Musical Terms for Worship in the Old Testament

Featuring Worshipedia Posted on April 10, 2010

Music, both vocal and instrumental, played a central role in the worship of Israel. Many Hebrew words refer to musical activity in the praise of the Lord. Some of the terms for spoken praise, such as hodah or hillel, apply equally to musical expression. The verb rinnen, “cry joyfully,” can mean “sing for joy” and is often found parallel with words specifically associated with singing (Psalms 33:1; 81:1; 98:4). The most common terms for sung praise are zimmer and shir, which frequently occur together (Psalms 101:1; 104:33). The worshiper of Yahweh often “makes melody” or “sings praise” (zimmer, Psalms 47:6; 66:2; 92:1; 149:3). This term seems to indicate singing accompanied by an instrument; related nouns are zimrah, “singing” (Psalms 81:2; 98:5) and mizmor, “psalm” (Psalm 95:2, and the superscriptions of several psalms such as Psalms 92 and 98). Worshipers frequently declare their intention to sing (shir, Psalms 13:6; 57:7; 89:1; 101:1) or speak of their song (shir, Psalm 28:7). Another term for song is maskil, perhaps “skillful song” (Psalm 47:7, and the superscriptions of a number of psalms such as Psalm 42). The verb ‘anah (Psalm 147:7), translated “sing,” means “to pronounce with a loud voice” or “to answer.” When the ark was brought into the newly completed temple, the musicians “lifted up sound” (herim qol) with voices and instruments (2 Chronicles 5:12–13).

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