How Large was David’s Orchestra?
Music in the contemporary church proceeds with little attention to anything that might be learned from the Bible. Consequently, today’s question is from the Old Testament. How large was the orchestra assembled by King David? Please be reminded that we are assuming 1000 bc or 3000 years ago, long before the era of the development of contemporary musical instruments. Flutes were apparently developed around 900 bc, but most of the instruments of modern orchestration were developed after ad1700.
David, preparing for Solomon’s construction of the temple, anticipated these strategic developments among the Levites under Asaph (the most famous of all ancient musicians), Jeduthun, and Heman. The story unfolds in 1 Chronicles 25. Plans for the building of the temple are adopted, and then individual assignments are given to the Levites. Solomon had available harps, lyres, and other stringed instruments as well as cymbals, trumpets, and perhaps early forms of flutes and horns. While non-musicians can scarcely imagine what these early orchestras produced as sound, to be heard by crowds of 100,000 or more and to support the singing of the Levites, the music must have been a considerable crescendo! Yet, certainly such a pristine orchestra, in order to support and add beauty to the work of the singers, could not have been a cacophonous “bang.” Apparently, some sort of melody and perhaps even harmony was achieved. But, how many were involved in this early attempt at orchestration?
According to 1 Chronicles 25:7, “So the number of them, with their brethren who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, all who were skillful, was two hundred and eighty-eight.” These were under the directorship of Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. These in turn operated directly under “the authority of the king.” David had long since demonstrated his own prowess on the harp and consequently accepted a significant role in the development of this orchestra of 288. A large symphony orchestra today might number as much as 120. Imagine 288!
According to the astonishing text of 1 Chronicles, these instruments were not “noise makers.” They fulfilled a ritual purpose, which is described in two ways. First, they were to focus the worship of the people in “giving thanks and praise to God” (25:3). Second, on three separate occasions, the text speaks of the activity of this choir and orchestra as “prophecy” (25:2).
The use of this word “prophecy” three times in Chapter 25 constitutes an unexpected development in the planned worship of Israel. This first usage reminds the reader that the word “prophecy” actually demonstrates a relatively wide range of use in the Old Testament. The same is true of its New Testament counterpart.
The word is a reference to the act of proclamation (see R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruse Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. II, pp. 544-546). Of all that could be fairly stated about “prophecy,” clearly its origin seems to be divine. The prophet does not speak his own words but the very sentiments of God. These singers and orchestra members functioning under the able hand of Asaph are in some sense speaking for God. Leading in praise and thanksgiving to God, they also teach the truths of God.
This same principle can be observed in individual hymns or songs voiced in the Old Testament. A wonderful example occurs in Exodus 15, a solo apparently sung by Moses following God’s intervention for the people of Israel with the Egyptians. This salient point to be made is that from almost the beginning, God’s people are a “singing” people. The music of the Levites becomes a strategic measure not only in praise and thanksgiving but also in the theological instruction of the people.