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A Biblical Theology of Music (part three)

Excerpt from my doctoral dissertation on the Theology of Music, written at Dallas Theological Seminary 2011.


Theological Importance of Art

The second element for a biblical theology of music is to recognize what the Bible says about art as a whole. One of the key passages on which to build a theology of music is a passage that does not deal with music at all. Rather, it deals with architectural art. God called and gifted two men to become leading artists in the construction of the tabernacle (Exod 31). Though these men were called in the visual arts to build the tabernacle, their example applies to all artists to recognize their artistic abilities as God’s call and gifting. The tabernacle was God’s earthly dwelling place, and this work had to be done skillfully (Exod 26:1, 28:3; cf. 25:9, 18, 31-33, 40). Schaeffer comments, “The implication is that there is freedom to make something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from it and it too can be brought into the presence of God.”[1]

Bezalel and Oholiab

To complete the tabernacle God called two men—Bezalel and Oholiab (Exod 31:1-3, 6). Bezalel means “in the shadow of God,” and is a good name for an artist working under divine direction and following a divine pattern, with God as the leading Architect and Artist of the Tabernacle. 1 Chronicles 2:19 describes him as a descendant of Caleb. Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, means “my tent is the Father-God,” and explains what the Tabernacle was designed to show, namely, that God is the shelter of his people. They were artists who were called and gifted to use their art in their own vocation by using the material God gave them (Exod 31:3).

Their calling was not a general call but a specific call for a specific work. They were called by name for a work that was reflected in their names. They were God’s personal choice for this work. A true artist knows how to combine all given elements together to create beautiful art. They were gifted with “wisdom, understanding, knowledge, all kinds of craftsmanship and skill.” Taken together they were thinking with their minds, feeling in their hearts and making with their hands (see Exod 3:6b-11).

Furthermore, God “filled them with the Spirit” to do the work (Exod 31:3).[2] This context seems to mean that they were equipped to fulfill the particular task to which they were called. The expression “filled with the Spirit” appears in 28:3; 35:1; Deuteronomy 34:9 and Micah 3:8, each time with the idea of God fitting the person for a task that serves the well-being of God’s people.[3]

This passage also teaches that God loves a variety of arts. God filled them with his Spirit to do all kinds of art (Exod 31:3-5). Philip Ryken notes, “Bezalel was able to work in a wide variety of artistic media…with the talent to work at ‘all kinds of craftsmanship.’ Oholiab was equally versatile…as he served as ‘a craftsman and designer, and an embroiderer in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen’ (Exod 38:23).”[4]

God encourages all kinds of arts to flourish in all their potential. He gives artists freedom and inspiration to use his sanctified imagination and create out of the material provided so they will “discover the inherent possibilities of creation and thereby come to a deeper knowledge of our Creator.”[5] This passage teaches that artists are called and gifted, personally, by name, to do all kinds of art—to write, draw, act, paint, build, sing, play, perform and dance to the glory of God according to their imagination.

Important lessons

Important lessons from this passage can be used to formulate a biblical theology of music.

First, a musician needs to know that his call and gift come from God as Creator. Exodus 31:1 reveals God saying to Moses, “See, I have called by name…” This is a specific calling out from among others for a specific task. Ryken argues that to know whether one knows he is called to be an artist or not, he must have passion for the holy desires of his heart that come from God. But passion alone is not sufficient. An artist must also be strongly gifted. Like Bezalel and Oholiab in building the Tabernacle the artist must “have been given ability” from God and be “willing to come and do the work” (Exod 36:2). Ryken continues, “The most reliable way to discern one’s calling is to submit to the judgment of experts. As a matter of good stewardship, Christians who practice one or more of the fine arts should strive to make an accurate assessment of their artistic abilities and to develop their skill accordingly. The gift of someone who is truly gifted will be confirmed by those who are qualified to know. This call should then be pursued, no matter what sacrifices are required” (Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 25-26).

The text states that God gifted Bezalel and Oholiab as artists. God seemed to have given this gifting to them at birth, and God directed their path towards this specific task to build the tabernacle. Everything they had done artistically up to this point was a preparation for this magnificent work. And as they were filled with the Spirit their artistic gifts were brought into new spiritual dimensions. John Durham says Bezalel was “specially endowed for his assignment by an infilling of the divine spirit, which adds to his native ability three qualities that suit him ideally for the task at hand: wisdom, the gift to understand what is needed to fulfill Yahweh’s instructions; discernment, the talent for solving the inevitable problems involved in the creation of so complex a series of objects and materials; and skill, the experienced hand needed to guide and accomplish the labor itself” (John I. Durham, “Exodus,” Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1987], 410, quoted by Ryken, Art for God’s sake, 20).

Gene Edward Veith argues further, “Skill’ must refer to the artist’s innate talent, described here as a gift of God. ‘Intelligence’ underscores that a true artist not only works with his hands but with his mind, in contrast to current views that consider artistic inspiration to be non-rational or even anti-rational. ‘Knowledge’ as a gift for the arts means that artists must know things, from the properties of their materials to the ideas that their art can convey. ‘Craftsmanship’ refers to the artist’s technique, the difference between a work of any kind being poorly executed or well-made” (Gene Edward Veith, “Stealing Beauty,” World, March 20, 2004, 37, quoted by Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 20-21). God has created, called and given the gifts to create (Gen 1-2).

Second, God loves creativity and has created creative beings.

Third, God uses all kinds of music and gives aesthetic freedom. The text says that God gave them gifts to create “all kinds” of art (Exod 31:3-5, see also 38:23). To view the list that summarizes the materials and work that went into the tabernacle, see Exod 31:6b-11. When this is applied to music, God is not limited to one or two kinds, but he is infinite in his taste and choice of music.

Fourth, God maintains high aesthetic standards for music. God gave the artists aesthetic freedom. God gave Moses plenty of instructions as to how to build the tabernacle. Yet, he left many things unspecified. These things were left up to the artist’s sanctified imaginations as expressed both in symbolic, representational and nonrepresentational or abstract art. This is why it is not known exactly what the tabernacle looked like. God says Bezalel and Oholiab were to build and create “according to all that I have commanded you” (Exod 31:11).

Every musician is to reflect God’s character through his music. Character refers to all the expressions that reveal who God is and how he relates to his creation and created beings—especially human beings. God’s character is seen in his holiness, goodness, love, grace and wrath, and God’s creating, leading, judging and redeeming show his character as well.

This project uses goodness, truth, beauty, freedom (or liberty) and hope in relation to music as a vehicle to show God’s character. A study of God’s character is beyond the purposes of this dissertation. However, for the purposes of music, musicians are to show God’s character:

Goodness – Any piece of art or any composition of music should be of good quality. In Philippians 4:9-10, Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to be characterized by qualities that reveal God’s character and attributes. Ryken comments, “Goodness is both an ethical and an aesthetic standard. Bezalel and Oholiab were not allowed to make anything that violated the Ten Commandments—especially the second commandment, which outlawed idolatrous images of the divine being, or any other form of false worship (Exod 20:4-5). Similarly, Christian artists should not make anything that is immoral or that is designed to serve as an object of religious worship. But goodness is also an aesthetic category. Israel’s artists were called to make good art—art that was excellent, art that demonstrated mastery of technique in a particular artistic discipline…(Exod 31:11)…God’s careful instructions for building the tabernacle shows that his perfection sets the standard for whatever is created in his name. In the visual arts and all the arts should be made as perfect as possible, offering God the very best” (see Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 37-38). See also Psalm 107:1 and 119:68.

Truth – Art and music should show truth as it really is. Ryken comments, “Art is the incarnation of truth because art penetrates the surface of things to portray them as they really are…Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience—it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ” (Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 39-40). Truth expressed through the arts will indeed set people free (John 8:32, 36; Isa 45:19; 1 Thess 1:9).

Beauty – In general art should be beautiful and all music should be sweet. God’s passion for beauty is seen in his magnificent creation of the galaxies and universe. Form or construction on its own is not enough for God. He wants it to be beautiful as well. This is seen in the construction of the tabernacle. Ryken comments, “There was beauty in the color of its fabrics, the sparkle of its gems, the shape of its objects, and the symmetry of its propositions. The tabernacle was a thing of beauty” (Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 42). In the construction of the temple art was created with no utilitarian purpose but for the expression of what God deemed beautiful (2 Chron 3:6; see also Ps 27:4).

Freedom – Freedom is an essential character of the life of the musician—both to have freedom to create and to convey freedom to his hearers. His music should inspire others to live freely and encounter the liberty God has given them in their lives (see Gal 5:1).

Hope – Hope is revealed throughout Scripture to encourage God’s people to await his coming to establish righteousness and peace (Rev 19). Music and art give hope. Ryken says, “Christian art is redemptive, and this is its highest purpose. Art is always an interpretation of reality, and the Christian should interpret reality in its total aspect, including the hope that has come into the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather than giving in to meaninglessness and despair, Christian artists know that there is a way out. Thus they create images of grace, awakening a desire for the new heavens and the new earth by anticipating the possibilities of redemption in Christ” (Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 41). This is the way music and musicians are to show God’s character through their music.[6]

The flipside

The flipside of this principle is that exposing the antithesis thereof is one way to reflect God’s character. One of the responsibilities musicians have as followers of Christ is to point to the darkness and lostness of this world to help people to feel, taste, hear, smell and see their darkness and lostness. Goodness, truth, beauty, freedom and hope are not seen in much art in this world and by exposing evil, falsehood, ugliness, slavery and hopelessness, Christian musicians have a great opportunity to engage their culture to represent God’s character.

Schaeffer argues that the Christian worldview can be divided into major and minor themes. By the minor theme he means first, the abnormality of the revolting world where man has revolted from God and not come back to Christ and are eternally lost, and, second, that there is a defeated and sinful side to the Christian’s life he or she must live with until the day of redemption. By the major theme he means that, from the Christian’s standpoint, there is meaningfulness and purposefulness of life which rests on the existence of the infinite, personal God who has a character and who has created all things. Schaeffer argues further that Christians and their art have a place for the minor theme because man is lost and abnormal and Christians have their own defeatedness. There is not only victory and song in the Christian’s life.

Kinds of art

However, Christians go on to the major theme because there is an optimistic answer. This is important for the kind of art Christians are to produce. First, Christian artists need to recognize the minor theme, the defeated aspect to even the Christian life (thus the antithesis). If Christian art only emphasizes the major theme, then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art. And years of Sunday school literature have been romantic in art and have had little to do with genuine Christian art. On the other hand, it is possible for a Christian to major on the minor theme, emphasizing the lostness of man and the abnormality of the universe; these Christians are equally unbiblical. There may be exceptions where Christian artists feel it their calling only to picture the negative, but in general for the Christian, the major theme should be dominant—though it must exist in relationship to the minor“ (Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, 83-86). Ryken argues further, “Modern and postmodern art often claims to tell the truth about the pain and absurdity of human existence, but that is only part of the story. The Christian approach to the human condition is more complete, and for that reason more hopeful (and ultimately more truthful).

Christian artists celebrate the essential goodness of the world that God has made, being true to what is there. Such celebration is not a form of naïve idealism, but of healthy realism. At the same time, Christian artists also lament the ugly intrusion of evil into a world that is warped by sin, mourning the lost beauties of a fallen paradise. When Christian art portrays the sufferings of fallen humanity, it should do so with a tragic sensibility, as in the paintings of Rembrandt. There is a sense not only of what we are, but also of what we were: creatures made to be like God” (Ryken, Art for God’s Sake, 40-41).

Fifth, music is for the glory and pleasure of God.[7] Music is not for music’s sake but for God’s sake. Music has intrinsic worth in and of itself apart from any utility,[8] but if the purpose of music is to reveal the character of God, music in and of it self cannot feed the mind or nourish the soul. The motive of the Christian musician should be to give God the glory and honor in his overall work in music.

Sixth, the final lesson drawn from this text is that music is for the edification and enjoyment of man. God’s people found great joy and enthusiasm in building the tabernacle (Exod 35:30-36:1). Actually, the people were so excited that they brought more materials than were needed—so much so that Moses had to command the people not to bring more because “the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more” (Exod 36:2-7). Furthermore, as it became God’s dwelling place among his people for generations, the building as a piece of art was highly valued.

Some Christians might oppose this principle based on their understanding of the second commandment that forbids all “graven images” (Exod 20:2-4). They say that all art is forbidden because God says, “No graven images.” Music can become a “graven image,” they say. Schaeffer answers this statement by observing Exodus 20:2-4 together with Leviticus 26:1. In both of these passages the key words, “bow down unto it” occur. He therefore concludes, “This passage does not forbid the making of representational art but rather the worship of it. Only God is to be worshiped. Thus the commandment is not against making art but against worshiping anything other than God and specifically against worshiping art. To worship art is wrong, but to make art is not.”[9]

Musicians must fight against the temptation to worship their music by succumbing to pride and a longing for recognition. Often best intentions steal worship from God. It is easy to forget the Giver and become worshipers of the gift. Therefore, musicians must always keep in mind the lessons from Exodus 31 and remember from where their musical ability comes.


[1] Schaeffer, Art in the Bible, 24.

[2] This is the first time “the filling of the Spirit” is mentioned in the Bible and therefore teaches something about the importance of the arts and artists as carriers of God’s purposes for aesthetic beauty (see notes on Aesthetic beauty).

[3] In the New Testament the “filling of the Spirit” is more connected to the continual indwelling of the Spirit in a Christian’s life for empowering him to witness, use his gifts, and to walk with Christ (Luke 1:15, 41; 4:19; Acts 1:8; 2:4; Eph 5:18).

[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Art for God’s sake: A call to recover the Arts (Phillsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 29-30. This book has been helpful for inspiration for the construction of a biblical theology of music.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] The reason for the choice of these characteristics of God is revealed in hypothesis 3.

[7] God loves to see his creatures enjoy themselves in the gifts he has given to them (see Song 5:2 where God says, “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!”)

[8] Some of the artistry in the tabernacle and in the temple was decorative and when scholars try to find spiritual meaning for every detail, they miss the point. Much art is for man to enjoy even though every detail does not have a spiritual meaning, but in the overall work and attitude of the artist, God gets the glory.

[9] Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, 20.

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