ON PSALMS OF DAVID
In a matter so important as what shall constitute the matter of our song of praise, something else than human authority must be our guide; yet, it is deserving of consideration that an Assembly so venerable as that which met at Westminster, representing the talent and piety of Great Britain, after mature consideration, should give its suffrage in favor of a close translation of the inspired Psalms, and should use so much pains and diligence in order to obtain it. It adds weight to this also, that their sentiments were sanctioned by their constituents; and that the Church of Scotland, in her best times, should act deliberately and decidedly on the same principle. At that very interesting period, indeed, the lawfulness, propriety, and duty of using the Psalms of David in the duty of praise seem never to have been questioned. From these worthies, human composition in this duty received no countenance, if indeed it was ever thought of, their sole aim being a translation giving as near as possible the sentiments, the words, and the order of the Holy Spirit.
Unhappily a very different sentiment prevails extensively in the Christian church, in the present day. The translation which is the result of the unwearied care and labor of the most venerable Assembly of divines that perhaps ever met on earth, and which was afterwards revised by the combined talents and learning of the Church of Scotland in her judicial Assemblies, and in Commissions appointed by her for this express purpose, has been pronounced by competent judges ever since that time, to be the best that yet exists,_a judgment which cannot be contradicted. And yet, men have arisen, who have discovered, that "they flatten our devotion, often awaken our regret and touch all the springs of uneasiness within us," that "some of these are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel," that "there are a thousand lines in it, which were not made for a church in our days," &c. The followers of these men consistently enough affect the greatest astonishment that any should be so bigoted or void of taste, as to prefer the Old Psalms to hymns of modern days; and there are hundreds of congregations who would feel themselves utterly insulted were a minister to require them to sing a Psalm of David. If there be any rule in the word of God to guide us in this matter, it is impossible that sentiments so opposed to each other can both be agreeable to it. If Watts and other advocates of human Psalmody, and the churches who act upon the principles advocated by them are right, then the Westminster Assembly, the General Assemblies and Presbyteries and Commissions of the Church of Scotland [in her best (i.e., reforming) times] and all who act upon their principles, must have been in a very serious error. On the contrary, if these be right, the others must be wrong. What is truth and duty on this important point, calls for the serious consideration of every man, who would be accepted of God in the sacrifice of praise.
If praise be an ordinance of God, it surely ought to be observed according to the order that God has appointed in his word. If the scriptures give not sufficient directions on this point, then the man of God is not "fully furnished unto every good works;" but if they do, it is the duty of every one to endeavor to ascertain and to walk by this rule. Is it too much to say, that it is only in so far as persons do so, that they can be accepted of God, and that every thing else, how much soever it please the fancy, will be accounted "strange fire," and be repelled with the confounding question, "Who hath required this at your hand?" What then is the mind of the Spirit?
1. It is abundantly evident that the Old Testament Church in her book of Psalms had an inspired Psalmody, and there is no satisfactory evidence that any other than inspired songs were ever used with approbation in the service of praise, under that economy. It follows then, from this, that if the church is now reduced to use, in this sublime exercise, the feeble and often erroneous conceptions of erring and sinful man, her privileges in this respect are greatly diminished.
2. There is no satisfactory evidence that the book of Psalms is set aside under the present dispensation, from being the matter of our praise. It formed no part of the ceremonial law given by Moses, and therefore, could not be removed by the abolition of that law. No hint is given by Christ or his apostles that they were to be set aside, and another system adopted in their room. No new book of inspired Psalms had been furnished to the New Testament Church, and when the service of praise is spoken of, it is in such a way as evidently takes for granted that the book of Psalms is still continued as the matter of our praise, we are performing a duty for which we have divine warrant and approbation; and that in discharging this duty in a right manner, we shall be accepted of God.
3. There is no testimony whatever in the scriptures in favor of human compositions in the duty of praise. That inspired songs were used with approbation by divine appointment is certain,_that any others, were ever used, we have no evidence, and have no right to assume it as a fact that such were used. Both before and after the days of David, such occasional songs of praise as are recorded, are allowed to be the dictates of inspiration. If ever any others were used, than those which are recorded, (a supposition which, though not altogether improbable, cannot be affirmed on the testimony of scripture), it were affirmation without proof, nay, with weighty probabilities against it, to say that they were not inspired as well as the others. And here it surely saying the least, that if inspired songs only were used on all occasions mentioned in scripture, it ought not to be asserted without the most unquestionable evidence, that uninspired odes were used on any other occasions.
We are aware it has been argued in favor of human compositions, that if it be warrantable for us to make use of our own words and conceptions in the duty of prayer, why not in that of praise? A very short answer might be given to this question and to the argument contained in it. We have the clear expressions of the divine will authorizing the one; we have nothing of the kind authorizing the other; and this is enough for the man who bows to the authority of God in his word, and seeks no farther for a warrant for his faith and practice. But if we view this fact more closely, instead of favoring the practice we oppose, it will be found to throw all its weight into the opposite scale. Even in prayer, which is "an offering up of the desires of our hearts unto God for things agreeable to his will," "we know not what to pray for as we ought. " In such a case, we must despair forever of offering up, of ourselves, an acceptable service in this duty. But here is the remedy. The Spirit as the spirit of grace and supplication, is promised to help our infirmities, to make intercession within us and to lead us into the knowledge of those things for which we ought to pray: and by his assistance alone, can any child of God present a supplication that God will hear. Possessing this, every Christian is fully furnished for this duty without the use of set forms; and therefore, no book of forms of prayer is furnished us in the Scripture. The case is different with respect to the duty of praise. If we cannot of ourselves, offer up the desires of our hearts assistance. however to God, nor know what to pray for as we ought, much less can we ascribe unto God in our dark and feeble and erring conceptions, the glory of what he is who is unsearchable, or of his ways which are past finding out._Besides this, there is no promise of the Spirit as the Spirit of praise, to enable us to compose a psalm or a hymn of our own, as there is of him in the character of the Spirit of prayer. And if there be no promise of him in this character, then have we no warrant to pray for his assistance in such a work and no reason to expect it; nay, we have good reason to believe it will never be granted. How then are we to be fully furnished unto the duty of praise? Here is our furniture_God has given us a book of praise indicted by him "who searcheth all things and perfectly knows the deep things of God," and the Spirit is promised to lead the true worshipper into the knowledge and legitimate use of all the truth which he has indicted in the scripture. And having this, who will say that it is not sufficient? Thus, then, stands the case._Insufficient of ourselves for the duty of prayer, the Spirit is promised to teach us what to pray for, and how to pray for it as we ought, affording a satisfactory argument, that we are not indebted to set forms for the matter of our prayers; and this is confirmed by the fact that no set forms are furnished or authorized by the scripture. But on the contrary that equally incapable of performing of ourselves the equally difficult and important duty of praise, no assistance is promised to aid in forming our psalms or hymns, nor any authority for such a work; affording an argument still more satisfactory, that we ought not to attempt it. And this is confirmed by the fact, that a book of Psalms, indicted by the divine Spirit, appointed by divine authority, and used with divine approbation, is furnished to us in the Scriptures. Oh how daring, how presumptuous and rebellious, to set these aside and to substitute in their room, the effusions of fallen, sinful, conceited man, as better calculated to declare the high praises of the unsearchable God!
But, let us look into the New Testament Scriptures, and see if there is any thing to warrant the use of human compositions in the praise of God. And here it is worthy of remark, that there is comparatively but little said in them respecting the duty or matter of praise, and what is said, is such as manifestly takes it for granted, that the matter of the duty was established and well understood, and that no change was then introduced, affording strong auxiliary testimony, that as the inspired Psalms were the matter of the church's praise at the commencement of the present dispensation, they, and no other, are still authorized. We shall barely glance at the passages on this subject, to see what arguments they furnish for the use of uninspired songs in the praise of God. In Matthew 26:30, and Mark 14:26, we are told that "when they (Christ and his disciples) had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives." And in Acts 16:25, that "Paul and Silas sang praises in the prison." None of these passages countenance the use of human compositions. In Luke 19:37, we are told that "the multitude began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice," and the following verse distinctly intimates, that the matter of their song was the words of inspiration. The passages on which the most stress is laid by advocates of human composition, are Ephesians 5:19_"Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts unto the Lord." Colossians 3:16_"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord," and James 5:13_"Is any merry? Let him sing psalms." Now, on all these passages it might be sufficient to remark, that unless there be something in them which renders it impossible that the inspired writers in these directions should mean the psalms and hymns of inspiration, nothing is made out from them in favor of any other. This, indeed, has been attempted, but without success; and the result of the attempt has only been a demonstration of the weakness of the cause and the zeal of its advocates. The argument from the use of the words, "hymns and spiritual songs," has been of necessity abandoned by all sensible men, who know the meaning of the terms. And one is really at a loss to know whether the pretense, that in using the inspired Psalms we would not be "letting the word of Christ dwell in us," is the result of sheer ignorance or of willful misrepresentation. Are they not the very word of Christ, dictated by His Spirit, and which have Christ himself, and the glorious work he came to perform, together with the providential preparations of God for its accomplishment, and prophetic declarations of its glorious results, as the grand sum and substance of the whole? Which_let the candid reader answer,_may with the most propriety be termed "the word of Christ"_the Psalms of David, or the best productions of the very best of uninspired men? The Christian will be at no loss for an answer. On the whole, then, we are warranted in affirming, that the testimony of these passages, is more in favor of the Psalms of David, than of any human compositions whatever_that there is nothing in them from which it can with certainty be inferred, that ever Psalms of human composition were authorized, or even existed. On the contrary, it is just such language as the writers ofthe Scriptures were likely to use, on the supposition, which is the true one, that they intended to enjoin a diligent and proper use of the Psalms, which God had provided for his church.
If, then, there is no authority in the scriptures for the use of human compositions in the praise of God, very little respect ought to be paid to any argument for this, derived from the history of the early ages of Christianity. Even if it were clearly made out, that very early in the Christian church, compositions of this kind were in use, while unsupported by scripture authority, it will only prove, that very early, errors and corruptions began to prevail, and that then, as well as now, there were men conceited enough to imagine, that the effusions of their own minds were better adapted to express the praises of God, than the inspired songs which he himself appointed for this purpose.
4. There are serious objections to the use of human compositions in the ordinance of praise, which we see no possibility of completely removing.
Praise consists in ascribing unto God the glory of what he is, and of what he hath done. When in doing this, we make use of the words which he himself hath given us, we have every confidence that we ascribe unto him nothing but what is right, and will be accepted of him if presented in a right manner. But, if we ascribe unto God, that which he is not, or any work that he hath done, it is not to praise, but to dishonor him. And how shall weak, fallible man, in addressing God in the words and conceptions of a blind and sinful worm like himself, be assured that he is not dishonoring him, and that he, instead of offering an acceptable sacrifice, is offering strange fire unto the Lord?
Besides this, can there be any doubt, that an inspired song of praise is better than any human composition can possibly be; and if it is, ought we not to serve God with the best we possess? How shall we be excused in offering the torn, the blind, the maimed, and polluted, on God's altar, when he has furnished us with a sacrifice without blemish and without spot? Have we not reason to dread the displeasure of Jehovah, expressed in these terrible words, Mal. 1:14, "Cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male and voweth and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing?"
But again, on the supposition that human composition is to be admitted as the matter of our praise, whose composition is it that is thus to be exalted? I have not the faculty of composing anything like a hymn myself, and ninety-nine out of a hundred of those whose duty it is to praise God, are in the same situation; what shall we do? Whose composition shall we adopt? How [do we] distinguish between what is duty, and what it would be sin to use? Here amid the multitude of counsellors, we must be greatly perplexed. It is sounded in our ears from hundreds of voices, "The divine Watts is best, his lines flow with great smoothness, there is nothing in them opposite to the spirit of the gospel, nothing Jewish or cloudy to darken the sight of God our Saviour_no dreadful curse against men is there proposed to your lips." Yes, gentle friends, this is fine and may possibly be so; but, then again, some who knew him best, affirm indeed he himself allows, that his own views of God our Saviour were rather dark. He had great doubts about the Trinity, the Sonship of Christ, and several other things of great importance, and if so, his views of the work of God in the redemption of sinners, must have been greatly perplexed and wavering._Now is it so, that in the words and thoughts of this man, I shall best ascribe unto God the glory of what he is, and has done? The very thought of his doubts on these great points, would, I fear, "flat my devotion and touch all the springs of uneasiness within me," and "my conscience would be affrighted, lest I should speak a falsehood unto God." If not Watts, then where shall I be safe? Can any of the numerous host of Psalm and hymn makers be followed with confidence? I fear it cannot be. Turning, however, from this confusion of contending claims, the soul finds rest in the sure word of God himself; "this is the very truth most sure."
Another difficulty, I apprehend of some magnitude, is this, that if God has not given us an inspired Psalmody, but any man and every man may come forth with his Psalm or his collection, claiming precedence of his composition for public favor, the Psalmody of the church is subjected to perpetual change. And what changes have already taken place, let the yearly accumulating pile of collections, by Watts, Rippon, Wesley, etc., this church and that church, and an innumerable catalogue of others, bear witness. Taking all these together, what a chaos of contending sentiments, opposing thoughts, erroneous doctrines, empty trifles, enthusiastic ravings! And these have all been, or were intended to be, addressed to the Most High, in the solemn exercise of praise! How strange must that character be, to whom all they contain may be ascribed! And who shall set bounds to the evil? Scarce a year, perhaps scarce a month, but brings forth its collection. What a source of perplexity to the worshipper! What a source of contention in the church! Connected with this, is another evil, that the Psalmody of the church instead of being a barrier to the spread of error, which it would be, were the inspired Psalmody retained, becomes the most successful method of advancing it. Every composer of a hymn naturally introduces into it the religious sentiments which he approves. The Unitarian disseminates his blasphemies, and the Universalist, the Arminian and the Papist, their respective heresies, perhaps more successfully in this way than in any other; while they piously profess to be praising God.
These are difficulties and evils connected with a human Psalmody which are of serious import, and which I fear, it is impossible to remedy, without going to the root of the matter, casting these idols, the work of men's hands to the moles and to the bats, and returning to the good old way. In doing so, "ye shall find rest for your souls."
The sum of the matter then, is this, that God once gave a system of inspired songs, which were used with divine approbation in his worship_that there is no evidence whatever that he has set them aside, but on the contrary, all the evidence necessary that they are by his approbation continued in the church under the present dispensation. On the other hand, we have no evidence in the scriptures, that uninspired songs were ever used in the service of God, with his approbation; and the use of them is liable to many serious objections. The conclusion then is, that an inspired Psalmody, we are sure, has the warrant and approbation of God; and to lay it aside must be sin. We cannot be sure that an uninspired Psalmody has the divine warrant, but we have many and powerful reasons to think it has not. Now if these things are so, the path of duty to every one who fears God is so plain, that he that runs may read.
If the Psalms of David, originally written in Hebrew, were designed by God to be the matter of the church's praise to the end of time, which we think the above remarks satisfactorily evince, it becomes a matter of the very last importance for the church to employ a correct translation of them in its vernacular tongue, suited to this exercise. This was duly appreciated by the Reformation Churches in Britain. On becoming acquainted with the care which they took in the matter, let candor say, if equal care has been taken in the preparation of any other Psalmody since that period.
In speaking of this version, much sophistry and misrepresentation, have been employed either ignorantly or maliciously, by the advocates of human compositions. One of the most common of these, is, to call Watts' Imitation, a Version, and then to say, that "he had as good a right, and was as well qualified to make a version of the Psalms, as Rouse, or any other man." Setting aside the subject of qualification as a matter of no moment in this argument, the misrepresentation of which I speak cannot be better exposed than Dr. M'Master has done it, in his Apology for the Book of Psalms. I quote from the first edition, page 162. On the oft repeated assertion that Dr. Watts had as good a right to translate the Psalms as Mr. Rouse, he remarks:
"The equality of the right is not denied, but the assertion is calculated to deceive the unthinking. It assumes the fact, that the production of Watts is a version, which is not true. It was designed as a substitute for every fair translation; one of its excellencies is said to be its remoteness from the original. That called Rouse's paraphrase, is intended as and really is, a fair version; though not so perfect as to preclude improvement. Let it, however, be kept in mind, that a greater departure from the thought and language of the Holy Ghost, would constitute no part of this improvement. It must be again repeated, that the contest is not between version and version; but between translation and imitation; between inspired songs, and those of human composure. The assertion of the disputer is this: Dr. Watts had as good a right to imitate the Book of Psalms, as Mr. Rouse had to translate it; and we have the same right to employ, in the worship of God, the imitation, that others have to use the translation._The argument is of the same species as this_The British divines, in the reign of James I., made a version of the Bible; therefore, Ethan Allen had as good a right to make HIS bible; and those who choose it, have as good a right to employ it, as others have to use the translation, for the rule of their faith and manners! The value of the argument, thus applied, every Christian can appreciate."
Another misrepresentation here, is, "that as Rouse was not inspired, his version of the Psalms is no more inspired than the psalms of Watts or any other." The principle from which this remark derives all its weight against an inspired Psalmody is dangerous in the extreme, and happily is as false as dangerous. It is an assertion that would raze the foundations of the Christian's faith and hope, and not only at one sweep deprive us of a revelation of the will of God, but render it forever impossible we should have one, unless the same Spirit who inspired the penmen of the Scriptures shall inspire its translators also. For if a correct version of the Psalms, even though in verse, is not inspired because its author had not the gift of inspiration, neither are our English bibles the word of God, for excellent and capable men as our translators were, the gift of inspiration they never enjoyed. If this argument then is conclusive against the inspiration of the Psalms of David in English metre, it is equally so against the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments in English prose. And if it is not a sound argument against the one, as all will admit, neither can it be against the other. Thus then stands the case. Watts' is not a correct translation of the book of Psalms, nor indeed a translation at all._That which is erroneously called Rouse's Version is; and in the opinion of the best judges is among the best translations, yea, the very best, that yet exists; and of course is as much inspired as any portion of our English bibles.
Another device used to depress and to sink into contempt the Psalms of David is, constantly to represent them and speak of them as "Rouse's Psalms" and "Rouse's version;" as if the version which they so denominate was the sole production of Francis Rouse, verbatim et literatim, as it was left by him. This is an art by which the unthinking are led aside from the truth, and imperceptibly induced to believe that the sum of the controversy about Psalmody is nothing more, than whether Watts or Rouse shall stand highest in public favour_a question in itself not worth a single straw, nor, if decided, of any consequence to this argument. The truth is, that Rouse's version has never been in use in the church of England since the days of the Westminster Assembly, if indeed it ever was, and in Scotland, it is certain it never was in use at all. About 1643, Rouse's version was sent by Parliament to the Assembly of divines at Westminster, to be revised and corrected to fit it for the use of the Church. The first thing they did was, "to dismiss from it every extraneous composition, being determined to keep not only to the sense, but as far as possible to the very words of Scripture. In this labour they were assisted by the general assembly of the Scottish Kirk [church]," and after being revised in England, it was sent to Scotland for further correction and improvement, and after "many alterations were made on the original copy," it was adopted in 1645. This copy, so carefully revised by the Westminster Assembly was again taken up by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, with a view to farther revision, in order to its being adopted as the Psalmody of the church. To insure greater accuracy, it was divided into four portions and committed to different individuals, who were instructed in their examination of it "not only to observe what they thought needed amendment, but to set down their own essay for correcting it, and to make use of the labours of Rowallan, Zachary Boyd, former translators, or of any other, on the subject; but especially of the version begun by Sternhold and Hopkins, and finished by the exiles at Geneva," which was the version then in use in that church. Those to whom this task was committed entered on their labours with zeal, and in their progress were assisted by the different Presbyteries. Their report was the subject of serious deliberation at different meetings of the General Assembly and commissions of that body, and by the Presbyteries generally: and when the whole was sufficiently matured this interesting cause was issued on the 23d of November, 1649, by the following decision: "The commission of the General Assembly having with great diligence considered the paraphrase of the Psalms in metre, sent from the Assembly of Divines in England by our commissioners whilst they were there, as it was corrected by former General Assemblies, committees from them, and now at last by the brethren deputed by the late Assembly for that purpose; and, having exactly examined the same, do approve the said paraphrase, as it is now compiled; and therefore, by the power given them by the said Assembly, do appoint it to be printed and published for public use: hereby authorizing the same to be the only paraphrase of the Psalms of David to be sung in the Kirk [church] of Scotland; and discharging the old paraphrase, and any other than this new paraphrase to be made use of in any congregation or family after the first day of May, in the year 1650. And, for uniformity in this part of the worship of God, do seriously recommend to Presbyteries, to cause make an intimation of this act, and take special care that the same be timeously put to execution and duly observed._A. KERR."
With what truth or propriety then can a version that has been so often revised, altered and corrected by the most distinguished bodies of divines that ever England or Scotland produced, be called Rouse's version? Let the candid judge. Unquestionably never before nor since was such care taken to have a correct version of the scripture songs; never perhaps was a matter of such importance undertaken by men more competent to the task; and to their diligence, zeal and ability, under Providence, are we indebted for a version of the Psalms of David, in metre, which even to this day, is "more plain, smooth and agreeable to the original text than any heretofore."
After all, however, it is not maintained that in a very few words an improvement might not be made. After a lapse of nearly two hundred [now nearly three hundred and fifty] years, it is not surprising that in a few instances, the mode of expression should appear uncouth, and fall awkward on the fastidious ear of modern taste. The wonder rather is, that, there is so very little of this in a composition so old. But while the Christian, who is a true friend to the Psalms of the Bible, has no objection to consult taste where it may be safely done, he knows that it would be presumption in any man or church at present to substitute a new version, and he feels it would be purchasing this gratification of taste at too great a price to obtain it at the expense of removing a single idea which the divine Spirit has indited, or of debasing the pure gold, by the addition of a single thought of meaner origin. It is not by the harmony of sweet flowing verse, however agreeable this may be, but by the pure milk of the word of God that the soul is nourished up unto everlasting life. The pleasures of taste, are entirely of a different kind from those which the heaven born soul derives from the word of God._It is pleasure of this latter kind, that a man rightly exercised seeks and finds by appropriating the words of divine truth for his song of praise. This they are capable of affording even in the humblest dress; and where this happiness is enjoyed, the loss of the other will not be greatly felt. But, we cannot admit that the Christian has anything to deduct from his happiness, in this exercise, on account of any deficiency of gratifications of this kind. We have no fear of contradiction, from any quarter, worthy of regard, when we assert, that the merely intellectual man, will find a richer feast in the Psalms of David in metre, than in any piece of human composition, whatever. But, though this is true, we also freely admit, that it is the spiritual taste that can best appreciate songs of inspiration; and the more generally this is diffused among professing Christians, the less will they relish the ephemeral conceits of fellow mortals, and the more will they delight themselves in the word and ordinances of the eternal God. (1840).
Sower's Seed Reprints
We offer treasures of old in booklets, computer disk, audio tape and braille.
Rt. 3, Box 148-W, Hempstead, TX, 77445 (409) 826-3612.
Web Site Address:
Index of Sowers Seed Files
These articles are free from BelieversCafe.com. Download these articles from BelieversCafe.com, and read offline or redistribute freely!