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by John Dummelow
1. Name. The book of the Psalms is the name given in our versions to the first of the books of the third division of the Hebrew Bible called Kethubhim or Hagiographa. It is followed in that division by Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The name of the book in Hebrew is Tehillim, i.e. ’Praises.’ Our name, Psalms, is a transliteration of the Greek title of the book, and signifies ’songs accompanied by stringed instruments.’ The title Psalter is from the Greek psalterion, ’a harp,’ and is applied to the book of Psalms just as ’Lyre’ or ’Harp’ is sometimes used for a collection of hymns.
2. Hebrew Poetry. The history of Hebrew poetry, as evidenced in extant sacred literature, can only be sketched in briefest outline. It is predominantly lyric in character, i.e. it expresses, or refers to, the poet’s own thoughts or emotions. Epic poetry, i.e. poetry narrating the achievements of heroes, is not represented. Some of the poetry is of a dramatic nature, as Job, and especially the Song of Songs, but there is no drama properly so called. Fragments of early songs of various kinds have been preserved, and are embedded in the literature of the OT. Examples of these are the ’Song of the Sword,’ uttered by Lamech in Genesis 4:23-24 the ’Song of the Well,’ recorded in Numbers 21:17-18 and the burden of the thanksgiving for the deliverance from Egypt in Exodus 15:1, Exodus 15:21, the whole fine composition contained in Exodus 15:2-18 being probably of later date.
One of the very oldest portions of Hebrew literature is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. Most critics consider the Song of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 32, to be of comparatively late date, and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2 can hardly be of contemporary authorship. Many of the poetic strains that have come down to us are laments in memory of the departed, one of the most notable examples being David’s elegy on the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1), and another the lament for Abner in 2 Samuel 3:33; The ’last words of David,’ recorded in 2 Samuel 23, are cheerful in strain, forming a marked contrast to the dirge of Hezekiah in view of his approaching death (Isaiah 38). Traces of harvest and vintage songs, and songs for banquets, are discernible: see Amos 6:5. Wedding songs are, perhaps, preserved in the book of Canticles. Interspersed among the prophetic writings a few beautiful lyrics are to be found: see Isaiah 12, Jonah 2, and Habakkuk 3. A sublime and powerful Mashal, or Taunting Song, is preserved in Isaiah 14:4-27. It is notable for its bold symbolism, and its. daring and bitter irony, rather than for its beauty.
Careful readers of the OT. will not fail to notice scattered references to collections of poems that have not been preserved. One of these is called in Numbers 21:14; ’The book of the Wars of Jehovah,’ containing, presumably, martial songs; and another, ’The book of Jashar,’ i.e. the Upright, may well have consisted of verses in pious memory of departed saints and heroes. The titles of the Psalms, when closely examined, render their own evidence to the existence of other collections of Hebrew lyrics which have perished, as well as to some that have been taken up into that larger collection, which now forms one of the most precious possessions of the world.
The book of Lamentations may stand as an illustration of the elaborate versification of later days. Short as the book is, it consists of several parts distinguishable from one another by their various metres, one being styled the Kinah or Elegiac metre, and all displaying considerable artistic skill. The acrostics which have been preserved in the book of Psalms and in Lamentations are probably the product of a comparatively late period.
It remains only to mention the Gnomic verse (i.e. didactic poetry, dealing in maxims), of which the book of Proverbs furnishes such abundant illustration. Some of the Psalms, and parts of the book of Job, may perhaps be included under this heading, but the attempt accurately to classify under modern subdivisions the many-voiced poetry of the OT. is more than futile. It is clear that one marked type of poetical composition is recognisable in the sententious, regular, evenly-balanced clauses, such as constitute the main portion of Proverbs. In the Hebrew, however, there is no monotony. There is variety enough in the rhythm of the lines, in the kind of parallelism adopted, and in the various building up of lines and couplets into stanzas, to remove the feeling of sameness which an English reader experiences in reading Proverbs or the 119th Psalm. Hebrew poetry in all its parts pulsates with the spontaneity, the freedom, and the sparkling variety of full and vigorous life.
3. Hebrew Poetical Construction. The distinction between poetry and prose in Hebrew does not depend upon the presence or absence of rhyme. Nor is metre—that is, arrangement in lines of a measured length, consisting of a definite number of syllables or ’feet’—characteristic of Hebrew poetry, though some approach to this is occasionally found. Poetical construction depends upon rhythm of thought and balance of sentences. Each psalm is made up of lines, arranged so as to produce a ’parallelism of members,’ so that in two or more lines words and matter correspond to one another with a carefully-studied equality. In the simplest form, two such lines match one another in a couplet, e.g.—’The heavens declare the glory of God And the firmament sheweth his handy work.’ ’Enter into his gates with thanksgiving And into his courts with praise.’ In these examples, the second line repeats the general sense of the first and strengthens its emphasis. This is called synonymous parallelism. Sometimes the second line affirms the opposite of the former, in antithesis or contrast, e.g.—’The wicked borroweth and payeth not again, But the righteous sheweth mercy and giveth.’ ’The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish.’ Sometimes a triplet is found, as—’I call to remembrance my song in the night, I commune with my own heart, And my spirit made diligent search.’ Four lines may be included in the scheme, and then the first and third may be called parallel, and the second and fourth; or three of the lines may preserve a close parallelism, while one of them, either the first or the last, stands independent; or two ordinary couplets may constitute a verse of four lines, e.g.—’In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried unto my God:
He heard my voice out of his temple, And my cry before him came into his ears.’ Close examination will show that these distichs, tristichs, and tetrastichs, as they are called—i.e. verses of 2, 3 and 4 lines respectively—assume a great variety of forms in the Psalms, thus avoiding the sameness and monotony characteristic of the poetry of the Proverbs. Order can be discerned, but, like the symmetry in the life of nature, it manifests itself amidst endless variety, so that the charm of freshness and unexpectedness is never lost. (For examples, see the arrangement of the verses in RV.)
As two, three, or four lines make a verse, so a number of verses constitute a stanza, or strophe, corresponding to a paragraph in prose. The end. of such a stanza is sometimes marked by a refrain, such as ’The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge’ in the 46th Psalm, and ’Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness and for his wonderful works to the children of men,’ which is found four times in the 107th Psalm. But the stanzas do not recur with strict regularity, and the writers of these marvellous sacred lyrics never allow themselves to be chained by any mechanical rules.
There is, however, one apparent exception to this rule. Though rhyme is not found in Hebrew poetry, alliteration and assonance—the repetition of a letter or of similar soundendings—is not infrequent, and the alliteration sometimes takes the form of an acrostic. That is to say, a psalm may be composed so that each verse shall begin with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, arranged in order from the first to the last—as we should say, from A to Z. This is practically the case in Psalms 25, 34, 145. Or every other verse may thus follow on with consecutive letters, as in Psalms 37 or every single line may begin with a fresh letter, as in Psalms 111, 112. In the 119th Psalm, as is well known, there are twenty-two stanzas, each consisting of eight verses, and each verse in the stanza begins with the same letter, the letters of the whole alphabet being taken in regular succession. It is difficult to imitate this in English, and if it were done, an appearance of stiffness and artificiality would be produced. But, excepting perhaps in the elaborate scheme of the 119th Psalm, the mechanical arrangement does not seriously fetter the Hebrew poet, and the English reader would hardly guess how completely the alphabetical system is carried out. This is very marked in the 3rd chapter of Lamentations, a striking example of acrostic composition.
4. Hebrew Music. Tradition places the introduction of musical instruments at a very early date. In Genesis 4:21; Jubal is described as ’the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe.’ Amos (Amos 5:23) speaks of ’the melody of viols’ as being heard in the services, and Isaiah (Isaiah 30:29, Isaiah 30:32) similarly mentions pipe and tabret and harp. The nature of the music is more a matter of speculation than of knowledge: it was probably what we would consider harsh and discordant. The singing at the Temple services seems, from notices in the Psalms, to have been antiphonal, sometimes by the two divisions of the choir, sometimes by the choir and the people, the latter joining at intervals in a refrain (e.g. 136). The singing in later times, at any rate, was accompanied, in some cases if not always, by instrumental music. Psalms 4, 6, 54, 55, 67, 76 are headed ’On Neginoth’ (RV ’upon stringed instruments’); and Psalms 5 has the direction ’Upon Nehiloth’ (RM ’with the wind instruments’). Two stringed instruments are mentioned in the Bible, the kinnor (harp) and the nebel (psaltery). The former seems to have been a lyre, an instrument of a light and simple nature upon which the performer could play while walking; the latter was probably more like our harp. The chief wind instruments are the halil (flute), skophar (horn), and hazozerah (trumpet). The flute was played in religious processions (1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Kings 1:40; Isaiah 30:29). The horn (made at first of a ram’s horn, sometimes later of metal) was used to summon the people to worship, or as a signal, or for special purposes, as e.g. to proclaim the year of Jubilee. The trumpet was a long instrument of silver, blown on ceremonial occasions by the priests (Numbers 10:2-10). It is the instrument portrayed on the Arch of Titus at Rome. There were also percussion instruments used, the chief of which were the toph (a small hand drum, Genesis 31:27; ’tabret,’) and cymbals both flat and conical (Psalms 150:5; Zechariah 14:20).
5. The Titles of the Psalms. The titles, or short inscriptions, found at the beginning of many psalms, are not to be regarded as forming a part of the sacred text, but they were prefixed at a very early date, and are very instructive. The exact meaning of each will be explained where it occurs, but a few general remarks may here be made. Titles occur chiefly in the first three books, and only thirtyfour psalms are without any. These the Jews called ’orphans.’ Some of the titles are musical directions, some suggest a historical setting for the psalm, and others indicate the authorship or the source from which it was taken. (The names Alamoth (46), Sheminith (6, 12), Neginoth (4), and Nehiloth (5), refer to the music; the first two probably indicating pitch, and the last two enjoining the particular instrumental accompaniments.) Several psalms, e.g. 9, 22, 45, etc., have some words prefixed which seem to indicate the tune of some well-known song to which the psalm was set. Prefixed to thirteen psalms are notes suggesting a suitable historical occasion for the psalm. All of them refer to the history of David, the majority being placed in the period of his flight from the jealousy of Saul. Many of them, however, are irreconcilable with the words of the psalms themselves, and are therefore unreliable as sources of information. At the same time, they often provide apt historical illustrations of thoughts and principles dwelt upon by the psalmists.
Many of the titles give hints of authorship or source. Seventy-three psalms are headed ’Le David,’ which is translated ’Of David’ in our versions. It is more correct to translate the preposition ’Belonging to’; and while many of the psalms bearing this title may be the productions of the shepherd king, all that is indicated by the title ’of David’ is that the psalm to which it is prefixed was taken from an early collection called the Psalms of David or the Prayers of David (Psalms 72:20). Similarly other psalms are distinguished as ’belonging to Asaph,’ ’belonging to the Sons of Korah,’ ’belonging to the Chief Musician,’ these names being those of collections of sacred pieces which had been made at different times. The same preposition being used in all the cases, it is evident that it must be interpreted in the same sense of David and Asaph as of the Chief Musician and the Sons of Korah; and if in the latter cases it does not refer to authorship in the strict sense of the word, it can scarcely do so in the former. The view is now generally accepted that the titles for the most part refer to collections which had come to be known by certain familiar names, without its being implied that every psalm in a collection was written by the person whose name it bears. In the case of David, it is easy to understand how his honoured name came to be given to all the psalms in a particular collection, though he only wrote some of them. The 72nd Psalm is entitled ’of Solomon,’ yet it is included among those that are styled ’prayers of David, the son of Jesse.’ It was a rule among the Jews that a psalm without an author’s name attached to it was to be ascribed to the author of the one immediately preceding. This shows how the name ’David’ came to be given to the whole Psalter, as in Hebrews 4:7.
6. Date and Authorship. What then may we infer as to the date and authorship of the several psalms? The belief that David wrote all the psalms to which his name is attached cannot now be maintained. Modern scholars differ widely in their estimate of the number of psalms which may safely be ascribed to him, some including over forty in the list, while others allow no more than three, and one or two admit none at all. While, however, it cannot be demonstrated that David wrote any of the psalms, the probability is that he wrote a number. The 18th Psalm is given at length in 2 Samuel 22 as well as in the Psalter, and in both cases a note is prefixed, setting forth that the psalm was written by David to celebrate his deliverance from his enemies, and especially from Saul. If we might build upon this statement it would give us firm ground on which to rest arguments concerning David’s style and-mode of composition. Considerable weight, too, is due to tradition, which is too strong and too persistent to be lightly set aside. The very fact that so many psalms were handed down to the compilers of the Psalter under David’s name, is a very strong argument in favour of his authorship of a considerable number. It may be, indeed, that many psalms composed by him were modified and altered in some respects by later editors, in order to fit them for use in public worship and apply them to the circumstances of a later age; but tradition gives strong ground for believing that the ’sweet singer of Israel’ was the author of songs of praise which are included in our book of Psalms. Critics of the moderate school ascribe to David Psalms 3, 4, 7, 8, 15, 18, 23, 24, 32, as well as Psalms 19:1-6, with perhaps 101 and 110, and some others. It is possible, however, that most of those in the first book are Davidic in their original form. It is difficult on any other supposition to account for the facts that the eariiest collection was called by his name, and that so many psalms were ascribed to him.
It is as impossible to fix the dates at which the various psalms were composed, as to settle the questions of authorship. Incidental allusions to place or circumstance will sometimes show the date earlier than which a particular psalm cannot have been written. References to the Temple (Psalms 5:7; Psalms 27:4; Psalms 28:2; Psalms 65:4 etc.) imply the existence of that centre of national worship; and the mention of ’the hill of God’ (Psalms 15:1; Psalms 24:3, etc.) seems to indicate that the worship on Zion had been established for some time. It is evident again that some psalms must be dated as late as the exile (e.g. 137), and that others (e.g. 126) are post-exilic. Some scholars hold that many of the psalms must be dated as late as the Maccabean age. But while it is possible that some psalms belong to that period (e.g. 44, 74, 79, 83), it is not likely that the number is very great.
Readers may be reminded that the spiritual benefit of these inspired lyrics is not lessened by their detachment from a particular name and occasion. The Psalms should be studied in the bight of eternal truth, and the local significance should be lost in the universal. Preeminently among the books of the OT: they are intended not for one age but for all time.
7. The Compilation of the Psalter. The book of Psalms, as we know it, was not made—it grew. A long history, partly obscure, partly traceable, and directed throughout by the guidance of the Divine Spirit, lies behind the final collection of these hundred and fifty sacred lyrics into one Psalter, for the use of Israel and the spiritual benefit of the world. The RV follows a very ancient Jewish tradition in dividing the whole into five books—Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150. This division is supposed to have been made in imitation of the five books of the Pentateuch. Each book closes with a doxology. But this arrangement of the Psalms, though dating from the 2nd cent. b.c., does not represent the earliest grouping. Closer examination shows that smaller collections existed in earlier times, and that these were gradually brought together and re-arranged on principles which we can only partially and with difficulty trace out. The note which closes the second book (Psalms 72:20) shows that the psalms included in this collection were in some sense ’of David,’ and that the writer of the note knew of no other Davidic psalms. We observe also that the same psalm occurs more than once in slightly differing forms: cp. Psalms 14 with 53, Psalms 40:13-17 with 70, and 108 with Psalms 57:7-11 and Psalms 60:5-12. It will be seen that one feature of difference, in verses which are almost identical otherwise, is that different names of God are used. The sacred name Jehovah, the covenant name of Israel’s God, is used in Book 1,272 times, while Elohim, a more general name for the Deity, occurs only 15 times. In Book 2 the proportion is reversed; in it Jehovah is found only 30 times, while Elohim is employed 164 times: This cannot have happened by chance, and the names Jehovistic and Elohistic have been given to indicate the prevalence of the two names respectively. The reason of this peculiarity is not perfectly clear. It is probably due to different editions, and perhaps shows that the respective names were prevalent at different periods.
The Psalter seems to have been formed very much as modern hymn-books are formed. The earliest collection would be the Davidic, of which a large part is preserved in Book 1 later collections would be those of Asaph and the sons of Korah. The psalms described in their titles as Mizmor (AV ’A Psalm’) may have formed a collection by themselves selected from the earlier Psalters with additions. Later still would come the collection made by the Chief Musician, probably for the Temple worship after the exile; this again being selected from the earlier collections. Perhaps about the same time the Elohistic collection was made; that it was formed from earlier sources is shown by the fact that Psalms 53=Psalms 14, and Psalms 70= Psalms 40:13-17; Jehovah, in the earlier version, being changed into Elohim in the later. Prof. Briggs thinks that the Psalter of the Chief Musician was formed in Palestine in the middle Greek period (3rd cent. b.c.), and that the Elohistic collection (partly preserved in Books 2 and 3) was made about the same time in Babylonia. Other groups of psalms of late date are the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), a title which probably refers either to the ’going up’ from Babylon to Jerusalem after the exile, or to the annual pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate the feasts; and the Hallelujah Psalms , 104-107, 111-117, 135-136, 146-150. The editor of our Psalter, taking the principal collections as his basis, and adding to them such other psalms as were suitable for the Temple service of praise, formed them into a complete Book of Praises probably in the Maccabean age—the 2nd cent. b.c.
It is sometimes argued that the Psalms express not personal but national feelings and aspirations; that the ’I’ of the Psalms represents not the writer but the Jewish nation. But while this may be the case in some psalms (e.g. 44, 76), especially those written in later times, it can scarcely be so in the great majority. These certainly express the desires and hopes of the faithful community, but it is because they first expressed the desires and hopes of individuals. They are natural and spontaneous, especially the Davidic Psalms. It is only later that the composition becomes more artificial, as in the case of the acrostic or alphabetical Psalms (e.g. 119, 145).
Allowing, then, for the measure of uncertainty surrounding the date and authorship of the Psalms, we may summarise the following conclusions: (1) The earliest date admissible for the composition of any psalm is the time of David, and in all probability some now extant may be ascribed to that king. (2) Additions to Hebrew psalmody were made during the period of the monarchy, several specimens of which are to be found in the Psalter: see Psalms 2, 20, 21, 46, 48, etc. (3) A considerable part of the book of Psalms dates from the period immediately after the captivity, and about that time the process of collecting and arranging the Psalms was probably begun. (4) This process continued till the early part of the 2nd cent. b.c., when the Canon of the OT. was virtually complete.
8. Religious Ideas. The Psalms are the outpouring of the spirit of devotion to God. It is to God that the Psalmist’s thoughts and hopes are directed, to whom he looks for deliverance, or whom he blesses for personal or national mercies. The Psalms are full of expressions of trust in God at all times, and they contain glowing testimonies to the perfection of God, to His love, His power, His faithfulness, His righteousness. They are specially valuable to us as a mirror and mould of devotion. They show us the human heart laid before God in all its moods and emotions;in penitence, in desire for holiness, in doubt and perplexity, in danger, in desolation, or, again, in deliverance and triumph. The reader will always find something in the Psalms in sympathy with his own spiritual state. They are ’as comprehensive as the human soul and varied as human life.. they treat not life after the fashion of an age or people, but life in its rudiments.’ A problem frequently touched upon in the Psalms is the difficulty of reconciling the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked with God’s moral government of the world: cp. Intro, to Job. This problem is handled at length in Psalms 37, 73. In the former psalm the solution reached is the somewhat superficial one that the success of the wicked is but temporary, and that the righteous will soon come to his own. In the latter the writer goes deeper. His faith had been severely tried by his experiences, but when he cast his burden on the Lord, as he worshipped in the sanctuary, he received new light in his darkness, and was enabled to leave the issues of the future with God. The one unfailing truth which comforted the Psalmists was ’The Lord reigneth.’ Evil may endure for a time, and the wicked may oppress the just, but ’He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh’ at them, and wait His opportunity to deliver His servants. There is nothing more noticeable in the Psalms than this triumphant faith in God’s overruling power—a faith which neither personal nor national misfortune was able to destroy.
This is one aspect of the Psalmists’ doctrine of God: another aspect of it is found in the divine relation to nature. Everything in nature speaks of God’s power and glory. ’The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth His handiwork.’ The Hebrew poets have no pleasure in nature for her own sake; they value her only as she speaks of the invisible presence of God. If they regard the earth, they view it as the footstool of the Lord; if they see the clouds gathering, they speak of them as the curtains for Jehovah’s pavilion; if they listen to the thunder rolling, they hear in it ’the voice of the Lord upon the waters’; if they watch the lightning flashing, they think of it as ’the arrows of the most High.’ It is, however, the transcendence rather than the immanence of God that is the thought of the Psalmists’ minds: while He uses nature to make known His presence and power, He is high above it (cp. Psalms 18, 19, 29, 93).
Another point that may be noticed is the attitude of the Psalmists to ritual and sacrifice. There are frequent references in the Psalms to the Temple worship and sacrifices. The Psalmists declare their intention of offering burnt offerings and paying their vows in the presence of all the people (e.g. Psalms 66:13-15; Psalms 116:14, Psalms 116:17;). The spiritual aspect of tie ritual is, however, the most prominent in the Psalmists’ thoughts. They know that offerings are insufficient of themselves, and that they are only valuable in so far as they typify the ’living sacrifice’ of self, which every true worshipper must offer. Indeed, if that sacrifice be offered, the material offering is unnecessary (cp. Psalms 40:6-8; Psalms 50:7-15). In Psalms 51 the writer at one moment declares that sacrifice and burnt offering are not desired by God; ’the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit’ (Psalms 51:16-17); and immediately afterwards declares that only when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt can sacrifice be acceptable to Jehovah (Psalms 51:18-19). It is probable that the latter vv. are a later liturgical addition; but, even so, the whole psalm was used without any sense of incongruity.
Another feature of the Psalms is their intense patriotism. Patriotism and religion were inseparably associated by the Hebrews. That God was good to Israel was the first article of their creed. The historical Psalms developed this idea, and illustrate it from the national history (e.g. Psalms 104, 105, 106). His blessings were destined to teach them His ways, and make His mighty power known to them (Psalms 106:8). Even His punishment was for their good, to renew them to repentance and bring them to realise the greatness of their privilege (Psalms 106:43-44, etc.). The purpose of God in choosing Israel was that they might extend His Kingdom. Sometimes, indeed, ’the heathen’ or ’the nations’ are regarded as God’s enemies (Psalms 2:1, etc.); but at other times they are looked upon as the witnesses of the Psalmists’ praise (Psalms 57:9), and even as God’s people (Psalms 47:9). God’s mercy is given to Israel that they make His way known upon the earth, and His saving health among all nations (Psalms 67:1, Psalms 67:7). But, above all, Israel is His peculiar people (Psalms 73:1); their enemies are His enemies; misfortunes to them are hindrances to His cause; their success is His triumph.
In this lies the explanation of two features of this book which call for comment—the self-righteousness of the Psalmists, and their vindictive resentment against their enemies. Let us remember at the outset the distinction between the OT. and NT. standards in this matter. We must not expect to find in the OT. the humility arising from the deep sense of sin, or the meek, forgiving spirit, inculcated by the Lord Jesus Christ. To judge the Psalmists by these standards is unfair, and the attempt to explain away the plain meaning of their words, in order to palliate a moral fault, is unsound exegesis. None the less it is possible, within limits, to defend the position taken up in what are called the imprecatory Psalms (e.g. 58, 68, 69, 109) without doing violence to sound ethical standards. The Psalmist claimed to be ’holy’ and ’perfect,’ without implying all that we mean by those lofty words. He meant that he was striving to be upright, a man of integrity, mindful of the claims of God upon him according to the law, and to the best of his ability endeavouring to be faithful to duty. He was placed, however, in the midst of men animated by entirely different motives; some of them openly and violently opposed to the God of Israel and His worship, others nominally acknowledging Him, but in reality idolaters, or disloyal to Jehovah. The contrast between the faithful and the unfaithful was sharp and strong; the former were always in a minority, they usually suffered cruel persecution, and were often in extremest peril. Under these circumstances it is easy to understand that the Psalmist felt entitled to identify himself with the cause of righteousness. He pleads for his own personal triumph, and the utter overthrow of his enemies, with a passionate earnestness, which is only warrantable in the light of the words, ’Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against Thee? I hate them with perfect hatred, I count them mine enemies.’ Not to hate the enemies of Jehovah is to be a traitor to His holy covenant.
The distinction familiar to us between hating the sin and being angry with the sinner, and the possibility of loving the offender with a desire to save him, were not present to the mind of the Psalmist. Evil and evil-doer were for him identical, and in this respect he stands upon a lower ethical plane than the Christian. Further, the forms of imprecation common in the Psalms belong to an earlier, a sterner, and more violent age than ours. Such horrible curses as are invoked in Psalms 109:6-15 aref rightly, shocking in our ears. But this moral inferiority of the earlier dispensation once granted, no true Christian can afford in a Pharisaical spirit to look down upon these faithful men to whom the light of the gospel had not been granted. Rather should we ask ourselves what is to be learned from denunciations in which Christians are forbidden to indulge. Personal resentment is always unlawful to the man who takes the Sermon on the Mount as his guide; but there is a stern hatred of evil manifest in the Psalms which is only too rare in later and more indulgent days. The Puritan strain in our national character is to some extent a reflexion of the spirit of whole-hearted and indignant righteousness which breathes in the denunciatory Psalms; and, despite the hardness and narrowness too often associated with it, that spirit has proved of the utmost value in its uncompromising protest against prevalent evils in social and national life.
Another fact must be borne in mind, if we would fully understand the reasons for the strong denunciatory element found in the Psalms. To the Jew no clear revelation had been granted of a future life his horizon was, for the most part, limited by the present. The true Israelite did, in a sense, look to the future. He hoped for a numerous posterity as a mark of God’s favour, he anticipated a better state of things for his nation and the world in the coming of the Messiah, and he certainly did not regard death as virtual annihilation. But he had no clear hope of immortality, no vision of a heaven as a state of future blessedness; neither the law nor the prophets warranted any such outlook beyond the grave. It followed that the cause of truth and right must be vindicated here and now, or it oould not, properly speaking, be vindicated at all. This at least was the attitude for the most part taken up by the orthodox Jew, and there was much to be said in its favour. It is easy for religious men of today, living in a land of freedom and amidst all the blessings of peace, and taught to expect a Day of Judgment in the future, when all earth’s wrongs shall be completely redressed, to possess their souls in patience, and wait for the coming of the Day of God and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. But the problems of life pressed much more grievously upon the saint of old time, crushed by brute force, oppressed under a cruel and relentless Oriental despotism, with no earthly hope of redress, and no clear prospect of a better life to come. No wonder if such men prayed with a certain fierce indignation of soul, ’Up, Lord, and let not man have the upper hand; let the heathen be judged in thy sight, that the nations may know themselves to be but men.’ But, it will be asked, had the Jew then no hope of immortality for himself, and is not the 16th Psalm a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, as it is more than once declared to be in the NT.? The subject thus opened up cannot be adequately dealt with in a few sentences, and scholars have differed in their judgment upon it. The view taken by the present writer may be thus briefly expressed. No explicit revelation of a future life was given to the Jew, and no definite expectation of a future state of rewards and punishments entered into his ordinary view of life. But the truly devout Israelite possessed so clear and strong a sense of religion, so firm a hold by faith upon the living God, that he was enabled sometimes to transcend the conditions of his ordinary religious creed and reach a state of joyful personal confidence of a very lofty kind. These moments of insight and foresight were, however, comparatively few; the glimpses thus gained were transient, they belonged to the individual only, and could not furnish a basis for definite dogmatic teaching. Thus Job believed that his Redeemer would at the last appear and vindicate his cause upon the earth, though he had no light upon the time and manner of such manifestation, and the confidence expressed in Job 19:25-27 is the expression of an exalted mood which subsequent chapters prove not to have been permanent.
Similarly it will be found that some passages in the Psalms, such as Psalms 6:5; Psalms 30:9; Psalms 88:10-12 are full of gloomy foreboding concerning the future state. They describe it as a condition of helplessness and forgetfulness, which hardly deserves the name of life at all. There are other passages, however, of which Psalms 16:9-11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 49:15; Psalms 73:24-25 are examples, in which the Psalmist’s assurance of the care and favour of God is such that he appears to triumph not only over the dangers and vicissitudes of the present life, but over the fear of death itself. It is quite true that these hopes are not very clearly expressed, and that some commentators have questioned whether they contain an assured belief in immortality. But St. Peter’s quotation from the 16th Psalm on the day of Pentecost shows that the words suggested a hope of immortality which was fully realised in the Resurrection of Christ. We may well find in the 16th and 73rd Psalms another illustration of the argument which the Lord Jesus Christ drew from the phrase ’The God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; and the Psalmists, who had God for their portion in this life, entertained a trust and confidence in God which at intervals blossomed into incipient hope that He who was not ashamed to be called their God would preserve them in life, in death and for ever.
The Messianic hope has been spoken of, and certain Psalms—2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 72, 110, and others—have been specifically styled Messianic Psalms. But here a distinction must be made. The word Messianic may be used either in the narrower sense of prophecies which contain a distinct reference to a personal Deliverer called the Messiah, or in a wider sense of predictions of great and glorious blessings to be enjoyed by the nation in a brighter and better age to come. Often without any reference to a personal Messiah, prophets and psalmists are found confidently anticipating a Day of God, when He shall appear in righteous judgment and shall manifest His glory among men. A little group of Psalms, of which 96-98 form the nucleus, may be described as Messianic, because they anticipate a theophany, a manifestation of God in the earth. They contemplate a period when in some sense God shall ’come and not keep silence,’ when ’He cometh to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.’ The mode in which this is to be carried out is left indefinite, but the hope is invincible and inextinguishable. In the 2nd and 72nd Paalms a righteous earthly ruler of the house and dynasty of David is celebrated; in Psalms 110 the advent of a Priest-King is heralded, and the author of the Psalm looks to the Anointed One who is to rule in Zion, not as his son, but as his Lord. It would be a mistake, however, to restrict the conception of the Messianic hope to passages in which a personal Messiah is foretold. The 22nd Psalm, for example, is in its earlier portion clearly descriptive of the sufferings of the persecuted but faithful servant of God, and its language is frequently quoted in NT. in reference to Christ. But it contains no reference to the personal triumph of the sufferer, whilst the latter part of the Psalm points unquestionably to a great victory over unrighteousness, which is to be gained after and by means of his patient fidelity. The promise is here repeated which elsewhere is given in noble and more explicit words, ’He shall see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied.’ The subject of the relation of the Psalms to Christ, and the fulfilment in the New Testament of hints and prophecies contained in the Old, is too large to be entered on here. It may suffice, however, to say that one simple key will open many otherwise difficult locks. Christ claimed in Luke 24:44 that many things were written ’in the psalms’ concerning Him. St. Peter, in Acts 2, shows how this saying is to be understood. Words, which were true only in a secondary and imperfect sense of David as the writer of the 16th Psalm, received their complete and perfect illustration in the resurrection from the dead of David’s greater Son. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. The writers of the Psalms, like their brethren who are specifically called prophets, were inspired to write words true, indeed, of themselves and their contemporaries, but perfectly fulfilled only in Him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and Son of God, the hope of the Psalmists and the Saviour of the world.
The Prayer-Book version of the Psalms was taken in 1549 from the English version of the Bible called the ’great Bible,’ which was issued in 1540, and set up to be read in churches. In 1661, when the Prayer Book was revised, other portions of Scripture in the Prayer Book were changed for the AV of 1611. But the Psalter was not altered. People were accustomed to its wording, and it was thought to be more suitable for singing.
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30