Word Study #152 — Singing and Dancing

This study arose when someone posed a question regarding the lexical inclusion of the idea of “dance” in the words translated “rejoice” (#93). I am not a student of Hebrew, so I will not presume to comment on that language. However, I was able to find no such reference in any of the Greek lexicons, so I can say with confidence that it is not the case in any of the New Testament writings.

In fact, orcheomai, “to dance” , appears only four times in the entirety of the New Testament text: two of which describe Salome’s (probably lewd) performance before Herod (Mt.14:6, Mk.6:22), and the other two in the complaint of the children playing in the marketplace (Mt.11:7 and Lk.7:22).

Choros, (English cognate, “chorus”), a noun referring to either a company of singers and dancers, or to the dance itself, occurs only once (Lk.15:25), at the party celebrating the return of the prodigal son.

Both words are more common in the LXX, used multiple times in the celebrations at the return of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, the worship of foreign gods (including the golden calf), or celebrating the destruction of the Pharaoh’s army, among others. Clearly a cultural expression, it is not clear whether dancing was indigenous to the Hebrew people, or adopted from neighbors. Historians represent it as an integral part of pagan religious rites, especially fertility rituals. There is nothing inherently “wrong” in the use of cultural expressions in worship, as long as they follow the Acts 15 injunction to avoid anything connected with idolatry. Dancing, per se, is neither advocated nor forbidden in the Biblical text, and probably must be evaluated in context.

Singing, on the other hand, is advocated in both the LXX and New Testament texts, represented by four different words, which are not always easily distinguishable.

Ado, the most “generic”, applies to all vocal sounds, whether human, animal, or avian, or even the sound of the wind. It may refer to a song or chant, usually in praise or celebration of either a deity or a person. In the LXX, especially in Ezra and Nehemiah, it seems to have denoted a class or order of functionaries in the tabernacle/temple, along with priests and Levites, which included both men and women who were assigned to the duty of singing praises to God. Ado was also used of songs or chants designed to celebrate or to teach about historic events.

Frequently used in combination with ado was psallo, which usually referred to instrumental music, either alone or as an accompaniment to a song of praise or history.

Humneo / humnos, classically, would have described epic recitations, repeated through many generations, honoring a specific hero, deity, or historic occasion. It is also used as a title for many of the psalms that have a historical theme.

All of these words carry over into the New Testament, although their use is not frequent. Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn” at the conclusion of their Passover supper together (Mt.26:30, Mk,14:26), as did Paul and Silas (Ac.16:25) in the prison at Philippi. These, and the Old Testament quote from Ps.22:22 in Heb.2:12, use humneo.

The singing of “new songs” around the throne in Rv.5:19, 14:3, 15:3, uses ado, as huge crowds proclaim the praises of the Lamb, whereas psallo describes praises to God in Rom.15:9 (quoted from II Sam.22:50). Paul speaks of singing both “with the spirit”(probably a reference to the use of unlearned tongues) and “with the understanding” in the company of the Christian brotherhood (I Cor.14:15), and James (5:13) considers this an appropriate expression of joyfulness.

Most instructive of all, however, is Paul’s advice in Eph.5:19 and Col.3:16, where all three terms are used together, as he urges the brethren to “talk to each other in psalmois (psalms) and humnois (hymns) and odais pneumatikais (spiritual songs), adontes and psallontes (singing with and without instrumental accompaniment), TO THE LORD” (Eph.5) and in Colossians, of teaching and admonishing each other with the same categories of musical expression.

Both of these instructions are significant, and should have a much greater effect than is common, upon the music used in a gathering of the Lord’s people. Remember that the vocabulary comes out of a context of songs of praise honoring either human heroes or pagan gods. Both the Ephesian and Colossian churches were of Gentile background. Consequently, the admonition that singing be directed to the Lord is crucial. All honor and praise belongs to him!

Note also that there is no mention of anything like the self-centered “I, me, my” or one’s personal ecstasy or despair, that has come to dominate so much of so-called “Christian” or “gospel” music. Sometimes this is cast as a groveling “confession”, and others as triumphant boasting. And if you can’t discern whether the singer is focused on the Lord or on his/her girl/boyfriend, there is a serious problem. Look again at the songs of praise around the throne! They are totally occupied with the glory of the King!

Secondly, music in the brotherhood (Col.3:16) is for the purpose of teaching (#47) and admonishing (#116) each other, and as such needs to be carefully vetted for compatibility with what Jesus actually said, advocated, and taught! There is an incredible collection of both new and old “hymns” and “praise songs” that promote “teaching” that is lamentably foreign to the true gospel (#67) message. It is not at all rare that I find it necessary to refrain from singing all or part of a “hymn” for that reason.

It is the “word / message of Christ” (#66) that must be the absolute standard for our musical choices!

Brother Paul’s conclusion (Col.3:17) is probably the safest guide, whether for “song and dance” or for all of life:

“And everything – whatever you do – in word or deed, (do) everything in the name (#24) of the Lord Jesus, (continually) giving thanks to God the Father through him!”

Evaluate every activity by this yardstick, and we won’t go far wrong.

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