The title for this article is taken from Hymn 75, verse 3, in the green hymnbook. It is based on the beautiful, inclusive sources of praise to God outlined in Psalm 150.
“O praise ye the Lord!
All things that give sound;
Each jubilant chord,
Loud organs, His glory
Forth tell in deep tone,
And, sweet harp, the story
Of what He hath done.”
The words of Hymn 75 mention the various means by which God is praised. He is praised by angels, by human voices, by everything that gives sound in His creation, by the instruments of organ and harp. By such varied means God has been praised throughout the ages and is still praised today.
The organ is discussed specifically in the following paragraphs.
The organ, as we know it, was unknown in Old Testament times. The word “organ” is used three times in the Bible in the King James Version.
“And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (Gen 4:21).
“They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ” (Job 21:12).
“My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep” (Job 30:31).
These same three quotations, taken from the NIV, read:
“His brother’s names was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21).
“They sing to the music of tambourine and harp; they make merry to the sound of the flute” (Job 21:12).
“My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing” (Job 30:31).
The plural “organs” is used once in the Bible in the King James Version.
“Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psa 150:4).
The word organ is translated “flute” or “pipe” in modern versions (like the NIV quoted above). The word “organ” was derived from the Vulgate Latin “organum”, meaning the syrinx or pan pipes. This ancient instrument consisted of a series of wooden whistles, graduated in size to give the pitches of the different notes. It was held in front of the mouth, and the player blew across the open ends.
However, the instrument used by the ancient Hebrews was more likely to have been an “aulos”, since this was the principal wind instrument of most ancient Middle Eastern peoples. This was a single or double-reed pipe played in pairs. The two pipes, which were made of cane, wood or metal, were held one in each hand and sounded simultaneously. The pipes were equal in length and had three or four finger holes. The aulos is depicted in carvings and paintings from ancient Greece and Rome.
The earliest true organ was the hydraulus or water organ. It was introduced by Ctesibius the Egyptian about 250 BC, and remained in wide use over a long period. In general appearance it resembled a small pipe organ of today. It had a keyboard with wide keys, each operating on a slider under the relevant pipe. Wind was supplied to the pipes by hydraulic means. According to old records the tone of such instruments was enormously powerful. It is even stated that the sound carried for 60 miles and that the players had to plug their ears! Such organs were used in the open, at gladiatorial shows and other events.
The Emperor Nero was a notable organist. We can readily imagine that, if Christians in the arena were hacked to pieces to the sound of organ music, they would not easily take to it for worship.
It was probably poverty as well as repugnance — due to its associations and its use by unsavory individuals — that deterred the Christian community for a long time from using the organ in worship.
In more recent times the use of the organ for worship occasioned much controversy. It was fully accepted by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, but not by Calvinists and others. By the early 19th century congregational singing with instrumental accompaniment (bass, viols, flutes, fiddles, etc.) was widespread. The standards of competence of the musicians involved often left much to be desired, but attempts to introduce the use of the organ resulted in furious controversy. It was considered to be too much like Rome!
It is very interesting to see how acceptable means of worship with music and instruments has changed over the centuries. Today in our ecclesias the organ (or various types of keyboards) are generally used for accompaniment in worship and praise of God and His Son, and to encourage one another in our spiritual walk. Some ecclesias use both a piano and organ together to accompany hymns. Some ecclesias have also used the violin, flute, bass, and guitar to provide musical accompaniment.
As the times change, so do preferences and views on what are appropriate and acceptable musical instruments to use in worship. May our Heavenly Father be glorified in all ways and accept our various musical expressions of praise and thanksgiving.
Revisions by Joan and Ken Curry