King David, the Temple, and the Halleluyah Chorus

By Spero, Shubert | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

King David, the Temple, and the Halleluyah Chorus


Spero, Shubert, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The daring concept that it is appropriate for God to be worshipped regularly by freshly composed songs of praise, accompanied by musical instruments as an independent ritual, was first conceived and put into practice by David, son of Jesse, King of the United Monarchy of Israel (1010-970 B.C.E.), "the sweet-singer of Israel,"(1) long before the Temple was built by his son, Solomon. According to the Book of Chronicles, David had organized and trained certain families among the Levites to be proficient in this type of worship.(2) This was continued by Ezra and Nehemiah at the beginning of the Second Temple period. As the Temple took on greater prominence under the Macabees, the singing and playing of the Levites began to be seen simply as an accompaniment of the public sacrifices. Ultimately, however, the singing of praises to the Lord received its due recognition as an independent form of worship when the Rabbis included it as a major component of the synagogue service.

It is of course quite clear from the history of ancient religions that praise of the gods in the form of chants was used very early in religious rites but was seen primarily as incantations whose sounds were believed to have magical effects.(3) Likewise, music and singing often accompanied religious processionals and cult practices since the effects of different types of music on the human spirit ranging from the therapeutic and the elegiac to the Dionysian are well known.(4) We can also assume that petitionary prayer by individuals found expression as needed and were offered at local shrines. There are several instances in the Bible of spontaneous prayers by individuals in the form of supplications and of songs of thanksgiving celebrating personal or national salvation beginning with Hannah.(5) In the regular Temple service sin-offerings were accompanied by prayers for forgiveness and confessionals.(6)

However, it is important that we distinguish between prayer understood primarily as petition, and praise, although both are elemental and protean forms of the human response to God.(7) Petitionary prayer is based upon need and originates in fear and anxiety. It is an attempt to persuade God to do something: to save, to heal, to provide some lack, to remove some threat. Its religious value lies in its being an acknowledgment of our total dependence upon God. Praise expresses the soul's deep and immediate apprehension of the numinous. It is an expression of adoration: love, joy, and delight in the power and goodness of God and, as such, may be judged a more pure form of worship.(8)

To the outsider, cultic forms of worship appear as a "transaction," motivated by mutual self-interest. Men give the gods that which they want and need and in return the gods grant men what they want and need.(9) Indeed, originally even praise of the gods may have been seen as a form of flattery designed to put the gods in the mood to grant one's prayers. However, in Judaism the sheer otherness of the Creator God, His total incommensurability with human language and experience, rendered the notion of his susceptibility to human flattery absurd. Nevertheless, as he experiences God's goodness and salvation, the human being has no other means of expressing wonder, love, and gratitude other than in human language of praise and adoration. The ultimate purpose of praise of the Lord is to have an effect on humanity itself. "They shall speak of the glory of Thy kingdom/And talk of Thy might;/To make known to the sons of man His mighty acts" (Psalms 145:11,12).

It was the inspired insight of David to recognize in the depth of his own experience an authentic communion with the transcendent, and in his own poetic response (and in others like it) an offering worthy of being presented before the Lord. In realizing that God wished to be known by His creatures and, in being known, to be loved and adored, David was anticipating the essential thrust of prophetic religion. …

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