Whenever a defense is advanced for something like the historic Reformed understanding of the rule of worship one of the objections that regularly arises is this: if musical instruments are being used in Scripture, we may we not use them now in our worship? This question is a species of the broader question, “if x is done in Scripture (e.g., holy war, dancing in worship, or use of musical instruments), why may we not do x?” Let us consider the broader question first and then this particular question.
The (usually) unstated assumption behind the broader question is this: we are in the same place in redemptive history as the canonical actors. This is an unsustainable assumption. To put it directly: we are not Noah, Moses, David, or Elijah. Yes, Yahweh spoke quietly to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) but you and I are not Elijah. You and I are not the typological Old Covenant mediator (Moses) with whom Yahweh met face to face. In some ways you and I, as New Covenant Christians, have a more glorious position, since we have that for which they longed: the clear revelation of God the Son incarnate. You and I, however, are not actors in the canonical drama. We are recipients of the story and we participate in it, in Christ, by identity but God is not giving new revelation nor is he accomplishing new acts of redemption. There is only one outstanding act of redemption to come that is the glorious, visible, bodily return of Christ.
Yes, David danced before the ark but as Calvin reminded us centuries ago (CO, 7.609) but he did not do so as an example for us to imitate any more than the Israelite holy wars are to be imitated today. The Lord clearly commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20. The Lord commanded “when Yahweh your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword” (v. 13). If we are to be consistent in the way we are reading Scripture, any argument to take the Old Testament musical instruments must also take up the Old Testament command to conduct holy war. Yet, one does not see such an argument. Why not? We know that the Old Testament holy wars were typological (illustrative of heavenly and future realities) and completed with the death of Christ but we are reluctant to apply that logic to the use of musical instruments. Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward, if difficult to read: musical instruments are familiar and pleasant but holy war is unfamiliar and unpleasant.
2 Chronicles 29:25–28 connects inextricably the religious use of musical instruments to the Old Covenant ceremonies that we know to have been fulfilled by the life and death of Jesus:
And he stationed the Levites in the house of Yahweh 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 Yahweh 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 Yahweh 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 (ESV).
Yahweh commanded the very priests who were shedding the blood of animals also to play musical instruments in religious worship. Those instruments were splattered figuratively (and perhaps literally) with the blood of bulls and goats. Christians regularly appeal to the use of musical instruments under the Old Covenant as grounds for using them today but they recoil when it suggested that we follow the pattern to its logical end.
The book of Hebrews is clear that the Old Covenant worship (cultus) was typological, that it has been fulfilled by Christ and that any return to it is an insult to the finished work of Christ. This argument was at the heart of the Protestant response to the thirteenth-century doctrine of the memorial, propitiatory (satisfying and wrath-turning), memorial, figurative re-sacrificing of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Trent’s ratification of the 4th Lateran Council was in direct contradiction to the virtually the entire book of Hebrews.
Yet, when it began to suit us in the 17th century (in the Netherlands) and later in the 18th and 19th centuries in the British Isles and in USA, we began to do the very thing for which we had criticized the Romanists in the 16th century. We had begun to clean off the blood, as it were, from the types and shadows and to restore them to Christian worship. To be sure, it had been done in the 16th century by the Lutherans but even Thomas Aquinas ridiculed the use of musical instruments by Christians as “judaizing.” Everyone knew that the early church had unequivocally and strongly rejected the use of musical instruments on the same grounds and that, though the organ had been introduced into Christian worship in the 7th century in Spain (in one place), they were hardly used even in the middle ages. They were forbidden from Papal masses as inappropriate for such a solemn occasion.
These examples illustrate the grave biblical, theological, logical, and historical problems with the broader argument: if believers did x in Scripture we may we not do it now? We may not do it now because those actions were peculiar to that period of redemptive history. This is why the apostles did not take the sword against pagans. This is why they preached Christ and called pagans to repentance and faith. This is why they sang God’s Word in worship without the ceremonies of the typological period of redemptive history. They knew where they were in redemptive history.
So too, we need to realize where we are. We are not in the canon. We are recipients of the canon. We are not actors in the story except by identification. We are recipients of the story. This basic principles will help us understand how to approach the Revelation in part 2.