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Ancient Jewish Hymns

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The hymns of the Old Testament were, as we have indicated, the spontaneous outflow of the religious nature. No form of worship requiring song was instituted by Moses. No order of singers is included among the officers of the tabernacle. Indeed, the earliest history of the Hebrew race is practically without song. As it has been said, "we read of altar and prayers and accepted intercessions, and we feel sure that those who walked in the light like Enoch or Abraham must have had their hearts kindled with music; but from the green earth rising out of the flood—from the shadow of the great rock at Mamre, from the fountains and valleys and upland pastures of the Promised Land, where the tents of the Patriarchs rose amidst their flocks—from the prisons and palaces of Egypt we catch no sound of sacred song."

But then, this is a subject with which history did not concern itself—and we must not infer from this silence the utter absence of song—for scattered over the earlier history there are traces of its presence. The first examples, as we should expect, are of a very in-formal character—the product of some crisis in the life of the individual or the nation. Improvised songs born of great occasions, though to our colder western temperament almost impossible, are yet comparatively common among Eastern people like the Hebrews, even to' this day. It is a common gift among the Italians.* The first of such songs is that of Miriam in celebration of the delivery of Israel from their Egyptian pursuers —"Sing ye to Jehovah, for he bath triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider bath he thrown into the sea" ; but although this is the first recorded, it is almost certain that it was preceded by others, for before this we read of instruments of music.

Since the two greatest fountains of song have ever been love and religion, we may feel sure that those who had reached to the use of musical instruments, however rude, would employ them to accompany the words of passion or devotion which in exalted moments would spring to their lips. In Genesis iv. 21 we are told that Jubal "was the father of all such as handle the harp and the pipe," that is, of all string and wind instruments. While in verses 23, 24 we have Lamech's song to his wives—the first example of a song, though not a sacred one, in the pages of Scripture, yet possessing many of the features of later Semitic poetry. Later on we read in the account of Laban's interview with Jacob of "songs, with tabret and with harp" (Genesis xxxi. 27).

It is not at all likely that such a song as that of Miriam could have been uttered if she had not previously been accustomed to lyric improvisation. So grand an outburst and so equal to its grand occasion, although doubtless touched and enlarged by the editor of the book which records it, implies not only aptitude but exercise; while the fact that she led a procession of women, who chanted a chorus to her song, shows that songs had before this, in the time of their Egyptian captivity, been wedded to music. Somewhat later in the history we find that when Moses returned from the mount, he heard the people, who had made a calf for worship, joining aloud in a song to their newly fashioned god. It is considered by some all but certain that the lawgiver himself was the author of the 90th Psalm, which has been called the swan-song of Moses." This may have been the first contribution—the nucleus—of that wonderful collection the Book of Psalms, into which were gathered the noblest lyric utterances of widely severed times.

We catch here and there in the sacred history glimpses of the widening and deepening river of song to which those we have mentioned were the first tributary streams. In the Book of Numbers, xxi. 17, we have the song which Israel sang, "Spring up, 0 well." In the Book of Judges we meet with the song of Deborah and Barak, which was cast in a distinctly metrical form, and sung with a musical accompaniment—another improvisation by a prophetess, that is one in a measure trained to music and song. But as the religious life of the nation grew deeper this kind of improvised song led the way to a school for the cultivation of music and sacred utterance. This was a chief function of the schools of the prophets which came into such prominence in the time of Samuel. Dean Stanley says : "Whatever be the precise meaning of the peculiar word, which now came first into use as the designation of these companies, it is evident that their immediate mission consisted in uttering religious hymns or songs, accompanied by musical instruments, psaltery, tabret, pipe, and harp, and cymbals. In them, as in the few solitary instances of their predecessors, the characteristic element was that the silent seer of visions found an articulate voice, gushing forth in a rhythmical flow, which at once riveted the attention of the hearer. These, or such as these, were the gifts which under Samuel were now organized, if one may so say, into a system. From Ramah, the double height of the watch-men, they might be seen descending, in a long line or chain, which gave its name to their company, with psaltery, harp, tabret, pipe, and cymbals."

From this school under Samuel the prophet, David, the sweet singer of Israel, probably caught the inspiration which afterward found expression in the psalms which form so important a part of the Psalter that the book as a whole has been known as "The Psalms of David." It is impossible to say with certainty what portions of the Psalter we owe to his pen, probably they are fewer than is commonly supposed ; but the impetus he gave to sacred song is indicated by the fact that though some portions of the book belong to an age earlier than his, and that the larger portion came into being long after he had passed away, yet the book as a whole goes under his name. The Book of Psalms was doubtless thus ascribed just as the Book of Proverbs was to his son Solomon, because, as Professor Cheyne says, "Solomon had become the symbol of plain ethical `wisdom,' just as David had become the representative of religious lyric poetry." But then a reputation like this does not grow out of nothing. David not only contributed to the songs of the people, but through him the service of song was added to the ordinary worship of the sanctuary, and made a fixed and integral part of the daily offering to Jehovah. Before his time, if ever connected with the tabernacle at all, it had been fitful and occasional, de-pending to a large extent on individual enthusiasm. "For so mighty an innovation no less than a David was needed. The exquisite richness of verse and music so dear to him—`the calves of the lips'—took the place of the costly offerings of animals. His harp or guitar was to him what the wonder-working staff was to Moses, the spear to Joshua, or the sword to Gideon."

Thus sacred song found its way into the regular services of the temple, and the Psalms became the liturgical hymn-book of the Jewish Church. How completely the union of song and sacrifice (in the national worship) had been effected was made manifest at the dedication of the temple. In the account contained in 2 Chronicles v. 12-14, we read: "Also the Levites which were the singers, all of them, even Asaph,Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and their brethren, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding their trumpets : it came even to pass when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud ; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God." In the 7th chap-ter of the same book we find that, when Solomon had made an end of praying, all the children of Israelbowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshiped, and gave thanks unto the Lord, saying, "For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever." Thus, prayer and praise, the two most vital elements of a true worship, are found as integral parts of the service. It is somewhat difficult to say with certainty what place was afterward held by sacred song in the regular services of the temple. Certain psalms have been identified as having been used at particular seasons. But it is generally admitted that from this time onward, save when interrupted by the calamities which befell the nation, song, no less than sacrifice, held its ground as part of the Jewish worship.

The Levites, without the accompaniment of any of their usual musical instruments, used to sing in the temple on each day of the week a different psalm. "On other occasions," says the distinguished rabbinical scholar Paul Isaac Hershon, "various other psalms were sung, and sung so loud that their voice could be heard as far as Jericho, a distance of about twelve miles. On such occasions the youngsters of the Levites were permitted to enter the hall of the sanctuary in order to spice with their fine `thin voices' the rougher voices of the elder Levites."

"The same psalms that were sung in the temple are now merely repeated by every orthodox Jew in his daily morning prayer. Having no temple, the priest does not sacrifice and the Levite does not sing!

Ichabod ! the glory is departed !

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land!"

The later history naturally tells only of the special occasions in which the people broke into song, but these serve to confirm the idea that worship through song had become a habit among the people. "There is the song of Jehoshaphat and his army, the chant of victory sung in faith before the battle, and itself doing battles in that the Lord fought for those who trusted him, and they had nothing to do but divide the spoil and return to Jerusalem, with psalteries and harps and trumpets, into the house of the Lord. There is the song of Hezekiah, when he recovered from his sickness, and the psalm of Jonah from the depths of the sea, made up from the memory of other psalms sung in happier hours. There was many a song by the waters of Babylon, whispered low that the oppressors might not hear. There was the song of liberated Israel, at the dedication of the wall of the Holy City (another witness to the customs of the past), when the singers sang aloud and they all rejoiced : so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard afar off." All these serve to show how the lyric spirit prevailed among the people, ready, when touched by any deep emotion, to give rhythmic utterance to their prayer and praise.

It is with David, the minstrel king, however, that the stream of song suddenly grows broad and deep. Around him the chorus begins to gather, which has now grown to such a glorious multitude. The Psalms formed at once the justification and inspiration of all the noble songs of the later history of Israel, to say nothing of lyric notes, which are heard sounding through the pages of the prophets. But most remark-able is it, that when we reach the New Testament we find no lyric book corresponding to the Psalter. There are distinct psalms, like the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, kindled from the lyric fire of the Hebrew Psalter; and hints which indicate the presence of the lyric gift in the Apostolic Church, but there is no Christian psalter in the New Testament, and the reason is not far to seek. It is not that the lyric fire has departed, but that the Old Testament Psalter has so sounded the deepest notes of the soul in joy and sorrow, in darkness and light, that it is adequate to the needs, not only of Jewish, but Christian hearts. Thus it was not for an age, but for all time. Just as the octave in music can express the loftiest conceptions of the composers of every age, from the simple Gregorian chant to the intricate music of Beethoven, so the Psalter, meeting the deepest needs of the soul, becomes the fitting vehicle through which Christian as well as Jewish feeling can find expression.

And so we find, as a matter of fact, that through by far the greater part of the history of the Church the Psalms have formed its worship-song; they have had a place in the services of every church of Christendom where praise has been offered. They have been said or sung in grand cathedral or lowly meeting-house, by white-robed priests and plain-clad Puritans. The hearts of Roman and Greek, Armenian and Anglican, no less than Puritan and Nonconformist, have been kindled into praise by the Psalms of David and his company. Edward Irving says : "From whatever point of view any Church bath contemplated the scheme of its doctrine, by whatever name they have thought good to designate themselves, and however bitterly opposed to each other in Church government or observance of rules, you will find them all, by harmonious consent, adopting the Psalms as the outward form by which they shall express the inward feelings of the Christian life."

And even those who refused to sing the Psalms in the form in which they are found in Scripture—who deemed it dangerous and even heretical so to do—have sung them in metrical versions from which much of their glory had departed. -Until quite recently there were churches whose only hymnal consisted of these versions. Thus the Psalms have been at once an inspiration and a bondage : an inspiration, in that they have kindled the fire which has produced the hymnody of the entire Church; a bondage, because by stereotyping religious expression they robbed the heart of the right to express in its own words the fears, the joys, the hopes that the Divine spirit had kindled in their souls. Had there been no Psalter in the canon of Scripture, the Church would have had no model for its song—no place at which to kindle its worship-fire; but, on the other hand, its worshiping instinct would have compelled it to create a psalter of its own, and so there would have been an earlier and fuller development of hymnody in the Church. The very glory and perfection of the Psalter made the Church for long ages content with the provision thus made for its worship, and so it discouraged all who else would have joined the company of the singers. And even those who at last ventured to join their company, did so timidly, and chiefly as adapters of the Psalms for public worship. George Wither, Sir Philip Sidney and his sister belong to this class. Even when Dr. Watts began to write, his hymns were used only as supplemental to the Versions; indeed, a large part of his compositions are themselves metrical renderings of the Psalms, though some of them are so alive with his peculiar genius as to deserve rank as original compositions.

Mighty indeed was the spell the Psalter exercised over the Church, and rightly so, for it is the heart-utterance of the noble men whose mission it was to give the world religion. And as we have not out-grown the art of Greece or the laws of Rome, so neither have we outgrown the worship-song of Israel. This is so deep and true that it expresses the longings and praise even of those who have sat at the feet of Christ and learned of him. And as in the most sacred moment of his life one of these psalms served to ex-press his deepest feelings, so they have inspired and expressed the feelings of his followers in all aftertime. As has been well said, "the Church has been singing these psalms ever since, and has not yet sung them dry," and she will go on singing them until she takes up the new song in the heavenly city. It should be frankly admitted that there are elements in the Psalms distinctly Jewish, and expressive of the feeling of earlier days. There are imprecatory notes that are out of harmony with the gentler melody of Christ. These ought to be dropped as unsuitable to Christian worship; but as a whole the Psalms form the noblest treasury of sacred song, and their inspiration may be discerned in every hymn that is worthy of a place in the Church's worship. Her hymnody can never be under-stood apart from the Psalter, and it will be found that those whose hearts are steeped the most deeply therein have given to the Church the songs that she will not willingly let die.



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