Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The History of the Choir

There are those today who suggest that the concept of the church choir is outdated. However, if we look at the history and purpose of the choir, I suspect we will find that this ought not be the case.

The “church choir” has its origins not in Roman Catholicism or in Christianity at all, but in the Old Testament. The first “church choir” was appointed by King David some 3000 years ago. These choirs were far more serious than anything we have today.
Now these are the singers, heads of fathers' households of the Levites, who lived in the chambers of the temple free from other service; for they were engaged in their work day and night. (1 Chron. 9:33)
First, we find that the Levites appointed to music were “free from other service”. Why? They had no other duties because their job was full time. They engaged in their work “day and night”. They had no time for anything else. It appears as if David ordered there be music 7 days a week, 24 hours a day to worship God in the Tabernacle. This group of Levites “ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they served in their office according to their order.” (1 Chron 6:32).

Now, we all have heard the term, “minister”, used as a noun. Unfortunately, in our vernacular, we’ve lost the sense of the word. According to the dictionary, the word now means “one who is authorized to perform religious functions in a Christian church.” That’s what it has come to mean. But it’s original meaning – and we still use it this way today – comes from its verb form. To “minister” is more accurately “to attend to the wants and needs of others.” Thus, a “minister” would be one who attends to the wants and needs of others. Or, in terms of the normal usage today, a “minister” would be “one who is authorized to attend to the wants and needs of those in a Christian church.”

According to 1 Chron. 6, the role of these particular Levites was to minister with song. They attended to the wants and needs of those who came to the Tabernacle to worship by use of music.

First Chronicles is full of information about David’s musical requirements in worship.
Then David spoke to the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy. (1 Chron 15:16)
The worship music included both singers and instruments, and their purpose was “to raise sounds of joy”.
So he left Asaph and his relatives there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to minister before the ark continually, as every day's work required; and Obed-edom with his 68 relatives; Obed-edom, also the son of Jeduthun, and Hosah as gatekeepers. And he left Zadok the priest and his relatives the priests before the tabernacle of the LORD in the high place which was at Gibeon, to offer burnt offerings to the LORD on the altar of burnt offering continually morning and evening, even according to all that is written in the law of the LORD, which He commanded Israel. And with them were Heman and Jeduthun, and the rest who were chosen, who were designated by name, to give thanks to the LORD, because His lovingkindness is everlasting. And with them were Heman and Jeduthun with trumpets and cymbals for those who should sound aloud, and with instruments for the songs of God, and the sons of Jeduthun for the gate. (1 Chron 16:37-42)
There were specific people assigned to the task. And more importantly, their duties were “every day’s work”. Their job was to “give thanks to the LORD”, and they did it loudly. Note, also, that they were both inside and at the gate. Music was everywhere.
Now when David reached old age, he made his son Solomon king over Israel. And he gathered together all the leaders of Israel with the priests and the Levites. And the Levites were numbered from thirty years old and upward, and their number by census of men was 38,000. Of these, 24,000 were to oversee the work of the house of the LORD; and 6,000 were officers and judges, and 4,000 were gatekeepers, and 4,000 were praising the LORD with the instruments which David made for giving praise. (1 Chron 23:1-5)
Look again at the number. David appointed 4,000 Levites whose job it was to play and sing praise to God continually. Four thousand!

The Levitical group went on to minister with song in Solomon’s day in the Temple. Second Chronicles 5-6 describe the dedication of the Temple. In this account we see the role, again, of the musicians.
All the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and kinsmen, clothed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, standing east of the altar, and with them one hundred and twenty priests blowing trumpets in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the LORD, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the LORD saying, “He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” then the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God. (2 Chron 5:12-14)
Can you imagine that event? One hundred twenty trumpets in unison with singers and cymbals and instruments praising God!

Clearly, singers accompanied by musicians played a vital role in worship. They were in the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple daily. They were constant and loud, providing for the need of the people by raising sounds of joy. And, as evidenced by the presence of God so dense that they couldn’t continue, God was pleased with it. In one instance, they were, in fact, Jehoshaphat’s “battle plan”.

Jehoshaphat was king of Judah, a godly man, who found himself in serious jeopardy by an alliance of enemies bent on destroying him (2 Chron. 20). So Jehoshaphat did the right thing; he sought God. Jehoshaphat and all the people came before the Lord for help, and God assured him, “The battle is not yours but God's” (2 Chron 20:15).

Convinced that they couldn’t lose because God had promised, the king took his people out to watch God win the battle. His “battle plan” – put the choir in front. “He appointed those who sang to the LORD and those who praised Him in holy attire, as they went out before the army and said, ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.’ And when they began singing and praising, the LORD set ambushes against the sons of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; so they were routed” (2 Chron 20:21-22). So God succeeded in battle as He promised while Judah sang His praises.

According to Dr. Bruce Leafblad, a Professor of Church Music and Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, music also had another vital role in the Old Testament. In our day, the arts are separated, so that poetry and music are distinct. In the Old Testament time, however, the two were never separate. Any poetry that was ever presented was presented as a song. Now, we are all aware of the large body of poetry in the Psalms, and we are all familiar that these were songs, but less apparent is the role of song in prophecy. The first thing we find is that the largest body of Messianic prophecy occurs in the book of Psalms. Now, that’s interesting. But if we realize that all poetry was sung, when we look through the pages of prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah, we find that these are almost entirely poetry. That means that many of the prophets were presenting their messages from God in song. We likely visualize them standing on some street corner on a soap box calling out their message to the people, but they actually sang their messages. Likely, they were accompanied by a musician or more, as the music of the time didn’t occur a cappella. So much of the prophecy that occurred in the Old Testament occurred as a musical presentation, complete with singer(s) and musician(s).

So what can we learn from all this? First, music is serious business to God. It is a ministry, and lest we get complacent about that word, I remind us that it is intended to meet the needs of the listeners. According to what we’ve seen, the primary need it was intended to meet was to engender joyous praise to God. It was pervasive, present everywhere, and it was important enough to have a large number of people devoted to it on a full-time basis. It was instrumental in the presentation of prophecy, and approved by God.

Perhaps we ought to tread lightly when it comes to making vast changes to a 3000-year-old, God-approved tradition. Perhaps it isn’t time to eliminate choirs. Perhaps it is time to revisit music, its function, its importance, and its process.


Dave Leeman said...

A mutual friend, Dave Tillman, sent me your blog as I am the music director at his church (Trinity Presbyterian, PCA) in Plano, TX.
Thank you for this excellent article. More Pastors need to read this, and I suggest you put it in a magazine format (rather than blog) and submit it to Christianity Today, or Moody, or several others. It is frightening how many churches are eliminating their choirs! Enjoyed your others blogs on TULIP as well.

Stan said...

Thanks for the comment. I suppose if I weren't such a chicken (you know - rejection slips and all), I might submit such a thing. Most, however, don't care for unsolicited manuscripts, so I'll use that as my excuse to keep blogging. Thus far, this blog site has yet to reject anything I've written.

And I think there are many frightening things churches are doing today in the name of "worship" ...

Azucena said...

Good morning Stan, I recently came to this tiny town in Texas where I am music director; having been a soloist and chorister in Chicago for the past 50 years.
Your article will help our choristers and me as I continue to form a choir here. Music is such an important and vital part of my worship. How I miss all the pomp and circumstance at our Chicago Temple 1st UMC. Thank you!

Stan said...

Chicago to a "tiny town in Texas" ... quite a change. I hope and pray that, as music director, you will teach your congregation that there is indeed a performance and an audience in a church service. The performers are the congregation and God is the audience. Always it must be so.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. It is very helpful in seeing that music and singing was used in the OT taberacle and Temple. I fail to see however the connection with modern choirs and certainly have been unable to find any support in the NT. The only thing I find in the NT is the congregation singing, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. I have no problem with choir- I even enjoy it when it is good and to lead in worship and not to entertain- but I am struggling to see the Biblical precedent for what we do today in most settings with choir- of course I reserve the same indictment for "praise bands" and the like

Stan said...

I would say that if choirs were considered acceptable worship in the Old Testament, then they would be considered acceptable worship in our time. If God set the precedent then, then it should be true now.

Kenny R said...

Excellent Article Stan. After Reading Nehemiah 12 this morning, I Googled the "history of Choirs" and found your blog.
How do we avoid the attitude of the congregation of wanting to be entertained?" I think we just keep telling everyone, this is not for our entertainment, but the music is to move our hearts to have joy and worship more deeply? Your thoughts?

Stan said...

Church people need to be taught. They need to be taught that in church worship there is indeed an audience and a performance. However, it is not what we typically see. In church worship, the audience is God. As such, the performers are the congregation. The function of those "up front" are simply the "directors", the folks with the cue cards, so to speak. They are not the performers; they are simply helping the performers (the congregation) give the audience (God) the best possible performance (worship). Get that across to a church, and the concept of worship changes.

Anonymous said...

We cannot use the Old Testament as authority for what we can do in the New Testament church established in Acts 2. The old law was done away and nailed to the cross when Jesus died (Col. 2:14)
The New Testament teaches us that all of us are to sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord and it is for teaching and admonishing us (Col. 3:16) In the Old Testament they were to be observers.
Also if we are going to use the Old Testament as our authority we
must keep the whole law (animal sacrifices, circumcision, etc.) Gal.3:10, 5:3-4.

Stan said...

Your Bible, then, only has a New Testament? If Jesus and Paul and Peter and James and Jude and Luke and (well, you get the idea) ... if all the New Testament writers and characters referred to the Old Testament as "the Word of God", "the Scriptures", and as authoritative, why do we now stop? Paul said he wasn't nullifying the law, but affirming it. On what basis do we now tell Paul he was mistaken?

I actually do attempt to keep the whole law. Going with your example of sacrifices, since the New Testament refers to Christ as our Sacrifice, our Lamb, then I see Christ as fulfilling the sacrificial law on our behalf. If you understand what it's saying, you get it. If you don't ... you don't. But I'll follow the New Testament teaching that says, while we are not under, the law, we establish it and obey it. You, of course, are free to disintegrate any book you wish.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this article. I was actually writing an article for my blog ( and somehow came across this one. It was a real blessing to my soul, and I appreciated it and the insight it gives and the effort you put into your research, etc. May the Lord bless you as you continue to write for him.

Stan said...

Thanks for the encouragement. Who would have thought that this would continue to be my #1 read blog entry?

dboss said...

Thanks so much for posting. I have to teach a seminar in the morning and have not had the time to prepare. (Shame on Me - lol) But was inpired to teach on the overall ministry of the choir; specifically the orgin and history and came to your blog. Truly a God send and so necessary. I will DEF give credit to You as the source of my lesson. THANK YOU and keep bloging, this too is MINISTRY!!! THANKS!!!

Stan said...

Glad to be of use.

cpd said...

Could I quote you in a church music article?

Stan said...

No problem. Go ahead.

Shirley in Atlanta said...

This is great! I came across it as I was writing a choir history for my aunt's church. With your permission, I would like to quote some of your information, with credit of course.

Stan said...

No problem. Go ahead. Glad to be of service.

pdhoggard said...

I hope to do a series of sermons on the importance of music and the history of God's choirs. With your permission and giving you credit for you research I hope to preach some of your insights in the Old Testament.

pdhoggard said...

Keep teaching.

Stan said...

By all means, feel free to use it. Without citing me. I'm not concerned about credit.

(But you might want to read elsewhere on my blog before encouraging me to "Keep teaching." A lot of what I say is, as I understand Scripture, biblical, but certainly not popular.) :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is great. God bless you for writting this. Amen

Denese said...

I love your article regarding the history of choirs. I grew up singing in the choir and being a part of a community choir at one time and gospel singing group. Today I see more and more churches eliminating choirs for whatever the reason maybe. Its unfortunate many churches may not know how the history of choirs actually got started. I think it's important as a church body to understand the biblical concept and history of music and the choir.

Ancy S Selin said...

This article is informative and interesting.

4UCorp said...

Great article.
People have got to understand that the CHOIR is the WHOLE CONGREGATION
and you can have a smaller group (band etc.) leading the congregation.
The whole idea is to LEAD not preform.
Thanks for all your work in doing this page and GOD BLESS


Great article sir!God bless you.Please can I use your article for my book on the choir titled "God's Choir"? I'll definitely give credit to you.Pls can I have you full name and occupation? You could also reply by mail to

Stan said...

I need no credit (since most of my article came from Dr. Bruce Leafblad, a Professor of Church Music and Worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas).

The name is easy -- Stan Smith. My occupation is not. The current title, Project Engineer, doesn't really indicate what I do at all.

peaceofgod said...

Stan, this is is excellent article. I am not a choir member but love praising God through songs. I sing a loud in the Church, I dance; I love to sing to God. Your article is further encouragement to me. It comes just as I am preparing to speak to our Church Choir coming Sunday. I am one of the mentors of our Choir in a Catholic Church in Kampala, Uganda. This is going to be handy for me. God bless you.