George Henry Somerset Walpole.

The people's Psalter. A plain book for those who wish to use the psalms in church with intelligence and devotion online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryGeorge Henry Somerset WalpoleThe people's Psalter. A plain book for those who wish to use the psalms in church with intelligence and devotion → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


3 3433 07994460 3




AND DEVOTION -;- -•- -|-













/ • a





Twenty-five years ago, when lecturing on the
Psahns to a small body of students in the West of
England, the Author became painfully aware that his
own experience was shared by others — that the
poems so much enjoyed in the quiet of the study were
to a large extent unintelligible in the Church. The
difficulty found in applying large parts of them to our
modern Christian life seemed almost insuperable. On
wide inquiry he found one of his brethren declaring
that the intention of devotion expressed in the Psalms
was the main thing, and that the intelligent use of the
words was not of great consequence ; another said that
they formed a deep religious undertone to the thoughts,
which, whether we would or not, played on the
surface of the mind even at times of worship. Neither
of these solutions of the difficulty seemed to be toler-
able, but on the contrary only made the danger of
unreality more apparent by the attempt to cover it up.
But the remedy was not obvious. Commentaries or
versions taken into Church and used failed to give the
sought-for relief, as they were either too definitely
historical or too cumbrous for use. It was only
after the constant use of various helps, especially
Bishop Westcott's Paragraph Psalter, that the con-
viction slowly gained vipon him that the popular
need was still unsatisfied. An attempt is therefore
here made, with some hesitation, to meet it. It
may be said that, so far as it has any value at all,
it would have been better done by each Churchman for
himself. And that is, no doubt, true. But the task,
though a delightful one, demands an amount of time
which the burden of the ordinary daily work almost
v I*


forbids. It is not likely, however, that all the sug-
gested methods of treatment will be found equally
helpful, and it is hoped that each may make for him-
self such corrections as may bring the Psalm more
into line with his own feelings or parochial circum-

The plan explains itself. The general subject of
the Psalm is first stated shortly, then the original cir-
cumstances out of which it sprang, then its application
to some experience, past or present, in the life of the
Church. In order to make the application as clear as
possible, each Psalm is broken up into divisions which
illustrate the progress or change of the main concep-
tion. Here the author desires to acknowledge with
gratitude the help he has obtained from Professor
Kirkpatrick's book on the Psalms, from "The Study
of the Psalms," by A. C. Jennings and W. H. Lowe,
from " The Psalms Chronologically Arranged by Four
Friends," from Dr. Kay's suggestive "Commentary,"
and above all, from the Archbishop of Armagh's
Bampton Lectures on ^ ' The Witness of the Psalms
to Christ and Christianity," which first set him think-
ing on the subject. The present attempt is largely
due to the stimulus of his eloquent words. The
Bishop of Vermont's excellent book on " The Use of
Holy Scripture in the Public Worship of the Church "
came too late to give much service. Such verses as
present special difficulty are dealt with in footnotes.

From this outline it will be seen that its use lies
chiefly in the Church, not in the study, though it will
]:)robably be found an advantage to look over the
I*salms before using them. Its intention is to be a
help towards making the recitation of the Psalms more
intelligent, and therefore more devout. For this the
notes must be brief and to the point. Some, no
doubt, will feel that to put the Psalms to a use for
which they are not intended is to bring in just that
unreality which we desire to exclude. Such answer
as can be given is indicated in the first section of
the Introduction.

Disappointment will also be felt by some of
those who take up the book to Ihid that the line of


interpretation followed is social rather than indivi-
dualistic, ecclesiastical and national rather than private ;
but, independently of other reasons which will be
given in what follows, it does seem that, as the per-
sonal element naturally prevails in our secret prayers,
the catholic should as naturally prevail in our public

One other word of explanation. Though difficult
verses are very briefly explained in the footnotes, it
will be observed that there is no attempt made to
correct the Prayer Book version by marginal transla-
tions. To do this would have been to spoil the
purpose of the book, which is to help devotion
rather than to supply matter for criticism. Such
corrections would have led those who use it to be
constantly inquiring what new meaning the verse
would have under the fresh light thrown upon it
by the more accurate rendering, and the flow of
devotion would be arrested. For good or ill, our
Church has made the Prayer Book Psalter, with all
its mistakes, its own. It is never likely to be cor-
rected, as its tuneful metre, its poetical phraseology,
have not only endeared themselves to Churchmen, but
become interwoven with their spiritual experiences.
Its very mistakes, such as "Great was the company
of the preachers," and others, have been adopted by
her and are parts of her hymns. We know they are
wrong, but we shall always use them, feeling they
express a truth, unknown, of course, to the author of
the Psalm, but one dear to us by centuries of use.

Such, briefly, is the purpose and aim of a bold
attempt. It will have accomplished its main design
if it leads, directly or indirectly, to the fulfilment
of St. Paul's words, "I will pray with the spirit
and I will pray with the understanding also. I will
sing with the spirit and I will sing with the under-
standing also."


There can be but little question that no part of our
worship is more difficult to the ordinary churchgoer
than the Psalter. It is true that he is continually
being helped by it, that verses here and there apply
with startling directness to his own personal needs,
but on the whole he is perplexed. It is not only
that the poems are Jewish, referring to conditions
and circumstances with which he is only partly
familiar, but that the Church of England — it is
different in the American Church — offers no method
of selection for their recitation, but calls upon him
each month to go straight through the whole collec-
tion of 150 Psalms. If he attempts to make them
expressive of his own spiritual condition he finds that
he is not seldom expected to be sad with penitence
and bright with praise in the same breath, as on the
20th morning, when the 103rd Psalm follows the
102nd. His own personal experience will not bear
the strain. If turning from this he uses them as
meditations, much as he does the Church's Anthems
or the Lessons, he feels that he is not fulfilling the
intention of the Church, which, by inviting him per-
sonally to respond and sing the " Gloria " at the end
of each Psalm, clearly intends him to make them in
some way his own and in a Christian sense.

If in our perplexity we look at the use of the
Psalter as a collection amongst the Jews, there is
much to be said for the view ■ that their purpose was
neither private nor contemplative but national. Pro-
fessor Kirkpatrick admits the possibility that the "I"
in the Psalter is collective and not individual, and


that this must be borne in mind in the interpretation
of the Psahiis ; and further, that whilst it seems ex-
ceedingly questionable whether such Psalms as 51,
56, 88, 102, 116, 139 can be other than personal in
their origin and primary application they may in use
have been appropriated by the whole congregation.
If, then, we use the Psalter in a National or Church
sense we shall not only escape the difficulties we have
referred to but be using it as it was probably designed
to be used. Indeed, in some cases, as in Psalm 51,
an individual Psalm has been converted into a national
one by the addition of verses — this possibly being done
when it was placed in the national collection of Psalms
to be used in the Temple.

And this view is not only commended by the pro-
bable use of the Jewish collection but also by the
directions of the Church. In the setting of proper
Psalms for special occasions she has adopted the
principle which might be almost indefinitely ex-
tended, that the Psalms, whether individual or not
in their original application, are the natural vehicle
of expression for ecclesiastical or national feelings.
But when we have decided that the use of the Psalter
in the Church is to be general, not individual, ecclesi-
astical or national rather than personal — we say
nothing here as to the use in private prayers where
selection for private needs is not only possible but
imperative — we are met by the question as to whether
it is possible to christianise them at all without doing
violence to this simple meaning.

Can we boldly take them, not merely as poetic
expressions of real experiences, but as parables or
predictions as adaptable to the needs of the new
Israel as to those of the old ? It might be sufficient
to say that the Church, by her ordinary and special
use of them, had decided the matter. But this will
not be acknowledged by those who prefer to read
them as they read the Old Testament — as chapters
of a bygone history in a bygone age. To such there
is only one appeal, and that to experience. Beautiful
as the Psalms are, it is difficult to see how they would
have still retained the warm appreciation even of


those who only partly understand them unless the
Gospel had been found in them. "Without an
intense conviction in the hearts of God's children
that Christ is in the Psalter, that it is in sympathy
with His Passion and Glory, its words would after a
brief season of deference to ancient custom be almost
unheard in our churches and cathedrals." They
would lose their brightness, their chief beauty, and,
to use Coleridge's metaphor, be like some trans-
parency on a night of public rejoicing seen by
common day with the lamps from within removed.
And yet the most enthusiastic student of the
Christian meaning of the Psalms must feel that the
interpretation must be within certain limits. There
must be some bounds to the tendency to what may
be called mystical extravagance. The original sense
of the Psalm must be preserved and not perverted,
cared for even if extended. And surely this is not
impossible. A Psalm descriptive of David's con-
quests over the heathen may very fittingly apply to
the missionary victories of the Church. A poem
expressive of struggle against insidious foes may not
unnaturally be used of the Church's combat against
the foes of intemperance, gambling, and indifference.
In such cases the main idea of the Psalm is still
adhered to. So, too, the Church, by her setting of
proper Psalms for her Festivals, accustoms us to
associate certain imagery with certain Christian
facts : — The passages over the Red Sea or the
Jordan with our Lord's victory over Death ; the '
entrance of the Ark into Jerusalem with His Ascen-
sion, and so on. " David, Sion, Jerusalem, Babylon,
have as truly a symbolical sense, though they are
washed in by the waves of History, as the Sacrifice
and the Priesthood which come through the Levitical
books from direct revelation."^ The phrases, then,
and the language of the Psalms gather to themselves
fresh interpretation, and we as naturally think of the
Son of David when we sing of David, of the Church
when we praise Zion, of the world when we rebuke

I "Witness of the Psalms to Christ and Christianit}-," p. 176.


Babylon, as we do of those living realities which
they embody.

But it is chiefly important that the motive of the
Psalm, as a whole, should be grasped, that its spirit
should not be interfered with by a fanciful interpreta-
tion of a verse here or there. It is this which has
brought the mystical explanations of the Psalms into
discredit. A reference to Christ, or the Church, or
the Sacraments has been found in a verse or half
verse, and the whole flow of the Psalm broken by it.
For sermons such an exposition is natural enough,
but for exegesis, whether spiritual or historical, it is
fatal. Our duty, then, if we are so far right in our
interpretation of the matter, is in the first place
to use the Psalms as churchmen inspired with a
devotion to the interests of the whole Church
Catholic, and not merely our own branch of it. And
secondly, as patriots recognising that in the providence
of God the life of our own Church has for over fifteen
hundred years been closely bound up with the interests
of the nation. We cannot forget that the only ideal
of national life of which we have any record in the
Bible — that of the Jewish people — is one of Church
and State ; their poems, therefore, naturally lend
themselves to our conditions, similar to theirs in this,
that there was happily no marked difference between
the life of the Church and the life of the State, all-
kings, statesmen, judges, as well as priests and Levites
— were recognised as holding a consecrated office.
Kings were the anointed of the Lord ; Judges were
gods ; Statesmen like Isaiah and Jeremiah were men
of God. The whole life was outwardly, at any rate,
stamped as religious. And this spirit is reflected in
their inspired national songs, which, though in many
cases Davidic in origin, were adapted to serve national
needs. David's foes were seen again and again in the
deceitful enemies that would wreck the kingdom for
their own selfish interests, and so again David's prayers
found a new meaning in the final struggle before the
Captivity and in the still more difficult times that
followed the Exile and ushered in the true glories of
the Messianic Kingdom.


The Psalms, then, looked at from this double point
of view, their ecclesiastical and national aspect, fall
into four great divisions — (i) The Messianic ; (2) The
Social ; (3) The Missionary ; (4) The Devotional.

(i) The Alcssianu Psalms. This division includes
the twenty-seven proper Psalms, which are set apart for
the celebration of the great events connected with our
Lord's life — Plis Birth, Sufferings, Resurrection, As-
cension, and Gift of the Holy Ghost. Besides these,
there are nine others — 3, 18, 29, 31, 70, 72, 76, 89,
116 — which are more or less directly Messianic,
making in all a little more than one-fourth of the
whole Psalter. Church people are so accustomed
to hear the proper Psalms on the great festivals
that probably but few difficulties in connection with
them have occurred. The day has supplied its own
interpretation. It may, of course, be urged, and
many must have felt it when reciting any of the
Psalms as the experience of Christ, that the human
element is too much in evidence, that thereby we
disparage the dignity of Him Who is God. And yet a
little thought convinces us that the whole power of
the Gospel lies in believing that there was never a
pure human emotion of joy and sorrow which He did
not experience. The Evangelists indeed only give us
indications of it, but "their tremendous, passionless
simplicity, their awful reserve in the narrative of the
Death and Passion is supplemented by the pathetic
intensity " ^ of the Psalms. As a writer has truly
said, "It is this . . . their inspired sympathy with
every phase of the Redeemer's life-long Passion, with
every sentiment of the Heart which gathered up and
recapitulated in itself the collective heart of humanity
which has made the songs of Israel the rightful heir-
loom and common ritual of Christendom."^

(2) The Social Psalms. The second and the largest
class of Psalms is that which we call the Social Psalms,
i.e., those Psalms which more or less deal with social
problems. There are nearly fifty of these. In principle

1 Archbishop of Armagh, " Witness of the Psalms," p. 39.

2 Oxenham's" Catholic Doctrine of the Atonement," pp. 295,


the social evils of intemperance, immorality, injustice,
are not new. David, and every righteous ruler since
his time, has had to meet them. He himself was for
many years the victim of malicious envy and tyranny,
and has left us in his Psalms strong expressions of his
sense of the cruelty of high-handed oppression. From
his father-in-law Saul, his son Absalom, his wife
Michal, his friend Ahithophel, he suffered much. His
chief enemies were those of his own household. The
prayers wrung out of him in sore agony of spirit were
treasured up and used by the Jewish Church in her
services during the still severer trials that were expe-
rienced under rulers like Ahab and Manasseh, and in
times like those of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the
Church's work and the Nation's progress were hin-
dered not so much by outside foes but by traitors
within. Some of them received additions adapting
them more closely to the newer circumstances. In
Christian times, when the Church was struggling for
her existence, these Psalms must have gained a new
force. There was no difficulty in pointing their
application. The enemies were too near, too obvious,
to require explanation. So, too, in mediceval and
later periods, stormy days have revived the meaning
of strong expressions, and men felt no difficulty in
saying, with the utmost intensity, " Do not I hate
them, O Lord, that hate Thee? Yea, I hate, them
right sore as though they were mine enemies." But
in our own time and in our own country, when the
foes of the Church are not so clearly marked, when it
is felt to be a breach of good manners to speak too
strongly of others' vices, when there is a general wish
to believe that on the whole things are all right and
that it is anomalous to speak of persecution, these old
expressions of David are felt to be a difficulty, and
those who wish to be real and yet find themselves
forced to recite them are perplexed. Some use them
and no doubt with wholesome effect in lashing their
own sins. Others ignore them, concentrating their
minds chiefly on the passages of trust and con-
fidence in which these are interspersed. But no
one can say that this is satisfactory. However much


at times we may feel the power, malice, and rage of
our spiritual enemies, it is difficult to be always
conscious of attacks or to be so on special days.

The reality we desire to breathe comes back when
we use these Psalms as they were used in the
Temple of the foes that are threatening our national
or religious welfare. We know that there are secret
forces at work which will if unchecked destroy
England as they destroyed Rome. We may not
happily be able to personify them though we know
they work through personal agents, but we use the
old language of David and others freely, feeling that
in so doing we are not only striking at the danger in
the most effective way but that the great social evils
disclosed in the newspapers and books have a place
in our prayers and therefore are not likely to be

Again, it is when our eyes are opened to the social
condition of England and the world and we realise
that the evils are due in a large measure to a growing
insensibility to the claims of religion, a careless disre-
gard of Sunday obligations, and a strange indifference
to the Bible, that we feel the force of the Penitential
Psalms. Generally (although in Lent and at other
times when sin is pressed home their individual appli-
cation is most helpful) the expressions, " I am weary
of my groaning ; every night wash I my bed and
water my couch with my tears. My beauty is gone
for very trouble ; my heart is smitten down and
withered like grass so that I forget to eat my bread,"
&c., are too strong for the ordinary worshipper
who it maybe while wishing that his penitence were
deeper, yet recognises that the words go beyond
his feelings. Directly, however, he passes from the
thought of himself to the thought of the Church
menaced by great evils, weakened by terrible sins,
for they are her members who dishonour her faith,
rent asunder by schism and countless divisions, he
feels that these words do not inaptly describe her
real condition. Her King still weeps over her, the
Holy Spirit still maketh intercession for her with
groanings which cannot be uttered, her faithful.


children still bemoan her isolation like a pelican in
the wilderness, or her feebleness in grappling with
the great social problems. And the hastiest glance
at the condition of Christianity in Europe, the East,
America, and Australia is enough to bring tears to
the eyes of all those who love the Church, and they
are thankful to find in the Penitential Psalms a means
whereby they may express their feelings. Words
which were found suitable in the Temple in
the days of the divided monarchy and the Exile are
found to be still adaptable to the newer needs and
sorrows of the Christian Church.

(3) Missionary Psahiis. The third group of Psalms,
twenty-nine in all, may be described as Missionary.
They contain Intercessions for the whole Church or
for special suffering portions of it, as the oppressed
churches of the East, for the Jews as well as the
Heathen, for the Church at home that she may be
stirred to fresh missionary zeal, or for the Church in
our colonies that she may carry the Gospel to those
scattered far and wide. There is but little difficulty
in applying these particular Psalms to these objects,
inasmuch as Israel herself occupied a position not
very unlike that of England. She was filled with a
missionary spirit — compassing sea and land to make
one proselyte — though, alas! she degraded it by
making her converts worse than her own children.
And this missionary spirit finds its way in early Psalms
such as those of David as in later post-Exilic poems.
She always looked forward to the whole world be-
coming Jewish, and felt that the pride of each heathen
nation would consist chiefly in this, that its members
owed their birth to Zion (Psalm 87). The Jewish
Missionary Psalms lend themselves therefore very
readily to Christian purposes, and as we use them
we feel as though they expressed the missionary spirit
of the Church even better than our own Christian
hymns. We need then only to be reminded of
certain facts, of the large part of the world which
still remains in darkness, of the general indifference
of Christians to foreign missions, of the sore needs
revealed in India, China, Japan, the Isles of the Sea,


to welcome with gratitude the opportunity of pouring
forth in time-worn words the Intercessions and Thanks-
givings that are bound up with the foreign work of
the Church,

{4) Devotional Psalms. Besides these three great
divisions, there is a large class of Psalms which
may be named devotional or contemplative ; Psahiis
which praise the virtue of saintliness or the glory
of the Divine Law or Will ; Psalms which in a
meditative strain interpret history, or the problem of
the world's inequalities ; Psalms which sing of the
comfort of communion with God, or of the blessings
of contentment ; Psalms which express the hidden
spirit of Nature, or the solemn mysteries of Death.
There is no difficulty in their use in the Christian
Church. The fact that we know so much more
fully than the Jew could do what the Divine Will
is and how close the fellowship is in Jesus Christ,
what the forces of Nature are and how Death
has been conquered by Christ, gives these Psalms
a fulness and power they never could have had in
the Jewish Temple.

And so Christ and the Moral Law, His Kingdom
in Nature and Grace, His Word and His Will are
again and again in turn the subject of the Church's
Praises, and we feel increasingly that this power of
the Psalms to express so readily the Church's mind
and thought is of God, not of man.




1. Blessings of Saintliness

2. The Supremacy of the Risen Christ

3. Confidence inspired by the Resurrection

4. The Church's joy confronting the world's hos-


5. Prayer the best weapon against social un-


6. The ultimate punishment of sin averted by


7. God, the Vindicator of the Righteous

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryGeorge Henry Somerset WalpoleThe people's Psalter. A plain book for those who wish to use the psalms in church with intelligence and devotion → online text (page 1 of 18)