Book Overview - Psalms
by Thomas Coke
THE Book of PSALMS.
THE Book of Psalms is in the original intitled תהלים ספר seper tehillim; the Book of Hymns, or Praises: because, though it likewise contains prayers, complaints, histories, and descriptions, yet the principal part is taken up with the praises of God. The Greek, call them Psalms, which word signifies properly compositions set or sung to music. The far greatest part of the Psalms were composed by David, and the rest by several other inspired authors; which were added to those of David, when, according to the Jewish tradition, they were all collected together in one volume by Ezra, after the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, and placed among the canonical books. The Psalms are all written in a poetical style, though, perhaps, it is impossible to tell of what particular kind the poetry of the Hebrews was. The Psalms, however, abound with sublime and figurative expressions, sufficient to denominate them truly poetical. As the style of them is noble, so it is proper to raise the noblest thoughts in the minds of men; on which account this book has been always held in the greatest veneration; insomuch that in the earlier ages, the bishops, presbyters, and all the religious, were expected to have it by heart. Melancthon says of it, that it is the most elegant work extant in the world; and St. Basil tells us, that in it may be found a complete body of divinity. Hence the number of commentaries upon it are almost endless; above six hundred are enumerated, exclusive of those which have been written on the whole body of the Scriptures, and on particular Psalms; and no wonder, when we consider that there is such an useful variety in this book, as may, by an easy accommodation, be made to serve every one of our occasions. The Psalms are fitted to all persons and ages, to all manner of employments, and to all conditions and circumstances of life; but they have still one further excellence, that they contain a variety of striking prophesies concerning Christ and his church. Several learned writers have supposed the whole book to be applicable to Christ and the church; which, if we cannot admit in a primary sense, may certainly be allowed in a great measure in a secondary one: for, though the Psalms speak of David and his transitions, literally understood, yet, as David was a type of Christ, they undoubtedly in the spirit refer to him. The learned Bishop Chandler seems to have set this matter in a clear light: from the last words of David, 2 Samuel 23:1 he infers, that David was a prophet, and delivered his psalms by the Spirit of God; and that in these psalms he spoke concerning the Messiah under his own person. When, therefore, he sings of his sufferings, his enemies, his success, his exaltation, and the like, he means those things not so much of himself as of the Messiah. He takes occasion from events which had befallen himself to foretell some such future things to the Messiah; for, though most of his psalms describe his past actions, yet, at the same time they are mingled with predictions of things to befall him hereafter, which, as to David, were over already, and therefore must be intended for some other, and this other has been ever reputed to be the Messiah. Had not this been the case, the Jewish church would never have made David's Psalms part of their daily worship; nor would David have delivered them to the church to be so employed, had it not been to instruct and support them in the knowledge and belief of the fundamental article, the future completion of the covenant by the Messiah. Were the Messiah not concerned in the Psalms, it were absurd to celebrate twice a-day, in their public devotions, the events of one man's life, who was deceased so long ago as to have no relation now to the Jews and the circumstances of their affairs, or to transcribe whole passages from them into their prayers for the coming of the Messiah. See Bishop Chandler's Defence, vol. 1: p. 195. The limits that we have prescribed to ourselves in these Introductions, render it impossible to give such a satisfactory account of this book as its importance deserves. We shall take occasion, however, in the course of our observations, to speak of such particulars as cannot with propriety be mentioned here; especially the titles, musical instruments, &c. &c. referring our readers, in the mean time, to Calmet's and Bossuet's excellent prefaces, Dr. Hammond, Mr. Allix, and others who have written upon the subject; only observing, that the Hebrew, commonly divide the Psalter into five books; the first of which ends at the 46th, the second at the 79th, the third at the 82nd, the fourth at the 101st, and the fifth at the 150th Psalm. The first four books conclude with the words amen, amen, in the Hebrew; and the fifth with hallelujah. The number of the canonical Psalms are a hundred and fifty; besides which the Syriac, most copies of the LXX, and the Anglo-Saxon version, furnish us with another; the title whereof is, "A Psalm of thanksgiving of David, when he had overcome
Goliah." The version before us is posterior to that in the liturgy, and far more closely translated from the Hebrew; that being principally taken from the LXX. Calmet has prefixed to his Commentary a table of the Psalms, according to the order of time in which he supposes them to have been written.
We shall conclude our observations on the Book of Psalms with some general remarks on the use of the psalms in every condition of life; for which we are principally indebted to the excellent Dissertation prefixed by the learned Bishop Bossuet to his Exposition of this book. St. Athana-sius has observed, that the Psalms are accommodated to all our spiritual wants, principally on three accounts. In the first place, as the other books of scripture treat of one particular subject, the psalms comprehend every thing; history, customs, the law; Christ, his acts, and mysteries, and all parts of the Old and New Testament. Secondly, we may behold in the Psalms a picture of human life, with examples of every turn of good and evil; for David is proposed as a lesson to all: a mean shepherd; a king chosen by God; a conqueror in single combat; a commander in battle; the king's son-in-law, and the ornament of the court: afterwards an exile from his incensed monarch; destitute, and without settlement, either among his countrymen, or strangers. Further, the same David, in possession of the throne, established in a kingdom enlarged by his numerous victories, becomes once more a despised fugitive from the persecution of a favourite son: in every respect an instance of the instability of human things; and, as himself expresses it, a monster unto many. He experienced almost every change of life; the faithless friendship and the bitter enmities of kings; the changeable humour of the populace; the insincerity of friends, and the enmity even of his son: surrounded with danger both abroad and at home, but bearing all with submission to Divine providence, and therefore without despondence and dismay. But why do we mention mere human things! even things divine are liable to vicissitudes, through the inconstancy not of God but of man. Behold, for example, the holy David, falling from integrity and rectitude to guilt, and then repenting of his transgressions; teaching us what regard God always shews to the pure and uncorrupted mind; how dreadful in his anger, but how compassionate and merciful to the returning sinner. By making these things the subjects of our meditation, and accommodating the circumstances of David to our own case, we shall make one proper use of this divine book, and thus advance in true piety. We observe, as a third particular, that all the affections of the mind are to be seen in David; such, I mean, as are suited to every condition: for neither David, nor any other man of true piety, ever affected the absurd and fictitious apathy of the stoics. Hope and fear, joy and grief, are displayed in the liveliest colours throughout this admirable book. But to what end? Doubtless, that through Almighty grace the passions may be purified, and rendered subservient to God: that hope may be drawn from human things, and taught to rely upon him: that fear and grief, under the operations of the Divine Spirit, may, when we are in trouble, subdue our pride, and recal to our memory God the avenger: that joy may be restored to its genuine use, which is, to triumph in the God of our salvation. Such is the excellency of the Psalms, that whereas other books of scripture teach us to love God, to pray to him, to implore his mercy, to bewail our sins, and to repent of them; they furnish us with forms of prayer, of confession and rejoicings; and in every state of received, lost, or recovered grace, teach us such things as are pleasing to God. For instance; hath any one received a blessing? in the Psalms he has a thanksgiving. Hath he any thing to be requested? in the Psalms he has a petition. Hath he any evil to be removed? in the Psalms he has a deprecation. Would he delight his soul in meditations? in the Psalms the scenes of creation and providence are opened in beautiful representations. Would he humble his soul in humiliations? in the Psalms he finds many that are penitential. See Bisse's Beauty of Holiness, p. 45. Instructed in these points, Christian reader, proceed to understand and to sing the Psalms; proceed to sing unto the Lord: and, that you may do this with propriety, be influenced by the inmost sentiments of the Psalmist; weigh well his words, and adapt yourself to them. We must not omit to observe, that the Psalms seem most agreeable, and brightened with the divinest light, when we understand that the head and the members, Christ and his church, are either openly displayed, or covertly pointed out in them; nor need we on this account deviate from the historical, or literal, and immediate sense: nay, the hidden meaning will be so much the more clear and settled, the more certainly we determine on the type; that is, the history and the letter. Let us therefore awaken all our attention; and when we read of David and Solomon, together with the enemies of David, Saul, Ahithophel, and others; when we read of war or peace, captivity, liberty, and other events of that nature; then let us elevate our thoughts to Christ, our great and triumphant sufferer; to his church, exercised among labours and perils, wandering in adversity and prosperity; to the persecutors of the saints, not only viable but invisible; to the continual warfare of this life, and to that eternal kingdom of rest and peace which will succeed it; and whither the forerunner is for us entered, even JESUS, made an high-priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.
the Second Week after Epiphany