Exegesis and Application
Everywhere and at all times were song and music to be found in the biblical Israel. Marriage ceremonies took place amid festive choruses with music and dancing. The sheep were sheared and the grapes, nuts and figs were harvested to songs of joy and thanksgiving accompanied by instrumental music. Of course, public worship included music, but my focus is on the musical life of common, everyday activities and concerns of God’s children. My interest is on the sentimental ballads composed and sung by our spiritual ancestors. The biblical Israelite songbook was a foreshadowing of the popular songs of 20th century America.
The Scriptures teach that music is to convey the range of emotions from joy and sorrow, hope and fear, exhaustion and rest – every shade and variety of sentiment associated with work and play, success and failure, birth and death, wonder and despair. Thus we can rightly assume that melodies and verses were composed by the sons of Adam to express all the diverse human attitudes and feelings. The point being that singing for the Israeli man or woman was both sacred and secular, religious and earthy, profound and profane, mundane and magnificent. For the Israelite, music was part of life. It was interwoven with the fabric of community living, playing a huge range of social roles. Songs were embedded in practical, daily, common life, and all genres (i.e., love songs, military, ballads, folk songs, torch songs, dance tunes, blues, et. al.) were composed, sung and appreciated by Abraham’s children. The idea of simply listening to music in a passive fashion purely for its own sake was unknown to the Israelite culture. Furthermore, these songs were not songs of worship or adoration only, but rather songs about earth-bound pursuits, including human love and desire. These are the Jewish Old Testament songs of domestic life.
The Israelites borrowed “tunes” or “melodies” (Hebrew = “negeenoh”) from the surrounding pagan culture and sometimes added lyrics. We don’t have the musical notations so we don’t know what the tunes sounded like, only that these apparently were well-known tunes with titles. The translation of “negeenoh” can also be “according to” in the Psalms with “tune” implied. “negeenoh” is used for songs accompanied by a stringed musical instrument which is “struck” because the word comes from the root “negan” meaning “to strike,” or “strum,” or “pluck” or “touch.” The term “negeenoh” is usually translated “playing a stringed instrument” or “music of a stringed instrument.” “Negeenoh” is found in the titles of seven Psalms referring to the tunes to be sung to the divine poetry (4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, and 76) and the book of Habakkuk (3:19). For Ps. 6, John Calvin asserts “I am rather inclined to the opinion that sheminith refers to the tune.” Thus the traditional translations have been on the Old Testament stringed instruments which accompany singing and which are “plucked,” “struck” or “touched,” such as the lyre, harp or dulcimer. But making a modern application of a musical instrument that is “touched” or “struck” one can easily substitute “piano” for the lyre, harp or dulcimer.
Here are some key passages using the term “negeenoh:”
*1 Sam. 16:16b, “He will strum (“negeenoh”) when the evil spirit from God comes upon you.”
*1 Sam. 16:17, “Find me someone who strums well and bring him to me.”
*Ps. 33:3 “strum (“pluck”) skillfully.” Alexander MacLaren has translated this phrase, “strike well the strings.”
*Ps. 68:25, “singers came first, strings behind.” The psalm makes a differentiation between the “singers” and the “musicians” (“strings,” “strikers”) or “minstrels” and the playing of “tambourines.” Many translate “negeenoh” as “players on instruments.”
*Ps. 69:12, “the song of the drunkards” or “drinkers sing about me” or “I am the song of the drunkards.” Spurgeon noted that the tavern here makes fun of the tabernacle. Marvin Tate footnotes this, “the songs of the drunkards talk about me.”
*Ps. 77:6, “I remembered my strumming in the night.” “My strumming” could be “my songs” or “my singing.” The speaker is remembering and pondering and brooding at night over the vicissitudes of life of a believer in an unbelieving culture.
*Is. 23:16, “Take up the harp, walk through the city, O prostitute forgotten; strum well (“make a sweet melody”), sing many a song, so that you will be remembered.”
*Is. 38:20, “and we will sing with the strumming.”
*Lam. 3:14, 63, “they mock me in strumming all day long”
*Lamentations 5:14, “the young men have stopped their strumming (“making songs”)” Jeremiah’s sadness is expressed in the loss of sweet and joyful making music about life by the young. Israel’s enemies have caused the young men to stop their music (“negeenoh”).
*Ezekiel 33:32, God compares Ezekiel to a popular singer who plays and “sings love songs with a beautiful voice” and thus moves his audience. Still the listeners do nothing about Ezekiel’s message of repentance.