Bible Study
Study Topic: Does Psalm 81 contain a commandment for singing?

Dexter B. Wakefield

Psalm 81:1–2 states, “Sing aloud to God our strength; make a joyful shout to the God of Jacob. Raise a song and strike the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the lute.”

And in verses 3–4: “Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob.”

Does this mean that we have a commandment to sing aloud, to play timbrels, harps and trumpets in the Church today, committing sin if we do not? Some assert that it is sin only if we fail to sing aloud at services, and they exclude the other practices.

The statute that the psalmist, Asaph, refers to is found in Numbers 10:10. This is the chapter regarding the use of trumpets: “Also in the day of your gladness, in your appointed feasts, and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be a memorial for you before your God: I am the LORD your God.”

In this statute, God instructed the priesthood through Moses to blow trumpets over the offerings on the new moons and on the holy days as a memorial. The weekly Sabbaths are not mentioned. The Feast of Trumpets would have been a very special occasion for this statute (Leviticus 23:24), since it is the only feast day that falls on the first of the month—the new moon.

But neither Numbers 10:10 nor Leviticus 23:24 make mention of singing, shouting or musical instruments. Those practices are not in the statute referred to in Psalm 81:3–4, so why are they mentioned in verses 1–2? It was not to add to the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 12:32). Instead, these verses reflected what King David had done in organizing singers and musicians for worship. The first mention of them historically is found in 1 Chronicles 15:16 and the verses that follow, when the Ark of the Covenant was being moved to Jerusalem: “Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy.” They became “the men whom David appointed over the service of song” referred to in the genealogy of Levi (1 Chronicles 6:31).

At the end of David’s life, we see that “he gathered together all the leaders of Israel, with the priests and the Levites” and numbered them (1 Chronicles 23:1–5). There were 4,000 Levitical singers and musicians in their courses (v. 5). Their singing and playing of instruments are mentioned in other scriptures as well. For instance, in Hezekiah’s day, the temple singers sang as the congregation worshipped (2 Chronicles 29:28).

These singers were so institutionalized in Judah that their courses survived the captivity. 1 Chronicles 9:33–34 speaks of those appointed singers who returned: “These are the singers, heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites, who lodged in the chambers, and were free from other duties; for they were employed in that work, day and night. These heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites were heads throughout their generations. They dwelt at Jerusalem.”

These practices—employing singers and musicians in worship—are not part of the statute in the Law of Moses mentioned in Psalm 81:3–4 and were not part of the Law of Moses at all. When verse 4 of Psalm 81 states, “For this is a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob,” the word, “this,” clearly refers to the statute mentioned in verse 3, “Blow the trumpet…,” not verses 1 and 2 regarding the musicians. Those practices were ordered by King David as part of the service in the tabernacle and later in the temple that Solomon built. When Asaph, as psalmist, mentions the musical practices in Psalm 81:1–2, he is not inventing a new law, but rather, he is explicitly exhorting the Levites in charge of that part of the tabernacle service to do their jobs “with resounding joy.”

God’s Church has long followed the spirit of these temple practices by singing in services on the weekly Sabbath and by playing music on a piano, keyboard, CD, or some other musical instrument for the song service. It has always been an important part of our worship services, and we believe that it pleases God as well as man. We are not currently singing during services in the United States and some other parts of the world, but we look forward to resuming in the future, hopefully very soon. However, we are not Levitical priests so that we must blow trumpets over offerings or have designated people play certain musical instruments as stated in Psalm 81. And the practice of singing cannot be separated from shouting and the playing of musical instruments, because King David enacted them together. If someone reasons that they must do one as a law of God, then they must do them all, and the Church has never considered that to be the case.

The Church leadership has the responsibility, authority, and obligation to institute changes in the order of worship as needed, including temporarily foregoing singing aloud as an entire congregation, for the physical safety of its members during a pandemic.

Through King David, the practices in 1 Chronicles 15:16 were instituted by God to be performed by the Levitical priests in the tabernacle, but they are not binding commandments for the Church today, the transgression of which would be sin. Those who would claim that Asaph’s exhortation to the Levites in Psalm 81:1–2 constitutes divine law, the transgression of which is sin, are in error.