Dance of Death

by Wellesley Muir

A pastor grapples with an invitation. What would you have done?

Music began to play in a restaurant where my friends were enjoying a Saturday night treat. Their-five-year-old boy climbed off his stool, stepped out onto the floor and began to dance. The father gazed at him. "Where did you learn that?" he asked. "I didn't learn it, Daddy. The music makes me do it." Webster describes dance as "a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements usually performed to music."1

Wedding Reception Dilemma

The bride grew up in Bangkok, Thailand where my wife and I served as missionaries. Preparing to marry a Canadian, Sue, a Thai and not a church member, asked me to conduct the wedding ceremony. The groom invited me to pray for God's blessing on the food at the reception after the wedding.

My wife and I arrived early at Bangkok's Marriott Riverside Hotel. Not accustomed to this kind of luxury, we felt out of place when we were seated at a table near the stage. One look at the menu revealed real trouble. Shark fin soup, suckling pig, roast duck, chicken--the only vegetarian food listed was the dessert.

When the bride discovered our dilemma, she and the groom left their table with relatives and joined us. "You'll have to wait about 20 minutes," she said. "I've ordered vegetarian food." All the other tables were served a whole young pig. The bride and groom stayed and ate vegetarian food with us.

Dance With Me?

Half way through the ten-course meal, the bridal couple left our table and started dancing. Suddenly the bride was back standing by my side. "Pastor," she asked, "will you dance with me?"

Now what am I going to do? I questioned myself. There's not a single text in the Bible saying, "You shall not dance." After reading our church wedding policy, these people had taken off all their jewelry and adornment for the wedding ceremony. The groom had commented, "We don't want to offend your church members."

Now I'm on their turf, I thought. I don't want to offend them, but I also want to honor Jesus. I smiled at the bride, "Thank you very much. I hope you understand, but I don't dance. Because of my religious convictions, I've never danced in my life." The groom looked puzzled when my wife, too, explained that she doesn't dance.

Christ is the Bridegroom and the church is the bride. We want to rejoice with Jesus soon, but why don't we dance? To begin our study, let's look at our Church Manual.

"We are called to be a godly people who think, feel, and act in harmony with the principles of heaven. . . This means that our . . . entertainment should meet the highest standards of Christian taste and beauty. . . . `Many of the amusements popular in the world today, even with those who claim to be Christians, tend to the same end as did those of the heathen. . . . Satan employs [the dance] to break down the barriers of principle and open the door to sensual indulgence.'--Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 459, 460. . . .

"Another form of amusement that has an evil influence is social dancing. `The amusement of dancing, as conducted at the present day, is a school of depravity, a fearful curse to society.'--Messages to Young People, p. 399. . . . In the Christian life there is complete separation from worldly practices, such as . . . dancing, et cetera, which tend to deaden and destroy the spiritual life."2

Dancing in the Bible

You've read how Moses came down the mountain carrying God's ten commandments of love on two tablets of stone. Scripture records, ". . . as he came near the camp, . . . he saw . . . dancing. So Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain" (Ex 32:19; NKJV used throughout except as noted).

Why did Moses get angry? The golden calf--sure! But more. Dancing! Moses had lived with his mother for 12 years. At about age 13 [12, according to The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, p. 164--Ed.], he had gone to live in Pharaoh's palace. Historians trace the history of dancing back to ancient Egypt. Even as a teenager, Moses must have been invited to dance many times. With God guiding his life, he could say, "No thank you. I don't dance."

Paul reminds us that young Moses chose rather to suffer "with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Heb 11:25). Moses had resisted the pressure to take part in worldly pleasure. Now it troubled him that God's people were so quick to allow the Devil to lead them back to the dancing and idolatry of Egypt while claiming to worship the Lord.

Moses faced his brother, whom he had left in charge of the camp. "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" (Ex 32:21). Aaron understood the wickedness of dancing and idolatry. He responded, "You know the people, that they are set on evil" (v. 22).

How did God feel about this sin at Sinai? He declared, "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book" (v. 33). The "Lord plagued the people because of what they did" (v. 35). For some 3,000 who died after dancing at the foot of Mount Sinai, it was a dance of death.

Some today are suggesting that Psalm 149:3 teaches us to worship God with dance. The verse says, "Let them praise his name in the dance" (KJV). The marginal reference in my Oxford University Press edition of the King James Version gives an alternate translation of the original. For with the dance it says, "or, with the pipe." Psalm 150:3-5 lists eight musical instruments which can be used to praise the Lord; the list includes the pipe if you take the marginal reference for "dance" in verse 4.

And what is a pipe? Check any Bible Dictionary including the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, Volume 8 of the Commentary series, and you will find that the pipe was probably a flute or a reed instrument. There is a lot of difference between praising God with dance and praising Him with a flute or shepherd's pipe.

One thing is sure. God did not ask the Israelites to stop dancing at Sinai and then inspire David to write that we should worship Him with dance. The Douay version of the Bible, which is translated from the Latin Vulgate, uses the word choir instead of dance in both Psalm 149:3 and Psalm 150:4. Translators may not agree on the exact word to use in these texts, but dance is not a correct translation. God does not contradict Himself.

Those who want the church to change its attitude toward dancing need to ask, "What God am I worshiping?" At Sinai, the God of heaven told Moses to get off the mountain. He said, "For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves" (Ex 32:7). Dancing corrupts, worshiping another god corrupts. Are we going to corrupt ourselves by bringing dancing into our worship services? Will those who dance in church on Sabbath morning find it easier to dance with the world on Saturday night?

Ellen White writes, "How often, in our own day, is the love of pleasure disguised by a `form of godliness'! A religion that permits men, while observing the rites of worship, to devote themselves to selfish or sensual gratification, is as pleasing to the multitudes now as in the days of Israel. And there are still pliant Aarons, who, while holding positions of authority in the church, will yield to the desires of the unconsecrated, and thus encourage them in sin" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 317).


Dancing at Jordan

At Jordan, Israel prepared to enter the promised land. For 40 years the world had marveled at miracles performed by God to protect His people. Many in heathen nations feared for their lives. For a promise of wealth Balaam tried to curse God's people. Failing to accomplish his evil mission, he connived with the king of Moab to seduce Israel to sin. "Invite them to a great festival," he suggested. Secretly working for the Moabites, Balaam urged the Israelites to attend (ibid., p. 454).

"Beguiled by music and dancing" and beautiful women, God's people drank wine, committed adultery and bowed to idols (ibid.). A plague followed. And talk about a dance of death, Numbers 25:9 says, "Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand." Many others repented, and Moses led the people in battle with the Moabites. Balaam, who had promoted the whole wicked scheme, got caught in the battle and died (Num 31:8).

Dancing Babylonians

Referring to Belshazzar's Babylonian banquet in Daniel 5, Ellen White reminds us: "On this occasion there was music and dancing and wine-drinking. . . . Decorated women with their enchantments were among the revelers" (The Youth's Instructor, May 19, 1898). Daniel tells the rest of the story: "That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain" (Dan 5:30). For dancing Babylonians, it was another dance of death.

Folk Dancing

My grandparents came from Scotland where people do the highland fling and dance the jig. Bagpipe music and drums set the mood for a very lively dance. Before he died, my oldest uncle told me that dancing was one of his greatest temptations as a teenager. It kept him out of the church for years.

My wife, Evelyn, and I lived for seven years by the shores of Lake Titicaca high in the Andes of Peru. Fiestas with dancing are part of the culture. If you watch, your first reaction might be, "It's only harmless folk dancing." The reality is that this colorful dancing is often followed by drunkenness and sex orgies.

Pioneer missionaries like Elder F. A. Stahl recognized the danger and taught the people to separate from worldly pleasure and refrain from dancing. God's work in this difficult part of the world has grown in a marvelous manner to where now one in every 16 people living around Lake Titicaca is a Seventh-day Adventist.

While we enjoyed our vegetarian meal at the Marriott wedding reception, the emcee introduced a Thai dancer. The girl, dressed in a revealing outfit and decked with jewelry, moved gracefully around the banquet hall while hypnotic music poured from the sound system. Viewing this typical Thai ramwong dance, I asked myself questions.

Is this what Jesus wants me to watch? Should Adventist girls dance like this? Is this entertainment beneficial for Christians? Words of Job flashed in my mind. "I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman?" (Job 31:1). David clinches it when he exclaims, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes" (Ps 101:3). Christian gentlemen will not find joy watching scantily clad women perform. Jesus clearly warns against looking and lusting (see Mt 5:28).

Just because something is part of the culture does not make it right.

Cabarets in Bangkok featuring music, dancing, drinking, and prostitution are not holy places. The roots of this activity reach back to folk dancing in the villages. A feature article in the Bangkok Post states, "Cabarets were a direct descendant of the Thai ramwong dances found in almost every town and at every fair."3 The secular press sees dance as a factor in Thailand's prostitution problem.

Just because something is part of the culture does not make it right. God called His people out of Egypt. He calls us out of Babylon. Jesus calls us to leave the world and its pleasures and follow Him.

Look up dance in your encyclopedia. You can circle the globe--Boston, Bombay, Bangkok or some remote village in the Andes or Amazon--and when the music begins to play, people often start to dance. Whether it's disco dancing, folk dancing, or dozens of other dancing styles, Satan uses this pleasure to help people forget God.

Ellen White wrote: "To those who plead for these diversions, we answer, We cannot indulge in them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Review and Herald, Feb. 28, 1882). She noted that not all dancing is equally bad, but cautioned, "Yet all are steps in the path of dissipation" (ibid.). After acknowledging that some consider dancing to be a quiet home amusement, she warned: "But a love for these exciting pleasures is thus cultivated, and that which was considered harmless at home will not long be regarded dangerous abroad" (ibid.).

Birthday Dance

Two thousand years ago a stunning young woman dressed in an enchanting manner performed for guests at a birthday party. She appeared with sparkling jewels, flashing bracelets, little covering and less modesty. Matthew writes, "But when Herod's birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod" (Mt 14:6).

He offered the charming dancer anything she wanted. You know the rest of the story. Salome walked away with the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. One of the greatest prophets lost his life at a birthday dance of death. And many would have called it "harmless folk dancing."

Back in Bangkok, my wife and I left the worldly wedding reception thanking God for the high standards of our church. Dancing in any form is a step in the wrong direction. The master deceiver uses rhythm in music and dancing to help people forget God. The Bible shows that when God's people start dancing, they soon get caught up in other sins, and the result is names being blotted out of Heaven's Book of Life.

"God requires of His people now as great a distinction from the world, in customs, habits, and principles, as He required of Israel anciently. . . . Christ speaks to us, `Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.' 1 John 2:15" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 458).

"Who Is on the Lord's Side?"

Moses stopped the dancing at the foot of Mount Sinai. Then he asked the important question, "Who is on the Lord's side?" (see Ex 32:26). You and I must journey to the foot of the Cross. As we look to Jesus and understand His love for us, dancing of every kind will lose its attraction. We will determine to live to please Him and be ready for His coming.

Jumping for Joy

"David's dancing in reverent joy before God has been cited by pleasure lovers in justification of the fashionable modern dance, but there is no ground for such an argument. . . . The music and dancing in joyful praise to God at the removal of the ark had not the faintest resemblance to the dissipation of modern dancing. The one tended to the remembrance of God and exalted His holy name. The other is a device of Satan to cause men to forget God and dishonor Him" (The Adventist Home, p. 517).

Ellen White is right. I'm no Hebrew scholar, but I looked up texts dealing with David's dancing and then checked Strong's Concordance for the original meanings. One verse in the King James Version describes David as "leaping and dancing before the Lord" (2 Sam 6:16). The word dancingmay also mean whirling. I checked my New King James Version and here is what it says: "leaping and whirling before the Lord."

Describing the same incident, the King James Version uses "dancing" in 1 Chronicles 15:29. Strong's gives other meanings such as "spring about wildly or for joy; jump, leap, skip." This verse in the New King James Version has David "whirling and playing music," not dancing. The original Hebrew uses totally different words to describe what David did and to portray Israel's dancing when going astray. No wonder another dictionary definition of dancing is simply "to move up and down or about in a quick or lively manner."4

We were back in the U. S. when I went to the airport to pick up my daughter and granddaughters. Four-year-old Melissa saw me and started jumping (I could say dancing) up and down shouting, "Grandpa, Grandpa, Grandpa!"

Today, we wait for Christ to come. Won't it be wonderful to look up and exclaim, "Jesus, Jesus--Jesus, I love you!" He will take us to heaven for the greatest wedding reception in the history of the universe. "Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready" (Rev 19:7).

We can dance with the devil or rejoice with Jesus. It's our choice. I was giving Bible studies to a Baptist family and wondered how they would react to the subject of Christian standards. I'll never forget the words of the wife as we finished the study. She said, "I'd rather walk awkwardly into heaven than to dance gracefully into hell."


1Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986.

2Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 1995 ed., pp. 14, 152, 153, 192.

3. "Prostitution: Facing Hard Facts," The Bangkok Post (Perspective), p. 17, The Sunday Post,December 25, 1994.

4Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1986.