasts, perhaps something like church bells are used today. It could also be used to signal alarms from the city's watchtowers (see Jer. 4:5). Different rhythms were used to signify the various festal occasions. Because of its unique use in the ordering of Temple worship, the shophar was considered the religious instrument par excellence in Biblical and post-Biblical Judaism and is still so considered today. There is thus a reason the shophar is mentioned first in the psalm.
Even though the lute (verse 3) is an antique instrument to most of us, the word evokes a far more modern instrument in our minds than the Bible writer envisioned. Actually both the "lute" (nebel) and the "harp" (kinnor) seem to have been similar instruments. Although no one can be certain, it appears that the nebel was very similar to the modern harp, perhaps occurring in several different sizes and shapes. Josephus mentions that it had about twelve strings (giving it a range of about an octave or slightly more, although we do not know the tonal intervals involved), and that it was used heavily in worship to accompany singing by individuals or small groups (see also 2 Sam. 6:5; 1 Chron. 15:16).
The harp, or kinnor, was the instrument of David (1 Sam. 16:16) and was considered the noblest instrument of all. It probably was a lyre-type instrument, held in the hand and plucked like a miniature harp but with fewer strings. Just as the guitar is often considered a basic musical instrument today, so the kinnor seems to have been the basic musical instrument of Biblical times, especially among the aristocracy. It was a secular instrument, although it was used frequently in Temple services. Indeed, the Levites were especially known for their abilities on the kinnor during Temple services when, in New Testament times, never fewer than nine were used.
All the instruments mentioned in verse three are instruments considered by Biblical people to be fit for use in the Temple services. The shophar was used to provide order for the service, the nebel was used as an accompaniment for singing by individuals or small groups, and the kinnor was probably used to accompany singing by individuals or by groups of singers, especially Levites, in which each singer played his own instrument.
In verse four, the timbrel, or toph, was apparently a type of hand drum played primarily by women in a manner some what like a modern tambourine to accentuate the beat of a tune. Miriam played a toph when she sang and danced after the Red Sea deliverance. It was usually considered a joyous instrument used in contexts of celebration and thus is perfectly at home in Psalm 150.
The frequent mention of the toph in connection with dancing (Psalm 149:3, Exodus 15:20, et cetera) accounts for its occurrence in the same line with the word "dance" (machol, which is, liter ally, "whirling dance"). While Seventh-day Adventists do not take part in modern dancing, there is much evidence that Biblical people danced, especially on religious occasions (2 Sam. 6:14; Ex. 15:20; Judges 11-.34; Ps. 149:3, et cetera). Biblical religious dancing, however, had nothing in common with modern disco or even the waltz; it was not meant to be part of a purely social occasion. Instead, the dancer's mind never left the elevated plateau of worship. There is no strong evidence, however, that even religious dances were ever performed in the Temple.
Today, Jews still "dance" in religious contexts. On a visit to the sacred open-air synagogue at the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, I once observed a group of men link hands in a circle and rotate with a somewhat sprightly step between a walk and a trot while singing loudly a hymn of praise. Their thoughts were clearly centered on the sentiments of the hymn, and their circular movement, which was hardly a "dance" by our standards, emphasized its message for them. It is this kind of "dance" Psalm 150 has in mind.
The word "strings" (verse 4) probably refers to all the other stringed instruments known to Biblical people besides the nebel and kinnor. There were several of these, such as zithers (lutelike instruments with three strings and very small soundboxes) and other types of lyre-related instruments. Many of these, like the toph, were used to accompany dances.
The pipe (verse 4) was simply a flute made from a reed. It is one of the oldest instruments on earth (Gen. 4:21) and was widely used in antiquity. It is mentioned only rarely in the Bible, probably because it was primarily a secular instrument. Some ancient non- Biblical texts even speak of it as an evil instrument because of its association with orgiastic celebrations connected with the wine harvest. Like instruments today, it apparently could be misused! Sometimes a misunderstanding has arisen caused by the King James Version translating this instrument as "organ." Actually, the original meaning of the English word "organ" was "pipe," and was meant as such by the K.J.V. translators, who lived at a time when large church Organs were just being developed. Earlier organs were nothing more than a small series of pipes connected to a bellows and a small keyboard.
Note that all the instruments mentioned in verse four were basically secular in nature and were not used for Temple services. As in modern times, some instruments evoked ideas and emotions that made them relatively unfit for specific religious purposes. The important thing to notice about Psalm 150 is that it includes groups of instruments used both in the Temple service and outside it—both in sacred and secular contexts.
In verse five the same instrument, the cymbals, is mentioned twice in parallel lines perhaps to indicate a climax in the psalm or because of the dual nature of the instrument itself. Cymbals could, in turn, be played (struck together) in two ways, vertically as cymbals players in bands and orchestras do today, or horizontally. Ancient cymbals were generally smaller than modern varieties; on ancient illustrations they seem to be no longer than five to eight inches in diameter. Their Hebrew name (tsiltsil—again a dual-sounding word) is onomatopoeic and may indicate how they sounded: their small size would have produced a mere tinkle compared with the crashing sound of large modern cymbals. They seem to have been played only by men and perhaps were restricted to priests; they thus were considered a sacred musical instrument. The loud sound of the cymbals accents the intensity of praise we owe to God.
What does this list of instruments say to us about praise to God? The answer is found in verse six: "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!"
Praise Him both in religious services and in the day-to-day life outside the church. Praise to God cannot be localized to a building or a specific religious service. We are to praise God in a variety of ways, anytime and anywhere. Praise engulfs all levels of man's feelings, not simply the religious. Just as the musical instruments listed in Psalm 150 point toward a wide range of emotions and ideas, so praise to God should be reflected in the total range of our activities.
from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.