O the Hebrew captives on the banks of the rivers of Babylon it seemed a thing impossible that the Songs of Zion should be sung in a strange land. Their notion seemed to be that David’s harp could give forth its melody only among the hills and valleys of Judea. Twenty-five hundred years of history, however, have furnished abundant proof of the mistaken character of such a notion. These years have gone far to show that if that harp was silent by the rivers of Babylon, those are the only rivers whose rippling music has not mingled with its melody. North, south, east, and west these songs have gone until earth has few lands in which they have not been known, and few tongues in which they have not been sung. There are certain plants which will live in some localities and not in others. The tropical flower will not flourish within the Arctic Circle; neither will mountain flora come to its best in low-lying swamp lands. But the Psalms are not plants of this sort. As Herder has beautifully put it, ” These flowers can be carried to every time and every soil, and they bloom in fresh youth.”
I. Let us think first of the part they have played in the struggle for civil and religious liberty. Here in this old Hebrew Psalter we find the battle-hymns which have nerved the hearts of men in some of the grandest struggles this world has known. There is iron in these songs. There is that which fires men’s hearts with a mighty zeal for righteousness. Yonder among the Hebrew hills I see the Moabites and the Ammonites and the Edomites as they have made common cause against Jehoshaphat. The battle is set in array, but the hearts of the men of Judah melt within them. But now from the great martial choir which the king has provided there sounds forth the stirring anthem, ” Praise the Lord, for His mercy endureth forever.” In mighty power the Lord Himself marches forth into the midst of that enemy, scattering them as the winds scatter the leaves in autumn. It is but an illustration of the part these songs of Zion have played in many a similar struggle. I think of how they strengthened the hearts of the followers of the Maccabees in that brave stand of theirs against the tyrants of Syria. At Bethhoron, at Emmaus, at Bethsur, it is the old Jewish battle-song,
But passing now beyond the confines of Judea, I think of the Waldenses of the Alps, and of how in their age-long battle with the Papacy the Psalms were their meat and drink. Few more pathetic pictures in history than that of this broken people, driven from their valleys, seeking refuge, a scant remnant of them in the city of Geneva, and marching now through its streets singing with voices choked with exhaustion and misery, ” O God, why hast Thou cast us off ? ” There is iron in these songs, but there are tears as well.
I think of how they were interwoven into the fabric of the lives of the Huguenots, those sturdy defenders of the faith in France. When they could no longer meet for worship they could sing, and they did sing until all France was singing with them, until on the streets and in the pleasure gardens and in the palace itself could be heard, ” Lord, rebuke me not,” or ” From the depths do I invoke Thee.” And later when the sword was drawn, the Psalms became their war-songs, and out over the battlefields of Coligny and Henry of Navarre there rings forth that mighty note of confidence:
I think of how in 1683, when the Moslem power was knocking at the gates of Europe, John Sobieski, King of Poland, with his followers marched down from the heights of Kalenburg thundering forth the words of the One Hundred and Fifteenth Psalm,
I think, too, of how large a place these songs of the ages had in that brave struggle made by our fathers yonder among the heather-covered hills of Scotland. I see those old faith heroes at Marston Moor standing side by side with Cromwell’s Ironsides, making that battle-ground to resound with the Songs of Zion. I see them at Rullion Green, nine hundred of those farmer folk attacked by Dalzell with his troopers three thousand strong. Hopelessly overmatched, they make a gallant fight until, as the dusk of evening settles about them, they are finally dispersed. And now through the gloom we hear their chant of despair
I see them at Drumclog. Claverhouse with a company of his troopers has sought to surprise a field conventicle. But those old Covenanters are not to be trapped, and they move forth with their crude weapons to meet him and defeat him, under the inspiration of the Seventy-Sixth Psalm
Thus in that age-long struggle toward the civil and religious liberty we now enjoy, this old Psalter has been much in evidence. It has indeed been the meat and the drink of Waldensian and Huguenot and Lollard and Puritan and Covenanter. Do we admire the ruggedness, the sturdiness, of these old rock men? Must we not attribute it in great measure to the food upon which they fed? You remember how old Dr. Samuel Johnson hated a Scotchman. Thinking to show his contempt, he one time made to one of the canny race the remark, ” In England we feed oats to horses, in Scotland you feed oats to men.” ” Yes,” replied the Scot, ” and England is noted for its great horses, and Scotland for its great men.” He saw the connection between oats and strength, whether that strength was in man or horse. And so, between this finest of Hebrew wheat upon which they fed and the moral bone and muscle of the men of Pradel-Tor and Geneva and Leyden and Drumclog we cannot but see, we cannot but conclude, that there must be some connection.
II. In the second place let us think of the part these songs have played in the spiritual movements of the Church. You remember that during a great revival in Judah ” Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praises unto the Lord with the words of David and Asaph the seer.” In how many of the Church’s periods of revival these same Hebrew lyrics have proved themselves potent. I think of that mightiest of revival times-those Pentecostal days when the Apostles were stirring all that Eastern world as it had never been stirred before. It is these Songs of the Ages that echo and reecho far and near. The Saviour Himself sings them as with His disciples He crosses over the brook Kedron to the Garden on Olivet. The three thousand converted under Peter’s teaching sing them as they continue ” daily with one accord in the Temple.” Paul and Silas sing them in the dungeon of Philippi. Inseparably connected with all the scenes of that wonderful revival time are these songs of ” David and Asaph the seer.”
We pass down through the centuries that constitute the Dark Ages. David’s harp is not altogether silent even here. We hear it behind monastery walls, where pious souls are seeking to find the best expression of their devotional feelings. We hear it as giving forth its martial strains it stirs the blood of the Crusaders. We hear it as it breathes forth its plaintive notes through the flames that enwrap the martyr forms of a Huss, a Jerome of Prague, a Savonarola.
But now with the coming of the Reformation of the sixteenth century that harp awakes. It gives forth its melody again as in Apostolic days. Luther, writing to Spalatin, says: ” We intend after the example of the prophets and primitive Fathers to turn the Psalms into the vulgar tongue for the common people, so that the Word of God may remain among the people even in singing.” One has well said of this great reformer, ” He clung to his old and ragged Psalter as a tried and trusty friend.” But marked as was the influence of the ” old and ragged ” Psalter upon the Lutheran reformation in Germany, it was even more marked in the Swiss and French reformations, where Zwingli and Calvin were the moving spirits. Here the Psalms were made almost the sole matter of praise. In the version of Marot they were sung throughout France as no other songs were ever sung. The Netherlands caught up the strain, and, as one has put it, ” The infectious frenzy of Psalm-singing . . . soon extended itself to Great Britain.” Scotland, too, welcomed these Hebrew melodies in that time of widespread revival. She did not welcome them with the same volatile enthusiasm as did the French. That would not have been Scottish. She welcomed them as a matter of conviction; she welcomed them as God’s songs, and because she believed it was right to sing them; and thus she clung to them long after they had ceased to echo among the vineyards of France.
Nor are these Psalms without their place in the Wesleyan revival that early in the eighteenth century swept across England, arousing the Church from the slumber of formalism. Indeed, we are told, it was the chanting of the One Hundred and Thirtieth Psalm in St. Paul’s Cathedral that fired the heart of John Wesley with a zeal that could not be quenched, and throughout his life the songs of the Hebrew Psalmist were often upon his lips, as well as upon the lips of his brother Charles.
Nor were these same songs without a distinct influence upon the great missionary revival of a century later. For Protestant England the history of missions to the heathen begins with John Eliot, the son of a Hertfordshire yeoman. By means of his metrical version of David’s Psalms in their own dialect he sang his way into the hearts of the red men of the New England forests. From Eliot and Brainerd William Carey traced his spiritual lineage; from them Henry Martyn caught his inspiration and David Livingstone drank in long draughts of his spiritual enthusiasm.
In that spiritual movement which brought Scotland a time of quickening some sixty years ago, we find the power of the Psalter again manifesting itself. On May 18, 1843, four hundred ministers for conscience’ sake march forth from the General Assembly of the Established Church. Down to old Tanfield Hall they go, voluntarily giving up the living the State has provided them. Old Dr. Chalmers takes his place as moderator. The sky without is overcast. A heavy thunder-cloud darkens the building. He announces the Forty-Third Psalm. It thunders forth, expressing the feelings of every heart
Suddenly the cloud in the natural heavens parts and the sunshine comes streaming in. And so that day the cloud of Scotland’s spiritual darkening parted, and a mighty revival touched that historic land with a new glory. It is indeed a large place these Psalms have had in the mighty spiritual movements that for three thousand years have been lifting the world nearer to its God.
III. Again, let us think of the part these songs have played through the ages in the devotional life of the individual. Coleridge said of the Bible, ” I believe it because it finds me.” And so these songs first voiced among the Judean hills continue to live because they find the human heart. They find it, too, at its depths, down underneath all racial differences and all artificial barriers and distinctions. Here men at variance in all else have found a common ground. Here heroes of the Reformation like Luther and Melanchthon have stood side by side with imperial champions of the Papacy like Charles V., and Columbus, and Sir Thomas More, and St. Teresa, and Francis Xavier.
But not only have they found the human heart, but such are their range and variety that they find it in all its moods and experiences. Here the joyful heart, whether on the pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, or among the vineyards of France, or amid the forests of a new world, has found its fittest expression of thanksgiving and praise. Here the discouraged heart has found its strength. ” Come, Philip, let us sing the Forty-Sixth Psalm,” Luther used to say in his moments of depression; and just so many a heart has found its courage coming back as it has poured itself forth to God in these immortal utterances. Here, too, the heart bowed down has found its comfort and its solace. How often these songs have revealed their beauty and yielded their fragrance only to the broken in heart! The banner which hangs in idle folds around the flagstaff in the sultry stillness of the summer noon is fully unfurled so that we can read the inscription upon it only when the rudeness of the storm strikes it. And so it is only the heart in the storm that sees the real meaning of many of these Psalms. Writing from out the terror of the awful Indian mutiny, Dr. Duff says: ” Never before did I realize as now the literality and sweetness of the Psalmist’s assurance, ` I laid me down and slept; I waked, for the Lord sustained me.”‘ Mrs. John G. Paton, writing from her plight of danger among the savages of the New Hebrides, says: ” I used to think that many of the expressions in the Psalms were but bits of Oriental imagery, but since coming here I have felt them to be literally true.” Those words of the One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth Psalm,
never seemed so beautiful to wayward Flora Campbell as they did when sung by the cracked voices of old Archie Moncur and his sister that night when, penitent and broken-hearted, she was making her way back through the shadows to her father’s house. The words of his mother’s Psalm long hung in idle folds about the flagstaff in the memory of Weelum McClure, but in the hour of death, when the storm burst upon him, that banner unfurled and he read its inscription and knew its meaning
And so these Hebrew melodies that have stirred to action on a thousand battlefields, and have proved the stimulating power in the greatest religious movements of the world, have proved the comfort and the solace of the individual heart in all ages and all climes.
The Fathers of the Early Church, like Origen, and Jerome, and Ambrose, and Augustine, loved them; through the Dark Ages the monk in his monastery cell as he gave himself unceasingly to their chanting was comforted by them; martyr after martyr as they went to the flames or the rack leaned upon them. They have been the home-songs of countless multitudes whose names history does not record; they have been the heart-songs of humanity. They have lived longer than any other songs; they have broken through the limitations of age and race and creed to a greater degree than any other songs. They have been sung in more languages than any other songs; they have comforted more saints amid the fires of persecution than any other songs; they have interwoven themselves into more characters than any- other songs; they have formed the dying utterances of more of God’s people than any other songs. As we join our voices in the singing of them to-day we are indeed joining our voices with a great multitude such as no man can number-a multitude of the most godly and the most heroic souls this world has ever known.