Section 1. “The Title to the Book of Psalm.”
The general title to the Book of Psalms in Hebrew isתהלים Tehilliym, Psalms, or more fully, תהלים ספר Sêpher Tehilliym, “Book of Psalms?” Sometimes a shorter title is used - תלים Tilliym. Other terms are used as appropriate to particular psalms, as מזמורים mizmôriym, or שׁירים shîyriym, songs; or in the singular, מזמור mizmôr, and שׁיר shîyr, a song. These latter titles, however, are not given to the entire collection, but to particular psalms. The former title - מזמור mizmôr - is given to Psa 3:1-8; Psa 4:1-8; Psa 5:1-12; Psa 6:1-10; Psa 8:1-9; Ps. 9; Psa 12:1-8; Psa 13:1-6; Psa 15:1-5; Psa 19:1-14; Psa 20:1-9; Psa 21:1-13; Ps. 22; Psa 23:1-6; and to 39 others, the last being Psa 143:1-12, rendered uniformly “a psalm.” The latter title, שׁיר shîyr, occurs in Psa 30:1-12; Ps. 45; Psa 46:1-11; and in 27 other psalms, the last being Psa 134:1-3, and is uniformly rendered “song,” though it is sometimes connected with the word מזמור mizmôr, psalm, and rendered “A song and psalm,” as in Psa 48:1-14; Psa 65:1-13; Ps. 66; Psa 67:1-7; Ps. 68; Ps. 69; Psa 75:1-10; Ps. 83; Psa 87:1-7; Ps. 88; and in Psa 122:1-9; Psa 123:1-4; Psa 124:1-8 it is connected with the word degrees: “A song of degrees.”
The wordתהלים Tehilliym is derived from the verb - הלל hâlal, to praise, as in the word “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” The name is given to the general collection, because praise, more than anything else, is the characteristic of the book, and because the collection seems to have been designed to be used in the public praise or worship of God. They were all probably thus used in Hebrew worship.
The word “Psalms,” as applied to the collection, we have derived from the Greek translation, the wordψαλμοὶ psalmoi, in the plural - “psalmos” (a psalm) and “psalmoi” (psalms). This word is derived from ψάλλω psallō, to touch, to twitch, to pluck - as the hair or beard; and then, to touch or twitch a string, “to twang,” that is, to cause it to vibrate by touching or twitching it with the finger or with a “plectrum” (πλῆκτρον plēktron) - an instrument for striking the strings of a lyre, as a quill. Cic. N. D., 2. 59. Hence, the word is applied to instruments of music employed in praise, and then to acts of praise in general. The noun - ψαλμός psalmos, - “psalm,” means properly “a touching, twang,” as of a bowstring, or of stringed instruments; then a song, as accompanying stringed instruments; and then specifically a psalm or song of praise to God. Thus, the verb - ψάλλω psallō, - is used in the New Testament as denoting “praise” in the following places: Rom 15:9, “I will confess ... and “sing” unto Thy name;” 1Co 14:15, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding;” Eph 5:19, “Singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” Jam 5:13, “Is any merry? let him sing psalms.”
The verb does not elsewhere occur in the New Testament. The “noun” -ψαλμός psalmos, - is used in the New Testament in the following places as denoting psalms in general: 1Co 14:26, “Every one of you hath a psalm;” Eph 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms;” Col 3:16, “Admonishing one another in psalms.” In the following places it is applied in the New Testament to the Book of Psalms, considered as a collection of songs of praise; - Luk 20:42, “David himself saith in the Book of Psalms;” - Luk 24:44, “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me:” see the notes on that passage; - Act 1:20, “It is written in the Book of Psalms;” - Act 13:33, “It is also written in the second psalm.” The word does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament.
Section 2. “The Authors of the Psalm.”
The Psalms thus collected into a book are by no means the production of one poet or one age. They stretch through a long period of Jewish history, certainly from the time of Moses to the time of the return from the captivity of Babylon, and probably later, and they are modified by all the varieties incident to the peculiarities of their respective authors; to individual and national history; to the times in which they were composed. So many of them, however, are the composition of David, that it is customary to speak of them as “The Psalms of David,” though it is probable that not much more than half of the psalms in the collection were written by him. Of the 150 psalms comprising the collection, according to the enumeration in the Hebrew manuscripts, not quite one half are usually ascribed to him. According to DeWette, 74; to Kennicott, 66; to DeRossi, 67; to Rosenmuller and Eichhorn, 71; and to Hengstenberg, 80. It is probable, however, that a portion of the psalms to which no name is prefixed in the title - but how great a portion it is impossible now to determine - is the production of David. Still, so many are known to have been composed by him, and he was so eminent as a poet, as to justify the language which is so frequently employed when they are called familiarly “The Psalms of David.”
The following persons are mentioned in the titles as authors of psalms:
(1) One psalm Ps. 90 is ascribed to Moses. In regard to the question whether this is to be regarded as a composition of Moses, see the notes on the psalm. No other psalm in the collection is ascribed to him, though not a few specimens of his poetry are preserved in the Pentateuch. Why this was not incorporated with his other writings, or how it was preserved until it obtained a permanent place in the Book of Psalms, cannot now be determined.
(2) David occupies a prominent position as the author of many of the psalms in the collection, but, as has been remarked above, critics are divided in opinion as to the exact number that should be ascribed to him. In the Hebrew inscriptions of the Psalms, 68 are attributed to him. The difference between this number and that noted above in regard to the opinions of DeWette, Kennicott, DeRossi, Rosenmuller, Eichhorn, Hengstenberg, and others, arises from the variations in the manuscripts in respect to these inscriptions; the different value attached to these inscriptions by various critics; the fact that some psalms, though without a title in the Hebrew, are supposed to be so certainly the production of David as to make it proper to ascribe them to him; and the fact that some of the psalms ascribed to him are supposed by different writers to belong to a later period of the Jewish history than his time, and that, consequently, the title by which they are attributed to David is an error. There is every reason to suppose that some of the psalms now without a title are the composition of David, though it is not known, and cannot now be known, why they are not ascribed to him in the titles of the psalms themselves. In consequence of these facts, it is impossible now to determine with exact precision how many of the psalms are to be ascribed to David; though the number is undoubtedly so great that he is to be regarded as the principal author of the collection.
(3) Twelve of the psalms, Ps. 50; Ps. 73; Ps. 74; Psa 75:1-10; Psa 76:1-12; Ps. 77; Ps. 78; Psa 79:1-13; Ps. 80; Ps. 81; Psa 82:1-8; Ps. 83; are ascribed to Asaph. These, it will be seen, occupy a place together in the collection Ps. 63–83, with the exception of Psa 1:1-6. The reason for this arrangement cannot now be known. DeWette (Einleitung, III. iii.) supposes that, with the exception of Psa 1:1-6. and Ps. 73, these are improperly ascribed to Asaph, as, in his view, they pertain to later times of the Jewish history, Ps. 74; Psa 79:1-13 to the destruction of the temple and the city; Ps. 80 to the Exile, etc. Compare the notes on the introduction to those psalms (Ps. 74; Ps. 79; Ps. 80).
(4) Eleven of the psalms, Psa 42:1-11; Ps. 44; Ps. 45; Psa 46:1-11; Psa 47:1-9; Psa 48:1-14; Ps. 49; Psa 84:1-12; Psa 85:1-13; Psa 87:1-7; Ps. 88; are ascribed to “the sons of Korah,” as the authors, or are “for the sons of Korah.” See the notes to the introduction of Psa 42:1-11. It is not certain whether these were composed by “the sons of Korah,” or were composed for “the sons of Korah;” that is, for the company of musicians to whom the direction of the music in the temple was confided. It is obvious, however, that if the meaning is that they were composed by “the sons of Korah,” this furnishes no information as to the individual authorship of the psalms. By which one of them they were composed, or whether by more than one, of course is not indicated by a title so general. DeWette supposes that most of these psalms pertain to the times of the Exile, or to a later period. There is nothing very unique in the character of these psalms; nothing which in themselves could lead us to conclude that they were composed by those to whom they are ascribed, rather than by David or Asaph.
(5) Two psalms, Ps. 88; Ps. 89 are ascribed to a person called “The Ezrahite.” One of these, Ps. 88, is ascribed to” the Ezrahite,” and the other, Ps. 89, to Ethan the Ezrahite.” The former of these is also reckoned among those which pertain to the “sons of Korah.” Ethan and Heman were probably, however, different persons, to each of whom the name “Ezrahite” might for some reason be applied. In 1Ki 4:31, they are mentioned among others as remarkable for their wisdom: “For he, Solomon, was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol.” In 1Ch 2:6, they are mentioned as “sons of Zerah:” “Zimri, and Ethan, and Heman, and Calcol, and Dara.” In 1Ch 6:33, a Heman is mentioned as one of the “sons of the Kohathites:” “Heman, a singer, the son of Joel.” So, in 1Ch 15:17, he is mentioned in connection with Ethan, who is there said to be the son of Kushaiah; and in 1Ch 15:19, he is mentioned as associated with Asaph and Ethan: “So the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were appointed to sound with cymbals of brass.” In 1Ch 25:1, Helman is mentioned with Jeduthun, as one of those whose sons “should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals.” He is there referred to as associated with Asaph. Compare 2Ch 5:12; 2Ch 29:13-14; 2Ch 35:15. Ethan is twice mentioned - 1Ki 4:31 as above, as a wise man, and 1Ch 2:6, as above. Compare the notes on the introduction to Ps. 88; Ps. 89.
(6) Two of the psalms, Ps. 72 and Psa 127:1-5, are ascribed to Solomon, or are “for Solomon.” See the notes on the titles to those psalms (Ps. 72; Ps. 127). It cannot be positively determined whether those psalms are his composition, or whether they were composed with reference to him or for him. The latter would seem to be the more probable opinion in regard to Ps. 72, so far as can be determined from the contents of the psalm; but still there is nothing which absolutely prevents us from ascribing the two to him as the author.
(7) Fifteen of the psalms, Ps. 120–134, are entitled “Songs of Degrees.” Of these, four are ascribed to David and one to Solomon. The names of the authors of the others are not mentioned. Compare the introduction to the notes on Psa 120:1-7. They are grouped together because they appear to have been used on certain special occasions, rather than from anything special in the psalms themselves.
(8) Some of the psalms are ascribed in the Septuagint translation to Jeremiah, to Ezekiel, to Haggai, and to Zechariah. As there is nothing corresponding to this in the Hebrew titles, this must have been, of course, mere conjecture or tradition.
(9) There remains a pretty large number of the collection the names of whose authors are not mentioned; and, of course, there are now no means of determining the question in regard to the authorship. Such are s. 150. These, it will be seen, are irregularly scattered through the book, though they are, for the most part, near its close.
In regard to the origin and authority of the titles to the several psalms, see section 4.
Section 3. “The Formation of the Collection and Arrangement of the Book of Psalm.”
The Jewish Talmud (Cod. Berachot, 1, 9) ascribes the formation of the Psalter, or the assembling of the Book of Psalms, to David. It is unnecessary to remark that this cannot be a correct opinion, since many of the psalms are indubitably of a later date than the time of David. Most of the Christian fathers, and many critics of modern times, ascribe the collection and arrangement of the Book to Ezra, and this is now regarded as the most probable opinion; and if so the whole collection must have been formed about 450 years before Christ. But though this may be regarded as the correct opinion in regard to the completion of the whole as it now stands, yet there is evidence in the psalms themselves of the existence of smaller collections made before from which the general one was ultimately formed. By whom those smaller collections were made is not now known, nor can it be ascertained what changes may have been made in them when the general collection was formed.
The Book is divided in the Hebrew text into five minor books or collections, sufficiently marked in their character, and so indicated at the close of each as to make it every way probable that these may have been “published,” so to speak, in the form of different books, or that the later were additions to the first collection or volume. This division is found also in the Septuagint version - a fact which proves that it existed as early as the year 200 b.c. These portions bear marks of being not “arbitrary” divisions made at the time when the general collection was formed, but distinct and independent collections by different persons. The grouping is not precisely accurate, that is, in the first part, the “Psalms of David” Ps. 1–41, not all the psalms of David are included; and there are a few that are not ascribed to him in the title; but still it was so complete at the time, probably, as to make it proper to regard it as a collection of “his” psalms in respect to the purpose for which that collection was made.
The first book embraces the first 41 psalms, and was, probably, a collection of David’s psalms as such, although it does not embrace by any means all that he wrote, probably not all that were extant at the time when the collection was made. The “close” of this “book” is indicated by the words “Amen, and Amen,” Psa 41:13. All the psalms in this collection, except Psa 1:1-6; Psa 2:1-12; Ps. 10; Ps. 33; are expressly ascribed to David, and it is every way probable that all were composed by him. In many manuscripts, in the Septuagint, and in the Latin Vulgate, the first psalm is united with the second (as are, also, in other parts of the general collection, Psa 42:1-11 and Psa 43:1-5; and Ps. 116 and Psa 117:1-2). It is probable that this collection was early made, though DeWette has endeavored to show that it could not have been until after the exile, since he supposes that Psa 14:1-7 and Ps. 44 were composed after that event. Of this, however, there is no evidence. Of course it is impossible to determine by whom this collection was made. It has been supposed by some that it was as early as the time of Hezekiah, and that it was prepared under his direction, as he is known to have ordered a collection of the proverbs of Solomon to be made and written out Pro 25:1; and as 2Ch 29:30 he “commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David.” (Kitto, Encyclopedia)
The second book in the general collection comprises Ps. 42–72. This collection is made up of the psalms of “the sons of Korah,” Ps. 42–49; of one of the psalms of Asaph, Ps. 50; of 19 psalms of David; of two whose authors are not named; and of one inscribed “to Solomon,” or “for Solomon,” Ps. 72. At the end of this collection Psa 72:20 the following notice is given: “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended;” and some have supposed that this was the close of the entire psalms preceding it, as one book or collection, Ps. 1–72. Carpzov, Introduction ii. 107. But that this was a different collection, or that there were two collections made by different persons, seems evident from the fact that Psa 53:1-6 is the same as Psa 14:1-7; with only slight variations - the variations consisting mainly in the fact that the wordאלהים 'Elohiym is used as the name of God in the latter, in the place of יהוה Yahweh in the former. It cannot be supposed that a collector would have used the same psalm with such a variation in the same collection. So also Psa 70:1-5 is only a repetition of Psa 40:13-17, with only a similar change.
It may be “suggested” that these two collections may have been subsequently “united,” and may have constituted as one before the more general collection was made. Thus, the natural “close” of this collection, as of the first collection Psa 41:13, would be with the words “Amen, and Amen,” Psa 72:19. To the “entire” collection - the two combined - these words may have been added Psa 72:20, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended,” meaning that “now” an entire and complete collection of the Psalms of David had been made in the “two” combined; or, that “as many had been combined for public worship as were then intended to be used in that service.” This idea would not prevent the supposition that there may have been at that time, in fact, other psalms of David in existence; or that they might have been subsequently introduced into the worship of God in “other” collections.
The third book Ps. 73–89 consists in part Ps. 73–83 of psalms of Asaph, and in part Ps. 84–89 of the psalms of the sons of Korah, including one of David Ps. 86. The book contains none of the psalms of David, with the exception of Ps. 86; and therefore the notice is given at the end of the second book Psa 72:20, that “the prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” It was evidently the design of the author of the compilation at the “close” of that book not to admit in the following book any of the psalms of David; perhaps it was the intention “not” to collect anymore of the psalms of David for the purpose of public worship. Possibly, as DeWette (Einleitung, p. 21) suggests, the author of the collection in the third book put the notice at the end of the second book that David’s psalms ended there, it being his intention to make a collection of another kind. when this collection was made is unknown. From Psa 85:1-13 it would seem probable that it was made as late as the return from the captivity at Babylon. That psalm may have been written by one of the company called “the sons of Korah;” or it may have been composed for their use in the sanctuary. This collection closes, like the two former, with the expressive “Amen, and Amen,” Psa 89:52,
The fourth collection Ps. 90–106 is made up wholly of anonymous psalms, with the exception of Ps. 90, which is ascribed to Moses, and Psa 101:1-8; Ps. 103; which are ascribed to David. They are psalms which have almost no local references or allusions, which might, for the most part, have been composed in any country or at any period of the world; and which, in their structure and allusions, give no indication of their authors or of the circumstances which led to their composition. Their authorship, except in the three instances above mentioned, cannot now be ascertained; nor is it necessary to determine that question in order fully to understand and appreciate them. They were manifestly designed for public worship, and probably written with the intention of being so used. This book closes Psa 106:48 with the expression “Amen, Hallelujah.”
The fifth and last book Ps. 107–150, is miscellaneous in its character, and seems to have been intended to be a collection of all the scattered psalms which would be proper for public worship, which had not found a place in the other collections. Part (Psa 108:1-13; Ps. 109; Psa 110:1-7; Psa 122:1-9; Psa 124:1-8; Psa 131:1-3; Psa 133:1-3; the four last being among the “Songs of Degrees,” Psa 138:1-8; Ps. 139; Psa 140:1-13; Psa 141:1-10; Psa 142:1-7; Psa 143:1-12; Psa 144:1-15; Ps. 145) are ascribed to David. Part Ps. 120–134 consist of the “Songs of Degrees.” The rest Ps. 107; Psa 111:1-10; Psa 112:1-10; Psa 113:1-9; Psa 114:1-8; Ps. 115; Ps. 116; Psa 117:1-2; Ps. 118; Ps. 119; Ps. 135; Ps. 136; Psa 137:1-9; Psa 146:1-10; Ps. 147; Psa 148:1-14; Psa 149:1-9; Psa 150:1-6 are anonymous. By whom, and when this last collection was made is unknown. It may without improbability, however, be supposed perhaps that it was made by the person (Ezra?) who undertook to collect into one the entire “books” already existing, and who found many psalms that had not been included by the collectors of the previous books, and who, therefore, grouped all these together in a single book, to be added in the general collection to those which had been already classified and arranged.
Section 4. “The Titles to the Several Psalm.”
All the psalms, except Ps. 34, now have in the Hebrew titles or superscriptions. Some, however, reckon only 25 exceptions, as, according to their view, the phrase, “Hallelujah,”” Praise ye the Lord,” occurring at the commencement of several of the psalms, is regarded by them as a title or superscription. The more correct supposition, however, undoubtedly is to regard that phrase as a part of the psalm. To each one of these exceptions the Talmud gives the name of “Orphan Psalms.”
(a) The “authorship” of these titles is unknown, and cannot now be ascertained. They are found in the Hebrew; but it is not to be supposed that, so far as the “name” of the author of the psalm is concerned, or so far as they are intended to indicate the author, they were prefixed to the psalm by the authors themselves. The Psalms are not of the nature of epistles or histories, and it cannot be supposed that the author would prefix his name to a mere poem or hymn. The probability, therefore, is, that they were prefixed to the psalms as they came into common use, or by the collectors of the several books, or the collector of the entire book, either as indicating what was the common opinion on the subject of the authorship, and the occasion on which they were composed, or as an inspired record in regard to that authorship and design. The question “by whom” they were prefixed is, however, a point which cannot now be determined. If it were possible to ascertain that, it would do much to determine their authority and worth, but the estimate of their value must now be settled by some other method than this.
(b) These titles are of great “antiquity.” The fact that they are found in the Hebrew manuscripts proves this, for there are no Hebrew manuscripts, however ancient, without them. They are found, with some variations, in the Septuagint; and it is thus certain that they existed before that translation was made. This point is also confirmed by the fact that the translators of the Septuagint have, in some instances, copied the Hebrew words in Greek letters, without attempting to translate them; and that, in other instances, the titles which they use are translations of the Hebrew words, and show that they must have been made from a Hebrew original. These facts, however, would not make it necessary to suppose that they had been prefixed by the writers themselves, nor would it be “necessary” to suppose that they were prefixed before the time when the psalms were collected - either the separate books, or the general collection.
(c) The “design” of these titles is either to designate the author of the psalm, or the occasion on which it was composed, or the chief singer to whom it was dedicated, and to whom it seems to have been committed to set it to appropriate music - that is, to arrange the music for a public use of the psalm; or the style of the poetry; or the instrument which was to be used; or the “tune” which was to be sung. Some of the titles simply designate the author, as in many of those ascribed to David; some describe at length the occasion on which they were written, as Ps. 18; Psa 30:1-12; Ps. 51; Psa 52:1-9; Psa 56:1-13; etc. Some combine several of these things together, the author, the occasion, the style of the poetry, the music to be used, etc., as Psa 52:1-9; Psa 53:1-6; Psa 54:1-7; Ps. 55; Psa 56:1-13. The longest and fullest of these titles is that prefixed to Psa 60:1-12; where we have the dedication to the chief musician, the name of the author, the style of the poetry, the design of the psalm, the instrument of music to be employed, and the historical occasion on which the psalm was composed.
(d) It is very difficult at this distance of time to explain the “meaning” of many of these titles, and critics have differed very materially in their conjectures on this subject. The difficulty arises in a considerable degree from our ignorance in regard to the temple-music, and to the instruments which were employed. The difficulty is the same which would exist two or three thousand years from the present time in explaining a book, now familiar, containing “tunes” of music, and a reference to the instruments of music which are now employed in the public service of God. It might be difficult, if not impossible, so to describe the exact instrument of music used as to be intelligible to a future age; and it would be obviously impossible to explain satisfactorily the “names” of many of the “tunes” which are now in common use - as “Mear,” “Martin’s,” “Russia, “Windham,” “Lenox.” The difficulty, as has been remarked above, was felt even at the time when the Septuagint version was made, as in several instances the authors of that version have not attempted even to translate the title, but have expressed it in Greek letters answering to the Hebrew. Coverdale, who translated the Bible in 1535, felt the difficulty to be so great that he has omitted nearly all the titles except the names of the authors. In these notes, as far as an explanation can now be given that is satisfactory or probable, it will be offered in the exposition of the particular psalms.
(e) There has been a wide difference of opinion respecting the “authority” of these titles. Not a few modern critics, especially German critics, regard them as of no authority, and argue in respect to the authorship of the psalms, and the time and occasion on which they were composed, as if no such titles were found in the Hebrew. By most of the ancient critics they were considered as genuine, and as having equal authority with the psalms themselves. They were wholly rejected at the close of the fourth century by Theodore of Mopsuestia, one of the ablest and most judicious of the ancient interpreters. Rosenmuller, Hist. Interp. Librorum Sacrorum, P. III, p. 256. Tholuck and Hengstenberg admit their authority. The “objections” to the authority of the title are such as these:
(1) That the “subscriptions” at the close of the epistles in the New Testament are now regarded as of no historical value, and it is asked why may not the same conclusion be adopted in regard to the titles “prefixed” to the psalms?
(2) that the ancient versions, the Syriac and the Greek especially, exhibit them with great variations, often altering the Hebrew, and sometimes giving a heading where the Hebrew has none. It is asked whether these ancient translators would have taken such liberties if the titles had been considered sacred like the psalms themselves? (Kitto). - It is added on this point, that “if ever Ezra settled them, the variations in versions and manuscripts have tended since to make them doubtful.” Eichhorn, “Einleitung,” III, p. 490.
(3) It is argued that the titles are at variance with the contents of the psalms. Thus, it is alleged that sometimes the name of the author is incorrectly given, “as when David is named over the psalms referring to the captivity,” as in Psa 14:1-7; Ps. 25; Ps. 51; Ps. 69. It is also alleged that Ps. 139 cannot be David’s, since it is not free from Aramaisms. It is also said that the occasion on which a psalm was composed is not always correctly specified, as in Psa 30:1-12.
It is to be observed, however, that these writers sometimes assume that a psalm refers to the time of the exile when it would be possible to explain it on the supposition that it was composed at an earlier date; and that it is not always safe to argue from the internal evidence of a psalm against the inscription. A critic affixes his own interpretation to a psalm, and then adopts that as a basis of argument in regard to its origin; whereas often, possibly in all cases, if the inscription were assumed to be correct, it would not be difficult to explain the psalm, by fair rules of interpretation, in accordance with that supposition.
On the whole, it seems to me that these inscriptions are to be regarded as a part of the inspired record, and as having the authority of inspiration. The fact that they are found in the Hebrew - that they can be traced back to the earliest periods when we have any knowledge of the Hebrew text - that they have come down to us with that text - furnishes proof which it seems we cannot now set aside; that they are to be regarded as a part of the text, and that they should not be rejected, except as any other portion of the Hebrew text should be rejected, i. e., only when it can be demonstrated that an error has crept into the text by the fault of transcribers.
Section 5. “The General Character of the Book of Psalm.”
The Psalms are mostly lyrical poetry, that is, poetry adapted to the harp or lyre; to be used in connection with instrumental music; to be “sung,” not “read.” Such poetry was common among the ancients, as it is among the moderns. Anacreon, Alcaeus, Stesichous, Sappho, and Horace were eminent among the ancients as “lyric” poets; and the numerous writers of “songs,” sacred and secular, among the moderns, are to be ranked in the same class. The phrase “lyric poetry” now, however, is frequently applied to that species of poetry which “directly expresses the individual emotions of the poet” (Webster).
Lyric poetry is, for the most part, an expression of deep feeling, and has its foundation in feeling or emotion. It is not so much the fruit of the understanding as of the heart; not so much the creation of the imagination as the utterance of deep personal emotion. It embraces in its design and nature all kinds of feeling, and may be joyous, pensive, desponding, triumphant, according to the feelings of the author, or to the occasion, for all these utterances may be sung, or may be set to music, the varying tones of music being adapted to express them all. Hence, in the Psalms, 150 in number, and composed by a considerable variety of individuals, and on many different occasions, we have the varied feelings of trouble, anguish, fear, hope, joy, trust, thankfulness, devotion to God, penitence for sin, and the exultation of forgiveness - the heart moved, and finding vent for its feelings in words adapted to the melody of the lyre, or the musical tones of the voice. These feelings are expressed in a great variety of modes or forms, and the music was intended, doubtless, to be in accordance with these varied feelings. The Psalms, therefore, comprise compositions of the following classes or orders:
(1) Hymns in which the praise of God is the principal and leading object, as
(a) in general, God is praised as the God of nature and of men, Psa 8:1-9; Ps. 104; Ps. 145;
(b) as the God of nature and of the Hebrew people, Psa 19:1-14; Psa 29:1-11; Ps. 33; Psa 65:1-13; Psa 93:1-5; Ps. 135; Ps. 136; Ps. 147;
(c) as uniquely the God of the Hebrew people, Psa 47:1-9; Ps. 66; Psa 67:1-7; Psa 75:1-10;
(d) as the helper and deliverer of his people, Psa 46:1-11; Psa 48:1-14; Psa 75:1-10; Psa 76:1-12; Ps. 18; Psa 30:1-12; Psa 138:1-8.
(2) Psalms pertaining to the Hebrew nation; to its history; to the Divine interposition in its behalf; and to its relation to Yahweh. Ps. Ps. 78; Ps. 105; Ps. 106; Psa 114:1-8.
(3) temple psalms, or songs of Zion. Psa 5:1-12; Psa 15:1-5; Psa 24:1-10; Psa 87:1-7; Ps. 132.
(4) Psalms in relation to trial, calamity, distress, whether of individuals or of the nation. These abound, as Ps. 7; Ps. 22; Ps. 55; Psa 56:1-13; Ps. 109; Ps. 44; Ps. 74; Psa 79:1-13; Ps. 80; Psa 137:1-9; Ps. 69; Ps. 77; Ps. 102; Ps. 10; Psa 12:1-8; Psa 14:1-7; Psa 36:1-12; and many others.
(5) Religious and moral psalms, Ps. 90; Ps. 139; Psa 23:1-6; Ps. 91; Psa 121:1-8; Psa 127:1-5; Psa 128:1-6; Psa 42:1-11; Psa 43:1-5; Psa 101:1-8; Psa 131:1-3; Psa 1:1-6; Psa 133:1-3; Ps. 119:
The uniqueness of the Hebrew lyrical poetry as distinguished from the lyrical poetry of other ancient people, and from most of the lyrical poetry in modern times, is its “religion.” It is lyrical poetry on subjects pertaining to religion, or to be employed in religion: as expressing religious feeling, and as designed to awaken and foster such feeling. It is intended to raise the heart and the affections toward God; to lift up the thoughts of men from the earth; to inspire confidence in God; to produce consolation as derived from God in times of trouble; to cheer and comfort man in his pilgrimage along a path of sorrow and trouble to a better abode. Much of it can be best characterized by an expression derived from the Bible itself - an expression no less remarkable for its beauty than its truthfulness - as “songs in the night” Job 35:10; songs indicating the joy that may spring up in the soul of man in times of distress and sorrow; songs that show that there “is” joy in the darkness of this world; songs which illustrate the power and the value of religion; songs with which men cheer themselves and each other in their journey toward the grave; songs which even the guilty may pour forth from hearts softened into penitence, and filled with thankfulness in the assurance of pardon.
It is most remarkable that this rich poetry should have sprung up in Palestine, and that it should have been confined to that land. It was not that the land was better adapted to lyric poetry than other lands - for in this respect it could not compare favorably with many other countries, and particularly with Greece. It was not that the events of their history had been such as peculiarly to suggest this kind of composition - for poetry adapted to the lyre or to music abounded elsewhere, and especially in Greece. It was not that the Hebrews had a more poetic imagination than other people - for theirs did not, in this respect, surpass the Greek genius, and whatever there was of poetic imagination in the character of their minds was found with equal richness in Arabia and Persia. Nor was it that their language was especiallly favorable for this kind of poetry - for in very many respects it was far inferior in this point to the Greek, and had no superiority certainly over the Arabian and Persian.
The fact that their poetry took this turn; the fact that all which they had was religious; the fact that there was literally no poetry in their language that was designed and adapted to the dance, to festive amusements, to Bacchanalian orgies, to scenes of gaiety, frivolity, and vanity; the fact that in all the lyric poetry of the Hebrews there is literally nothing in this respect that can be placed by the side of much in the Greek lyric poetry - much in Horace - much in Burns; by the side of the lyric poetry of all lands except Palestine, can be traced only to the idea that the new religion prevailed there, and can be best explained on the supposition that the authors of that poetry were inspired to prepare and transmit to future times that which, in all ages, would express the feelings of true devotion, and which might be permanently employed in the praises of God. He will fail to explain the fact that such poetry is found in Palestine alone, and will fail to appreciate its true nature, who does not admit that these “sweet singers” were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
On the general character of Hebrew poetry, see the introduction to the notes on the Book of Job, Section 5. On “the origin and culture of lyric poetry among the Hebrews,” it may be proper to introduce here the following remarks from DeWette’s “Commentar ueber die Psalmen,” Einleitung, II, pp. 6-12. I copy from the elegant translation of the introduction of DeWette, by Prof. John Torrey, in the Biblical Repository, Vol. III, pp. 450-456:
“If we follow the titles of the Psalms and the common opinion, we must suppose the lyric poetry of the Hebrews, as well as the largest portion of the Psalms themselves, a production of David and his contemporaries. The few specimens of lyric composition which we find before David scarcely enter into consideration, compared with the fertility of his own period. In the earlier history it is but occasionally that the voice of poetry is heard, as in the songs of Moses at the Red Sea, of Deborah, and of Hannah. We are surprised, after so few attempts in lyric poetry, to see so accomplished and fruitful a poet rise up all at once, with several others in his company. So rapid a progress supposes some adequate occasion, some preparatory steps. Now, if we cast our eye over the history of the times immediately preceding the age of David, we are presented with a phenomenon which seems to explain the difficulty.
It is Samuel’s school of the prophets. Many, as Herder, Eichhorn, Nachtigall, and Rosenmuller, suppose that the composition of psalms was cultivated and brought to perfection in this seminary. Specious as this conjecture appears, it is hardly reconcilable with the facts of the history. It is not intimated that David, before his unction, had any connection with Samuel. The former tends his father’s flock. Indeed Samuel appears to have had no acquaintance with David when he comes to anoint him, 1Sa 16:6 ff. Yet, David is already a skillful minstrel, and famed for his art, 1Sa 16:18; he was not, therefore, a disciple of Samuel, at least in minstrelsy. But it is well known that music and song at this period were not separated; we must therefore suppose that David was already a poet, and, as such, known and celebrated. Some time afterward, it is true, we find David in Samuel’s school of the prophets, but it is only on the occasion of his flight from Saul, 1Sa 19:18 ff.
It may be possible that Samuel had some acquaintance with David prior to his unction, though no mention is made of it in the account of that transaction, 1 Sam. 16. But he might have been an object of attention to the prophet without being properly his disciple; or perhaps the youth was his own instructor. Natural capacity, in connection with frequent practice, might produce the same degree of talent, to say the least, as an artificial system of instruction, like that which we may suppose to have prevailed in the prophetic school. At the same time, it would be an error to imagine that lyric poetry arose among the Hebrews all at once, as if it sprung out of the ground. David’s contemporaries, the women who celebrated with song and joy his victory over Goliath, practiced a species of poetry which, though rude and uncultivated, was truly lyric in its kind; their short poem, has already the form of the poetic parallelism, and an original and superior mind might easily advance from such a beginning to the highest degree of excellence.
Saul smote his thousands,
But David his ten thousands,
We find also, still earlier, in addition to the examples of Moses, Deborah, and Hannah, the practice, particularly among the women, of music and the dance, from which song certainly was not excluded. Jephthah’s daughter comes out to meet her father with timbrels and dances, Jdg 11:34. At Shiloh the maidens held a yearly feast with dances, Jdg 21:21. It may be questioned whether Samson was not a minstrel, for he is called out to play before the Philistines, Jdg 16:25, which is commonly understood to refer to the dance, but excludes not the accompaniments of song and instrumental music. But even if he was not, strictly speaking, a musician and singer, yet we meet in him with the first “Mashal” poet, as we have also from the same period the masterly apologue of Jotham. Such facts, though insulated, presuppose among a people a considerably high degree of cultivation, or at least of poetical capacity.
Indeed, the song of Deborah alone proves that the poetic art was already arrived at a stage of improvement sufficient to account for the origin of the Davidian poetry. Whether a period produces one admirable poem or more is a matter of chance rather than the result of the state of culture. Besides, the times of the judges and of Samuel constituted the heroic age of the Hebrews, a period peculiarly favorable to the first beginnings and gradual improvement of poetry. ‘Such times,’ says Eichhorn, ‘are poetical under every climate;’ but I cannot add with him, ‘that poetry, in this case, is like the nation, wild and heroic, breathes only in the warlike trump, and knows no field for practice but that of valor and victory with their attendant train.’ The occasions which first called forth the Hebrew poets were, probably enough, connected with war; but when poetry has once sprung into life, she confines herself to no such narrow limits, and draws still other objects within her circle. With feasts of victory, sacrifices, dances, and other rites were united, which might easily have tempered the song to a tone of somewhat softer character. Even warlike songs admit of the gentler emotions, and the song of Deborah is rich in touches of amiable feeling. When it is said they sung to the trumpet, we are certainly not to understand it in the literal sense; the music of the harp, of the flute, and of the timbrel, was the accompaniment even of the songs of war, and these instruments are adapted to the softest tones. We are not then obliged to trace the origin of the sweet and amiable poetry of David’s psalms exclusively to Samuel’s school of the prophets.
“Unfortunately we know far too little about the prophetic school of Samuel to determine what influence it had on the cultivation of poetry. The passages relating to it are 1Sa 10:5; 1Sa 19:19-20. In the first of these it is undoubtedly implied that the disciples of the prophets had music among them. and their ‘prophesying’ (התנבא hitenabē') has been understood, not without grounds, in the sense of song, for the word נביא nâbîy' sometimes signifies poet, Exo 15:20, and נבא nibâ', to sing, 1Ch 25:1 ff. We may suppose, however, that this music was employed simply as a support and accompaniment of the prophetic delivery. The prophets probably delivered their messages, in the earlier times at least, in connection with music and a vehement action and declamation approaching to a dance. The passage in 2Ki 3:15 ff. is remarkable. The prophet Elisha is about to pronounce the answer of the Lord to certain inquiries of Jehoshaphat; but before he does it, he asks for a minstrel; and as the latter strikes the harp, ‘the hand of Yahweh comes upon him,’ and he utters his reply.
The case here, it is true, is different; the prophet does not play and sing himself, but submits to the performance of another; still it shows the constant connection of music with the prophetic office. Neither is it distinctly asserted in the passages above that the company of the prophets “sung” themselves. The wordהתנבא hitenabē', which is there employed, may not perhaps signify “to sing,” for Saul and Saul’s messengers prophecy - התנבאוּ hitenabe'û - as soon as they hear the music, without preparation or practice. Their prophesying was perhaps nothing more than a vehement action, dancing, and gesticulation, as we see from the circumstance of Saul’s falling down naked. At the farthest, they might have joined in the choral song with the company of prophets. Such choral chants were perhaps sung in the school of Samuel, but only for the purposes of devotion and inspiration; and the proper design of this school was to educate youth for the prophetic office, that is, to give counsel from the Lord to a people under a theocratic government.
Samuel was a prophet, and history has preserved no remains of any poetical works of his. Is it not most probable that he was aiming to educate his disciples likewise for the prophetic office? Now, it is true that the Hebrews drew no accurate line of distinction between lyric poetry and prophetic eloquence; yet these two always differ, particularly in the mode of delivery, for the lyric poem was probably sung, while the prophetic message was only recited. Supposing, then, Samuel was employed in forming his disciples to be prophetic poets or speakers, what is more natural than to imagine that some of them might feel drawn by genius and inclination to lyric poetry, and succeed in perfecting themselves in this? Yet it lay out of the plan of the prophetic school, and was a thing quite accidental. It is hardly correct, therefore, to consider the prophetic school of Samuel simply as an institution for the cultivation of singing and poetry.
“There were other institutions which may have had an influence still more important and decided than this school of the prophets in promoting the culture of lyric poetry, especially of the religious kind. I refer particularly to those musical schools which, according to the account, 1Ch 15:16 ff. were founded by David in aid of the public worship. Yet I cannot retract the unfavorable opinion I once pronounced upon these and similar narratives in the Chronicles; I must rather confirm it. Besides the reasons there alleged, which I may not repeat, it seems to me to be a circumstance particularly calculated to excite suspicion, that the psalms and fragments of psalms represented by the Chronicles to have been sung at the dedication of the tabernacle and on similar occasions can hardly have been penned by David, but belong rather to the later and less pure style of the temple poetry. The psalm which is sung, 1Ch 16:8 ff, is composed Ps. 105 and Psa 96:1-13; but both are productions of a later style. If the Chronicles had presented us on this occasion with a genuine song of David, such as the elegy for which we are indebted to 2 Sam. 1; this circumstance would have contributed not a little to add weight to its authority, but the insertion of these fragments throws suspicion over the whole of the accompanying narrative. The phrase also, quoted 1Ch 16:41, and elsewhere, respecting the Levites who were appointed to give thanks to the Lord, ‘because his mercy endureth forever,’ betrays the later poetry of the temple, an example of which we have in Ps. 136, where this phrase forms a regular refrain; also Ps. 106; Ps. 107; Ps. 118; in which this phrase occurs appear to belong to a later style of poetry.
“We may imagine that a master like David would not be without companions and assistants in the poetic art; and, in fact, several of David’s contemporaries are named in the titles as composers of psalms: but these notices are not always good authority. Solomon, according to the testimony of history, united in himself such richness of lyric invention with the sententious style unique to him, that in his time lyric poetry must have attained to a very high degree of perfection. ‘Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five,’ 1Ki 4:32. It is singular, however, that with the exception of two which are quite uncertain, no psalms of Solomon are preserved in our present collection; nor do we find any psalm with the author’s name belonging to the period after Solomon, not even one which admits of being referred with certainty and of necessity to any particular event in the history of those times; and yet such lyric poems as those of Hezekiah and of Habakkuk clearly evince, that during this period the culture of lyric composition had by no means fallen into neglect.
On the contrary, we have many psalms which, according to the results of a sound critical exegesis almost universally acknowledged, must be placed in the times of the captivity, and after the captivity; and these psalms rank, for purity of language, and for sublimity, beauty, and freshness of conception, in the highest class, and are, in no respect, inferior to the poems of David and his contemporaries, for example, Ps. 45; Ps. 74; Psa 79:1-13; Ps. 107; and many, if not all, of the Psalms of Degrees. We are here presented, then, with a singular phenomenon. The lyric poetry of the Hebrews, which was cultivated and brought to perfection in the times of David, after producing abundance of fruit, sank into a repose of nearly 500 years, and then all at once, in the most calamitous period of the state, arose again, survived another golden age, and yielded a second harvest - a phenomenon hardly corresponding with the common course of events. The singularity, however, disappears as soon as we suppose that the collection of Psalms contains several pieces, either anonymous or incorrectly named, which belong to the period extending from David to the captivity. Indeed, it is in the highest degree probable that lyric composition flourished side by side with the prophetic poetry, and that many of the prophets themselves contributed to our present collection, and might reclaim their own productions from David and others. Some of the prophets, too, are actually named by the Septuagint as authors of psalms.”
Section 6. “The Imprecations in the Psalm.”
Much has been written on the subject of the imprecations in the Psalms, or, as they are called, “The imprecatory psalms;” and perhaps there is no part of the Bible that gives more perplexity and pain to its readers than this; perhaps nothing that constitutes a more plausible objection to the belief that the psalms are the productions of inspired men than the spirit of revenge which they sometimes seem to breathe, and the spirit of cherished malice and implacableness which the writers seem to manifest. There has been probably no explanation offered which has relieved the minds of those who are thus perplexed, or which has furnished a solution wholly satisfactory on the question how this spirit can be reconciled with the precepts of the New Testament and with the requirements of true religion. It is useless to attempt to disguise or to conceal the difficulty, and it may be admitted that most of the explanations which have been suggested leave the difficulty just where it was. Perhaps it is not possible for us to remove all such difficulty, or so to present the subject that questions may not be asked which it would be impossible to answer, and, indeed, what subject is there in mental philosophy, in natural science, in morals, or in theology, on which questions may not be asked which the human powers are not yet competent to answer? In regard to the growth of a blade of grass, questions may be asked which no chemist - no person - can answer.
With reference to the imprecations in the Psalms, it will be proper, first, to refer to some specimens of such psalms, that we may know where the difficulty lies; and then to consider in what way, if any, this difficulty may be solved.
The following are among the passages which would be referred to as belonging to that class of psalms. They are not, indeed, all that could be selected, but they are fair specimens, and there are no others that would involve any difficulty which are not found in these.
Psa 5:10, “destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions, for they have rebelled against thee.”
Psa 10:15, “break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness until thou find none.”
Psa 18:40-42, “thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that might destroy them that hate me. They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the Lord, but he answered them not. Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in streets.”
Psa 28:4, “give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.”
Psa 31:17, “let me not be ashamed, O Lord, for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”
Psa 35:3-8, “draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Let them be founded and put to shame that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind: and let the angel of the Lord chase them. Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them. For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit, which without cause they have digged for my soul. Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall.”
Psa 40:14, “let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it; let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil.”
Psa 55:9, “destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city.”
Psa 55:15, “let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick (alive, living) into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”
Psa 58:6-10, “break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun. Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath. The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
Psa 59:12-15, “for the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips let them even be taken in their pride: and for cursing and lying which they speak. Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be: and let them know that God ruleth in Jacob unto the ends of the earth. And at evening let them return; and let them make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city. Let them wander up and down for meat, and grudge if they be not satisfied.”
Psa 68:2, “as smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.”
Psa 69:22-25, “let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake. Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them. Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.”
Psa 79:12, “and render unto our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached thee, O Lord.”
Psa 83:9-17, “do unto them as unto the Midianites; as to Sisera, as to Jabin, at the brook of Kison: which perished at Endor: they became as dung for the earth. Make their nobles like Oreb, and like Zeeb; yea, all their princes as Zebah, and as Zalmunna ...O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind. As the fire burneth a wood, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire; so persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm. Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O Lord. Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish.”
Psa 109:6-15, “set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand. When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out. Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out. Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.”
Psa 137:7-9, “remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
These are specimens of the class of psalms now under consideration, and though the number might be somewhat increased, yet these examples embrace those which are most difficult to be explained, and involve all the difficulties to be found in this class of the psalms. None could be adduced which seem to breathe a more vindictive spirit than these do; none seem to be more opposed to the spirit of the New Testament. If, therefore, a solution can be suggested that would be satisfactory in regard to these passages, it would be easy to apply the principles of such a solution to all the similar passages in the Psalms.
The inquiry then occurs in what way, if in any way, the difficulty is to be solved, or what explanations can be suggested.
On this subject the following remarks may be made:
(1) Whatever difficulty there exists is created by the Bible itself. The record is one which the sacred writers have themselves made. This fact is proof at least of candor, and of a consciousness on their part that there was “nothing” in this record which was not founded in truth, which did not really occur; that is, that these feelings actually existed in their minds. It cannot be pretended that the writers indulged in feelings which they were unwilling to record; which they were ashamed to make known. In fact, they took all the methods in their power to make them known, and to have the record perpetuated. They not only recorded them - put them in a permanent form - but they embodied them in poetry, which was to be employed in the public worship of God; which was to go down to future ages, to direct the devotions of the people of far-distant times. Moreover, if there is any condemnation of this spirit in the Bible - if there was anything wrong in this spirit - we are to remember that the condemnation is found in the very book where these expressions occur - for it is to be assumed here that, so far as the objection lies against these expressions as a part of the Bible - as a part of a pretended revelation - “the Bible is one book;” the Old Testament and the New are parts of the same revelation from God. The Bible, thus in making the record, should be allowed at least to be a book of candor - a book in which there is no attempt to conceal what was actually passing in the minds of the writers. There was, it may be presumed some reason for making the record which was regarded as not inconsistent with the purpose of a revelation; and it was assumed also that these things would be susceptible of an explanation, which would be consistent with the claim that the Bible was a revelation from God.
(2) It may be a fair subject of inquiry how much of what is charged as wrong, harsh, and vindictive, may be referred to the spirit of the age in which the Bible was composed, and in which these men lived. This remark is not made on the supposition that the principles of morals and religion change from one age to another; or that they are modified by the circumstances of men; or that the same thing is morally right in one age or country, and morally wrong in another. Truth and holiness, right and wrong, do not change, nor are they dependent on the caprices or the customs of mankind. Still, in order to know exactly what was “meant;” how much words express; what was the precise idea intended to be conveyed by language that was used - it is necessary for us to place ourselves in the circumstances, and to understand the prevailing customs and habits of the people who used the language. We constantly apply these principles, insensibly it may be, when we read Homer, or when we read the records of knight-errantry, or when we endeavor to understand the poetry of any people in the earlier periods of history.
The language which a covenanter or a Puritan used may possibly have expressed no other internal emotion than would be expressed by the milder language which we should use; the rough words which the uneducated and the common use may express no different feelings than would be found to exist when the thoughts are conveyed in the smooth tones, and the courtly phrases of those in the higher walks of life. There may be as much bitter feeling beneath silk and satin as beneath a dress made of the skins of wild beasts; in the palace as in the wigwam. It may be possible that those who lived in the earlier ages of the world really meant no more by the language which they often used, and which seems to us to be so harsh, so revengeful, and so savage, that we do in the milder tones which we employ, and which we now suppose to be demanded by civilization and Christianity. It is, at least, a supposable case that the people of future times may have had conveyed to them as much in the records of our literature, and of our customs, which they will find it difficult to explain consistently with their notions of refinement, civilization, and the spirit of pure religion, as we recognize in the language of the covenanters and the Puritans of Scotland and England, or in the poetic effusions of the days of David. Let us be sure that we understand precisely what they meant, and exactly how our own spirit is better than theirs, before we condemn them.
(3) Part of these passages may undoubtedly be regarded as prophetic; expressing what would be, rather than indicating any wish on the part of the author of the psalms that such things should be. In some instances, the passages might have been rendered in the future instead of the imperative mood, with no violation of the laws of the Hebrew language, or the proper principles of interpretation. Several of the passages of this kind which may properly be applied to the Messiah, are undoubtedly of this nature, and those passages are to be interpreted, when the laws of language will admit of such an interpretation, as expressive of what sinners deserve, and of what will come upon them, and not as indicating any desire on the part of the author that it should be so.
It must be admitted, however, that this consideration does by no means remove all the difficulty, nor does it in fact even diminish it. It cannot be affirmed by anyone acquainted with the Hebrew language that this solution could be applied to will the cases in reference to which the difficulty exists, and there is still an explanation needed to meet the cases which cannot be brought under this rule. In a book claiming to be inspired, the objection is, in effect, as great if there is only one such passage as if there are many. The essential difficulty is to explain it consistently with the claim to inspiration at all.
It should be conceded, further, that this explanation is one which cannot be admitted in regard to the most difficult of the passages. No man can show that they are all mere predictions of the future; no one can prove that all that is implied in these passages is a mere expression of what sin deserves, or what ought to be inflicted on transgressors. Beyond all question there is, in many cases, an expression of feeling - or desire - or wish; there is language used which implies that there would be gratification - satisfaction - pleasure - if the calamity invoked should come upon the enemies of the writer, or if the punishment should be inflicted on the wicked; there is what is of the nature of prayer, that these calamities might come, and that the wicked might be detected, arrested, punished. We cannot on any honest principles interpret these psalms without admitting this; and the objector has a right to ask how this feeling can be vindicated; how it can be reconciled with the spirit of Christianity; how it can be shown to be consistent with the belief that the psalms were inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is a fair question to ask, and it is one which a believer in the inspiration of the Bible should be held to answer.
(4) Some of the expressions referred to are a mere record of the feelings of others; of the gratification which they would feel in seeing vengeance inflicted on the guilty, even when revenge should be taken in the most barbarous and savage manner. In such a case all that the inspired writer, or the Spirit of inspiration, is responsible for, is the fairness of the record, or that he has given an exact statement of the feelings which would be cherished and expressed by those who should inflict the vengeance, or who should experience gratification in seeing it. A person may describe the acts of the American savage, scalping, torturing, murdering by slow degrees women and children, or the acts of cannibals, without being responsible for any of the feelings of the savages in doing this; and the writer of history cannot assuredly be responsible for all or any of the feelings of barbarous delight which a tyrant may have in oppressing his subjects, or for the fury and hatred which leads men to pursue with vengeance their flying victims. The inspired writers who made a record of the cruelty of the sons of Jacob Gen 34:25-29; Gen 49:6-7, or of the act of David in bringing forth the people of Rabbah, and “putting them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron. and making them pass through the brick-kiln” 2Sa 12:31, or the acts of Joab, Ahithophel, Absalom, Nebuchadnezzar, Ahab or Jezebel, cannot be held to be answerable for the feelings which they manifested, or the deeds which they performed, nor is it fair to infer that in making the record they approved of what was done. All that the writers can be held to be responsible for is the correctness of the record.
An instance of this kind occurs in Psa 137:8-9, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. “Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” There is nothing to prevent our regarding this as a statement of the actual feelings - the pleasure - the satisfaction - which they would actually feel who should wreak vengeance upon Babylon. The idea may be, and from anything that appears actually is, that such had been the pride and arrogance of Babylon, such the wrongs which she had done to other people; such her acts of cruelty and oppression - that they who should overcome, subdue, and destroy her, would have conscious satisfaction and pleasure in bringing deserved punishment on her, even in those forms which men usually regard as savage and barbarous. In this there is nothing which necessarily implies that the author of the psalms would approve of it, or that he would have done it himself. If the case is supposed even to indicate the common feelings of the Hebrew people, in view of the destruction of an enemy under which the nation had suffered so much and so long, still it may be a mere record of that feeling as a matter of fact, and the Spirit of inspiration is responsible only for a fair account of the feelings which would actually exist.
In one of the methods which have thus been indicated the difficulties in regard to a portion of what are called the “imprecatory psalms” may be removed altogether. These are solutions, however, which cannot be applied to all of them; and if there is any number, however small - if there is a single one remaining - to which these solutions cannot be applied, it must be admitted that the actual difficulty still remains, for the Psalms are to be regarded as forming one book; they have, as is fairly implied in the idea that they are inspired, one author - the Holy Spirit; and as it is a principle which must be held by all who regard the Bible as an inspired book, that one text of Scripture fairly interpreted is sufficient to establish the truth of any doctrine, so it must be admitted that a well-founded objection to a single text, fairly interpreted, as really affects the question of inspiration as though there were many passages of that character. Some other solution, therefore, must be found in order to remove the real difficulty in the case.
(5) A fifth remark, therefore, in regard to the prayers in these passages considered as invocations of vengeance or of punishment on the wicked may be suggested. The real question is, whether under any circumstance such prayers - such imprecations - can be right; and whether, if ever right, the circumstances in the Psalms were such as to make them proper.
To obtain a just view of this, several remarks are to be made.
(a) David was a magistrate; a king. He was, by the appointment of God, the civil and military ruler of the nation. His authority was not an usurped authority; nor were his acts those merely of a private man, a man individually wronged. As a king - a magistrate - he was appointed to preserve order; to maintain law; to dispense justice; to detect, arraign, and punish the guilty. As a magistrate, he represented the state; the majesty of the law; the interests of justice. As, a magistrate, an act done - an offence committed - a crime in the community, did not respect him as a man - an individual - but as appointed to administer the government and to defend the state. No one can deny that David sustained this relation to the state, and that the duty of maintaining and administering law rested supremely with him. From anything that appears, also, the remark here made is applicable to each of the cases where “imprecations” are found in the Psalms. The question, then, is, whether there is anything in the office and functions of one appointed to make and execute the laws of a land which would render such imprecations justifiable.
(b) Punishment is right. It is not wrong that a penalty should be affixed to law; it is not wrong that the penalty of a law should be inflicted; it is not wrong that pain, privation of office, imprisonment, and the loss of life itself, should follow the commission of crime. So all laws determine; so all nations have judged. It is material here to remark that this is not an arbitrary thing; that it is not a matter of individual or local feeling. It is laid in our very nature. It is found in all nations. It is acted on among all people. “There is something in our very nature, account for it as we may, which approves of punishment when properly inflicted; which approves of the appointment of a penalty for crime.” If this is wrong, it is a wrong in our very nature; it is a universal wrong; it is a wrong which has gone into the enactment of all laws - for all law has a penalty. A law without a penalty would be a mockery and a farce. When a man, in accordance with a just sentence of law, is fined, imprisoned, executed, we approve of it. We feel that it is what ought to be done, and in this feeling we are conscious of no wrong. We are conscious that we are not to be blamed for approving the sentence which condemns the guilty anymore than we are for approving the sentence which acquits the innocent. The foundation of this feeling is laid in the very nature of man, and, therefore, it cannot be evil. No man feels that he is blameworthy when he thus finds himself approving of a just sentence of law; no man feels that this principle of his nature ought to be resisted or reversed, so that he would be a better man if he were conscious of the opposite feeling.
(c) In accordance with this principle, there are arrangements in every community for detecting and punishing crime. There are laws made which define crime, and designate its just penalty; there are arrangements made for arresting the guilty, and bringing them to trial; there are prisons built in anticipation that there will be men to be punished. There are courts organized for the express purpose of trying offenders; there are penalties affixed by law to different classes of crimes; there are processes prescribed in the law books for arresting. indicting, committing, arraigning, and judging those charged with a violation of law. There is a class of men whose business it is to detect and arrest offenders; there is a class whose business it is to try them; there is a class whose business it is to inflict punishment on them. Hence, we have a detective police - men whose calling it is to find out offenders; we have an array of constables, jurymen, and judges; we have sheriffs, keepers of prisons, and executioners. These arrangements are necessary in our world. Society could not do without them. No community would be safe without them. No man would feel that his life, his property, his family were secure without them. They enter into the very structure of society as it exists on earth; and if these were abolished, the world would soon be filled with anarchy, bloodshed, and crime.
(d) These are lawful, proper, and honorable employments. The business of a detective officer, of a constable, of a sheriff, of a juryman, of a judge, is as lawful as that of a farmer, a blacksmith, a school-teacher, a physician, a clergyman. No man occupies a more honorable position than the judge of a court, though it be a criminal court; no man is rendering more valuable service to his country than he whose daily business it is to detect offenders, to prosecute for crime, or to administer the laws of a nation. The constable and the judge may go to their work with as conscious a feeling that they are engaged in an honorable work as the farmer or the merchant; and the foreman of a jury who declares that a man arraigned for crime has been found guilty, and the judge who pronounces the sentence of the law, and the man who executes the sentence, may each one lie down on his bed at night as calmly as the man who during the day has been engaged in sowing seed in his field, or gathering in his harvest, or administering medicine to the sick, or preaching the Gospel. Through all that day the one may be as conscious that he has had no malice toward his fellow-men, no desire of revenge, as the other. In the bosom of each one there may have been only the consciousness of a simple desire to do his duty.
(e) It is lawful and proper for such a man - a detective officer, a constable, a juryman, a judge, a keeper of a prison, a hangman - to pray. It is as proper for such a man to pray as any other man. He may pray in his closet and in his family; he may breathe forth a mental prayer when searching for a man charged with an offence, or when hearing a testimony against him, or when sitting in judgment on him, or when inflicting the penalty of the law. He may pray, as other men do, that he may be “diligent in business;” that he may be “fervent in spirit;” that he may “serve the Lord” in that calling. He may pray that he may have grace to be faithful to his trust; firm in his conduct; “successful in what he is appointed to do.” But what is this? It is that the wicked - the guilty - may be brought to punishment; that they may be punished; that they may receive the due reward for their deeds. It is not malice against an individual; it is not a desire of revenge; it is not the indulgence of any private feeling; it is not conduct inconsistent with the widest benevolence. The officers of justice are engaged in the very work of bringing men to punishment; and why may they not “pray” for success in the work in which they are engaged? Why may not any man who loves the cause of justice, and who desires the security and good order of a community, pray that the wicked may be checked in their career - arrested - confined - punished? Since men lawfully engage in doing the thing, why may they not lawfully pray for the Divine blessing to aid them in doing it?
It is further to be remarked that a magistrate offering such a prayer would have a very different feeling from one who was engaged in an unlawful employment. How can a man engaged in the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drinks “pray”? How can he ask for success in his work? To do this would be to pray that his neighbor, his fellow-men, near or far off, might spend their property for that which would not profit them; might waste their time, ruin their health, cut short their lives, and destroy their souls; that they might be profane, gross, offensive, beastly; that they might be a pest in the community, be led into crime, and find their home in an almshouse, a penitentiary, or an insane asylum; that their families might be beggared, and that a once peaceful home might become a hell; and that the young, the vigorous, the hopeful, the beautiful, the sons of the virtuous and the pious - might go down early to the drunkard’s grave; that the hearts of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters might be crushed and broken, because a husband, a father, a brother, had been made a drunkard.
But what fiendish malignity would there be in such a prayer as this! Hence, such men do not ask the Divine blessing on their work. But a magistrate may pray, and should pray. He may pray that he may be successful in discharging the duties of his office; in administering justice; in prosecuting for crime; and in pronouncing the sentence of the law. His prayer, in fact, is simply that justice may be done to all; that punishment may be inflicted when it is deserved; and that he may be made an instrument in the hands of God in detecting and punishing crime. At the same time this may be so far from being a vindictive and revengeful spirit, that he himself may be among the most kind and humane men in a community, and when he pronounces the sentence of the law, he may be the only one in the court room that shall weep. Tears may flow fast from his eyes as he pronounces the sentence of the law, while the hardened wretch sentenced to the gallows may be wholly unmoved. It indicated no lack of feeling and no malevolent spirit when Washington signed the death-warrant of the accomplished Andre, for he did it with tears.
In the same way, and with the same spirit, a man may go forth to the defense of his country when invaded, or when one portion of it has risen up in rebellion against a lawful government. A soldier called forth to defend his country may pray; the commander of an army may pray - should pray. But the prayer of such an one may be, and should be, in the line of his duty, for success in that which he has undertaken. It will be a prayer that the enemies of his country may be overcome and subdued. It indicates no malice, no personal feeling, no spirit of revenge, when he prays that the enemies of his country may be scattered as chaff before the wind; or that their counsels may be turned to foolishness; or that he may be successful in subduing them. It is a prayer for the triumph of a righteous cause; and as all his acts as a soldier tend to the destruction of the enemies of his country; as he is actually engaged in endeavoring to subdue them; as all his plans contemplate that; as he cannot be successful without that - if the employment itself is right, it cannot be wrong that he should pray for success in it; that is, that his enemies may be delivered into his hands, and that God would enable him to overcome, to scatter, to subdue them. In this view of the matter there is necessarily no feeling inconsistent with the purest benevolence when the defenders of liberty and law and right apply to themselves the language of Psa 149:1-9 : “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance upon the pagan, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written,” Psa 149:6-9.
(f) It only remains to be added, as bearing on the point here suggested, that it cannot be “demonstrated” that there is in the psalms that are called “imprecatory psalms” anymore of malice, or of a spirit of revenge, than there is in the heart of a detective officer, a constable, a sheriff, a juryman, a crown lawyer, a prosecuting attorney, a judge, the keeper of a penitentiary, or an executioner, when he goes to the daily discharge of the duties of his office, and when, in his closet, or in his family, in his morning devotions, he “prays” that he may be faithful and successful in the discharge of his official duties through the day: for success in any of these duties will be in the line of prayer, and may be in answer to prayer. If the detective officer is successful in ferreting out a burglar or a counterfeiter; if a magistrate is successful in bringing him to justice; if a juryman pronounces an honest verdict finding him guilty; if an attorney is successful in prosecuting the guilty to conviction; if a judge delivers a just sentence; and if the keeper of a prison closes the massive bars and bolts on the guilty - at night, when they reflect on their work, they may regard their success in the lawful duties of the day as being as real an answer to prayer in the proper business of human life as the waving golden harvest is an answer to the prayers of the pious farmer, or the ship laden with the rich productions of the east, as she glides gallantly into port, should be regarded as an answer to the prayers of the pious merchant; and until it is proved that this may not have been all that was implied in the language of the psalmist, it should not be assumed that the imprecatory psalms breathe a vindictive spirit, or are contrary to the purest and most benevolent feelings of the human heart.
(6) There is still another solution of the difficulty which has been suggested. It is, substantially, that these expressions “are a mere record of what actually occurred in the mind of the psalmist,” and are preserved to us as an illustration of human nature when partially sanctified. According to this explanation we are not required by any just view of inspiration to vindicate those feelings, or to maintain that such feelings could not occur in the case of an inspired man. One of the main objects of the Psalms is to illustrate religion as it actually exists in the minds of good men in this world; men who are not absolutely perfect, but whose best religious emotions are mingled with many imperfections. According to this view the Spirit of inspiration is no more responsible for these feelings on the part of the psalmist than it is for the acts of David, Abraham, Jacob, or Peter. The feelings - the acts - are what they are; the Spirit of inspiration is responsible for a correct record or statement in regard to these acts and feelings: a record that shall be historically and exactly true. A few remarks may explain this further.
(a) It is, then, an admitted fact that David was not a perfect man; and the same was undoubtedly true of all the writers of the Psalms. The Bible never claims that they were perfect; it makes a fair record of their faults; it lays down the general principle that none are absolutely free from sin: 1Ki 8:46; Ecc 7:20; Jam 3:2; 1Jo 1:8; Job 9:20. As it is everywhere declared in the Bible that no one is absolutely perfect, and as it is admitted that David, for example, was guilty of wrong acts, as in the case of Uriah - so, for the same reason, it is to be admitted that men, even the best of men, are liable to sin in thoughts and in words as well as in deeds.
(b) The proper notion of inspiration does not require us to hold that the men who were inspired were absolutely sinless. There is and must be a manifest and palpable difference between being inspired, and being personally perfect. Inspiration, in its true nature, secures a truthful record; it does not necessarily secure absolute sanctification. Indeed, inspiration has no necessary connection with sanctification; - as it is conceivable, certainly, in accordance with the common belief, that Balaam uttered true prophecies respecting the Messiah, yet no one from that fact feels bound to maintain that he was otherwise than a bad man. Livy, Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, were not perfect men, and yet it may be true that they have given a correct account of the events which they profess to record; nor do we argue that because they were faithful historians that therefore, they were perfect men, or that they never did or said anything, which, if it were recorded exactly as it occurred, would not be inconsistent with the idea of absolute perfection of character. It is, therefore, a very important principle “that inspiration secures a correct record, not that it implies or secures personal sanctification; and that if it does secure a correct record the limit of responsibility in regard to it is reached.” Assuredly, the fact that David in Ps. 51 has made a true record in regard to his guiltiness in the case of Uriah, does not prove that he was right or innocent in the fact which is the subject of that record; nor if a record is a record of feelings instead of deeds does its correctness anymore justify or sanction such feelings.
(c) It was important and necessary in a revelation from God, in order to meet the wants of the world, that there should be a true representation of religion as it comes in contact with the human heart; as it is in fact illustrated and manifested in the life of man, not as it might be in the life of a spotless angel. Assuming, as the Bible does everywhere, that man is depraved; that he has corrupt and evil propensities; that he has passions which by nature are uncontrollable, and that it is the design of religion to teach him how to control and govern them - what we want is an illustration of religion as it comes in contact with such a heart. If the Bible had described only the feelings and conduct of a perfect being, it would be obviously unfit for man, for it would not be adapted to his condition. As man is imperfect and sinful, a representation of religion which would leave the impression that there is no true piety except where there is absolute perfection, would be adapted only to discourage and dishearten, for it would hold up that before his mind which he would feel to be unattainable, and his own consciousness of imperfection would lead him to the painful conclusion that he had no true religion.
Hence, in the Bible, except in the solitary instance of the Savior, we have no record of the life of a perfect saint. We have a description of piety as it must always be found in the life of man: as feeble, and struggling, and doubting, and contending with evil passions; as a life of conflict, of mingled light and darkness, good and evil, happiness and sadness, cheerfulness and despondency; as a life where evil often breaks out, where there is a constant effort required to subdue it, and where there is, amidst much that seems to be otherwise, yet truly a constant progress in the soul toward perfection - a perfection not to be obtained in this life, but which is to be consummated in heaven alone. Such a record only is fitted for man; such a record only would properly represent and describe man in his present condition. In another world - in heaven - a true record of man redeemed would be a record of religion without imperfection - as it would now be of the angels.
As it is, we have now in the Bible everywhere recorded the lives of imperfect men: imperfect in their conduct; imperfect in their feelings; imperfect in their words. We have the biographies of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, of Eli, David, Hezekiah, Moses, Aaron, Josiah, James, John, Peter - all imperfect but good men; men in whose bosoms there were the strugglings between good and evil principles; in whose lives the evil principle was constantly breaking out, and over whom for the time it seemed to triumph. Hence, the painful but honest records which we have of piety in the Bible. In like manner, in order to see and understand what true piety is, as it is found in connection with human nature, it might be important that there should be such an illustration of it as we actually find in the Psalms: the honest record of what passed through the mind of a good man; of what imperfect man actually feels often, even when it is proper to characterize him as a man of God. Probably there have been few men, very few, even under the influence of the highest forms of piety, who, if they had made an honest record of what was passing in their minds at all times - of their wishes, desires, emotions; of their feelings toward their enemies, persecutors, and slanderers - would not have found that the language of the Psalms would better express their feelings in this respect than any language which they could find elsewhere; - and is it a forced or an unauthorized thought that even such men as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Edwards, at times when unChristian feelings seemed to have got the ascendancy in their hearts; when they were strongly tempted to give way to passion, or actually gave way to it; when they might have been led to doubt whether men with such feelings could have any true religion - may have found consolation in the fact that feelings precisely like theirs sprang up in the hearts of the inspired men who composed the Psalms, and who there made an honest record of what was actually passing in the soul, almost an actual transcript of what they themselves experienced? It need be hardly remarked that if this is a true view of the matter, we are not bound to attempt to vindicate these expressions of passion - anymore than we are the conduct of David in the matter of Uriah, or of Peter in denying his Lord.
(d) According to this view, the expressions which are used in this record are not presented for our imitation. The mere fact that they are recorded as having occurred in the lives of good men is no evidence that they are right, or are to be followed by us. “All” that occurred in the life of the Redeemer was right, and was recorded that, so far as it might be applicable to us in our circumstances, we might imitate it. If the above remarks are correct, then the record was made for other purposes than that we should imitate the conduct of those who gave expression to these feelings. Nor should the fact that such feelings actually existed in the minds of good men, or that these “imprecations” are found in their writings, be charged on religion, as if it tended to produce them, anymore than the act of adultery and murder on the part of David, or the profaneness of Peter, should be referred to as an illustration of what religion is adapted to produce in the hearts and lives of men. Religion is not responsible for these things. The responsibility is in our corrupt nature.
(e) If such is a just view of the matter, then all that “inspiration” is responsible for is, the correctness of the “record” in regard to the existence of these feelings: that is, the authors of the Psalms actually “recorded” what was passing in their own minds. They gave vent to their internal emotions. They state real feelings which they themselves had; feelings which, while human nature remains the same, may spring up in the mind of imperfect man, anywhere, and at any time. They record what other men actually feel; and in making the record, they simply give utterance to what passed through their own hearts. They do not apologize for it; they do not pause to vindicate it; they offer no word in extenuation of it - anymore than other sacred writers did when they recorded the facts about the errors in the lives of the patriarchs, of David, and of Peter.
In some of these ways it is probable that all the difficulties in regard to the “imprecations” in the Psalms may be met. They who deny the inspiration of the Psalms should be able to show that these are not proper explanations of the difficulty; or that they are not consistent with any just notions of inspiration.
Section 7. “The Practical Value of the Book of Psalm.”
It is not a little remarkable that the Psalms, in the estimation of religious persons, hold substantially the same place under the clearer light of the Christian dispensation which they did under the comparatively obscure Hebrew economy, and that with all the additional light which has been imparted under the Christian revelation, the Psalms have not been superseded. The “Christian” looks to the Psalms with an interest as intense as did the ancient Jew; and, as expressive of personal religious experience, as well as for the purpose of a manual for worship, the Psalms are selected by the Christian, from the whole Bible, as they were by the Jew from the books in his possession - the Old Testament. As such, they will retain their value in all times to come, nor will there ever be in our world such an advance in religious light, experience, and knowledge, that they will lose their relative place as connected with the exercises of practical piety.
How far this fact is to be regarded as a proof that the authors of the Psalms were inspired; that there was communicated to them a knowledge of the principles and workings of true piety, so in advance of their own age as to be on a level with what will be possessed in the most advanced periods of religious culture; that there must have been an influence on their minds, in composing the Psalms, beyond anything derived from mere poetic genius, is a question which must occur to all reflecting minds. It is a fair question to propose to one who doubts the inspiration of the Psalms, how he will account for this fact, consistently with his idea that the authors of the Psalms were men endowed only as other men of genius are, and with the acknowledged fact that they lived in an age when the views of truth in the world were comparatively obscure. How did it happen that a Hebrew bard, in the matter of deep religious experience and knowledge, placed himself so high as to be a guide to mankind in all coming times, after a new revelation should have been introduced to the world, and after all the attainments which men would have made in the knowledge of religion and of the human heart?
The special value of the Psalms arises: (a) from the fact that they are adapted to the worship of God; (b) from the fact that they are records of deep religious experience.
(a) As adapted to the worship of God. For this many of them were originally designed in their very composition; to this the entire book seems to have been intentionally adapted by those who made the collection. It is not necessary to suppose that these sacred songs comprise the whole of the Hebrew lyrical poetry, for as we know that some of the books mentioned in the Old Testament, though inspired, accomplished their purpose and have been lost, so it may have been in regard to a portion of the lyrical poetry of the Hebrews. Many of the words of the Savior, though all that he spoke was pure truth - truth such as no other man ever spoke - truth such as the Spirit of God imparts - were lost from not having been recorded Joh 21:25, and in like manner it may have been that truths which were written may have accomplished their purpose, and have passed away. But, if there were such productions which have not come down to us, we have no reason to doubt that they were of the same general character as those which have survived, and which now constitute the Book of Psalms. Now, it is remarkable that the poetry of the Hebrews is so adapted to public worship above all other poetry, and that the poetic genius of the nation took so exclusively a religious turn.
In this respect the Hebrew lyric poetry stands by itself, and is unlike that of every other nation. Among the Greeks there are, indeed, hymns to the gods - hymns designed to be used in the worship of the gods; but this is by no means the general character of their lyric poetry. Among the Persians, the Arabs, the Romans, the Babylonians, there were doubtless such hymns; but this is not the prevailing character of their lyric poetry. In the early Scotch, French, Spanish, Italian, and English poetry there are such hymns, but this is by no means the exclusive or the predominant character of the early lyric poetry of those nations. Few of all their lyric compositions can be used in the worship of the true God; nor is that which can be thus used always of the most exalted character as poetry. The composition of psalms and hymns is a separate poetic art; and though there are specimens, in the hymns in these languages, of the highest kind of lyric excellence, yet it is to be admitted that a large portion of that species of literature would scarcely be regarded as even “respectable,” if it related to other subjects than religion.
Of the Hebrews, however, this is their all. They have no other poetry whatever. They have none merely amatory or pastoral which will compare with the Bucolics of Virgil, or with much of the poetry of Burns. Their poetry of the religious kind, also, is all of a high order. There is none that can be placed on the same low level with much that is found in the hymn books of most denominations of Christians - very good; very pious; very sentimental; very much adapted, as is supposed, to excite the feelings of devotion - but withal so flat, so weak, so unpoetic, that it would not, in a volume of mere poetry, be admitted to a third or fourth rank, if, indeed, it would find a place at all. It is for him who rejects the idea of “inspiration,” as applied to the Book of Psalms, to account for this fact.
(b) The Book of Psalms is a record of deep religious experience. It is this which, in the estimation of religious persons in general, gives it its chief value. It is the guide of young believers; and it becomes more and more the companion, the comforter, and the counselor, as the believer moves along through the varied scenes of life, and as grey hairs come upon him, and as the infirmities, which pre-intimate the approaching close of all things, press him down. A religious man is rarely, if ever, placed in circumstances where he will not find something in the Psalms appropriate to his circumstances; where he will not find that the Hebrew sacred bard has not gone before him in the depths of religious experience. Hence, in sickness, in bereavement, in persecution, in old age, on the bed of death, the Book of Psalms becomes so invariable and so valuable a companion; and hence, not as a matter of convenience, but as supplying a want in the minds of men, and as significant of their value, the Psalms and the New Testament are so often bound together in a single volume. Hence, also, for the aged, for the sick, for those whose powers of vision fail by disease or by years, the Psalms and the New Testament are printed in large type, and bound in convenient forms, that the truths contained in these volumes may be still accessible to the saint ripening for heaven, as the light fails, and as life ebbs away. To the end of the world the Psalms in religious experience will occupy the same place which they now occupy; to the end of the world they will impart comfort to the troubled, and peace to the dying, as they have done in the ages that are past.
Section 8. “The Qualifications for Preparing a Commentary on the Psalm.”
It is an undoubted fact that there have been more failures in the Commentaries on the Book of Psalms than on any other of the books of the Bible. As yet there has been no commentary that has met the wants of the Christian world; there are none, whatever anticipations may have been raised, which can be read without feelings of disappointment. For this fact there must be a cause; and that cause is probably to be found in the very peculiar qualifications needed to produce a commentary on the Psalms: - qualifications which are rarely to be found united in the same person.
A few remarks on the qualifications necessary for preparing such a commentary may explain the cause of the failures which have occurred; and may, perhaps, also explain the reason why the one now submitted to the public may be found to be an addition to the failures already existing. Every man who prepares a commentary on the Psalms will probably, at the close of his work, be sensible of a feeling of disappointment in what he had hoped, perhaps what he had expected to do, and will share fully in the feelings of his readers that what is thus submitted to the world is very far from being what a commentary on this portion of the sacred Scriptures ought to be.
The unique qualifications for preparing a commentary on the Psalms are such as the following:
(1) A knowledge of the Hebrew language, particularly as it is affected by the laws of poetry which prevailed among the Hebrews. In all languages there are special rules of poetry; rules by which the sense of the words used is affected. and by which special shades of thought are expressed. In most languages, words have a “poetic” and a “prosaic” sense; and the application of the meaning of a word as used in prose to a passage in poetry might by no means express the idea which was in the mind of the poet. We learn almost insensibly, in reading a language familiar to us, to make this distinction accurately, even when we could not explain it; and we read a psalm, a hymn, a lyric song, without mistaking the meaning. But it is another thing when one undertakes to read a book of poetry in a language different from his native tongue. What is obvious to an Italian, a Frenchman, or a German, in reading poetry in his native language, becomes a matter of difficult acquisition when an Englishman attempts to read the poem.
The same thing is true in studying a dead language. It need not be said that there is a unique literature with respect to the Greek and Latin poets; and he who can read Herodotus or Livy cannot assume that he has such a full knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages as to qualify him to understand the poetry in those languages. So much depends often on rhythm, on the poetic forms of words, or on the images special to poetry, that a classical education is not complete, nor is the student qualified to apprehend the meaning of the language of a poem, or to appreciate the beauties of its thought and imagery until he has mastered this most difficult part of the rules of language. That the Hebrews, like other people, had such rules and usages, there can be no doubt, for they are to be found in all languages, and there is abundant evidence in the Hebrew poetry itself that they existed among the Jewish people. Yet, it may be doubted whether it is possible now so fully to recover the knowledge of those rules and usages as to apply them perfectly in the explanation of the poetic portions of the sacred writings. Much pertaining to the rhythm of the language, much relating to the accents, much connected with the peculiar use of words, it may be impossible now to recover. To show the difficulty of this subject in its bearing on the interpretation of the Psalms, as well as to illustrate the subject of Hebrew poetry, I may refer to the remarks of DeWette, Einleitung, vii. pp. 37-76. An elegant translation of this may be found in the Biblical Repository, vol. iii.; pp. 478-514.
(2) True piety is essential to qualify one to be an interpreter of the Psalms. This is true, in fact, in regard to the interpretation of any portion of the sacred volume. Since the Bible is a book of religion, employed in describing the nature, the power, and the influence of religion, it is obvious that correct religious feeling, or a practical acquaintance with religion, is necessary in an interpreter. The principle is substantially the same which is required in the interpretation of books on any subject. In a treatise on painting, poetry, sculpture, architecture, there will be things which could not be so well explained as by one who had a practical knowledge of these arts; and in order to the possession of a complete qualification for the interpretation of such a book, an ability to appreciate what is said on those arts must be regarded as indispensable. It is obvious that the mere knowledge of words - of philology - would not be all that would be demanded; nor would any power of explaining local allusions, laws, customs, manners, or geographical or historical references, be all that would be required. Beyond all this, there was in the mind of the writer or author that which he intended to express, and which no mere knowledge of language or of customs would be sufficient to explain. To show what the writer meant it would be obviously necessary to be able to understand him - to appreciate what he intended to say; to bring out what was in his mind; what he thought of - what he felt - what he designed to express. Hence, however valuable a work may be on the Psalms as a philological work, or as illustrating the authorship of a psalm, and the circumstances of the author in its composition, it is plain that we have not reached the main thing unless we have entered into the spirit of the author, and are qualified to understand and appreciate his own feelings in the composition.
(3) For the reason above stated, there should be in an exposition of the Psalms more than the mere possession of piety. “There should be deep religious experience.” There should be an acquaintance with piety in its highest forms of rapture, and in the lowest depths of despondency, darkness, and sorrow. There is no book in the world in which there are such varied expressions of piety, in which there are such diversified forms of religious experience, as in the Book of Psalms. As the Psalms were designed for every age of the world, for persons found in every rank and condition of life, for seasons of joy and of sorrow, for childhood, youth, middle age, old age, for the ignorant and the learned, for times of sickness and of health, for private, social, domestic, and public life, for magistrates and private citizens, for war and peace, for acts of business and acts of charity, for the living and for the dying, and for those that mourn - so they were designed to form a “manual” that would illustrate religion in all these forms and relations; to be a book in which anyone, in all the varied conditions of human existence, might be sure that he would find something that would be applicable to himself. If this is so, then it is clear that in order to a good commentary on the Psalms - in order that the expositor may be able to enter into the real spirit of the work which he undertakes to explain - piety of no common order is demanded; a rich and varied religious experience is required that falls to the lot of very few of mankind. Looking simply at this qualification of a commentator on the Psalms, we may cease to be surprised that no such commentary has ever appeared as to leave nothing yet to be desired.
(4) Poetic taste is an important requisite in a commentator on the Psalms. The Psalms are poetry, and poetry of the most delicate kind. Much of the beauty of the Psalms, and much of their adaptedness to the wants of man, depends on the fact that they are poetry. This was a reason why the Spirit of God, in breathing his influence on the men who composed the Psalms, preferred that the sentiments found in them should be expressed in poetry rather that in prose, and hence, this medium was selected. Among the original endowments of the human mind, that which contemplates “poetry” as among the means of happiness; as adapted to impress truth on the mind; as fitted to arouse the soul to great efforts; as designed to fill the mind with calm, peaceful, pure, patriotic, pious emotions, is one. Possessed by men, indeed (either in the power of producing poetry or of appreciating it) in very different degrees, yet it is an endowment of man; and, being such, religion makes use of it to promote its own ends. There are those who will be moved by little besides calm argument, stern logic, severe demonstration; there are those who will be aroused only by the lofty appeals of eloquence; there are those who will be most influenced by the voice of persuasion; there are those who will be awakened from dangerous slumbers only by the denunciations of wrath; there are those in whose minds pure and joyful and holy emotions will be best excited by poetry. It is the province of “song,” as such, to awaken many of the most pure and devoted feelings of piety in the human soul; and the Book of Psalms is the portion of the sacred volume by which it is designed and expected that this object will be accomplished as a permanent arrangement.
It is clear, therefore, that he cannot be completely qualified to be a commentator on the Psalms who has not himself such endowments as to appreciate the beauties of poetry; who cannot, in this respect, enter into the feelings of the sacred writer on the one hand, and into the hearts of those who are so made as to be affected by poetry on the other. One of the causes of the “failure” to produce a good commentary on the Psalms may be traced to this source. A mere philologist; a man who regards nothing as valuable but exact demonstration; a man of prosaic temperament, though he may have piety that is exalted and pure, may lack still an important qualification for entering into the true spirit of the Psalms, and for meeting the needs of those who seek for edification and comfort in this portion of the Bible.
(5) A knowledge of the human heart - of human nature - is an indispensable condition for a good commentator on the Psalms. The Psalms comprise, more than any other book in the Bible, a record of the workings of the heart. Indeed, they pertain mostly to the heart. They are not addressed, as the epistle to the Romans is, to the loftier powers of the understanding, nor do they make such appeals to the imagination as the visions of Isaiah, or the visions of John in Patmos. It is the heart which, in the Psalms, is eminently the medium of communication between the Divine Spirit and the soul. Of all parts of the Bible there is most to illustrate the human heart in the Psalms. All that there is in the heart of man is there in one way or another illustrated, and in an almost endless variety of circumstances. Joy, sorrow, penitence, gratitude, praise, despondency, sadness; love - love to God - love to man; - the feelings experienced in sickness, and on a recovery from sickness; - the anguish, the bitterness of soul, arising from the ingratitude of others; terror at the wrath of God; the dread of death; the peace which religion gives in the prospect of death; the joy of prayer; the light which comes into the soul in answer to earnest supplication; the calmness which springs from devout meditation on the character of God and his law; the light which beams upon the soul after long darkness; the effects of remembered guilt (as in Ps. 51); the feeling of despair when God seems to have forsaken us; the feelings which spring up in the heart on the reception of injuries; these are a few among the many topics which are found illustrated in the Psalms in the personal experience of the writers, and it is obvious that no one is qualified to comment on these subjects unless he has himself a knowledge of the workings of the human heart.
To be able to explain the words used; to state the origin and authorship of the Psalms, and the occasion on which they were composed; to investigate the genuineness and accuracy of the text, and to determine the value of the varied readings; to understand and explain the parallelisms, the rhythm, and the accents employed in the Psalms; to comprehend and appreciate the poetry of the Psalms; or to gather together what Jewish rabbis and the Christian fathers have written, or to transplant from Germany what has been produced under Rationalistic views of the Bible, or even what the German mind in its best workings and under the influence of true religion has produced, is not all or mainly what is demanded in a commentary on the Psalms that will meet the wants of those in our own land, or that will illustrate the Psalms in the manner that will be of most value to the great masses of the young, the sick, the bereaved, the tempted, the aged, and the desponding. A man who cannot in this varied manner enter into sympathy with the writers of the Psalms in the workings of the human heart as there illustrated, is not a man who is fully qualified to prepare a commentary on this Book. For some purposes he may, indeed, make a book that will be valuable, but not a book that will be valuable in relation to the real purpose designed to be accomplished by the Psalms - to be a guide and a comfort to believers of every station and condition, in all the varied circumstances of human life, and in all the varied and complicated workings of the human heart.
(6) It may be added that the Book of Psalms, in the main, is so plain, so easy to be understood by the great mass of readers; so expressive of the internal feelings and emotions, as to increase the difficulty in the preparation of a commentary. The Psalms are so rich; so full of meaning; so adapted to the wants of believers; they so meet the varied experiences of the people of God, and are so replete with the illustrations of piety; they so touch the deepest fountains of emotion in the soul, that, so far as most of these points are concerned, a “commentary,” considered as an additional source of light, does not differ materially from a candle considered as affording additional splendor to the sun. What a man finds in the ordinary perusal of the Psalms as a book of devotion, on the subject of deep experimental piety, is so much in advance of what he will usually find in the commentary, that he turns from the attempt to explain them with a feeling of deep disappointment, and comes back to the book itself as better expressing his emotions, meeting his necessities, and imparting consolation in trial, than anything which the commentator can add. He welcomes the Book of Psalms itself as a comforter and a guide; and in the little volume sold now at so cheap a rate, or appended to his pocket Testament, the common reader of the Bible finds more that is suited to his need than he would in the voluminous commentary of Venema; in all the collections in the Critici Sacri; in the Synopsis of Poole; in the Annotations of Grotius; or in the learned expositions of DeWette - elegant as the work of DeWette is - or of Tholuck, or Hengstenberg.
When these difficulties in composing a commentary on the Psalms are considered - when a man who sits down to write one reflects on the qualifications necessary for the task - and when under the influence of these thoughts, constantly increasing in magnitude, and pressing upon him more and more as he labors for a dozen years, though at intervals, as I have done, in preparing a commentary on this portion of Scripture - whatever ardor of desire or confidence of success he may have had at the commencement of his enterprise, he will cease to wonder, as he progresses in his work, that the efforts of others to prepare a commentary heretofore have been a failure, and he will not be surprised, should his life be lengthened out to see the result of his own labors, if he finds that the world regards that at which he has toiled so long, and which he hoped might be, in some measure, worthy of the volume he has undertaken to explain, as but adding another to the long list of unsuccessful attempts to prepare a proper exposition of the Book of Psalms.