Jonathan Edwards and Psalmody
It is commonly assumed that Jonathan Edwards had in some way lessened his attachment to Psalmody because of Whitefield, Watts and the revival. Indeed it has been asserted that while Edwards began as a ‘Psalm’ singer he ended as a ‘hymn’ singer. Those who advocate the singing of Psalms have been challenged with the argument that Edwards abandoned the practice and so should we. It is now apparent that this is not entirely correct. In a recent publication by David Barshinger (Edwards and the Psalms) we get, for perhaps the first time, Edwards’ true position.
Using Barshinger, therefore, the following points are noted:
1. The Psalms and Spiritual Experience
When Edwards wrote his monumental work Religious Affections, he turned to the Psalmist as one of the most eminent saints in the Bible, who exhibited a life of holy affections and who gave us a lively portraiture of his religion in the Book of Psalms. He described the nature of the Psalter as a book for the Church of God at large:
Those Psalms are not only the expressions of the religion of so eminent a saint, that God speaks of as so agreeable to his mind; but were also by the direction of the Holy Ghost, penned for the use of the Church of God in its public worship, not only in that age, but in after ages; as being best fitted to express the religion of all saints, in all ages, as well as the religion of the Psalmist. And it is moreover to be observed, that David, in the book of Psalms, speaks not as a private person, but as the psalmist of Israel, as the subordinate head of the Church of God, and leader in their worship and praises; and in many of the Psalms, speaks in the name of Christ, as personating Him in these, breathing forth a holy affection, and in many other Psalms, he speaks in the name of the Church.
2. The Psalms, Life, Writing and Culture
Edwards found in the Psalms both theological depth and spiritual enrichment; thus he used the Psalms extensively and substantively in his writings and ministry, citing the Psalms more than any other book of the Bible. In the 26 volume Yale Edition, Edwards cites the Psalms 4,204 times while Isaiah comes next with 3,852 citations. It is not because of the size of the Psalms that they are referenced most often, but because they resonated with Edwards. Not only did he study the Psalms specifically, but he used the Psalms to help explain other passages of Scripture. In the Blank Bible he cites the Psalms 388 times. In his Notes on Scripture while there are only 21 entries specific to the Psalms, yet there are 558 references throughout in relation to other passages – more than any other book in the Bible. His extant sermon corpus demonstrates that he preached more from the Psalms (108) than any other book of the Bible except Matthew (139). In fact Edwards held, based upon the NT, that the Psalms should be appropriated ‘as the language of the Christian Church’ for it ‘was made use of in the public worship in Christian assemblies from the beginning of the Christian Church’.
The Psalms also featured in the conversion narratives of believers and in calls for public prayer.
Edwards also encouraged the personal appropriation of the Psalms in daily life, singling out the Psalter as a useful text in teaching children to read.
3. The Psalms and Christ
Many in Edwards’ day were attempting to sever the link between David and Christ. This was particularly true of the Deists who derided the OT as immoral and un-Christian. While not ignoring the historical context of the Psalms, nonetheless Edwards was adamant that they are pointing to Christ. He laid down a general principle for interpreting the Psalms: ‘in many passages in the Psalms, the Psalmist has a more immediate respect to himself in those things in which he speaks; but yet the Holy Ghost has a principal aim at Christ, the son of David’.
4. The Psalms, Christian Language and Thought
Edwards encouraged his people to make the Psalms their own language because that is a characteristic of the truly converted. In Some Thoughts, Edwards said that a joyful Christian in lively frame makes the Psalms the language of the heart. In one sermon he stated that Psalm 45:2 (‘Thou art fairer than the sons of men’) is ‘the language of the believer’s soul concerning Christ’. Edwards urged the converted to embrace the Psalter’s language for themselves. As he stated on Psalm 116 (‘I love the Lord because...), ‘let that be the language of your heart’. In another sermon Edwards explained that to test one’s position before God, people should ask themselves if they made Psalm 115:1 (‘Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake’) their soul’s language. It offered words that Christians should appropriate to describe their humility and gratitude for salvation in Christ. And they should also pray for Christ’s return using the Psalms (e.g. ‘O that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad’ Ps. 14:7). Praying the Psalms would help people orient their lives to eternal matters giving them the language they needed to attune their hearts to God’s ultimate aims.
5. The Psalms and Worship
Throughout the history of the Church the Psalms formed the content of sung praise. Ambrose of Milan (337-397) championed psalmody. When some denigrated their use, Nicetas of Remesiana (d. c.414) wrote a tract in their defence – On the usefulness of Psalmody. With the arrival of Watts, a revolution took place. Watts with arrogance and derision thought he could do better. The resulting ‘worship wars’ brought tension and division. However, throughout the singing controversies of the 1720s, ‘everyone agreed on the texts to be sung: psalms and only psalms’. That position was gradually broken over time.
First this was done by men such as Mather, who appended Watts’ hymns to the end of their published sermons. They were thus read but not sung! Second, to improve the singing of praise in worship, singing schools were set up. Unwittingly these became the vehicle for encouraging uninspired praise.
Next, they were introduced into family worship and fellowships as a means to improve spirituality. When Edwards was nineteen he laid down as one of his resolutions – ‘To praise God by singing psalms in prose’. Watts was to bring the greatest challenge to that resolution. While he was away itinerating in 1742, Samuel Buell the visiting minister introduced Watts’ hymns into public worship. When Edwards returned he was faced with a stark choice, to continue with Watts or to fight for the return of Psalmody?
Edwards chose the latter. Meanwhile he allowed hymns to be used in summer afternoon gatherings. As for Psalmody, he was unwilling to depart from the use of Psalms altogether or even to marginalise them. Edwards pointed out that the Psalter ‘should always be used in the Christian Church to the end of the world’. As Edwards noted in The History of Redemption, ‘God inspired David to show forth Christ and his redemption in divine songs which should be for the use of the Church in private and public worship throughout all ages’.
Contrary then to what some of us have been bombarded with over the years, we now know what happened. Psalmody was practised in Church services while some hymns were permitted in summer afternoon gatherings. While we cannot accept Edwards’ compromise, nonetheless it hardly amounts to a wholesale surrender to Watts and the jettisoning of Psalmody as others claim. His arguments for the use of the Psalter remain unshaken over time and ought to be rightly appropriated by all of us who love the praise of God.