Bible Q&A: Does Amos Condemn Instrumental Music in Worship in the Old Testament?

Amos 5:23 says that God will not listen to the melody of the Israelites’ harps, contextually talking about their worship.  Amos 6:5 gives a “Woe” to those “who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music.”  We know that the silence of the Scriptures prohibits instrumental praise in New Testament worship.  Do these passages show that God did not want it in the Old Testament too?

Some believe so.  Their arguments basically point to Jesus’ statement that God through Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of Israel’s hearts, even though “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:7-8; cf. Deut. 24:1-4), and to God’s allowance and directives to Israel about having a king like the other nations around them even though by doing so they had, as he told Samuel, “rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:4-7; cf. Deut. 17:14ff).  Their premise is that in the Old Testament God allowed Israel to do some things he did not inherently desire, such as divorce and Israel having a king, even going so far as to give directives and commandments concerning them.  In like manner, the argument posits that even though God specifically commanded instrumental praise in the Old Testament (1 Chr. 13:8; 15:16ff, 28; 25:1ff; 2 Chr. 29:25-30; cf. Ps. 33:2-3; 71:22; 98:5-6; 149:3; 150:3-5; Ex. 15:20ff), the Amos passages show that he actually didn’t want it.

I have promoted this argument in the past.  However, I now believe there is a stronger argument to be made that the divine intent of the Amos passages is not to show any sort of inherent dislike for Old Testament instrumental praise.  Contextually, Amos in chapter 5 is calling on Israel to repent in light of the punishment he saw God about to give them (5:1-15).  In describing the wrath God would bring down upon them because of their sins, Amos says:

Amos 5:21-24 (ESV)
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Notice that it was not just “the noise of your songs” and “the melody of your harps” which God rejected.  It was also their “feasts,” their “solemn assemblies,” their “burnt offerings…grain offerings…(and) the peace offerings of your fattened animals.”  All of their worship to God was rejected by Him because it was not from the heart (cf. Matt. 15:8-9a); it was not offered by people who had truly put Him first above all.

The same could be said concerning the message of chapter 6.  The “woe” was given not just to the instrumental praise (v. 5), but also to the following:

Amos 6:1-7 (ESV)
1 “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes!
2 Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory,
3 O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence?
4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall,
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
6 who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

The northern kingdom of Israel — Samaria — thought everything was fine.  They weren’t concerned at all about any punishment God would bring upon them for their sins.  All of these activities in this passage are the actions of people who do not have a care in the world.  Indeed, taken in this context one would be hard-pressed to even call the songs of verse 5 worship at all!  So it certainly would be quite a stretch to cite Amos 6:5 as an example of God tolerating instrumental worship in the Old Testament even though He did not want it.

Taking the biblical data as a whole, especially the New Testament’s repeated teaching and examples of that which was done physically in the Old Testament being a type or shadow (foreshadowing) of what was done spiritually in the New Testament (cf. Heb. 8:5ff; 9:1-10; 10:1a; Col. 2:16-17; Rom. 2:28-29; et al), it becomes clear that the divine commands to offer instrumental praise with physical instruments of music in the Old Testament is a “copy and shadow” of the divine directives for Christians to sing in worship, with the specific directive being for them to “make melody” (psallo, “to pluck the strings of an instrument”) “with (their) hearts” (Eph. 5:19).  Thus, while instrumental praise is not commanded in the New Testament and thus would not meet God’s approval since He has commanded not to go beyond what is written in Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6; Gal. 1:6-10; Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Prov. 30:6; Deut. 4:2), there is insufficient evidence in the Old Testament to show that His commands for Israel to offer Him instrumental praise were in fact part of something He tolerated but was not part of His actual will, as one could say about divorce and the monarchy.

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