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Sketches of the Principal Pictures in England
ECLECTIC REVIEW, ,
FOR JANUARY, 1825.
Art. I. The Book of Psalms, in an English Metrical Version,
founded on the Basis of the Authorized Bible Translation, and compared with the Original Hebrew; with Notes Critical and Illustrative. By the Right Rev. Richard Mant, DD. M.R.I.A. Lord Bishop of Down and Connor. 8vo. pp. xxii. 506. Oxford. 1824. HE Book of Psalms is styled by St. Augustine, a kind of
abrid ement of the whole Scripture. The choice and • Hower of all things profitable in other books,' says Hooker,
the Psalms do more briefly contain, and more movingly also 'express, by reason of that poetical form wherewith they are
written.' As prophetical records, as devotional compositions, and as the sublimest, as well as the most ancient specimens of lyric poetry, it is impossible to venerate too highly this portion of the Hebrew Scriptures. But the veneration in which the Psalms have been held, has been singularly disconnected with either the rational interpretation or the practical use of this part of Holy Writ. From the Talmudists and the Christian Fathers, down to Hutchinson and Horsley, the obscurity of these sacred compositions has afforded room for displaying the perverted ingenuity of mystical commentators, who have refined away both their beauty and meaning, till these inspired poems and prophecies have been converted into most recondite enigmas. "The mode of proceeding adopted by these interpreters, may be compared to the conduct of the minehunters of South America, who, in searching for hidden treasure, wash away into the rivers the fertile soil from which they might have obtained their bread. Some of the Fathers have discovered mysteries in the order of the Psalms. Thus, Hilary, Ambrose, and Origen have thought they could trace the succession of events in the life of David; others have detected Vol. XXIII. N.S.
the order of the solemnities celebrated in the temple; and Augustine, while he acknowledges that he could not discover the mystery of the disposition of the Psalms, thought that every fiftieth has relation to the vocation, the justification, and the glorification of the saints.* Chrysostom and a host of others maintain, in defiance of all external and internal evidence, that all the Psalms were composed by King David, and one writer classes among heretics all who denied it; in which number Athanasius himself would be included, since he assigns only seventy-two Psalms to the royal poet. A learned controversy has moreover been carried on respecting the titles of the Psalms, whether genuine or not, and whether, if added by Ezra, they are to be considered as having the authority of inspiration. Another question has been raised in more modern times, whether they were originally composed in metre, whether these sublimest of poems are entitled to the name of poetry. But the most important, and indeed the only interesting controversy relates to the double sense of which a large proportion of the Psalms are doubtless susceptible. In establishing the higher or mystical sense, a class of interpreters, among whom it is with regret that we rank Horsley, not only lose sight of a literal or primary meaning, but even deny their having any reference to the trials and experience of humanity. The characteristic boldness of the learned Prelate verges on impiety in one place, where he argues, that the Spirit of Jehovah would not be requisite to enable a mere man to describe his own sufferings just as he felt them, and his own escapes just as they happened. Therefore, the suppliant is a 'mystical personage,' the enemies are mystical,' the sickness spoken of is mystical, the deliverance mystical ; they have no bearing on the spiritual life or outward trials of the Christian. This most perilous scheme of interpretation, which locks up the meaning of the Scriptures as effectually from the common people, as the Papists do the letter in a foreign tongue, would indeed go very far to justify the utmost reserve in putting the Bible into the hands of the uninformed laity. Very different was the opinion of the judicious Calvin : •Librum hunc non · abs re vocare soleo avatoum omnium animæ partium ; quando
nullum in se affectum quisquam reperiet, cujus in hoc speculo non * reluceat imago. Imo omnes hic dolores, tristitias, metus, dubi• tationes, spes, curas, anrietates, turbulentos denique motus
quibus jactari sulent humana mentes, Spiritus Sanctus ad vivum • representavit. Reliqua Scriptura continet qua Deus servis suis
. See Calmet's Dict. Psalms.
mandata injunxit ad nos perferenda. Hic vero Prophetæ ipsi . cum Deo loquentes, quia interiores omnes sensus relegunt, quemque nostrum vocant aut trahunt ad proprium sui examen, nequid ex tot infirmitatibus quibus sumus obnoxii, totque vitiis quibus sumus referti, occultum maneat.'*
The value of these sacred compositions as a rule and model of prayer, which this admirable Commentator proceed s to point out, is obviously nullified by the Hutchinsonian scheme of interpretation. In fact, this practical purpose, we might almost gather from Bishop Horsley's declaration, he deemed unworthy of Inspiration. We are far from imputing to that learned, acute, but paradoxical writer, an antinonian contempt for personal sanctity; and yet, it is but too evident, that he had little taste for spiritual and practical Christianity. On this account, he was but ill qualified to appreciate the devotional beauty of the Psalms of David; and to this circumstance, taken in connexion with his preference for the hypothetical and the paradoxical, may be ascribed his adoption of a scheme of interpretation which levels him, as an expositor, with Eyles Pierce and Dr. Hawker,-a system which, as Andrew Fuller pointedly observed, erects the Gospel on the ruins of common
If Calmet's remark was just, that nothing can be a stronger proof of the obscurity of the Book of Psalms, than the vast number of commentaries, the proof must be admitted to have gained strength since his time. He reckoned that above a thousand writers had undertaken to illustrate the Psalms, and more modern times have greatly added to the list. Yet, we
as far from having an unexceptionable and perfectly intelligible translation of this portion of Scripture, as ever. Nor are we aware of any English commentator since Ainsworth, who has contributed to throw much light on the obscurities of
* Not without reason have I been accustomed to call this book the anatomy of all the parts of the mind, since there is no emotion of which any one can be conscious, that is not imaged here as in a glass. In fact, whatever pains, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, solicitudes, or turbulent emotions of any kind, are wont to agitate the minds of men, the Holy Spirit has here represented to the life. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined upon his servants to be delivered to us.
But in this part,
the Prophets themselves communing with God, inasmuch as they lay open all their inmost thoughts, call or allure every one of us to the examination of his own heart, so that of the various infirmities to which we are liable, the various faults with which we abound, nothing may remain concealed.'
the sacred text. No part of the Old Testament so much requires in the critical expositor, the rare combination of philological learning, cool judgement, fervent devotion, and poetical taste, as the Book of Psalms. To the elegant criticisms of Bishop Lowth on Hebrew poetry, the Christian world are under deep obligations; but his translation of Isaiah, with all its beauties, has but served to illustrate the various difficulties of the high emprise. We are inclined to think that Dr. Watts united in himself more of the qualifications of a translator than most who have undertaken it. Whether he was sufficiently accomplished as a Hebrew scholar, we know not; but in catching the spirit of the text, no writer, perhaps, has been on the whole so happy; and his metrical version, free and imperfect as it professedly is, and faulty in many respects, is nevertheless the most instructive commentary on the Psalms that we possess. Nor has any single work so powerfully contributed to promote the cultivation of sacred poetry and the devout use of the inspired originals. That' Bishop Mant should not have had magnanimity enough to pay a just tribute of encomium to that learned and accomplished Nonconformist, cannot be wondered at, when it is recollected, that even the amiable Bishop Horne has not noticed his version, though he has cited Merrick and Ogilvie.
Dr. Watts's version was an immense improvement in English psalmody, and, to a certain extent, an excellent exposition of the Psalms. Still, he was cramped, as well by his design of accommodating the language of David to the purposes of Christian worship, as by the scanty limits of the metres to which it became requisite to confine himself. If the Psalms are to be sung by Christian congregations, this would seem the only rational plan that can be adopted to preclude the singing of what, to the performers, must be virtually nonsense, or worse. Accordingly, Dr. Watts's example has been slowly and reluctantly followed by almost all who have subsequently undertaken to give a metrical version of any of the Psalms. The absolute impossibility of accommodating all the Psalms to this purpose might, however, long ago have suggested a doubt as to the fitness of many of them for Christian worship. Why the prophecies of David, rather than those of Isaiah or Jeremiah, should be sung by a Christian congregation, it seems difficult to tell. Not, surely, because they are recorded in the form of poetry. No part of Scripture is in a higher strain of poetry than some whole chapters of Isaiah ; nor does the song of Moses or of Deborah less partake of the lyric character. The mere title of Psalms, even admitting, what it is hard to admit, that they were all originally written for