Faithlife Sermons

Musical Reformation

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The two chapters we are considering today are filled with many strange names (which we have already encountered), but we also learn some important lessons on the place and role of music in the work of reformation.

The Text:

And the rulers of the people dwelt at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities . . . (Nehemiah 11:1-12:47).


They cast lots to settle a tenth of the people in Jerusalem (11:1), and the people blessed those who were willing to go (v. 2). We are then given a list of names, the names of those who were willing to come to Jerusalem (11:3-12:26) in their various capacities. In 12:26, we have yet another confirmation that Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe were contemporaries. We then come to the dedication of the wall at Jerusalem (vv. 27-43), a dedication which included two great antiphonal companies. The people of Israel then rejoiced in offering the tithe, and they rejoiced that it went (in part) to support the musicians (vv. 44-47).

A Quick Aside:

In 11:6, we have reference to 468 valiant men. And then in v. 14, we have another reference to “mighty men of valour,” 128 of them. Their leader was Zabdiel, one of the “great men.” Every generation requires courage and greatness, and, by the grace of God, we can always find it. Here we find several references to this necessary courage, tucked away in long lists of names. But whatever sacrifices were made by these men, whatever obstacles or onslaughts they faced, even though we don’t know them, God does. Whatever battles they won, God was honored. Pray that in our day, God would raise up a host of men with backbone, men with sand. We certainly don’t need any more sunshine Christians.

Getting the Music Right:

The central lessons we may take from this chapter concern the nature of musical reformation. There are numerous references to this. A descendant of Asaph (the psalmist) was leader of the thanksgiving (11: 17). Asaph had numerous descendants here, all of them musical (vv. 22-23). These singers were “over the business of the house of God.” Music is not an afterthought “add-on” to right worship. The singers were central. Before the exile, the fundamental musical reformation had been established by David in  his establishment of the musical tabernacle on Mt. Zion. His establishment was here reinstituted (12:24). Not only were the musicians there for the daily worship, they were also available for special occasions, like the dedication of the wall. For these big occasions, they called in singers from the broader countryside, and they employed voices, cymbals, psalteries, and harps. Musical families came in to help—in fact, whole villages were made up of musicians (vv. 28-29). Nehemiah divided everybody up into two great antiphonal choirs (v. 31), gathered in order to give thanks. There were even trumpets there (v. 35), not to mention instruments from the time of David (v. 36). The end result of all this was musical rejoicing and celebration, and it was loud (vv. 42-43). And the people returned, not just to the law of Moses, but also to the music of David (vv. 45-46).

Rejecting Relativism:

It is not possible to talk about the crying need for musical reformation in our day without provoking a very common reaction—“Who is say what good music is? Why should we ‘go back’ to music that makes my head hurt? What’s wrong with choruses?” There are many responses to this, but let us take just one, from these chapters.

We have already noted that mention was made of “valiant men,” and “mighty men of valour.” And we don’t know what particular exploits these men performed. Maybe some killed a bear, like David. Maybe some put larger numbers to flight. Maybe some scaled a wall amid a raincloud of arrows. We don’t know. But we do know that valiant and mighty are not words that describe these men hiding in the closet, or cowering under a table. In other words, we don’t know the particular examples of their courage, but we all know what courage looks like.

In the same way, we don’t have an audio recording of the loud celebration on the wall (vv. 42-43). But here is the point. We don’t need an audio recording. We do know that this was music that was demanding. It required training over the course of generations (11: 17, 22-23). It required leadership (11:17). There were multiple instruments to orchestrate (12:27-28). Knowledge of musical history and liturgics was necessary (12:24). Much of the training was a 24/7 kind of thing (v. 29). Musical discipline was required to channel the great gladness and rejoicing (12: 27, 42-43)

Singing A New Song:

But anything, including glorious music, can still get old apart from faith. The musical aspect of what we are seeking to do here in Christ Church is essential, and we really want to encourage you to not grow complacent in your musical good works. Just a few thoughts of practical application.

Men, take the leadership in your family—even if you think you can’t sing. Even if you can’t carry the tune, carry the responsibilty. And if you can sing, please consider the choir. Our relationship to the music we are recovering and learning can be compared to a good marriage. When we were first learning the psalms, the psalm sings could be compared to a honeymoon period. We are now in the middle years of marriage, and the exuberance is of a different nature—but it still needs to be exuberance. Think generationally. We have the psalm-lessons and the hymn-lessons before the service for a reason. We want the kids to grow up knowing nothing but four-part harmonies. Submit to musical learning; defer to those who know better than you do. Music is not one area where “any man’s opinion is just as good as any other man’s.”

And lastly, recognize that David was functioning as a prophet when he established the musical tabernacle on Mr. Zion. At the Council of Jerusalem, James tells us this, quoting from the prophet Amos. He tells us that we, the Gentiles, have been ushered in, and that we have been ushered in so that we might be able to sing.

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