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.