Church Music – Let There Be Variety

If you’ve ever visited an art museum with family members or friends, you know the experience well. You want to pause and admire the realistic works of Rembrandt; you’re impressed with his use of light and shadow, but others in your group eagerly urge you on to another wing of the museum. They’ve come especially to view the impressionistic paintings on display. From the impressionists, you all move on to the section devoted to modem art. A chill runs down your back. You can find hardly anything worthwhile in most of the works wrought in the twentieth century. In vain your friends try to convince you that most modern works are filled with deep meaning. You would rather not have to work hard to discover this “meaning”—you’re at the museum for more immediate satisfaction. That’s also probably why you appreciate the realistic art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Let’s face it, art appreciation is a very subjective field. What fails to impress you as an individual admirer of art might greatly move me. And vice versa. So it is with music, both secular and sacred. Musical works are pieces of art and, as such, they evoke different responses from different people.



Much of this subjectivism is due to our differing backgrounds. We were each raised by a different set of parents; we were raised in different homes and communities. We differ in our educational and economic levels, in personality traits, and in our emotional reactions. A child raised in a home where Handel’s Messiah is appreciated will probably not care too much for a simple Bill Gaither rune. On the other hand, the parents who have collected the “greatest gospel hits” of Tennessee Ernie Ford probably will not raise children with a love for Bach’s “Fugue for Organ in A Minor.”

Don’t misunderstand. There is more to music, much more to it, than merely subjective factors. (We will consider other factors later in this series of articles.) But since music is art, we must be honest to admit that different people find different kinds of music, appealing to them. And the same person may find different kinds of music more appealing at one time than at another time, depending on his circumstances or his moods.

I believe that it has become too easy for us, under the guise of “Biblical principles” or “Reformed worship” to defend our own personal tastes in church music and to disparage someone else’s tastes. As long as the music meets certain criteria of quality (again, we’ll consider these another time), it should be welcomed within the church and within our worship services. Let those of us who are pastors and scholars be the first to admit that our musical tastes tend to gravitate toward more classical, traditional church music. Maybe it’s because we, more than most people, appreciate history. The musical heritage of the past century still fascinates us, as do the writings and the paintings of that era. Maybe it’s because in a college and graduate school environment, we pastors and scholars were exposed to classical music found in the great symphonies, oratorios, operas and the like. For whatever reason, generally speaking, most of us with post-graduate degrees tend to look with a critical eye at most “contemporary” church music.


When one turns to the Bible, he is impressed with the great variety of musical expression found there. According to the Jewish historian/ philosopher Philo, Moses was educated and experienced in the art of music.1 How much of his Egyptian background found its way into his music is impossible to determine, but it is likely that, once sanctified and inspired by the Holy Spirit, some of that background was helpful to him. It is worth noting that Moses credits an unbeliever, a descendant of Cain, with the invention of wind instruments and stringed instruments (Genesis 4:21).

These instruments, and others, would be used later in the worship and service of God. As with all of life, there is no dualism between the holy and the unholy, sanctified instruments and unsanctified. Everything depends on the purpose, the reasons for our music.

In the Old Testament

The Old Testament displays a wide variety of musical expressions within Israel. Scholars have identified at least sixteen different musical instruments-stringed, wind and percussion-used in Israel’s work and in their worship of God.2 Instrumental music was used to calm a troubled soul (I Samuel 16:23) and to stir a prophetic spirit (II Kings 3:15). Like today, musical instruments were mainly used to accompany and to embellish the singing of God’s people in worship (e.g. I Chronicles 16:42; II Chronicles 5:12–13). And what a wonderful variety in Bible songs. You can find references to and examples of celebration songs for families (Genesis 31:27) and well-digging songs for laborers (Numbers 21:17–18). Songs are sung to celebrate the beginning of a new life (I Samuel 2:1–10) and to mark the ending of an old life (ll Samuel 23:17). The keepers of Israel’s vineyards sang their songs (Isaiah 27:2–5) as did those who kept watch on the protective walls (Isaiah 21:12) and those who treaded the harvested grapes (Jeremiah 25:30). Israel sang in praise when God gave them victory in battle, and they sang in lament over deaths suffered in battle (II Samuel 1:19–27). They sang or were led in song during times of spiritual renewal. King David directed songs when the ark of the covenant was moved toward Jerusalem and, years later, his son Solomon did the same when the ark was brought into the newly-constructed Temple (II SamueI 6:5ff; II Chronicles 5:13).

One entire book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, is an extended song with parts for soloists and choirs. Other lengthy songs, some of them in ballad form, are found as the song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), the song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5), the song of Hannah (I Samuel 2) and the song of David (II Samuel 22).

No other book in the Bible contains as many examples of lsrael’s worship music as do the two books of Chronicles. Here we find that a special group of “singers” was chosen from out of the tribe of Levi. They “were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night” (I Chronicles 9:33). Serving as musical conductors and as song leaders was no easy task! Out of an original group of 4000 singers, 288 of them were later divided into 24 groups (praise teams?) of twelve singers. All of these were under the direct supervision of King David and later, King Solomon.

In the Psalms

Speaking of David, we immediately think of the book Psalms. In the captions to these psalms, perhaps added later to the inspired Scriptures, David is said to be the writer/editor source for 93 of the 150 psalms. The Bible scholar, Professor Gunkel, shows the wide variety of themes within the psalter. He finds at least six main varieties with several subcategories besides: psalms of praise (e.g. Psalms 8, 33, 104); individual songs of thanksgiving (e.g. Psalms 30, 116, 138); individual laments (e.g. Psalms 13, 31, 39); communal laments (e.g. Psalms 12, 44, 79); royal psalms (e.g. Psalms 2, 18, 35) and wisdom psalms (e.g. Psalms 1, 49, 119). Subcategories within these main groupings would classify some psalms perhaps serving as liturgies for the sick and others as prayers from the sick. Within the psalter we find examples of imprecatory psalms (e.g. Psalms 7, 39), psalms used in covenant renewal ceremonies (e.g. Psalm 50) and Messianic psalms (e.g. Psalms 2, 22, 110). Some are specifically listed as prayers, using a technical Hebrew word (e.g. Psalms 17, 90, 142); and others, again with the use of another technical word, could be classified as “remembrance” psalms (e.g. Psalms 38, 70). Psalms 120–134 were evidently used by the “pilgrims ascending the high city of Jerusalem at the three great agricultural festivals” and thus are known as “psalms of ascent.”3 Several psalms are unique and defy any easy classification (e.g. Psalms 56, 75, 80).

Again, the point is that, within the Bible, even just within the book of Psalms, we find a wide variety of music and songs. No one type of song will do for the people of God. Through His Holy Spirit, men and women were led to sing without regard to strict musicological rules. In fact, among the psalms, we find musical terms that show a great variety in the types of instruments used for accompaniment. Some are to be sung a cappella. Some employ a tune from a high octave, others, a lower octave.

It is clear from any objective survey of Old Testament music, that there is no one acceptable form for song, for singing or for the use of musical instruments. Variety is encouraged as God’s people bring Him the praise that is due to His name. In the New Testament

The New Testament, in comparison to the Old Testament, contains relatively few references to the actual singing of God’s people at work or in worship. However, we must assume continuity from the Old to the New. Something of a “bridge” from the one to the other is provided by the introductory songs in Luke’s gospel, proclaiming the arrival of the promised Messiah. The songs of Mary, of Zechariah, of the angels and of Simeon all demonstrate the ongoing practice of praising God and giving testimony to His greatness through song. Later, Jesus and His disciples are said to have sung a hymn (Mark 14:26) something they must have done regularly, though we’re not told of it. Later still, we find the missionaries Paul and Silas in Jail, singing God’s praises (Acts 16:25). The apostle Paul encourages a variety of songs when he instructs the Church to “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). No doubt some of these songs were taken from the repertoire of the Old Testament. Other songs, however,were new songs prompted by the internal witness of the Spirit to one’s inner spirit (I Corinthians 14:15–16). While the reference here may be to the special gifts given only to the early church, yet the church today continues to be prompted by the Spirit in the truths of God’s Word. The ongoing “internal witness” of the Spirit continues to inspire our songs today.

We read that heaven itself is currently filled with a variety of songs and singers. The four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, the myriad of angels, the redeemed humans and every creature in heaven and earth are now or someday will praise God in song (Revelation 5:9–10,12–13; 14:2–3; 15:3–4).


Having surveyed the wide variety of music in the kingdom of God as described from Genesis through Revelation, why is it that so many of us are content in our worship with only one instrument (mainly, the organ), with only one hymnal (officially, the Psalter Hymnal), with only one song leader (customarily, the minister), and with only a handful of musical variations? Our music should be no less varied than music found in the Bible! Let’s use this as a beginning principle for our church music and for evaluating all church music from a Reformed perspective.

There are historical and theological reasons why our church music became so limited in its variety. The next article in this series will ex· plain some of these reasons. In the meantime, we must seek to be true to the Scriptures and only the Scriptures. In our evaluation of songs, let us avoid criticism which may arise more from our own personal preferences than from the Scriptures. And let us surround and enhance the preaching of God’s Word in our worship services with an increasingly great variety of the songs of Zion.


1. Russel N. Squire, Church Music: Musical and Hymnological Developments in Western Christianity. St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1962. p. 16.

2. Foxgrove, D.A. and Kilmer, A.D., “Music,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Rev. ed. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 438. 446.

3. Foxgrove. Ibid., p. 447. This and other of my comments about the variety within the psalms are largely based on Foxgrove’s article.

Rev. Lankheet is pastor of the Ontario Christian Reformed Church, Ontario, CA.