Stringed Instruments Have Made You Glad
Some thoughts on Hebrews 1
And we are back with Textual Tuesday - what a lame/ awesome title. Now that we’ve got the introduction out of the way, let’s dive right in starting with Hebrews 1. As usual, these are not mean to be exhaustive commentaries. If you want something that looks more like a commentary, check out my website https://danielr.net/hebrews. Instead, I’ll be offering just a few thoughts on a verse or two from each chapter (and sometimes maybe more).
For this first one, we’ll be talking about why stringed instruments make Jesus glad.
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The book of Hebrews is how the Way of Jesus, and Jesus himself, is better than alternatives. It is meant to convince the Jewish believers to totally embrace the new covenant in light of the impending, and possibly ongoing, fall of the city. This is an event which brought tears to Jesus’s eyes on several occasions, and it should be one that brings tears to our eyes. All life is sacred and lives lost in violent revolts are no exceptions. Here is one example of Jesus’s lament:
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke 19:41–44
The first example of Jesus’s superiority is a lengthy comparison between Jesus and the angels, who were the original messengers of the first covenant. This comparison comes through a number of quotations from psalms with some Isaiah sprinkled in.
Some of the passages focus on the sonship of Jesus and the immutability of God’s character. But there is one passage in the middle of these quotations that makes me chuckle:
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” Hebrews 1:8–9
This passage doesn’t make me chuckle because I find it funny in itself, but it makes me chuckle because of how the passage contradicts an argument I’ve heard in the past.
The New Testament Never Quotes from a Psalm with Instruments
Have you ever heard that the New Testament never quotes from a psalm that mentions instruments? I’ve heard that before, and when my friend Dallas showed me this verse, I have to admit that I chuckled. Here it is:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad… Psalm 45:6–8
Now, if this passage is talking about Jesus like the Hebrews writer says, then who is made glad by stringed instruments?
Of course, it must be Jesus.
Now, there is a bit of a kink in this translation or interpretation. First, in the KJV, there is no mention of instruments; however, in most modern translations, the instruments are present in the passage. While I’ll link the biblehub page for you, some of these versions are NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, LSB, CSB, ASV, and many more.
Well, it’s because of a little word that is only used twice in the Bible: once in our passage and another in Psalm 150:4. The KJV does render this word as stringed instruments in the second occurrence. Now, this is a bit controversial in some of the older commentaries, if you look at the biblehub link above, but once you get into the newer commentaries, this translation is rarely even interacted with, which is honestly a bit unfortunate.
There is, however, another kink in this.
In the septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of stringed instruments in Psalm 45 (Psalm 44 in the LXX) while there is in Psalm 150.
This makes the case for “stringed instruments” in Psalm 45 a little shaky in my opinion, but all of this ambiguity is actually a major distraction from what actually matters: do we need a verse in the New Testament that quotes from a psalm that mentions instruments to justify the use of instruments in New Testament corporate worship?
I don’t think so.
But before I talk about why, let me share a few more passages that I think can be distractions.
Stringed Instruments in the New Testament
If you’ve been involved in the psallō debate, then you probably are familiar with the discussion around whether this words means “to sing” or “to pluck or twang the string". If not, be glad that you were able to use that time on something more productive. Regardless, I want to share a few passages from Scot McKnight’s newest translation:
and so the ethnic groups could splendor God for mercy, just as it’s written: Because this is true: I will publicly acknowledge you among the ethnic groups And I will accompany the strings to your name. Romans 15:9
Therefore, which is it? I will pray in the Spirit, and also pray in mind. I will play the strings in the Spirit, and I will also play the strings in the mind. 1 Corinthians 14:15
speaking to yourselves in string-accompanied songs and hymns and spiritual odes, singing and playing the strings in your heart to the Lord, Ephesians 5:19
And one bonus…
Let Christos’s word reside among you richly, in all wisdom teaching and mentoring each other—in string-accompanied songs, hymns, and Spirit-prompted odes, in grace singing in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16
But again, I think this is a bit of distraction. The question is not “Does the New Testament authorize instrumental music in corporate worship.” The question is, “Does the New Testament even mandate a worship service in which such questions such as what is and what isn’t authorized are even asked?”
In other words, does the New Testament contain a pattern of worship?
While I won’t answer this question in this blog since I have covered it several times in the past - just search for the regulative principle in my blog or podcast - I will make a simple observation:
The New Testament contains no equivalent to Leviticus in which laws for worship are laid out in an easy to follow set of guidelines. Instead, those who advocate for a pattern of worship must jump from passage to passage and context to context to justify their pattern. With so much room for different interpretations and various readings, such a method could not possibly be a requirement for fellowship because God would then be an author of confusion.
So Do Instruments Make Jesus Glad?
Not only are instruments used to worship Jesus in the New Testament in Revelation 5:8, Jesus wants us to worship God in every moment of our lives. Our very lives are meant to be our eternal worship service. Whatever we do, in word or deed, is meant to be done to bring glory to God.
If whatever we are doing is not contradicting the two commands of loving God and loving neighbor, then it is “authorized.” Although, such language is hardly helpful in this context.
Another way of measuring the helpfulness or expedience, which is Paul’s preferred term, is the fruit that instruments produce. If saturated with the Spirit, then an instrument can drive out evil spirits, to use language employed in the interactions between David and Saul. Instruments do, in fact, bear the fruit of love, joy, and peace. When someone plays instruments from the heart, the effects are immediate and obvious.
However, there may be situations in which it is not expedient to use an instrument. This is not necessarily the fault of the one who prefers instruments, but it may be due to the preferences of others or the hesitancy of others born from years of being told that instruments would send them to hell. We ought to be patient with such brothers and sisters while all the while trying to assure them of God’s grace for this is far more important than whether or not someone worships with an instrument.
At the end of the day, that’s all that actually matters: faith that works through love. Anything short of that or anything more than that should always take a back seat.
We can’t abandon the faith part, but it is possible to hold the faith part without the love part, and if we do that, then our faith is meaningless.
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