Music has always been important to God’s people. Levites played instruments and sang hymns in the Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple anciently. 1 These hymns form part of the biblical book of Psalms, some of which specify which instruments were to be played with the singing. 2 Some Bible scholars believe that some of the untranslated Hebrew terms found in the book of Psalms ( selah being the most common) are musical notations. 3
The Old Testament prophets sometimes prophesied to musical accompaniment (1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Chronicles 25:1, 3) and, in fact, wrote their prophecies in poetic verse. 4 Other biblical books (1-2 Samuel, Lamentations, Proverbs) also contain some poetry, one of which is said to have been sung to commemorate Deborah’s victory over the Canaanites (Judges 5:1-53). 5 Two of Moses’ psalms are recorded in Exodus 15:1-19 and Deuteronomy 32:2-44 (cf. Deuteronomy 31:19-30), and Psalm 90 is also credited to Moses (Psalm 90:1). The psalm in Exodus 15 was sung by Israel to celebrate their deliverance at the hand of the Lord from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, Moses’ sister Miriam was then joined by other Israelite women in singing, dancing, and playing timbrels in praise of the Lord’s actions on that occasion (Exodus 15:20-21).
In Revelation 15:3-4, we read of the heavenly host “And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true [are] thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest” (cf. D&C 133:56).
The songs of ancient Israel were usually in praise of or thanks to the Lord. 6 Such praises were also sung by what King Benjamin and Mormon called “the choirs above” (Mosiah 2:28; Mormon 7:7). Both Lehi and Alma 2 “saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8; Alma 36:22).
Isaiah recorded his vision of “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,” in which the seraphim said to one another, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3; cited in 2 Nephi 16:1-3). In a similar heavenly vision, the apostle John noted that the four beasts surrounding the throne of God “rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8; cf, Luke 2:13-14).
In Jewish liturgy, the Isaiah passage is uttered by the congregation during Kedusha (“blessing”), a prayer said during the cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (also known as the “18 Blessings”). In western Christianity, heavenly song has come to be known as the Sanctus , Latin for “holy,” and has been included in the eastern and western mass for nearly two millennia. It is also known from many other hymns composed during the 17 th through the 20 th centuries.
To play one of the most well known of these, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, click here. 7
Most hymns are based on scriptural passages. When the Church issued a new hymnal in 1985, scriptural references were added to the lower right-hand corner of the page to indicate to which scripture(s) the hymn is related. The lists are not always complete and often they do not include the primary passage from which the words of the hymn derive, but they are useful.
Some hymns were borrowed from other churches, with modifications when in contradiction with LDS beliefs. When Emma Smith compiled the first LDS hymnal in 1835, in compliance with the instructions given her in D&C 25:11, most of the hymns were borrowed from hymnals already in use in other churches, with changes in the wording whenever it disagreed with Latter-day Saint beliefs.
The point is that, when we sing the hymns, we are reciting portions of scriptural passages. So the hymns supplement and reinforce the scriptures. Sometimes, hymns reflect the testimonies of those who wrote them, which suggests that they are, to a certain extent, divinely-inspired. Pages 48-49 of the Kirtland Revelation Book, from which revelations were taken for publication in the Book of Commandments (predecessor to the Doctrine & Covenants), we find recorded the English translation of a hymn “Sang by the gift of Tongues & Translated.”
In the early days of the Church, during testimony meetings, some people sang rather than testifying. I have lived in two wards in which, a couple of times a year on a non-fast day, we had what were called “musical testimonies.” An individual would come to the stand, announce a hymn to be sung by the congregation, and tell how that hymn has strengthened his or her personal testimony. Other occasions on which music plays a major role in many sacrament meetings include Easter, Christmas, and the annual children’s sacrament meeting program.
In July of 1830, the Lord told Emma Smith, “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” I, too, delight in musical prayers to God, and hope that all members of the Church will participate in the singing of the hymns and receive the promised blessing.
For additional information, see Davis Bitton, “What Do Hymns Tell Us?” posted on the Meridian Magazine web site.
1 2 Samuel 6:4-5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; 15:16-24, 27-28; 16:4-6, 39-42; 25:1-7; 2 Chronicles 5:12-13; 7:6; 23:12-13; 29:25-30; 34:12; Ezra 3:10-11; Nehemiah 12:27-29.
2 Psalms 4:1; 5:1; 6:1; 8:1; 9:1; 12:1; 22:1; 33:2; 43:4; 45:1; 46:1; 53:1; 54:1; 55:1; 56:1; 57:1, 8; 58:1; 59:1; 60:1; 61:1; 67:1; 69:1; 71:22; 75:1; 76:1; 80:1; 81:1-3; 84:1; 88:1; 92:3; 108:2; 144:9; 149:3; 150:3-5. See also Exodus 15:20; 1 Chronicles 16:4-10.
3 The Hebrew terms that divide Psalm 119 into sections are actually the names of the letters of the alphabet, in alphabetical order, and denote what were originally considered verses or stanzas.
4 There may be a connection between this and the fact that Jews always chant the scriptures in the synagogue rather than merely reading them. This chanting later influenced Christian liturgy and the chanting of the Qur’an by Muslims. The Massoretes, who added vowel points to the text of the Hebrew Bible, also added markings that have long been held to be musical notations to assist in knowing how to chant the text. However, in the thesis for my second master’s degree (“The Medieval Hebrew Grammarians in the Light of Modern Linguistics,” University of Utah , 1971), I argued that they were really markers of what Noam Chomsky “deep [grammatical] structure.” I spoke personally with Chomsky’s father William, a Hebrew scholar at Dropsie University in Philadelphia , and he confirmed that Noam’s linguistic views were influenced by his study of the Hebrew Bible.
5 For a discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Ancient Israelite Psalters,” in Victor L. Ludlow et al., eds., Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2001). In the same volume, see: Kim M.
Peterson, “Psalms of the Heart, Prayers unto God”; Brian M. Hauglid, “ Temple Images in the Psalms”; Karen Lynn Davidson, “Eliza R. Snow, Psalmist of the Latter Days.” Ten of Eliza R. Snow’s poems appear as hymns in the current (copyright 1985) Latter-day Saint hymnal.
6 See, for example, Exodus 15:20-21; 1 Chronicles 16:4-10; 2 Chronicles 15:14; Psalms 33:1-3; 57:8; 43:4; 68:4; 71:22-23; 81:1-3; 92:1-3; 98:4-6; 108:1-3; 147:7; 149:1-3; 150:1-5. See also Revelation 15:3-4 and D&C 136:28.
7 One of my favorite renditions of a hymn by J. S. Bach was recorded on video by Celtic Woman and can be seen and heard by clicking here.
8 The selection is from the CD “Michael Ballam: Beloved Songs of Faith, with the 85-Piece Mormon Youth Symphony,” issued in 1993 by Covenant Communications, Inc.