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Letter IV.


Letter IV.

James Dodson



DEAR BRETHREN:—In this letter I propose a brief discussion of the following question: Ought the Book of Psalms to be used still in the public Psalmody of the church? On the determination of this question, as far as we are concerned, the issue of the controversy depends. The matter in debate should not be confounded with others that may be but very remotely or incidentally connected with it.

The inquiry, then, is not, whether it be lawful to use in the praise of God any other inspired songs besides what are found in the Book of Psalms? This, so far as I know, has never been a matter of contention.[1] Nor is it any matter of dispute, in the present instance, what version of the inspired songs shall be used. The question at issue is—Shall we have any fair and full version of this divine Book, as the matter of our praise? Those on the one side expressly take the affirmative and say, Let us have the best version; and, if practicable, let us have a better than any now extant. On the other side, this has been as explicitly refused. The book of Psalms is actually excluded from the Psalmody of their churches. That against which we remonstrate is the expulsion of the book of Psalms by an IMITATION; the exclusion of the spiritual songs of inspiration, by adopting the collected volumes of hymns which are not inspired.

I offer only a word more respecting versions. I have said the dispute is not about versions; this should be kept in recollection. Let us have that which justly merits the name of a version, and the contest shall end. We ought, indeed, to select the best. We believe that used in the Church of Scotland, in the Associate and Reformed Presbyterian Churches, is the best. We do not say it is perfect; it is susceptible of improvement, as the version of our Bible is; but we have none better; we have no other one so good. If the genius of the original, the language of the Spirit of God, simplicity of diction, energy of thought, striking imagery and transforming sentiment, be recommendations,—it is believed this translation has them, in a degree to which no other one, in verse, in our language can lay claim.

We know, indeed, other compositions, the verbiage of which glides more smoothly along. And, to those who pay a greater deference to sound than to sentiment, it is not doubted such will afford more pleasure. But the man of mind; the scholar of cultivated taste, the Christian of exalted piety, will, when left to the decision of their own judgment, unite in preference of sense to sound, of body to shadow, and of the word of God to that of man. In more cases than that of Psalmody, the corruption of religious taste, from a rage of innovation, a spirit of easy accommodation, neutrality of mind, or causes of equally unworthy character, is lamented by not a few. But of this enough. I proceed to state and vindicate the following position:—


I vindicate this assertion on the ground of divine appointment—on the ground of the suitableness of this book—of its superior excellence above all human composure—of the uncertainty of the divine permission of such human composures—of the unsatisfactory nature of the arguments used to recommend them—and the dangerous consequences of their introduction into the public worship of the church.

DIVINE APPOINTMENT is my first reason for the continued use of the Book of Psalms in the praises offered to God in Zion. The compositions of this book were given for this purpose. They were inscribed to the master of song in the sanctuary; and even the most personal meditations of the inspired Psalmist were so addressed. They were actually employed in the church of God, with his approbation; and were suitable for the service of praise. Their form, their nature and their designation, unite in pointing out their use. I do not rest the proof of the divine institution of these sacred odes, as the matter of the church’s Psalmody, on the simple fact of a reforming king of Judah commanding that they should be employed.[2] I add to that evidence the facts that in the days of inspiration and prophecy, these divine compositions were so used; that their name and composition intimate that to have been their appropriate use; and that their matter and their structure render them fit for this service of the tabernacle of God, under every dispensation of his grace. That the hymn sung by our Lord and his disciples, after the institution of the eucharistic supper, was a portion of that part of the Book of Psalms, called the Hillel by the Jews, and which they usually sung at the paschal solemnity, is admitted as more than probable by all, except those individuals who may have some private purpose to uphold by its denial.[3]

That in the book of Psalms there are typical allusions to the usages of the Old Testament, no more unfits it for Christian worship than did the New Testament language of many of the Psalms render them unfit for the devotions of the Israelites; or than New Testament allusions to ancient rites, prove it unsuitable for a Christian directory. Objections against the continued use of inspired songs on this ground, indicate such a defective degree of information as should not be hastily imputed, even to those who possess but very common facilities for Christian instruction.

For the use of these songs we have New Testament authority. Its inspired writers recognise this sacred collection of inspired hymns, under the name of the Book of Psalms.[4] Under this name we do not know that they acknowledged any other. If they did, where is it now? Listen to an apostolic command: Is any merry? let him sing Psalms.[5] Had the saints of those days, as doubtless they did, expressed the sacred gladness of their hearts, in singing one of David’s Psalms, would that have been an act of obedience or of disobedience? At this day, none will, I presume, have the hardihood to say, by doing so they would have sinned against the glory of the New Testament. The act would have been one of obedience. Then it is confessed that the singing of the Book of Psalms is an institution, even under the present dispensation, of divine authority.

To one consideration more, under this head, we should carefully attend. It is this: the whole word of God is adapted to general edification; but to profit by it its several parts must be specially applied to the particular ends for which they are given. The commands, the promises, the examples of scripture, for instance, are all instructive, generally; but in addition to this, each of these has its specific use. Now, the well-instructed saint will apply these several portions according to their intention. Not to employ them particularly, in addition to a general utility, for the special purposes for which they are given, would be to misuse them; it would be, to say the least, criminally to neglect them.

The application of the remark just made is plain. The book of Psalms was given as a part of that revelation which is profitable for instruction; but it was especially given to the church as the matter of her psalmody; not as a model, which she might imitate at pleasure, and substitute the imitation in place of the original, but as songs to be used in the exercise of praise: and they were accordingly so employed. Whatever use, then, we may make of them otherwise, if we set them aside, and do not apply them to this specific purpose, we must be chargeable with neglecting them, in that for which God has more particularly given them. To this point I request the attention of such as may honour this letter with a reading. To take away from its appointed use, any portion of sacred scripture, is tantamount to taking it from the Bible of God.

The singing of praise, publicly, is a duty. It is not an extemporary exercise; it requires a form of Psalmody. God has provided for this. His Spirit has dictated a great variety of songs—and collected into one Book, for the use of the church, those he judged proper. The question then is, Shall we reject that which God has provided, and prefer our own effusions; or receive his? Turn it as you will, this is really the inquiry. In this collection are to be found psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs.[6] We are expressly commanded to sing these, Col. 3:16. I request the objector, for once, not to quibble; and, again, I demand evidence of the existence, in the Apostolic age, of any other PSALMS AND HYMNS, AND SPIRITUAL SONGS, than those contained in scripture. The proof of negatives devolves not on me. To demand it, is unfair.

That these inspired compositions once occupied a place in the church of God, by divine appointment, as suitable matter of her Psalmody, will not now be seriously denied.[7] The church, in all ages, is one. Whatever institutions she has once received from the hand of her Lord, she is bound to observe until he shall free her from the obligation, or, by an act of his authority, deprive her of the privilege. But, in what page of the New Testament has the church’s Head abrogated the use of her inspired hymns? or forbidden her children the consolations they so often found, in chanting them to his praise? The point is too obvious for further pursuit. I cannot bring my mind to reason it lower. The consistent Christian will at once admit—The book of Psalms, in the church’s psalmody, had the sanction of divine authority; that sanction has never been disannulled; therefore, its use, as such, is yet of God’s appointment.

The sum of the argument is this: the book of Psalms was given under the sanction of the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; the composition is poetic; the matter of the book is remarkably adapted for the public Psalmody of the church, and for private use; its several parts were under divine superintendence, collected, numbered and placed in order; as matter of Psalmody it was given to the church, and, as such, by her used; the Book of Psalms is not a type or mere rite, but a remarkable compend of divine truth, religious, moral, historical, and an infallible exhibition of godly experience; and, as of divine appointment for Psalmody in particular, so for other religious purposes in general, it passed from the temple and synagogue of the old economy, into the church of the new dispensation; in every age it has been highly valued by the enlightened and spiritually minded, as containing fit matter, and in proper order, for her Psalmody; in it are psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, for the use of which in Psalmody, we have a divine command, Col. 3:16; for the specific use of it in Psalmody, we have precisely the same kind of argument and of authority that we have for the canonical authority of the Bible, or any part of the Bible for general religious use; the proof from internal and external evidence in both cases is similar. The argument that would set aside the book of Psalms from its specific place in Psalmody, would go far to undermine the canonical authority of the Bible, or any part of the Bible, as a rule in any specified case of religion or morality. The good men who used such arguments meant not so, and seem to have been unaware of the tendency of their reasoning. For the authority of this book, in Psalmody, we have the same evidence that we have for its being of divine authority at all.

THE ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK OF PSALMS TO THE PURPOSES OF SACRED PRAISE, furnishes me with a second argument for its continuance. Have we beheld the glory of God? Are we desirous of celebrating his perfections, that are so illustriously displayed in his creative and providential works? This inspired book presents us with a suitable song: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap: he layeth up the depth in store-houses—He spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy work. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge,”[8] &c. And how inimitably fine the descriptions of Divine Providence are in the 104th and 107th, and other Psalms, need not be told to the man of taste and piety.

Would we sing the frailty and sorrows of man? His frailties are described with a master’s hand: “His days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. Man is like to vanity; his days are as a shadow that passeth away.”[9] His woes are delineated with the pen of sorrow. In Zion’s elegiac lines, flow such tears of affliction as the weeping muse of Greece or Rome could never shed. The penitent sows in tears; those tears are represented as his bread and his drink; they are precious in the sight of God; he records their number in his book, and collects them in his bottle.[10] And never were sentiments of deep distress couched in language at once so tender and so emphatic as in the 88th Psalm. The griefs of a public spirit are expressed with a divine eloquence. Read, as a specimen of this, the 79th of this sacred collection, and then turn to the 137th, where an unparalleled group of the tenderest sentiments, and most affecting imagery will be found. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down: yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.”

Would we, in the song we sing to God, dilate on the grace of the Spirit, and on their varied actings? Would we sing the humbling and the elevating exercises of the saint? These are themes which enter largely into the composition, and constitute no small share of the beauty of our Bible Psalms. They have, too, this advantage above others; they are delineated with infallible correctness.

Is it our wish to embrace in our song the distinguishing blessings of salvation? These are found in our divine odes. The grace of God in election,[11] in redemption,[12] in pardon,[13] in communion,[14] is sung in these inspired verses. Here, likewise, the saint finds assurance of safety in the vale of death, and of victory over the grave, together with the enjoyment of eternal life.[15] These, and their kindred blessings, give form and vitality to the whole system of scripture song.

Do the sufferings of the Son of God, by which he purchased his church and his triumph over the powers of death, occupy our attention? Do we wish to make these the subject of our praise? Where are they sung in strains so melting, or in notes of such elevated sentiment, and expressive diction, as in the book of Psalms? There we find the language he selected, when, suspended upon the cross, he suffered for us the Father’s wrath: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?—Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”[16] There, too, we have his triumphal song: “God is gone up with shout—Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them.”[17] Would we sing his victorious march in the spread of the gospel? All the language in which it is described is flat, compared with that which the Holy Ghost employs: “Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most Mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty ride prosperously, because of truth, and meekness, and righteousness—Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth—The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly showed—All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”[18]—Would we sing the awful scenes at the close of time? “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence; a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him. He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people.—God is judge himself.” Then to his saints will he “show the path of life; in his presence is fulness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures for evermore.” Then, too, “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”[19] Thus, there is no attribute of Jehovah which is not celebrated; no gift of grace which is not confessed; no devout emotion of the heart which is not described, nor achievement of the Saviour which is not sung, in the impressive language of the Holy Ghost.

I know, indeed, it has been said that the preacher feels regret in being confined to inspired Psalms; that, after he had delivered a gospel sermon, he could find no song by which he could, with propriety, close the solemnities of the day. May we not venture to express our suspicion respecting those who talk at this rate, that their acquaintance with the scripture songs must be shamefully superficial; or, that they preach another gospel than that of the blessed God? For certain it is, that thousands, in different ages, have, with great faithfulness, ability and success, preached the gospel of Christ, without feeling any difficulty in selecting a Scripture Psalm appropriate to the occasion.

I am not so fortunate as to remember any specifications on this subject. The declarations, it is believed, are general; and so calculated to cover a defective information, or something not quite so excusable. We shall rest this point till gentlemen of candour specify the particulars in which the Scripture Psalms are either defective in matter suitable for Christian Psalmody, or contain matter unsuitable to the purpose of evangelical worship. Only let them be careful not to occupy a ground that would exclude all social praise from the sanctuary of God. It is to be suspected that complaints of this stamp originate not from defect, or what is unfit in scripture songs, but from a vitiated taste in spiritual things. It requires more than unsupported assertions or mere declamation, to satisfy the mind of him who wishes to give a reason of his hope that the songs of inspiration are not fit, as to matter, or not ample, as to variety, for all the purposes of evangelical praise. It is pity, indeed, that any Christian should be found who does not prefer the infallible dictates of the Spirit of grace, to the imperfect, however well intended, effusions of fallible men.

Take, then, this inspired book; it conveys the balm of consolation to the afflicted heart, directs the emotions of the child of grace, teaches a due estimate of a world of sin and sorrow, cherishes living hope in a living Redeemer, and furnishes a guide and support for that faith by which the Christian lives. Here you find concentrated the light of inspired truth, whence its beams ray out on the night of time—It pours a flood of day on the vale of death, dissipating its gloom, banishing its terrors, and giving a joyous prospect of the happy regions that lie beyond. Study the other pages of the Book of God. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly—a knowledge of it will enable you to understand and to apply this sacred manual of inspired song; but exchange it not for light and lifeless poetry of erring man. This leads me to

My third argument: THE SUPERIOR EXCELLENCE OF INSPIRED PSALMS. It is not my design to derogate from the merit of any man's productions. Claim for them all the respect you justly can; still they are human. The structure is the work of man, and must be imperfect. The sentiment must be comparatively feeble, the views narrow, and the thought shallow. Will not the effect be proportionably superficial? the effect cannot be more perfect than its cause. Is it not likewise to be expected that man’s moral imperfections will tinge his fairest works? But how highly elevated, above all this, is the character of the living word of God in Zion’s inspired songs! There we find unspotted purity; the holiness of God transcribed. In those compositions is depth of thoughtfulness of meaning, and an energy which evinces their divine original. It is not merely the lighter powers of the mind that these address, nor the transient affections of the heart, which they awaken. The harp, the organ, the well-modulated voice, are all adequate to the production of such effects. The language of inspiration does more. It seizes the mind, arrests the understanding, subjugates the will, purifies the conscience, elevates and regulates the affections, and transforms into its own image the whole man. Who dare venture to assert these things of the best productions of uninspired men?

The Christian will not forget that the Book of Psalms was dictated by the Spirit of God, and contains very remarkable exhibitions of his diversified operations on the human heart, in the various circumstances in which he places or finds the saint. And, if he say he esteems more highly the Psalms, which are the production of the Spirit that sanctifies him, than he does the imperfect works of feeble man,—let not his more liberal neighbour, who professes to see no difference between them, or, perhaps, who prefers the latter, brand his character with the odious appellation of bigot. The preference of the one may have more of the semblance of modern liberality; that of the other has not less of the character of ancient piety. I hold myself justified in choosing the best version of inspired compositions, rather than the most perfect effusions of uninspired man.[20]

THERE IS NOT INDUBITABLE EVIDENCE OF THE PROPRIETY OF USING HUMAN COMPOSURES IN THE PSALMODY OF THE CHURCH. This is my fourth reason. And I hesitate more, when I uniformly see the admission of such exclude those of the Spirit’s inditing.

We should not venture, if a pure offering be in our power, to present to God one of doubtful character. The denunciations of divine displeasure against those who do so, should not be forgotten.[21] We are sure the language of inspiration, furnished us by God himself, will not be unacceptable in our offerings to him. But are we certain, after our rejection of his, that our own will find, before him, a gracious acceptance? When God furnishes us with words for a special purpose, let us prefer them to all others. The Redeemer of souls, at a most interesting crisis of his mediation, poured forth the addresses of his heart in the language of the Book of Psalms.

With that which is doubtful, in the worship of God, we should not venture. He pronounces himself a jealous God. I know, indeed, that the thoughtless temerity of the spirit of innovation, is not likely to be deterred in its progress, by fear of divine disapprobation:

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

There is usually, in such cases, the prevalence of some powerful passion, the boisterousness of whose rage drowns, for the time, the suggestions of caution, and, not unfrequently, the authoritative voice of God himself. Until the storm shall have subsided, and the charm of novelty ceased to captivate, it is vain to hope, that attention will be seriously turned to a diligent comparison of such courses with the word of God. There is, notwithstanding, entertained a confident hope, that the time in which impious license has been taken with the Book of Psalms, has nearly expired. Whether there be danger of a corruption of worship, in the instance before us, or a ground of charge for taking away any portion of the word of God from its appointed use, deserves the careful inquiry of all concerned.

The Holy One of Israel has encircled his institutions with a solemnity which prohibits profane intrusion. The whole limit of his mountain is most holy. Hear what he says, and lay it to heart:—”What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.[22] Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.[23] This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.[24] But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.[25] Why are ye subject to ordinances, after the commandments and doctrines of men?”[26] Whatever show of wisdom there may be in such, the church’s Head pronounces it will-worship, and dishonourable to God, as well as dangerous to us: for, saith “the Root and Offspring of David, the bright and morning Star—I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things that are written in this book.”[27]

These scriptures impressively teach the danger of encroachment on the instituted ordinances of God. Upon no individual do we presume to sit in judgment; we speak for ourselves, and without offence to any may be allowed to give utterance to our own impressions, as to the import of those awful admonitions. From them, and other portions which speak a similar language, we learn, that in matters of religious worship, it is not sufficient authority for a practice, that it is not expressly forbidden. The worshipper should be prepared to answer, in a satisfactory manner, should God propose to him the question, Who hath required this at your hand? It will not be satisfactory to say, “The Lord has not explicitly prohibited such observances.” Were this plea of justification admissible, Rome might add rites innumerable to her already cumbrous load, and, at the bar of God, stand acquitted in her impious impositions. Jehovah’s prohibitory law is express; Thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.[28]

On this subject we have more than mere verbal prohibitions. To succeeding ages, God has set up actual monuments of instruction, and of warning. The fact of Nadab and Abihu is full in point. In their character, there does not appear to have been any intentional opposition to the institutions of God. Thoughtlessly, perhaps, they brought, instead of the sacred fire from the altar, common fire from the hearth. This appears to have been a very trivial deviation from the appointed order; but it was a deviation; and God, by an alarming stroke, taught Israel that he would be sanctified in them that approached to worship him, by a punctilious regard to every part of his institutions.[29] The death of UZZAH [30] impresses on the mind a similar lesson. The apparent smallness of the deviation, and purity of intention, never, in the sight of God, consecrated an invasion of his prerogative, the exclusive right of settling the matter and the forms of his own worship. Uzzah was pious, and being actuated by a very laudable motive, the safety of the ark of God, he took hold of it. But this was not required of him, and his life was forfeited by his devout temerity. God is still the same; strange fire, and the intrusion of an unhallowed hand upon his ark, are as offensive now as formerly they were. His glory he will not give to another.[31] Whether are those who use the Scripture Psalms, or those who employ our multiplied hymn books, in the worship of God, most in danger, in the case of Psalmody, of unwarrantable innovation? Let this be a question, not of disputation, but of conscientious inquiry.

Upon no rite, institution, or truth, will the enlightened Christian lay an undue weight; but he will try to give each that importance which it deserves. In the present state of man, forms are as necessary to the public expression of the devotions of the heart, as are the body and its members to the soul, in the actions of life. The question then is, shall we take forms of our own device, or, shall we be contented with what God has given? Moses was faithful in all his house. He acted according to prescription, and ventured not to add, or to diminish. The singing of the Almighty’s praise, in compositions of inspiration, is an appointment of God; the doing so, in human composures, is not a divine ordinance. It has not been proved to be God’s institution. Hear, then, the prohibition, and apply it, Touch not the unclean thing. This affects not the use of any scripture song.

THE ARGUMENTS EMPLOYED TO SET ASIDE THE BOOK OF PSALMS, FROM ITS PLACE IN THE PSALMODY OF THE CHURCH, ARE NOT ONLY UNSATISFACTORY, BUT FREQUENTLY IMPIOUS. This is my fifth reason for the continued use of scripture songs. To such arguments we would not seem, even, to give a sanction. Bad arguments are presumptive proof that the cause they subserve is not good. When a style of reasoning, inconsistent with the due reverence for the sacred writings, is uniformly adopted to recommend a measure, we ought to doubt the propriety of that measure. For a hundred years past, have the advocates of a new Psalmody spoken a language, in vindicating it, which is afflictive to hear. What say you, brethren of the cause, intellect, and moral feeling, of those who could speak, and write, in the manner stated below?[32] It will be recollected, that when Dr. Watts wrote the preface to his hymns, the book of Psalms was used in the churches.

Upon the sentiments quoted in the margin, I shall make but little comment. Did they not live in the writings of the authors, and alas! constitute the animating principle of that rage for “the meretricious ornaments” of a light and lifeless poetry, which has nearly banished an inspired Psalm Book from the church of God, I would not have permitted them a place in my pages. You, brethren, friends of the Bible, and advocates of its reputation, would not patiently listen to those slanders, by which it is misrepresented. Yet, indelicate, and—can you find a softer epithet than irreverent?—if you can, use it, and I return, and repeat—indelicate as are these rhapsodies, they enter into the special pleadings by which Dr. Watts introduced to notice his productions, and by which the friends of his scheme have supported it.

Of the Book of Psalms, in a literal and faithful version then in use, he says:—It flattens devotion—he speaks not of the form of translation, but of the matter—some of the Psalms in spirit and matter, as almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel—on a sudden checking our ascent towards heaven—darkening our sight of God the Saviour—proposing to our lips some dreadful curse against men—affrighting the conscience, lest in the language of his own book, we should speak a falsehood unto God—ruffling the spirit—spoiling devotion—causing our lips to speak nothing but the heart of David—causing the worship to grow dull of necessity—so full of cursings that they hardly become the tongue of a Christian. This language is incapable of sound explanation. In no connexion can it be justified. It never ought to have been used. The fearful temerity of the language of his followers respecting the book of Psalms, and the false views of the religion of the Old Testament church which most of them give, are of dangerous tendency. How could Christian men thus speak and deliberately write?

Yet Dr. Watts, with all the imposing forms of his sanctity, spoke as we have heard of his own and of inspired compositions. With his piety I have nothing to do. I hope it will be found, that he was really devout, and that, like others of the redeemed, he, through the blood of the cross, was pardoned and accepted by that God of whose word he so lightly spoke. Most willingly would I seek an apology for his modesty, and his reverence of God. But where is it to be found? Shall we have recourse to bodily infirmities, or, to that mental imbecility, from which so few partakers of frail humanity are exempt? But while this admission of charity shields his motives, it condemns the madness of his project. I cannot, however, be persuaded to extend the admission so far as to allow, that those multitudes who have entered into the views of the Doctor, were equally under the influence of hypochondriacal affections. And, if they were, would it not be accommodating their caprice too far, to indulge them, without animadversion, to banish from her solemn praise the inspired hymns of Zion?

Are you prepared to admit, that, “if we adhere to the book of Psalms, we cannot be said to do any thing in the name of the Redeemer?” Did, then, a strict adherence to the doctrines of this book, which so abundantly testifies of Christ, lead the worshipper to an absolute God—a consuming fire? Was not Messiah, since the fall of man, the only way to the Father? “Call now, if there be any that will answer thee; and to which of the saints wilt thou turn?”[33] Who of them was ever, in person, or in worship, accepted through any name but that of Christ?[34] Did they not, under every economy, contemplate him as wounded for their transgressions? In their sacrificed victims, devout worshippers, by faith, beheld Messiah, the Christ, cut off, but not for himself.[35]

It is remarkable how these writers could, in various forms, repeat that “there is no distinct mention of the Father in the book of Psalms as a distinct and special object of devotion.” Had an aversion to this book prevented them from reading the second Psalm? Who is it that says, Thou art my son? And to whom is the address made? Yes, yes; the doctrine of the Trinity was well known to the approved worshippers of God from the first, and is very distinctly exhibited in many a Psalm.[36] And was, as these advocates say, “the Son, as the way to the Father, unknown to the ancient saints?” We hope the time is rapidly passing away when such things shall be believed. Enoch, a contemporary with Adam, prophesied of the Saviour [37]—Abraham saw his day, and was glad [38]—Job spoke of his Redeemer, whom he knew, with the precision of a New Testament writer [39]—Moses esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt [40]—David describes him in his sufferings, in his exaltation, and in his dispensations, in these divine songs, [41] which, I fear, an unhappy prejudice has prevented some masters in our Israel from understanding. And yet, wonderful to tell, these saints knew nothing of this personage, as the way to the Father! Did these writers understand that Confession which they subscribed, and were they sincere when they professed to believe its articles, and vowed to teach its doctrines? This document teaches that “The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.”[42] This symbol, in the same chapter, teaches that “Faith, receiving and resting upon Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.” But, when a point is to be gained, subscriptions, vows, consistency, and truth, all in unison, oppose, too frequently, but a feeble obstacle to the unhallowed passions of imperfect man.

How bitterly is it to be lamented that ministers of the word of God should vituperate a most interesting portion of that word! Holding it forth as depriving the Son of God of divine honour—directly tending to make heresy triumphant—as favourable to Arianism, and as properly suited to such a perversion of truth! By such vituperation the Imitation and hymns of Dr. Watts have been forced upon the unwary; and, so far as a defence of the usurpation is undertaken, it is made by the same weapons. Say, ye who fear God, and tremble at his word, is not the cause a desperate one that—I shall not say requires, but that tolerates such support? To be told all this, to hear it repeated, and to see it presented in varied forms, by men occupying the place of ministers in the church of the Lord, and eulogized by others, and remain unmoved, would argue a species of apathy, by which no virtuous mind should wish to be characterized. If from another quarter it would call forth a well-tempered indignation; as it is, grief takes the place of indignation, and expresses itself in the tears of affliction.

These sentiments, indeed, appear to carry us so far beyond the regions where mistaken saints are wont to stray, that, when I read them, I imagine myself on the confines of infidelity. Has the “Age of Reason” spoken more reproachfully of the book of Psalms than these writings which I now review? The opinions are so often repeated, turned up in so many forms, and appear in so many connexions, that we are forbidden to ascribe them to a lapsus calami, an oversight in composition. Is it not their direct tendency to corrupt the mind, and shake the public faith in the inspired page? If, indeed, any portion of the book of Psalms have such tendencies as have been ascribed to it, ought it not to be torn from our Bibles, and excluded from our churches? Tell me, is it not dangerous to read, as well as to sing, those portions of Scripture that “darken our sight of God the Saviour?—that tend to give heresy a triumph, and that were properly suited to a perversion of truth?” Was it well done to imitate such a book? If the original be so dangerous, can the imitation be safe? By what rule shall we know those portions of the word of God, that have such evil tendency from those parts that are still profitable? And how account for the fatal omission of the great Prophet of the church, and of his inspired messengers, in never hinting to us these dangers from the use of the book of Psalms? These perplexing questions crowd upon us: they should have been obviated by those Evangelical Illuminati, who have east such a shade of doubt on this venerable book, which prophets composed, which apostles admired, and which saints in every age have most devoutly sung.

That such sentiments were indulged, among any of the professed disciples of Christianity, even in the heat of angry controversy, can be accounted for only by the fact already mentioned,—the progress of infidelity. The period when the opinions of Watts were broached, was the age in which the publications of Herbert, Shaftsbury, and Bolingbroke, came abroad, recommended by the fascinations of wit, of eloquence, and a pretension to lofty thought. From causes already mentioned, it was the age, too, of extinguished zeal, and little scriptural religion. The flood-gates of infidelity were raised, the torrent increased, and, in its impetuous course, carried public opinion along. Its deadly waters washed our shores. Untaught to confide in ourselves, and to draw upon our own resources, we depended as much on Europe for the opinions we should entertain, as for the robes we should wear. Political revolutions unsettle the public mind, lead to connexions unknown before, and afford facilities for the active apostles of error to accomplish their designs. The history of our times, and of our country, amply verifies this remark.

When the controversy of which we now treat, was first agitated in this country, the imposing port assumed by infidelity may be well remembered, while as a monster it stalked our streets. That was the “Age of Reason.” The public ear was familiarized to the supposed contradictions of the word of God. But now that these tumultuous waters are assuaged, that the reign of infidelity has ended, and that we live in the age of Bibles, when every one seems ready to atone for the wanderings of other years, I cannot persuade myself that, upon serious reflection, the real friend of the word of God will suffer any portion of it to remain under the unblessed charge of “checking us in our ascent to heaven—darkening our views of God the Saviour, or of directly tending to make heresy triumphant!” Let them, then—it is devoutly hoped they will—restore the book of Psalms to its legitimate place in the solemnities of the sanctuary. While such declarations, as those we have noticed, stand prominently on record against this sacred book, let us not give it up, test we be understood to give them the sanction of our approbation. Let it be retained where it is, and be brought back where it is not, till something more satisfactory than animated declamation shall be adduced against it; and till the Spirit of inspiration, in his future efforts, shall have surpassed in excellence what he has already done.

To induce to this, at the present day, it is not necessary to dilate on the testimony of New Testament writers, in favour of the evangelical character of the book of Psalms. A reference to what has already been said is deemed sufficient; and, were human authority deemed requisite, we might produce that of the whole church of God in former times: for, in no age of her existence, except that of INFIDEL REASON, did any of her sons venture to speak in the style on which we have animadverted. The testimony of a few moderns of reputation, from among many others no less respectable, may not be deemed impertinent.

The first I adduce is that of the late Dr. Horne. “David’s invaluable Psalms,” says he, “convey those comforts to others which they afforded to himself.—They present religion to us in the most engaging dress; communicating truths to us which philosophy could never investigate, in a style which poetry can never equal.—Indited under the influence of Him, to whom all hearts are known and all events foreknown, they suit mankind in all situations.—He who hath once tasted their excellencies will desire to taste them again, and he who tastes them oftenest will relish them best.”[43] Much more hath the Doctor finely spoken to the same purpose.

My next witness is Dr. Scott, a man who feels, as well as writes of the “Force of Truth.”—“There is nothing,” says this excellent man, “in true religion, doctrinal, experimental and practical, but will present itself to our attention while we meditate upon the Psalms. And hardly an occasion of praise and thanksgiving can be conceived, to which some portion of them, faithfully rendered in poetical versions, may not be applied with peculiar energy and propriety: and indeed the Christian’s use of them in the closet, and the minister’s in the pulpit, will generally increase with the growing experience of the power of true religion in their own hearts.”[44]

I next adduce the sentiments of the Rev. Robert Davidson, D.D., late professor in, and for a time at the head of Dickinson College. He was a reputable minister of the Presbyterian church. “Do Christians,” inquires the Doctor, “feel it their duty to celebrate the attributes of the adorable Jehovah, and to praise him for his wonderful works of creation, providence, and redemption?—Do they delight to dwell on the precious promises of God to men, especially the promises of life and salvation through a Redeemer?—Do they wish to repeat hymns that express in a lively manner all the various affections of a pious mind in all the different circumstances of life,—in scenes of trouble and in scenes of joy?—What can be better adapted to all these purposes than the book of Psalms,—the production of the pens of inspired prophets of ancient times? Had the author been disposed to omit any of this most valuable collection, he would not have known where to begin.”[45] But quotations of this description would be endless. I add only another:

“Of all the books of the Old Testament,” says Dr. Horsley, “the book of Psalms is the most universally read; but, I fear, as little as any understood. This cannot be ascribed to any extraordinary obscurity of these sacred songs; for of all the prophetic parts of the Scriptures they are certainly the most perspicuous. But it is owing, partly, I fear, to some dulness of the faculties of the natural man upon spiritual subjects.—There is not a page of this book of Psalms in which the pious reader will not find his Saviour, if he reads with a view of finding him; and it was but a just encomium of it that came from the pen of one of the early Fathers, that it is a complete system of divinity for the use and edification of the common people of the Christian church.”[46]

As much has been said by Dr. Watts and his followers against the book of Psalms, in the Psalmody of the church, as being in matter and spirit unfit for a place in that part of the worship of the sanctuary; as having no authority, divine or human, in that service, and, as being Christless. To the distinguished names above given we might add those of our ablest commentators, along with that of Scott, already given; such as Poole, Henry, Gill, and Clarke, all of whom are decided in advocating the divine appointment of the book of Psalms to be used in the Psalmody of the church under the new, as well under the Levitical economy; and they all strongly affirm the suitableness of the matter for the present dispensation of mercy. Out of the number of many who thus speak, we select, in addition to those already named, the following few, whose high rank in talent, sacred literature and piety, none will be inclined to dispute; and how far their unbiassed and deliberate judgment will outweigh the rash sayings of the author of the Imitation of the book of Psalms, and those of the writers of the Discourses, Animadversions, and Hints, his followers, on that side of the question, may be left to our readers to decide. The first of those now adduced is our own illustrious Edwards. Thus he speaks:

“The oil that was used in anointing David was a type of the Spirit of God; and the type and the anti-type were given both together, as we are told, 1 Sam. 16:13. ‘Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.’—One way that his Spirit influenced him was by inspiring him to show forth Christ, and the glorious things of his redemption, in divine songs, sweetly expressing the breathings of a pious soul, full of the admiration of the glorious things of the Redeemer, inflamed with divine love and elevated praise; and therefore he is called the sweet Psalmist of Israel, 2 Sam. 23:1. The main subjects of these songs were the glorious things of the gospel, as is evident by the interpretation that is often put upon them, and the use that is made of them in the New Testament; for there is no one book of the Old Testament that is so often quoted in the New, as the book of Psalms. Joyfully did this holy man sing of those great things of Christ’s redemption, that had been the hope and expectation of God’s church and people from the beginning,—and joyfully did others follow him in it, as Asaph, Heman, and others.—Here Christ is spoken of—in multitudes of songs, speaking of his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension into heaven; his satisfaction, intercession; his prophetical, kingly, and priestly office; his glorious benefits in this life and that which is to come; his union with the church, and the blessedness of the church in him; his calling of the Gentiles, the future glory of the church near the end of the world, and Christ’s coming to the final judgment. All these things, and many more, concerning Christ and his redemption, are abundantly spoken of in the book of Psalms.

“This was a glorious advancement of the affair of redemption, as God hereby gave his church a book of divine songs for their use in that part of their public worship, viz., singing his praise throughout all ages to the end of the world. It is manifest the book of Psalms was given of God for this end. It was used in the church of Israel by God’s appointment.—And we find that the same are appointed in the New Testament to be made use of in the Christian church, in their worship: Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16—In Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. So they have been, and will, to the end of the world, be made use of in the church to celebrate the praises of God. The people of God were wont sometimes to worship God by singing songs to his praise before, as they did at the Red Sea; and they had Moses’ prophetical song, in Deut. 32.: committed to them for that end; and Deborah, Barak, and Hannah, sung praises to God: but now first did God commit to his church a book of divine songs for their constant use.”[47]

Thus Edwards, like the apostle Paul, and, till lately, like the whole true church of God, could find, in the book of Psalms, his Redeemer, the doctrine of redemption, the church, and all that concerns the glory of God and the salvation of man. He, too, could find the suitableness and divine appointment of that book for its place in the Psalmody of the church, not upon a limited scale, but all of it and for every age. He could find the New Testament command for its continued use, in Col. 3:16; as, when that command was given, there was no other sacred collection than that of the book of Psalms in existence, and in it were the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, well adapted to the purposes indicated in the apostolic injunction. What a pity that so many of our modern masters in Israel can neither find Christ, nor his redemption, Spirit, nor hymns, nor spiritual songs, in the book of Psalms!

In soundness of mind, solidity of judgment, good common sense, candour, and personal piety, the late Andrew Fuller, D.D., was surpassed by very few, if any, of the age in which he lived. On the subject before us he speaks thus: “I have long wished to see introduced into the churches, (and I almost believe it will be at some future time,) A SELECTION OF DIVINE HYMNS OR SONGS, taking place of all human compositions. By divine songs or hymns, I mean the pure word of God, translated without any respect to rhyme or number, after the manner of Lowth’s Isaiah, and set to plain, serious, and solemn music, adapted to the sentiments.—David’s Psalms, why do we not set them as they are, to sacred music? It is of a thousand times more importance to preserve the spirit of a Psalm, or scripture song, than to have it in numbers, even supposing a uniformity in numbers were of advantage.—Such a sweetness and majesty is there in the poetic language of scripture, that if there were nothing offensive in the music it must needs recommend itself to a serious mind. Without disparaging the labours of any one, there is as great a disproportion between our best compositions and those of the scriptures, as between the speeches of Job and his friends, and the voice of the Almighty.”[48]

This is the language of good sense and piety. “What is the chaff to the wheat! saith the Lord.” And as to the manner, the church will find Dr. Fuller’s views to be sound. A faithful and elegant version in rhyme, or the modern metres, she has never had, and is not likely to have. A faithful version she has had and may have, and to that she must consent to sacrifice the modern decorations of fancy, in chiming verse.

The following are the sentiments of a Christian and a scholar, well known in Europe and America by his numerous and valuable writings. “Those sacred songs,” says Dr. Thomas Dick, “which are recorded in scripture for directing the train of our devotional exercises,—contain specimens of elevated sentiments, of sublime devotion, incomparably superior to what is to be found in any other record, whether ancient or modern. But man, whose unhallowed hand pollutes and degrades every portion of revelation which he attempts to improve, has endeavoured to set aside the literal and sublime references of these divine compositions, or to substitute in their place the vague and extravagant fancies of weak and injudicious minds, for directing the devotional exercises of Christian churches.” In a note the Doctor adds—“I here allude to several collections of hymns which have been introduced into the public worship of Christian societies,—many of which contain a number of vague and injudicious sentiments, and extravagant fancies, while they entirely omit many of those subjects on which the inspired writers delight to expatiate. When a poet takes an insulated passage of scripture, and spins out a dozen stanzas about it, he may interweave, and most frequently does, as many fancies of his own as he pleases. Were the ideas contained in certain hymns to be painted on canvass, they would represent either a congeries of clouds and mists, or a group of distorted and unnatural objects. And why should such vague fancies, and injudicious representations, be imposed on a Christian assembly? What a disgrace is thrown upon Christianity, when the different sects of Christians cannot cordially join together in the same song of thanksgiving and praise to their common Father and Lord!”[49]

In vindication of the divine authority of the book of Psalms, in the Psalmody of the church, and the suitableness of its matter for that part of the worship of the New Testament sanctuary, we may refer to a name before mentioned in another connexion, of sufficient weight in what he says to set aside the avowals or allegations of all the pamphleteers on the other side of the question. He remarks—“If God would be pleased to send into the world a man who should unite the fidelity of the old version [of the book of Psalms] commonly called Rouse’s, with so much poetic expression as to make it popular, it would be a rich gift to his church—a gift which, for our sins, he withholds.”[50] Our reference to this respectable authority, in this place, is for the establishment of the truth of the authority, the excellence, and suitableness of the book of Psalms in the Psalmody of the church. This is our main position; for the practical recognition of it we are solicitous. How far the able editor of the Spirit of the Nineteenth Century would agree or differ with us on collateral or subordinate points of this subject, is not now the matter of inquiry.

For a similar purpose we might draw largely upon Professor Alexander’s valuable Translation and Explanation of the book of Psalms. Dr. Alexander thus writes:—“As an inspired psalmist, and as a model and exemplar to those after him—from the days of Solomon to those of Ezra—David’s position is unique in sacred history.—His poetical and musical genius was necessary to secure his influence upon the church for ever. The result is, that no part of the Bible has been so long, so constantly, and so extensively familiar, both to Jews and Christians, as the Psalms of David. This denominatio a potiori is entirely correct, as all the other writers of the Psalms, excepting Moses, merely carry out and vary what had been already done by David; and as if to guard the system from deterioration, the farther we proceed the more direct and obvious is this dependence upon David, as “the man raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet Psalmist of Israel,” 2 Sam. 23:1.[51]

Dr. A. had said before, “that these hundred and fifty pieces—Psalms—different as they are, have this in common, that they are all poetical,—that they are all lyrical, that is, songs, poems intended to be sung,—and, thirdly, they are all religious lyrics, even those which seem at first sight the most secular in theme and spirit, but which are all found on inquiry to be strongly expressive of religious feeling. In the fourth place they are all ecclesiastical lyrics, psalms or hymns, intended to be permanently used in public worship, not excepting those which bear the clearest impress of original connexion with the social, domestic, or personal relations and experience of the writers.”[52]

Dr. Alexander has no difficulty in finding Christ in the book of Psalms, directly, in his personal and Mediatorial glories, and in union with his people in their sufferings and triumphs. And in those inspired songs he finds nothing at variance with the spirit of the gospel. In those which have been profanely represented as “cursing psalms—almost unfit to be spoken by the lips of a follower of the blessed Jesus,” he finds the expression of the righteousness of God, asserting the high claims of eternal justice in the affairs of divine government. See his Notes on Psalms 2d, 35th, 69th, 109th, and others. Dr. A., while decidedly affirming the purest and most benign views of the grace of the gospel, manifests no symptom of that sickly sentimentalism which is so extensively abroad, going toward the subversion of all the claims of justice, and of moral order in the social state; and to which the unhappy views of Dr. Watts and his admirers, respecting the book of Psalms, have greatly contributed.[53]

Upon the general subject before us, listen to another unprejudiced witness: “These Psalms are chiefly summaries in a poetical and impressive form, of great truths and principles. In them is expressed, we may say, the very life and essence of the symbolical institutions and manifold transactions in providence,—and so expressed as to be most admirably fitted for forming the minds of all to right views and feelings concerning God, and enabling them to give due utterance to these in their exercises of devotion. But was this the character and design of the book of Psalms merely to the Old Testament church? Is it not equally adapted for the suitable expression of pious feeling, for a help to devotion, for a directory of spiritual thought and holy living, to the church of the New Testament? Is there a feature in the divine character as now developed in the gospel, a spiritual principle or desire in the mind of an enlightened Christian, a becoming exercise of affection or a matter of vital experience in the divine life, of which the record is not to be found in this invaluable portion of holy writ? And how could such a book have existed among the sacred writings centuries before the Christian era, but for the fact, that the old and new covenants (Economies)—were alike pervaded by the same great truths and principles? The book of Psalms, standing midway between both covenants, and serving equally to the members of each as the handmaid of a living piety, is a witness of the essential identity of their primary and fundamental ideas. There the disciples of Moses and of Christ meet as on a common ground, the one taking up, as their most natural and fitting expressions of faith and hope, the hallowed words, which the other had been wont to use in their devotions ages before, and then bequeathed as a legacy to succeeding generations of believers. So accordant are they to the better things of the dispensation that abideth, so perfectly adapted to the ways of God as exhibited in the gospel, and the spiritual life required of its professors, that they are invariably the most used and relished by those who are the most established in the grace, and most replenished with the blessing of God. Holy men were employed by God to indite these divine songs—and where in all scripture will the believer, who ‘worships in spirit and in truth,’ more readily go to find language for expressing his loftiest conceptions of God, for portraying his most spiritual and enlarged views of the character he is called to maintain, or breathing forth of his most elevated desires and feelings after divine things? So that the Psalms may well be termed, with Augustine, ‘an epitome of the whole scriptures,’—of both Testaments together, in their grand elements of truth and outlines of history. The character of this extraordinary book renders clear as noon-day the perfect identity of those great principles on which both Economies were founded as to institutions of worship, and the providential dealings respectively connected with them.”[54] Such are the views and sentiments of a distinguished Christian scholar and divine. Hear another.

The testimony of Dr. Chalmers is very decided in support of our views upon this subject. Speaking of the importance of the revelation of the Old Testament to the Christian, this eloquent and able advocate of truth remarks,—“The hooks of the former dispensation never stand to him—the Christian—in place of the rudiments of a school-boy, which he may now abandon.”

“It may illustrate this whole matter, if we look to the book of Psalms, and just think of the various degrees of spirituality and enlargement with which the same composition may be regarded by Jewish and Christian eyes—how in the praise which waiteth for God in Zion—and in the pleasure which His servants took in her stones, so that her very dust to them was dear—and in the preference which they made of one day in His courts to a thousand elsewhere—and in the thirsting of their souls to appear before God—and in their remembrance of that time when they went to His house with the voices of joy and praise, and with the multitude that kept holyday—and when exiles from the holy city, they were east down in spirit, and cried from the depths of their banishment in the land of Jordan—and when longing for God, in a dry and thirsty land where no water was, they followed hard after the privilege of again seeing His power and glory in the sanctuary—and in the songs of deliverance with which they celebrated their own restoration, when their bands were loosed, and their feet were set in a sure place, and they could offer their vows and their thanksgivings ‘in the courts of the Lord’s house, and in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem’—in all this a Jew might express the desires of a fainting and affectionate heart, after that ceremonial in which he had been trained, and that service of the temple which he loved; and yet, in all this, there is enough to sustain the loftiest flights of devotion in the mind of a Christian. There is a weight of expression, altogether commensurate to the feelings, and ardours, and the ecstacies of a soul exercised unto godliness. There is a something to meet the whole varied experience of the spiritual life, in these ages of a later and more refined dispensation. And such is the divine skilfulness of these compositions, that, while so framed as to suit and to satisfy the disciples of a ritual and less enlightened worship, there is not a holy and heavenly disciple of Jesus in our day, who will not perceive, in the effusions of the Psalmist, a counterpart to all the alternations of his own religious history, who will not find in his very words, the fittest vehicles for all the wishes, and sorrows, and agitations; to which his own heart is liable—and thus be taught by a writer far less advanced in spirituality than himself, the best utterance of desire for the manifestation of God’s countenance, the best utterance of gratitude for the visitations of spiritual joy, the best and most expressive prayers under the distress and darkness of spiritual abandonment.

“Let us read over without any comment the whole of the 84th Psalm, and just simply ask you to consider how those very materials which form a most congenial piece of devotion for a Jew, admit of being so impregnated with the life and spirit of a higher economy, that they are able to sustain all the views, and to express all the aspirations of the most spiritual and exercised Christians. ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!’ &c.

“We think it necessary to say thus much—lest the Old Testament should even be degraded below its rightful place in your estimation. And be assured that, if you want to catch in all its height and all its celestial purity and raptures of a sustained and spiritual intercourse with Him who sitteth upon the throne, we know nothing fitter to guide your ascending way, than those Psalms and those prophecies, which shone at one time in a dark place; but may now, upon the earnest heed of him who attentively regards them, cause the day to dawn, and the day-star to arise in his heart.”[55]

Once more on this point, let us hear the accomplished editor of the works of the illustrious, profound, and spiritually-minded Owen, the Rev. William H. Goold, who thus writes: “These songs of Zion have designedly about them a universality of adaptation—a catholicity in their range of thought and sentiment, that renders them suitable to all generations of the church. Embodying the staple and abiding elements of devotion—the true mirror of Christian experience under its wide variety of aspect—the upward breathings of a heaven-born spirituality, which no change of dispensation can affect, and which, under the powers of the world to come, subdues into the unity of a common faith and fellowship all the conflicting interests of race and nation, the Psalms—on principles of adaptation easily understood, and for which the authority of inspiration can be adduced, become the medium of sanctified emotion in all lands and to every age—the one song in the whole family of God, old in their essential spirit, not merely as the days when David struck his harp, but when Abel built his altar, and yet ever new as uttered or sung in the gushing freshness of a heart regenerated by the grace of God.”[56]

It is cheering to find men of solid erudition, of refined taste, and deep-toned piety, in different countries, and of different communities, unite in asserting the excellence of this portion of the sacred volume, which novices in literature and godly experience affect to despise. And whether these sentiments of a Horne, of a Horsley, of a Scott, of a Davidson, an Edwards, a Fuller, and others of a similar cast; or those of Watts and his advocates, exhibit most of the spirit of enlightened devotion, may be safely left to the friends of the Bible to decide.

But before leaving this subject, a word of apology may be deemed necessary, for dragging the foibles of eminent men to light, and disturbing the ashes of the dead, by exposing their mistakes before the world. I can reply to suggestions of this kind, with sincerity, that it is not the pleasure derived from such exposure that induces to the attempt. When accompanied with no evil consequence, I cheerfully recognise the obligation of the adage; De mortuis nihil, nisi bonum.[57] The obligation to a similar delicacy, toward the living, is as readily confessed. But if the dead, by their works, continue to vitiate the purity of divine worship, and to disturb the peace of the church of God, let them bear the blame. And if, by the ill-advised kindness of surviving friends, those men and their works be dragged from their obscurities, and be obtruded on public attention, let the forfeiture be paid by those officious friends.

Those men, on whose sentiments I have animadverted, succeeded, by their compositions, in excluding the songs of inspiration from the Psalmody of the church. It is my wish those songs should be restored. I am therefore justifiable in calling public attention to those reasons that recommended a measure which I believe to be improper; and in exposing that impious banter, which, in an age of infidelity, was too successful in effecting a practical preference of the word of man to that of God. I trust my attempt shall not be in vain. My appeal is made to Christian consistency; and it is made in a day as remarkable for liberal exertions to circulate the word of God, as a late period was for undisguised opposition to the authenticity and divine inspiration of that blessed book.[58]

We know that Dr. W. and his friends have said many true and fine things of the book of Psalms; and we know too that they have said many reproachful things of it. See their works, and the references to them HERE of this Apology. Without some qualifying circumstance it will not usually do to assail a reputable character. Excellencies will be acknowledged and pressed into notice; but then the damning BUT is introduced to do its undermining work. In this case the object was to undermine the authority, the superior excellence, and suitableness of this inspired Book to be used in the Psalmody of the church. Hence the language of the author of the Imitation—“By the time they” the Psalms—”are fitted for Christian Psalmody—the composure can hardly be called inspired or divine.” Strange! the spirit of inspiration, to fit them for Christian Psalmody, must be evaporated. And then the profane representation of the use of the sacred songs of inspiration, as the introduction of a “a king or captain, into our churches, to lead and dictate the worship in his own style of royalty, or in the language of a field of battle.” Such language—such reasons—accomplished the desired but wretched object. Now, as soon as those Christians who are bewildered by these representations are persuaded of the authority, excellence, and adaptation of the book of Psalms, for the Psalmody of the church, they will recall it to its place.

Will not, then, the genuine friend of the Bible arise; and in manly, in evangelical consistency, declare to the world, and to the church of God, that he does not believe any portion of the lively oracles of the God of truth “has a tendency to make heresy triumphant,” or “that it checks us in our ascent toward heaven, throws the vail of Moses over our hearts, darkens our sight of God the Saviour, and is opposite to the spirit of the gospel?” It is time to awake from the slumber of a mere accommodating policy, and to tell the world, these are opinions you do not hold. Convince us, then, that you are sincere. Recall the book of Psalms from its exile, and restore it to its pristine honours. This will be an act of magnanimous policy, worthy the age of Bibles; an act which the Spirit of God will approve, and in which the church on earth and saints in heaven will rejoice.

THE EVIL CONSEQUENCES OF SUPPLYING THE PLACE OF SCRIPTURE PSALMS WITH HUMAN COMPOSITIONS, furnish a sixth reason against it. I am forbidden, by my prescribed limits, to expand the subject much farther. It requires, however, but little reflection to perceive the danger. The consequences are indeed extensively felt; and if the practice be continued, they have not yet reached their bounds.

The book of Psalms has been undervalued. A language, better fitting the lips of deists than of Christians, has been countenanced; and the church of the Redeemer, rent enough before, has been still more divided by the measure now opposed. The preference of a human to a divine book of Psalms, has led to the maintenance of opinions respecting the dispensation and exercise of grace, under the Old Testament, totally at variance with truth, and contradictory to the public standards of the Reformation churches. It has forced the advocates of that preference to assume a position, that deprives the church of God at large of his word, as the ground of faith, except those of her members who may be learned in the original tongues, in which the Scriptures were first written. For, if as faithful a version of the Bible as can be obtained, has no claim to be called the Word of God, as some suppose, then the faith of the great majority of saints, in every age, has been built on a sandy foundation, the word of man. And, finally, the measure opens wide the door for introducing and propagating every species of heresy.

The fact, that hymns of human composition, admitted into the Psalmody of the church, tend to the corruption of religion, is scarcely deniable. Such admission, at least, demands peculiar caution. Admit them once, where shall we stop? Every fanciful scribbler who may be permitted to ascend a pulpit, and whose inflated vanity induces the belief that he is a poet, will urge the use of his hymns, “the spontaneous effusions of his affections,” composed, as he may imagine, in adaptation to his discourse. Then, instead of a few females, on a particular day, like Paulus of Samosata, he may hear the whole choir, from day to day, sing his, in place of the praises of God.

Examine the hymn books of the respective communities, which have laid aside the Bible Psalms, and you will find their peculiar tenets interwoven with their song. According to present sentiments and practice, it is generally in the power of every minister to adopt into his congregation what hymn books he may deem meet; and thus employ, if unsound in principle, a powerful mean of seduction from the path of truth. With what heart, with what kind of faith, can the worshipper, in such a state of things, enter the house of God? At this day, in many churches, there is no certainty in what collection your song of praise shall be found: whether it shall be strictly Calvinistic in sentiment, or replete with all the horrors, and all the nonsense, of the high-toned Hopkinsian school; whether, in it, these shall be qualified by an admixture of more truth, or whether it shall be a mere evanescent effusion, depends on circumstances the most uncertain, to the majority of worshippers. This is an unhappy state of things: for it a remedy should be speedily sought.

It would be worth while to spend some labour to ascertain what has been actually done in this way to corrupt religious opinion. The inquirer should go back to a date more ancient than the present age. As respects our own country, it is peculiarly interesting. It has been said, that “the city of God presented no street of purer gold than the New England church.” It is now, at best, like the feet of the prophetic image, a mixture, “part of iron and part of clay.” How is the gold become dim! Had the sentiments of Dr. Watts, on the doctrine of the Trinity, and his unhallowed language respecting the book of Psalms, both of which were sent abroad about the same time, any influence in opening the door for Socinianism? The Doctor’s system was a compound of Sabellianism and Arianism. His system not only denies the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ, but also his Deity, as he is a person distinct from the Father. The acute and profound President Edwards has, in a number of arguments, refuted this heresy of Dr. Watts, and at the same time shown that it destroys a belief in the scriptural doctrine of the Trinity. According to Watts’ hypothesis, it is a trinity of names, or of attributes, or principles, united in one individual person, and not of persons in one essence.[59]

Did Dr. Watts attempt, directly or indirectly, to transfuse his peculiar views on this subject into his religious poetry? Considering the strong propensity of man to propagate his sentiments, it would indeed be strange, if he did not attempt it. It is a fact, not admitting of doubt, that where his compositions were first, and have been longest used, in the Psalmody of the church, Socinianism has made the most extensive progress. Error has its power as well as truth, and, like it, presses to consistency. Dr. Watts rejected the Bible doctrine of the Trinity. His Imitation and Hymns, with all their perfections and imperfections, were adopted in the Psalmody of many churches, to the exclusion of scripture songs: among those churches the Socinian heresies have extensively spread.—What is the connexion in New England, between these works of Dr. Watts, and the existing opposition to orthodox doctrine? I leave this question to be answered by those whom it more immediately concerns. Whatever others may imagine, to me it seems deserving of attention.[60] God once said of Ephraim, He is joined to his idols, let him alone. In avenging sin, he frequently punishes spiritual crime with spiritual plagues. “My people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts; and they walked in their own counsels.”[61]

These, brethren, are a summary of the reasons by which I justify the continued use of inspired songs, in the Psalmody of the church, in preference to human compositions, however excellent. We have seen that they were given to the church of God by his own authority, and were used with his approbation. The Redeemer, and his inspired messengers, instead of abrogating their use, did, by numerous circumstances, whose language is not easily misunderstood, recommend them to our respect and pious veneration.—The matter of these songs is divine, and admirably adapted to the purpose of evangelical praise.—They are better than the best compositions of uninspired men; they are the word of God,—and have been always dear to the saints.—The propriety of using hymns of human composition, in the sanctuary of God, to say the least, is doubtful. The most prominent advocates of such hymns, in recommending them, and in vindicating their claims, have spoken reproachfully of an important portion of the sacred Word. The tendency of their admission, too, is most unpropitious to the purity of religion, and the peace of the house of God.

[go to LETTER V.]


[1] The General Assembly of the Reformed Church of Scotland, in 1647 and 1648, approved of the use of other inspired songs, beside those found in the Book of Psalms, in the church’s Psalmody. This appears, by the appointment of a committee to select and prepare such for use, by a translation into measured verse. See Acts of Assembly for those years. Their caution on the subject, and long exclusive use of the Book of Psalms, indicate their persuasion that these additions were not necessary, though allowable. More than one hundred and thirty years after that period, the established church of Scotland, after a struggle, succeeded in the introduction of some loose paraphrases of scripture into her Psalmody. Her more faithful ministers opposed them as unfit for the sanctuary; and of them, not long since, some hard things have been said by the ablest ministers of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Dr. Cook, on the floor of the Assembly, is reported to have pronounced them heathenish in style, and corrupt in doctrine.

Into the discussion of this matter we do not now fully enter. The Christian who studies, understands, digests the principles of, and uses well the book of Psalms, it is more than probable, will be satisfied with it. But, on the subject of the use of other inspired songs, we see no reason to differ with our reforming ancestors; while, with those who plead for the use of the book of Psalms alone, we will have no controversy, as practically, that is our own position. The use of a faithful version of such songs as Isa. 26:1-9, and Rev. 5:9-13, would not, we think, corrupt the worship of the house of God. It is hoped; however, that a new subject of dispute upon this subject will not be raised. It would be ill advised. See our remark before made.[a]

[2] 2 Chron. 29:30.

[3] “As to the hymn itself, we know from the universal consent of Jewish antiquity, that it was composed of Psalms 113,114,115, 116, 117 and 118, termed by the Jews HALEL, from HALELU-JAH, the first word in Psalm 113th. These six psalms were always sung at every paschal solemnity. They sung this great hillel on account of the five great benefits referred to in it; viz. 1. The exodus from Egypt. 2. The miraculous division of the Red Sea. 3. The promulgation of the law. 4. The resurrection of the dead. 5. The passion of Messiah.”—Clarke’s Note on Mat. 26:30.

See also Ravanelli Biblioth. under the word hymnus. Lightfoot says on this subject, “He who could have inspired every disciple to have been a David—sings the Psalms of David.”—Works, vol. 2, p. 1160.

[4] Luke 20:42, and 24:44; Acts 1:20.

[5] James 5:13.

[6] A reference to Trommius’ Concordance of the Septuagint, under the word Ὑμνεω, Hymneo, will amply prove that compositions corresponding to the hymn and song of the Greek Testament, are abundant in the Book of Psalms. Indeed the Greek version of the Psalms has only to be opened, and their titles prove this; and the Greek version of the Old Testament was generally used in the Apostolic age.

[7] “Divine institution cannot be pleaded with any plausibility, either from Scripture or reason,” says Dr. L. (Disc. p. 77.)—”I have proved,” says Mr. Freeman, “that we have no authority, divine nor human, for singing David’s Psalms—they should not be used as a system of Psalmody.”—P. 20. Pray, what evidence is requisite to establish an appointment as divine? How prove the divine right of church government? How prove the divine appointment of infant baptism? Ah! how thoughtlessly men will talk and write. And yet Mr. F. admits that some of David’s Psalms may be used. Yes, even without appointment, divine or human; and that, notwithstanding his assertion, that no one of these Psalms leads to God through Christ! (P. 6, et alibi.) This shows a gospel spirit with a witness. Worship without divine appointment! worship, as a deist, a God out of Christ! Wonderful concession!

[8] Ps. 33, and 19.

[9] See Psalms 90. 103. 109:23. 144:4.

[10] Ps. 66:8, 80:5, and 126:5.

[11] Ps. 65:4.

[12] Ps. 39:22, and 130:7,8.

[13] Ps. 32:1,2, and 103:3.

[14] Ps. 27:4.

[15] Ps. 23, and 16.

[16] Ps. 22:1, and 31:5.

[17] Ps. 68:8.

[18] Ps. 45:3,4; 96:10, and 98:2,3, &c.

[19] Ps. 50. and 16. and 9.

[20] Milton, whose genius, it is somewhere said, “might have harmoniously mingled with the angels that announced the Messiah to be come,” makes one of the devices of Satan against the Saviour, an attempt to turn his attention to

AEolian charms and Dorian lyric odes,

rather than to the hymns, and psalms, and Hebrew songs of inspiration. And the language by which he represents the Redeemer repelling the assault, is applicable, not only to the productions of the Grecian muse, but to all human composures, when put in competition with the word of God:

Remove their swelling epithets, thick laid
As varnish on a harlot’s cheek; the rest
Thin sown with aught of profit or delight, 
Will far be found unworthy to compare, 
With Sion’s songs, to all true tastes excelling, 
Where God is praised aright— 
Such are from God inspired.Par. Reg. B. 4.

He needs to be but slightly acquainted with the hymn books of the day, to perceive an affected air of familiarity, in addressing, or in speaking of, the Redeemer of men; which is as inconsistent with the dignity of worship, as with reverence. It is the cant of enthusiasm, which is equally abhorrent to good sense, and devout feeling. Of such the Princeton Review says:—“Hymns unsuitable for the worship of God—mere sentimental effusions—objectionable from the lightness of their measure—others for their want of all poetic excellence.” And as said by others—“Deficient in literary merit—incorrect in doctrine—unsuitable for the sanctuary as songs of praise, for want of suitable sentiments.”

[21] Mal. 1:14.

[22] Deut. 12:32.

[23] Prov. 30:6.

[24] Isa. 29:13.

[25] Mat. 15:9.

[26] Col. 2:20-22.

[27] Rev. 22:16,18,19.

[28] Deut. 12:32.

[29] Lev. 10:1-3.

[30] 2 Sam. 6:6,7.

[31] Isa. 42:8.

[32] In order to recommend his imitation and hymns to public regard, Dr. Watts used the following language:—“Our psalmody does not only flat our devotion, but too often awakens our regret, and touches all the springs of uneasiness within us. I have been long convinced, that one great occasion of this evil arises from the matter and words to which we confine all our songs. Some of them are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel. Hence it comes to pass, that when spiritual affections are excited within us, and our souls are raised a little above this earth, in the beginning of a psalm, we are checked on a sudden in our ascent towards heaven, by some expressions that are—fit only to be sung in the worldly sanctuary. When we are just entering into an evangelical frame—the very next line—which the clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that it darkens our sight of God the Saviour. Thus by keeping too close to David in the house of God, the vail of Moses is thrown over our hearts. While we are kindling into divine love—some dreadful curse against men is proposed to our lips; as, Ps. 69:26-28; which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies. Some sentences of the Psalmist—may compose our spirits to seriousness, but we meet with a following line, that breaks off our song in the midst; our consciences are affrighted, lest we should speak a falsehood unto God; thus the powers of our souls are shocked on a sudden, and our spirits ruffled—it almost always spoils the devotion—Our lips speak nothing but the heart of David. Thus our hearts are, as it were, forbid the pursuit of the song, and then the harmony and the worship grow dull of necessity. Many ministers, and private Christians, have long groaned under this inconvenience—there are a thousand lines in it—the book of Psalms—which were not made for a church in our days to assume as its own—I should rejoice to see—David converted into a Christian: but because I cannot persuade others to attempt this glorious work, I have suffered myself to be persuaded to begin it.”[b] Having finished the Imitation of the Psalms, by which he proposed to convert David into a Christian, the Doctor says, “if an author’s opinion may be taken, he esteems it the greatest work that ever he has published, or ever hopes to do, for the use of the churches.”[b]

“There are many hundred verses in that book, (of Psalms) which a Christian cannot properly assume in singing—as Ps. 68:13-16, and 84:3,6.”—“Ps. 69:28, and Ps. 109. are so full of cursings, that they hardly become the tongue of a follower of the blessed Jesus.”[c]

“By that time they are fitted for Christian Psalmody—the composure can hardly be called inspired or divine[d]—I could never persuade myself that the best way to raise a devout frame in plain Christians, was to bring a king or captain, into our churches, and let him lead, and dictate the worship in his own style of royalty, or in the language of a field of battle,”[e] “ I have collected and disposed the most useful verses of this Psalm, (119th. See the note before it in the Imitation)—But the verses are much transposed, to attain some degree of connexion.”—Such were the sentiments, and such is the language of Dr. Watts, concerning the book of Psalms. Hear another advocate of human inventions:

“If we were to adhere strictly to the Old Testament Psalmody, we cannot be said to do any thing in the name of the Lord Jesus, much less to give thanks unto God and the Father, by him. No mention is therein made of the Father as a distinct and special object of our devotion, nor of the Son, as being the appointed way of our access to him.[f]—Whether these Psalms (mentioned, 1 Cor. 14:26,) were the effect of previous study and inspiration united, or of immediate suggestion, they were certainly not designed to inspire them (the converts to the gospel) with veneration [g] and respect for the Psalms of David.”[h] “Any person—will quickly perceive how remote psalms and hymns, formed upon it (the orthodox Nicene creed) would be from the—doctrine of the Old Testament.”[i] “Nor do I think (the introduction of the Psalms of David into the Christian church) was very honourable to the cause of Christ. It deprived him of—divine honour—It deprived the assorters of his deity of all opportunity of bearing testimony to it in that part of their worship—It decided clearly in favour of that tenet of Arianism, that divine worship was to be paid only to the Father, and so had a direct tendency—to make heresy triumphant!!!” “This usage spread—and it is no wonder that it spread speedily and extensively in the fourth century, an age devoted to Arianism.”[j] Listen to another:

“About this time (fourth century) the Psalms of David were first introduced. They were brought in by Arians, and not by orthodox Christians—spread extensively—The principal reason was, because this century became devoted to Arianism.”[k]

[33] Job 5:1.

[34] Acts 4:12.

[35] Isa. 53:5. Dan. 9:26. Ps. 40:6,7.

[36] See Ps. 2., 8., 45., 51., 110., &c.

[37] Jude 14.

[38] John 8:56.

[39] Job 19:25-27.

[40] Heb. 11:26.

[41] Ps. 22., 68., 90., 98., &c.

[42] Conf. of the Presby. Church, chap. 11.

[43] Pref. to his Comment.

[44] Scott’s Pref. to the Psalms.

[45] Pref. to his version of the Psalms.

[46] Bp. Horsley’s Pref.

[47] Edwards’ Works, vol. iii. 231, 232.

[48] Fuller’s Works, vol. viii. pp. 339, 340.

[49] Philosophy of Religion, by Thos. Dick, LL.D., pp. 190, 191.

[50] Spirit of the Nineteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 586.

[51] Preface, pp. 14, 15.

[52] Ibid. p. 7.

[53] It is a matter of thanksgiving to God, that he has raised up an Alexander to correct the unhappy exhibitions of those bad principles in religion and morals. We intend not to intimate that Dr. A. meant to correct those writers. Probably he never saw the pamphlets referred to. So much the better. A true man will speak truly and fitly.

[54] Fairbairn’s Typology of Scripture, vol. i. pp. 60, 61.

[55] Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, pp. 15, 16.

[56] See—Claims of the Church of Christ, p. 4, by Rev. William H. Goold, of Edinburgh.

[57] Speak no evil of the dead.

[58] See, on this subject Fairbairn’s Typology.

[60] The progress of error is gradual, and often the avowed friends of truth prepare the way for heresy. The present extensive denial of the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ, is to be viewed in this light. Destroy the faith of the church in the eternity of his filiation, and she will soon deny the eternity of his person. The metaphysical acumen of most professors will not enable them to distinguish between sonship and personality. The standards of the Presbyterian churches teach, that “the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,” and that the personal property of the Son is, to be begotten of the Father. Destroy the personal property, and you destroy the person. If the personal property be not eternal, the person is not eternal. Establish the former, and the latter will follow of course.

[61] Ps. 81:11,12.

[a] See page 77.

[b] Watt’s Pref. Glasgow Ed. 1786.

[c] Essay on Psalmody, Works, Vol. 7, pp. 7,8.

[d] Ibid. p. 10.

[e] Preface to the Imitation, Works. Vol. 7, p. 24.

[f] Author of Discourse on Psalmody, p. 29.

[g] “What books are those,” said the persecutor Saturninus, “which you read and revere? Speratus replied—All the scripture that is inspired of God.”—Milner. The martyrs then revered the Psalms of David.

[h] Discourse on Psalmody, p. 42.

[i] Ibid. p. 51.

[j] Discourse on Psalmody, p. 77.

[k] Freeman, p. 15.