Job Description for Liturgical Musicians

I’m reading Temple Themes in Christian Worship by Margaret Barker. I am not here commenting on her thesis, which can summarized in a couple of quotes. “Even if [the Christians] were not in the temple, they were thinking ‘temple’ as they met together.” Barker proposes that temple theology runs throughout Christian theology, liturgical practice, sacramental mystagogy, etc. “Any investigation of the origin of Christian worship must take into account the fact that Jesus was proclaimed as the Great High Priest … the  central message of Christianity was the atonement …. The hope for the Messiah was grounded in the royal high priesthood of the original temple; and that the Christians thought of themselves as a kingdom of priests.”

Barker may be right or wrong, and the scholarly world is sorting out her claims. My interest here is to share one passage which shakes up our notion of temple musicians. Instead of being the group that props up congregational singing, or delights us with their performance, how about this as a job description for musicians in liturgy? (The first bolding is in Barker’s text; the other two are mine.)

“When David brought the ark to Jerusalem, he appointed musicians, the Levites who were to serve before the ark of the Lord, to ‘invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord the God of Israel’ (1 Chron 16.4). Music invoked the presence. The Holy One was ‘enthroned on the praises of Israel’ (Ps 22.3), and the congregation praised and the glorified the Lord and stood in awe of him (Ps. 22.23). Now ‘hallelu-jah’ is probably the most familiar word that has survived from temple worship, and is said to mean ‘Praise the Lord.’ Apart from Psalm 135.3, it always occurs at the beginning or end of the psalm, and is often kept in its original form even today. … It must have been a significant temple term, whose meaning was known to those who needed the Scriptures in Greek. At the beginning of a psalm, hallelu-jah addresses the congregation: it is a plural form ‘Praise the Lord’. The Hebrew root hll, however, means not only ‘praise’ but also ‘shine’. Were the people commanded to make the Lord shine? Should we perhaps understand Psalm 22.23 as ‘Make him shine … make Him glorious … stand in awe of Him,’ rather than ‘praise Him … glorify him … stand in awe of Him’? The hallelujah at the beginning of the Psalms would then be an instruction to the musicians to cause the Lord’s face to shine, to invoke His presence: ‘Make the Lord shine forth!’ This was the first duty of the Levites: ‘To invoke, to thank and to praise the Lord’, and so they sang: ‘Thou who art enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth!’ (Ps 80.1). The Levites made music when the temple was consecrated, singing ‘with one voice’, and then the presence of the Lord came; the cloud of the Glory of the Lord filled the temple (2 Chron 45. 11-14). Once the Lord had been enthroned in his temple, the music invited the Lord to shine forth from the holy of holies, to show Himself as King: ‘For dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations (Ps. 22.28). He established his Kingdom. “

A new set of questions. Not “Is it singable? Do we like it? Is it pitched too high? Is it old? Is it new?” But rather, “Will it make the Lord’s face shine? Will it summon God? Will it invoke His presence that we may fall down and worship?”


  1. An inspiring reflection! It sends me running to read Congar’s The Mystery of the Temple, or the Manner of God’s Presence to His Creatures from Genesis to the Apocalypse, 1962. Thank you.

  2. David, there’s a slippage of terms between “make”/”cause” and “invite” in Barker’s paragraph. The former suggests that musicians cause the shekinah to appear. The latter suggests they merely help to establish proper conditions for receiving the Lord’s Presence; to dispose the congregation to intenser listening, supplication, and awe. The humility of the latter is, frankly, more attractive. Many of us have probably attended services in which the musicians aimed to whip up audience fervor, for whatever justification. The danger is that the musicians will then start to feel as if they were responsible for that fervor, that they produced it, and that it would not happen without them. That is disquieting. It is very easy to feel, if you sing in a fine choir, that you are part of stagecraft. But then, there is this:

    Or this (at 4:12):

    Perhaps these are closer to what you…

  3. I don’t see how the pi’el of the hll “shine” root gets us to the meaning “praise”. Normally (though not always) it’s the hiph’il that is causative. They are certainly different roots and were thought of different, because qal’s and hiph’il’s of both roots exist with different meanings, each specific to the root. I’m pretty sceptical.

  4. ““Will it make the Lord’s face shine? Will it summon God? Will it invoke His presence that we may fall down and worship?”


    Hebrew roots aside (I do not know enough Hebrew to comment), this is a wonderful description of the liturgical musician. And I have always tried to model my ministry on this “mystery” But, as a human being, all I CAN do is try.
    Who can know (with certainty) what music will “summon God” into our midst.
    I am willing to bet there are as many answers as there are liturgical musicians.

  5. Beautiful reflection. I agree, these are the important questions.

    Of course, God’s face will shine all the more, the more people who join in His praises.

    “..the goal of apostolic endeavour is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” (SC 10)

  6. I like the idea, but am concerned that this creates an opportunity to dictate stylistic appropriateness. A lot of people (cough cough cough) would claim that only ethereal sounding chant and polyphony would “shine forth” appropriately (because, you know- God only speaks Latin, and the angles only sing Palestrina).
    I think Miriam with her dancing women and their tambourines is as likely to cause God’s glory to shine forth as renaissance polyphony.

    1. My mind went immediately to Pentecostal/Charismatic worship when I read “Will it make the Lord’s face shine? Will it summon God? Will it invoke His presence that we may fall down and worship?” That’s the attitude they take, and I think it’s a very positive attitude.

      Many of us find the music of Pentecostal and Charismatic worship inappropriate for liturgy, though GIA’s CrossGeneration, OCP’s Spirit & Song, WLP’s Voices as One — as well as a number of other supplements — suggest something different. I get nervous whenever this or that group (cough, cough &c.) wants to make hard-and-fast their reading of a hierarchy of values to the exclusion of a different style of worship. I’m not saying those values and hierarchies aren’t there, but only that they cannot be made to say more than they do — and certainly cannot used in horizontal judgments about whose worship music is more pleasing to God. My worship is better than yours?

      We are so much the children of Cain.

  7. Sacrosanctum Concilium (#7) tells us that Christ is present when the Church prays and sings. It’s not too difficult to see temple origins and the shekinah in this. Of course, as a musician I am often tempted to re-cast this as “When the Church sings its prayer” – too often folks think that our praying and our singing are two different things, not the same spiritual reality.

  8. Adam, was there a necessary point that had to be aired in your presumptive assessment of others’ analysis, that of course would lead to dictums?
    I thought the thread was going along nicely, thank you.
    Must we ironically muck about in the mud when the point of the post and commentary speaks of “shining forth?”

  9. Aunt Sally is a convivial woman. I recognised her at once when I arrived, holding forth in the corner (glass of organic chardonnay in hand) about those awful conservatives who won’t countenance anything but chant and polyphony. I know her well: I saw her not long ago at another party, already on her second glass of gin, telling us about those frightful liberals who insist on electric guitars and bongos at mass.

    I could mildly point out to her that most of the folk at the other party simply wish to accord chant and polyphony their central place in the Church’s liturgical tradition; they are quite happy to hear other kinds of music at Church, so long as those who write and program them are sensitive to the ethos of the liturgy, and musically competent. I hesitate to interrupt, though – she’s magnificent in full flow.

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