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James Dodson

 An Examination of some Objections which are Urged against the Use of the Book of Psalms in the Worship of God.


The venerable author of the “Inquiry,” in common with all others who have written in support of the claims of an uninspired psalmody, has thought proper in defending his principles, to urge to some extent, objections to the use of some of the songs contained in the book of Psalms. We have already had occasion to notice the sentiment which he avows, “that all that is typical and local in the Psalms, is not suited to gospel worship and praise;” and it is hoped that the remarks which have been made, have satisfied the reader that such a sentiment is not consistent with that reverence which is due to the psalms which God has given to his church. Without pursuing this subject any further, I proceed to notice some other objections, which are urged against the use of the songs of inspiration.

1. “The songs contained in the book of Psalms, speak of a Savior to come, and consequently, they are not adapted to the edification of the church now, since the Redeemer has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” On this subject the author of the “Inquiry” employs the following language: “The truth is, the true church, under the Old Testament dispensation, praised God for a promised Redeemer, and were saved by faith in the promise; but we have seen that the true church on earth, and the redeemed church in heaven, praise him for a Redeemer who has come, and shed his blood for the remission of sins; and shall we not follow her example?” The connection in which this remark is found, makes it sufficiently evident, that the venerable author takes the ground of the objection just stated, and that his design is to show that those psalms, which speak of the work of redemption as yet to be accomplished, are “not suited to gospel worship and praise.” “The true church,” he says, “under the Old Testament dispensation, praised God for a promised Redeemer;” and the conclusion which he would have us to draw, is, that those songs are not suited to gospel worship, because the church is now called to praise God “for a Redeemer who has come.” If this objection has any force at all, it will prove entirely too much. The whole of the Old Testament, as well as the book of Psalms, was composed at a period anterior to the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ. And consequently, if this fact renders the Psalms unfit to be sung in the worship of God, it will follow that they and all the Old Testament, are unfit to be read in the worship of God. For, if they may be read in the worship of God, as the rule of our faith and life, why may they not be sung in the worship of God, since it was for this end they were especially given?

It is taken for granted, in the objection, that if in the Psalms, the church praises God for a Redeemer to come, therefore they are not suitable for the church now, since he has come. But it so happens, that everywhere in the Psalms, the Redeemer of the church is presented to the view of our faith, not as one who should appear in some distant age, but as already engaged in the accomplishment of his Mediatorial work. In the 22d Psalm, the Redeemer is exhibited before our eyes, as suffering in the garden and on the cross; and we hear him uttering the very words which dropped from his lips while suspended upon the cross,—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Again he is presented to our view, as having triumphed over death and the grave, and having ascended on high; angels, principalities and powers, being made subject to him. And the church praises him, not as a promised Savior, but as an ascended and triumphant Redeemer. “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.” [Psalm 68:18.] Permit me now to call the attention of the objector to a difficulty in which his principle involves him. If it were true that the Psalms speak of a Savior to come, and therefore are not suited to gospel worship, then those numerous psalms which speak of a suffering, risen and ascended Savior, were not suited to the worship of the Old Testament church, because the Redeemer had not then appeared in human nature. That is, though these psalms were given to the church by the God of infinite wisdom, to be employed in his worship, they were not adapted to the end for which they were given! O vain man, who art thou that repliest against God? But is it true, that the Psalms present the Savior to the view of our faith, as one who was yet to come? Is it really so, my venerable Father, permit me respectfully to ask,—is it the truth that in the Psalms given to the church under the Old Testament, she praised God for a promised Redeemer, who had not yet come? It is true that these Psalms were composed long before the actual appearance of Jesus Christ in human nature. But it is no less true that these divine songs are the productions of that omniscient Spirit, before whose view all futurity is spread out, and things which were then future, are described by him as now taking place, or already past. For example, in the 22d Psalm, we hear our suffering Redeemer exclaiming, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me; they pierced my hands and my feet.” Again: This same glorious personage is presented to our view, as exalted upon the holy hill of Zion, in the character of God’s anointed King, and proclaiming defiance to the opposers of his kingdom: “Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing?” Again, he is described as coming to judgment, and all nature is summoned to pay obeisance to him: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad before the Lord, for he cometh to judge the earth; he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.” If the principle assumed in the objection were well founded, that psalms which exhibit a promised Savior, who is yet to come, are not suited to gospel worship, it would then follow that a large portion of the psalms are better adapted to the worship of the church now, than they were formerly; for in them, the Redeemer is described as already come, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; as having risen from the dead; as having ascended on high, and as having received gifts for men. But the truth is, there is no force in the objection at all. Ever since the first promise of a Savior was given to our lost world, Jesus Christ has been the only hope of sinful man. By faith in him, as exhibited to them upon the infallible testimony of God, believers were saved under the Old Testament; and it is by faith in him, as revealed to us upon the testimony of God in the gospel, that believers now are saved. The merit of the Savior’s death was as effectual in securing the salvation of the believer, before he actually laid down his life a ransom for many as it is now. And those divine songs, in which his Spirit taught the church to praise him, before the period of his incarnation, are, in all respects, as well adapted to the edification of the church now, as they were in the beginning. Not only so—I do not hesitate to say, that they are now better adapted to this end, as, in consequence of the light which the gospel has reflected upon them, the fullness of their meaning may be more thoroughly understood.

2. Another objection urged against the use of the songs contained in the book of Psalms, is, that they breathe a spirit, in some instances, inconsistent with the gospel. After adverting to the “dull indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless air, that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is on their lips,” Dr. Watts observes, “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; many of them foreign to the state of the New Testament, and widely different from the present circumstances of christians. 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 toward heaven, by some expressions that are most suitable to the days of carnal ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the worldly sanctuary. While we are kindling into divine love, by the meditations of the loving kindness of God, and the multitude of his tender mercies; within a few verses, some dreadful curse against men is proposed to our lips, which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies.” [Preface to Hymns.] This, it must be confessed, is strong language for an imperfect, erring mortal to apply to the word of God. It is true, that my venerable Father does not employ precisely such language as this: I suppose, however, he would wish to be considered as coinciding in sentiment with this celebrated writer. Accordingly, when speaking of Watts’ Hymns, and of the errors, which, in the judgment of some, they contain, he remarks, page 204 of the “Inquiry,”—“Yet we do not remember to have seen one single error, of any consequence, that has been established.” His kind sympathy for this writer, he further manifests, by speaking of him as the “much abused and slandered Dr. Watts.” That I may not be liable to the charge of slandering Dr. Watts, he shall speak for himself, and his sentiments shall be stated in his own words. In addition to the extract already given, I would subjoin a note which Dr. Watts has appended to the fifty-fifth psalm. “I have left out some whole psalms and several parts of others, that tend to fill the mind with overwhelming sorrows, or sharp resentment, neither of which are so well suited to the gospel.”

According to Dr. Watts then, and all who coincide in sentiment with him, there are some of the psalms, which “tend to fill the mind with sharp resentment;” “some of them are almost opposite to the spirit of the gospel;” and in some of them, a “dreadful curse against men is proposed to our lips, which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies.” I would respectfully ask the author of the “Inquiry,” if it is really an error of no consequence, to represent the Holy Ghost, as inculcating a spirit in one part of divine revelation, which is at war with the spirit of another? Is it an error of no consequence, to charge the Holy Spirit with being the author of a sentiment which “tends to fill the mind with sharp resentment?” And are they slanderers of Dr. Watts, who represent him as, in these and similar instances, uttering sentiments which are directly derogatory to the Spirit of inspiration? when men speak thus unguardedly in relation to the songs contained in the book of Psalms, do they not overlook entirely the divine inspiration of that book? do they not speak as though they considered these divine songs, as the productions of erring men like themselves, and forget that they are finding fault with the Word of God?

It is an error of very pernicious tendency, if my venerable Father will allow me to say it, to represent one part of the Word of God as contradictory to another. It is doubtless true, that the mind of God is more fully and clearly revealed in one part of his word, than it is in another. But this is a very different thing from saying, that one part of the Word of God tends to fill the mind with passions, which are contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies. The duty of loving our enemies, is enforced by a new example and new motives, and our obligation to perform this duty, is set in a new light under the gospel; but the duty itself is not new, nor is it by any means peculiar to the gospel. The Scribes and Pharisees, who made void the law of God by their traditions, did indeed teach the abhorrent doctrine, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.” But there is no such doctrine countenanced in any part of the Word of God. The law of God is like himself, unchangeable; and it always required that we should love our enemies. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” is a summary of what the law of God requires, in so far as our duty to our fellowman is concerned. All this was required under the legal dispensation, and nothing more than this is required under the gospel. And to say that there is a sentiment contained in the book of Psalms, which has a tendency to fill the mind with “sharp resentment,” or excite unholy passions, at war with the commandment which requires us to love our enemies, I must be permitted to say, is a slander upon the Holy Spirit, who is its author.

As it is important that this subject should be understood, for the purpose of assisting the humble inquirer after truth, it may be proper to pursue it a little further. It is entirely too common, with a certain class of writers, to represent the Psalmist as expressing feelings of resentment and hatred against his personal enemies. Accordingly, Dr. Watts, in giving an account of the principles on which his Imitation of the Psalms of David is prepared, observes, “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.” To say nothing now of the daring presumption of a sinful mortal, in taking such liberty with the Word of God, the serious christian is desired to look at the sentiment here avowed. The Psalmist is represented as using “sharp invectives against his personal enemies.” Was the Psalmist then, under the influence of the Spirit of inspiration? Is it true, as the Apostle declares, that the Holy Ghost spake by the mouth of David? In using such language as Dr. Watts here employs, do not men virtually charge the Spirit of love and grace, with inspiring the Psalmist with feelings of resentment, and with putting into his mouth sharp invectives against his personal enemies? And I would appeal not to the prejudices of the ignorant, but to the sober reflection, and to the enlightened consciences of all those who reverence the authority of God in his word, while I ask, does not such language offer a fearful indignity to the Spirit of inspiration?

The authority of Dr. Watts' name, has done much to produce the impression, that there is something in the divine songs, contained in the book of Psalms, so entirely contrary to the spirit of the gospel, that many will not sing them. These songs are confessedly the Word of God; they are, as all admit, the songs of the Spirit; and yet there are some professing christians, who wish to be considered as so much under the influence of the spirit of Christianity, that they will not sing these songs of the Spirit! This surely is and must be a sinful prejudice. Under the influence of the mistaken idea, to which I have referred, some of these divine songs have been denominated “cursing psalms;” and it is said by some, that a christian cannot with propriety use them. Let us, for a moment, examine this principle, in reference to a particular psalm of that class, of which men have spoken so unguardedly. The 109th psalm is one of that class, in which, according to Dr. Watts, “some dreadful curse against men is proposed to our lips, which is so contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies.” Instead of singing in the praise of God such dreadful curses against men, Dr. Watts has given us, as his 109th psalm, a song bearing the title, “Love to enemies, from the example of Christ.” That it is our duty to love our enemies, all will admit. And that there is nothing inculcated in the book of Psalms, inconsistent with that duty, must be admitted by all who acknowledge the divine inspiration of this book. And yet Dr. Watts proceeds upon the supposition, that there is something in this psalm contrary to the new commandment of loving our enemies. And therefore, he changes its spirit and design, and gives us in its stead, a song which inculcates, “Love to enemies, from the example of Christ.” Now it so happens, that in relation to this very psalm, we have the testimony of scripture to assure us, that in it the Holy Spirit exhibits the fearful doom, which awaits the finally impenitent. “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said,—Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of David, spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.” [Acts 1:16.] It is then, a manifest impropriety, to represent the Psalmist, as uttering “sharp invectives against his personal enemies,” or as proposing to our lips “some dreadful curse against men.” A manifest impropriety, did I say? The language is entirely too mild! It is daring profanity to say, as Dr. Watts has said, that the 59th and 109th psalms, “are so full of cursings, that they hardly become the tongue of a follower of the blessed Jesus.” These words, christian reader, were spoken by the Spirit of Christ, and yet according to Dr. Watts, and those who maintain that there is no error of any consequence in his writings, they “hardly become the tongue of a follower of the blessed Jesus!”

It is apprehended, that there is prevalent in the christian world, a practical mistake on this subject, which is of pernicious tendency. It is the duty of the christian to love his own enemies; but is it his duty to love the enemies of Christ, and sympathise with them? Our blessed Redeemer has set us an example of praying for the forgiveness of our enemies, and his example we should follow, and his spirit we should cultivate; and every part of the Word of God, where it is received in faith, will have a tendency to produce this result. But when the Lord Jesus denounces his displeasure against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, shall not the christian, who is a partaker of the Spirit of Christ, approve the sentence? When he, as the righteous Judge, shall say in relation to the finally impenitent, “Those, mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither and slay them before me,” will not all the subjects of his grace respond, Amen? It is a sickly and spurious charity, entirely different from the charity of the gospel, which would sympathise with the enemies of the Lord Jesus, and in the excess of its liberality would take to its embrace, rebels and traitors to the Prince of peace. And such a charity, it is admitted, has no countenance from anything contained in the book of Psalms, nor in any other part of the word of God.

3. Another objection which has been urged against the use of the scripture Psalms, is, that they are so Jewish and unintelligible that they are not adapted to christian worship. In his preface to his hymns. Dr. Watts, speaking of the psalms, observes, “When we are just entering into an evangelical frame, by some of the glories of the gospel, presented in the brightest figures of Judaism, yet the very next line perhaps, which the clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that it darkens our sight of God the Savior.” And in his “Essay for the Improvement of Psalmody,” he remarks, that in singing the Psalms, “persons of seriousness and judgment, that consider what they sing, are often forced to break off in the midst, to omit whole lines and verses; and thus the tune, and the sense, and the devotion, is interrupted at once, because they dare not sing without understanding, and almost against their consciences.” The christian reader, startled by such sentiments, exclaims, “Is this the man who has given to the christian churches a system of Psalmody, which has usurped the place of the songs of inspiration?” What! “Persons of seriousness and judgment, forced to omit whole lines and verses” of those songs which are the productions of God’s Holy Spirit, “because they dare not sing without understanding, and almost against their consciences!” But this is not all. Where persons of seriousness and judgment are forced to break off, he adds,—“The more unthinking multitude go on singing in cheerful ignorance, wheresoever the clerk guides them, across the river Jordan, through the land of Gebal, Ammon and Amalek; they join their song in concert with the high sounding cymbals; their thoughts are bedarkened with the smoke of incense and covered with Jewish veils.” The conclusion to which the author would bring us, is, that many of the Psalms are so Jewish, so cloudy and unintelligible, that the use of them would tend rather to hinder, than to aid devotion.

But does not the reader at once perceive, that if there is any force in this objection, it is an impeachment of the wisdom and goodness of God, who gave to his church, songs so ill adapted to the end for which they were given? Dr. Watts, by a strange inconsistency, adds, that “Such language” as that contained in the Psalms, “was suited by infinite wisdom, to raise the affections of the saints of that day; but I fear it does but sink our devotion and hurt our worship.” Now, I would ask, how could the language of these divine songs raise the pious affections and aid the devotion of the saints of former days, if its tendency now, is to “sink our devotion and hurt our worship?” We enjoy superior advantages, and with the clearer light of the gospel, are prepared to understand much more fully the meaning of these sacred songs. And consequently, instead of being less suitable to be employed now for the use of God’s people, than they were formerly, they are really better adapted to the edification of the church under the gospel, than they were under the legal dispensation. But it will be said. Would not songs drawn up in the language of the New Testament, be better adapted to the worship of God now, than those in which there are frequent allusions to the rites and ceremonies of the law? I answer, if the God of infinite wisdom had thought that such songs would have been better for his church, it is reasonable to suppose that he would have provided them. But as there is no book of Psalms provided in the New Testament, I conclude, that he who knows what is best for his church, did not consider that any was necessary.

The objection which we are considering, seems to be founded upon mistaken views of the worship of the church under the former dispensation. It seems to take it for granted, that the worshipper under the law, depended on the ceremonial rites and sacrifices for acceptance with God. My venerable Father will excuse the liberty which I take in saying, that he employs language which might seem to countenance this idea, though, of course, I do not suppose that he holds such a principle. For example, on page 209 of the “Inquiry,” when speaking of the greater suitableness of songs prepared in the language of the New Testament, he remarks,—“In order to find acceptance with God, shall we say with the Psalmist, in the 66th Psalm, I will offer unto thee burnt sacrifices of fatlings, with the incense of rams; I will offer bullocks with goats; or, as the Apostle exhorts, having boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,” &c. Heb. 10: 19-22. What, I would ask, was the meaning of the true worshipper under the law, when he came before God with such language as that employed in this psalm? Did he depend upon the sacrifices of fatlings, of bullocks and of goats, for acceptance with God? Most certainly he did not. Through the medium of these bloody sacrifices, he, in the exercise of faith, looked to the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world. He depended, for acceptance with God, upon the same great Sacrifice for sin, which is now the foundation of the christian’s hope. If then, the ancient believer could approach unto God acceptably in the use of such a song ; if, while he had before the eye of his body, a bleeding lamb, he had presented to the eye of his faith the Lamb of God; if the language of such a song, raised in his breast pious affections, and aided devotion, why should such expressions and such language “sink our devotion and hurt our worship,” since we have the light of the gospel to render their import more intelligible? If these and similar expressions, did not “bedarken the thoughts” of the ancient believer, and hide the Savior from his sight, why should they have on us so injurious an effect? If such language served to lead the ancient Israelite to Him who is the desire of all nations, why may it not now raise the thoughts of the humble christian, surrounded as he is with clearer light, to Him who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth?

I will close this chapter with a notice of one other remark of the author of the “Inquiry,” which seems to me exceptionable. He is animadverting upon the declaration which many of the best and ablest men who ever lived, have made, that the “Psalms contain the very substance and marrow of the gospel;” and he boldly affirms, “We deny the correctness and truth of the assertion.” He at the same time, “protests against being called an enemy of the book of Psalms.” It seems, however, that if he prized the Psalms as a “precious part of divine revelation,” he does not like to hear a great deal said in commendation of them. Accordingly he adds, “But that they contain as clear and as full a view of the important and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, as the New Testament, we are astonished any man should assert in the present day.” But, venerable Father, it is the creature of an excited imagination, which has excited your astonishment. Mr. [Robert] Reid, whom you oppose, has said no such thing. He does not say that the important and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, are as fully and clearly revealed in the Psalms, as they are in the New Testament. What he says, is, that the Psalms contain “the very substance and marrow of the gospel.” This is surely a different sentiment from that which fills you with astonishment. From the position which the “marrow” occupies in the animal system, I would suppose that it does not convey the idea of a thing very fully and clearly exposed to view. The statement of Mr. Reid, the truth of which you so positively deny, says nothing at all in relation to the comparative fullness and clearness with which the doctrines of the gospel are revealed in the gospel, but is simply this, that the Psalms contain “the very substance and marrow of the gospel.” And I would appeal to your sober judgment, while I respectfully ask. Is not this the literal truth? Is not Jesus Christ himself, everywhere brought to our view, in the book of Psalms? In the Psalms, we have presented to our view the incarnation, birth, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, kingdom and priesthood of our Lord and Savior; and do they not then, contain “the very substance and marrow of the gospel?” With your permission, venerable Father, I will say that the Psalms do contain “the very substance and marrow of the gospel;” and such has been the judgment of the church of God in all ages.