Exodus 19:13, 16, 19, 20:18
16 And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
19 And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.
20:18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
(bold letter emphasis mine)
What we can learn
In this portion of Scripture, God presents the Ten Commandments to Moses and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. The emphasis of this passage is definitely not on the "music" that is happening, but on the message that God was sending to the Israelites. So I want to be careful not to derive anything from this passage that is not intended. However, I believe we can see several principles:
1. God sends clear signals
God made sure that the children of Israel heard the sound of the trumpet loud and clear. In the narrative of these events, the words and phrases used to describe the trumpet sound are "long," "exceeding loud," and a "noise of the trumpet" heard in conjuction with "thunderings and lightnings." It was impossible for the children of Israel not to hear the trumpet sound that God sent out. When the time came to act, God gave Israel a signal that rang out so that everyone could hear. The overriding principle is this: God does not give vague directions. Some people feel that God is somehow mystical and far away, but in reality God does not desire to be distant from His children. He is separate and distinct from His creation, yes; but the Lord always gives clear direction, primarily through His spoken and written word.
2. God is powerful
The Israelites saw God's power on display at Mount Sinai. After the exceedingly loud trumpet sound, the Bible says that "all the people that was in the camp trembled." I'm sure that our response would have been the same had we been there. A God that is powerful enough to create the universe in which we live, give life to all living things, and hold it all together by the word of His power; this is a God to be held in respect and awe. The purpose of this fear is not that we should draw back from God's presence (Exodus 20:18-19), but that we should live a holy life and put away sinful behavior (Exodus 20:20).
3. Musical sound (even without words) can send a message
God could have chosen to simply speak the words of the Ten Commandments, or just write them. But instead, He chose to also use visual and aural effects as well. This promoted the right attitude of fear and respect in the hearts of the people. Music and sound affect us in ways that are instantaneous. We don't have to process them logically, but simply emotionally. As great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said in his book, The Joy of Music, "You see, music is something terribly special. It doesn’t have to pass through the censor of the brain before it can reach the heart. It goes directly to the heart. You don’t have to screen it, as you do words in a play. An f-sharp doesn’t have to be considered in the mind: it is a direct hit, and therefore, all the more powerful." God, as the Author of music, knows what great impact music can have on the human mind and heart. The more we as musicians realize that truth and take steps to learn how to use it, the more effective our music will be in communicating, clearly and powerfully, the message we seek to deliver.
What are your thoughts about these verses? Join in the conversation in the comments below.
P.S. One tool that I have been using to locate verses in the Bible about music is the Biblical Music Concordance, put out by Majesty Music. It is a great piece of reference material for church musicians.