Stuck in the recesses of the Old Testament is a story that every musician should know. It comes from the book of Nehemiah, which might seem an unlikely place for a musician to venture. In Nehemiah 12, however, there is a highly descriptive account of the role that musicians played in the dedication walls of Jerusalem after they were finally rebuilt following the Babylonian Exile. It involves many musicians with many trumpets1 and other kinds of instruments. It involves many singers including not only the Levites, but also myriads of women and children. It even involves antiphonal music. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were there.
To fully appreciate this event and why it warranted such celebration, we need to remember that the nation of Israel had ceased to exist many, many years before. The rebuilding of the wall was the first step in the reestablishment of the nation. The Northern Kingdom (also known as the Kingdom of Israel) had been defeated by the Assyrians around 720 BC. Over a century later the Southern Kingdom (also known as the Kingdom of Judah) fell to the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar after two devastating sieges of Jerusalem (around 597 and again in 587 BC). In a series of deportations, the “cream of the crop” had been taken to Babylon (i.e. modern-day Iraq) to serve King Nebuchadnezzar.
Seventy years or so later, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah enter the story. After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, they played important roles in helping the Jewish exiles return to their homeland during the reign of King Cyrus. Nehemiah was simply the cup-bearer for King Cyrus, but became a great leader. After leading the exiles back to their beloved Jerusalem, the first task was to rebuild the city walls. After much opposition, delay, and strife, the walls were finally rebuilt. Nehemiah then planned a great celebration (see below).
I especially love the last verse of this Scripture passage. May our rejoicing be heard throughout the land as well!
At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the musicians had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.
I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them, along with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zakkur, the son of Asaph, and his associates—Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani—with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the teacher of the Law led the procession. At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the site of David’s palace to the Water Gate on the east.
The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people—past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped.
The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, as well as the priests—Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets— and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.