Isaac Watts on the Christianization of David

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Below is a small portion of a letter to a pastor regarding singing of the Psalms. The second paragraph is a familiar quote by Isaac Watts. But I include it for the sake of the few who may not have heard it.

Has God so changed his program of grace in these days that you believe, like Isaac Watts did, that many of the Psalms are not fit for Christian consumption. Below are Watts’ words from an introduction to an early edition of his hymns:

I have long been convinc’d, that one great Occasion of the Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine our Songs. Some of ’em are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New-Testament, and widely different from the present Circumstances of Christians…Far be it from my Thoughts to lay aside the Book of Psalms in public worship…But it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand lines in it which were not made for a Church in our Days, to assume as its own: There are also many Deficiencies of Light and Glory, which our Lord Jesus and his Apostles have supply’d in the Writings of the New Testament…You will always find in this Paraphrase dark expressions enlighten’d, and the Levitical Ceremonies and Hebrew Forms of Speech chang’d in to the Worship of the Gospel, and explain’d in the Language of our Time and Nation…After this manner should I rejoice to see a good part of the Book of Psalms fitted for the Use of our Churches, and David converted into a Christian…​
 
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Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
Yes absolutely tragic, and a tool of the devil that man in which now most of the churches throughout the world only sing man-made songs. Absolute tragedy.

there are a thousand lines in it which were not made for a Church in our Days, to assume as its own

How so? It is like one has never heard OT preaching before, or if one has, taking that OT preaching they heard and the effect of it on our lives and throwing it out the window because we are talking about singing the Psalms. It makes no sense.
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
Benjamin Keach and Isaac Watts led the charge against psalmody. It is such a shame that their opinions have had so much influence, until now many believers cannot even see Christ in the psalms.
 

Jeri Tanner

Moderator
Staff member
Isaac Watts had so much wrong. Here is his improvement of Psalm 161 (edit!!: Psalm 75):

To thee, most Holy and most High,
To thee we bring our thankful praise;
Thy works declare thy name is nigh,
Thy works of wonder and of grace.

Britain was doomed to be a slave,
Her frame dissolved, her fears were great;
When God a new supporter gave,
To bear the pillars of the state.

He from thy hand received his crown,
And sware to rule by wholesome laws;
His foot shall tread th' oppressor down,
His arm defend the righteous cause.

Let haughty sinners sink their pride,
Nor lift so high their scornful head;
But lay their foolish thoughts aside,
And own the king that God hath made.

Such honors never come by chance,
Nor do the winds promotion blow;
'Tis God the Judge doth one advance,
'Tis God that lays another low.

No vain pretence to royal birth
Shall fix a tyrant on the throne:
God, the great Sovereign of the earth,
Will rise and make his justice known.

[His hand holds out the dreadful cup
Of vengeance mixed with various plagues,
To make the wicked drink them up,
Wring out and taste the bitter dregs.

Now shall the Lord exalt the just;
And while he tramples on the proud,
And lays their glory in the dust,
My lips shall sing his praise aloud.]
 
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U

Username3000

Guest
A post from another thread by R. Scott Clark about Watts and imprecatory psalms:

"He's not arguing that we cannot sing or pray them. Quite to the contrary. He's making a case for how we sing and pray them today.

The object of imprecation now is not the pagan across the street, but sin, the flesh, and the devil (and the reprobates - but only as a class since we don't know who they might be in any particular case).

His point that the theocracy has passed and that, in Christ, our relation to the imprecations has changed is a very good one.

He's not taking C S Lewis' rather high-handed approach (as much as I enjoyed that book) to the impreccatory Psalms as "beneath" the Christian."
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
"He's not arguing that we cannot sing or pray them. Quite to the contrary. He's making a case for how we sing and pray them today."

And how we sing and pray them today is, to Watts, to alter the biblical text so as to make it quite unrecognizable.
 

Cymro

Puritan Board Junior
Obviously Tom he wrote a new Psalm, as David’s, Moses’s, Asaph’s divine compositions were not Christian enough! The field is open, let’s all have a go and we could have 161,000,000 new ones to supercede the inspired psalter.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
Isaac Watts had so much wrong. Here is his improvement of Psalm 161:

To thee, most Holy and most High,
To thee we bring our thankful praise;
Thy works declare thy name is nigh,
Thy works of wonder and of grace.

Britain was doomed to be a slave,
Her frame dissolved, her fears were great;
When God a new supporter gave,
To bear the pillars of the state.

He from thy hand received his crown,
And sware to rule by wholesome laws;
His foot shall tread th' oppressor down,
His arm defend the righteous cause.

Let haughty sinners sink their pride,
Nor lift so high their scornful head;
But lay their foolish thoughts aside,
And own the king that God hath made.

Such honors never come by chance,
Nor do the winds promotion blow;
'Tis God the Judge doth one advance,
'Tis God that lays another low.

No vain pretence to royal birth
Shall fix a tyrant on the throne:
God, the great Sovereign of the earth,
Will rise and make his justice known.

[His hand holds out the dreadful cup
Of vengeance mixed with various plagues,
To make the wicked drink them up,
Wring out and taste the bitter dregs.

Now shall the Lord exalt the just;
And while he tramples on the proud,
And lays their glory in the dust,
My lips shall sing his praise aloud.]
Watts' British Zionism is embarrassing to modern ears, though I have actually heard anyone sing this, unlike William Blake's "And did those feet in ancient time/walk upon England's mountains green?" We sang that routinely in school assemblies growing up, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the obvious answer to the question was "No". A good tune overpowered obscure and frankly bizarre lyrics. However, it's a bit ironic to have an American point the finger on that subject. Have you done an internet search lately on images related to Psalm 33, "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord"? American flags and second commandment violations abound.

Watts' rendering of Psalm 72 is closer to the mark: "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun/doth his successive journeys run". I've been in EP churches where the Christ-centered meaning of Psalm 72 was explained in virtually identical terms before we sang the psalm. The only difference was speaking rather than singing (which I understand is an important distinction to some).
 

Jeri Tanner

Moderator
Staff member
it's a bit ironic to have an American point the finger on that subject.
Of course, it’s not as Americans we’d point out Watts’ corruptions, but as those who tremble at God’s word (Isaiah 66:2). His rendition of Psalm 75 was one of his more bizarre, I’m sure.

I can’t agree that Psalm 72 is any better, since he once again took inspired Scripture and paraphrased it pretty much beyond recognition. It seems better if he had presented his work as his own songs, rather than renderings of Psalms.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
Of course, it’s not as Americans we’d point out Watts’ corruptions, but as those who tremble at God’s word (Isaiah 66:2). His rendition of Psalm 75 was one of his more bizarre, I’m sure.

I can’t agree that Psalm 72 is any better, since he once again took inspired Scripture and paraphrased it pretty much beyond recognition. It seems better if he had presented his work as his own songs, rather than renderings of Psalms.
It's a Christological paraphrase, to be sure but "beyond recognition"? Can you give me a better two line summary of the meaning of Psalm 72 than "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun doth his successive journeys run"? Isn't that what exclusive psalmists are supposed to be thinking while singing Psalm 72, since we are repeated told on these threads (rightly) that the psalms point us to Christ? Otherwise how is the word of Christ dwelling in your hearts richly when you sing this psalm?
 

Jeri Tanner

Moderator
Staff member
It's a Christological paraphrase, to be sure but "beyond recognition"? Can you give me a better two line summary of the meaning of Psalm 72 than "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun doth his successive journeys run"? Isn't that what exclusive psalmists are supposed to be thinking while singing Psalm 72, since we are repeated told on these threads (rightly) that the psalms point us to Christ? Otherwise how is the word of Christ dwelling in your hearts richly when you sing this psalm?
Without having the time to go more in-depth, I’d just briefly say that all the meaning and import of Psalm 72 (which certainly is about Christ) can’t be summed up in two lines. There’s so much more going on there!

It’s easy to compare Watts’ song to the Psalm and see all that’s missing.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
Without having the time to go more in-depth, I’d just briefly say that all the meaning and import of Psalm 72 (which certainly is about Christ) can’t be summed up in two lines. There’s so much more going on there!

It’s easy to compare Watts’ song to the Psalm and see all that’s missing.
Sure but that wasn't what you said. You said he had paraphrased it pretty much beyond recognition. His goal was to provide a Christological paraphrase of the psalm, and I think he succeeded fairly well within the limits of the medium. Unlike his version of Psalm 75, which was certainly theologically problematic.
 
U

Username3000

Guest
My question is, were there things going on in the English church of Watts' time that were already chipping away at psalmody? Watts didn't spontaneously appear on the scene without influences, surely. It must be more complex than this one man single-handedly, and without any reason, changed the course of English worship.
 

Jeri Tanner

Moderator
Staff member
Sure but that wasn't what you said. You said he had paraphrased it pretty much beyond recognition. His goal was to provide a Christological paraphrase of the psalm, and I think he succeeded fairly well within the limits of the medium. Unlike his version of Psalm 75, which was certainly theologically problematic.
I stand by what I said, meaning that reading the words of his song, I wouldn’t recognize it as Psalm 72.
 

RPEphesian

Puritan Board Junior
How terrible. I have only one regret, that I had not been taking joy in singing the Psalms before a few months ago. The musical Psalter is one of the happiest Christian discoveries in the whole of my walk.
 
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