Reformed Church Music


During the Reformation in the 16th century music in the church took a new direction. John Calvin's Genevan Psalter has been sung by the church ever since.


1.    Introduction

Some general comments with regard to instruments, music and singing, based on God's Word.

Music is not invented by men, but music already existed before the world was created. The LORD answered Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? While the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"  (Job 38: 1a, 4a and 7).

Music plays a crucial part in the life of men. In Genesis 4: 21 the housing industry and the tools/machine industry are mentioned in the same sentence as making music.

Psalm 150 mentions all instruments in use by the Israelites at that time. To make sure nothing is excluded in praising God's name, the Psalm ends with: "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD."

The call to praise God goes in the Scriptures often together with the call to rejoice, to shout with joy for the Lord. (Psalm 149: 1,2; Psalm 67: 4, 5a; Psalm 70: 5)


2.    Making music in the Scriptures

In the relationship between God and his people, music plays an important role.  

Making music is all about the glory of God, which became very clear by the song "Glory to God" the largest choir ever, the choir of angels when Jesus was born. This song received its own place in the liturgy of the early church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. 

The Scriptures (songs) make often clear the reason why God needs to be praised (Psalm 33: 3,4; Psalm 47: 7,8). Psalm 136 is the most penetrating, the refrain "for..." is repeated 26 times: 
"O give thanks unto the LORD; 
for He is good: 
for His mercy endureth for ever."
(KJV translation preferred) 

Whereas other people worship all kinds of creatures, all creatures are called to worship God Almighty (Psalm 148). 

God thrones on our song of praise! God dwells in the praises of his people! 
"But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel." Psalm 22: 3 (KJV). 
With this "throne" we prepare a place for Him through which He wants to be present in our midst.  

Whether we are talented musicians, gifted singers or not, on the new earth we all shall participate singing and playing on harps, given by God himself: 

... standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: 

"Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 
All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." (
Revelations 21)


3.    Abuse of Music

Music is not per definition always serving and honoring God...  

Worshiping idols (like a calf) Israel made music, was singing and dancing (Exodus 32: 18, 19).

For the worship of the image of gold (Daniel 3), almost exactly the same instruments are used as mentioned in Psalm 150. Apparently one can use the same instruments to praise God as well as to praise idols. 

Notwithstanding God's detailed instructions and institution of the music ministry in his service in the Old Testament, God looks in our heart most of all (Amos 5: 21, 23)

God's judgment comes true, also in silencing singing and instruments (Ezekiel 26: 3)

4.    Music in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament we find in numerous texts detailed descriptions of the service in music and song to the Lord. Besides, it is fascinating that throughout the Church history in the Old Testament the music is given so much attention. 

Music is a medium in the struggle against spiritual forces of evil (1 Samuel 16: 23). God focused and God centered music make evil spirits leave.

To glorify God, to sing and praise His holy name, we may humiliate ourselves (2 Samuel 6: 21) and follow David. 

David (re-)instructs the service of the Levites (1 Chronicles 15: 16). The extensive music ministry in the Lord's service as prescribed by David, was commanded by God himself (1 Chronicles 29: 25, Nehemiah 12: 24, 45). 

Musicians were dedicated in God's service: 
"... exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night"
(1 Chronicles 9: 33).
Music ministry is not a sideline.

David had at his disposition 4,000 musicians, from which 288 were trained and skilled professionals (1 Chronicles 23: 5). The highest level possible should be achieved in the musical worship service to the Lord.

With music all God's people are involved (1 Chronicles 15: 36). In many the choir and the people take turns (Psalm 136; Psalm 118: 1-4).

God's glory is directly related to the praises of his people, expressed by instruments and/or songs, in the most impressive consecration of the new Temple of Solomon. We read in 2 Chronicles 5: 13: 
"The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: "For He is good; for His love endures forever." 
(Note: Solomon composed 1,005 songs - 1 Kings 4: 32)  

5.    Psalms, the Hymnal of the Old Testament 

The word Psalm comes from the Greek word "psalmos" which means: poem, sung with accompaniment of strings. 

The book of Psalms (Tehillim, Hebrew), however, means praise. The hymn book of the Scriptures contains many songs dealing with all aspects of human emotions, such as joy, thankfulness, peace, love, but also: anger, fear, sadness, and sorrow. All these feelings, which are a part of our existence on this earth, ultimately lead to praise. In the Scriptures, praise gains depth through our tears, throughout our sadness.  

The songbook of the Psalms is divided in five parts, like the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Each part is finished with a praise song and the words "Amen and Amen" or "Amen, Praise the Lord". Within the Psalms there are groups, such as the Hallel Psalms (113-118) which are sung during the Passover and the Hammaaloth Psalms (120-134) which are sung going up to Jerusalem (pilgrimage). 

Authors of the psalms are Moses (1), David, 73), Solomon (2), Asaf (11), the sons of Korah (10), Etan. The Talmud mentions also Adam, Melchizedek, and Abraham. 

Outside the book of the Psalms, the Scriptures contain many more hymns: the song of Moses (Exodus 15), the song of Deborah (Judges 5), the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2), Song of Songs, Lamentations, the song of Mary, the song of Zechariah, the song of Simon (Luke 1 and 2), etcetera.

6.    Music and Prophecy

Music and prophecy are connected in several places in the Scriptures. Prophecy is speaking on behalf of God.   

Many psalms are prophetic (Psalm 49: 5). Prophecies were sung with the accompaniment of instruments.

Lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps are being played before prophets, prophesying in the Spirit of the Lord (1 Samuel 10: 5): "The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person." Instruments are "carriers" of the Spirit of the Lord.

It was quite normal to prophesy with the accompaniment of instruments (1 Chronicles 25: 1). 

The trumpet is characteristic in the prophecies. The trumpet is used for announcements and proclamations, and is especially connected to the Day of the Lord (Matthew 24: 30; 1 Corinthians 15: 51).  

7.    Music in the New Testament

The Jewish temple tradition of music (as prescribed in the Old Testament) was continued by the New Testament church until the year 70 when the temple was destroyed and regular services did not take place anymore. Much detail and information about that time are not available. 

In the letters of Paul we find some specific comments on music and songs
    "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5: 18, 19), and: 
    "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly [...] as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3: 16)

In the New Testament several hymns can be found. It is suggested that we can find an introduction to a hymn in Ephesians 5: 14: 
    "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." 
But more clearly in Revelations we can find many hymns and songs, sung in turns by the 24 elders, the angels and creation (as it used to be sung in the Old Testament with Levites, priests and people).

We read that Jesus and his disciples sung a hymn at the Passover: Psalms 113-118, like the common practice at the Passover feast.

Acts 2 tells us that the first congregation came together in the temple and celebrated the Lord's Supper at their homes. They did this will joy, acclamation and they praised God. The Greek word in verse 46 can also be explained as eschatological joy. The hymn and songs were sung in the context of "Come, Lord Jesus, Maranatha!", the Kingdom of God comes! 

8.    Conclusions

- The purpose of music is first of all to praise God.
- The worship services of the Israelites were characterized by a richly colored liturgy with a large range of musical instruments and highly skilled musicians, who were respected and did this for a living. 

- The young Christian church continued the Old Testament musical traditions. In addition to the psalm the congregation sung their own hymns and spiritual songs. 
- The Scriptures have many psalms, praise and worship songs, hymns of thanksgiving, as well as lamentations and songs of mourning. 
- Musical instruments were all used for praise. There were no "sacred" instruments and no specific instruments were banned.  
- The original guidelines (commands) God gave his people in the Old Testament make clear that music ministry in God's service does not provide for recruiting "just anyone who can play (the organ)" for the music ministry in a congregation.
- The use of hymns (or psalms) and instruments in the Old Testament (being the root of the New Testament church) does, for instance, not permit for singing just a stanza as an introduction to the sermon for example.