George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

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.

Stringed Instruments

  1. 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).
  2. 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 worship.
  3. In 68:25 there occurs the word nagan (to strum), rendered as “player on instruments”. Probably a stringed instrument, otherwise unknown, is implied.
  4. In 150:4 the word men (plural minnim) is rendered as “stringed instruments”. The word means “a musical chord, as parted into strings”.

Wind Instruments

  1. The “trumpet”: the horn of a ram or a goat — the shofar (47:5; 81:3; 150:3).
  2. The “cornet”: a slightly different word derived from shofar. “Probably a brass treble wind instrument, with a cup mouthpiece” (98:6).
  3. The “high sounding trumpets”, from the Hebrew chatsotserah, so called because of its “quavering note” (98:6).
  4. The “organ” (AV): Hebrew uggab — “a reed instrument of music”. A pipe instrument, its exact nature unknown today (150:4).
  5. In 87:7 the word chalal is rendered “player on instruments”. The word means, “to bore”, so a wind instrument is probably indicated.

Percussion instruments

  1. 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 “tabret”.
  2. Cymbals: from tselatsal (a clatter or clanging noise). Found in 150:5 as “loud” and “high sounding” cymbals. Probably quite similar to the modern instrument.

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).
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