“With Psaltery” | Answers to Questions

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The Plain Truth  Magazine -July, 1967 Issue


You define “psalteries” in The Bible Story by parenthetic expression as “bagpipes.” I don’t find this definition current among the dictionaries at my command. I would be gratefully pleased for the elucidation of this point.

Robert L. D., Tulsa, Okla.


Dictionaries are not perfect!

The English word “psaltery” comes from the Hebrew word “nebel.” “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible” — available in most public libraries — defines “nebel” as “a skin-bag for liquids (from COLLAPSING when empty).”

What musical instrument is made of a skin-bag that collapses when empty?

Only the bagpipe!

If we take Strong’s definition of the word, the meaning appears very clear. But if one reads further, his explanation becomes muddled. The author apparently doesn’t believe his own definition.

The definition in “Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary” is typical of most dictionaries. It is inaccurate. Peloubet dogmatically states at the outset of his definition of the psaltery: “This was a stringed instrument of music to accompany the voice … This instrument resembled the guitar …” The definition purports to have the ring of certainty.

But notice several lines further down when Peloubet actually starts defining the word “nebel”. “It is impossible to say positively with what instrument the “nebel” of the Hebrew exactly corresponded. From the fact that “nebel” in Hebrew also signifies a wine bottle or skin, it has been conjectured that the term when applied to a musical instrument denotes a kind of BAGPIPE.” Why couldn’t theologians believe their own definition of the Hebrew word “nebel”? Possibly because it goes contrary to opinions they already had.

A careful scrutiny of the definition of the Hebrew word and its 21 occurrences in the Old Testament makes it impossible to define the “psaltery” as a type of guitar. It is impossible to deduce anything so rigid as a guitar from a Hebrew word that specifically connotes collapsing when empty.

Theologians know that the term “nebel” clearly means an instrument that collapses when empty — as a bagpipe does when the air is let out. But they still can’t believe it. So they reason around it. To associate the Hebrew “nebel” with the Greek “psalterium” required a theological and grammatical distortion.

Why can’t modern theologians believe the “nebel” or “psaltery” was a bagpipe? Very likely they reasoned that “this ‘nebel’ was a Hebrew instrument and the bagpipe is a Scottish instrument and the Scots are not Jews.” They just couldn’t bring themselves to render this term “bagpipe” 21 times in the Bible. If they had, it would become rather clear that the bagpipe was rather prominent in ancient Israel. And that David, the sweet psalmist, had a high regard for the bagpipe, as well as the harp, as an instrument to be used in praising God. Someone might then deduce that since the Scots, who are among the most traditional of Celtic, Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon peoples, perpetuated the bagpipe in its finest form, they may be Israelites! And if the Scots are Israelites, it would not be too difficult to conclude that other related nationalities in Northwestern Europe are also Israelites. Since this would make us related to the Jews, the scholars had to conclude that the “nebel” or “psaltery” was anything but a bagpipe. Thus the “skin-bag” became a kind of guitar.

One would not call a guitar by any term that connotes collapsing when not in use. But the Hebrew word “nebel” perfectly fits the Scottish and Irish bagpipes.

Just how logical is the theologians’ decision to discard the apparent meaning of “nebel” and arbitrarily select a new meaning that violated the natural connotation of the term? In the scriptures that tell us the characteristics of the “psaltery” or “nebel” what do we find? Do these verses describe the bagpipe? or the guitar?

In I Chronicles 15:20 the Levites were commanded to play “with psalteries on ‘Alamoth’.” This term ‘alamoth’ means “soprano” or “falsetto.” The bagpipe emits a high-pitched falsetto sound. But would this description fit the guitar-type instruments? Hardly. In Psalm 33 we find the command to “play skillfully with a loud noise” (verse 3). Verse 2 reads: “Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.” It would have been difficult to get a loud noise out of this combination if the psaltery were a guitar. But with the psaltery as a bagpipe, there would have been no difficulty.

Some assume that in Psalm 33 the term “an instrument of ten strings” is meant to DEFINE a psaltery, rather than being a third instrument in the group.

But in Psalm 92:3, in which the same grouping is mentioned, the wording is absolutely clear. Read it: “Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.” This wording indicates three different instruments. The “nebel” — translated “psaltery” — appears to have been commonly accompanied by the harp and by a little-known instrument of ten strings. Old drawings have pictured instruments with ten strings of equal length. This may have been simply a rhythm instrument. Such an instrument would go well with bagpipes.

Who is more likely to have preserved the instruments and melodies of David’s Israelite surroundings than the traditional Israelites, such as the Scots, Welsh and Irish, who colonized Britain in the days of ancient Israel and preserved much of the form of Hebrew music?

With bagpipes in his band, it is no wonder David was inspired to dance a “Highland fling” as he brought the ark to Jerusalem (II Sam. 6:5). Bagpipes, rightly used, generate feelings of exuberance and make people want to EXPRESS proper emotion.

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