First Samuel 16 reveals several truths that are lacking in the theology of music of many believers today. Because the Holy Spirit has inspired this passage of Scripture to profit us so that we will be thoroughly equipped to do every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17), we must give close attention to this passage if we are to have a sound theology of music.
Godly music is not just about words that are sung
After informing us that the Spirit was on David from the day that Samuel anointed him (1 Sam. 16:13), First Samuel 16:14-23 immediately thereafter provides us with a lengthy report of how David’s skillfully playing the harp relieved Saul from terrible affliction:
1Sa 16:14 But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
15 And Saul’s servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee.
16 Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.
17 And Saul said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.
18 Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.
19 Wherefore Saul sent messengers unto Jesse, and said, Send me David thy son . . .
23 And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (bold added to the original)
The flow of thought from 1 Samuel 16:13 to this passage shows that the passage is not merely stressing that a skillful harp player profited Saul, but that a Spirit-empowered skillful harp player did so (cf. “the Lord was with him” [16:18]). We know, therefore, that the skillful music that David was playing was not merely humanly produced instrumental music—it was divinely empowered instrumental music and therefore godly music.
Moreover, this passage speaks only of David’s skillfully playing the harp and does not say anything about his singing to Saul. In fact, five explicit references to the playing of a musical instrument (1 Sam. 16:16 [2x]; 17; 18; 23) show incontestably that God is emphasizing instrumental music—apart from any words— in this passage.
The passage thus stresses to us that David’s ministry of that solely instrumental music that was Spirit-empowered powerfully benefited Saul for good (1 Sam. 16:23). A sound theology of music, therefore, must account fully for the teaching of this passage that shows that godly music without words had powerful effects for good.
Godly music is not just about humans
An evil spirit was plaguing Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). To relieve him of his affliction that was caused by that spirit, his servants advised him with confidence that his availing himself of certain skillfully played instrumental music would make him well (1 Sam. 16:15-16).
Just as they had said, Saul’s receiving such ministry did refresh him and make him well (1 Sam. 16:23). David’s instrumental music did so because it had a profound spiritual effect of delivering him from the supernatural cause of his affliction—“the evil spirit departed from him” (1 Sam. 16:23)!
This passage shows that godly instrumental music drove away an evil spirit that was afflicting Saul. David’s godly instrumental music, therefore, not only had a beneficial spiritual effect on Saul—it also had a powerful spiritual effect on an evil spirit!
We must learn, therefore, that godly music without any words does not just affect humans; it also has effects on evil supernatural spirit beings. Although we should expect unbelievers to deny any such aspect of music and hold that music is only about humans, believers cannot and must not deny that godly instrumental music is not just about humans.
Godly music is not just about emotions
This passage shows that godly instrumental music ministered by a believer who had the Spirit upon him (1 Sam. 16:13) did not just profit Saul by changing his emotional state. Although it did benefit him emotionally, the instrumental music also profited him spiritually by driving away an evil spirit that was afflicting him!
We, therefore, must not make the serious mistake of restricting our understanding of godly instrumental music to its emotional effects on humans. Although the emotional effects of music on humans are very important, godly instrumental music has spiritual effects that go far beyond the effects that it has on the emotions of the hearer.
A theology of music that understands that godly music must have lyrics for it to benefit other believers spiritually is an unbiblical theology. Rather, believers must hold that godly instrumental music also profits believers not just emotionally but also spiritually, including helping to relieve them from any oppression by evil spirits that they may be experiencing.
In the debates about what music and musical styles are fitting for believers, believers must not just talk about how various pieces and styles of music affect human emotions. They must also keep in mind that instrumental music has spiritual effects on both humans and supernatural beings.
Furthermore, demanding that people explain in detail how such spiritual effects are specifically mediated by specifics about how the godly instrumental music is played is an unbiblical insistence. God has not given us detailed explanations about how godly instrumental music influences the spiritual realm, and many such things may very likely be entirely beyond human comprehension (cf. John 3:8).
Simply because we cannot explain how godly instrumental music affects supernatural beings does not justify our denying that it does. The revelation given in First Samuel 16:14-23 demands that we accept what God teaches about the spiritual effects of godly instrumental music whether we can explain them or not.
A sound theology of music must reflect fully the important divine revelation provided about music in 1 Samuel 16:14-23. God teaches us through this passage that a sound theology of music understands that not only is godly music not just about words that are sung, it also is not just about humans and their emotions.