(Isaiah 5:12 RSV) They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands.
Commentator Albert Barnes had extensive notes on this verse and the instruments mentioned therein. His commentary is available for the free program e-Sword and thanks to that I'm able to quote his comments in their entirety. Other commentators have their own remarks but I thought that these would make for a good beginning.
The prophet proceeds to state still further the extent of their crimes. This verse contains an account of their dissipated habits, and their consequent forgetfulness of God. That they commonly had musical instruments in their feasts, is evident from many passages of the Old Testament; see Amo_6:5-6. Their feasts, also, were attended with songs; Isa_24:8-9.
The harp - - כנור kinnôr. This is a well-known stringed instrument, employed commonly in sacred music. It is often mentioned as having been used to express the pious feelings of David; Psa_32:2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5. It is early mentioned as having been invented by Jubal; Gen_4:21. It is supposed usually to have had ten strings (Josephus, “Ant.” B. x. ch. xii. Section 3). It was played by the hand; 1Sa_16:23; 1Sa_18:9. The “root” of the word כנור kinnôr, is unknown. The word “kinnor” is used in all the languages cognate to the Hebrew, and is recognized even in the Persian. It is probable that the instrument here referred to was common in all the oriental nations, as it seems to have been known before the Flood, and of course the knowledge of it would be extended far. It is an oriental name and instrument, and from this word the Greeks derived their word κινύρα kinura. The Septuagint renders it κιθάρα kithara and κινύρα kinura.
Once they substitute for it ὄργανον organon, Psa_136:2; and five times ψαλτήριον psaltērion, Gen_4:20; Psa_48:4; Psa_80:2; Psa_149:3; Eze_26:13. The harp - כנור kinnôr - is not only mentioned as having been invented by Jubal, but it is also mentioned by Laban in the description which be gives of various solemnities, in regard to which he assures the fleeing Jacob that it had been his wish to accompany him with all the testimonials of joy - ‘with music - תף tôph and כנור kinnôr;’ Gen_31:27. In the first age it was consecrated to joy and exultation. Hence, it is referred to as the instrument employed by David to drive away the melancholy of Saul 1Sa_16:16-22, and is the instrument usually employed to celebrate the praises of God; Psa_33:1-2; Psa_43:4; Psa_49:5; Psa_71:22-23. But the harp was not only used on sacred occasions. Isaiah also mentions it as carried about by courtezans Isa_23:16, and also refers to it as used on occasions of gathering in the vintage, and of increasing the joy of the festival occasion.
So also it was used in military triumphs. Under the reign of Jehoshaphat, after a victory which had been gained over the Moabites, they returned in triumph to Jerusalem, accompanied with playing on the כנור kinnôr;” 2Ch_20:27-28. The harp was generally used on occasions of joy. Only in one place, in Isaiah Isa_16:11, is it referred to as having been employed in times of mourning. There is no ancient figure of the כנור kinnôr that can be relied on as genuine. We can only say that it was an instrument made of sounding wood, and furnished with strings. Josephus says that it was furnished with ten strings, and was played with the plectrum (“Ant.” B. viii. ch. x.) Suidas, in his explanation of it, makes express mention of strings or sinews (p. 318); and Pollux speaks of goats’ claws as being used for the plectrum. David made it out of the ברושׁ berôsh, or fir, and Solomon out of the almug. Pfeiffer supposes, that the strings were drawn over the belly of a hollow piece of wood, and that it had some resemblance to our violin. But it is more probable that the common representation of the harp as nearly in the form of a triangle, with one side or the front part missing, is the correct one. For a full discussion of the subject, see Pfeiffer on the Music of the ancient Hebrews, “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 366-373. Montfaucon has furnished a drawing of what was supposed to be the ancient כנור kinnôr, which is represented in the book. But, after all, the usual form is not quite certain.
Bruce found a sculpture of a harp resembling that usually put into the hands of David, or nearly in the form of a triangle, and under circumstances which led him to suppose that it was as old as the times of Sesostris.
And the viol - נבל nebel. From this word is derived the Greek word νάβλα nabla, and the Latin nablium and nabla. But it is not very easy to form a correct idea of this instrument. The derivation would lead us to suppose that it was something in the shape of a “bottle,” and it is probable that it had a form in the shape of a leather bottle, such as is used in the East, or at least a vessel in which wine was preserved; 1Sa_10:3; 1Sa_25:18; 2Sa_16:1. It was at first made of the ברושׁ berôsh or fir; afterward it was made of the almug tree, and occasionally it seems to have been made of metal; 2Sa_6:5; 1Ch_13:8. The external parts of the instrument were of wood, over which strings were drawn in various ways. Josephus says it had twelve strings (“Ant.” B. viii. ch. x.) He says also that it was played with the fingers. - “Ibid.” Hesychius and Pollux reckon it among stringed instruments. The resonance had its origin in the vessel or the bottom part of the instrument, upon which the strings were drawn. According to Ovid, this instrument was played on with both hands:
Quaravis mutus erat, voci favisse putatur
Piscis, Aroniae fabula nora lyrae.
Disce etiam duplice genialia palma
De Arte Amandi, lib. iii. 327.
According to Jerome, Isodorus, and Cassiodorus, it had the form of an inverted Greek Delta δ d. Pfeiffer supposes that this instrument was probably the same as is found represented on ancient monument. The belly of the instrument is a wooden bowl, having a small hole in the under part, and is covered over with a stretched skin, which is higher in the middle than at the sides. Two posts, which are fastened together at the top by a cross piece, pass obliquely through this skin. Five strings pass over this skin, having a bridge for their support on the cross piece. The instrument has no pins or screws, but every string is fastened by means of some linen wound with it around this cross piece. The description of this instrument is furnished by Niebuhr (“Thess.” i. p. 179). It is played on in two ways, either by being struck with the finger, or by a piece of leather, or perhaps a quill hung at its side and drawn across the strings. It cannot with certainty be determined when this instrument was invented, or when it came into use among the Hebrews. It is first mentioned in the time of Saul 1Sa_10:5, and from this time onward it is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. It was used particularly in the public worship of God; 2Sa_6:5; 1Ki_10:12; 2Ch_20:28; 2Ch_29:25; 1Ch_15:16; 1Ch_16:5. It was usually accompanied with other instruments, and was also used in festivals and entertainments; see “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 357-365. The usual form of representing it is shown in the preceding cut, and is the form in which the lyre appears on ancient monuments, in connection with the statues of Apollo.
The drawing in the book is a representation of a lyre from a Jewish shekel of the time of Simon Maccabeus, and may have been, not improbably, a form in frequent use among the Jews.
Niebuhr has furnished us with an instrument from the East, which is supposed to bare a very near resemblance to that which is referred to by Isaiah. This instrument is represented by the picture in the book.
The tabret - תף tôph. This was one of the instruments which were struck with the hands. It was the kettle-drum of the ancients, and it is more easy to determine its form and use than it is of most of the instruments used by the Hebrews. The Septuagint and other Greek translators render it by τύμπανον tumpanon. This word, as well as the Latin tympanum, is manifestly derived from the Hebrew. The Arabic word “duf” applied to the same instrument is also derived from the same Hebrew word. It was an instrument of wood, hollowed out, and covered over with leather and struck with the hands - a species of drum, This form of the drum is used by the Spaniards, and they have preserved it ever since the time of the Moors. It was early used. Laban wished to accompany Jacob with its sound; Gen_31:27. Miriam, the sister of Moses, and the females with her, accompanied the song of victory with this instrument; Exo_15:20.
Job was acquainted with it Job_17:6; Job_21:12, and David employed it in the festivities of religion; 2Sa_6:5. The occasions on which it is mentioned as being used are joyful occasions, and for the most part those who play on it are females, and on this account they are called ‘drum-beating women’ Psa_68:26 - in our translation, ‘damsels playing with timbrels,’ In our translation it is rendered “tabret,” Isa_5:12; 1Sa_10:5; Gen_31:26; Isa_24:8; Isa_30:32; 1Sa_18:6; Eze_38:13; Jer_31:4; Job_17:6; “tabering,” Nah_2:7; and “timbrel,” Psa_81:2; Exo_15:20; Job_21:12; Psa_149:3; Psa_150:4; Jdg_11:34; Psa_68:25. It is no where mentioned as employed in war or warlike transactions. It was sometimes made by merely stretching leather over a wooden hoop, and thus answered to the instrument known among us as the tambourine. It was in the form of a sieve, and is often found on ancient monuments, and particularly in the hands of Cybele. In the East, there is now no instrument more common than this.
Niebuhr (Thes i. p. 181) has given the following description of it: ‘It is a broad hoop covered on one side with a stretched skin. In the rim there are usually thin round pullies or wheels of metal which make some noise, when this drum, held on high with one hand, is struck with the fingers of the other hand. No musical instrument perhaps is so much employed in Turkey as this. When the females in their harems dance or sing, the time is always beat on this instrument. It is called doff.’ See “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 398-402. it is commonly supposed that from the word “toph, Tophet” is derived - a name given to the valley of Jehoshaphat near Jerusalem, because this instrument was used there to drown the cries of children when sacrificed to Moloch.
And pipe. - חליל châlı̂yl. This word is derived either from חלל châlal, “to bore through,” and thence conveys the idea of a flute bored through, and furnished with holes (“Gesenius”); or from חלל châlal, “to leap” or “to dance;” and thence it conveys the idea of an instrument that was played on at the dance. - “Pfeiffer.”
The Greek translators have always rendered it by αὐλός aulos. There are, in all, but four places where it occurs in the Old Testament; 1Ki_1:40; Isa_5:12; Isa_30:29; Jer_48:36; and it is uniformly rendered “pipe or pipes,” by our translators. The origin of the pipe is unknown. It was possessed by most ancient nations, though it differed much in form. It was made sometimes of wood, at others of reed, at others of the bones of animals, horns, etc. The “box-wood” has been the common material out of which it was made. It was sometimes used for plaintive music (compare Mat_9:23); but it was also employed in connection with other instruments, while journeying up to Jerusalem to attend the great feasts there; see the note at Isa_30:29. Though employed on plaintive occasions, yet it was also employed in times of joy and pleasure. Hence, in the times of Judas Maccabeus, the Jews complained ‘that all joy had vanished from Jacob, and, that the flute and cithera were silent;’ 1 Macc. 3:45; see “Bib. Repos.” vol. vi. pp. 387-392. The graceful figures (shown in the book) will show the manner of playing the flute or pipe among the Greeks. It was also a common art to play the double flute or pipe, in the East, in the manner represented in the book. In the use of these instruments, in itself there could be no impropriety. That which the prophet rebuked was, that they employed them not for praise, or even for innocent amusement, but that they introduced them to their feasts of revelry, and thus made them the occasion of forgetting God. Forgetfulness of God, in connection with music and dancing, is beautifully described by Job:
They send forth their little ones like a flock,
And their children dance;
They take the timbrel and harp,
And rejoice at the sound of the organ;
They spend their days in mirth,
And in a moment go down to the grave.
And they say unto God -
‘Depart from us;
For we know not the knowledge of thy ways.
What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
And what profit should we have if we pray unto him?’
In their feasts - ‘The Nabathaeans of Arabia Petrea always introduced music at their entertainments (Strabo, xvi.), and the custom seems to have been very general among the ancients. They are mentioned as having been essential among the Greeks, from the earliest times; and are pronounced by Homer to be requisite at a feast:
Μολπή τ ̓ ὀρχηστύ; τε τά γάρ τ ̓ ἀναθήματα δαιτός.
Molpē t' orchēstu; te ta gar t' anathēmata daitos.
Odyssey i. 152.
Aristoxenus, quoted by Plutarch, “De Musica,” says, that ‘the music was designed to counteract the effects of inebriety, for as wine discomposes the body and the mind, so music has the power of soothing them, and of restoring their previous calmness and tranquility.’ “See Wilkinsoh’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians,” vol. ii. pp. 248, 249.
But they regard not ... - The reproof is especially, that they forget him in their entertainments. They employ music to inflame their passions; and amid their songs and wine, their hearts are drawn away from God. That this is the tendency of such feasts, all must know. God is commonly forgotten in such places; and even the sweetest music is made the occasion for stealing the affections from him, and of inflaming the passions, instead of being employed to soften the feelings of the soul, and raise the heart to God.
The operation of his hands - The work of his hands - particularly his dealings among the people. God is round about them with mercy and judgment, but they do not perceive him.