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Instrumental Music in the Bible

Among instruments of music used by the Hebrews, a principal place is given to stringed instruments.

Stringed instruments

  1. The kinnor, the “harp

  2. The nebel, “a skin bottle,” rendered “psaltery

  3. The sabbeka, or “sackbut,” a lute or lyre

  4. The gittith, occurring in the title of Psalms 8; 81; 84

  5. Minnim (Psalms 150:4), rendered “stringed instruments;” in Psalms 45:8, in the form minni, probably the apocopated (i.e., shortened) plural, rendered, King James Version, “whereby,” and in the Revised King James Version “stringed instruments.”

  6. Machalath, in the titles of Psalms 53 and 88; supposed to be a kind of lute or guitar

Wind instruments

  1. The 'ugab (Genesis 4:21; Job 21:12; 30:31), probably the so-called Pan's pipes or syrinx.

  2. The qeren or “horn” (Joshua 6:5; 1 Chronicles 25:5).

  3. The shophar, rendered “trumpet” (Joshua 6:4, 6, 8). The word means “bright,” and may have been so called from the clear, shrill sound it emitted. It was often used (Exodus 19:13; Numbers 10:10; Judges 7:16, 18; 1 Samuel 13:3).

  4. The hatsotserah, or straight trumpet (Psalms 98:6; Numbers 10:1-10). This name is supposed by some to be an onomatopoetic word, intended to imitate the pulse-like sound of the trumpet, like the Latin taratantara. Some have identified it with the modern trombone.

  5. The halil, i.e, “bored through,” a flute or pipe (1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Kings 1:40; Isaiah 5:12; Jeremiah 48:36) which is still used in Israel.

  6. The sumponyah, rendered “dulcimer” (Dan. 3:5), probably a sort of bagpipe.

  7. The maskrokith'a (Dan. 3:5), rendered “flute,” but its precise nature is unknown.

Percussion instruments

  1. The toph, an instrument of the drum kind, rendered “timbrel” (Exodus 15:20; Job 21:12; Psalms 68:25); also “tabret” (Genesis 31:27; Isaiah 24:8; 1 Samuel 10:5).

  2. The paamon, the “bells” on the robe of the high priest (Exodus 28:33; 39:25).

  3. The tseltselim, “cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5; Psalms 150:5), which are struck together and produce a loud, clanging sound. Metsilloth, “bells” on horses and camels for ornament, and metsiltayim, “cymbals” (1 Chronicles 13:8; Ezra 3:10, etc.). These words are all derived from the same root, tsalal, meaning “to tinkle.”

  4. The menaan'im, used only in 2 Samuel 6:5, rendered “cornets” (Revised King James Version, “castanets”); in the Vulgate, “sistra,” an instrument of agitation.

  5. The shalishim, mentioned only in 1 Samuel 18:6, rendered “instruments of music” (marginal note of Revised King James Version, “triangles or three-stringed instruments”).

About the “musical instruments” reference in Ecclesiastes 2:8

The King James Bible says,

I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. —Eccl. 2:8 KJV

The singers referred to here are not the choir of the temple. Women were not part of that. Music was used at banquest and festivals to enhance their pleasure. These type of musicians and singers are mentioned in David’s time and later (2 Samuel 19:35; Isaiah 5:12; Amos 6:5).

“The females who took part in these performances were generally of an abandoned class; hence the, warning of Ben-Sira, [in the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus verse 9:4] “Use not much the company of a woman that is a singer, lest thou be taken with her attempts”… Such exhibitions were usually accompanied with dancing, the character of which in Eastern countries is well known. The Jews, as time went on, learned to tolerate many customs and practices, imported often from other lands, which tended to lower morality and self-respect.” —Pulpit Commentary

Note: The words “of all sorts” are not in the Hebrew text. They “are intended as an equivalent for a Hebrew idiom, in which a plural is intensified by prefixing a noun in the singular.”

The New King James Version sticks with the same sense.

…I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. —NKJV

However, the translation of the 2nd sentence’s last portion is disputed.

The original words were written by King Solomon, who in his book of Ecclesiastes is listing all the sensual pleasures that men enjoy that he had provided for himself, and how, in the end, he understood the vanity of striving after pleasure and wealth. The Hebrew text (Aleppo Codex) for this sententce is…

כנסתי לי גם כסף וזהב וסגלת מלכים והמדינות עשיתי לי שרים ושרות ותענגות בני האדם שדה ושדות

The meaning of one ancient 3-letter word here is unknown. That is the word שדה or שִׁדָּה (transliterated: shiddah). This is the only time this word appears in the entire Bible. So context comparison is not a possibility.

However, the first 2 letters do have a clearly known meaning and occur 24 times in Scripture.

שַׁד (transliteration: shad) = breast(s)

Solomon uses that word multiple times in his Song of Solomon, where it clearly refers to a woman’s breasts. Put that together with the euphemistic words the DELIGHTS of MEN, and the fact that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and a defensible assumption can be made about what Solomon is alluding to here.

The widely respected Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon concludes the word shiddah means concubine, wife or harem—unless it had some other meaning (unknown to us) at the time of King Solomon, who wrote this.

This harem interpretation makes great sense here, since otherwise Solomon fails to include it in his list of prodigal pursuits. It fits naturally as “the climax and completion of his pursuit of earthly” delights. After the things mentioned previously in Ecclesiastes, one would expect at least some mention of Solomon’s harem of 1,000 women (1 Kings 11:3; Song of Solomon 6:8).

Here is how various other translators have handled this sentence. Most believe Solomon is referring to his huge harem.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): …I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

English Standard Version (ESV): I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

Holman Christian Standard Version: …I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men.

…I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. —New International Version (NIV)

I got me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the children of men, a wife and concubines. —Darby Bible Translation

…I prepared for me men-singers and women-singers, and the luxuries of the sons of man—a wife and wives. —Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)

The Pulpit Commentary supports the harem interpretation and says the King James translation here “is not very probable, though somewhat supported by Kimchi, Luther, etc., and the Greek Venetian, which has, δύδτημα καὶ συστήματα, a musical term signifying ‘combination of tones,’ or harmony.”

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Article Version: September 28, 2017