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The Hymns of David.


The Hymns of David.

James Dodson

[from The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, VII.9., September 1869, 257-264.] 

When considering the force of any written document, it is of great importance to read it “in the light of its historical significance.” A volume might be written on the advantages of historical significance; next to the Spirit’s own teaching, it is the best canon of interpretation. like to read hymns in the light of this historical exposition. We are often asked, why did the apostle use the three names—Psalms, Hymns, Odes,—if he intended us to use in praise, the book of Psalms, and nothing more. The true answer has been repeatedly given, namely, that we have all the three classes in the psalm-book; the apostle found all the names in current use, and gave them as he found them applied to the varied compositions of David, of Solomon, of Asaph, of Moses, &c, which go to make up the one hundred and fifty inspired songs of Zion: just as our Redeemer himself named the three sets of documents, which then constituted the book of the Lord: “The law of Moses—the prophets—the psalms.” Luke 24:44.

We still talk of the Old Testament and the New, as parts of the same Scripture; although the student of history knows what trouble was caused in the “church” in the beginning of the 16th century when a book called the NEW Testament was introduced. The bishops at once inferred that it was human composition, got up by one Martin Luther, in lieu of the good old Bible, that was somehow missing. Just so Paul gives the three names denoting what was the system of praise in his day. Where did the apostle find these names? Not in the English Bible of course, which then had no existence. And even since it has been made, our very accurate translation is incomplete in that particular. In it we have the psalm and the song; but the hymn (so far as the name is concerned,) we do not find. Neither in the titles of the psalms, nor anywhere else, does the word once occur in the Old Testament. It is one of the few infelicities of our translation, that names, even of individuals, do not preserve their uniformity in both Testaments: e.g., Elijah of the Old Testament is Elias in the New Hymn is a Greek word transferred into English—not native to the Saxon. Luther always uses an equivalent; but we have no equivalent in English, and must retain it; although it occurs only four times in our translation, and these four times furnish but two illustrations, the others being repetitions of the two. In the original of the New Testament, where both the noun and verb occur, we have it six times only, and the verb wherever it occurs in the Greek answers very nearly to our word praise.

It is agreed by the learned, that we have an equivalent for this word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, as well as for the psalm, and the song; but the difficulty is, to make the verbal connection properly between the Greek of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old. In the Latin Bible, called the Vulgate, the connection is complete, all the names occurring in relation to the psalms again and again. In the title of the 67th psalm for example, the three words are found together, thus: “Among the hymns, a psalm of David’s song.” The Vulgate, though to us ancient and venerable, had however no “historical significance” to the Apostle Paul; it was made long since his day, and answers no logical purpose in the present argument; we use it only for illustration. Among versions like our own, comparatively modern, the German of Luther is very accurate in making a full connection of the three words with the psalter; and sometimes bringing all the three together, as may be seen at the beginning of Pss. 65, 66 and 92. Happily we have a Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, in use long before Christ came, and in current use when the New Testament was written. In this we have, connected with the psalms, the three identical words used by Paul, not equivalents; and from this we. propose to give items of historical significance.

About the Psalm there is little controversy, although it is a Greek word as well as Hymn. But it occurs so often in the English Bible, that we are all quite familiar with its use. Still it may not be amiss to notice how fully it is brought out in the New Testament. We have already seen how Christ called the attention pf the disciples to what was written of himself in the psalms. In the book of Acts we learn how they carried out his instructions; chap. 13 :33—“written in the second psalm;” 35—“he saith also in another psalm;” 1:20—“it is written in the book of Psalms.” The two verses cited here by Peter are not found in modern psalm-books; the reason is this: Dr. Isaac Watts, who was born at Southampton the 17th of July, 1674, as he came to each of them “dropped a tear and blotted it out forever.” Peter, however, cannot complain; for when Paul made two quotations of the same kind, they shared the same fate. See Rom. 11:9,10, and 15:3. How often Christ appealed to the psalms while he was on earth, needs not here to be told, but it is worth notice, that when he talks to John from heaven in the Revelation, he recalls the second psalm. Rev. 2:27. Even this passage is badly blurred in the doctor’s “imitation.” The Master fares little better than others. His exclamation on the cross, from Ps. 22, is scarcely recognizable, as given by Dr. Watts; and in the latest Presbyterian issue it is not found at all. In fact Christ himself, in some of his most interesting quotations, has fared no better than his disciples. In Matt. 21:16, during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he quoted Ps. 8:2; but that is not found in modern books. So also of John 10:34, where he used Ps. 82:6 in his own defence; John 13:18, where he uses Ps. 41:9, and John 15:25, where he uses Ps. 109:9 for the same purpose. None of all these are to be found in the “imitation.” It is remarkable, how much of the New Testament is virtually cancelled by manufacturing the psalm-book.

It is remarkable, too, how often Paul uses the psalms. I find thirty of his quotations; nine of them in one epistle. He found Messiah in the psalms when he was writing to the HEBREWS, just as Christ had done when he was talking to them. Luke 20:42. David himself saith in the BOOK OF PSALMS, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand," &c.

We find by 1 Cor. 14: 26, that when they assembled for worship, they had a psalm, as well as a doctrine and an interpretation. And in the two celebrated passages, Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16, the psalms are commended, as the work of the Spirit and the word of Christ. In Eph. 5: 19 and in three other passages, [Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Jas. 5:13.] the verb to psalm occurs in the original; making in all eleven separate commendations of these inspired songs, by name. By a collation of the Greek nouns and verbs as in Eph. 5:19, we learn that psalming is singing hymns and odes, and in the sequel we propose to show that hymning is singing odes and psalms.

The word HYMN is not used in so many places as Psalm; including verb and noun, it occurs six times. These will come up in their order while we identify them with the songs of inspiration, as Hymns of David.

The germ of our argument is found in Heb. 2:12: “I will declare thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing my praise to thee.” In the original it is, I will hymn thee, or, I will celebrate thee in hymns. Now, this has a three-fold connection. First, the passage is quoted from Ps. 22:22, in the Greek translation, usually known as the Septuagint, or The Seventy, being that Bible from which almost all the quotations from the Old Testament are made in the New. Those who wish to know the history of that translation, will find it in Buck’s Dictionary, and books there referred to. Those wishing to learn the power of it, will find much to their purpose in Horne’s Introduction. It is a translation differing in many important respects from every other now in the world, or ever to be produced. It is the first translation of the Scriptures accessible to Gentiles, and the only one in current use[1] when Christ was on earth. In the present case, as in many others, we refer to it with great confidence; not because it is either perfect or infallible, but for the following reasons: 1. It makes the verbal connection between the Greek of the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Old. It is the key to the Hebrew itself, the mother of all Hebrew lexicons, and ever will be. 2. It was used so much by our blessed Lord, and by all the New Testament writers in their quotations from the Old Testament. And all the New Testament authors do quote from the Old except Jude, who draws as largely on Old Testament facts as any of them, but does not make verbal quotations. In Horne’s Introduction we have about two hundred quotations, compared with both the Hebrew and Septuagint, a large proportion of which are from the Septuagint, word for word, or with only slight variations. 3. We refer to it chiefly, because it laid the basis of New Testament style; and hence must be largely taken into account in ascertaining the force of particular words and phrases. Scholars should be better acquainted with it than they generally are. -Now, in this translation we have the “Hymns of David,” as I intend to show.

But Heb. 2:12 has a second connection, namely, with the Hebrew original itself of the 22d psalm. The reading there is, I will hallel thee; the Septuagint renders this, “I will hymn thee,” and the Spirit of the Lord by Paul indorses that translation in the Greek of the New Testament. Now, this word hallel is the root of Halleluiah, “praise ye the Lord,” which occurs so often in the psalms. Moreover, in our Hebrew Bibles the book of Psalms is called Tehillim, a word from the same root, meaning praises, or, if we follow Paul in the passage under consideration, it means HYMNS.

The passage Heb. 2:12 has still a third connection, namely, with the celebration of the Passover by our Lord and his apostles. In Matthew and Mark we read, “And when they had sung a hymn they went out into the Mount of Olives.” Here the original word for hymn is not the noun, but the same verb which we have in Heb. 2:12, “when they had hymned.” This carries us back to the 22d psalm, and is the same as singing the Halleluiah. What is the Halleluiah? What hymn did Christ sing on that occasion? About this I believe there is no controversy. All authors, to whom I have access, are agreed that the custom of the Jews was then, as it is yet, to sing at the Passover, the hymn known as the great Hallel, the very word which Paul translates Hymn in the passage before us.

Now what is the great Hallel? All the commentators tell us that it is composed of the six psalms preceding the 119th. A few authors, to be sure, admit only five psalms. Dr. Gill refers to the “Seder Tephilloth” of the Jews, and gives six. I have now before me a Seder Tephilloth[2] which contains the great Hallell, as used by the Polish and German Jews. This hymn is sung by them at their four great feasts—the Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Feast of the Dedication (John 10:22). This Seder gives the following Psalms as the Hallel: 113, 114, 115, 116, 117, 118. The learned reader will observe how often the word occurs in the first verse, which gives name to the whole; and all can see the appropriateness of each psalm to the occasion. How pathetically Christ was then hymning in the midst of the church! How lovingly he calls them brethren, even after his resurrection!

It is objected to our system, that we have no hymns for a sacramental occasion. Ah, me! Will not the hymn that suited the Son of David suit the people of this age? Dr. Isaac Watts tried to supply this very great defect in our hymnology. Gentle reader, let me give you a verse from this supply. I quote from “Hymns and Spiritual Song’s, in Three Books. By I. Watts. Book III. Prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord's Supper.”

HYMN 20.

“Lord, we adore thy bounteous hand,

And sing the solemn feast;

Where sweet celestial dainties stand

For every willing guest.

The tree of life adorns the board

With rich immortal fruit,

And ne’er an angry naming sword

To guard the passage to it.”

Shade of Rouse! Now we do not sing the feast, neither the bread nor the wine; we leave the worshipping of the host where it belongs.

I have shown the reader the use which the apostle makes of the Septuagint, and intend to follow his example in opening up the way to the hymns of divine inspiration. An item yet remains to be told—how particular the apostle was in quoting the verse alluded to—particular to a nicety. The first part of the verse did not exactly suit his taste; he changed one word, merely for verbal accuracy. The Septuagint has, “I will relate thy name to my brethren;” the apostle has it. “I will declare thy name.” The alteration is so small that Thomas Hartwell Horne takes no notice of it in his quotations; but the very minuteness of it shows how well he was satisfied with the other words. If a modern critic were quoting from the Scottish metre, I wonder if he would alter it back again?—“I will declare thy name unto those that my brethren are.”

With the connection now established between the language of the New Testament and the Old, let us examine this strong link, so strongly corroborated by New Testament authority. 1 Chron. 16:7—“Then on that day David delivered first this psalm, to thank the Lord.” Here follows a piece of song composed of several psalms. The original does not give a name to the piece; our translation calls it, gratuitously, a psalm. The Septuagint calls it an ODE, and in verse 9 uses the terms, “Sing ye to him, hymn ye to him.” The Vulgate Latin has at the end of this ode, v. 36, “All the people uttered the amen and the hymn.” This ode, this hymn, this collection of psalms, is all to be found in the psalm-book. We lay no stress on the Latin, further than as an offset to the English and an illustration of v. 9. I have now produced two instances of a HYMN composed of a collection of psalms.

1 Chron. 25:6—(I quote from the Septuagint this and all following passages)—“All these, with their father, were HYMN-SINGERS in the house of God, with cymbals, and with nablas, and with harps, for the service of the house of God, established by the king [David] and Asaph, and Jeduthun, and Heman.” Did these “hymn-singers” use human composition, or did they use the psalms of David? Let the following record answer:

2 Chron. 7: 6—“And the priests waited on their charges, and the Levites with organs of the songs of the Lord by David the king, to praise before the Lord—in the HYMNS OF DAVID by their hand.” This was at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. Whether the words here given be an exact rendering of the Hebrew, enters not into the present argument; we are considering only the use of words, as laying the foundation of New Testament style. These words, and this translation, were in use in the church hundreds of years before Matthew, Mark and Paul were inspired to write about the hymns. The same remark applies to some other quotations.

2 Chron. 23:13—“When Athaliah looked, behold, the king stood by the pillar also the musicians singing with organs, and HYMNING praise.” In Hezekiah’s time we have the structure of these hymns. 2 Chron. 29:30—“Moreover Hezekiah the king, and the princes, commanded the Levites to HYMN the Lord in the WORDS OF DAVID, AND ASAPH THE PROPHET.”[3] What is now called a psalm, was beforetime called a hymn; but it was then, as now, the “words of David.” The verse is not finished; it follows, “And they HYMNED with gladness, and fell down and worshipped.” Compare James 5:13—“Is any cheerful, let him sing psalms.”

When they kept the great Passover in Hezekiah’s reign, after he had set the church in order as above, they still used the hymns. 2 Chron. 30:21—“And the children of Israel which were found in Jerusalem kept the- feast of unleavened bread seven days, with great gladness, and HYMNING the Lord day after day.”

But they were carried away to Babylon, and hung their harps on the willows. Ps. 137:3—“They who led us captive required of us the words of a song; they, who carried us off, asked a HYMN—sing us some of the ODES of Zion. How can we sing the ODE of the Lord upon the stranger’s soil! If I forget thee, O Jerusalem—.”

What did they sing when they returned? Neh. 12:24—“And the chief of the Levites—with their brethren over against them, for the HYMN, to praise by the command of David the man of God, day by day.”

Can we identify any of these hymns? Two of them have already been identified, but we have others. The following titles are taken from the same Bible—the translation of The Seventy:

Ps. 4. Title—“Among the Psalms, an ODE of David.” Some copies have, “Among the Hymns, a Psalm of David.” The various reading shows how little different is the idea of a hymn, and a psalm, and an ode. Ps. 6. Title—“Among the HYMNS; upon the eighth (or octave), a Psalm of David.” Ps. 40:4—“He put into my mouth a new song, a HYMN to our God.” The title of this is a Psalm of David, and we know how hymns were put into his mouth. Ps. 54. Title—“Among the HYMNS OF DAVID for instruction.” Ps. 55. Title—“Among the HYMNS OF DAVID for instruction. Ps. 61. Title—“Among the HYMNS OF DAVID.” Ps. 65. Title—“A Psalm of David, an ODE. Vs. 1. “A HYMN is comely to thee, O God in Zion.” Human composition was not admitted in those days at Zion. Here we have the three words of Paul—not the equivalents, but the identical terms, all used together. Ps. 67. Title—“Among the HYMNS, a Psalm -of David.”

Be patient, reader, I am almost done with this dry verbal argument. Ps. 72:20—“The HYMNS OF DAVID, the son of Jesse, are ended.” In our translation we read, “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” The discrepancy here is not, perhaps, as great as might be thought at first sight. The Hebrew word from which both are taken is almost constantly used for prayer. Yet we find many poetic compositions placed under it.

Ps. 17. Title (in English it is the same, and so of others)—“A prayer of David.” Ps. 86, “A prayer of David.” Ps. 90, “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Ps. 102, “A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed and poureth out his complaint before the Lord.” Ps. 142, “Of David, a prayer when he was in the cave.” Hab. 3:1 “A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, upon Shigionoth:” v. 19, “To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.” 1 Sam. 2:11, “Hannah prayed and said”—then follow the verses of a most beautiful hymn, ending with the word “Messiah,” and in the Septuagint ending with “Christ.” In Luke 21st ch. we have two of these prayer-hymns; one by Mary, and one by Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. Jonah 2:1, “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, and said”—here follows a hymn made up from seventeen psalms. Let any man or woman take the English Bible and .compare the separate expressions of Jonah's prayer with the following psalms: 120:1, 130:1, 49:15, 61:2, 34:6, 88:6 and 7, 42:7, 31:22, 28:2, 69:1, 30:3, 18:6, 42:6, 77:10, 31:6, 50:14, 54:6, 116:17,18, 3:8.

Kindred to this is the exercise of Paul and Silas in the prison at Philippi.—Acts 16:25. “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God, and the prisoners heard them”—in the original, “HYMNED to God.” Still more, I ask any one who can read the original, to examine it and see if the prayer and the hymn be not the same exercise? “While PRAYING they HYMNED to God.”

Although in our prayers we praise Him, yet prayer and praise are different forms of devotion; and yet not so different but they may be occasionally represented by the same word.

For the present, we have done with the Hymns of David; but we have not done with the words of Asaph the seer. It has already been noticed from Neh. 12:24, how the restored captives revived the hymning, according to the commandment of David; but we must observe that they left behind nothing which had, been given to other prophets. See verses 45,46, where Asaph is brought in with David and Solomon in settling “of old” the order of singing, when they established the “HYMN and praise to God,” as it reads in the Septuagint; in which also we have the following title to the 76th psalm, “Among the HYMNS, a PSALM of Asaph, an ODE against the Assyrian.” Here are all the three terms used by the apostle, employed in designating one piece composed by Asaph, the prophet-seer.

The subject is not exhausted here. But enough is given to establish the philological connection of the HYMN. The same field of investigation is equally rich in treasure on the connection of the ODE; but it does not seem needful to follow that out: hints enough have been dropped in the preceding remarks. I will say here, that ODE is found in the titles of twenty-eight psalms, where we find it often exchanging places with psalm. Sometimes we find it alone; but often combined with the psalm in this way—“a psalm of the ode;” “an ode of the psalm;” proving how very minute was the distinction between them “of old.”

In all my examination of the hymnology of Scripture, I find no warrant for human composition in praise. I find some cases of hymning where it might be difficult to prove the exact form of the song, and I am willing to give others all the benefit of them. Take one example out of many. Ps. 119:171, “My lips shall gush forth[4] a HYMN, when thou, hast taught me thy judgments.” The title of that “hymn” I cannot find, even in the LXX. Each reader can form his own idea of the HYMN that would gush from David’s lips, after he has been further taught of the Lord. I could give some examples of human composition in praise, but I think they are not approved. Such an example we have, Ex. 32:4,5,8,18.

Let us not give up the psalm-book for want of hymns. We have hymns; let us hold to them, use them, and seek the Spirit that gave them at first, and can bless them to the lost.

R. H.


[1] The Targums, if then in existence, were not in current use.

[2] The “Seder” is a Jewish prayer-book. The title of mine, which is in Hebrew, may be thus translated: Seder Tephilla, according to the Church of Germany and Poland. All the prayers complete for the days of the year, whether at home or abroad. Frankfort.

[3] Our translation has Asaph the seer. For the disparity, consult 1 Sam. 9:9.

[4] Webster gives gush transitive but rare—from Dryden.