The beating of timbrels may indeed appear absurd to some, but the custom of the nation excuses it, which David witnesses to have existed also in his time, where he enumerates, together with the singers, “the damsels playing with timbrels,” (Psalm 68:25) evidently in accordance with common and received custom. Yet must it be observed, at the same time, that musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at His coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity (John Calvin, Commentary Exodus 15:21)
Perhaps one reason the original Reformed understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship strikes so many, who otherwise sympathize with much of Reformed theology, piety, and practice as implausible is that they are not familiar with the way the Reformed understood the history of redemption. Without that background the intent of language of Belgic Confession art. 25 is not fully appreciated.
We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians; yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion. In the meantime we still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honorableness to the glory of God, according to his will.
When the Reformed Churches confessed that the “ceremonies and symbols of the law” they were referring to the religious laws in the Mosaic law (the 613 commandments) regarding hand washing and to things such as the ministry of the Levitical priests in the temple. Calvin described the use of musical instruments by Miriam et al as a part of that typological (illustrative), ceremonial system that has been fulfilled by Christ. He argued the same thing in his commentary on Psalm 81:2
With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and shall find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been His will to train His people, while they were as yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now, when the clear light of the Gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the Prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. From this it is apparent that the Papists have shown themselves to be very apes in transferring it to themselves. (Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 81:2)
The Reformed adopted this way of reading Scripture and expressed it regularly in their confessions and catechisms. When Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 19. After explaining how the human condition became so evil, the catechism begins briefly to explain the gospel. It then asks and answers:
From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.
There are two things to notice: first the way the churches see the history of redemption being progressively worked out and revealed and second, that progress is symbolized in the use and fulfillment of types and shadows. Among those types and shadows were the “sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law.” Among those “other ceremonies” were the use of musical instruments in public worship. We find this way of talking in the Scots Confession (1560) chapter 5, Geneva Catechism (1545), 165.
Chapter 12 of the Second Helvetic Confession (1561) explains that there is a threefold distinction in the law of God.
For the sake of clarity we distinguish the moral law which is contained in the Decalogue or two Tables and expounded in the books of Moses, the ceremonial law which determines the ceremonies and worship of God, and the judicial law which is concerned with political and domestic matters.
All these laws, the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial were “not given to men that they might be justified by keeping it, but that rather from what it teaches we may know (our) weakness, sin and condemnation, and, despairing of our strength, might be converted to Christ in faith.” Because there is a distinction between the moral law, which the Second Helvetic equates with the “law of nature” it is permanent in a way that the judicial and ceremonial laws are not.
Moreover, Christ has fulfilled all the figures of the law. Hence, with the coming of the body, the shadows ceased, so that in Christ we now have the truth and all fulness.
When Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote of “figures” he was referring to the types and shadows of the Mosaic law, i.e., the judicial and ceremonial laws and the ceremonial practices. He made this explicit in chapter 27:
Unto the ancient people were given at one time certain ceremonies, as a kind of instruction for those who were kept under the law, as under a schoolmaster or tutor. But when Christ, the Deliverer, came and the law was abolished, we who believe are no more under the law (Rom. 6:14), and the ceremonies have disappeared; hence the apostles did not want to retain or to restore them in Christ’s Church to such a degree that they openly testified that they did not wish to impose any burden upon the Church. Therefore, we would seem to be bringing in and restoring Judaism if we were to increase ceremonies and rites in Christ’s Church according to the custom in the ancient Church…For if the apostles did not want to impose upon Christian people ceremonies or rites which were appointed by God, who, I pray, in his right mind would obtrude upon them the inventions devised by man? The more the mass of rites is increased in the Church, the more is detracted not only from Christian liberty, but also from Christ, and from faith in him, as long as the people seek those things in ceremonies which they should seek in the only Son of God, Jesus Christ, through faith. Wherefore a few moderate and simple rites, that are not contrary to the Word of God, are sufficient for the godly.
For Bullinger, as for the rest of the Reformed, understanding redemptive history correctly was a bulwark of Christian liberty. The Reformed agreed with Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) argued that the medieval re-institution of musical instruments in public worship was Judaizing, i.e., an unauthorized return, in public worship, to the ceremonies that foreshadowed Christ and which, in him, have been fulfilled.
In chapter 28 Bullinger linked explicitly the “ceremonies” of the Old Covenant to the Levitical priesthood:
Surely in the new covenant of Christ there is no longer any such priesthood as was under the ancient people; which had an external anointing, holy garments, and very many ceremonies which were types of Christ, who abolished them all by this coming and fulfilling them. But he himself remains the only priest forever, and lest we derogate anything from him, we do not impart the name of priest to any minister. For the Lord himself did not appoint any priests in the Church of the New Testament who, having received authority from the suffragan, may daily offer up the sacrifice that is, the very flesh and blood of the Lord, for the living and the dead, but ministers who may teach and administer the sacraments.
This language and reading of redemptive history was also reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648): 20.1
But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected
Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
In Zürich, Heidelberg, Geneva, in Scotland, in the French Reformed Church, in the Dutch Reformed Churches, in the English churches, in short, across the Reformed world there was a strong consensus in the 16th and 17th centuries that one implication of fulfillment of the Old Covenant ceremonies meant that the church may not use musical instruments in public worship. This consensus is hard to imagine today, when the case has been reversed, but when the Reformed churches and cities and states removed musical instruments from the churches they were returning the ancient Christian practice. The first musical instrument was introduced into public worship by Pope Vitalian in 657 AD and that move was controversial. When the Reformed churches stopped using and then removed musical instruments, in their minds, they were removing a novelty from the churches.
From where did the Reformed get the idea that the use of musical instruments in public worship is inextricably linked to Levitical priesthood and to the ceremonies that have been fulfilled in Christ? From 2 Chronicles 29:
Then Hezekiah the king rose early and gathered the officials of the city and went up to the house of the LORD. And they brought seven bulls, seven rams, seven lambs, and seven male goats for a sin offering for the kingdom and for the sanctuary and for Judah. And he commanded the priests, the sons of Aaron, to offer them on the altar of the LORD. So they slaughtered the bulls, and the priests received the blood and threw it against the altar. And they slaughtered the rams, and their blood was thrown against the altar. And they slaughtered the lambs, and their blood was thrown against the altar. Then the goats for the sin offering were brought to the king and the assembly, and they laid their hands on them, and the priests slaughtered them and made a sin offering with their blood on the altar, to make atonement for all Israel. For the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel. And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped (2 Chron 29:20–30; ESV)
As far as the Reformed understood from this passage (read in conjunction with others and in light of redemptive history) the instruments used by the Levites in public worship were covered with the blood of bulls, goats, rams, and lambs. The same priesthood that threw the blood of animals against the altar played musical instruments as the sacrifices were being made. Please note that Scripture says explicitly that they did this according to the commandment of David, Gad, Nathan, and most importantly, from the Lord through his prophets. The use of musical instruments in public worship is bound up with the sacrificial system.
It is sometimes asked to what the instruments pointed. I interpret this question to imply that if one cannot show in every instance to what a type pointed that the type is either not fulfilled or is still in force. This, of course, is not how the Reformed read Scripture nor is it the way we customarily read Scripture today. How exactly is the Israelite holy war against the Canaanites fulfilled? The Reformed answer is to say that the holy war is abrogated along with the rest of the ceremonies, types, and shadows. It was part of the entire typological system. It was never intended to be permanent. God never intended to have a permanent national people any more than he intended animal sacrifices or musical instruments should be permanent. That’s why the Reformed spoke of “ceremonies” and “shadows.” The instruments were part of an entire system which pointed forward to the reality to come in Christ. The entire system is abrogated. That’s why the Reformed spoke of the judicial laws and the ceremonial laws both as fulfilled, abrogated, and expired (WCF 21). They continue to speak to us about God’s holiness and righteousness and they inform us by way of principle but insofar as they are part of the legal ceremonies, they are, as Calvin said, abolished.