Herbert Blomstedt, self-effacing and brilliant conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, has through the years been winner of a wondrous collection of academic and other awards.1 As one of the world’s premier conductors and musical directors, Blomstedt is both gifted musician and outstanding leader.
As a profoundly spiritual human being, Blomstedt has trained his psyche to discriminate not only between mayhem and music, but also between the commonplace and the sacred, between work and worship. His actions are motivated by respect for the God who is Lord of his existence, and a compelling desire to give to that Lord the adoration He deserves, through his exercise of talent.2 In summary, Blomstedt is a leader, he is brilliant, he is spiritual, and he is a musician, eminently qualified to bear the ancient biblical title of menatseach, traditionally rendered “chief musician.”
What the Word Really Means
A study of the 65 occurrences of the biblical term natsach, so applicable to Blomstedt,3 shows it to include much more than music, despite its extensive association with that discipline.4 Solomon’s building program, producing a temple and palace that would become a wonder of their world, involved 3,600 foremen bearing this title (2 Chron. 2:18). This seems to say, inter alia, that people with this name gave orders, ran things, and saw to the accomplishment of major construction projects.
Admittedly, most of the people who bore this moniker, apart from Solomon’s team, dealt with music and literature prepared for the praise and worship of God, whether composed by them or sent to them. But the Solomonic usage suggests that becoming chief musician, being the praise leader, meant a lot more than being a gifted keyboardist, talented arranger, or impressive soloist. The master musicians’ major influence in their society supports this conclusion. We learn, from the time of King Josiah’s reformation movement, that “Levites, . . . skillful with instruments of music, . . . were overseers of all who did work in any kind of service” (2 Chron. 34:12, 13).
These master musicians’ title has no automatic link with harps or psalms. It is first about the ability to govern, 5 then, beyond administration, about brilliance. The God-fearing exile Daniel so “distinguished himself”6 above everybody around him (Dan. 6:3) that the king thought of having him run the entire kingdom. The king wanted his realm well run. So does the monarch of heaven. And the praise and adoration we render Him, whether systematized or spontaneous, cannot be haphazard without becoming a parody of His glory. Good worship leaders will execute well-run praise.
Still, their leadership competence or intellectual brilliance in no way diminishes their need for spiritual giftedness or musical talent. Legendary King David, master musician himself, and charismatic people leader as well, set out to enhance his people’s worship experience in Jerusalem and throughout the young kingdom. Much of the nation’s cultic practice had been scripted long before his time. Its rituals of sacrifice, morning and evening, Sabbath to Sabbath, new moon to new moon, and Passover through the Feast of Tabernacles, spanning the religious year, were already prescribed in books he studied every day (Deut. 17:14-20). But there was still more he could do. And he recognized the importance, for worship, of leadership that integrated the ability to govern, brilliance, spiritual strength, and musical prowess. All four would be essential to the design and direction of the best praise and worship service.
From the ranks of the best, he selected a man of supernatural endowments, a prophet of God named Asaph (1 Chron. 16:5, 7). Asaph the Levite he was, inheritor of spiritual privilege and duty—the service of the ark (verses 4, 5); Asaph the seer, historians call him (2 Chron. 29:30); Asaph, the chief musician, David appointed him (1 Chron. 16:5, 7). In the end it would take all the spiritual, administrative, and musical discrimination that heaven could provide for Asaph to realize David’s dream.
A Question of Honor
The day would come when his appointment would confront him with an excruciating decision. It was the day there came to his desk a scroll of worship dedication like none he had ever read before; a new scroll from his king. It was normal for the king to send him new and magnificent song scrolls. He could not forget, nor could anyone else, the ark installation anthem. The royal composition Asaph conducted that day unleashed from the whole national congregation one uninhibited explosion of praise for, and to, the marvel-making, wonder-working, justly judging God who by covenant was uniquely theirs (verses 7-36). Beyond the music’s climax, ecstatic citizen saints choked the air with their triumphant cries of “Amen” “Praise the Lord!” (verse 36). The road home from Jerusalem stretched and wound through one continuous celebration dance of royal bread, meat, raisin cakes (verse 3), and testimony about the awesomeness of their incredible God that David’s powerful lyrics venerated.
The song scroll now on the praise leader’s desk was disconcertingly different. This scroll was born of a prelude themed on most sordid promiscuity, calculated treachery, and cold-blooded murder. Heading up the lyrics of the king’s new poem was the familiar one-word superscription “lamenatseach”: “To the Chief Musician.” That heading spoke the unmistakable message to the nation’s leader of praise: “Please sing this.” The manuscript was explicit: “A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba” (Ps. 51:1, NKJV). What profit, Asaph wondered, could ever come of celebrating such scandal? What kind of worship would commemorate such disgrace? What glory would come to God through this song that reminded the whole nation about their king’s covetousness, and intrigue, and sex and murder and shame? He wondered, too, how the king would ever be rehabilitated if a song like this should become part of the national memory; what would be his legacy if Bathsheba could not be erased from it. Asaph tried to read his script without his soul sinking into the sordid details that preceded the song.
At first it was impossible. It stirred up in his memory the alternately mournful and cynical comments now circulating everywhere from saints who grieved at their hero’s fall, and bold sinners who found in David’s acts the license for their own moral perversion.7 He moaned and groaned as he thought of what this would do for any image of the purity of a holy God, and for all talk about integrity in the future.8
But as he continued his struggle with the new manuscript, Asaph also thought of the change that had come over his king. Of late he could see little more than brokenness in the man who had once bestrode His world like a colossus.9 The national spirit was coming unraveled among his subjects,10 but nothing outside could compare with what Asaph knew was now going on inside the palace. He knew that David’s “authority in his own household . . . was weakened. A sense of his guilt . . . made his arm feeble to execute justice in his house.”11 He began to sense that God could use this brokenness as a warning to His people in the future, particularly those whose charisma and abilities would place them in positions of high status, broad influence, and powerful temptation. He saw that David’s story could inspire in them “distrust of self.”12 He prayed that they would know “that God alone could keep them by His power through faith.”13 And that, finding in Him “their strength and safety,”14 they would refuse “to take the first step on Satan’s ground.”15
Praise for Whom Praise Is Due
Asaph came to believe that his king, in all his shame and remorse, was right. He should sing the song. He would sing the song. He would lead his choirs, and his nation, and the world to follow, in singing this song. It would not be a song of sin, but an anthem of praise, a testimony to the power of the same God whom he and his king had celebrated on the day of the ark’s installation.
None but the God of creation’s wonder works was capable of answering David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart” (Ps. 51:10, NKJV). It was Genesis all over again that David was pleading for. And though his song is most often sung, “Create in me,” David’s words most literally mean “Create for me.” For David knows that this work of creating when there is nothing there is logically impossible for any creature. In the depths of soul-stifling depression born of tormenting guilt he hears his God say, “I will stop at nothing, death and hell included, to make it happen, David. I delight in mercy” (see Micah 7:18). “And I keep My promises.”
Asaph could see now, even better than before, the value of the song and the greatness of his God. He could see from David’s case that where sin abounds, grace superabounds. For his king’s sake, to let him know he had forgiven him, and for his nation’s sake, to teach that genuine repentance does not cover up sin, he would sing the song. For the sake of guilty sinners tomorrow needing the miracle of forgiveness that God had given to his king, he would sing that song. And for Jesus the Lamb, whose spilled blood makes us all clean for all eternity, he would sing the song. He would lead the praise.
Ibid. Blomstedt, for example, performs on the Sabbath (Saturday), God’s day of rest, but will not rehearse: rehearsal is work.
Abraham Even-Shoshan, A New Concordance of the Bible: Thesaurus of the Language of the Bible—Hebrew and Aramaic Roots, Words, Proper Names, Phrases and Synonyms (Jerusalem: “Kiryat Sepher,” 1982), s.v. natsach.
Fifty-five times in the Psalms, and once elsewhere (Hab. 3:19), a specific form of the root natsach appears in a word translated “to the Chief Musician” (NKJV). (Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
R. C. Stallman, in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry, & Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove, Ill.: 2008), s.v. “music, song,” p. 486.
6Aramaic application of the same root.
7Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 720: “David’s sin misrepresented the character of God and cast reproach upon His name. It tended to lower the standard of godliness in Israel, to lessen in many minds the abhorrence of sin; while those who did not love and fear God were by it emboldened in transgression.”
8Ibid., pp. 722, 723: “Through successive generations infidels have pointed to the character of David, bearing this dark stain, and have exclaimed in triumph and derision, ‘This is the man after God’s own heart!’ ”
9See William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 2.
10 He knew that “his subjects, having a knowledge of his sin, would be led to sin more freely” (Patriarchs and Prophets), p. 723.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., p. 724.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.

Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review. This article was published September 8, 2011.

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