On Singing, Dancing, and Playing Instruments in Scripture

December 31, 2013

Scripture speaks in at least 26 passages about various people dancing.[1] A close examination of three references to dancing in First Samuel brings out an important point about interpreting other passages in Scripture that mention both singing and dancing.

First Samuel 18:6-9

After David had killed Goliath, he served Saul faithfully wherever he sent him (1 Sam. 18:5a). David prospered, he was exalted by Saul to be over his army, and he was pleasing to all the people, including the servants of Saul (1 Sam. 18:5b-c).

When David was returning from killing Goliath, women came out from all the cities of Israel (1 Sam. 18:6a). These women were singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments when they went out to meet King Saul (and David):

1Sa 18:6 And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick.

 7 And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.

This musical exaltation of David above Saul led to Saul’s becoming very angry and suspicious of David “from that day and forward” (1 Sam. 18:8-9).

This passage teaches us that there were at least some women in every city of Israel at this time who were able to sing, dance, and play musical instruments at the same time (cf. Exod. 15:20-21). Moreover, they thought it fitting to do all three in honoring those to whom they believed honor was due.

From this passage, we infer that music was an important part of life in all Israel at this time in its history. Two later references to the same event teach us an important point about music in relation to singing and dancing in the thinking of the people in one of the neighboring nations.

First Samuel 21:11 and 29:5

The Philistines were one of the key enemies of Israel in the days of Saul and David. Yet, when Saul began to try to kill David, David fled (1 Sam. 21:10) to Achish the king of Gath (a key city of the Philistines and the hometown of Goliath). Somehow, the servants of the king knew about the musical reception that Saul and David had received earlier when they returned from his killing Goliath:

1Sa 21:11 And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?

Comparing their report of that event with what actually took place (1 Sam. 18:6-7) brings out two key points. First, the servants of Achish do not mention that it was the women of Israel who sang and danced when they greeted Saul and David with these words. Second, they make no mention of the women playing musical instruments on that occasion.

At a later time, a different situation yet included similar omissions in the reporting of that same event: When the Philistine princes were preparing to go to war with Israelites (1 Sam. 29:1-7), they objected to Achish’s allowing David and his men to join the Philistine forces in fighting the Israelites (1 Sam. 29:1-4). The princes said,

1Sa 29:5 Is not this David, of whom they sang one to another in dances, saying, Saul slew his thousands, and David his ten thousands?

Comparing all three texts shows that both of the Philistine reports do not mention that it was the women who sang and danced and that they played musical instruments when they sang these words about Saul and David.

This comparison shows that in two later reports about people who sang and danced on an important occasion, the people reporting the event did not think that it was necessary to mention that those who were singing and dancing on that occasion were also playing musical instruments while they were singing and dancing. Apparently, these people took for granted that telling others about singing and dancing taking place would be enough for their hearers to understand that the actual event included singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments.

Alternatively, their failure to mention the playing of music on that occasion could have stemmed from their not being told (by the source of their information) about any music being played at that event. In this case, we still see two clear instances in Scripture of people whose report about an event only talks about singing and dancing taking place when actually the event also included the playing of musical instruments.

The Relevance of These Passages for the Interpretation of Another Key Passage about Singing and Dancing 

Based on the biblical evidence treated above, I believe that we have scriptural warrant for understanding that any account in Scripture of people both singing and dancing was also an instance where there was the playing of musical instruments as well—whether or not the report of that event explicitly says anything about musical instruments being played. The strong Scriptural connection between instrumental music and dancing in many other passages supports this interpretation.[2]

This line of Scriptural reasoning has important implications for how we are to interpret what took place at another key occasion in the history of God’s people. The report of the Golden Calf incident shows that the people were singing (“the noise of them that sing do I hear” [Ex. 32:18]) and dancing (“he saw the calf and the dancing” [Ex. 32:19]) as part of their shameful behavior at this time (Ex. 32:25). Common sense, many other passages that link playing instruments and dancing, and the comparison of the three passages from First Samuel in this article point to the people playing musical instruments as well in the Golden Calf incident while the people were shamefully singing and dancing.

Based on this interpretation of the Golden Calf incident, the passage would further show that the composite sound that Moses and Joshua assessed from a distance to be ungodly—without hearing any of the words—was produced by the people singing and playing of instruments as well. The assessment of Moses and Joshua thus would point to the propriety of holding that music that includes both instrumental accompaniment and lyrics can be assessed to be ungodly by assessing its composite sound without knowing what the words are that are being sung.


[1] Exod. 15:20; 32:19; Jdg. 11:34; 21:21, 23; 1 Sam. 18:6; 21:11; 29:5; 30:16; 2 Sam. 6:14, 16; 1 Chr. 15:29; Job 21:11; Ps. 30:11; 149:3; 150:4; Eccl. 3:4; Isa. 13:21; Jer. 31:4, 13; Lam. 5:15; Matt. 11:17; 14:6; Mk. 6:22; Lk. 7:32; 15:25.

[2] Exod. 15:20-21; Jdg. 11:34; 2 Sam. 6:14-15 cf. 1 Chr. 15:27-29; Ps. 149:3; 150:4; Jer. 31:4-7; Lam. 5:14-15; Matt. 11:17; Lk. 15:25




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