LAMENTATIONS, called in the Hebrew Bible by the quaint title "Ah How," the first two words of the book, and in the Greek Bible "Threnoi," signifying mourning, is placed in the middle of the latest group of the Hebrew writings. In the English Bible it follows the prophecy of Jeremiah. It is called in our version "The Lamentations of Jeremiah." This title preserves the ancient tradition, and there is no reason to doubt that the tradition embodies the truth. "In favor of this opinion," says Bleek, "we may note the agreement of the songs with Jeremiah's prophecies in their whole character and spirit, in their purport, and in the tone of disposition shown in them, as well as in the language.... As regards the occasion and substance of these songs, the two first and the two last relate to the misery which had been sent on the Jewish people, and particularly on Jerusalem; the middle one, however, chiefly refers to the personal sufferings of the author." [Footnote: Vol. ii. p.102. ]
These five parts are not the five chapters of a book; they are five distinct poems, each complete in itself, though they are all connected in meaning. You notice the regularity of the structure, which is even exhibited to some extent in the Old Version. The first and second, the fourth and fifth, have each twenty-two verses or stanzas; the third one has sixty-six stanzas. All but the last are acrostical poems. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet; each of these letters, in regular order, begins a verse in four of these songs; in the third lamentation there are three verses for each letter.
The time at which these elegies were written was undoubtedly the year of the capture of Jerusalem by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, 586 B.C. The Chaldean army had been investing the city for more than a year; the walls were finally broken down, and the Chaldeans rushed in; as they gained entrance on one side, the wretched King Zedekiah escaped on the other with a few followers and fled down the Jericho road; he was pursued and overtaken, his sons and princes were slain before his face, then his own eyes were put out, and he was led away in chains to Babylon, where he afterward died in captivity. After a few months' work of this sort, a portion of the Chaldeans under Nebuzar-adan returned to the dismantled and pillaged city and utterly destroyed both the city and the temple. It is supposed that Jeremiah, who was allowed to remain in the city during this bloody interval, wrote these elegies in the midst of the desolation and fear then impending. "Never," says Dean Milman, "was ruined city lamented in language so exquisitely pathetic. Jerusalem is, as it were, personified and bewailed with the passionate sorrow of private and domestic attachment; while the more general pictures of the famine, common misery of every rank and age and sex, all the desolation, the carnage, the violation, the dragging away into captivity, the remembrance of former glories, of the gorgeous ceremonies, and of the glad festivals, the awful sense of the Divine wrath, heightening the present calamities, are successively drawn with all the life and reality of an eye-witness." [Footnote: History of the Jews, i.446.] The ethical and spiritual qualities of the book are pure and high; the writer does not fail to enforce the truth that it is because "Jerusalem hath grievously sinned" that "she is become an unclean thing." And in the midst of all this calamity there is no rebellion against God; it is only the cry of a desolate but trusting soul to a just and faithful Ruler.
THE PROVERBS, in the Hebrew Bible, is called "Mishle," or sometimes "Mishle Shelomoh." The first word signifies Parables or Proverbs or Sayings; the second word is the supposed name of the author, Solomon. By the later Jews it is sometimes called "Sepher Chokmah," -- the Book of Wisdom, -- the same title as that which is borne by one of the apocryphal books.
Here, doubtless, we have again, in the name of the author, what Delitzsch calls a common denominator. On this subject the words of William Aldis Wright, in Smith's "Bible Dictionary," express a conservative judgment: --
"The superscriptions which are affixed to several portions of the Book of Proverbs in i.1, x.1, xxv.1, attribute the authorship of those portions to Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel. With the exception of the last two chapters, which are distinctly assigned to other authors, it is probable that the statement of the superscriptions is in the main correct, and that the majority of the proverbs contained in the book were uttered or collected by Solomon. It was natural and quite in accordance with the practice of other nations that the Hebrews should connect Solomon's name with a collection of maxims and precepts which form a part of their literature to which he is known to have contributed most largely (1 Kings, iv.32). In the same way the Greeks attributed most of their sayings to Pythagoras; the Arabs to Lokman, Abu Obeid, Al Mofaddel, Meidani, and Samakhshari; the Persians to Ferid Attar; and the northern people to Odin.
"But there can be no question that the Hebrews were much more justified in assigning the Proverbs to Solomon than the nations which have just been enumerated were in attributing the collections of national maxims to the traditional authors above mentioned." [Footnote: Art. "Book of Proverbs."]
This is, undoubtedly, as much as can be truly said respecting the Solomonian authorship of these sayings. Professor Davidson, writing at a later day, is more guarded.
"In the book which now exists we find gathered together the most precious fruits of the wisdom of Israel during many hundreds of years, and undoubtedly the later centuries were richer, or at all events fuller, in their contributions than the earlier. The tradition, however, which connects Solomon with the direction of mind known as 'The Wisdom' cannot be reasonably set aside.... Making allowances for the exaggerations of later times, we should leave history and tradition altogether unexplained if we disallowed the claim of Solomon to have exercised a creative influence upon the wisdom in Israel." [Footnote: Art. "Proverbs," Encyc. Brit.]
The book is divided into several sections:
1. A general introduction, explaining the character and aim of the book, which occupies the first six verses.
2. A connected discourse upon wisdom, not in the form of maxims, but rather in the manner of a connected essay, fills the first nine chapters.
3. The next thirteen chapters (x.-xxii.16) contain three hundred and seventy-four miscellaneous proverbs, each consisting of two phrases, the second of which is generally antithetical to the first, as "A wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is a heaviness to his mother." There is only one exception (xix.7), where the couplet is a triplet. Probably one phrase has been lost. The heading of this section is "The Proverbs of Solomon;" the section ends with the twenty-second chapter.
4. From xxii.17 to xxiv.22 is a more connected discussion, though in the proverbial form, of the principles of conduct. This is introduced by a brief exhortation to listen to "the words of the wise."
5. At xxiv.23, begins another short section which extends through the chapter, under this title: "These also are sayings of the wise."
6. The next five chapters (xxv.-xxix.) have for their caption this sentence: "These also are proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah, copied out."
7. Chapter xxx. is said to contain "The words of Agur, the son of Jakeh, the oracle." The author is wholly unknown.
8. Chapter xxxi.1-9, contains "The words of King Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him." He too stands here upon the sacred page but the shadow of a name.
9. The book closes with an acrostical poem -- -twenty-two verses beginning with the Hebrew letters in the order of the alphabet -- upon "The Virtuous Woman." The word "virtue" here is used in the Roman sense; it signifies rather the vigorous woman, the capable woman.
Of these sections it seems probable that the one here numbered 6 is the oldest, and that it contains the largest proportion of Solomonian sayings. Professor Davidson thinks that it cannot have taken its present form earlier than the eighth century.
The character of the teaching of the book is not uniform, but on the whole it is best described as prudential rather than prophetic. It embodies what we are in the habit of calling "good common sense." There is an occasional maxim whose application to our own time may be doubted, and now and then one whose morality has been superseded by the higher standards of the New Testament; but, after making all due deductions, we shall doubtless agree that it is a precious legacy of practical counsel, and shall consent to these words of Professor Conant: --
"The gnomic poetry of the most enlightened of other nations will not bear comparison with it in the depth and certainty of its foundation principles, or in the comprehensiveness and moral grandeur of its conceptions of human duty and responsibility." [Footnote: Smith's Bible Dictionary, iii.2616. ]
Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher, bears in the Hebrew collection the name, "Koheleth," which means the assembler of the people, and therefore, probably, the man who addresses the assembly. Ecclesiastes is the Greek name of the book in the Septuagint; we have simply copied the Greek word in English letters.
The first verse is, "The words of Koheleth (the Preacher), the son of David, King in Jerusalem." The only son of David who was ever king in Jerusalem was Solomon; was Solomon the author of this book? This is the apparent claim; the question is whether we have not here, as in the case of Daniel, a book put forth pseudonymously; whether the author does not personate Solomon, and speak his message through Solomon's lips. That this is the fact modern scholars almost unanimously maintain. Their reasons for their opinion may be briefly stated:
1. In the conclusion of the book the author speaks in his own person, laying aside the thin disguise which he has been wearing. In several other passages the literary veil becomes transparent. Thus (i.12), "I Koheleth was king over Israel in Jerusalem." This sounds like the voice of one looking backward and trying to put himself in Solomon's place. Again, in this and the following chapter, he says of himself: "I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem;" "I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem," etc., -- "all of which," says Bleek, "does not appear very natural as coming from the son of David, who first captured Jerusalem." Nobody had been before him in Jerusalem except his father David.
2. The state of society as described in the book, and particularly the reference to rulers, agree better with the theory that it was written during the Persian period, after the Captivity, when the satraps of the Persian king were ruling with vacillating arbitrariness and fitful violence.
3. The religious condition of the people as here depicted, and the religious ideas of the book represent the period following the Captivity, and do not represent the golden age of Israel.
4. More important and indeed perfectly decisive is the fact that the book is full of Chaldaisms, and that the Hebrew is the later Hebrew, of the days of Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Esther. It could not have been written by Solomon, any more than the "Idylls of the King" could have been written by Edmund Spenser. There are those, of course, who maintain that the book was written by Solomon; just as there are those who still maintain that the sun revolves around the earth. The reason for this opinion is found in the first sentence of the book itself. The book announces its own author, it is said; and to question the truth of this claim is to deny the veracity of Scripture. On this question we may call, from the array of conservative writers who have given us Smith's "Bible Dictionary," such a witness as Professor Plumptre: --
"The hypothesis that every such statement in a canonical book must be received as literally true is, in fact, an assumption that inspired writers were debarred from forms of composition which were open, without blame, to others. In the literature of every other nation the form of personated authorship, when there is no animus decipiendi, has been recognized as a legitimate channel for the expression of opinions, or the quasi-dramatic representation of character. Why should we venture on the assertion that if adopted by the writers of the Old Testament it would make them guilty of falsehood?...There is nothing that need startle us in the thought that an inspired writer might use a liberty which has been granted without hesitation to the teachers of mankind in every age and country." [Footnote: Art. "Ecclesiastes," vol. i. p.645.]
That such is the character of the book and that it appeared some time during the Persian age are well-ascertained results of scholarship.
The doctrine of the book is not so easily summarized. It is a hard book to interpret. Dr. Ginsberg gives a striking resume of the different theories of its teaching which have been promulgated. There is no room here to enter upon the great question. Let it suffice to say that we seem to have in these words the soliloquy of a soul struggling with the problem of evil, sometimes borne down by a dismal skepticism, sometimes asserting his faith in the enduring righteousness. The writer's problem is the one to which Mr. Mallock has given an epigrammatic statement: "Is life worth living?" He greatly doubts, yet he strongly hopes. Much of the time it appears to him that the best thing a man can do is to enjoy the present good and let the world wag. But the outcome of all this struggle is the conviction that there is a life beyond this life and a tribunal at which all wrongs will be righted, and that to fear God and keep his commandments is the whole duty of man. There are thus many passages in the book which express a bitter skepticism; to winnow the wheat from the chaff and to find out what we ought to think about life is a serious undertaking. It is only the wise and skillful interpreter who can steer his bark along these tortuous channels of reflection, and not run aground. Yet, properly interpreted, the book is sound for substance of doctrine, and the experience which it delineates, though sad and depressing, is full of instruction for us. Dean Stanley's words about it are as true as they are eloquent; they will throw some light on the path which lies just before us: --
"As the Book of Job is couched in the form of a dramatic argument between the patriarch and his friends, as the Song of Songs is a dramatic dialogue between the Lover and the Loved One, so the Book of Ecclesiastes is a drama of a still more tragic kind. It is an interchange of voices, higher and lower, mournful and joyful, within a single human soul. It is like the struggle between the two principles in the Epistle to the Romans. It is like the question and answer of 'The Two Voices' of our modern poet.... Every speculation and thought of the human heart is heard and expressed and recognized in turn. The conflicts, which in other parts of the Bible are confined to a single verse or a single chapter, are here expanded into a whole book." And after quoting a few of the darker and more cynical utterances, this clear-sighted teacher goes on: "Their cry is indeed full of doubt and despair and perplexity; it is such as we often hear from the melancholy, skeptical, inquiring spirits of our own age; such as we often refuse to hear and regard as unworthy even a good man's thought or care, but the admission of such a cry into the Book of Ecclesiastes shows that it is not beneath the notice of the Bible, not beneath the notice of God." [Footnote: History of the Jewish Church, ii.283, 284.]
"THE SONG OF SONGS" is another of the books ascribed to Solomon. It may have been written in Solomon's time; that it was composed by Solomon himself is not probable.
It has generally been regarded as an allegorical poem; the Jews interpreted it as setting forth the love of Jehovah for Israel; the Christian interpreters have made it the representation of the love of Christ for his Church. These are the two principal theories, but it might be instructive to let Archdeacon Farrar recite to us a short list of the explanations which have been given of the book in the course of the ages: --
"It represents, say the commentators, the love of God for the congregation of Israel; it relates the history of the Jews from the Exodus to the Messiah; it is a consolation to afflicted Israel; it is an occult history; it represents the union of the divine soul with the earthly body, or of the material with the active intellect; it is the conversation of Solomon and Wisdom; it describes the love of Christ to his Church; it is historico-prophetic; it is Solomon's thanksgiving for a happy reign; it is a love-song unworthy of any place in the canon; it treats of man's reconciliation to God; it is a prophecy of the Church from the Crucifixion till after the Reformation; it is an anticipation of the Apocalypse; it is the seven days' epithalamium on the marriage of Solomon with the daughter of Pharaoh; it is a magazine for direction and consolation under every condition; it treats in hieroglyphics of the sepulchre of the Saviour, his death, and the Old Testament saints; it refers to Hezekiah and the Ten Tribes; it is written in glorification of the Virgin Mary. Such were the impossible and diverging interpretations of what many regarded as the very Word of God. A few only, till the beginning of this century, saw the truth, -- which is so obvious to all who go to the Bible with the humble desire to know what it says, and not to interpret it into their own baseless fancies, -- that it is the exquisite celebration of a pure love in humble life; of a love which no splendor can dazzle and no flattery seduce."
These last sentences of Canon Farrar give the probable clew to the interpretation of the book. It is a dramatic poem, celebrating the story of a beautiful peasant girl, a native of the northern village of Shunem, who was carried away by Solomon's officers and confined in his harem at Jerusalem. But in the midst of all this splendor her heart is true to the peasant lover whom she has left behind, nor can any blandishments of the king disturb her constancy; her honor remains unstained, and she is carried home at length, heart-whole and happy, by the swain who has come to Jerusalem for her rescue. This is the beautiful story. The phrases in which it is told are, indeed, too explicit for Occidental ears; the color and the heat of the tropics is in the poetry, but it is perfectly pure; it celebrates the triumph of maiden modesty and innocence. "The song breathes at the same time," says Ewald, "such deep modesty and chaste innocence of heart, such determined defiance of the over- refinement and degeneracy of the court-life, such stinging scorn of the growing corruption of life in great cities and palaces, that no clearer or stronger testimony can be found of the healthy vigor which, in this century, still characterized the nation at large, than the combination of art and simplicity in the Canticles." [Footnote: History of Israel, iv.43.]
The Book of Job has been the subject of a great amount of critical study. The earliest Jewish tradition is that it was written by Moses; this tradition is preserved in the Talmud, which afterward states that it was composed by an Israelite who returned to Palestine from the Babylonian Captivity. It is almost certain that the first of these traditions is baseless. The theory that it was written after the Captivity is held by many scholars, but it is beset with serious difficulties.
The book contains no allusion whatever to the Levitical law, nor to any of the religious rites and ceremonies of the Jews. The inference has therefore been drawn that it must have been written before the giving of the law, probably in the period between Abraham and Moses. It seems inconceivable that a devout Hebrew should have treated all the great questions discussed in this book without any reference to the religious institutions of his own people. It is equally difficult to understand how the divine interposition for the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous could have been so fully considered without a glance at the lessons of the Exodus, if the Exodus had taken place before the book was written. But these arguments for an early origin are quite neutralized by the doctrine of the book. The view of divine providence set forth in it is very unlike that contained in the Pentateuch. It is not necessary to say that there is any contradiction between these two views; but the subject is approached from a very different direction, and the whole tone of the book indicates a state of religious thought quite different from that which existed among the Hebrews before the Exodus. "If we are to believe that Moses wrote it," says a late critic, "then we must believe that he held these views as an esoteric philosophy, and omitted from the religion which he gave to his people the truths which had been revealed to him in the desert. The book itself must have been suppressed until long after his day. The ignorant Israelites could not have been trained under the discipline of the Law if they had had at the same time the fiery, cynical, half-skeptical, and enigmatical commentary which the Book of Job furnishes. There is nothing abnormal or contrary to the conception of an inspired revelation in the development of truth by wider views and deeper analysis through successive sacred writers. But it is repulsive to conceive an inspired teacher as first gaining the wider view, and then deliberately hiding it, to utter the truth in cruder and more partial forms." [Footnote: Raymond's The Book of Job, p.18.] The fact that neither the person nor the Book of Job is mentioned in the historical books of the Jews, and that the first reference to him is in the Book of Ezekiel, would indicate that the date of the book must have been much later than the time of Moses. This argument could not be pressed, however, for we have noted already the silence of the earlier historical books concerning the Mosaic law.
The dilemma of the critics may be summed up as follows: --
1. The absence of allusion to the history of the Exodus and to the Mosaic system shows that it must have been written before the Exodus.2. The absence of all reference to the book in the Hebrew history, and more especially the doctrinal character of the book, shows that it could not have been written before the age of Solomon. The latter conclusion is held much more firmly than the former; and the silence respecting the history and the Law is explained on the theory that the book is a historical drama, the scene of which is laid in the period before Moses, and the historic unities of which have been perfectly observed by the writer. The people of this drama lived before the Exodus and the giving of the Law, and their conversations do not, therefore, refer to any of the events which have happened since. The locality of the drama is the "Land of Uz," and the geographers agree that the descriptions of the book apply to the region known in the classical geographies as "Arabia Deserta," southeast of Palestine. It is admitted that the scenery and costume of the book are not Jewish; and they agree more perfectly with what is known of that country than with any other. That Job was a real personage, and that the drama is founded upon historical tradition cannot be doubted. It is probable that it was written after the time of Josiah.
I need not rehearse the story. Job is overtaken by great losses and sufferings; in the midst of his calamities three friends draw near to condole with him, and also to administer to him a little wholesome reproof and admonition. Their theory is that suffering such as he is enduring is a sign of the divine displeasure; that Job must have been a great sinner, or he could not be such a sufferer. This argument Job indignantly repels. He does not claim to be perfect, but he knows that he has been an upright man, and he knows that bad men round about him are prospering, while he is scourged and overwhelmed with trouble; he sees this happening all over the earth, -- the good afflicted, the evil exalted; and he knows, therefore, that the doctrine of his miserable comforters cannot be true. Sin does bring suffering, that he admits; but that all suffering is the result of sin he denies. He cannot understand it; his heart is bitter when he reflects upon it; and the insistence of his visitors awakes in him a fierce indignation, and leads him to charge God with injustice and cruelty. They are shocked and scandalized at his almost blasphemous outcries against God; but he maintains his righteousness, and drives his critics and censors from the field. Finally Jehovah himself is represented as answering Job out of the whirlwind, in one of the most sublime passages in all literature, -- silencing the arguments of his friends, sweeping away all the reasonings which have preceded, explaining nothing, but only affirming his own infinite power and wisdom. Before this august manifestation Job bows with submission; the mystery of evil is not explained; he is only convinced that it cannot be explained, and is content to be silent and wait. The teaching of the book is well summarized in these words of Dr. Raymond: --
"The current notion that calamity is always the punishment of crime and prosperity always the reward of piety is not true. Neither is it true that the distress of a righteous man is an indication of God's anger. There are other purposes in the Divine mind of which we know nothing. For instance, a good man may be afflicted, by permission of God, and through the agency of Satan, to prove the genuine character of his goodness. But whether this or some other reason, involved in the administration of the universe, underlies the dispensation of temporal blessings and afflictions, one thing is certain: the plans of God are not, will not be, cannot be revealed; and the resignation of faith, not of fatalism, is the only wisdom of man." [Footnote: The Book of Job, p.49.]
I have reserved for the last the most precious of all the Hebrew writings, the Book of Psalms. The Hebrews called it "Tehillim," praise- book or hymn-book, and the title exactly describes it; in the form in which we have it, it was a hymn-book prepared for the service of the later temple.
If the question "Who wrote the Psalms?" were to be propounded in any meeting of Sunday-school teachers, nine tenths of them would unhesitatingly answer, "David." If the same question were put to an assembly of modern Biblical scholars some would answer that David wrote very few and perhaps not any of the psalms; that they were written during the Maccabean dynasty, only one or two hundred years before Christ. Both these views are extreme. We may believe that David did write several of the psalms, but it is more than probable that the great majority of them are from other writers.
Seventy-three psalms of the book seem to be ascribed to David in their titles. "A Psalm of David," "Maschil of David," "Michtam of David," or something similar is written over seventy-three different psalms. Concerning these titles there has been much discussion. It has been maintained that they are found in the ancient Hebrew text as constituent parts of the Psalms, and are therefore entitled to full credit. But this theory does not seem to be held by the majority of modern scholars. "The variations of the inscriptions," says a late conservative writer, "in the Septuagint and the other versions sufficiently prove that they were not regarded as fixed portions of the canon, and that they were open to conjectural emendations." [Footnote: Speaker's Commentary, iv.151.] Dr. Moll, the learned author of the monograph on the Psalms in Lange's "Commentary," says in his introduction: "The assumption that all the inscriptions originated with the authors of the Psalms, and are therefore inseparable from the text, cannot be consistently maintained. It can at most be held only of a few.... There is now a disposition to admit that some of them may have originated with the authors themselves."
The probability is that most of these inscriptions were added by editors and transcribers of the Psalms. You open your hymn-book, and find over one hymn the name of Watts, and over another the name of Wesley, and over another the name of Montgomery. Who inserted these names? Not the authors, of course, but the editor or compiler of the collection. Compilers in these days are careful and accurate, but they do make mistakes, and you find the same hymn ascribed to different authors in different books, while hymns that are anonymous in one book are credited in another, rightly or wrongly, to the name of some author. The men who collected the hymn-book of the Jews made similar mistakes, and the old copies do not agree in all their titles.
But while the inscriptions over the psalms do not, generally, belong to the psalms themselves, and are not in all cases accurate, most of them were, no doubt, suffixed to the psalms at a very early day. "On the whole," says Dr. Moll, "an opinion favorable to the antiquity and value of these superscriptions has again been wrought out, which ascribes them for the most part to tradition, and indeed a very ancient one."
Even if the titles were rightly translated, then, they would not give us conclusive proof of the authorship of the Psalms. But some of the best scholars assert that they are not rightly translated. The late Professor Murray of Johns Hopkins University, whose little book on the Psalms is vouched for as one of the most admirable productions of Biblical scholarship which has yet appeared in this country, says that "whenever we have an inscription in our version stating that the psalm is 'of David' it is almost invariably a mistranslation of the original." It should be written "to David," and it signifies that the compilers ascribed the psalm to a more ancient collection to which the name of David had been appended, not because he wrote all the poems in it, but because he originated the collection and wrote many of its songs. This older collection was called "The Psalms of David" something as a popular hymn-book of these times is called Robinson's "Laudes Domini," because Dr. Robinson compiled the book, and wrote some of the hymns. This old Davidic collection is not in existence, but many of the psalms in our book were taken from it, and the titles in our version are attempts to credit to this old book such of them as were thus borrowed.
This method of crediting is not altogether unknown in this critical age. In the various eclectic commentaries on the Sunday-school lessons I often find sentences and paragraphs credited to "William Smith" which were taken from Dr. Smith's "Bible Dictionary," the articles from which they are taken being signed in all cases by the initials of the men who wrote them. I find, also, quotations from the "Speaker's Commentary," of which Canon Cook is the editor, ascribed to "F. C. Cook," or to "Cook," though the table of contents in the volume from which the quotation was taken bears in capital letters the name of the writer of the commentary on this particular book. In like manner "Lange" gets the credit of all that is written in his famous "Bibelwerk," though he wrote very little of it himself. The power to distinguish between editorship and authorship was not, probably, possessed by ancient compilers in any greater degree than by modern ones; and the inscriptions over the psalms must be estimated with this fact in view.
I have spoken of the present collection of the Psalms as one book, but it is in reality five books. It is so divided in the Revised Version. The concluding verse of the Forty-first Psalm is as follows: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and amen." This doxology marks the close of the first hymn-book prepared by the Jews for the worship of the second temple. It was probably formed soon after the first return from the Exile. All the Psalms except the first, the tenth, and the thirty-third are credited to the old Davidic Psalm Book. The title of the thirty-third has probably been omitted by some copyist; the ninth and tenth in some old Hebrew copies are written as one psalm, and there is an acrostical arrangement which shows that they really belong together. The psalm may have been divided for liturgical purposes, or by accident in copying. The title of the ninth, therefore, covers the tenth. The first and second are, then, the only psalms that are not ascribed to the old book of which this book was simply an abridgment.
At the end of the Seventy-second Psalm is the doxology which marks the close of the second of these hymn-books. After a while the psalms of the first book grew stale and familiar, and a new book was wanted. "Gospel Hymns No.1," of the Moody and Sankey psalmody, had to be followed after a year or two by "Gospel Hymns No.2," and then by "No.3" and "No.4" and "No.5," and finally they were all bound up together. I may be pardoned for associating things sacred with things not very sacred, and poetry with something that is not always poetry, but the illustration, familiar to all, shows exactly how these five hymn-books of the Jews first came to be, and how they were at length combined in one.
The last verse of the Seventy-second Psalm has puzzled many readers: "The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended." After this you find in our collection several psalms ascribed to David, some of which he undoubtedly wrote. The probable explanation is that the Seventy-second Psalm was the last psalm of the old Davidic hymn-book; the compiler made it the last one of this second book, and carelessly copied into this psalm the inscription with which the old book ended.
The second of these hymn-books begins, therefore, with Psalm xlii., and ends with Psalm lxxii., a collection of thirty-one songs of praise.
Number three of the temple-service contains eighteen psalms, and ends with Psalm lxxxix; this book, as well as the one that precedes it, is ascribed by a probable tradition to Nehemiah as its compiler.
The last verse of Psalm cvi. indicates the close of the fourth book. It contains but seventeen psalms, and is the shortest book of the five. The fifth book includes the remaining forty-four psalms, among them the "Songs of David," or Pilgrim Songs, sung by the people on their journeys to Jerusalem to keep the solemn feasts. It is probable that this fifth book was compiled by the authorities in charge of the temple worship, and that they at the same time collected the other four books and put them all together, completing in this way the greater book of sacred lyrics which has been so precious to many generations not only of Jews, but also of Christians.
Various unsuccessful attempts have been made to classify these books according to their subject-matter. It is plain that the first two are composed chiefly of the oldest psalms and of those adapted to the general purposes of worship; the third book reflects the grief of the nation in the Captivity; the fourth, the joy of the returning exiles; the fifth contains a more miscellaneous collection. The Jewish scholars recognize and sometimes attempt to explain this arrangement of the Psalms into five books. The Hebrew Midrash on Psalm i. I., says: "Moses gave the five books of the law to the Israelites, and as a counterpart of them, David gave the Psalms consisting of five books." This is, of course, erroneous; the present collection of Psalms was made long after the time of David; but it is not unlikely that some notion of a symmetrical arrangement of the Psalms, to correspond to the five-fold division of the Law, influenced the compilers of this Praise Book.
Of the contents of this book, of the peculiar structure of Hebrew poetry, and of the historic references in many of the psalms, much might be said, but this investigation would lead us somewhat aside from our present purpose.
It may, however, be well to add a word or two respecting some of the inscriptions and notations borne by the Psalms in our translation. Many of them are composed of Hebrew words, transliterated into English, -- spelled out with English letters. King James' translators did not know what they meant, so they reproduced them in this way. There has been much discussion as to the meaning of several of them, and the scholars are by no means agreed; the interpretations which follow are mainly those given by Professor Murray: --
First is the famous "Selah," which we used to hear pronounced with great solemnity when the Psalms were read. It is a musical term, meaning, perhaps, something like our "Da Capo" or, possibly, "Forte" -- a mark of expression like those Italian words which you find over the staff on your sheet music.
"Michtam" and "Maschil" are also musical notes, indicating the time of the melody, -- metronome-marks, so to speak; and "Gittith" and "Shiggaion" are marks that indicate the kind of melody to which the psalm is to be sung.
"Negiloth" means stringed instruments; it indicates the kind of accompaniment with which the psalm was to be sung. "Nehiloth" signifies pipes or flutes, perhaps wind instruments in general.
The inscription "To the Chief Musician" means, probably, "For the Leader of the Choir," and indicates that the original copy of the psalm thus inserted in the book was one that had belonged to the chorister in the old temple. "Upon Shemimith" means "set for bass voices;" "Upon Alamoth," "set for female voices." "Upon Muthlabben," a curious transliteration, means "arranged for training the soprano voices." Professor Murray supposes that this particular psalm was used for rehearsal by the women singers.
Some of these inscriptions designate the airs to which the psalms were set, part of which seem to be sacred, and part secular. Such is "Shushan Eduth," over Psalm lx., meaning "Fair as lilies is thy law," apparently the name of a popular religious air. Another, probably secular, is over Psalm xxii., "Aijeleth Shahar," "The stag at dawn," and another, over Psalm 1vi., "Jonathelem Rechokim," which is, being interpreted, "O silent dove, what bringest thou us from out the distance?"
These inscriptions and many other features of this ancient Hebrew poetry have furnished puzzles for the unlearned and problems for the scholars, but the meaning of the psalms themselves is for the most part clear enough. The humble disciple pauses with some bewilderment over "Neginoth" or "Michtam;" he classes them perhaps among the mysteries which the angels desire to look into; but when he reads a little farther on, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want;" or "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble;" or "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me," he knows full well what these words mean. There is no life so lofty that these psalms do not lift up a standard before it; there is no life so lowly that it does not find in them words that utter its deepest humility and its faintest trust. Wherever we are these psalms find us; they search the deep things of our hearts; they bring to us the great things of God. Of how many heroic characters have these old temple songs been the inspiration! Jewish saints and patriots chanted them in the synagogue and on the battle-field; apostles and evangelists sung them among perils of the wilderness, as they traversed the rugged paths of Syria and Galatia and Macedonia; martyrs in Rome softly hummed them when the lions near at hand were crouching for their prey: in German forests, in Highland glens, Lutherans and Covenanters breathed their lives out through their cadences; in every land penitent souls have found in them words to tell the story of their sorrow, and victorious souls the voices of their triumph; mothers watching their babes by night have cheered the vigil by singing them; mourners walking in lonely ways have been lighted by the great hopes that shine through them, and pilgrims going down into the valley of the shadow of death have found in their firm assurances a strong staff to lean upon. Lyrics like these, into which so much of the divine truth was breathed when they were written, and which a hundred generations of the children of men have saturated with tears and praises, with battle shouts and sobs of pain, with all the highest and deepest experiences of the human soul, will live as long as joy lives and long after sorrow ceases; will live beyond this life, and be sung by pure voices in that land from which the silent dove, coming from afar, brings us now and then upon her shining wings some glimpses of a glory that eye hath never seen.
NOTE. The reference on pages 200 and 201 to the Gospel Hymns is not strictly accurate. "Number Five" has not been bound up with the other numbers.