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THE eastern nations have always been remarkable for the excellence of their poetry, and the Jews, in particular, were much distinguished in this respect. Many parts of the Old Testament are in verse. Learned men have examined this subject very carefully, and have said a great deal about the different sorts of verse in the original Hebrew; but we need not trouble ourselves to enter much into this subject. We may, however, just notice the manner in which different things are contrasted with each other. This is very common in the Hebrew poetry, and adds much to the impression that it produces. Thus, if we turn to Luke i. 53. we shall see how Mary contrasts the mighty with them of low degree, and the hungry being filled with good things; while those who were rich (in their own opinion) yet were sent empty away. This text shows very strongly that all the blessings we enjoy come from the Lord.
But we should chiefly remark that the excellence of the Hebrew poetry is owing to its having been employed on religious subjects. When persons who understand the ancient languages compare the poetical parts of the
Bible with the best poetry of nations that knew not the Lord, they are struck with the superior excellence of the poetry of the Bible. This arises from its being about things which relate to the good of our souls.
In the Bible we find a great many songs or psalms which were written to praise the Lord, to offer thanks for mercies received, or to implore his help under every circumstance of trial and distress which can afflict the soul. And we may remember, that as the trials of believers in all ages are the same, so the same expressions of prayer and praise will be found suitable. The book of Psalms in particular should have much of our attention. The excellent psalms written by Dr. Watts, as well as several other versions, are taken from the book of Psalms; and I believe I might venture to say, that there is scarcely a hymn of any value, either for old or young persons, which has not some thought or expression from the book of Psalms. Nor is this to be wondered at, when we remember that "Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost," 2 Pet. i. 21. and that the book of Psalms, as well as the rest of the holy scriptures, contains the word of God. Doubtless, the Jews had many other hymns or divine songs which they used to sing while travelling, or while engaged in labor; but the Psalms probably were most used by them. In Matt. xxvi. 30. we read that after the last supper, and before our Lord went to the garden of Gethsemane, he sung a hymn with his disciples; this is supposed to have been the 113th to the 118th Psalms. I need hardly remind my readers of the song of Moses after the destruction of the Egyptians, Exod. xv. the song of Deborah, Jud. v. of Hannah, 1 Sam. ii. all these are beautiful songs or hymns of praise and thanksgiving. The hymn, Isa. xii. and the thanksgiving of Hezekiah, on his recovery from sickness, Isa. xxviii. are of the same description. Others, as the lamentation of David for Jonathan and Saul, 2 Sam. i. are of a mournful cast. The Lamentations of Jeremiah in particular may be noticed as such.
The constant use of songs among the Hebrews and other ancient nations is shown in many parts of the
Bible. Thus, Laban found fault with Jacob, that he had departed secretly, so that he could not send him away with songs. Modern travellers tell us that songs are fre quently used by Arabs and others at the present day on the like occasions. The schools of the sons of the prophets, are mentioned repeatedly, as 1 Sam. x. 5. and xix. 20, &c. and these were places in which sacred poetry was much studied. In the reign of David, it was particularly attended to. Barzillai, 2 Sam. xix. 35. speaks of the king's singing men and women. From 1 Chron. xxiii. 5. we learn that David had four thousand Levites, whose employment it was to sing hymns, and to perform on the musical instruments used in public worship; and, in chap. xxv. 7. we read of two hundred and eighty-eight, the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, who were especially "instructed in the songs of the Lord." Ezra also brought back two hundred singing men and women from the captivity. And, when we refer to the hymn of Zacharias, Luke i. 67. we may remember that he was employed in the service of the temple.
The songs and singing we read of in the Bible were not foolish, idle songs, or like the wicked singing we too often hear. I hope my young readers in particular will remem. ber this. Verse is a great help to the memory, and songs or hymns are more easily remembered than chapters. I have heard very good people, who had lived to a great age, lament that they had learned idle, foolish songs when young, because they could not forget them, and thus evil thoughts would often trouble them sadly. The best way is to store your memories with hymns and psalms, and chapters, so that your minds, like a full cup, may not admit improper things. Turn away from foolish song books, and do not listen to idle singing. Remember, the apostle told the Colossians to sing with grace in their hearts to the Lord, Col. iii. 16; see Eph. v. 18-20.
The value of the book of Psalms is very great. The Psalms cannot be too strongly recommended to the attention of my young readers. Athanasius said that they contained the whole of the scriptures; Luther called them a little Bible; and several excellent men have learned the whole Psalter, or book of Psalms, by heart.
The value of these precious psalms is much increased when we consider the great use made of them by our blessed Lord himself, when he was upon earth. Even in his last moments he expressed himself in the words of the 22nd and the 31st Psalms; he expired just after he had uttered the 5th verse of the latter. It has been well observed, that He in whom were all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, who spake as never man spake -he who is one with the Father-chose to conclude his life, to solace or comfort himself in his last agony, and to breathe out his soul in the words of the Psalmist. Surely, nothing can give us a higher idea of the value of that book, or show the importance of making it our constant study. I may also observe that more texts from the book of Psalms are quoted, by our Lord and his apostles in the New Testament, than from any other book of the Old Testament; I believe the texts quoted are nearly seventy in number, besides others which are evidently referred to.
Perhaps parents and teachers who may read this, will direct the attention of the children under their care more than ever to this blessed book-the book of Psalms.
The prophetic books are also mostly written in verse, in the original Hebrew. Several passages are divine ⚫ songs or psalms, as Isa. xii. Habakkuk iii. &c. Most of the prophecies were spoken in verse. The language of Hebrew poetry was better fitted than prose for the striking and impressive description of the sinfulness of the Jews, and the divine wrath against sin, as well as for the beautiful and touching declarations of the mercy and loving kindness of the Lord. Nothing more clearly shows how the heart of man is naturally inclined to evil, and hardened against the word of the Lord, than that the Israelites should reject the words of the Holy Spirit, as spoken by the prophets. But, alas! this is too much our own case! O let us beware of the certain consequence of rejecting the offered mercy of the Lord. Let us earnestly pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to seek for pardon through the blood of Christ.
The schools of the prophets have been mentioned, and I may here remark, that the apostle Paul (in Eph. v. and
Col. iii.) probably refers in some respect to the method of speaking in a sort of verse, which still is common among the eastern nations; and also in Italy, where persons will recite a history, or speak for a long time together, in a poetic style. But how different are the subjects and the matter of their discourses from those of the prophets and apostles!
The earliest instance of speaking in verse in the Bible, is the address of Lamech, Gen. iv. 23. The answer of Samuel to Saul, 1 Sam. xv. 22, 23. is of the same description. The blessing of Jacob, Gen. xlix. and the song of Moses, Deut. xxxii. are beautiful instances of this style. The prophecies of Balaam in particular deserve notice, not only from being some of the earliest we find in the Bible, but also from their peculiar beauty. These are to be found in Numbers xxiii. and xxiv. In Micah vi. 5-8. we find a striking passage, which that prophet gives as the inquiry of the king of Moab and the answer of Balaam; it is, indeed, an important inquiry: Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah ?
Wherewith shall I bow myself unto the high God?
Will Jehovah be well pleased with thousands of rams?
Shall I give my first born for my transgression?
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
The reader will observe how each second line repeats and enforces the idea expressed in the preceding one. This was a favorite sort of poetry among the Jews.
Balaam was an awful character: he knew the truth; he declared it to others; he acknowledged the power of the Lord; he possessed great abilities; yet he went on adding sin to sin, till iniquity became his ruin! When we see a Sunday school, or a family, receiving religious instruction, we should rejoice; but with trembling, knowing that the name of the Lord too often is in the lips when the heart is far from him. O my dear reader, have you ever seriously thought of this? Seek the Lord while he may be found; lose not a day, lose not an hour; but,