Asaph, the Chef Musician
"For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God." (Neh.12:46).
Asaph was a great choirmaster; so great that his name lingered on for many generations after his death and in all Israel’s after history the Temple singers were known as "sons of Asaph". Here was a man whose talents and whole life were consecrated to God and used in one particular direction, in the ministry of sacred song. Who knows how many hearts in Israel were turned more reverently toward the God of Israel and how many minds to the more sober consideration of the Covenant and their responsibilities as a chosen and separated people to God, in consequence of that ministry? The ascending of praise and thanksgiving to God is a very lovely thing in Divine worship; and it is more than that. The heart’s devotion can rise to heaven on the wings of song, and the renewal, the re‑affirming, of one’s own consecration can be carried to God by the voice of thanksgiving. It is part of the service in which all can join and express for themselves in their own way the love and gratitude they feel for all his benefits.
Sometimes a speaker, anxious to conserve as much of the time allotted to the service as he can for his address, requests that one of the hymns be omitted, or the long ones shortened. He does not well who does so. The Father looks upon the praises and prayers of his people in their gathering together with as much interest and sympathy as he does upon the ministry of the spoken word and, who knows, maybe he gets less weary of listening to the praise and thanksgiving of the congregation than he does of the sometimes overlong perorations (utterances) delivered in his name by the minister.
Asaph lived in the days of David. He must have found in that king a very ready sympathiser with his services and a quick readiness to make use of his characteristic talents. David himself in his younger and—who knows—happier days had been a singer and a poet. As a shepherd lad he had whiled away many a pleasant hour on the hillside, while the sun shone warmly down, composing and singing simple songs of praise to God. In later years, when in the service of King Saul, he played the harp and sang the same songs to his own accompaniment. Now, with all the cares of state pressing on his shoulders and the claims of several wives to satisfy he probably had less time for such direct indulgence in his musical tastes; but when he came to organising the worship of God he remembered the charm that music had always had for him, and realising what it could mean in the worship of Israel, he looked around for a suitable man to place in charge of such things and found a twin soul in Asaph.
It was when King David had brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem after its long sojourn in the house of Obededom, following its capture by the Philistines in the days of Eli two generations earlier, that Asaph received his appointment. According to 1 Chron.16:4‑5, David had "appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the Ark of the LORD, and to record, and to thank and praise the LORD ... God of Israel: Asaph the chief..." As the account goes on, we find that there were players on psalteries and harps, and priests with trumpets, and Asaph himself, in addition to his duty of leading the choir, "made a sound with cymbals". It seems evident that this Temple music was by no means a subdued affair; more likely is it that it bore some distinct resemblance to the Salvation Army bands of our own day. But the Lord blessed it; that is the important thing; He blessed it! That is a point to remember when we feel disposed to decry and condemn a form of service which some others are conducting to the Lord’s glory but a form which does not appeal to ourselves. The Lord’s arm is not so short—nor his imagination so limited—that He is compelled to confine himself to just one way of doing his work and although we do tend to flatter ourselves that we are the only ones who understand his Plan and therefore the only ones entitled to work for him or to speak in his name, there is plenty of evidence to the unbiased observer that the Lord does find use for many of the efforts put forth by Christian disciples of many differing theologies despite the shortcomings of some of them as respects a clear vision of his Plan.
Now Asaph was not only a musician, he was also a prophet. He must have been a very self‑effacing one, for there is no mention of the fact during the time of his own life. Perhaps the greater glory of his royal patron obliterated any lesser radiance that might have shone from the Chief Musician. But in the days of Hezekiah, several centuries later, there is a casual reference which goes to show that his prophetic office was remembered equally with his musical skill.2. Chron.29:30, tells us, in connection with Hezekiah’s restoration of the Temple service after the idolatry of Ahaz, that "Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped".
So Asaph was a seer—a prophet! In his musical preoccupation he found time to study the Word of the Lord and to become a fit medium through which the Holy Spirit could speak. What would be the subjects of his prophecy? Without much doubt he would prophesy, as did all the prophets, concerning the King and the Kingdom, and the conditions of entrance into that Kingdom. Like all the prophets, he would speak of Judgment and Restitution, and call the people to repentance and dedication of life to God’s service—to consecration. How would he speak to them? Surely through the medium of his sacred office! Not for Asaph the free, unrestricted wandering through the countryside in the manner of Amos the herdsman or Joel the vinedresser. Not for Asaph the standing in the royal court in the company of princes and politicians of this world, like Isaiah or Daniel. His duties kept him in the place where daily worship was being constantly offered, and it was there, and in the course of that worship and those duties, that his prophecy, if it was to be given at all, must be uttered. And therefore it is that for the prophecies of Asaph we must look into the psalms of Asaph.
There are twelve in number, these psalms which are accredited to David’s chief musician. Some have suggested that they might not all actually be from Asaph; that the structure of at least one seems to indicate a composition of a much later date, but there is really little or no evidence to support such hypotheses. These twelve, Psalm 50 and Psalms 73 to 83 inclusive, are entitled "Psalms of Asaph", and there is every reason for concluding that we have here compositions that are the work of this fervent‑hearted Levite, set to music and rendered under his direction by the sacred choir in the days of David. And being a prophet, what more natural than that he should incorporate in these songs the understanding that the Holy Spirit had given him?
It would take many pages to exhaust the doctrinal and prophetic teaching left on record in the twelve psalms that enshrine the ministry of Asaph. A few brief allusions must suffice. And no such short survey can start on a more appropriate theme than the one which led Asaph to compose the 73rd Psalm—the Permission of Evil. Not exactly a doctrine, as we understand the term today, perhaps, but how vital a foundation for our own orderly and satisfying appreciation of the Divine mysteries. "I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" he says (Psa.73:3)… "they are not in trouble as other men… they have more than heart could wish… and they say, How doth God know? … When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; THEN UNDERSTOOD I THEIR END." (vv.5,7,11,16‑17) Ah, yes, that is where we, too, understand why God has permitted evil, and that He will not allow evil and the evildoer to continue for ever. It is in this psalm, too, that Asaph coined a word that has been an inestimable source of encouragement to the disciples of Jesus in all the centuries of this Gospel Age; "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory." (Psa.73:24)
It must have been this realisation of God’s determination to vindicate the righteous in due time that led Asaph to the train of thought revealed in Psa.77. "I have considered the days of old" he says "the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search. Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever?...Hath God forgotten to be gracious?" Then, in a swift revulsion of feeling "I will remember the works of the LORD...I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings." (vv.5‑12) In the study and consideration of the Plan of God as revealed in his past actions Asaph found both consolation and instruction to explain the apparent inactivity of God. "Thy way, O God, IS IN THE SANCTUARY" (v.13). That was the great lesson and it is so still with us. The teaching of this Psalm is the over‑ruling providence of God and his wise direction of events for the ultimate good of all men. He is leading them through many strange and hard experiences that they might learn at last the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and come willingly and voluntarily in harmony with God’s righteousness. "Thou leddest thy people like a flock" are the concluding words of the Psalm. To the doctrine of the Permission of Evil therefore we have to add the doctrine of Divine Providence that doeth all things well.
The next theme to which Asaph devoted his talents was that of Divine Judgment, and here two of his Psalms.82 and 83, share the burden of the song. "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods " is the tremendous opening of Psa.82. None of all created beings are exempt from God’s judgment if so be that sin has entered and found a lodgement. Even though they be called gods, children of the Most High, they will die like men, and fall like one of the princes, should the contaminating effects of sin so demand. If wicked men take counsel against the people of God, and say (Psa.83:4) "Come… let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance", He will rise up and cause them to scatter and be no more, as the rolling leaves and dust before the whirlwind, twisting and twirling about in the terrible blast of his anger (vv.13‑15). And Asaph saw clearly—so clearly—that the final effect of Divine Judgment is "that men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth" (v.18).
Now Asaph comes to prophecy. In Psa.78:79 and 80 he sings of God’s chosen people Israel, of his goodness to them and their unfaithfulness to him. "Give ear, O my people" he cries "to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old" (Psa.78:1‑2). Then he sings of the great deeds of old, the victories and triumphs of Israel in the wilderness, the continued faithfulness of God in face of the persistent unfaithfulness of Israel. So, at last, "he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel: so that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh… and delivered strength into captivity". (vv.59‑61)But when God saw the distress into which his people had fallen, and how the enemies of righteousness exulted over the sorry state of those who despite all their faults and all their failures and all their perversities were still the people of God, then "the LORD awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. And he smote his enemies...he put them to a perpetual reproach." (vv.65‑66) What a wonderful commentary upon the Divine Plan it is to say, as Asaph here says "so he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands." (Psa.78:72).
The song drops to a lower key. Asaph’s prophetic insight showed him that in days yet to come, long after he himself would be sleeping with his fathers, there would be trouble and distress upon Israel because of renewed unfaithfulness. He saw a day in the which fierce Babylonian soldiers would come and despoil the city and the sanctuary, and take all the treasures thereof captive to Babylon. "O God" he cries in agony in the opening stanza of Psa.74 "why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?" In vision he saw the Temple destroyed and lifted his voice in impassioned protest. "A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees. But now they break down the carved work thereof...with axes and hammers. They have cast fire into thy sanctuary...they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land". (vv.5‑8) But it is in this psalm that he rises up to a lofty plea for the fulfilment of God’s Plan, a fulfilment which he knows is sadly needed because of the world’s sin. "Have respect unto the covenant" he urges "for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty". (v.20) Psalms 74 and 75 both reveal Asaph’s knowledge that such a time of disaster must come upon Israel, and that it would be followed by judgment upon the nations that oppressed them. "In the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red...the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them" (Psa.75:8). So it is that in Psa.76 he passes on to a brighter view of prophecy and glimpses something of the day of light and gladness that is to follow the overthrow of God’s enemies. "When God arose to judgment, to save all the meek of the earth...surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain" (Psa.76:9‑10). There is his faith in the Millennial Day, in those "Times of Restitution" which Peter, long centuries afterward, was to declare had been spoken of by all God’s holy prophets. Asaph was one of those prophets.
It was in the 50th Psalm that the great singer attained his loftiest height of vision. In that wonderful paeon of praise and prophecy he traverses briefly the whole of God’s later works, succeeding that earlier phase when Israel after the flesh was the only instrument in God’s hand. There in Psalm 50 Asaph has taken a mighty stride forward and sees the development of another Israel, gathered to God in another covenant, and in the ecstasy of that revelation he calls "Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (Psa.50:5). Perhaps that last vision of all showed him the majesty and power of God more vividly than anything before. It was at any rate with this train of thought in his mind that he uttered the sublime words that we have used so often ourselves to describe the all‑power of our Father and our God: "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills"! (v.10)
"Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God." (v.23) The vibrant words die away into silence; the melody fades away in the distance. Asaph the singer, the musician of David’s choir is no more. He sleeps with his fellows, awaiting the call to enter the new world about which he so constantly spoke and sang; but his words live on after him, and we, three thousand years later, find strength and encouragement and inspiration because an obscure but zealous and earnest man of God, away in those far‑off days, used his talent for music and poetry to sing praises to the God of his salvation.