THE PSALMS IN HISTORY
BY THE REV. GEORGE W. ROBINSON, D. D., ALLEGHENY, PA. Part 1
Fondly as we may treasure the inspired Psalter as “the great storehouse of sacred poetry,” deeply as we may reverence it as the recorded experiences of human souls touched by the Spirit of God, yet, as a satisfactory demonstration of its inherent worth and its perfect adaptability to meet the needs of any and every age, there is no argument at all comparable to the argument from history. By its very nature, the appeal of the literary, or ethical, argument is largely academic; while the historic argument makes its appeal to the common consciousness of men, and so will ever prove the more widely persuasive. What the Psalms are has been, and is still, a matter of more or less earnest controversy. What they have done-concerning this there is practically no division of sentiment. A book that for three thousand years has held so continuous and conspicuous a place in the public worship of the Church and in the private life of God’s people has easily won for itself, by the token of its own preeminence, an unchallenged place among earth’s immortal things. There is in it, as Tholuck so felicitously puts it, ” a germ for eternity.”
By no means the least impressive consideration in connection with their history is the great antiquity of these ” Songs of the Ages.” When much that we now deem gray with age was young these Psalms were already old. Moses made his single contribution to the Psalter with that peerless ode in which he sings of the Lord as His people’s ” dwelling-place in all generations “; and then we wait five hundred years for Homer to pen his Iliad and herald the fame of Troy and the captive Helen. When Virgil followed with his pen the wanderings of the young Aeneas, and sang of his toil and struggle, the harp of David had been silent for more than a thousand years. Seven centuries had slipped away into the past after these Sacred Lyrics first began to win and rule the empire of men’s hearts before Alexander set forth in quest of world-wide empire. Three hundred years before Rome began to rise from the Palatine Hill, from the summit of Mount Moriah Solomon’s marble Temple lifted itself toward the blue, and through its courts and chambers there echoed and reechoed the strains of these holy Songs. Fifteen hundred years of prophecy added to two thousand years of Christ-what a sweep of history, years running into centuries, it is! These centuries have looked down upon ” the splendor that was Macedon, the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome,” and each, in its time, waken, wax, and wane; but through all their protracted vigil they have beheld not even a brief hiatus when the voice of the Psalms was still.
The early history of the only Mosaic contribution to the Psalter is enveloped in the mists and fog that darken our vision of everything belonging to that far-distant era. Of the use that Israel first made of it, as it came warm from the heart of the great Lawgiver, none may tell with any positive certainty. In the absence of all historical details it seems a quite reasonable conjecture at least that this Psalm of Moses provided a medium of praise and a form of prayer for the people of Israel during both their formative and constructive periods as a nation, and that with its words, rather than with their own, they came before Him to utter the joy of deliverance at the Red Sea, the rapture of realized hope as they crossed the Jordan, the gladness of triumph as the walls of Jericho fell, and the varying moods and tenses of their after experience in Canaan.
During Israel’s golden age under Solomon the story of David’s Psalms begins to appear somewhat in authentic history. As the Seer-King wrought the treasures of gold, silver, and granite, which David collected, into the material structure of the Temple Beautiful, so he early made the songs, which David sang, a part of its spiritual worship. Chanted by the Levitical choirs at the morning and evening worship, these lyrics were quickly caught up by the worshipers, and repeated, either in speech or chant, in the less formal worship of the home. Held thus in memory, and handed down from father to son, they soon became the familiar folk-song of the Jewish people. As sung at stated intervals by the night-watch of the Temple, they told off for the dwellers in Zion the passing hours of the night. The pilgrim bands, on their annual marches Zionward, rested their weariness and shortened their way by ” speaking to one another in these Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs of David, singing and making melody in their hearts unto the Lord,” and through them gave expression to their great joy and gratitude on first sighting the Holy City. In the celebration of all the great national feasts the singing of the Psalms was a prominent feature. These were the praise-songs of Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and all the prophets. With them Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah inaugurated and prosecuted their reforms and celebrated their victories. They lent comfort and hope to the weary exiles in Babylon; and returning, these exiles plucked their harps from the willows, where untouched they had hung for seventy years, and on the long, strange journey homeward made glad their hearts and sustained their hopes with the music of David’s songs. The Psalms voiced the thanksgiving of the people when the foundation of the second Temple was laid, and again, when the cap-stone was placed, with the cry, ” Grace, Grace to it! ” On the resumption of the Temple worship they were restored to their former place in the liturgy. In the brave struggle of the Maccabees for national independence the Psalms gave strength and courage to the leaders and the led alike.
And what more shall I say? These Jews were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people.” All this was by the divine election, and as a further token of it God gave them these uncommon Psalms. Accepting both the election and the token, they found in these Psalms their church songs, their home-songs, their battle-songs, their pilgrim-songs. Nay more, through these God-given songs they told themselves to their Maker, not only in the ordinary acts of home and Temple worship, but in all their great crisis-hours, when they were meeting Him, as it were, face to face. Of such intimacy with, and practice of, the Psalms, there could be but one result: the Psalter not only laid mighty hold ‘upon the individual life, commanding affection, molding character, fostering faith, but, through the individual to the community, and through the community to the race, it wrought itself into the very fabric of Jewish history, from the days of David to the time of Christ.
As it was with the Jewish Church, not otherwise was it with the Early Christian Church; the same close identity of the Psalter with the people’s life and practice was carried over from the one to the other. In this regard, Christ, the divine ‘founder of the Christian Church, came not to destroy, but to fulfil and enlarge. He Himself made much of the Psalms. Taught Him in the home, sung by Him in Temple and synagogue, cherished by Him for their richly historic suggestiveness, and acknowledged by Him to be the Word of God, He quoted more largely from them than from any other source. Although Himself the son of David, yet from David’s own words in a Psalm He drew His argument to show His own preeminence over His royal sire. As His last act of public worship, just before taking up the solemn march to Gethsemane, He joined with His disciples in singing a part of the old Hebrew Hallel. On the cross He uttered the agony of His heart’s desolation in the words of a Psalm, and in the words of another committed His spirit into the hands of the Father. After His Resurrection He explained to His disciples all things that were written in the Psalms concerning Himself.
As indicating the practice of all the Apostles, we read that Paul bade the Christians at Ephesus and Colossae to ” speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” James commended the Bible Psalms to those to whom he wrote as the most fitting vehicle through which to give expression to their spiritual joy: ” Is any merry, let him sing Psalms.” When the Apostles went forth, in obedience to the Great Commission, to preach Christ to the world, with their new Gospel they took the old Songs, and these old Hebrew Psalms thus became the first great missionary hymns of the Christian cause. Now, from this uniform practice and teaching of Christ and His Apostles we may infer with a large degree of confidence what was the general practice of the Apostolic Church itself with reference to the Psalms; for the practice of the Church would follow very closely that of those who founded it and by whom it was first administered. When it is considered that the Apostolic Church was composed almost exclusively of Jews become Christians, of those who still cherished their Jewish traditions and their attachment to Jewish customs and practice, who loved and reverenced the Psalter as the historic book of praise of their people, and who were personally devoted to it through its former use in their public and private worship; when it is still further considered that these early impressions, associations, and uses were wholly in accord with the practice and directions of both Christ and the Apostles, in the absence of all other provision for their praise-worship the inference becomes so strong as to amount to a positive certainty that the practice of the Church of the Apostles with reference to the Psalter was identical with that of the Jewish Church which immediately preceded it.
As Christianity spread itself over the world, during the early centuries of the Christian era, the Psalms were everywhere identified with the movement, and they sprang more, and still more, into popular favor and employ. So marked was this growth in the use of the Psalms that by the beginning of the fourth century, if not before, it had become well-nigh universal throughout the whole of Christendom. Wherever the Psalms came to be known at all, they were sung at all times; not only in Christian assemblies, but by the people generally; not only as acts of worship, but as men labored at their tasks, in hours of pleasant recreation, and on festal and funeral occasions alike. Describing the practice of the Christians of their day, Tertullian, in the second century, and Jerome, in the fourth, both testify that ” reading the Scriptures and singing the Psalms ” were essential features of their religious worship. Referring to the Psalms in the daily life of the people, Jerome also writes, ” The Psalms were continually to be heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held his plow, chanted the Hallelujah; and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd sang something from the Psalms of David. Where the meadows were colored with flowers, and the singing birds made their plaints, the Psalms sounded even more sweetly.” ” These Psalms,” he adds, ” are our love-songs, these the instruments of our agriculture.” Sidonius Apollinaris represents ” boatmen, while they worked their heavy barges up the waters of ancient France, as singing Psalms till the banks echoed with `Hallelujah.”‘ ” In the Church’s vigils,” says Chrysostom, writing from Constantinople, ” the first, the midst, the last, are David’s Psalms. In the morning David’s Psalms are sought for; and David is the first, the midst, and the last of the day. At funeral solemnities, the first, the midst, and the last is David. Many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart. In all the private houses, where women toil-in the monasteries-in the deserts, where men converse with God, the first, the midst, and the last is David.” The early Church Fathers delighted in the Psalms; all used them in their praise-worship; while all the more eminent of them, with scarcely an exception, gave their best thought and labor to the critical exposition of their truth. -.Now all this means, if it means anything, that the Psalms of the Bible entrenched themselves more securely in the mind and heart and practice of the primitive Christian . Church than in that of the older Jewish Church which received them first-hand from their makers.
With the dawn of the fifth century begins that period known in history as the Dark Ages, with the fifteenth century marking its extremist limit. It would be grateful to our pride of race could the veil of oblivion be thrown over the record of both the Church and the world during these ten dark and disastrous centuries. Christianity lost its pristine zeal and purity, and fell into a condition of pitiable weakness and decay. The Church became utterly corrupt, and her glory departed; the ” mother of religion ” became the symbol of all faithlessness to her Lord and falseness to her child. The whole world limped heavily by reason of moral and spiritual disability. The Bible was wrested from the hands of the common people, and, without heaven’s guidance, they were left to wander the long night through as best they might. Pure religion was practiced, even formally, only by a comparative few. Public morality in time practically disappeared. Vital faith seemed to move to the death-hour. Truth again was on the scaffold; error was mighty on the throne.
Owing to such prevailing conditions, the story of medieval Psalmody is more closely identified with the monasteries than with either the Church or the home. During the fourth and fifth centuries these monastic institutions spread with incredible rapidity over the whole of Christendom, from Egypt and Syria on the East to Britain and Gaul in the West. To these retreats many of the more devout fled for refuge from the insidious wickedness, conflict, and oppression of the world. In these monastic communities the monks applied themselves to the Psalms with an ardor of devotion that, not infrequently, approached the verge of superstition, if not actual idolatry. The Psalter was not merely their practice; it was their passion; not only their study, but their song. In it they found both breviary and viaticum. To commit the Psalms to memory was the initial requirement of the novice, while from their sayings were compiled the rules and regulations that governed his after monastic life. Of the devotions of the monks, to quote Chrysostom again, ” the first, the midst, and the last were David’s Psalms.” The monastic duties, holy and homely, from the making of bread to the setting out of the relics, were performed to a Psalm, spoken or sung. With the words of a Psalm they greeted friends by the way, or welcomed them to their dwellings. In the copying of manuscripts of the Psalms and the illuminating of their text they found the most precious pastime of their cloister hours. Their churches and abbeys, we are told, were built ” as shrines for the Psalter,” and the very sites, for this reason, were consecrated as holy ground. Now this monastic practice of the Psalter, without doubt, was followed to the extremist limit of excess, but it is not a less indubitable fact that, breathing such a Psalm-laden atmosphere, many of the choicest spirits of Christendom, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, and others of that ilk, names to be held in everlasting remembrance by the Church, grew great of soul and mighty for the truth. It was men with the Psalms thus wrought into the very fiber of their being, and in the strength which this gave, who went forth and took Europe in the name of Christ and His cross. It was minds thus saturated with the Psalms which have enriched the devotional literature of the world with such treasures as ” The Confessions,” ” The Imitation of Christ,” ” The Divine Comedy,” and ” The Vision of Piers Plowman.” In the realm of song the ” Stabat Mater ” and the ” Dies Irae ” were the creations of genius similarly influenced.
Nor is it to be thought that the use of the Psalter was wholly restricted to the monasteries during this period. Although greatly corrupted, it was still employed by an errant Church in its ritual service and in the ceremonies connected with marriage and burial, the dedication of churches, devotions for the dead, and the canonization of saints; in short, in the exercise of all its ecclesiastical functions. With the words of David’s Psalms the Waldenses and Albigenses sounded their praises through the fastnesses of the Piedmontese Alps in Italy and over the fair champaigns of southern France. They fortified the faith, comforted the sorrows, and brightened the hopes of those whose religious life had escaped the prevailing decay of the times. In the quest of the Holy Sepulcher they helped to kindle enthusiasm for the Crusade and inspired its followers to all manner of heroism.
I have lingered at some length just here, for in all the history of the Psalter there is nothing more strikingly significant than its unique record in medieval times. In an age when the true gospel was virtually unpreached, and the Bible was practically unread, and pure religion was largely unknown, even then the Psalms were not unsung, but, on the contrary, enjoyed a vogue which, in passionate devotion at least, has never been excelled, before or since. When almost all other portions of the Holy Scriptures were inoperative upon the masses, shut up as they were in the cloisters, or jealously guarded by a corrupt priesthood, the Psalms continued to cast their spell upon the minds and hearts of men. While the reign of many of the holy things of God was, at this time, temporarily interrupted, the historical continuity in the use of the Psalms suffered no slightest fracture.
Musicians tell us that what they technically call the motif-the characteristic passage or movement-of an elaborate musical composition is frequently woven into, and thus anticipated in, the prelude. In like manner, the important part the Psalms played in the Reformation of the sixteenth century was foreshadowed in the great influence they exerted upon the lives of the forerunners, as well as of the actual leaders, in that epoch-making movement. To John Wyclif belongs the honor of sounding the first clear, unmistakable challenge to a corrupt Church, with his charge of ” Anti-Christ ” and plea for separation. As he lay dying at Lutterworth, so the story runs, ” the Friars crowded around him, urging him to confess the wrongs he had done to their Order. But the indomitable old man caused his servant to raise him from the pillow, and, gathering all his remaining strength, exclaimed with a loud voice, ` I shall not die, but live, and declare-the evil deeds of the Friars.”‘ (Psalm cxviii.)
Taking up the challenge, John Huss confronted the Council of Constance with it, and then hurried away to the stake, where he died, choked by the flames, but repeating with his last breath the Thirty-First Psalm, ” Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” His friend, Jerome of Prague, traveled the same fiery way ” a heavenly crown to win “; and won it with his comrade’s dying words upon his lips. On the night before his death, Savonarola, in exquisite torture, his left arm broken and his shoulder wrenched from its socket by his cruel inquisitors, found peace for sleep and a fearless strength for ” the trial by fire ” on the morrow in David’s cheering words, ” The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” ” Come, Philip,” said Luther to Melanchthon, in one of the dark hours of the mighty struggle, ” let us sing the Forty-Sixth Psalm,” Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott; and with the iron strength of that Psalm in his blood and brain ” the solitary monk shook the world,” and even great Rome trembled.
In the Psalms all these ” mighty contenders for the faith ” found an unfailing refuge for their spirits, the constant compassionater of their sufferings, and an ever-ready champion of their cause. However men like Wyclif, Luther, Erasmus, and Calvin might differ in doctrinal tenet, however bitterly, at times, the battle of controversy might rage between them, ” in the green pastures ” and ” beside the still waters ” bitterness was forgotten, strife was hushed, and, in a common love for David, they met as brothers, hand to hand, thought to thought, heart to heart. So, too, in accounting for the progress of the Reformation and the rapid spread of the Reformed doctrines, much credit must be given to the agency of the Psalter. Previous to the fifteenth century there were no books, and he was deemed fortunate above others who chanced to possess a manuscript of any kind. The direct consequence of this was that those who had any knowledge of the Psalter whatever must have acquired this knowledge through hearing it read or sung, and upon the memory they were compelled to depend for whatever use they might make of it. But the coming of the printing press, about the middle of the fifteenth century, put the versified Psalter, expurgated of Romish error, and in their own vernacular, into the hands of the common people, and thus gave it a new and larger lease of life and influence. With the Psalter in the keeping of the people themselves, where they could read and sing it for themselves, a very striking revival in its practice became immediately apparent. A veritable tidal-wave of Psalm-singing began to sweep over the Christian world. In France, which may be taken as representative of other continental countries, the versifications of Marot and Beza created a perfect frenzy of Psalm-singing throughout the entire realm. It became a popular rage. Never did the expulsive force of a new affection find apter illustration than in the resistless manner with which the Psalms supplanted the questionable ballads and songs of the day. This passion for David confined itself to no particular class or community; but the traders in towns and cities, the boatmen on the rivers, and the vinedressers and laborers in the fields were all alike infected with the universal contagion. It leaped the barriers of class distinction, and, defying the conventions that separate royalty from the rabble, caught the fancy of king and courtier, of queen and lady-in-waiting. Many of the Catholic clergy joined the ranks of the enthusiasts, while the Catholic masses might be seen everywhere ” with a Psalm-book in their hands.” In the homes of the Protestants grace at meals was offered by singing a Psalm; such singing by the entire family was a regular part of the morning and evening worship, and became ” one of the chief ingredients in the happiness of social life.” Thus, in France, during the Reformation era, was repeated, with accentuation, the history of the Psalms in the days of Jerome and Chrysostom.
With scarcely less enthusiasm the Psalter in verse was received and employed in the Netherlands, in Switzerland and Germany, in the Slavonic provinces and the Scandinavian kingdoms of the North.
In England the Psalter, left as a legacy to the English people by Augustine on his visit to the island in the sixth century, in its printed form gained a new hold upon the people’s affections and a larger use upon their tongues. ” The infectious frenzy ,of Psalm-singing,” quoting the language of Warton, ” did not confine itself to France, Germany, and the other countries of the continent.
It soon extended itself to Great Britain. The Reformation being then in its incipiency, and at a time when the minds of men were ready for a change, Psalm-singing in its history became parallel to that among the Reformers across the Channel.” Under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth the Psalms were welcomed into the churches and cathedrals of the Established Church, and, spreading rapidly through the parishes, grew so powerfully in popular favor that great multitudes were attracted to the churches, merely to hear, or join in, the singing. Burney in his History o f Music says, ” In England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, like orgies the Psalms were roared aloud in almost every street, as well as in the churches throughout the kingdom.”
To the history of the Psalms in Scotland, a country which has no history of which the Psalms are not a part, having been employed from the earliest times down to the present moment, a new chapter was added in Reformation times. In this new chapter we find no trace of the frenzy for Psalm-singing which so stirred the people of England and the Continent. Scottish devotion does not express itself in ebullitions of enthusiasm. But as, through good and evil report, they stood staunchly by the vital doctrines of the Reformation, so they cordially accepted the Reformation principle of praise, the Psalms of the Bible, and gave to them a loyal adherence that has known no failure from that day to this. Centuries after the enthusiasm for the Psalms had kindled, blazed, and spent itself in France, Switzerland, and Germany, the Scotch were still found faithful in their devotion to David.
When the shadow of persecution lengthened over them, and they could no longer sing them in their homes and churches, lest they thus invite the swift vengeance of the persecutor, repairing to the forest’s depths, or the mountain fastness, or the dens and caverns of the earth, they sent the holy Songs back to God, whence they came, borne on the notes of “the wailing Bangor,” or of ” the plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name.”
Now this prevalent use of the Psalms in Reformation times, and in all the countries where the Reformed Church ultimately took root and flourished, is in itself a very significant fact. The point, however, which I wish to emphasize is this, that by reason of its general employment by the people the Psalter became a powerful ally of the Reformation and an elect agent in the spread of its principles. These Psalms, called by Luther ” Psalmi Paulini,” because they were so full of Pauline doctrine, universally sung as they were by all classes, preached the great essential truths of the Bible, which were also the Reformation truths, more rapidly, more widely, and more effectively than would have been possible by a great army of Reformation apostles. They crept into the highways and byways of the people, stole into kingly courts and royal chambers, and thus touched with their illuminating truths those of high and low degree who would have been wholly inaccessible to preacher or evangelist. The Song made ready the highway for the doctrine. So when Calvinism swept from Geneva and began to make its way in France, in the Netherlands, in England and Scotland, and Lutheranism in like manner began to spread over Germany and the countries to the north, both traveled over this song-made highway into the hearts and consciences of men. Through familiarity with the Psalms unexpected multitudes were found already infected, or so favorably disposed that the truth gained easy entry to the citadel of their minds. ” To the extent to which the sacred Psalter spread throughout Europe, to that extent the Reformation prospered.”
The singing of Psalms continued to be the general practice of the Reformed Churches until well on into the eighteenth century, when the hymns began to be introduced, and, in time, practically superseded them in most of these Churches. Although many Churches holding the Westminster Standards have departed from the general use of the Psalter in their praise, the Assembly knew nothing else, and made provision for nothing else.
The heroic odes of the Psalter have furnished the thrilling battle-songs for the armies of the Lord in all the great struggles for civil and religious liberty throughout history. It must be admitted that the Psalms are not altogether smooth reading for those who press the principle, ” peace at any price.” They came from God, and so reflect God’s thought, ” righteousness first, then peace.” War is an evil, and so is the plague; but either may be commissioned by God as His agent in the interest of righteousness. The Psalms are God’s songs for a Church militant as yet, in the very thick of the conflict “‘twixt truth and falsehood, and the good and evil side.” Consequently, here and there through them we discover the devotional and ethical giving way to the martial note, and the ear catches the call to arms, the tramp of marching armies, the noise of battle, the shout of the conqueror, and the despairing wail of the conquered. Quite fittingly, therefore, these Psalms have been treasured in the heart and written upon the banners and sounded upon the lips of God’s militant host, whose age-long cry has been, ” Give me liberty, or give me death.”
When their national independence trembled in the balance at Emmaus, Judas Maccabeus and his band of six thousand young warriors, ” singing Psalms with a loud voice,” fell upon Gorgias, Governor of Idumea, and his army of forty-seven thousand hardened veterans, and scattered the enemy as the withered leaves of autumn.
During the seventeenth century the followers of the False Prophet swept across the Hellespont, and with lust of blood and fiery sword were laying waste eastern Europe. ” To the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty,” came Sobieski, afterward King John III. of Poland, met the fanatic host at Khotin, turned them back into the sea, lifted high the Cross above the Crescent, and thus forever put an end to the dream of Mohammedan conquest in Europe. When the victory was complete these soldiers of the Lord of Hosts gave tongue to their rejoicing in the words of the One Hundred and Fifteenth Psalm
“Not unto us, Lord, not to us, But do Thou glory take To Thy own name, ev’n for Thy truth, And for Thy mercy’s sake.”
With a burst of enthusiasm truly indescribable, the great army took up the final words
O wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God now gone? But our God in the heaven is, What pleased Him He bath done.”
In the religious wars of France the Psalms became the Huguenot’s ” Marseillaise.” They sounded as the war-cry above all the battlefields of Coligny and Henry of Navarre. Before the battle of Courtras, falling upon their knees, the Huguenots chanted the One Hundred and Eighteenth Psalm
“This day God made; with cheerful voice In it we’ll triumph and rejoice. Save now, O Lord, we plead with Thee; Lord, send us now prosperity.”
Pointing to the kneeling host, a certain young gallant said to the commander of the Catholic forces, ” See, the cowards are afraid; they are confessing themselves.” To which a scarred veteran made answer, ” Sire, when the Huguenots behave like that, they are getting ready to fight to the death.” And as if to make good the veteran’s declaration, leaping from their knees, with Henry at their head, they swept on to decisive victory.
The Psalms were ever on the lips of Cromwell and his invincible Ironsides in the Puritan struggle for liberty. They sang them as they marched; and as they marched, they conquered. During the night before the battle of Dunbar rain and sleet fell incessantly upon the unprotected Puritan host. Drenched with the rain, stiffened by the cold, faint from hunger, as the darkness melted into dawn they crept through the cornfields where they had bivouacked, and when at last the rising sun burst over St. Abb’s head, with the shout upon their lips, ” Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” they leaped to the attack, and the enemy, taken by surprise, were thrown into confusion and a precipitate flight that became a complete rout. After a pursuit and punishment lasting eight hours, a halt was made, only long enough, however, to allow the Puritans to sing the shortest of all the Psalms, the One Hundred and Seventeenth, when the pursuit was resumed with fresh vigor. And time would fail me to tell of Louis the Ninth on his pilgrimages; and of Gustavus Adolphus in The Thirty Years’ War; of the Waldenses also, and the Albigenses, and the Cevenols, and the Lollards ; of the Covenanters, too, and the Pilgrim Fathers in the New World, who, in the Psalms, with their ” uncommon pith and gnarled vigor of sentiment,” found the tonic strength with which they defied popes, bearded kings, unthroned tyrants, and, waxing valiant in war, ” turned to flight the armies of the aliens,” that the great world might be free.
So, too, the Psalms have ever been the martyr-songs of God’s sacrificial host. ” When the iron was in men’s souls, and they needed it in their blood, they sang the Psalms.” From the amphitheaters of Rome, from the torture chambers of the Inquisition, from the Smithfields of London, from the fires of St. Andrews, from the dungeons of the Low Countries, from the guillotines of France, these heart-songs of David, burdened with the agonies that tried men’s souls to the breaking-point, have risen to Him Who, ” back in the dim unknown, standeth ever within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.” All along the martyr’s via doloroso they have uttered his tearful Miserere, long, terrible, tragic, but breaking at last into the glad, triumphant Te Deum Laudamus.
The Psalms in America are a part of the national heritage, since they were so closely identified with its early history, wrought so mightily into the lives of those who made it, and have entered so largely into the religious experience and practice of the people from the first day to this. In the hour when the Pilgrim Fathers were about to sail from Leyden, not in quest of the Golden Fleece, not in search of the fabled wealth, but to find a haven of liberty and lay the foundations of a mighty nation, kneeling on the sands of Delft Haven, after prayer by the minister commending them to the God of the winds and the waves, they all joined in singing Luther’s favorite Psalm, the Forty-Sixth,
“God will our strength and refuge prove, In all distress a present aid; Though waters roar and troubled be, We will not fear or be dismayed,”
and then sailed away in the Speedwell. To the strains of a similar Psalm the Mayflower spread her sails for her perilous journey across the seas. Arriving at the shores of the New World on the Sabbath, a day holy to the Lord among these Puritans, they spent the day aboard the ship in the customary acts of religious worship, a part of which was the singing of the Psalms. Thus the first sacred song that ever went echoing along that ” rockbound coast,” or broke the stillness of the slumbering forests, was one of the old Hebrew Psalms with which David, twenty-five centuries before, was accustomed to waken the echoes amid the hills and valleys of Judea. On the morrow, as those men stood, ax in hand, confronting the savage growths of a new continent and the unknown dangers from still more savage men and beasts, to the singing of a Psalm there was laid the foundation stone of the great Republic forever dedicated to ” the service of civil liberty and the religion of the Protestant Church.” What men they were, those pioneers of American history! If it were asked, “What have the Psalms done?” I would answer, for one thing they have made men-men of heroic mold, of lofty faith, of fearless soul, who bowed the knee to none save God, and loved their liberty more than they loved their lives. Of them it might be said, as Lelievre, the Frenchman, writes of the Huguenots-for the character of Puritan and Huguenot was of the same fine moral fiber: “The effect of the Psalms on the character of the Huguenots was wonderful. They nourished the moral life of a race of men such as the world will perhaps never see again.” Yes, the world would be infinitely poorer without these Puritans, worshipers of God, haters of unrighteousness, singers of Psalms, great nation-builders.
If the harp of David presided at the laying of the foundation stone of the nation, not less were its notes distinctly heard when the ” coping-stone of American independence ” was securely placed. The Constitutional Convention, which met at Philadelphia in 1778, during its early sessions was rife with dissensions; mutual distrust and jealousy seriously retarded its work, and the obstructive tactics of those opposed to the union of the colonies became so great as to draw from Washington, its President, the declaration, ” It is all too probable that no plan which we propose can be adopted.” At this juncture Benjamin Franklin arose and offered his historic motion that henceforth ” prayers imploring the assistance of heaven and its blessings upon our deliberations be made every morning in this assembly before proceeding to business,” and concluded a most eloquent plea in its behalf by quoting these words from the One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh Psalm, ” Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” And almost from that hour the Assembly went steadily forward with its task and ultimately produced a document forever immortal. Indeed, throughout colonial times and the early formative period of the nation the Psalms left their impress upon human thought, shaped ideals, molded public opinion, colored the literature, and even reflected themselves in the laws.
The Psalms of David, brought over by the Puritans, continued to be sung exclusively in the churches and chapels of America until about the middle of the eighteenth century; they were chiefly sung by the various Presbyterian bodies for another seventy-five years; and were quite generally sung by those bodies until within a very recent date. And, thank God, there are a number of Christian bodies in America, and elsewhere, our own among the number, which still sing the Bible Psalms only, always, everywhere, and with a fervor and devotion which increase with the years.
Such is a plain, unvarnished statement of some of the more salient facts in the history of the Psalms. Brief as it is, fragmentary as it is, it is long enough and complete enough to indicate something of their mighty influence in the realm of human thought and their subtle workings in the sphere of human action. Weighed in the impartial balances of time, measured by the most critical standards of men, compared with the noblest products of human genius, tested by human experience to the utmost reach and range of its requirements, in no single instance have the Psalms been found wanting; on the contrary, they have ever demonstrated their adaptability, their superiority, their power, their beauty, their charm, their immortality. As such they have given hostages to the future as being utterly fit for private devotion and public praise, at all times, on all occasions, under all circumstances, in every age, by all men, world without end, AMEN.