Saturday, July 30, 2016

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles 25

In this chapter, David organizes worship ministry for the temple.

Similar to chapters 23-24, this chapter is part of the broad category of "organizing chapters", where David in particular is organizing different facets of the temple ministry.  In the first of these chapters (1 Chron 23), David performed a census of the family of Levites as a whole, which serves as a general overview of the Levites and priests.  In the following chapters, David provides more specific instructions for the Levites and priests. Chapter 24 has a detailed breakdown of priestly responsibilities, and this chapter continues with detailed instructions for the worship ministry of the Levite families.  So basically, chapter 23 opens with a genealogy that essentially says "here is a list of all the people that are involved in the temple" and the following chapters contain the specific organization for what each of those groups of Levites or priests are responsible for doing, family by family.  This present chapter (1 Chron 25) fits in as part of those detailed instructions.  It lists 24 families of Levites that must serve as worship leaders and musicians in the temple.  These 24 families almost certainly correspond with the 24 families of priests in chapter 24, and they probably served at the same time and for the same duration.

In this chapter, as in the previous ones, David remains a driving force behind the organization.  It's part of his overall commitment to the temple and his vision for what the temple should look like.  I think this partly reveals David's own personal interest in music; we know, for instance, that David was regarded as a skilled musician long before he even became a military leader, much less king (1 Samuel 16:14-23).  In only the second mention of David (the first when he was anointed by Samuel), he is mentioned because he is "a skillful musician".  In addition, the authorship of many of the Psalms in the bible are traditionally attributed to David (some of these attributions are in the biblical text of the Psalm's title, such as all of Psalms 3 through 32 and many others).  Therefore we can regard David as having a particular interest in music and I believe that interest shows through here.

I think it's interesting how the musicians in this chapter are connected to prophetic ministry, as in verses 1, 2 and 3.  Music has been tied to prophecy before, but the connection is not clear.  For instance, 1 Samuel 10:5 has a band of prophets coming down from a high place (traditional religious site) playing instruments and prophesying.  2 Kings 3:15 is even more enigmatic, because in that instance Elisha specifically requests a musician to play music before he issued a prophetic directive to the king of Israel.  In some mysterious way, music enabled Elisha (who was already a mighty prophet) to prophesy.  Even though this story makes it clear that music has some kind of power, it's not at all clear how or why.  Any casual human experience with music makes it clear that music has emotional power.  Movie soundtracks provide obvious musical cues to how the listener should feel about particular scenes.  Music is ubiquitous across possibly every human culture.  This chapter, however, implies that music also has spiritual power as it empowers prophets to interact with the LORD: interceding on our behalf sometimes and speaking to us on the LORD's behalf in other times.

A full discussion of music and the spiritual realm is beyond the scope of my commentary, but there are two things I should say.

First, this chapter validates, and perhaps even demands, the role of music in worship and church ministry.  Besides its role here in empowering prophets, 2 Kings 3:15 makes it clear that there are certain situations where prophetic ministry is literally not possible without music.  No matter what else we could say about music in human culture, we should acknowledge that God has designed music as a spiritual ministry, and this is something that cannot be compromised.  If we degrade or remove music from church ministry, that ministry will be impoverished in some way because they are simply not operating the way that God designed the human spirit.

Secondly, I don't believe that there is a specific form of music that God demands from us.  I argue this for two reasons.  First, music in the bible itself takes several different forms and is largely constrained by the instruments that existed at that time.  Several places in the bible (particularly Psalm 150, which we have not read yet) makes it clear that every kind of instrument is acceptable for praising the LORD, just as much as it makes clear that we are directly adjured to praise the LORD in such a manner.  That is, all created things must praise the LORD, and all created things are acceptable to praise the LORD.  Second, as more of a cultural argument, music takes many different shapes in different cultures and across time.  The diversity that exists in music parallels the diversity that exists in human ethnicities, languages and other aspects of culture, and it strikes me as deeply inappropriate to seize upon a single kind of music that is declared acceptable while all others are outlawed.  I would feel the same way if somebody claimed that all worship must be in English or Arabic or French and that all other languages were inappropriate.  God makes clear in many places throughout the bible that all ethnicities are accepted, all languages are accepted, and it strikes me as a natural extension to say that all kinds of music are accepted.  The primary limitation (just as with language) is that worship music should be respectable and appropriate, so except for very specific circumstances worship music should avoid excessive profanity, cursing or other graphic language and imagery.  Even within this limitation, I think the scope for acceptable worship music is very broad.

In the 1960's and 1970's there was a fairly broad culture war between the older generation and the youth (the counterculture).  One of the manifestations of that culture war was in the church and centered around rock music.  Many people from the older generation regarded rock music (i.e. guitars and drums) as inappropriate for worship music in a church setting, some going as far as to label it demonic.  This is still the opinion in a variety of more conservative or traditional churches, while in many newer churches or denominations (especially the so-called Third Wave movement which includes Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard movement) a new style of rock-n-roll worship music predominates.  Nowhere is this fracture more evident than in places like a Presbyterian church I once visited that hosts both a "traditional" service and a "contemporary" service, with one of the chief distinctions being the worship music style.

Before saying anything further, I should remark that I play acoustic guitar, bass guitar and piano and I go to a church with a contemporary worship style, so my own personal preferences bias me towards the contemporary style over traditional hymns.  With that said, in my opinion the bible makes it clear that both of these worship styles are appropriate in the sight of God.  Both traditional hymns and contemporary worship permit us to encounter the heart of God if we choose to seek him in that way, and therefore the only real distinction between these worship styles is personal preference.  My personal preference is towards contemporary styles but I respect traditional worship styles for what they are.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that these conflicting worship styles are indicators of a broader cultural shift that is happening in the church between the younger and older generations that are most commonly associated with contemporary and traditional worship styles, respectively.  This was a cultural shift that began in earnest in the 1960s but has continued to this day (though perhaps with less ferocity and acrimony).  My first reaction is to find this conflict uncomfortable.  I can't help but quietly hope that those traditional denominations with traditional styles could perhaps be reconciled in unity with the Third Wave and younger generations.  My second reaction is that I'm really not at all sure that this kind of reconciliation makes sense or how it should look.  As I stated above, I think personal preference is a completely valid way to select and organize worship music.  So long as differing groups of people prefer different worship styles, I think it makes sense that there should be different worship experiences to suite them, and I see nothing wrong with that.  Perhaps I am simply uncomfortable because I still see echoes of the internecine culture wars within the church playing out through these musical differences.  I think ultimately what I would like to see is unity in diversity, i.e. that everyone would find a church with a worship style that matches their personal preference, but that the various Christian congregations would be unified even if their musical expressions were different.  I'm not sure how that should look though.  Perhaps that Presbyterian church had the right idea, hosting traditional and contemporary services separately while uniting those separate services in other ways.  To me, it felt vaguely segregated, but in hindsight it may be for the best.

Okay, well that was a long tangent but I think it's an important topic.  Music is more than just something that sounds nice.  It has spiritual significance, so I think it needs to be treated seriously.

In the next chapter, David continues organizing the temple ministry by ordaining the temple gatekeepers and treasurers.

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