The harp is best known as the instrument that David played, specifically for the soothing and calming effect of its music on Saul’s troubled nerves and conscience. It was suggested to Saul: “Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well… And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (1 Sam. 16:16,23).
It appears the harp was small and light enough to be carried about, as the instru- mentalist could play it and sing at the same time. This can be concluded from 1 Samuel 10:5: “Thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with… a harp, before them.” Also Isaiah 23:16: “Take an harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered.”
The harp was used in both secular and sacred rejoicing. The only reference to its use other than in cheerfulness or praise is in Job. “My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep” (Job 30:31). In almost all other Bible quotations where the harp is mentioned there is either merrymaking or thanksgiving. The following quote is typical of its 13 occurrences in the Psalms:
“Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; It is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the LORD with the harp”
(Psalm 33:1,2, NIV)
Harps contributed to the selfish carousing of the wicked: “And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands” (Isa. 5:12; see also Job 21:12).
When joy ceased, the harp was silent: “For thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar King of Babylon… And they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses… And I will cause the noise of
thy songs to cease; and the sound of thy harps shall be no more heard” (Ezek. 26:7,12,13; see Isa. 24:8).
David danced before the Lord to its music: “And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps…” (1 Chron. 13:8; see also 1 Chron. 15:28). David also arranged for its use in regular worship: “Moreover David and the captains of the host separated to the service of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps…” (1 Chron. 25:1; see also 1 Chron. 16:5; 15:3,6).
The kings Solomon, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah also used the harp in worship and praise of God (2 Chron. 5:12; 20:28; 29:25). When the children of Israel returned from exile, at the dedication of the wall under Nehemiah, the harp and other instru- ments were used to express thanksgiving and gladness: “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (Neh. 12:27).
Most of the references in the Old Testament to stringed instruments involve only two Hebrew words. “Kinnor” is almost always translated “harp”, while “nebel” is rendered “viol” or “psaltery” in the Authorized Version but “lyre” or occasionally “lute” in modern versions. The distinction between them is not certain but was probably as follows:
Both instruments consisted of a set of strings stretched over a wooden frame, which vibrated when plucked. The harp was triangular in shape and each string produced only one note. The lyre was roughly rectangular and the strings differed in thickness and tension and were stopped to give different notes. Often the lyre was played with a plectrum1 while the harp strings were plucked with the fingers. In very early times the strings were of twisted grass. Later they consisted of strips of sheep gut.
Harps and lyres are both seen in paintings and carvings from ancient Egypt, Greece and Assyria. The oldest actual specimens of musical instruments from Bible times are four lyres found at Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley. There also exists an ivory carving from the Canaanite city of Megiddo showing a woman playing a nine-stringed lyre.
In Bible times the Canaanites were celebrated for the superiority of their musi- cianship. The people of Canaan had a higher standard of material culture than the Israelites, and that is one reason why their way of life presented such temptations to the people of God.
In the book of Revelation various groups are described as holding harps and sing- ing praises to God: “And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song…” (Rev. 5:8). “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps…” (Rev. 14:2). “And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire:
and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God” (Rev. 15:2).2 The association of harps in these Revelation passages with thanksgiving, praise and rejoicing fittingly represents the immense, unparal- leled and indescribable joy of the Kingdom of God.
Bob Burr (Barnt Green, Birmingham, UK)
1. A plectrum is a piece of some material such as horn, tortoise shell, quill, or ivory used to pluck a stringed instrument (The Harvard Dictionary of Music, Dan Randel).
2. There is one other reference to harpers in Revelation 18:22. This verse refers not to the harp ac- companying praise and rejoicing, but to the sound of the harp being silenced.