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James Dodson

Watts’ Psalms are not, nor were they by their Author Intended to be, a Version of the Book of Psalms.


As it is by Watts’ “Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament,” that the sacred songs contained in the book of Psalms, have been put out of the place they were designed to occupy in the worship of the church, it is proposed to examine with some care, the principles on which the system of this distinguished author is founded. It is common with many, to speak of Watts’ Psalms as though they were a version of the songs contained in the book of Psalms; and there are no doubt many, who, having never examined the subject with attention, are laboring under the mistaken impression that they are a version of the songs of inspiration. But all who are acquainted with the subject, know, that this is not the fact. With many, the controversy on Psalmody, is regarded as nothing more than a dispute with reference to the relative merits of different versions. One prefers the version of Watts; another esteems more highly that of Rouse. But this is an exceedingly unfair representation of the point at issue. For, Watts’ Psalms cannot, with any propriety, be regarded as a version of the book of Psalms. And that the reader may be fully satisfied that I do the author no injustice in making this statement, I shall refer particularly to his own language. For example, he says, “I have chosen rather to imitate, than to translate.” And further, he observes,—“I have not been so curious and exact in striving everywhere to express the ancient sense and meaning of David, but have rather expressed myself, as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the days of Christianity.” In explaining the principle on which his system is founded, he observes,—“My own design, in short, is this, namely, to accommodate the book of Psalms to christian worship. And in order to this, it is necessary to divest David and Asaph of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint, and to make them always speak the common sense of a christian.” [Preface to Psalms of David imitated.] Such is the language in which this celebrated writer describes his own design. And it is to practise an imposition on the community, and to do great injustice to Dr. Watts himself, to represent his Psalms as a version of the book of Psalms. It was no part of his design, to give a correct translation of the songs of the sweet Psalmist of Israel, but to make him speak “the common sense of a christian.” “In all places,” he observes, “I have kept my grand design in view; and that, is, to teach my author to speak like a christian.” It is then perfectly plain, that it was far from the intention of Dr. Watts, to give a translation of the language of the Psalmist. His avowed design was, to “teach my author to speak like a christian.” It would appear then, that in the estimation of this man, who has furnished a large portion of the christian church with a system of Psalmody, that the teaching of the Holy Spirit, which the Psalmist enjoyed, was very insufficient, and that it was necessary that one in modern times should undertake the office of teaching him “to speak like a christian.”

After having stated his plan, Dr. Watts gives us the following account of its execution: “Attempting the work with this view, I have entirely omitted some whole psalms, and large pieces of many others; and have chosen out of all of them, such parts only, as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various occasions of the christian life, or at least might afford us some beautiful allusion to christian affairs. These I have copied and explained in the general style of the gospel; nor have I confined my expressions to any particular party or opinion, that, in words prepared for public worship and for the lips of multitudes, there might not be a syllable offensive to christians, whose judgments may differ in the lesser matters of religion. Where the Psalmist uses sharp invectives against his personal enemies, I have endeavored to turn the edge of them against our spiritual adversaries, sin, satan, and temptation. Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary christian. Where the words imply some peculiar wants or distresses, joys or blessings, I have used words of greater latitude and comprehension,—suited to the general circumstances of men.”

Such then, is the author's own account of his plan, and of the manner of its execution. And the serious consideration of every one who reverences the Bible as the word of God, is requested to the following remarks.

1. Dr. Watts, in his system, has “entirely omitted some whole psalms, and large pieces of many others;” and “out of all of them,” he has chosen such parts only; as to him seemed proper. And will it be pretended, after this plain and honest avowal, that Watts’ Psalms are a version oi" the book of Psalms? The idea is preposterous. Pronounce them good poetry, if you will; call them evangelical songs, if you choose. But remember, they are Watts’ Psalms. They neither are, nor were they by their author designed to be, a version of the book of Psalms.

2. Such parts of the Psalms, as he thought proper to select, he observes, “I have copied and explained in the general style of the gospel.” The reader will then observe, that Watts’ Psalms, are not the songs of inspiration, but they are his explanation of them. And I would ask the serious christian. Are you willing to adopt a man's explanation of the word of God, in preference to the word of God itself?

3. Consider, moreover, the liberty which this writer has taken with the word of God. “Where the Psalmist uses sharp invectives against his personal enemies, I have endeavored to turn the edge of them against our spiritual adversaries.” Was, then, the Psalmist under the direction of the Holy Ghost, and yet used “sharp invectives against his personal enemies?” Does not such language reflect contempt upon the Holy Spirit, who spake by the mouth of the Psalmist? But if there is something reprehensible in the spirit of the Psalmist, at one time, it seems that his spirit was, at another, too heavenly. Accordingly he adds, “Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expressions within the reach of an ordinary christian.” It seems, then, that Dr. Watts found it necessary, sometimes, to teach his author “to speak like a christian;” while at other times, the flights of the Psalmist's love and faith are so sublime, that it becomes necessary for Watts to sink the expressions, and make him speak more like a man on earth! And I would propose a question for the serious consideration of all conscientious Christians,—Does not that church, which employs in the worship of God, songs prepared on such a principle, by her practice, sanction the contempt which such language reflects upon the Spirit of inspiration? I am aware that there are many who use Watts’ Psalms, who have never examined the subject, and are unacquainted with the principles upon which his system is founded. They have been accustomed to regard the psalms of Watts, as a version of the book of Psalms; and, in using them as such, they have had no thought of treating the word of God with disrespect. But let me entreat the serious christian to look at this subject. God has given us, in his word, a book of Psalms, which is confessedly the work of inspiration. Now what has been done with this divine book? Dr. Watts, in preparing a system of psalms for the use of the church, has “entirely omitted some whole psalms, and large pieces of many others.” And why? Because he considered them unsuitable for the church under the present dispensation. And do you think, let me ask the humble believer, that the word of God has been given us in such a defective form, that some parts of it may be laid aside as useless, while portions may be selected, which may be profitably retained?

That this subject may be better understood, let us examine a little more particularly the manner in which Dr. Watts has executed his plan. In the 109th psalm we have a specimen of the manner in which this writer teaches his “author to speak like a christian.” The title of that psalm in Watts, is, “Love to enemies from the example of Christ.” I need not inform the reader, that this is something entirely different from the inspired psalm. It is the duty of the christian to love his enemies; and that duty is plainly taught in other parts of the word of God. But it is not what the Holy Spirit teaches in this psalm, the Holy Spirit denounces the divine displeasure against the impenitent, and particularly against Judas, in relation to whom our Lord declares, it had been good for that man if he had not been born. And I would ask, has any man a right to give us a psalm in which love to enemies is taught, instead of an inspired psalm, in which the Holy Spirit gives us a revelation of the wrath of God against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man? Is it not a practical condemnation of what God has done, and a presumptuous setting up of our wisdom in opposition to the wisdom of God?

The 119th psalm, is in some respects the most remarkable one in this collection of sacred songs. It is much the longest in the whole collection, and there is more art or contrivance in the arrangement, than appears in any other psalm. It is divided into twenty-two parts, corresponding with the letters of the alphabet; and every verse in each particular part, begins with the same Hebrew letter. A very competent judge has said, that “the psalm may be considered in a special manner, as the touchstone of genuine experience; and as far as any man's views, desires, purposes and affections, coincide with those of the Psalmist, he may be sure that they come from the influence of the sanctifying Spirit, but no further.” [Dr. (Thomas) Scott.] To this psalm Dr. Watts has prefixed this remarkable note: “I have collected and disposed the most useful verses of this psalm, under eighteen different heads, and formed a divine song on each of them; but the verses are much transposed to attain some degree of connection.” Can it be, that the man who employed such language, regarded this psalm as the production of the Spirit of infinite wisdom? Does this psalm contain the precious truths of God, and yet shall a sinful mortal select such verses as he considers “most useful,” and pass over the remainder as unworthy of notice? Is this remarkable psalm the work of God’s Holy Spirit; and yet, is the mind of the Spirit exhibited so awkwardly as to render it necessary that the verses should be “much transposed to attain some degree of connection?” I appeal to the sober judgment of all reflecting men, while I say that it would be an indignity to any respectable man, to treat his writings in the way in which Dr. Watts, according to his own statement, has treated this admirable portion of the word of God.

The reader will now perceive clearly, that according to his own account of them, Watts’ Psalms are not a version of the songs contained in the book of Psalms. “Some whole psalms,” he observes, “I have entirely omitted, and large pieces of many others;” and out of the remainder he has chosen “such parts only,” as he considered suitable. They are consequently not inspired songs, but are Watts’ Psalms. They contain his views of divine truth; and in them he teaches the Psalmist to speak what he considers “the common sense of a christian.”

It may be proper here to notice a question, which is sometimes proposed to us by our brethren, who employ in the worship of God, songs which have been composed by uninspired men. Say they, “You are accustomed to explain the psalm before it is sung by the congregation, why then do you not use the psalms of Watts, in which the songs of inspiration are already explained?” To this I reply,—

1. We can by no means admit, that. Dr. Watts has given a correct explanation of the psalms. For example, in the 109tli psalm, we have an exhibition of the awful doom which awaits the finally impenitent enemies of the Lord Jesus. “Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion as with a mantle.” But Dr. Watts gives us, instead of this, “Love to enemies, from the example of Christ.” This is not only not an explanation of the psalm, but something very different from it.

2. But even if this difficulty were removed, and it were admitted that Dr. Watts has explained correctly those portions of the book of Psalms, which he has retained, still we dare not put a human explanation in the place of the word of God itself. Human explanations, where they are judicious and correct, may aid us in acquiring a proper knowledge of the word of God; but still the word of God itself is the foundation of our faith. It will be admitted that Henry and Scott, and older expositors, have explained very satisfactorily many parts of the Bible. But where is the christian who would consent to have a chapter cut out of his Bible, and the exposition of the best commentator who ever wrote, introduced in its place? Why, then, does anyone ask us to take a human explanation of an inspired psalm and use it instead of the psalm itself, in the worship of God? To such a request we could not accede, without offering criminal disrespect to the word of God.

But if it be an impropriety, as I trust every candid reader will admit, to represent Watts’ Psalms as a version of the book of Psalms, it is no less improper to denominate the version which is now used by those who plead for an inspired psalmodv, “Rouse’s psalms.” And as this is a matter which it is important that the reader should understand correctly, his attention is requested, while I endeavor to place it in its true light. That the sacred Scriptures should be translated into the language of every people to whom the gospel comes, is a received principle of the Protestant church. And as the Psalms, were written in poetry in the original language, there is at least a propriety, in making a poetic translation. As there have been various translations of the Scriptures into the English language, some of them more and others of them less correct, so have there been likewise, various poetical versions of the book of Psalms. In the reign of Edward VI, the version of the Psalms, by Sternhold and Hopkins, was introduced. About a century after, during the sitting of the Westminster Assembly, the Parliament called the attention of this venerable body, to the subject of preparing and recommending an improved version for the use of the church. Accordingly, a version of the Psalms which had recently been prepared by Francis Rouse, was “carefully perused, altered and amended,” by this learned and pious Assembly, and recommended as suitable to be employed in the worship of the church. [Neal’s History of the Puritans, vol. 3, p. 317.] After receiving the recommendation of the Westminster Assembly of divines, this version was brought before the church of Scotland. And after being examined with particular care by her different Judicatories, it was finally, in the year 1649, adopted by the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, as being “more agreeable to the original text,” than any version heretofore prepared. This version, then, the reader will perceive, is a translation of the songs of inspiration. It is not a human explanation of the word of God, but, it is a rendering of the word of God, which was given in Hebrew poetry, into English poetry. And it was originally adopted by the church upon the principle, that after being carefully examined by men mighty in the scriptures, and skilled in Hebrew learning, it was found to be a more faithful version, than any heretofore in use. And it is still retained in the church, because, as a true and literal translation of the original, it is decidedly superior to any other in the English language. It is now nearly two centuries, since this version was adopted by the church of Scotland; and it would be strange indeed, if it did not contain some antiquated words and phrases. Nor would it be reasonable to expect, in such an ancient production, that smoothness and polish, characteristic of modern verse. But if it cannot lay claim to those embellishments which might recommend it to a fastidious taste, its plainness and simplicity, and its scripture language and sentiment, should render it acceptable to everyone who loves the word of God. But no one pretends that this version, any more than the received translation of the Bible, is perfect. All expositors of the Bible, occasionally suggest amendments to the vulgar translation; and yet, the different branches of the church receive the scriptures in this translation, as the word of God. And if the book of Psalms, in the prose translation, deserves to be regarded as the word of God, the mere English reader may satisfy himself, that the metrical version possesses substantially the same character. Not only is there, generally, an exact coincidence in sentiment between the metrical version and the prose translation, but to an extent which is truly remarkable, the metrical version retains the very words of the prose, somewhat differently arranged for the sake of rhyme. In conclusion, then, I must be permitted to say, that there is no foundation whatever for the insinuation, that we are the advocates of “Rouse’s Psalms.” The insinuation is uncandid and unjust. We plead for the use of the songs of inspiration. And as the metrical translation originally prepared by Sir Francis Rouse, amended and adopted by the Westminster Assembly, and further amended by the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, is believed to be the most correct and faithful which has yet been provided, we make use of it in preference to all others. And we cannot use Watts’ Psalms, because they are his views of divine truth, and are not in any proper sense of the word a translation of the book of Psalms. They are not the songs of inspiration, in which God teaches his church how to praise, but they are the productions of a man who presumes to teach the Psalmist, who was under the guidance of the Spirit, “to speak like a christian.”