III. Scriptural Background

The biggest problem that I had with the article was what was done with the Bible. The impression I gained from the introduction of the article told me that I was going to be reading something that was firmly rooted in Biblical truth. However, I was shocked to find only a few verses scattered here and there and the section entitled “A Biblical Perspective on the Question — Is Music Amoral?” was the last one and it was also the shortest! If this is something that is supposed to have such a great impact on Christianity, why is the Bible not quoted more?

I would like to take a careful look at each passage that Mr. Woetzel quotes, first in the context that he puts it in, and then in the context of Scripture. I will directly quote him and highlight the passages he quotes so that we can see the Biblical words themselves.

In each case I would like to argue for a consistent hermeneutic using the following four points.

  1. It is important to remember what the full context of the quote is before applying it.  Prooftexting is a highly dangerous practice as it gives the impression that the exegete is misusing God’s Word for his own ends and doesn’t know what he is doing.
     
  2. We must look at who the recipients were and what they would have understood when they heard the text. This means taking into account cultural backgrounds and ideas.
     
  3. We must look at where the passage fits into the overall Biblical picture before using it.
     
  4. We must make a point not to stretch the meaning of the passage beyond what it is within the text, something that all exegetes and theologians, including this one, are guilty of from time to time.

A. I. Corinthians 15:33

 The inherent contradiction evident in the Christianity Today article reflects the dilemma of those in the Christian community who stoutly maintain that music is neutral, yet having to admit to its power and notable influence on character and values. 1 Cor. 15:33 gives further insight and an unmistakable warning-"Be not deceived, evil communications corrupt good manners." Music is a powerful instrument of communication. Manners are the fleshing out of values and character. That which is neutral, obviously, cannot impact character. However, when we ascribe or attribute morality to an entity, it must, by its very nature, have the capacity to affect and influence character. If music is moral, then it will, by necessity, prevail upon behavior-the evidence of character. We can't have it both ways! Music is either neutral and has no bearing on values or it is moral and, as do other moral agents, impacts character and values. Therefore, it is inconsistent and illogical to say music is amoral, and yet has influence upon values.

 The book of First Corinthians was written to the Corinthian church, which was a predominantly Gentile and highly unruly fellowship of believers who loved sensationalism and anything that was new and unusual. The passage quoted is embedded deeply within Paul’s discussion of the resurrection and the bearing that it has on our life. When we look at the immediate context of this quote, we find that there are people who have been teaching that there will be no resurrection and that the Corinthians are believing them. Following the quote is specific teaching on the resurrection.      

This is a quote of a secular proverb from Corinth, something the Corinthians would be familiar with.

If we take the understanding of the passage itself, Paul is saying that “evil communications” (KJV) or “bad company” (NASB), i.e. the false teachers, “corrupt good manners,” i.e. the understanding concerning the resurrection. The word “manners” can also be translated “customs” or “habits”, which is the root meaning of the word ἡθος (ēthos). The idea here deals with false teachings that are dangerous to our personal salvation. We could apply it to the idea of music, but the question hinges on whether to translate the word ὁμιλια (humilia) “communication” or “company” and all translations of the original Scriptures are not only fallible, they also contain errors. That is why we need to compare various translations before coming to a conclusion, unless we can read the Koinë Greek.

 

B. Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and Hebrews 2:12

The Scriptural model for sacred music is quite clear. Ephesians 5:19 suggests, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The sister passage, Colossians 3:16, reminds us that we are to be "teaching one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."Hebrews 2:12 echoes these two passages with ". . . I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee." The believer's music is to be an in-house, vertical activity. Speaking to yourselves, teaching one another, and declaring the Lord's name in the midst of the church, does not even hint at evangelism. Sacred music is for the saints and unto the Lord. Over and over the admonition of music references in God's Word includes the same sentiment, "unto Him, unto the Lord, unto the Most High, unto Thee, unto Thy Name." When a society abandons its mores, restraints, and conscience, as it did in the 1960's, it is not the duty of the church, nor is it appropriate for individual believers, to cast off the Scriptural model of music and follow a decadent-bent community in locked-step for the opportunity "to get a hearing in the contemporary culture."

1. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

Ephesians is a letter sent to the saints in south-western Asia-Minor, modern-day Turkey. Colossians was sent to the church at Colossae. It is conceivable that both were meant to be read together, as they cover much of the same ground.

Both of these passages appear towards the end of each book, in Ephesians after a lengthy treatise talking about what God has done for us and how He gave the mystery of the church, and in Colossians after calling the recipients to not be deceived by false teachers, but to live in a manner worthy of Christ. In the immediate context in both cases Paul is dealing with what the transformed life of the Christian is to be like, imitating Christ. It is only natural that in this context he would talk about this.

This context seems to suggest a primarily horizontal use of the songs, and secondarily a vertical use, in which being thankful to God is the primary focus. Would that mean that these passages strongly suggest a teaching use of music in the church? It is interesting that it does not prescribe any sort of set forms of what the songs are to be like. In each case the “psalms” (probably Old Testament ones), “hymns” and “spiritual songs” seem to suggest the content of the lyrics not necessarily the type of music used. We must also remember that there probably were unsaved people in the congregation, just as there are today. Thus the music would take on an evangelistic character as well.

2. Hebrews 2:12 and Psalm 22:22

The letter to the Hebrews was written, as mentioned, primarily to the Hebrews living in Asia Minor. From the context it is clear that the recipients were in danger of leaving Christianity for the comfort of the old Jewish religion. For that reason the writer of Hebrews focuses primarily on how Jesus is far better than anything that has gone before.

If we look at the immediate context of this verse, we find first of all that what it is talking about is that Jesus is better than the angels and that Jesus is human. The one who is singing here is not the Christian it is Jesus! This passage emphasizes that He is human by this action and that we are His brothers! We need to look at the whole swath of the writing before we grab it out of context to support our point. If anything this says that Jesus proclaims God’s name to his brothers and sings God’s praises in the congregation.

Granted, that’s what the context of Hebrews suggests, but what about the place that this is quoted from? Psalm 22 is the psalm of the suffering king. And here the king again sings in God’s presence to exalt and extol Him before his brothers. This is not applicable in the way that Mr. Woetzel is using it.

 

C. I. Corinthians 14:7-11 and Deuteronomy 31:19-22

Can we support music's linguistic character and attributes Scripturally? 1Corinthians 14: 7-11 includes an unmistakable example where music is used as an analogy for language. "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound . . . how shall it be known what is spoken?" Deuteronomy 31:19-22 was the last face-to-face meeting between the Lord and Moses. This was obviously a momentous occasion during which we could expect the Lord to give Moses some very important instruction. What does the Lord tell Moses? What would replace God's presence and direction which the Israelites had known and enjoyed? How would His comfort and care, experienced for forty years, continue? God instructs Moses to ". . . write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel."

1. I Corinthians 14:7-11

As we have already discussed the background of I. Corinthians above, I’ll focus mainly on the context here. If we look at Chapters 12-14, we find this passage quoted is in the section dealing with spiritual gifts. It is in the chapter immediately following the discussion on love. In the immediate context Paul is arguing for the superiority of prophecy over speaking in other tongues. The point of his argument is to draw an analogy about language from the realm of music, which is valid, as music is a language of sorts. The application of this passage, however, deals with the fact that worship of God must be understandable to the human, as prophecy is, not unintelligible, as speaking in tongues is. Just so, certain music may be unintelligible to some people, but deeply moving to others.

2. Deuteronomy 31:19-22

The book of Deuteronomy contains the farewell words of Moses to the children of Israel. It is all about remembering what God has done for His people, warning them of the dangers that lie ahead of them. This portion falls in the fifth and final section of the book which records Moses’ final words to the new generation of Israelites who are ready to conquer the Promised Land. If we look at the context all is now prepared for the commissioning of Joshua. In the following context we have a copy of this “national anthem” that Moses wrote for the children of Israel.

We can only assume that the words given Moses were God’s Words. It is interesting that God would command a song to be given, but then again, as Deuteronomy is a book about remembering God and what He has done, we would logically find that God would use just about any method to get His people to remember what He wants them to know. Thus the song would more be considered a device to aid in memorization rather than necessarily a measure of whether music is moral or not. Besides, what kind of music would they be using there? It would probably not fit within the narrow definitions of what we perceive to be moral or immoral music, as it arises from a culture vastly different from either our Christian sub-culture or post-Christian nation.

 

D. Philippians 4:8 and Proverbs 23:7

His comments should really not come as a great surprise. It was mentioned earlier that the term music itself is derived from muse or musa which means to think, to meditate or to contemplate. Could something which causes us to think a certain way be amoral? If so, then we would need to conclude that thinking-is just thinking. Fortunately our common sense tells us otherwise. Furthermore, the Word of God provides candid instruction for the believer on this matter. Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Why is the Lord concerned about how we think? Why should believers give attention to the thoughts which flow through our minds? The answer is found in Proverbs 23:7, "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:" Dr. Charles R. Phelps, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Concord, New Hampshire, has well said, "If music impacts thought and our thoughts are to be righteously regulated, then we must righteously regulate the music to which we listen."

1. Philippians 4:8

The key idea of the letter to the Philippians is Paul’s joy in thinking of this, his favorite church. It is a letter that overflows with encouragement. This verse is found towards the end of the letter and it is immediately preceded by the admonition to be joyful in Christ and letting Him fill us. The result of thinking as this verse tells us to is that God will be with us.

This can definitely be applied to music, but it must also be applied to the way we think of our brothers and sisters who think differently from us. When our minds are focused on what is good, God’s peace will guard our minds and hearts, regardless of what’s going on around us.

2. Proverbs 23:7

The book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings, mainly from Solomon. This proverb is found in the second part of the book “The Proverbs of Solomon” and is in the middle of a section on relationships. As a matter of fact it is torn right out of the center of the proverb relating to the relationship of a person to a miser or selfish person. The whole context is dealing with how to face the hospitality of a selfish person. As a matter of fact the word שָׁעַר (šā‘ar), which the King James translates “thinketh”, should more correctly be translated “calculates” or “reckons” and the context tells us that the man is really calculating what you’re eating and is angry that he has to put it in front of you.

This is a gross misuse of this passage and it probably stems from two things: first, not carefully looking at the whole context, and, second, not carefully looking at the meaning of the words, either by consulting other translations, or by doing a Hebrew word study, which anyone can do, thanks to Strong’s concordance.

 

E. I. Chronicles 25:1-3

 Why is music moral? Why is it critically important for the believer to grasp this concept? Because Scripture declares music moral-without the help of secular wisdom. The evidence from the "world" only reinforces, clarifies, embellishes and perhaps contemporizes what the Bible already declares. For those perhaps still uncertain let us consider a final passage in the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles 25:1-3, we find a particularly valuable and interesting phrase which unmistakably indicates that music, without words, is moral. In verse one we read, ". . . of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals: . . ." In verse three the same thought is repeated, ". . . under the hands of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord." The words "prophesy" and "prophesied" literally suggest that preaching took place. A prophet addresses social, political, and spiritual issues. In this instance the "preaching" was done with instruments-with sound-music! Could such prophesying be considered amoral or neutral? No. Thus, for the Christian to take a music-is neutral position is not only to dismiss the enormous amount of data which exists from secular experts, but more seriously, to deny and deliberately oppose the clear teaching of the Word of God.

Chronicles was written after the exile, primarily to explain the temple rites and give the priestly perspective on the history of the southern, God-pleasing kingdom of Judah and the house of David. This passage falls at the end of David’s life when he was ordering the worship in the temple. In that vein he appointed the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun to “prophesy” with various musical instruments.

If we take the time to study the Hebrew term נבא (naḇ’a), which is translated “prophesy”, we find that the form it is most often used in is the passive form (“he was caused to prophesy”), suggesting, as Scripture says2, that prophecy is something brought upon a person by the Spirit of God or some other external force. The rest of the time it is used in a reflexive form (“he caused himself to prophesy”), which scholars generally consider to imply wild frenzy.3

The word is used  a grand total of 110 times in Scripture, the bulk of which are found in Jeremiah (37 times) and Ezekiel (37 times). The earliest uses in Numbers, Samuel, and Kings (as well as a parallel passage in Chronicles) are almost all in the reflexive form. The usage of the passive form in these books is clearly a direct parallel to the reflexive, carrying the same idea of maddened ecstasy, which included dancing, shouting, playing music for hours on end, entering trances, and in some cases even stripping down and self-mutilation. As a matter of fact, in some instances some translations translate the term as “rave”.

In the later books (late Divided Kingdom, Exile, and Post-exilic periods), the passive form dominates, but the strange behavior accompanying prophecy has not vanished, especially when viewing some of the things the great prophets, like Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel did.

When we look at who this term “prophesy” is used for, we find that from Kings on it is primarily used for false prophets in their worship and their false predictions of the future. It is also mostly the godless men who use the term to describe what is going on. Amos is accused of prophesying by the godless high priest of Bethel, and the prophet then uses the term “prophesy” polemically in response to his opponents charge.

In Jeremiah only 10 out of 37 uses of the word are used either by God or by godly people to describe the actions or words of a prophet of God. It is not until Ezekiel that it is primarily used for the prophet of God, when God tells Ezekiel to prophesy. Interestingly Ezekiel is one of the strangest prophets in Scripture, as he uses unusual actions, word pictures and utterances to make his points. Again the idea of frenzy is not far away.

The term is used in the postexilic prophets only by Zecariah and he again uses it to describe godless predictions of false prophets which result in their death, as prophecy is unnecessary when Messiah rules from Jerusalem.

Joel uses the term only once in the famous passage about the Spirit of God being poured out upon the people. Interestingly the term “prophesy” is used in parallel with dreams and visions, something that we fundamentalist Evangelicals don’t like either, which once more suggests unusual actions and words.

In general the term “prophesy”, when not signifying frenzied ecstasy, applies to proclamations of the word of God, which some people might call “preaching.” Many times these were unpopular or strange words that the hearers did not fully understand or want to understand. In Ezekiel’s case it might have involved a trancelike state (see here Ezekiel 8:1). Only Jeremiah seems to not exhibit too much strange behavior during his ministry.

The most recent usage of “prophesy” is the one used by Ezra in the I. Chronicles passage (the II. Chronicles passage is almost a word-for-word copy of the I. Kings passage) mentioning the musical ministry of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, and their “sons” (or students as the term “sons” can designate the student of a master, who is called “father” by his pupils). The term used here is in the passive form, not the reflexive. The idea of proclamation through music is clear, but, as even in late uses of נבא (naḇ’a) involve strange behavior, we can assume that this was by no means a quiet, meditative kind of ministry. There is no reason to think that it would be different in this case. It would more probably be very loud and perhaps in places very ecstatic, perhaps even more wild than many of the most modern and loud worship concerts that happen today.

It definitely pays to take a careful look at the cultural background before you make statements. The prophet may address social, political and spiritual issues, but when he is doing that he is not necessarily “prophesying” in the Old Testament. He is speaking a word from God. When he is prophesying he’s more often in a nearly insane frenzy of worship where his entire focus is on God and the proclamations come as a sub-set. If we take this into account, the only real application we can get from this passage is that our God does not enjoy disorder in His worship. Even the most frenzied times are given an ordered frame to operate in.

The focus of the prophecy of these men and their “sons” is not on the music they used — which we westerners would find exceedingly strange and perhaps even “immoral” — but on the words that accompanied the music. If we look at their “prophecies” we find many of them in Psalms, all of them focusing on God and what He has done.

 

F. II. Kings 3:15

Music has a powerful influence in individual lives, families, and churches. My prayer, aim, and purpose for this discussion is that the music in the life of the reader would cause him to experience the reality of the words in 2 Kings 3:15. "But bring me now a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him."

II. Kings is a historical book written by a prophet to show God’s dealings with Israel and Judah. When we look at this passage it is in the middle of a narrative concerning the evil King Jehoram of Israel and the good King Jehoshaphat of Judah coming to Elisha to get a word from God concerning their war against Moab. Elisha is so incensed at the coming of King Jehoram that he cannot calm himself to be able to hear God’s voice. The harpist’s music calms him enough that he can hear God’s voice and he predicts how Jehoram and Jehoshaphat will see the defeat of Moab.

When we look at this passage two things immediately come to mind. First, it is a narrative, and it is notoriously difficult to get principles out of narratives. Secondly, we’re not looking at the full cultural background here. Remember, Elisha is a prophet in a time when prophets were considered to be slightly crazy. The music used here was to calm him and it may have been a mystical sort of calming effect. Thus this passage could be used to teach that using music to call down a word from God is an acceptable way to do it. However, this is the only time in Scripture that this happens. Basing a principle on one passage only is also dangerous, as strange heresies have come from those.

 

In summary we must note that Mr. Wotzel tends to use prooftexting to make his point, a very dangerous practice. He often does not consider the full hermeneutical background, including the cultural and historical backgrounds of each passage, and he even quotes a few of them out of context, filling them with an entirely different meaning than the context gives them. That is misuse of Scripture and it is highly dangerous, because it brings us to do things that may be un-Biblical and in some cases even anti-Biblical.

  • 2. see here II. Peter 1:20-21
  • 3. P.A. Verhoef,. “Prophecy:Theology.” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis CD-ROM.(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001.)