Years ago when I was studying the topic of prophecy in the Bible, I noticed a link between prophecy and music that I thought seemed strange at the time. When we think of prophecy, we typically think of foretelling future events. We might also think of “inspired speaking,” which is the more general sense of both the Hebrew naba (H5012 “prophecy”) and the Greek propheteia (G4394 “prophecy”). Thus, a prophet (nabiy [masculine] or nebiyah [feminine] in Hebrew and prophetes in Greek) is someone who shares a message inspired by God; they’re a spokesperson for Him.
It’s likely impossible to read the Bible without noticing the importance of music, especially in the Psalms. People of God sing a lot, often accompanied by lively music and dancing. With this in mind, perhaps the link between music and prophecy shouldn’t surprise me, but it did. I hear this much less often now, but when I was a teen I was warned repeatedly against the dangers of getting too caught up in the emotions of worship music. Those emotions could stir you up to ignore theologically questionable lyrics or make a fool out of yourself swaying and back and forth in church (or so the argument went). And yet, people in the Bible deliberately sought out music as part of not only their praise but also to help them hear God’s voice.
Prophets as Singers
Revisiting this study started with my mom suggesting that someone should put together a study on music for our monthly scripture writing group. So far, I’ve come up with 20 scriptures for the topic “Inspiring Music.” They’re not all direct links between prophecy and music, but they all have to do with inspiration and singing or playing musical instruments. Several of these verses have to do with prophets and prophetesses who used music when sharing inspired words.
Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. Miriam answered them,
“Sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously.Exodus 15:20-21, WEB
He has thrown the horse and his rider into the sea.”
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time. …
Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying,
“Because the leaders took the lead in Israel,Judges 4:4; 5:1-2, WEB
because the people offered themselves willingly,
be blessed, Yahweh!
With two of the Old Testament prophetesses singing like this, Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary even includes “gift of song” as part of their definition for nebiyah. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes that it’s rare, but musicians are “designated nebi’im” (entry 1277). We see another example of this when David appointed “some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun to prophesy as they played stringed instruments and cymbals” (1 Chr. 25:1-3, NET). It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us that music can be divinely inspired, but seeing it linked with prophecy underscores the importance God places on musical praise, worship, and teaching.
Inspired By Music
In addition to these examples of prophets and prophetesses as musicians, we also have an example of a prophet who listened to music.
Elisha said, “As Yahweh of Armies lives, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I respect the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward you, nor see you. But now bring me a musician.” When the musician played, Yahweh’s hand came on him.2 Kings 3:14-15, WEB
Here, three kings came to Elisha asking him to talk with God for them. Though he wouldn’t have responded to the kings of Israel and Edom, Elisha said he would seek God’s guidance out of respect for the king of Judah. In order to do that, he asked for a musician and it was while he listened to music that “Yahweh’s hand came on him.” It’s a fascinating precedent for someone using music to help them communicate and connect with God.
Music was a key part of worship in God’s temple, particularly after King David appointed singers and musicians for worship in the tabernacle. That type of ministry through music continued into Solomon’s day and beyond whenever kings and righteous leaders reinstituted true worship (1 Chr. 6:31-32; 2 Chr. 23:18; Neh. 12:44-46).
He [Hezekiah] set the Levites in Yahweh’s house with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was from Yahweh by his prophets. The Levites stood with David’s instruments, and the priests with the trumpets. Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. When the burnt offering began, Yahweh’s song also began, along with the trumpets and instruments of David king of Israel. All the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished.2 Chronicles 29:25-28, WEB
Share Your Song
The emphasis on music isn’t just an Old Testament thing. Much as there was music in the physical tabernacles and temples of old, God expects to see music in His spiritual temple that’s made up of all faithful believers.
Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God.Colossians 3:15-16, NET
When God looks at His church, there are some specific things He expects to see. He wants us to be at peace with each other and have peace inside us. He wants to see Jesus’s words in us “richly,” overflowing in “teaching and exhorting with wisdom.” And He wants to see us “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The context indicates that singing is part of our teaching and exhortation (our inspired and inspiring words); a conclusion reinforced by another letter Paul wrote.
And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,Ephesians 5:18-20, NET
When we’re filled with the Spirit, that’s going to inspire music both aloud and in our hearts. I know it can be hard sometimes to get excited about singing. Maybe you don’t like the way your voice sounds or you’re turned-off by the style of music at your church. I like singing, but there are some hymns that sound an awful lot like a funeral dirge to me and I just can’t work up much involvement singing those. But there are other hymns that I love, and when I’m at home I’m free to pick a style of Christian music I like and dance around singing them all I want. If we want to make music part of our worship, surely we can all find songs that match our tastes well enough that we can sincerely use them to glorify God. At the very least, we can appreciate the words of the music we sing at church and recognize the value God places on music.
In addition to the encouraging and exhorting aspect of “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” there’s also a link to thankfulness. Thanksgiving is a key aspect of praise and of song, and it should accompany our teaching, exhorting, and singing. (2 Sam. 22:50, Ps. 33:2, and others). In this as in so many other things, it comes down to the state of your heart. When we have God’s spirit inside us, want to encourage others, and have a thankful attitude, then godly music is one of the ways for us to both express our appreciation for the Lord and strengthen our relationship with Him.
Featured image by Wolfgang Heubeck from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “How Can I Keep From Singing?” by Keith & Kristyn Getty