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SECTION I-HISTORIC OCCASIONS OF THE PSALMS.
BISHOP PERCY, in the Preface to his "Key to the New Testament," says: "A clear introductory illustration of the several books of the New Testament, showing the design of their writers, the nature of their contents, and whatsoever else is previously necessary to their being read with understanding, is a work, that, if well executed, must prove the best of commentaries, and frequently supersede the want of any. Like an intelligent guide, it directs the reader right at his first setting out, and thereby saves him the trouble of much afterinquiry; or, like a map of a country through which he is to travel, if consulted beforehand, it gives him a general view of the journey, and prevents his being afterward lost and bewildered." The present work is an attempt to supply, in part, the idea of the learned bishop, so far, at least, as it may be advantageously applied to the historical illustration of the Psalms.
It will be seen at a glance, that the common arrangement of the Psalter is made without any reference to chronology; and though many of the Psalms are grouped together according to certain internal relations, yet after all the investigation that has been made, it is impossible to say upon what principle of classification, or order, the compiler proceeded. Nor can it be discovered that any special advantages arise from the present plan. It is the common tradition, that Ezra compiled and arranged the Psalms, after they had all been written, and the entire body of Psalmodic poetry lay before him; of course, after the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, under Nehe
miah's administration. But it is assuming too much to suppose, with Dr. Alexander, that the "authority" "of his particular design or plan," with regard to their arrangement, is "infallible." We do not suppose that the plan and order in which a particular book may reach us, is to be admitted upon equal authority with the claims of its subject-matter to inspiration; indeed, we cannot suppose it without admitting that the Holy Spirit purposely disarranges chronology. The chronology of many of the books of Scripture needs adjusting; Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance, are often complicated and perplexed in their present arrangement. It certainly is not the best method of studying Scripture, to take the several books and sections out of their natural order; and we are left to the conclusion that such disarrangements must result from casualties or human ignorance, and are no part of the design of the Holy Spirit, either to dictate or prevent.
The historical occasions of the Psalms have ever been regarded, by judicious commentators, as important aids to their interpretation, and the full exhibition of their beauty and power. In the explanation of a work on exact science, or of a metaphysical essay, no importance is attached to the external circumstances and place of the author at the time of writing. In such a case, the work has no relation to passing events, but to the abstract and essential relations of things. Very different is the language of poetry, and indeed of almost all such books as the Sacred Scriptures are, which were at first addressed to a particular people, or to particular individuals, for their moral benefit, and much of them occupied with the personal experiences of their authors. Here occasion, contact with outward things, the influence of external circumstances and of passing events, play a conspicuous part in giving mould and fashion to the thoughts and feelings of the writer, scope and design to his subject, and meaning and pertinency to his words.
It may be said of the Hebrew poets, as of those of all other nations, that the interpretation of their poetry is less dependent on verbal criticism, than on sympathy with the feelings of the author, knowledge of his circumstances, and attention to the scope and drift of his utterances. You must place yourself in his condition, adopt his sentiments, and be floated onward with the current of his feelings, soothed by his consolations, or agi
tated by the storm of his emotions. Your attention is directed less to words than to things. The meaning of the author is to be determined, less by an appeal to the niceties of philology, than by the general scope. The understanding is not supposed to labour hard, and the effect of the piece is not the result of its propositions reduced to logical formulas, or of the meaning of its several words carefully measured by the usus loquendi, or of the separate sentences grammatically analyzed, but of the rhetorical embellishment which adorns, and the inspiration which quickens its transparent truths. It is hence that the best preparation for reading any particular Psalm, (so far as mere mental effort is concerned, and supposing the individual to be already somewhat familiar with the Hebrew idiom, --which every careful reader of our English Bible must be,and imbued with a general sympathy with the Hebrew mind,) is to acquaint himself with all that knowledge of the Psalm which is simply external to the text itself. In technical language, he should read an introduction to the Psalm, and a syllabus of its argument, before reading the Psalm. Then, if his heart is in sympathy with the devout piety of the Psalmist, he will readily glide into the same channel, and receive the sum total of the beauty and moral effect of the Psalm.
Philological works on the Psalms, like the learned and excellent volumes of Prof. Hengstenberg and Dr. Alexander, are important, just as the anatomist's labours are necessary to comprehend the structure and normal forces of the animal system; but if we wish to contemplate the beauty and proportions of the grand whole, and observe its living adaptations to practical life-if we would derive profit from the operation of these primal forces, thus analytically laid open by the dissector's knife, or pleasure to ourselves in our association with them— we must take them in another form, synthetically arranged, and clothed and animated with their living beauties. For purposes of devout reading and practical use, the Psalms should be taken as a whole, in their entireness. Each Psalm, when read with a simple view to practical effect, should be read continuously, without interruption of other topics or other investigations, and a general preparation to enter into the spirit and design of the Psalm, should be previously attained by the help of a judicious introduction. Philological and analytical study
of the sacred text is necessary, in order to attain a more perfect translation, and to appreciate more fully the idiom, import, and point of the original; but they cannot well be pursued at the same time that the Psalms are read for spiritual and devotional purposes. The object of the present work, is to make the Psalms a more profitable reading-book, by assisting the reader to enter more fully into their general spirit and their scope.
The Bible, whether in its historical or poetical parts, is Religion teaching by example." It describes real characters and real events, and illustrates the active and passive virtues-the operation of the reason, the affections, and the volitions of man, under the varied conditions of actual life. This is peculiarly the case in the Book of Psalms. David, for instance, speaks his own feelings-his joys, his sorrows, his faith, his purposes, his love to God, in all the circumstances of his eventful history. Here is no ideal character presented, but a living man, speaking his real thoughts and feelings. By the wisdom of God, his exercises have been taken and recorded as an example for the instruction, comfort, and admonition of all believers in all subsequent time. The same is true of each author of the Psalms. The moment we retrieve the Psalms from the character of mere products of the imagination, and invest them with the realities of history, so far as to regard them as the exponents of the personal experiences of their authors, that moment we perceive that the personal history of each author at the time of writing, is a legitimate and very important part of a relevant introduction to the particular Psalm, and we feel, very properly, desirous to know who the author was, where he was at the time of writing, and what were the circumstances which gave rise to his peculiar feelings, and which gave general form, scope, and colouring to the Psalin. The total worth of David's character can never be appreciated, but by connecting the historical events of his life with the Psalms to which those events gave birth; and, on the other hand, those Psalms can never be fully apprehended in their beauty and power, disconnected from the personal experiences of the author. It were easy to illustrate the truthfulness of these remarks, by citations and examples from the Psalms; but the following work, we apprehend, will sufficiently verify to the reader what is here stated. How apposite are the
words of the learned De Wette:-"We approve of the labours of modern interpreters, who have endeavoured, by the aid of history, to refer the Psalms to the situation of the author, by which they were occasioned, and in which they were composed, and to make this the ground of their exposition. In fact, it is impossible that any feeling or emotion should be rightly and fully comprehended, without some knowledge of the individual who expresses it, in his distinct personality, and in his relations to the objects which have occasioned it. It is only by such a knowledge one is placed in a situation to sympathize in the emotion expressed, and to enter fully into the soul of the poet."
But while we attach all merited importance to the historic occasions of the Psalms, we should beware not to overrate the proper value of this consideration. We should do the greatest injustice to these sacred compositions, were we to limit their meaning and their importance chiefly to the local circumstances which first suggested them. The sacred lyrists wrote not for themselves, but for the whole Church; not for their own times merely, but for all times. Of this they seemed to be conscious; and from the natural suggestions of their own local circumstances and feelings, they were constantly led by the Spirit to take in more comprehensive applications of truth. From the special occasion their minds ascended to general applications of truth, and from the concrete and present, to the abstract and universal. Thus they arose from species to genera, from a particular event to an established order of events. The present occasion served them as a stand-point of observation, from which to survey the works of Providence, the moral administration of God over this world, the principles of redemption, the depths of human depravity and the workings of the human heart, the future immortality, and, in fine, the great facts and phenomena of man's moral being and destiny. Thus, the local circumstances of the individual became, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, instrumental of the widest good to mankind. He became, in a manner, the representative of all persons in similar conditions, and was himself taught to feel, and to think, and to act, in order that he might teach others what feelings, thoughts, and actions, are appropriate and becoming their relations to God and to one another. The special references, there