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The Psaltery in the Bible: A Comprehensive Overview
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The Psaltery in the Bible: A Comprehensive Overview

The psaltery is an ancient stringed musical instrument that is mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible. In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore what exactly the psaltery is, its biblical origins and significance, how it was used in worship and prayer, key passages that reference the psaltery, and the enduring legacy of this instrument throughout history. Read on to gain a deeper understanding of the important role the psaltery has played for millennia.

Introduction

For Christians seeking to delve deeper into the Word, understanding the various instruments and cultural elements referenced in the Bible provides invaluable insight. The psaltery, in particular, holds great significance. But what exactly is this ancient instrument?

The psaltery is a type of harp or zither, typically with 10-12 stringed tuned to notes. It is considered one of the oldest stringed instruments, with representations dating back thousands of years. The psaltery produces a bright, melodious sound when plucked or strummed. In the Bible, the psaltery is referred to as the “nebel” in Hebrew or the “psalterion” in Greek. It was a common instrument used in worship, prayer, and prophesying from Old Testament times through the New Testament church.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the intriguing history of the psaltery, its spiritual symbolism, key passages in Scripture, and its enduring use throughout the centuries. We will also reflect on what lessons modern believers can glean from this iconic instrument. Let’s begin uncovering the remarkable role of the psaltery in the Bible.

A Brief History of the Psaltery

To properly understand the psaltery’s significance, it is important to first understand its ancient origins. The psaltery dates back over 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where arched harps were depicted in art and carvings. Over the next two millennia, the psaltery evolved across cultures into a portable box or board zither with multiple strings.

By Old Testament times, the psaltery had become a prominent instrument in Jewish worship and prayer. The Book of Psalms is replete with references to praise with the psaltery, associated with joyful singing and giving thanks to God. The popularity of the psaltery continued through the Second Temple period. Even as the Jewish people endured invasions and exile, the psaltery endured as a symbol of hope, a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Interestingly, the psaltery also emerged in Greek and Roman culture around the 5th century BC. It was known by various names, including the psalterion, ephorminx, and canonaki. The Greeks attributed its invention to the god Apollo. The psaltery was played by plucking the strings with fingers or a plectrum. This instrument became integral to religious ceremonies, entertainment events, childhood education, and more.

By the first century AD, the Jewish psaltery and Greek psalterion had merged into a 10-12 string instrument used across Judea and the Greco-Roman world. We see references to this instrument in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. The psaltery continued to be used in emerging Christian worship. By the Middle Ages, the psaltery had evolved into variations including the zither, dulcimer, and autoharp.

This brief history shows the psaltery’s remarkable longevity across cultures and eras. Next, let’s discuss the spiritual significance this instrument held for Israelites and early Christians.

Spiritual Symbolism of the Psaltery

Beyond its melodious sound, the psaltery held deep symbolic meaning related to prayer, praise, prophesying, and God’s faithfulness. We find numerous Old Testament references to playing skillful psalms and giving praise with the psaltery specifically. The Book of Psalms calls upon people to “Sing to the Lord a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy” (Psalm 33:3) and to “Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy” (Psalm 33:3).

The psaltery here is a vehicle for joyful praise, thanksgiving, and connecting to God through music. 1 Chronicles 25:6 describes levitical singers prophesying with lyres, harps, and cymbals: “All these were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the LORD, with cymbals, harps and lyres, for the service of the house of God.” The psaltery was part of how these musicians communed with God and shared His messages.

King David was closely associated with the psaltery, which represented his devotion to God. 1 Samuel 16:23 states, “So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” Here, David’s skilled psaltery playing carries healing and calming properties. The psaltery is an instrument of devotion that uplifts both the player and the listener.

We also find references to the importance of skill and training to properly play the psaltery to honor God. 1 Chronicles 15:22 states, “Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was in charge of the singing; he gave instruction in singing because he was skillful.” Proper musical training ensured correct tones, tunings, and techniques that created the most pleasing sound to the Lord.

Finally, the psaltery symbolizes God’s eternal faithfulness and protection. Psalm 92:1-4 reads:

“It is good to give thanks to the LORD And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High; To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning And Your faithfulness by night, With the ten-stringed lute and the harp, With resounding music upon the lyre. For You, O LORD, have made me glad by what You have done, I will sing for joy at the works of Your hands.”

Here, the psaltery is an instrument of testimony to God’s abundant compassion, protection, and provision. Musicians and singers alike are called to proclaim God’s steadfast love throughout all generations.

Key Passages About the Psaltery

Several Old Testament and New Testament passages give us deeper insight into how the psaltery was used in worship, prayer, and prophecy. Let’s explore some of the most prominent psaltery passages:

Psalms 33:2 – “Praise the LORD with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.”

This verse directly associates the psaltery with joyful praise to God. Calling upon musicians to worship with a 10-stringed instrument mirrors the psaltery’s evolution.

Psalms 71:22 – “I will also praise You with a harp, Even Your truth, O my God; To You I will sing praises with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.”

The musician here commits to honoring God’s eternal truths through psaltery music. It is an act of devotion to “sing praises with the lyre” to God.

Psalms 81:1-2 – “Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, strike the timbrel, The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.”

This passage calls believers to loudly sing, strike a timbrel drum, and play the sweet-sounding psaltery and harp to worship God. The psalmist uses the psaltery to joyfully express love for God.

Psalms 144:9 – “I will sing a new song to You, O God; Upon a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You.”

Here the musician promises to learn new compositions on the 10-string psaltery to honor God in fresh ways. The psaltery inspires creativity and renewal in worship.

Psalms 147:7 – “Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; Sing praises to our God on the lyre.”

Giving thanks is intimately connected to worship with the psaltery. Musicians are called to recognize God’s blessings through psaltery praise.

1 Samuel 10:5 – “Afterward you will come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is; and it shall be as soon as you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying.”

This passage illuminates how Levitical prophets would prophesize with tambourine, flute, and psaltery accompaniment. The psaltery helped induce the prophetic state.

Revelation 15:2 – “And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God.”

This apocalyptic New Testament verse depicts saints praising God in eternity with golden harps. The psaltery endures as an eternal instrument of worship.

Each of these key passages gives insight into how the psaltery was woven into the spiritual fabric of biblical times. Musicians played the psaltery to commune with God – to praise His name, give thanks, prophesize, and share His eternal truths.

The Enduring Legacy of the Psaltery

While the psaltery itself evolved over thousands of years, its spiritual significance remains constant. This ancient instrument reminds us of the power of music to uplift, heal, inspire, and bring us closer to God. Though the 10-string psaltery itself is now rare, its legacy lives on through stringed instruments used in worship worldwide – from the piano, guitar, and violin to zithers, autoharps, and more.

Most importantly, the psaltery’s endurance gives testimony to God’s eternal faithfulness. Though kingdoms and civilizations have risen and fallen, God’s presence and love persist. When we face hardships, the psaltery symbolizes hope in God’s protection. When we wish to give joyful thanks, the psaltery provides a way to voice praise. By continuing to make a “joyful noise” to the Lord with various instruments, we carry the psaltery’s legacy forward.

Conclusion & Key Takeaways

Throughout this deep dive into the psaltery in the Bible, we have explored its ancient origins, symbolic significance, key passages, and enduring spiritual impact. Let’s recap some of the main takeaways:

  • The psaltery is a harp-like, stringed instrument that dates back over 5,000 years and is referenced in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
  • It produced a bright, melodious sound when plucked or strummed and was a core instrument used in Jewish and early Christian worship and prayer.
  • The psaltery represents themes of praise, prophecy, God’s protection and compassion, and training skilled musicians to properly honor the Lord.
  • King David was closely associated with the psaltery, which brought healing and upheld God’s truths.
  • While the psaltery itself evolved over millennia, its legacy of spirit-filled worship endures through stringed instruments used globally today.

The psaltery provides a fascinating window into early worship practices while conveying timeless truths. My hope is that through this deep dive, you have gained wisdom and perspective on the psaltery’s biblical role and enduring spiritual impact. May we continue praising our eternal God with joyful noise and instruments, uplifting our hearts and voices in worship.

Pastor Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.