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DIGNITY OF THE SCRIPTURE LANGUAGE.
With hymns divine the joyous banquet ends;
The Peans lengthen’d till the sun descends:
The Greeks restor’d the grateful notes prolong;
Apollo listens, and approves the song.
THERE is a certain coldness and indifference in the phrases of our European languages, when they are compared with the Oriental forms of speech: and it happens very luckily, that the Hebrew idioms run into the English tongue with a particular grace and beauty. Our language has received innumerable elegancies and improvements, from that infusion of Hebraisms, which are derived to it out of the poetical pates in holy writ. They give a force and energy to our expressions, warm and animate our language, and convey our thoughts in more ardent and intense phrases, than any that are to be met with in our own tongue.
There is something so pathetic in this kind of diction, that it often sets the mind in a flame, and makes our hearts burn within us. How cold and dead does a prayer appear, that is composed in the most elegant and polite forms of speech, which are natural to our tongue, when it is not heightened by that solemnity of phrase, which may be drawn from the sacred writings. It has been said by some of the ancients, that if the gods were to talk with men, they would certainly speak in Plato’s style; but I think we may say with justice, that when mortals converse 193 with their Creator, they cannot do it in so proper a style as in that of the holy Scriptures.
If any one would judge of the beauties of poetry that are to be met with in the divine writings, and examine how kindly the Hebrew manners of speech mix and incorporate with the English language; after having perused the book of Psalms, let him read a literal translation of Horace or Pindar. He will find in these two last such an absurdity and confusion of style, with such a comparative poverty of imagination as will make him very sensible of what I have been here advancing.
Since we have therefore such a treasury of words, so beautiful in themselves, and so proper for the airs of music, I cannot but wonder that persons of distinction should give so little attention and encouragement to that kind of music which would have its foundation in reason, and which would improve our virtue in proportion as it raised our delight. The passions that are excited by ordinary composition generally flow from such silly and absurd occasions, that a man is ashamed to reflect upon them seriously; but the fear, the love, the sorrow, the indignation that are awakened in the mind by hymns and anthems, Make the heart better and proceed from such causes as are altogether reasonable and praiseworthy. Pleasure and duty go hand in hand, and the greater our satisfaction is, the greater is our religion.194
Music among those who were styled the chosen people, was a religious art. The songs of Zion, which, we have reason to believe, were in high repute among the courts of the eastern monarchs, were nothing else but psalms and pieces of poetry that adored or celebrated the Supreme Being. The greatest conqueror in this holy nation, after the manner of the old Grecian lyrics, did not only compose the words of his divine odes but generally let them to music himself: after which, his works, though they were consecrated to the tabernacle, became the national entertainment, as well as the devotion of his people.
The first original of the drama was a religious worship consisting only of a chorus, which was nothing else but an hymn to a deity. As luxury and voluptuousness prevailed over innocence and religion, this form of worship degenerated into tragedies: in which however the chorus so far remembered its first office, as to brand every thing that was vicious, and recommend every thing that was laudable; to intercede with heaven for the innocent, and to implore its vengeance on the criminal.
Homer and Hesiod intimate to us how this art should be applied, when they represent the muses as surrounding Jupiter, and warbling their hymns about his throne: I might shew from innumerable passages in ancient writers, not only that vocal and instrumental music were made use of in their religious 195 worship; but that their most favourite diversions were filled with songs and hymns to their respective deities. Had we frequent entertainments of this nature among us, they would not a little purify and exalt our passions, give our thoughts a proper turn, and cherish those divine impulses in the soul, which every one feels that has not stifled them by sensual and immoderate pleasures.
Music, when thus applied, raises noble hints in the mind of the hearer, and fills it with great conceptions. It strengthens devotion, and advances praise into rapture. It lengthens out every act of worship, and produces more lasting and permanent impressions in the mind, than those which accompany any transient form of words that are uttered in the ordinary method of religious worship.
Virg. Æn. vi. I 885.
An unavailing duty I discharge.
DR. TILLOTSON, in his discourse concerning the danger of all known sin, both from the light of nature and revelation, after having given us the description of the last day out of holy writ, has this remarkable passage.196
“I appeal to any man, whither this be not a representation of things very proper and suitable to that great day, wherein he who made the world shall come to judge it; and whether the wit of man devised any thing so awful, and so agreeable to the majesty of God, and the solemn judgment of the whole world. The description which Virgil makes of the Elysian fields and the infernal regions, how infinitely do they fall short of the majesty of the holy scripture, and the description there made of heaven and hell, and of the great and terrible day of the Lord! so that in comparison they are childish and trifling; and yet perhaps he had the most regular and most governed imagination of any man that ever lived, and observed the greatest decorum in his characters and descriptions. But who can declare the great things of God but he to whom God shall reveal them.”
This observation was worthy a most polite man, and ought to be of authority with all who are such, so far as to examine whether he spoke that as a man of a just taste and judgment, or advanced it merely for the service of his doctrine as a clergyman.
I am very confident, whoever reads the gospels with an heart as much prepared in favour of them as when he sits down to Virgil or Homer, will find no passage there which is not told with more natural force than any episode in either of those wits, who were the chief of mere mankind.197
The lad thing I read was the 24th chapter of St. Luke, which gives an account of the manner in which our blessed Saviour, after his resurrection, joined with two disciples, on the way to Emmaus, as an ordinary traveller, and took the privilege as such to enquire of them what occasioned a sadness he observed in their countenances, or whether it was from any public cause: their wonder that any man so near Jerusalem should be a stranger to what had passed there; their acknowledgment to one they meet accidentally that they had believed in this prophet; and that now, the third day after his death, they were in doubt as to their pleasing hope which occasioned the heaviness he took notice of, are all represented in a style which men of letters call the great and noble simplicity. The attention of the disciples, when he expounded the scriptures concerning himself, his offering to take his leave of them, their fondness of his stay, and the manifestation of the great guest whom they had entertained while he was yet at meat with them, are all incidents which wonderfully please the imagination of a Christian reader, and give to him something of that touch of mind which the brethren felt, when they said one to another, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”
I am very far from pretending to treat these matters as they deserve; but I hope 198those gentlemen who are qualified for it, and called to it, will forgive me, and consider that I speak as a mere secular man, impartially considering the effect which the sacred writings will have upon the soul of an intelligent reader; and it is some argument, that a thing is the immediate work of God when it so infinitely transcends all the labour of man. When I look upon Raphael’s picture of our Saviour appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, I cannot but think the just disposition of that piece has in it the force of many volumes on the subject: the evangelists are easily distinguished from the rest by a passionate zeal and love which the painter has thrown in their faces; the huddled group of those who stand most distant are admirable representations of men abashed with their late unbelief and hardness of heart. And such endeavours as this of Raphael, and of all men not called to the altar, are collateral helps not to be despised by the ministers of the gospel.
It is with this view that I presume upon subjects of this kind; and men may take up this paper, and be catched by an admoni tion under the disguise of a diversion.
All the arts and sciences ought to be employed in one confederacy against the prevailing torrent of vice and impiety; and it will be no small step in the progress of religion, if it is as evident as it ought to be, that he wants the best taste and best sense a man can have who is cold to the beauty of holiness.199
As for my part, when I have happened to attend the corpse of a friend to his interment, and have seen a graceful man at the entrance of a church-yard, who became the dignity of his function, and assumed an authority which is natural to truth, pronounce, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in me, shall never die:” I say, upon such an occasion, the retrospect upon past actions between the deceased, whom I followed, and myself, together with the many little circumstances that strike upon the soul, and alternately give grief and consolation, have vanished like a dream; and I have been relieved as by a voice from heaven, when the solemnity has proceeded, and after a long pause, I have heard the servant of God utter, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the later day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” How have I been raised above this world, and all its regards, and how well prepared to receive the next sentence which the holy man has spoken; “we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord!”
There are, I know, men of heavy temper, 200without genius, who can read these expressions of scripture with as much indifference as they do the rest of these loose papers: however, I will not despair to bring men of wit into a love and admiration of sacred writings; and, as old as I am, I promised myself to see the day when I shall be as much the fashion among men of politeness to admire a rapture of St. Paul, as any fine expression of Virgil or Horace, and to see a well-dressed young man produce an evangelist out of his pocket, and be no more out of countenance than if it were a classic printed by Elzevir.
It is a gratitude that ought to be paid to Providence by men of distinguished faculties, to praise and adore the Author of their being with a suitable to those faculties, and rouse slower men, by their words, actions and writings, to a participation of their transports and thanksgivings.201
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