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I. GENERAL CHARACTER AND VALUE OF THE Psalms.
The Book of Psalms has been styled by some of the German critics, in allusion to a portion of Grecian literature, The HEBREW ANTHOLOGY ; that is, a collection of the lyric, moral, historical, and elegiac poetry of the Hebrews. Regarded in this light alone, it presents a most interesting subject of literary taste and curiosity. Many of these psalms must have been composed some hundreds of years before the period which is commonly assigned to the origin of the Iliad of Homer. But it is not with them as with many of the productions of the classic Muse, of which the antiquity constitutes their greatest claim upon the attention of the scholar, and of which the subjects possess little or no interest for the world in its manhood. It was the privilege of the Hebrew bards to be employed upon subjects possessing an interest as enduring as the attributes of God and the nature of dependent man. Their poetry has the deep foundation of eternal truth. It comes, for the most part, in language the most glowing, from the very depths of the soul, rich in sentiments adapted to the soul's most urgent wants. Hence its living spirit, its immortal freshness. Hence its power of reaching the hearts of all men, in all countries and in all ages. Where, in the whole compass of literature, can one find more of the thoughts that breathe and words that burn” than in the Hebrew Anthology? Then, too, what variety is there in the subjects of these ancient compositions ! How diverse the states of heart and fortune that occasioned them! How various the strains of joy, sorrow, gratitude, love, hope, confidence, fear, remorse, and penitence, which come from the sacred lyre! There is scarcely a conceivable state of the human soul, in which one may not repair to the Psalter, as it were to a sympathizing friend.
What a sensation would be produced in the literary world by such a collection of poetry as is presented in the Book of Psalms, could it come recommended by the attraction of novelty! But the truth is, that, in general, the ear is accustomed to these admirable productions, before the mind can comprehend their meaning or feel their beauty ; so that, in maturer life, it requires no inconsiderable effort to give them that attention which is necessary for the reception of the impressions they are adapted to impart.
Another obstacle to a proper estimate of the poetry of the Scriptures is the very imperfect translation, and wretched arrangement, in which it has been presented to English readers. Let the lover of poetry imagine what impressions he should receive from the odes of Collins or Gray, cut up into fragments like the verses in the common version of the Bible, and he may comprehend what injustice has been done to the Hebrew poets.
The compositions in the Book of Psalms are the productions of various authors and periods, belong to different species of poetry, and possess various degrees of poetic merit. While some of them present the fresh gushes of excited feeling, or the calmer expression of the sublimest sentiments, in the boldest language of poetry, others consist only of moral maxims artificially arranged in a sententious style, or of elaborate and imitative prayers and praises, prepared for the public worship of God.
The Psalms, says De Wette, are lyric poems. This is all that is implied in the name which they bear. Ψαλμός, from ψάλλει», chordas tangere, fidibus canere, signifies the music of a stringed instrument, the sound of the lyre; then, a song sung to the music of the lyre. This word is used by the Alexandrian translators for the
as well as túanelv for the verb hat; but these Hebrew words, whatever may be their etymology, have the signification of song accompanied with music. Psalter (y'altiguor), the name which, in imitation of the Greeks, we give to the collection of Psalms, properly denotes a stringed instrument; and the appel
,סֵפֶר תְּהִלִים songs of praise , and the collection ,תְּהִלִים the Psalms
,songs , odes ,שִׁירִים or מִזְמֹרִים ,The term
lation is to be understood in the same manner as when we give to a collection of lyric poems the title of The Lyre. The Jews call
, , , also, abbreviated, o'n, an appellation which applies to a part only of the Psalms.
? , , would be more correct.
The Psalms are lyric, in the proper sense ; for with the Hebrews, as in the ancient world generally, song and music were connected, and the titles to most of the Psalms determine their connection with music, though in a manner which is unintelligible to us. These compositions deserve, moreover, the name of lyric, on account of their character as works of taste. The essence of lyric poetry is the immediate expression of feeling; and feeling is the sphere to which most of the Psalms belong. Pain, sorrow, fear, hope, joy, confidence, gratitude, submission to God, every thing that moves and elevates the soul, is expressed in these hymns.
In the Psalms we have merely the remains of the lyric poetry of the Hebrews. The productions of this class were undoubtedly far more numerous than would seem to have been the case from these remains, and spread through a wider and more diversified field. The Psalter is chiefly composed of religious and devotional hymns; but it cannot be maintained that the lyric poetry of the Hebrews was exclusively devoted to the service of religion and of public worship. The supposition is sufficiently contradicted by those invaluable examples of another species of lyric poetry, which are preserved in other parts of the Scriptures ; such as David's elegy over Saul and Jonathan, the song at the well (Numb. xxi. 17), and especially the Song of Solomon ; although the last belongs to a somewhat different branch of poetical composition. In the Book of Psalms itself, there is one production which possesses an altogether secular character, namely, Psalm xlv. For most of the hymns which are extant, we are indebted probably to the religious use to which they were consecrated, rather than to any common poetical sympathy; and hence so few secular songs have been preserved from destruction.
In respect to their contents and character, the Psalms have been classified in the following manner.
I. Hymns in praise of Jehovah. 1. Generally as God of nature and of man, Ps. viii., civ., cxlv. 2. As God of nature and of Israel, Ps. xix., xxix., xxxiii., lxv., xciii., cxxxv., cxxxvi., cxlvii., and others. 3. As God of Israel, Ps. xlvii., lxvi., lxvii., lxxv. 4. As the saviour and helper of Israel, Ps. xlvi., xlvii., xlviii., lxxv., lxxvi.; and of individuals, Ps. xviii.,
cxxxviii., and others.
II. National psalms, containing allusions to the ancient history of the Israelites, and to the relation of the people to Jehovah, Ps. lxxviii., cv., cvi., cxiv.
III. Psalms of Zion and of the temple, Ps. XV., xxiv., lxviii., lxxxi., lxxxvii., cxxxii., cxxxiv., cxxxv.
IV. Psalms relating to the king, Ps. ii., xx., xxi., xlv., lxxii.,
V. Psalms which contain complaints under affliction and the persecution of enemies, and prayers for succour; the most numerous class, comprising more than a third part of the whole collection. These psalms of complaint are, — 1. Personal, relating to the case of an individual, Ps. vii., xxii., lv., lvi., cix., and others. 2. National, Ps. xliv., lxxiv., lxxix., lxxx., cxxxvii., and others. 3. Personal and national at the same time, Ps. lxix., lxxvii., cii. From these divisions proceed still others. 4. General psalms of complaint, reflections on the wickedness of the world, Ps. X., xii., xiv., xxxvi. 5. Didactic psalms, respecting the condition of the pious and the godless, Ps. xxxvii., xlix., lxxiii. 6. Psalms of thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies, which also pass over into the first class, Ps. xxxiv., xl. and others.
VI. Religious and moral psalms. 1. Odes to Jehovah with special allusions, Ps. xc., cxxxix. 2. Expressions of religious conviction, hope, confidence, Ps. xxiii., xci., cxxi., cxxvii., cxxviii. 3. Expressions of religious experience, resolutions, &c.,
* See De Wette's Commentar über die Psalmen, p. 3. Biblical Repository for 1833, p. 448.
Ps. xlii., xliii., ci., cxxxi. 4. Development of religious or moral ideas, Ps. i., cxxxiii. 5. Didactic poems relating to religion, Ps. xxxii., l. 6. Collections of proverbs, in alphabetical order, Ps. cxix. The few which cannot be brought under any of the foregoing classes and divisions either constitute new ones by themselves or possess an intermediate character.
It will be perceived, that, in this classification, proposed by De Wette, no place is assigned to psalms relating to the Messiah. This is in accordance with the opinion of the above-mentioned distinguished commentator, and others, who reject the doctrine of a double sense in the Scriptures, that there is not in the Book of Psalms any prediction relating to the Messiah. The question whether any, and, if any, how many, of the Psalms relate to the Messiah, is attended with considerable difficulty. At first view, it would be natural to expect that the lyrical productions of the Jewish poets, as well as the writings of the prophets, would contain allusions to the Messiah. But when we come to examine those which have been chiefly referred to as containing the Messianic hopes, such as the ii., xvi., xxii., xl., xlv., lxxii., cx., we seem to find, on the principles of historical interpretation which are applied to all other books, in some of them no predictions whatever, but only references to the past or the present; in others, only glowing anticipations, which seem to refer to the writer of the psalm, or to Jewish kings contemporary with him. The question can be decided only by a critical examination of each psalm. But it deserves consideration, whether Christ may not be said to have fulfilled what is written in the Psalms concerning him, when he filled out, or completed, what was valuable in the experience, or precious in the hopes, of David and other servants of God, which are the proper subjects of the Psalms. His life and sufferings were analogous to theirs, but of a higher character and attended with more glorious results. This view is confirmed by the interpretation of the Psalms which has generally prevailed in the Christian church. The ever-recurring remark of the common expositor is, “ This psalm in part refers to David, and in part to Jesus Christ”; or, “ This psalm is fulfilled in a lower sense in