Excerpts from Rediscovering the Psalms by Joe Holland
Psalm singing is experiencing a renaissance. A national worship conference being held this year is entitled "Rediscovering the Psalms". Websites are providing resources for people who would like to learn more about psalm singing. Churches are making strategic plans to train their members in psalm singing. Blogs and internet bulletin boards buzz with excitement over the Psalter. It is undeniable that the church is waking up to that which once marked it--the passionate singing of psalms. I am a child of this movement...
...First, what benefits should you expect from psalm singing?
When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
The hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches "For All the Saints" in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns are the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired word of God for his church in every age. When you sing a psalm you sing the Bible.
When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
Martin Luther said of the Psalter, "that it might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended." The 150 psalms cover the span of theology. To learn the psalms is not just to learn a specific topic of theology. It is to learn about every area of theology. Anthropology, theology proper, a theology of Scripture, Christology, soteriology, eccleisiology, and eschatology are all covered in the Psalter. Take for example Psalm 19 and its two part contemplation of God's revelation in creation and in the Bible. Or consider John Calvin's observation of God's attributes in Psalm 145, "in which the sum of all his powers is so precisely reckoned up that nothing would seem to have been omitted." The psalms provide a thorough exposure to the fullness of theology.
When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long advocated the use of music to aid memorization. Music has a way of impressing truth into the mind in ways that reading alone cannot. This is no accident; it is the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory--the Psalter as Scripture set to music.
When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
Andrew Fletcher said, "Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws." He was on to something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. There is an assumption that if you can sing it then it must be true. How shall we guard against sung-heresy? Sing psalms.
When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions.
Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the class room of our affections.
When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, "I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus." Too many evangelicals--having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy--have ceased to see the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ.
When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus' atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus' atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare.
As my Peruvian friend insisted, the psalms are militant. They are filled with images of war, divine conquest, and righteous triumph. Are those themes no longer needed in our day? As we watch men leave the church in droves dismayed at the feminization of worship is their no need for masculine, militant spirituality? As we watch Satan and his legions pillage congregations and hold Christians captive in doubts and error do we not need songs of war? J. C. Ryle understood this crucial element of Christian worship when he said, "true Christianity is the fight of faith." What songs will the armies of God sing to steel courage and embolden spiritual warfare? When we sing the psalms we sing the songs of war against sin, the world, and the devil.
When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints.
The psalms were composed over a certain period in Israelite history. But they are not relics. They have been sung by the covenant people of God in each successive generation up to today. They will be sung until Christ's return. This touches on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. There is a solidarity in Christ for all who have been bought by his blood. That solidarity extends across cultures and generations. The psalms are rooted in the covenant identity of all God's chosen race. To sing them is to confess the communion of saints.
Voices of the Past on the Psalter
“Time was when the Psalms were not only rehearsed in all the churches from day to day, but they were so universally sung that the common people knew them, even if they did not know the letters in which they were written.
Time was when bishops would ordain no man to the ministry unless he knew “David” from end to end, and could repeat each psalm correctly; even Councils of the Church have decreed that none should hold ecclesiastical office unless they knew the whole psalter by heart. Other practices of those ages had better be forgotten, but to this memory accords an honourable record.
Then as Jerome tells us, the labourer, while he held the plough, sang Hallelujah; the tired reaper refreshed himself with the psalms, and the vinedresser, while trimming the vines with his curved hook, sang something of David.”
“The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible...
In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.”
“Do you wish to be happy? Do you want to know how to spend the day truly blessed? I offer you a drink that is spiritual. This is not a drink for drunkenness that would cut off even meaningful speech. This does not cause us to babble.
It does not disturb our vision. Here it is: Learn to sing Psalms! Then you will see pleasure indeed. Those who have learned to sing with the psalms are easily filled with the Holy Spirit.”
“Perhaps our other denominations would have greater love for the Bible if we sang from the Psalms as often as our fathers did after the Reformation. Many of those songs came out of the fiery furnace, and so they brought our fathers a mighty sense of God’s holiness, as well as a keen awareness of his laws.”
“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”
William Law, Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
Of chanting, or singing of psalms in our private devotions. Of the excellency and benefit of this kind of devotion. Of the great effects it hath upon our hearts. Of the means of performing it in the best manner.
YOU have seen, in the foregoing chapter, what means and methods you are to use, to raise and improve your devotion; how early you are to begin your prayers, and what is to be the subject of your first devotions in the morning.
There is one thing still remaining, that you must be required to observe, not only as fit and proper to be done, but as such as cannot be neglected without great prejudice to your devotions: and that is to begin all your prayers with a psalm.
This is so right, is so beneficial to devotion, has so much effect upon our hearts, that it may be insisted upon as a common rule for all persons.
I do not mean, that you should read over a psalm, but that you should chant or sing one of those psalms, which we commonly call the reading psalms. For singing is as much the proper use of a psalm as devout supplication is the proper use of a form of prayer; and a psalm only read is very much like a prayer that is only looked over.
Now the method of chanting a psalm, such as is used in the colleges, in the universities, and in some churches, is such as all persons are capable of. The change of the voice in thus chanting of a psalm is so small and natural, that everybody is able to do it, and yet sufficient to raise and keep up the gladness of our hearts.
You are, therefore, to consider this chanting of a psalm as a necessary beginning of your devotions, as something that is to awaken all that is good and holy within you, that is to call your spirits to their proper duty, to set you in your best posture towards heaven, and tune all the powers of your soul to worship and adoration.
For there is nothing that so clears a way for your prayers, nothing that so disperses dulness of heart, nothing that so purifies the soul from poor and little passions, nothing that so opens heaven, or carries your heart so near it, as these songs of praise.
They create a sense and delight in God, they awaken holy desires, they teach you how to ask, and they prevail with God to give. They kindle a holy flame, they turn your heart into an altar, your prayers into incense, and carry them as a sweet-smelling savour to the throne of grace.
The difference between singing and reading a psalm will easily be understood, if you consider the difference between reading and singing a common song that you like. Whilst you only read it, you only like it, and that is all; but as soon as you sing it, then you enjoy it, you feel the delight of it; it has got hold of you, your passions keep pace with it, and you feel the same spirit within you that seems to be in the words.
If you were to tell a person that has such a song, that he need not sing it, that it was sufficient to peruse it, he would wonder what you meant; and would think you as absurd as if you were to tell him that he should only look at his food, to see whether it was good, but need not eat it: for a song of praise not sung, is very like any other good thing not made use of.
You will perhaps say, that singing is a particular talent, that belongs only to particular people, and that you have neither voice nor ear to make any music.
If you had said that singing is a general talent, and that people differ in that as they do in all other things, you had said something much truer.
For how vastly do people differ in the talent of thinking, which is not only common to all men, but seems to be the very essence of human nature. How readily do some people reason upon everything! and how hardly do others reason upon anything! How clearly do some people discourse upon the most abstruse matters! and how confusedly do others talk upon the plainest subjects!
Yet no one desires to be excused from thought, or reason, or discourse, because he has not these talents, as some people have them. But it is full as just for a person to think himself excused from thinking upon God, from reasoning about his duty to Him, or discoursing about the means of salvation, because he has not these talents in any fine degree; this is full as just, as for a person to think himself excused from singing the praises of God, because he has not a fine ear, or a musical voice.
For as it is speaking, and not graceful speaking, that is a required part of prayer; as it is bowing, and not genteel bowing, that is a proper part of adoration; so it is singing, and not artful, fine singing, that is a required way of praising God.
If a person was to forbear praying, because he had an odd tone in his voice, he would have as good an excuse as he has, that forbears from singing psalms, because he has but little management of his voice. And as a man's speaking his prayers, though in an odd tone, may yet sufficiently answer all the ends of his own devotion; so a man's singing of a psalm, though not in a very musical way, may yet sufficiently answer all the ends of rejoicing in, and praising God.
Secondly, This objection might be of some weight, if you were desired to sing to entertain other people; but is not to be admitted in the present case, where you are only required to sing the praises of God, as a part of your private devotion.
If a person that has a very ill voice, and a bad way of speaking, was desired to be the mouth of a congregation, it would be a very proper excuse for him, to say that he had not a voice, or a way of speaking, that was proper for prayer. But he would be very absurd, if, for the same reason, he should neglect his own private devotions.
Now this is exactly the case of singing psalms: you may not have the talent of singing, so as to be able to entertain other people, and therefore it is reasonable to excuse yourself from it; but if for that reason you should excuse yourself from this way of praising God, you would be guilty of a great absurdity: because singing is no more required for the music that is made by it, than prayer is required for the fine words that it contains, but as it is the natural and proper expression of a heart rejoicing in God.
Our blessed Saviour and His Apostles sang a hymn: but it may reasonably be supposed, that they rather rejoiced in God, than made fine music.
Do but so live, that your heart may truly rejoice in God, that it may feel itself affected with the praises of God; and then you will find that this state of your heart will neither want a voice nor ear to find a tune for a psalm. Every one, at some time or other, finds himself able to sing in some degree; there are some times and occasions of joy, that make all people ready to express their sense of it in some sort of harmony. The joy that they feel forces them to let their voice have a part in it.
He therefore that saith he wants a voice, or an ear, to sing a psalm, mistakes the case: he wants that spirit that really rejoices in God; the dulness is in his heart, and not in his ear: and when his heart feels a true joy in God, when it has a full relish of what is expressed in the Psalms, he will find it very pleasant to make the motions of his voice express the motions of his heart.
Singing, indeed, as it is improved into an art, -- as it signifies the running of the voice through such and such a compass of notes, and keeping time with a studied variety of changes, is not natural, nor the effect of any natural state of the mind; so in this sense, it is not common to all people, any more than those antic and invented motions which make fine dancing are common to all people.
But singing, as it signifies a motion of the voice suitable to the motions of the heart, and the changing of its tone according to the meaning of the words which we utter, is as natural and common to all men, as it is to speak high when they threaten in anger, or to speak low when they are dejected and ask for a pardon.
All men therefore are singers, in the same manner as all men think, speak, laugh, and lament. For singing is no more an invention, than grief or joy are inventions .
Every state of the heart naturally puts the body into some state that is suitable to it, and is proper to show it to other people. If a man is angry, or disdainful, no one need instruct him how to express these passions by the tone of his voice. The state of his heart disposes him to a proper use of his voice.
If therefore there are but few singers of divine songs, if people want to be exhorted to this part of devotion, it is because there are but few whose hearts are raised to that height of piety, as to feel any motions of joy and delight in the praises of God.
Imagine to yourself that you had been with Moses when he was led through the Red Sea; that you had seen the waters divide themselves, and stand on an heap on both sides; that you had seen them held up till you had passed through, then let fall upon your enemies; do you think that you should then have wanted a voice or an ear to have sung with Moses, "The Lord is my strength and my song, and he is become my salvation," etc.? [Ex. xv. 2] I know your own heart tells you, that all people must have been singers upon such an occasion. Let this therefore teach you, that it is the heart that tunes a voice to sing the praises of God; and that if you cannot sing the same words now with joy, it is because you are not so affected with the salvation of the world by Jesus Christ, as the Jews were, or you yourself would have been, with their deliverance at the Red Sea.
That it is the state of the heart that disposes to rejoice in any particular kind of singing, may be easily proved from a variety of observations upon human nature. An old debauchee may, according to the language of the world, have neither voice nor ear, if you only sing a psalm, or a song in praise of virtue to him; but yet, if in some easy tune you sing something that celebrates his former debauches, he will then, though he has no teeth in his head, show you that he has both a voice and an ear to join in such music. You then awaken his heart, and he as naturally sings to such words, as he laughs when he is pleased. And this will be the case in every song that touches the heart: if you celebrate the ruling passion of any man's heart, you put his voice in tune to join with you.
Thus if you can find a man, whose ruling temper is devotion, whose heart is full of God, his voice will rejoice in those songs of praise, which glorify that God, that is the joy of his heart, though he has neither voice nor ear for other music. Would you, therefore, delightfully perform this part of devotion, it is not so necessary to learn a tune, or practise upon notes, as to prepare your heart; for, as our blessed Lord saith, "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders," etc., [Matt. xv. 19] so it is equally true, that out of the heart proceed holy joys, thanksgiving, and praise. If you can once say with David, "My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed"; it will be very easy and natural to add, as he did, "I will sing, and give praise," etc. [Ps. lvii. 7]
Secondly, Let us now consider another reason for this kind of devotion. As singing is a natural effect of joy in the heart, so it has also a natural power of rendering the heart joyful.
The soul and body are so united, that they have each of them power over one another in their actions. Certain thoughts and sentiments in the soul produce such and such motions and actions in the body; and, on the other hand, certain motions and actions of the body have the same power of raising such and such thoughts and sentiments in the soul. So that, as singing is the natural effect of joy in the mind, so it is as truly a natural cause of raising joy in the mind.
As devotion of the heart naturally breaks out into outward acts of prayer; so outward acts of prayer are natural means of raising the devotion of the heart.
It is thus in all states and tempers of the mind: as the inward state of the mind produces outward actions suitable to it, so those outward actions have the like power of raising an inward state of mind suitable to them. As anger produces angry words, so angry words increase anger.
So that if we barely consider human nature, we shall find, that singing or chanting the psalms is as proper and necessary to raise our hearts to a delight in God, as prayer is proper and necessary to excite in us the spirit of devotion. Every reason for one is in all respects as strong a reason for the other.
If, therefore, you would know the reason and necessity of singing psalms, you must consider the reason and necessity of praising and rejoicing in God; because singing of psalms is as much the true exercise and support of the spirit of thanksgiving, as prayer is the true exercise and support of the spirit of devotion. And you may as well think that you can be devout as you ought, without the use of prayer, as that you can rejoice in God as you ought without the practice of singing psalms: because this singing is as much the natural language of praise and thanksgiving, as prayer is the natural language of devotion.
The union of soul and body is not a mixture of their substances, as we see bodies united and mixed together, but consists solely in the mutual power that they have of acting upon one another.
If two persons were in such a state of dependence upon one another, that neither of them could act, or move, or think, or feel, or suffer, or desire anything, without putting the other into the same condition, one might properly say that they were in a state of strict union, although their substances were not united together.
Now this is the union of the soul and body: the substance of the one cannot be mixed or united with the other; but they are held together in such a state of union, that all the actions and sufferings of the one, are at the same time the actions and sufferings of the other. The soul has no thought or passion, but the body is concerned in it; the body has no action or motion, but what in some degree affects the soul.
Now as it is the sole will of God that is the reason and cause of all the powers and effects which you see in the world; as the sun gives light and heat, not because it has any natural power of so doing; as it is fixed in a certain place, and other bodies moving about it, not because it is in the nature of the sun to stand still, and in the nature of other bodies to move about it, but merely because it is the will of God that they should be in such a state; as the eye is the organ, or instrument of seeing, not because the skins, and coats, and humours of the eye have a natural power of giving sight; as the ears are the organs, or instruments of hearing, not because the make of the ear has any natural power over sounds, but merely because it is the will of God that seeing and hearing should be thus received; so, in like manner, it is the sole will of God, and not the nature of a human soul or body, that is the cause of this union betwixt the soul and the body.
Now if you rightly apprehend this short account of the union of the soul and body, you will see a great deal into the reason and necessity of all the outward parts of religion.
This union of our souls and bodies is the reason both why we have so little and so much power over ourselves. It is owing to this union that we have so little power over our souls; for as we cannot prevent the effects of external objects upon our bodies, as we cannot command outward causes, so we cannot always command the inward state of our minds; because, as outward objects act upon our bodies without our leave, so our bodies act upon our minds by the laws of the union of the soul and the body; and thus you see it is owing to this union, that we have so little power over ourselves.
On the other hand, it is owing to this union that we have so much power over ourselves. For as our souls, in a great measure, depend upon our bodies; and as we have great power over our bodies; as we can command our outward actions, and oblige ourselves to such habits of life as naturally produce habits in the soul; as we can mortify our bodies, and remove ourselves from objects that inflame our passions; so we have a great power over the inward state of our souls. Again, as we are masters of our outward actions; as we can force ourselves to outward acts of reading, praying, singing, and the like, and as all these bodily actions have an effect upon the soul; as they naturally tend to form such and such tempers in our hearts; so by being masters of these outward, bodily actions, we have great power over the inward state of the heart: and thus it is owing to this union that we have so much power over ourselves.
Now from this you may also see the necessity and benefit of singing psalms, and of all the outward acts of religion; for if the body has so much power over the soul, it is certain that all such bodily actions as affect the soul are of great weight in religion. Not as if there was any true worship, or piety, in the actions themselves, but because they are proper to raise and support that spirit, which is the true worship of God.
Though therefore the seat of religion is in the heart, yet since our bodies have a power over our hearts; since outward actions both proceed from, and enter into the heart; it is plain that outward actions have a great power over that religion which is seated in the heart.
We are therefore as well to use outward helps, as inward meditation, in order to beget and fix habits of piety in our hearts.
This doctrine may easily be carried too far; for by calling in too many outward means of worship, it may degenerate into superstition; as, on the other hand, some have fallen into the contrary extreme. For, because religion is justly placed in the heart, some have pursued that notion so far as to renounce vocal prayer, and other outward acts of worship, and have resolved all religion into a quietism, or mystic intercourses with God in silence.
Now these are two extremes equally prejudicial to true religion; and ought not to be objected either against internal or external worship. As you ought not to say that I encourage that quietism by placing religion in the heart; so neither ought you to say, that I encourage superstition, by showing the benefit of outward acts of worship.
For since we are neither all soul, nor all body; seeing none of our actions are either separately of the soul, or separately of the body; seeing we have no habits but such as are produced by the actions both of our souls and bodies; it is certain that if we would arrive at habits of devotion, or delight in God, we must not only meditate and exercise our souls, but we must practise and exercise our bodies to all such outward actions as are conformable to these inward tempers.
If we would truly prostrate our souls before God, we must use our bodies to postures of lowliness; if we desire true fervours of devotion, we must make prayer the frequent labour of our lips. If we would banish all pride and passion from our hearts, we must force ourselves to all outward actions of patience and meekness. If we would feel inward motions of joy and delight in God, we must practise all the outward acts of it, and make our voices call upon our hearts.
Now, therefore, you may plainly see the reason and necessity of singing of psalms; it is because outward actions are necessary to support inward tempers; and therefore the outward act of joy is necessary to raise and support the inward joy of the mind.
If any people were to leave off prayer, because they seldom find the motions of their hearts answering the words which they speak, you would charge them with great absurdity. You would think it very reasonable that they should continue their prayers, and be strict in observing all times of prayer, as the most likely means of removing the dulness and indevotion of their hearts.
Now this is very much the case as to singing of psalms; people often sing, without finding any inward joy suitable to the words which they speak; therefore they are careless of it, or wholly neglect it; not considering that they act as absurdly as he that should neglect prayer, because his heart was not enough affected with it. For it is certain that this singing is as much the natural means of raising emotions of joy in the mind, as prayer is the natural means of raising devotion.
I have been the longer upon this head, because of its great importance to true religion. For there is no state of mind so holy, so excellent, and so truly perfect, as that of thankfulness to God; and consequently nothing is of more importance in religion than that which exercises and improves this habit of mind.
A dull, uneasy, complaining spirit, which is sometimes the spirit of those that seem careful of religion, is yet, of all tempers, the most contrary to religion; for it disowns that God whom it pretends to adore. For he sufficiently disowns God, who does not adore Him as a Being of infinite goodness.
If a man does not believe that all the world is as God's family, where nothing happens by chance, but all is guided and directed by the care and providence of a Being that is all love and goodness to all His creatures; if a man does not believe this from his heart, he cannot be said truly to believe in God. And yet he that has this faith, has faith enough to overcome the world, and always be thankful to God. For he that believes that everything happens to him for the best, cannot possibly complain for the want of something that is better.
If, therefore, you live in murmurings and complaints, accusing all the accidents of life, it is not because you are a weak, infirm creature, but it is because you want the first principle of religion, -- a right belief in God. For as thankfulness is an express acknowledgment of the goodness of God towards you, so repinings and complaints are as plain accusations of God's want of goodness towards you.
On the other hand, would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God willeth, who receives everything as an instance of God's goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.
All prayer and devotion, fastings and repentance, meditation and retirement, all Sacraments and ordinances, are but so many means to render the soul thus Divine, and conformable to the will of God, and to fill it with thankfulness and praise for everything that comes from God. This is the perfection of all virtues; and all virtues that do not tend to it, or proceed from it, are but so many false ornaments of a soul not converted unto God.
You need not, therefore, now wonder that I lay so much stress upon singing a psalm at all your devotions, since you see it is to form your spirit to such joy and thankfulness to God as is the highest perfection of a Divine and holy life.
If any one would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness, and all perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to yourself, to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you. For it is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing. Could you therefore work miracles, you could not do more for yourself than by this thankful spirit; for it heals with a word speaking, and turns all that it touches into happiness.
If therefore you would be so true to your eternal interest, as to propose this thankfulness as the end of all your religion; if you would but settle it in your mind that this was the state that you were to aim at by all your devotions; you would then have something plain and visible to walk by in all your actions; you would then easily see the effect of your virtues, and might safely judge of your improvement in piety. For so far as you renounce all selfish tempers, and motions of your own will, and seek for no other happiness but in the thankful reception of everything that happens to you, so far you may be safely reckoned to have advanced in piety.
And although this be the highest temper that you can aim at, though it be the noblest sacrifice that the greatest saint can offer unto God, yet is it not tied to any time, or place, or great occasion, but is always in your power, and may be the exercise of every day. For the common events of every day are sufficient to discover and exercise this temper, and may plainly show you how far you are governed in all your actions by this thankful spirit.
And for this reason I exhort you to this method in your devotion, that every day may be made a day of thanksgiving, and that the spirit of murmur and discontent may be unable to enter into the heart which is so often employed in singing the praises of God.
It may, perhaps, after all, be objected, that although the great benefit and excellent effects of this practice are very apparent, yet it seems not altogether so fit for private devotions; since it can hardly be performed without making our devotions public to other people, and seems also liable to the charge of sounding a trumpet at our prayers.
It is therefore answered: first, That great numbers of people have it in their power to be as private as they please; such persons therefore are excluded from this excuse, which, however it may be so to others, is none to them. Therefore let us take the benefit of this excellent devotion.
Secondly, Numbers of people are, by the necessity of their state, as servants, apprentices, prisoners, and families in small houses, forced to be continually in the presence or sight of somebody or other.
Now, are such persons to neglect their prayers, because they cannot pray without being seen? Are they not rather obliged to be more exact in them, that others may not be witnesses of their neglect, and so corrupted by their example?
Now what is here said of devotion, may surely be said of this chanting a psalm, which is only a part of devotion.
The rule is this; do not pray that you may be seen of men; but if your confinement obliges you to be always in the sight of others, be more afraid of being seen to neglect, than of being seen to have recourse to prayer.
Thirdly, The short of the matter is this; either people can use such privacy in this practice as to have no hearers, or they cannot. If they can, then this objection vanishes as to them: and if they cannot, they should consider their confinement, and the necessities of their state, as the confinement of a prison; and then they have an excellent pattern to follow, -- they may imitate St. Paul and Silas, who sang praises to God in prison, though we are expressly told, that the prisoners heard them. They therefore did not refrain from this kind of devotion for fear of being heard by others. If therefore any one is in the same necessity, either in prison, or out of prison, what can he do better than follow this example?
I cannot pass by this place of Scripture, without desiring the pious reader to observe how strongly we are here called upon to this use of psalms, and what a mighty recommendation of it the practice of these two great saints is.
In this their great distress, in prison, in chains, under the soreness of stripes, in the horror of night, the Divinest, holiest thing they could do, was to sing praises unto God.
And shall we, after this, need any exhortation to this holy practice? Shall we let the day pass without such thanksgiving as they would not neglect in the night? Shall a prison, chains, and darkness furnish them with songs of praise, and shall we have no singings in our closets?
Farther, let it also be observed, that while these two holy men were thus employed in the most exalted part of devotion, doing that on earth, which Angels do in Heaven, the foundations of the prison were shaken, all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed. [Acts xvi. 26]
And shall we now ask for motives to this Divine exercise, when, instead of arguments, we have here such miracles to convince us of its mighty power with God?
Could God by a voice from Heaven more expressly call us to these songs of praise, than by thus showing us how He hears, delivers, and rewards, those that use them?
But this by the way. I now return to the objection in hand; and answer fourthly, That the privacy of our prayers is not destroyed by our having, but by our seeking, witnesses of them.
If therefore nobody hears you but those you cannot separate yourself from, you are as much in secret, and your Father who seeth in secret will as truly reward your secrecy, as if you were seen by Him only.
Fifthly, Private prayer, as it is opposed to prayer in public, does not suppose that no one is to have any witness of it. For husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children, masters and servants, tutors and pupils, are to be witnesses to one another of such devotion, as may truly and properly be called private. It is far from being a duty to conceal such devotion from such near relations.
In all these cases, therefore, where such relations sometimes pray together in private, and sometimes apart by themselves, the chanting of a psalm can have nothing objected against it.
Our blessed Lord commands us, when we fast, to anoint our heads, and wash our faces, that we appear not unto men to fast, but unto our Father which is in secret.
But this only means, that we must not make public ostentation to the world of our fasting.
For if no one was to fast in private, or could be said to fast in private, but he that had no witnesses of it, no one could keep a private fast, but he that lived by himself -- for every family must know who fast in it. Therefore the privacy of fasting does not suppose such a privacy as excludes everybody from knowing it, but such a privacy as does not seek to be known abroad.
Cornelius, the devout Centurion, of whom the Scripture saith that he gave much, and prayed to God alway, saith unto St. Peter, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour." [Acts x. 2]
Now that this fasting was sufficiently private and acceptable to God, appears from the vision of an Angel, with which the holy man was blessed at that time.
But that it was not so private as to be entirely unknown to others, appears, as from the relation of it here, so from what is said in another place, that he "called two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited upon him continually." [Ver. 7] So that Cornelius' fasting was so far from being unknown to his family, that the soldiers and they of his household were made devout themselves, by continually waiting upon him, that is, by seeing and partaking of his good works.
The whole of the matter is this. Great part of the world can be as private as they please, therefore, let them use this excellent devotion between God and themselves.
As therefore the privacy or excellency of fasting is not destroyed by being known to some particular persons, neither would the privacy or excellency of your devotions be hurt, though by chanting a psalm you should be heard by some of your family.
Another great part of the world must and ought to have witnesses of several of their devotions: let them therefore not neglect the use of a psalm at such times, as it ought to be known to those with whom they live that they do not neglect their prayers. For surely there can be no harm in being known to be singing a psalm at such times as it ought to be known that you are at your prayers.
And if, at other times, you desire to be in such secrecy at your devotions, as to have nobody suspect it, and for that reason forbear your psalm; I have nothing to object against it; provided that at the known hours of prayer, you never omit this practice.
For who would not be often doing that in the day, which St. Paul and Silas would not neglect in the middle of the night? And if, when you are thus singing, it should come into your head, how the prison shaked, and the doors opened, when St. Paul sang, it would do your devotion no harm.
Lastly, seeing our imaginations have great power over our hearts, and can mightily affect us with their representations, it would be of great use to you, if, at the beginning of your devotions, you were to imagine to yourself some such representations as might heat and warm your heart into a temper suitable to those prayers that you are then about to offer unto God.
As thus; before you begin your psalm of praise and rejoicing in God, make this use of your imagination.
Be still, and imagine to yourself that you saw the heavens open, and the glorious choirs of cherubims and seraphims about the throne of God. Imagine that you hear the music of those angelic voices, that cease not day and night to sing the glories of Him that is, and was, and is to come.
Help your imagination with such passages of Scripture as these:--
"I beheld, and, lo, in heaven a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.
"And all the angels stood round about the throne, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and strength, be unto God, forever and ever, Amen." [Rev. vii. 9-12]
Think upon this till your imagination has carried you above the clouds; till it has placed you amongst those heavenly beings, and made you long to bear a part in their eternal music.
If you will but use yourself to this method, and let your imagination dwell upon such representations as these, you will soon find it to be an excellent means of raising the spirit of devotion within you.
Always therefore begin your psalm, or song of praise, with these imaginations; and at every verse of it imagine yourself amongst those heavenly companions, that your voice is added to theirs, and that angels join with you, and you with them; and that you with a poor and low voice are singing that on earth which they are singing in Heaven.
Again; sometimes imagine that you had been one of those that joined with our blessed Saviour when He sang an hymn. Strive to imagine to yourself, with what majesty He looked; fancy that you had stood close by Him surrounded with His glory. Think how your heart would have been inflamed, what ecstasies of joy you would have then felt, when singing with the Son of God. Think again and again, with what joy and devotion you would then have sung, had this been really your happy state, and what a punishment you should have thought it, to have been then silent; and let this teach you how to be affected with psalms and hymns of thanksgiving.
Again; sometimes imagine to yourself that you saw holy David with his hands upon his harp, and his eyes fixed upon heaven, calling in transport upon all the creation, sun and moon, light and darkness, day and night, men and angels, to join with his rapturous soul in praising the Lord of Heaven.
Dwell upon this imagination till you think you are singing with this Divine musician; and let such a companion teach you to exalt your heart unto God in the following psalm; which you may use constantly, first in the morning:--
Psalm cxlv. "I will magnify Thee, O God my King: and I will praise Thy Name forever and ever," etc.
These following psalms, as the 34th, 96th, 103rd, 111th, 146th, 147th, are such as wonderfully set forth the glory of God; and therefore you may keep to any one of them, at any particular hour, as you like: or you may take the finest parts of any psalms, and so adding them together, may make them fitter for your own devotion.