In Bible times, a percussion instrument similar to modern cymbals, used to accompany the harp, trumpet, and other instruments. (2Sa 6:5; 1Ch 15:28; 2Ch 5:12, 13) The two Hebrew words for cymbals (tsel·tselimʹ and metsil·taʹyim) come from the root tsa·lalʹ, meaning “tingle; quiver.” (1Sa 3:11; Hab 3:16) According to 1 Chronicles 15:19, the cymbals for Jehovah’s temple were made of copper, but beyond this there is no further Scriptural description. A pair of cymbals have been found in an ancient Egyptian tomb that may be somewhat representative of Biblical cymbals. They are about 14 cm (5.5 in.) in diameter with handles in the center, and they were made of copper alloyed with a slight amount of silver.
Psalm 150:5 indicates that more than one type of cymbal may have been known in Israel. The first occurrence of the term in this text describes “cymbals of melodious sound,” while the second reference is to “clashing cymbals.” Because each stanza of verses 3 and 4 of this song refers to one or more different musical instruments, the two stanzas of verse 5 could quite consistently be referring first to smaller, tinkling cymbals and, second, to cymbals of a larger diameter producing louder, deeper-toned sounds, when clashed together in heavy strokes.
The figure of “a clashing cymbal” is used by the apostle Paul to illustrate the shallowness of one’s speaking in tongues, if the motive of love is lacking. (1Co 13:1) However, other references to cymbals, in addition to those already mentioned, are in connection with the worship of Jehovah. (1Ch 13:8; 16:5, 42; 25:1, 6; 2Ch 29:25; Ezr 3:10; Ne 12:27) Whenever temple service was involved, trained Levites were the instrumentalists. (1Ch 16:4, 5, 42) While some scholars are inclined to believe that cymbals were strictly a Levitical and even a priestly instrument, Psalm 150:1, 5 may indicate a more general usage: “Praise Jah, you people! . . . Praise him with the cymbals.”