The Worship of God

More articles in this collection from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

The Spirituality of the Psalms

by John Kitto

This uplifting section from Kitto's "Daily Bible Illustrations " is from the edition published in 1886. The writer has assembled a number of instructive quotes from a range of eminent men of God which show the prominent place that the divine book of praises should properly hold in the life of the church.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 11, July-September 1998.

W E now reach what must without hesitation be pronounced the most spiritual portion of the Old Testament - that which, more entirely than any other single portion, is occupied with the hopes, fears, and conflicts of man's spirit, in its intercourse with God.

The Book of God is like the perfectly organised human frame in this - that no part necessary to vital function is wanting; while nothing is redundant, every part having an essential and important use. And it is not too much to say, that the human body would be less sorely marred by the loss of any one of its parts, than this volume would be by the excision of any one portion of it. Point out any part of it which you think might be spared, and we will furnish twenty reasons proving that we cannot do without it, that it is most essential to the completeness and harmony of the whole. What, for instance, would the Bible be without the Book of Psalms? It seems, at first view, a very separable portion - a part that might be taken out without destroying the symmetry of the whole. But it is not so. Should the experiment be made, it would be seen that a man with his arm shorn off at the shoulder-blade is less maimed and disfigured, than would be a Bible deprived of this book of groans, and sighs, and tears, and smiles, and triumphant shouts.

In fact, a Bible without a Book of Psalms is simply an inconceivable thing. That book is part not only of our rich heritage, but of ourselves. It is our voice - the voice in which the Church, in all her members of every sect, country, and clime, has for three thousand years poured forth her soul before God.

We may say of the Psalms with safety, that it is the most entirely religious book in the Old Testament. There may indeed be other books - as the Pentateuch and the Prophets - that furnish more materials for positive views of religion, for theological doctrine, and for right principles of worship. But the Book of Psalms is the great source and foundation of religious experience - of religion as manifesting its true life and character in the soul of man. What an exhaustless variety of religious thought and feeling pervades this precious book! On this point there are some fine remarks of Luther in his preface to the Psalter. "Where do we find a sweeter voice of joy than in the Psalms of thanksgiving and praise? There you look into the heart of all the holy, as into a beautiful garden - as into heaven itself. What delicate, fragrant, and lovely flowers are there springing up of all manner of beautiful, joyous thoughts towards God and his goodness! On the other hand, where do you find more profound, mournful, pathetic expressions of sorrow, than the plaintive Psalms contain? There again you look into the heart of all the holy, but as into death, nay, as into the very pit of despair. How dark and gloomy is everything there, arising from all manner of melancholy apprehension of God's displeasure! I hold that there has never appeared on earth, and that there never can appear, a more precious book of examples and legends of saints than the Psalter is. For here we find out not merely what one or two holy men have done, but what the Head himself of all the holy has done, and what all the holy do still - how they stand affected towards God, towards friends and enemies; how they behave in all dangers, and sustain themselves in all sufferings. Besides that, all manner of divine and salutary instructions and commands are contained therein. Hence, too, it comes that the Psalter forms, as it were, a little book for all saints, in which every man, in whatever situation he may be placed, shall find Psalms and sentiments which shall apply to his own case, and be the same to him as if they were for his own sake alone, so expressed as he could not express them himself, nor find, nor even wish them better than they are."

One might fill a volume - and it would be a volume of great interest - with the testimonials which different ages and countries have produced to the use, importance, and value of the Psalms.

Calvin, in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, declares: "I have been accustomed to call this book, not inappropriately, an Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious, that is not there represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions by which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is by perusing these inspired compositions that men will be effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and at the same time instructed in seeking remedies for their cure. In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book."

Hooker says: "The choice and flower of all things profitable in other books, the Psalms do both more briefly contain, and more movingly express, by reason of the poetical form in which they are written. The ancients, when they speak of the Psalms, use to fall into large discourses, showing how this part, above the rest, doth of purpose set forth and celebrate all the considerations and operations which belong to God; it magnifieth the holy meditations and actions of divine men; it is of things heavenly an universal declaration, working in them whose hearts God inspireth, an habit or disposition of mind whereby they are made fit vessels for receipt and for delivery of whatsoever spiritual perfection. All good necessary to be known, or done, or had, this one celestial fountain yieldeth. Let there be any grief or disease incident to the soul of man, any wound or sickness named, for which there is not in this treasure-house a present comfortable remedy at all times ready to be found."

Luther called the Book of Psalms "a small Bible;" and similarly Bishop Horne, in the preface to his wellknown Commentary on the Psalms, designates it "An epitome of the Bible, adapted to the purpose of devotion.... This little volume (he adds), like the Paradise of Eden, affords us in perfection, though in miniature, everything that groweth elsewhere, "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food;" and, above all, what was there lost, but is here restored, "the tree of life in the midst of the garden." That which we read, as matter of speculation, in the other Scriptures, is reduced to practice, when we recite it in the Psalms: in those, repentance and faith are described, but in these, they are acted; by a perusal of the former, we learn how others served God, but by using the latter, we serve Him ourselves." Merrick describes them as "a treasury, abounding with every kind of valuable doctrine and instruction." Chalmers speaks of them as "this rich and precious department of Scripture." Horsley forcibly points out their important fitness for Christian use, not only from the considerations already advanced, but from the belief, shared by Augustine (whose commentary is founded upon the principle), and by many writers of ancient and modern date, that not only are there what are called Messianic Psalms, but that all the Psalms refer in their secondary application to the Messiah; that, in short, "there is not a page in the Book of Psalms in which the pious reader will not find his Saviour, if he reads with the view of finding Him." "It is true," adds this learned writer, "that many of the Psalms are commemorative of the miraculous interpositions of God in behalf of his chosen people; for, indeed, the history of the Jews is a fundamental part of revealed religion. Many were probably composed upon the occasion of remarkable passages in David's life, his dangers, his afflictions, his deliverances. Of those which relate to the public history of the natural Israel, there are few in which the fortunes of the mystical Israel, the Christian church, are not adumbrated; and of those which allude to the life of David, there is none in which the Son of David is not the principal and immediate subject. David's complaints against his enemies are Messiah's complaints, first of the unbelieving Jews, then of the heathen persecutors, and the apostate faction in later ages. David's afflictions are the Messiah's sufferings. David's penitential supplications are the supplications of the Messiah in agony, under the burden of the imputed guilt of sin. David's songs of triumph and thanksgiving, are Messiah's songs of triumph and thanksgiving for his victory over sin, and death, and hell."

To this extent in the application of the Psalms we are scarcely prepared to go. It is, however, a question of extent; for that very many of the Psalms apply to Christ, is avouched in the New Testament; and the principle of this application being thus established beyond all controversy, the more extensively one is enabled fairly to carry it out, the more nutritive, edifying, and profitable the Psalms become to him, and the more essentially they contribute to establish his heart in faith and love.

The veneration for the Psalms has in all ages of the church been very great. The fathers assure us that in the earlier times the Book of Psalms was generally learned by heart, and that ministers were expected to be able to repeat them from memory; that psalmody was a constant attendant at meals and in business; that it enlivened the social hours and softened the fatigues of life. The Psalms were much in use at the Reformation; and they have, as Lord Clarendon observes, been ever thought to contain something extraordinary for the instruction and reformation of mankind. It is indeed remarked by Dr. Gray, that this Book of Psalms is exactly the kind of work which Plato wished for the instruction of youth, but conceived it impossible to execute, as being above the reach of human abilities: "But this must be the work of a god or some divine person."

"With my song will I praise him" - Psalm 28:7