The priests in ancient Israel were musicians! That may come as a surprise to many. Learning to be proficient in playing a musical instrument hardly takes priority over Greek in most seminaries today!
The temple of Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon was completed in 959 BC. The Book of Chronicles (dated variously between 500 BC and 325 BC), in the Bible, tells us what happened at the consecration of the temple soon after 959 BC:
All the Levitical-priest singers (Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives) stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the LORD was filled with a cloud, 14 and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)
God became mysteriously present (mystically present: “the glory of the Lord”) when the musicians and singers performed.
Perhaps the best known word from ancient Hebrew is Hallelujah. The word Hallel comes from ancient temple worship. The word Hallel means “praise” and Hallelujah means “praise the Lord” with music and song. The word often comes at the beginning and end of the Psalms. The Book of Psalms (in the Bible) is the song book of ancient temple worship. The Hebrew root Hallel, however, means not only “praise” but also “shine”. The biblical scholar Margaret Barker says that the word Hallelujah at the beginning of Psalms was probably an instruction to the priest-musicians to cause the Lord’s face to shine: Lord Shine! It’s an invitation for God to be mysteriously (mystically) present. God’s shining face, according to Margaret Barker, is what we nowadays would call “enlightenment”.
Revd Dr Peter Pimentel