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Context is Key

by Tim O'Hearn

For those in the a capella churches (Church of Christ, Eastern Orthodox, and some Baptists) there have always been certain scriptures to support singing without instrumental accompaniment. It used to be that most people in the Churches of Christ could recite the list from memory. It was always strange, though, that only one passage from the Old Testament made the list. It still makes its way to the lists of some of the most vociferous opponents of instrumental music in the assembly. That is really strange, because if someone is known as a “book, chapter, and verse” Christian, they should know better than to use that verse as a proof text.

The verse is found in Amos 6. Verse 5 pronounces a woe to those “That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David.” That is from the King James Version, which for many years was the favorite translation. It is truly a more accurate translation than most modern versions.

On the surface it does appear to be a condemnation of instrumental music. The problem is that it is taken out of context.

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria, which are named chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel came! Pass ye unto Calneh, and see; and from thence go ye to Hamath the great: then go down to Gath of the Philistines: be they better than these kingdoms? or their border greater than your border? Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; That lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David; That drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. (Amos 6:1-6)

Even a casual reading of this context shows how ridiculous it is to use this as a proof text for a capella singing. It is clearly not even talking about the Temple worship. Note such phrases as “lie upon beds of ivory” and “cause the seat of violence to come near.” Those have no relation to congregational worship.

Amos is condemning uncaring idleness in the face of God’s judgement. Israel is in peril, and these people ignore the danger. They rely on their riches rather than God.

Beyond that context, it is clear that he is not making a blanket condemnation of the use of instruments of music. When he pronounces a woe on inventing instruments of music like David, he is condemning their wasting leisure time, not the instruments themselves. When Hezekiah made an offering it was accompanied by “instruments ordained by King David.” (2 Chron 29:27) Several other passages in 2 Chronicles mention Temple worship accompanied by David’s instruments. David was not condemned for inventing instruments because he made them for the Temple. These people are condemned because they made them for their excesses.

There is a difference between the music authorized for the Temple and that used in the synagogue, and subsequently in the church. It is wrong to use passages about the Temple worship to justify using musical instruments in the assembly today. It is just as wrong to take this passage seriously out of context to oppose those instruments.