Ancient Musical Instruments and Psalm 5 – Jehovah Hears the Cry of His People

To the chief Musician upon Nehiloth, A Psalm of David.

1 Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my meditation.

2 Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray.

3 My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.

4 For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.

5 The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.

6 Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the LORD will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.

7 But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.

8 Lead me, O LORD, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face.

9 For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulcher; they flatter with their tongue.

10 Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee.

11 But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee.

12 For thou, LORD, wilt bless the righteous; with favor wilt thou compass him as with a shield.

A prayer to God against the iniquities of men.  Learning how to get to the Lord in the morning in order to keep our focus on God’s house.

Ancient Musical Instruments

The Harp in the Ancient World
The harp has always been known to be a beautiful sounding stringed instrument.

The above painted sketch is from an actual harp in ancient Biblical times.

In ancient times the harp was played with the hand while walking.

It had multiple strings and sometimes a sounding board.

“And Saul’s servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee. Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well (1 Sam 16:15-16).

A modest number of remains of musical instruments have been recovered by archaeologists.  We do, however, have abundant evidence in ancient texts (such as the Psalms) and art (such as Egyptian tomb paintings) that attest to the varied use ancient peoples made of instruments to create music.  

Thus, the paucity of relics of ancient instruments is a matter of their fragility, not their scarcity.  Indeed, a few of the more durable ancient instruments that have been found, such as cymbals, can still produce sound.  Also, the vocabulary of musical instruments in Biblical Hebrew is fairly extensive. 

There can be no doubt that such instruments were widely employed in the ancient world, including Israel.

Precise translation of Hebrew words of instruments is made difficult by the lack of  Biblical descriptions. 

Even ancient translators, such as those working on the Greek Septuagint, often had little understanding of the meanings of the Hebrew musical terms.  Also, modern associations with certain names can be misleading.

For example, shofar is often translated “trumpet,” calling to mind a brass instrument rather than what it actually was: a ram’s horn.

The English “tambourine” suggests a hand drum with metal rings that jingle when shaken, but ancient Israelite hand drums probably lacked the rings.

String instruments in Ancient Egypt included lutes, lyres and harps. All of these instruments were plucked and not bowed. Below are images of string instruments and inscriptions featuring string instruments.

On the other hand, ancient artwork from Egypt and Mesopotamia provides us with clear images of what many instruments looked like.  The Israelites, like their neighbors, used three basic types of instrumentation:

Stringed instruments, like the lyre and harp.  The Lyre is well attested from ancient Israel, but the harp is more problematic.  Some authorities argue that the word translated “harp” may actually refer to a kind of bass lyre or even to a lute.

On the other hand, an instrument that is obviously a harp is attested from ancient Egypt and thus may have existed in Israel as well.

Percussion instruments of two kinds: Drums and tambourines were constructed from animals skin stretched over a frame.

“Idiophones” produce sound by vibrating but have neither strings nor skin membranes.  Examples are bells, gongs, rattles, dappers, and cymbals.

Bronze Bells – Roman Period (2nd-4th centuries CE) from Karanis, Egypt
Percussion instruments in Ancient Egypt included rattles, hand-held drums, bells, castanets and the sistrum.

The sistrum was a rattle that played an important role in religious worship.

Rhythmic accompaniment was also achieved with hand clapping.

Below are images of percussion instruments and inscriptions featuring percussion instruments.

These may have been made of various materials, including metal, wood, hardened day or bone.  2 Sam 6:5 and Neh 12:27 both refer to their use.

Wind instruments, like pipes, trumpets, or the shofar (ram’s horn), are well-attested in the Bible (flute-like instruments at 1 Kgs 1:40; silver trumpets at Num 10:2; the shofar at Joel 2:1).

Ancient Woodwind Folk Instruments

Such instruments were widely used for entertainment and boisterous parties (Is 5:12), but also for celebratory worship (Ps 81:2; 150:1-5).

The first reference to musical instruments in the Bible in Gen 4:21, where Jubal, one of Cain’s descendants, is described as “the father of all who play the harp and flute.” 

Musical instruments were used at celebrations of various kinds (Gen 31:27; Job 21:11-12), including military victories (Ex 15:20).

The shofar was employed primarily for signaling, especially during war (Jud 3:27; I Sam 19:9), as well as the temple. 

Religious lyrics (such as those preserved in the Psalms) often called for instrumental accompaniment (Ps 150:3-5; Amos 5:23).