The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.The Grand Doxology
How could the Book of Psalms end but in this way? Psalms cannot end in prose. Whether the arrangement is mechanical or inspired, it is the best possible. There is a fitness of things, and that fitness is realised in this peroration. It is as if a great broad river had suddenly become a resounding cascade; these five psalms are the final cataract. The Psalmist will have everything pressed into the choir. He will not have a small band. He ranges creation through, and brings everybody and everything into the orchestra. There goes out from him a great sound, "Praise ye the Lord." Not only will he deliver this exhortation, he will exemplify what he means, and therefore he continues, "Praise the Lord, O my soul." We must be on fire ourselves if we would set other people on fire. "While I live will I praise the Lord: I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being." He will have all instruments pressed into this service. He knows all the instruments by name; he says, There are three sorts of instruments at least: the wind instruments, which a man seems to play with his soul—"the Lord breathed into his nostrils the breath of life," and with that heaven-given afflatus the truly praising soul addresses itself to the instrument; and there are stringed instruments—as the harp and lute—to which a man speaks through his hands, the soul running out at the finger-tips; there are also percussive instruments which a man must smite, as the drum, and the tambourine, the cymbals, the triangles, and instruments many. So he would have skilled fingers that know how to operate upon stringed instruments, and skilled strong fingers and hands—quite a muscular service—to make the drum throb, and take a share in this offering of hallelujah and acclaim unto God. He must have read all the Psalms before he wrote these five. He seems to have written all the Psalms as well as read them. There is a way of reading a book, which is the next best thing to having written it. To hear the book well read, to hear your own letter well uttered! There is an authorship of reading. It would seem as if this man had taken up all the great psalms and had rewritten them in his heart, and had come out at last with an appropriate conclusion.
In these five psalms we have great burst of praise. The instruments were made for the psalms. Everything was made for the Church. Perversions many there have been, and probably will be, but they are perversions, and must be recognised and stigmatised as such. No bad man has a right to any instrument of music. He holds it by no right that can be established in the court of equity; he does not know how to handle that thing of beauty, he does not know how to speak to that secret of sweet sounds. There is nothing more horrible than that a blaspheming man should sing at a sacred concert. There is no irony so unpardonable. Christian men should not support it. Christian service should be rendered by Christian people. For a man who has been guilty of anything that is vilely wrong to sing in any of the great oratorios is a lie seven times told; a black and most pestilent thing—quite a horrible outrage to taste, to decency, to the genius of piety. Some have supposed that the Psalmist really did not desire to have all these instruments, but that he is simply struggling or working his way towards a great human appeal, namely, Praise ye the Lord: especially let Israel praise the Lord; he is simply trying to construct a great altar of Hebrew music. Grammatically that may be partly right; in a narrow sense of the terms, the Psalmist may have been fixing his thoughts wholly upon the human temple, and when he calls for a universal song his universe may have been restricted to Israel. Some men do not know the meaning of their own words. Great religious utterances have to be interpreted to the speakers themselves. Isaiah might profitably listen to a modern discourse upon his own prophecies, and be told what he meant when he used his own mother-tongue. I prefer, therefore, to take the larger construction, and to believe that the Psalmist was seeking to press everything into God's service. He saw that the universe itself is silent music, a dumb poem, a most marvellous miracle in the expression of fitness, interdependence, harmony. Said he, This great universe wants but one little spark to fall upon it, and the whole will rise as if in flames of praise. Man has nothing to do in the way of improving the universe. Poor man! he can but take a little part of the universe to pieces, and call it science. He cannot improve the rotundity of the earth, he cannot add a beam to the moon. The Psalmist, looking upon these things from a great height, said, All this means something more than has yet been articulated: this silence is supreme eloquence, this is all that prose can do: God is waiting for the man whom he will inspire with the spirit of poetry, and if that man will let fall one short syllable on this miracle of prose it will become poetry infinite, ineffable. It will be a sad thing when a man can tell all he means. Do not believe that the grammarian can exhaust the Bible. Do not entertain the thought that the Bible-writers knew one ten-thousandth part of what they were writing about. They were instruments, they were the clerks of God, they were but scribes hired to do the work of human education. All things are tending in the direction of universal praise. If this were mere reverie, we might applaud it as such, and dismiss it; but all through these five concluding psalms there runs a line of sternest logic, boldest, truest, sweetest reasoning. This is so with the whole Bible. All its flowers are grown upon rocks; far below the fecundant soil lies the stable masonry. The flowers are thousands upon thousands, squared and cubed, and then redoubled and multiplied again; but under all there lies the base of truth.
Shall we join this praise? Which God shall we worship in song? The Psalmist says, I will give you his full address: this is the God "which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is." That is force, energy: how can I blow the instrument, or strike the string, or smite the drum in praise of force, though it be set out in strong typography on the printed page? Then saith the Psalmist, You have interrupted me, that is not the full address of the Most High; he but begins there, the continuance thereof is this, "Which keepeth truth for ever: which executeth judgment for the oppressed." That is majesty, moral, spiritual, sublime. We might raise a tremulous hymn to such a Personality, but we should almost have to look down whilst we sang the adoring psalm. But, said the Psalmist, you have interrupted me, that, is not the full address of the Most High—"Which giveth food to the hungry:" now he is domestic, companionable, approachable. "The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind:" now how tender, gentle, pitiful!" The Lord raiseth them that are bowed down:" then he is almost like one of them. "Praise ye the Lord." Certainly! we must. We can adore majesty, and run away from it because it may overpower us by its intolerable sublimity, but if God feed the hungry, open the eyes of the blind, and raise them that are bowed down, we can look at him in the face whilst we are singing his hymns. But, saith the Psalmist, that is not all: "The Lord preserveth the strangers:" why, we are all strangers when we are two miles from the beaten track. "He relieveth the fatherless and widow:" what! the God of suns and constellations and universes on which no measuring-line has been laid, does he care for the widow and the orphan in their affliction? "Praise ye the Lord." Here is an end of ecstasy. This is no sentimental rapture; this is a reply, praise answering love,—a glorious consent, a concert which the universe approves. Herein must our musical education be perfected. An impious singer ought to be frowned down, avoided, and left desolate. It will be a sad thing when we admire the music and neglect the sentiment. The choir constituted by the Psalmist is a choir of appreciative, grateful, responsive hearts. Nor can he get away altogether from this line of annotation. He puts the same thought in many different ways. He does not neglect the majesty of the Lord; he represents the Lord as telling the number of the stars, and calling them all by their names; as covering the heaven with clouds, preparing rain for the earth, making grass to grow upon the mountains: he represents God as giving snow like wool, scattering the hoarfrost like ashes, casting forth his ice like morsels, and coming upon the universe with a cold before which it perishes. Then he runs parallel with all this, a line more than golden, a line more than loving: "Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite:" hear how the trumpets blare and roar as they utter that glorious sentiment! Now "he healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds." The Lord is the doctor of the family, the physician of the soul; as if neglecting the stars awhile, he comes down to human hearts.
Let us not then say that the Psalmist is a mere contemplatist or rhapsodist; he is a man who recognises the providential side of life, and will have a hymn appropriate thereto. If we made our providences the beginning of our psalms our psalms would never end. "He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him." "The Lord taketh pleasure in his people; he will beautify the meek with salvation." This is the providential aspect. Here is God working in human history. Here the Lord is building his own monument of love, and writing his own memorial of tender mercy, and the Psalmist calls us around this memorial and this monument that we may join him in holy rapturous song. We should count our family mercies before we determine where our hymn shall begin and end. We are poor reckoners if we begin with our disadvantages. We do not mean to end well; we are trying, however subtly or unconsciously, to get up a case against the goodness and mercy of God. We should begin at the other end: with the sunshine and the music, with all little things and great things that make up the best aspect of our home-life. Then when the Psalmist says, "I am going to sing," we shall say, So am I: let us sing together that we may create an opportunity for others; let us announce our intention far and wide, and mayhap some will sing as followers who could not well begin the holy tune themselves. Thus praise becomes contagious, thus song begets song, until the whole universe is full of melody. There are some who have never sung. By the term "sung" we do not here mean anything that is technical or mechanical. There is a singing without words, there is a silent singing; there is a way of singing by sympathy. Sometimes people think they are not singing unless they can hear their own voices; certainly to uplift the voice is one way of singing: some can sing better through sympathy, they feel that others are expressing what they wanted to say, and in the expression of others they find rest and joy. Whether in this way or in that, every man should sing. Every man should recognise the providences of God. You were brought low, and he helped you; you were in the jungle of a tremendous thicket, and he relieved you; you were trying to thread your way through a labyrinth, and you found yourself coming back again and again upon your own steps, and he gave you the clue, and in an hour or two you were out at the wicket-gate free again, and you met the Psalmist there; for that Psalmist stands for us at every turn in life, and he said, "Praise ye the Lord;" and if you had not instantly answered in song, personal or sympathetic, you would have proved yourself unworthy of the divine deliverance.
The Psalmist indicates a retributive element in the service of praise: "Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron." These words have been fruitful of oppression. They have been misused by nearly all sections of the Church. No one section can blame another, saying, "You have perverted these words," because we are all in one condemnation. We have mistaken fury for reasoning: we have forgotten that the democracy is heathenism, if it be not educated and morally inspired. It is not our business to strike off the ears of men, nor to throw chains upon kings, and fetters of iron upon nobles. They have to come down—that is written in the books that cannot be burned—but they must come down otherwise; not by violence, but by the uplifting of the general mass of the people; so there shall not be so much a coming down of some as the raising up of all; then the new democracy shall be the true aristocracy. Let us beware of religious oppression above all other. No one man, as we have often seen, has all the truth, nor ought to set himself up as the papal administrator of all that is right and wrong in intellectual beliefs. This man has part of the truth, and his brother has another part; they should meet, and mutually contribute; and the third man should add his share, and every other man contribute his quota, that from the sum-total of humanity we may get the sum-total of the revelation of God. You do not improve your oppression by singing to it. You do not make murder less murder because you dance your way to the scene of execution. Keep the high praises of God for holy hearts and holy mouths.