Ascension in song
June 28, 2009

A footnote to From Silence to Song .

In Hezekiah’s rededication ceremony, the Levites play instruments and sing during the ascension offering (2 Chronicles 29:25-30). Their offerings ascend with song; they ascend in song. Alongside the smoke from the animal, they offer up prayers and an offering of praise. Mingled with the smoke of the offering is the sound of singing, musical instruments. The singing and music-making doesn’t start with the purification offering. Song starts with the ascent, and continues into the time of the meal. As Israelites traveled to the temple singing along the way, singing their Psalms of ascent, so they ascended singing through their ascension offerings.

In fact, the way the text is written suggests that song has completely displaced the animal sacrifice. Compare the description of the purification offering in verses 20-24 with the description of the burnt offering in verses 25-28.

With the purification, we know the numbers and types of animals; we learn this about the burnt offering later, the burnt offering brought by the assembly (vv. 32-33), but in the initial description we don’t. The description of the purification offering uses the word “blood” four times, the word “kill” or “slaughter” four times, the word “sprinkle” three times, and the word “altar” five times; of these, only the word “altar” appears in verses 25-28, and that only once. From verses 20-24, we can get some idea of how the purification offerings are being done; we get no idea of how the ascension offerings are being done.

Instead, we only know that the ascension offering is accompanied by song. When Hezekiah instructs the Levites to get ready for the burnt offerings, he doesn’t give them slaughter knives, bowls for collecting blood, instruments for dismembering animals. He tells them to take their cymbals, harps, lyres to play and sing as the smoke ascensions. “Instruments” (v. 26) is the same Hebrew word used for all the implements and utensils of sacrificial worship, but here it means “instrument” in our sense.

This is highly significant for our worship. It shows us, first, the actual location, the liturgical moment, for song. Song accompanies and even replaces the ascension offering. The place of song in the liturgy, the main location for a burst of music, is after the confession and absolution, after the purification and cleansing that we receive in Christ.

But, second, it also shows us what is happening in this moment. It’s not just that we are doing a performance before a distant Lord. It’s not just that we’re the choir and the Lord is enjoying a choir concert. Our words, like the smoke of the animal, actually do go up to God, they ascend, and just as the ascending animal represented the worshiper, so our words set to music represent us. We lift up our hearts by lifting up our voices in song.

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