Several sorts of stringed instruments are mentioned in the Bible. The harp and the lyre, especially, were prominent in the music of the sanctuary.
Ancient stringed instruments were plucked, not bowed like the instruments of the violin family that are the mainstays of the classic orchestra in Western culture (the translation “viol” is inaccurate). The superscriptions of the Psalms, in the instructions for performance, refer to stringed instruments under the general term nginot (Pss. 4; 54–55; 61; 67; 76); the noun is derived from the verb nagan, to “pluck” or “play.” Another general term for strings is minnim (Pss. 45:8; 150:4). Two principal kinds were used in worship: the harp and the lyre.
The lyre was a popular musical instrument born in the shepherd’s field and in the courts of Israel. The musician tuned the lyre by tightening the strings. As the strings were plucked, the sound was amplified by the sound box at the base of the instrument.
An important instrument in Israelite worship was the nevel, evidently a type of harp. Several psalms refer to its use in the orchestra of the sanctuary (Pss. 57:8; 81:2; 92:3; 150:3). The strings of the harp are strung across a curved neck, like an archer’s bow, or across a frame consisting of two members at right angles. Ancient Egyptian harps that have been preserved typically have ten or twelve strings; the Psalms refer to the nevel ‘asor, or “harp of ten [strings]” (Pss. 33:2; 144:9) or simply ‘asor, “instrument of ten [strings].” As the harp lacks a fingerboard, each string is restricted to one pitch. The kithara of the New Testament was probably a harp, although it might have been a lyre. Paul refers to its ability to produce distinct pitches (1 Cor. 14:7); John portrays the elders worshiping with the harp (Rev. 5:8), and the music of harps figures in his depiction of the worship of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 14:2; 15:2).
The lyre (kinnor) is mentioned more frequently than the harp and seems to have been a more popular instrument in common life as well as in the worship of Yahweh. The strings of the lyre are stretched across a frame from a bar supported by two necks. The lyre had a fingerboard, so the pitches of the strings could be changed. The Psalms frequently refer to this instrument (Pss. 43:4; 71:22; 98:5; 137:2 rsv; 147:7 rsv; 149:3 rsv), and it appears elsewhere in Scripture (Gen. 4:21; Job 30:31 rsv; Isa. 5:12; Ezek. 26:13 rsv). The superscriptions of Psalms 6 and 12 direct their performance with instruments “upon the shminit,” perhaps an eight-stringed lyre. The kinnor is frequently mentioned together with the nevel (1 Kings 10:12; Pss. 57:8; 81:2; 150:3). Rabbinic tradition indicates that nine or more lyres were always used in the worship of the sanctuary. The lyre was David’s instrument (the translation “harp” is incorrect), and with it he soothed Saul’s mental depression (1 Sam. 16:16, 23 rsv). Together with the harp and other instruments, the lyre was associated with the activities of prophetic bands that frequented the sanctuaries (1 Sam. 10:5); when the central sanctuary was established, its musicians, led by Jeduthun, prophesied to the accompaniment of the lyre (kinnor, 1 Chron. 25:3 rsv). The prophets of Israel were musicians who customarily uttered or sang their oracles, apparently with stringed instruments; Elisha called for a string player or “minstrel” (mnaggen) when the king asked him to prophesy (2 Kings 3:15 rsv).
Other Stringed Instruments
The shalishim of 1 Samuel 18:6 were instruments played by women to welcome Saul and David returning from battle against the Philistines. The name of the instrument is related to the Hebrew word for “three,” so it may have been a three-stringed lute with a long neck of the type pictured in Egyptian tomb paintings being played by a young woman. However, it could also have been a percussion instrument such as a triangle. The psanterin in Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra (Dan. 3), sometimes translated “harp” or “psaltery,” was more likely an early type of dulcimer, in which the strings were stretched over a frame and struck with a rod. In this respect it would have been a precursor of the piano, but it was not an Israelite instrument. The sabbkha in the same orchestra was probably another stringed instrument used in Babylon, possibly a seven-stringed lyre; the King James Version translation “sackbut” (an early type of trombone) is incorrect. None of these instruments were used in the worship of the Lord.