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Ancient Usage in Praising God.


Ancient Usage in Praising God.

James Dodson

[Originally appeared in THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN, 1838].

It is the duty of all the worshippers of God to unite their voices, in the celebration of his praises. To the performance of this duty all are under as solemn obligations, as they are to read the Scriptures, to pray, to meditate, to examine themselves, to hear the word, and to sanctify the Sabbath. There is no warrant to praise God by proxy as is done in those congregations in which the whole duty of praising Him is performed by a choir of trained singers—often thoughtless and even irreligious youths. 

Kings of the earth, all nations, 
     princes, earth’s judges all: 
Both young men, yea, and maidens too, 
     old men, and children small. 
Let them God’s name praise; for his name
     alone is excellent. Psalm 148:11,13. 

The command is not, praise him, ye choir of well disciplined young men and maidens, and let all others, old men and young children be silent, lest they should mar the melodies of the music, by their coarse notes. All ranks and ages are enjoined to raise their voices in songs of praise.

Behold, bless ye the Lord, all ye
       that his attendants are, 
Even you that in God’s temple be, 
       and praise him nightly there. 
Your hands within God’s holy place
       lift up and praise his name. Psalm 134:1,2.

This command is of the same extensive import, making the duty imperative on all God’s “attendants,” or worshippers.

The command so often and solemnly reiterated in the inspired book of Psalms—“Praise ye the Lord,” is addressed to no one class, exclusive of others; it embraces all as fully as the precept—“Serve the Lord.”

When David brought the ark and set it in the midst of the tent that he had pitched for it, he delivered a psalm to those who were leaders in song. “And all the people praised the Lord.” 1 Chron. 16:36.

In reply to all this it is said that though the congregation is silent yet, in their hearts, they may be employed in praising God; as in prayer, none utters words but he who leads in the devotions, while all unite in the prayer. It is a great error that has wrought no little evil in the matter of praising God, to consider prayer and praise as the same duty, and that whatever is allowable in the one is also in the other. In praise, we address God in poetry, and add to it the musical modulations of the voice. All this gives a character of familiarity in approaching him, which belongs to no other duty. God has furnished us with a manual of praise, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, in the Psalms of David, and both authorized and commanded us to use it in our songs of praise. He has not authorized or given the least intimation of his permitting any other. There is no ground on which faith can rest that he will accept any songs but those indited by the Holy Spirit. All this plainly demonstrates that reasoning from prayer to praise, as if they were the same duty, is utterly inconclusive. How frivolous must it be when it is directly opposed to those commands of God recited above and such calls to duty as the following:

O come let us sing to the Lord: 
       come, let us every one
A joyful noise make to the rock
       of our salvation. Psalm 95:1.

God calls every one to “sing” and “make a joyful noise” to him in the celebration of his praises. Shall men presume to say, not so; it is enough to make melody in the heart, while the tongue is silent? This is surely presuming too much, and dealing too freely with the solemn commands of Jehovah.

How the New Testament writers understood this matter is abundantly plain from repeated declarations of the Apostles. “Speaking to yourselves” (or to one another) “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” Eph. 5:19. “Let the word of Christ dwell in yon 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.” Col. 3:16. “Is any merry let him sing psalms.” James 5:13. The duty of teaching and admonishing one another, of speaking to one another, in the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs indited by the Holy Ghost, and singing these songs is enjoined by the Holy Spirit. Christians are commanded to express their spiritual joys, by “singing psalms.” Nothing could be more express than all this.

Besides that it was the practice of the early christians for the whole congregation to join in singing the praises of God, is as evident, as any other well attested fact. Pliny says “that the christians met together before day and sung praises to Christ as God, evidently meaning the whole assembly. We have no intimation of any other practice obtaining from the Apostolic age to the days of the reformation. It is welt known that it was the practice of all the reformed churches, for the whole congregation to unite in the song of praise. How good and comely is all this!

Praise ye the Lord; for it is good
     praise to our God to sing; 
For it is pleasant and to praise
     it is a comely thing. Psalm 147:1.

Shall the lowing of the cattle, the roaring of the lion, melodious notes of the feathered songsters, the groves wade vocal by the breezes, the tempests of the ocean and the mighty voice of thunder reverberating in the heavens, all unite in shewing forth the praises of their Creator, and shall the tongue—the glory of man, alone be silent? Shall its voice alone not be heard in the loud anthem of praise?

After all, they who reject the songs indited by the Holy Spirit, and substitute in their room the poetic effusions of human genius, as they have made, without God’s permission, their songs of praise for themselves, may be permitted to decide in their own way who shall sing them and how it shall be done. Their songs are their creatures and let them dispose of them in their own way.

If it is so that all the people of Israel did sing the praises of God, as they were commanded, and who can doubt it? the psalms must have been read out by verses or lines. If that were not done, either the whole people must have had all the book of psalms committed to memory, or they could not have sung. Copies of the law were so scarce, when written out with the pen, and on parchment, that in the most prosperous state of the church in Israel, there could not have been more than one copy of the law in each synagogue, or congregation. It is perfectly certain, there could not have been one for each family, or one for every worshipper, in the synagogue. The inference is irresistible, that in order that “every one” might sing to the Lord, the psalm must have been parcelled out, reading it line by line. “The people all praised God,” on the day that the ark was carried up to the place that David had prepared for it on the hill of Zion. On the very day of the procession, 1. Chron. 16:36. the psalm which they sung, was delivered to the leaders in praise; so that they neither could have committed it to memory, nor could copies have been written out for all the people to sing it without lineing. This must have been the case too with all the psalms, when they were sent first to the people to be sung. The manner in which they thus first sung them, was, no doubt, continued ever afterwards. They neither complained that the sense was marred, nor the melody of the music impaired by that mode of singing.

In the early ages of the church, the same method must have been continued; for the copies of the Scriptures were so rare, and expensive, that except among the opulent, and there were few such, they were scarcely to be found in private families. It was with no little difficulty that every church could be supplied with a copy of the word, until the invention of the art of printing, a little before the reformation of the sixteenth century. During all that long period, if all the people sung the praises of God, as they all did who had voices, the practice of reading the lines prevailed. This cannot be gainsaid.

In the reformed congregations, on the continent, the same practice was continued, for though the copies of the psalms were not so rare, yet few of the people could read. In the Directory for worship agreed upon by the assembly of Divines at Westminster, and which is the basis of the form of worship, of all the Presbyterian churches in Britain and America, we have the following provision:—

“That the whole congregation may join herein” (the singing of psalms) “every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some fit person appointed by him, and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.” As the version of the psalms now in use, made by the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, in the purest times of the reformation, and now used by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, by the Secession churches and by the established church of Scotland, is now printed, what was originally one line is divided into two. Reading the psalm line by line meant the reading of what we now call two lines.

“That man hath perfect blessedness, who walketh not astray.”

was originally one line. In most cases, the verse is so constructed, that this one long line embraces a distinct and complete sentiment. In this, it follows the original, which usually expresses a full and distinct thought in one verse; and that portion was probably the length of the line read in the Israelitish worship “before the singing thereof.” The Presbyterian churches in Britain did all adopt and long practice according to the provision of the Westminster directory. Most of them; all the Reformed Presbyterian, the Associate or Antiburgher, and many of the Associate Reformed congregations, continue the mode of lineing to the present time [1838], in this country.

This usage then, at which many affect to sneer, as rude and illiberal, is of high authority and venerable antiquity, has been practised by the greatest and best of the people of God, for more than two thousand eight hundred years. In this way, by far the greater part of the redeemed of the Lord, who now praise him in heaven, learned to praise him on earth. In this matter, those who practice it. are going forth by the footsteps of the flock.

All this does not prove, however, that to sing without reading the psalm line by line, is in itself, irrespective of circumstances, sinful. An individual when singing alone may sing continuously; and a family where all can read and have books, may adopt the same mode; because the reason for lineing does not exist. But wherever any person is, or may be supposed to be present, who cannot read and yet can sing, the reason for reading the lines exists and the practice should be followed. In public congregations of worshippers it rarely if ever occurs that some of the reasons which render the reading of lines necessary are not found; and therefore the practice should be continued. Besides the church has decided that the lines shall be read, and it belongs to her supreme judicatory alone to determine when the practice shall cease, if it ever is to cease in the church militant. Wherever the appointment of God and the church’s law, whether statute or well established common law, enjoins a rule of order, government, or worship, no congregation may set aside such rule upon its own responsibility. To do so is the very spirit of independency and strikes at the whole doctrine of uniformity to which so much importance has been and always should be attached by the witnesses of Christ. Farther, where a change in a matter of this nature is offensive to any of the Lord’s people, it should be avoided rather than give offence to Christ’s little ones, were there no other reason. Innovation under such circumstances is harsh, is cruel, is unwarrantable. It will be avoided by the wise who seek for the promotion of holy harmony in a congregation and who delight in the peace of Jerusalem.