5. Musical Instruments in the Psalms
Music played a large part in the life and worship of the
people of Israel; “the songs of Zion” and Israel’s singers
were famous throughout the world. So, in Psalm 137:3, “Those who carried
us off demanded music and singing, and our captors called on us to be merry:
‘Sing us one of the Songs of Zion’ ” (NEB). Sennacherib
demanded as part of Hezekiah’s tribute “male and female
singers” (as his memorial stele claims).
David had 4,000 Levites trained as singers and instrumental
musicians (1 Chron. 23:5), divided into 288 courses under the leadership of
Asaph, Jeduthun (also called Ethan), and Heman.
David was an inventor of musical instruments (Amos 6:5), and
in the Temple service of later days an impressive orchestral accompaniment was
available for Divine worship. Most of them are mentioned in the Psalms. They
fall into three groups: stringed, wind, and percussion.
- The harp: from kinnor, to twang (33:2; 43:4; 57:8; 71:22;
81:2; 92:3; 98:5 (twice); 108:2; 137:2; 147:7; 149:3; 150:3).
- The psaltery:
(a) In the smaller version, probably an eight-stringed lyre. The Hebrew is
nebel: a skin bag. The instrument became so called because of its
shape (57:8; 81:2; 108:2; 150:3). (b) In the larger version it was a
ten-stringed instrument (Heb. asor = ten / nebel)
(33:2; 92:3; 144:9). In each of these passages the word “and” should
be deleted, leaving “the psaltery, an instrument of ten strings”.
(c) In 71:22 there is mentioned a keliy nebel: mg. “the
instrument of psaltery”. This means a “prepared” psaltery and
probably simply indicates an instrument specially designed for Divine
- In 68:25 there occurs the word nagan (to strum),
rendered as “player on instruments”. Probably a stringed instrument,
otherwise unknown, is implied.
- In 150:4 the word men (plural
minnim) is rendered as “stringed instruments”. The
word means “a musical chord, as parted into
- The “trumpet”: the horn of a ram or a goat — the
shofar (47:5; 81:3; 150:3).
- The “cornet”: a
slightly different word derived from shofar. “Probably a
brass treble wind instrument, with a cup mouthpiece” (98:6).
“high sounding trumpets”, from the Hebrew
chatsotserah, so called because of its “quavering
- The “organ” (AV): Hebrew uggab
— “a reed instrument of music”. A pipe instrument, its
exact nature unknown today (150:4).
- In 87:7 the word chalal is
rendered “player on instruments”. The word means, “to
bore”, so a wind instrument is probably
- The “timbrel”: from toph (singular), taphah
(plural). It indicates a drum, something like the modern tamborine
(68:25; 81:2; 149:3; 150:4). Elsewhere it is also rendered as
- Cymbals: from tselatsal (a clatter or
clanging noise). Found in 150:5 as “loud” and “high
sounding” cymbals. Probably quite similar to the modern
Josephus has this interesting comment (Ant. vii, 12:3):
“And now David, being freed from wars and dangers, and enjoying for the
future a profound peace, composed songs and hymns to God, of several sorts of
meter....He also made instruments of music, and taught the Levites to sing hymns
to God, both on that called the Sabbath-day, and on the other festivals. Now the
construction of the instruments was thus: the viol was an instrument of ten
strings, it was played upon with a bow; the psaltery had twelve musical notes,
and was played upon by the singers; the cymbals were broad and large
instruments, and were made of brass.” (Wilson, pp. 21-26).