Eclectic Ethereal Encyclopedia


Isaac Watts


or, An Enquiry into the right Way of fitting the Book of Psalms for Christian Worship.

THOUGH the Psalms of David are a Work of admirable and divine Composure, though they contain the noblest Sentiments of Piety, and breathe a most exalted Spirit of Devotion, yet when the best of Christians attempt to sing many of them in our common Translations, that Spirit of Devotion vanishes and is lost, the Psalm dies upon their lips, and they feel scarce any thing of the holy Pleasure.

IF I were to render the Reason of it, I would give this for one of the Chief, (viz.) that the Royal Psalmist here expresses his own Concerns in Words exactly suited to his own Thoughts, agreeable to his own personal Character, and in the Language of his own Religion: This keeps all the Springs of Pious Passion awake, when every Line and Syllable so nearly affects himself: This naturally raises in a devout Mind a more transporting and sublime Worship. But when we sing the same Lines, we express nothing but the Character, the Concerns, and the Religion of the Jewish King, while our own circumstances and our own Religion (which are so widely different from his) have little to do in the sacred Song; and our Affections want something of Property and Interest in the Words, to awaken them at first, and to keep them lively.

IF this Attempt of mine, through the divine Blessing, become so happy as to remove this great Inconvenience, and to introduce warm Devotion into this Part of divine Worship, I shall esteem it an honorable Service done to the Church of Christ.

'TIS necessary therefore that I should here inform my Readers at large what the Title Page expresseth in a shorter Way, and assure them that they are not to expect in this Book an exact Translation of the Psalms of David, for if I had not conceived a different Design from all that have gone before me in this Work, I had never attempted a Service so full of Labour, though I must confess it has not wanted its Pleasure too.

IN order to give a plain Account of my present Undertaking I shall first represent the Methods that my Predecessors have followed in their Versions: In the next place I hope to make it evident that those Methods can never attain the noblest and highest ends of Christian Psalmody; and then describe the Course that I have taken, different from them all, together with some brief Hints of the Reasons that induced me to it.

FIRST, I will represent the Methods that my Predecessors have followed.

I have seen above twenty Versions of the Psalter by Persons of richer and meaner Talents; and how various soever their Professions and their Prefaces are, yet in the Performance they all seem to aim at this one Point, (viz.) to make the Hebrew Psalmist only speak English, and keep all his own Characters still. Wheresoever the Psalm introduces him as a Soldier or a Prophet, as a Shepherd or a great Musician, as a King on the Throne or a Fugitive in the Wilderness, the Translators ever represent him in the same Circumstances; Some of them lead an Assembly of common Christians to worship God as near as possible in those very Words; and they generally agree also to perform and repeat that Worship in the antient Jewish forms, whenever the Psalmist uses them.

THERE are several Psalms indeed which have scarce any thing in them personal or peculiar to David or the Jews, such as Ps. i, xix, xxv, xxxvii, lxvii, c, &c, and these if translated into the plain national Language are very proper Materials for Psalmody in all Times and Places; but there are but a few of this Kind in Comparison of the great Number which have something of Personal Concerns, Prophetical Darknesses, Hebraisms, or Jewish Affairs mingled with them.

I confess Mr. Milbourn and Mr. Darby in very different Verse have now and then given an Evangelic Turn to the Hebrew Sense, and Dr. Patrick hath gone much beyond them in this Respect, that he hath made use of the present Language of Christians in several Psalms, and left many of the Judaisms. This is the Thing that hath introduced him into the Favour of so many religious Assemblies. Even those very Persons that have an Aversion to Sing any thing in Worship but David's Psalms have been led insensibly to fall in with Dr. Patrick's Performance by a Relish of pious Pleasure; never considering that his Work is by no means a just Translation, but a Paraphrase; and there are scarce any that have departed farther from the inspired Words of Scripture than he hath often done, in order to suit his Thought to the State and Worship of Christianity. This I esteem his peculiar Excellence in those Psalms wherein he has practiced it. This I have made my chief Care and Business in every Psalm, and have attempted at least to exceed him in this as well as in the Art of Verse; and yet I have often kept nearer to the Text.

BUT after all, this good Man hath suffered himself so far to be carried away by Custom, as to make all the other personal Characters and Circumstances of David appear strong and plain, except that of a Jew; and many of them he has represented in stronger and plainer terms than the Original. This will appear to any one that compares these following Texts in Dr. Patrick with the Bible, (viz.) Psal. iv.2. and ix.4,5. And xviii.43. and li.4. and lx.6,7. and ci.l. and cxli.6. and cxliii.3. and several others: So that 'tis hard to find even in his Version six or eight Stanzas together in any Psalm (that has personal or national Affairs in it) fit to be assumed by a vulgar Christian, or proper to be sung by a whole Congregation. This renders the performance of Psalmody every where difficult to him that appoints the Verses: But 'tis extremely troublesome in those Assemblies where the Psalm is sung without reading it Line by Line, which yet is, beyond all Exception, the truest and best Method, for here there can be no Omission of a Verse, though it be never so improper; but the whole Church must run down to the next Division of the Psalm, and sing all that comes next to their Lips, till the Clerk puts them to Silence. Or to remedy this Inconvenience, if a wise Man leads the Song, he dwells always upon four or five and twenty Pieces of some select Psalms, though the whole 150 lie before him; and he is forced to run that narrow Bound still for want of larger Provision suited to our present Circumstance.

I might here also remark to what a hard Shift the Minister is put to find proper Hymns at the Celebration of the Lord's Supper, where the People will sing nothing but out of David's Psalm-Book: How perpetually do they repeat some part of the xxiiid or the cxviiith Psalm? And confine all the glorious Joy and Melody of that Ordinance to a few obscure Lines, because the Translators have not indulged an Evangelical Turn to the Words of David: No not in those very Places where the Jewish Psalmist seems to mean the Gospel; but he was not able to speak it plain by Reason of the Infancy of that Dispensation, and longs for the Aid of a Christian Poet. Though to speak my own Sense freely, I do not think David ever wrote a Psalm of sufficient Glory and Sweetness to represent the Blessings of this holy Institution of Christ, even though it were explained by a copious Commentator; therefore 'tis my Opinion, that other Spiritual Songs should sometimes be used to render Christian Psalmody compleat. But this is not my present Business, and I have written on this Subject elsewhere.

TO proceed to the Second Part of my Preface, which is to shew how insufficient a strict Translation of the Psalms is to attain the designed End.

THERE are several Songs of this Royal Author that seem improper for any Person besides himself; so that I cannot believe that the Whole Book of Psalms (even in the Original) was appointed by God for the ordinary and constant Worship of the Jewish Sanctuary or the Synagogues, though several of them might often be sung; much less are they all proper for a Christian Church: Yet the Way of a close Translation of this whole Book of Hebrew Psalms for English Psalmody has generally obtained among us.

SOME pretend, 'tis but a just respect to the holy Scriptures; for they have imbibed a fond Opinion from their very Childhood, that nothing is to be sung at Church but the inspired Writings, how different soever the Sense is from our present State. But this Opinion has been taken upon Trust by the most part of its Advocates, and borrowed chiefly from Education, Custom, and the Authority of others; which, if duly examined, will appear to have been built upon too slight and feeble Foundations; the Weakness of it I shall shew more at large in another Place, but it appear of itself more eminently inconsistent in those Persons that scruple to address God in Prose in any precomposed Forms whatsoever, and they give this Reason, Because they cannot be fitted to all our Occasions; and yet in Verse they confine their Addresses to such Forms as were fitted chiefly for Jewish worshippers, and for the special Occasions of David the King.

OTHERS maintain that a strict and scrupulous Confinement to the Sense of the Original is necessary to do Justice to the Royal Author, but in my Judgment the Royal Author is most honoured when he is made most intelligible; and when his admirable Composures are copied in such Language as gives Light and Joy to the Saints that live two thousand years after him; whereas such a meer Translation of all his Verse into English to be sung in our Worship seems to darken our Religion, to damp our Delight, and forbid the Christian Worshipper to pursue the Song. How can we assume all his Words in our personal and publick Addresses to God, when our Condition of Life, our Time, Place, and Religion are so vastly different from those of David?

I grant 'tis necessary and proper, that in translating every Part of Scripture for our Reading or Hearing, the Sense of the Original should be exactly and faithfully represented; for there we learn what God says to us in his Word; but in Singing for the most part the Case is altered: For as the greatest Number of the Psalms are devotional, and there the Psalmists express their own personal or national Concerns; so we are taught by their Example, what is the chief Design of Psalmody, (viz.) that we should represent our own Sense of things in Singing, and address ourselves to God expressing our own case; therefore the Words should be so far adapted to the general State of the Worshippers as that we might seldom sing those Expressions in which we have no Concern: Or at least our Translators of the Psalms should observe this Rule, that when the peculiar Circumstances of antient Saints are formed into a Song for our present and publick Use, they should be related in an historical Manner; and not retain the personal Pronouns I and We, where the Transations cannot belong to any of us, nor be applied to our Persons, Churches or Nation.

Moses, Deborah and the Princes of Israel, David, Asaph and Habakkuk, and all the Saints under the Jewish State, sing their own Joys and Victories, their own Hopes and Fears and Deliverances, as I have hinted before; and why must we under the Gospel sing nothing else but the Joys, Hopes and Fears of Asaph and David? Why must Christians be forbid all other Melody, but what arises from the Victories and Deliverances of the Jews? David would have thought it very hard to be confined to the Words of Moses, and sung nothing else on all his Rejoycing-days, but the Drowning of Pharaoh in the fifteenth of Exodus. He might have supposed it a little unreasonable when he had peculiar Occasions of mournfull Musick, if he had been forced to keep close to Moses's Prayer in the Ninetieth Psalm, and always sung over the Shortness of human Life, especially if he were not permitted the Liberty of a Paraphrase; and yet the special concerns of David and Moses were much more akin to each other than ours are to either of them, and they were both of the same Religion, but ours is very different.

IT is true, that David left us a richer Variety of holy Songs than all that went before him; but rich as it is, 'tis still far short of the glorious Things that we Christians have to sing before the Lord. We and our Churches have our own special Affairs as well as they: Now if by a little Turn of their Words, or by the Change of a short Sentence, we may express our own Meditations, Joys and Desires in the Verses of those antient Psalmists, why should we be forbid this sweet Priviledge? Why should we be tied up to Forms more than the Jews themselves were, and such as are much more improper for our Age and State too? Let us remember that the very Power of Singing was given to human Nature chiefly for this Purpose, that our warmest Affections of Soul might break out into natural or divine Melody, and the Tongue of the Worshipper express his own Heart.

I confess 'tis not unlawful nor absurd for a Person of Knowledge and Skill in divine Things to sing any Part of the Jewish Psalm-Book, and consider it meerly as the Word of God; from which by wise Meditation he may draw some pious Inferences for his own Use: For Instruction is allowed to be one End of Psalmody. But where the Words are obscure Hebraisms, or personate a Jew, a Soldier, or a King speaking to himself or to God, this mode of Instruction in a Song seems not so natural or easy even to the most skillful Christian, and 'tis almost impracticable to the greatest part of Mankind: and both the Wise and the Weak must confess this, that it does by no means raise their own Devotion so well as if they were speaking in their own Persons and expressing their own Sense: Besides that, the weaker Christian is ready to chime in with the Words he sings, and use them as his own, though they are never so foreign to his Purpose.

NOW though it cannot be, that a large Book of lively Devotions should be so framed as to have every Line perfectly suited to all the Circumstances of every Worshipper, but after the Writer's utmost Care there will still be found room for Christian Wisdom to exercise the Thoughts aright in Singing when the Words seem improper to our particular Case; yet as far as possible every Difficulty of this Kind should be removed, and such Sentences should by no Means be chosen which can scarcely be used in their proper Sense by any that are present.

I could never persuade myself that the best Way to raise a devout Frame in plain Christians was to bring a King or a Captain into their Churches, and let him lead and dictate the Worship in his own Style of Royalty, or in the Language of a Field of Battel. Does every menial Servant in the Assembly know how to use these Words devoutly, (viz.) When I receive the Congregation I will judge uprightly, Psalm lxxv.2. A Bow of Steel is broken by mine Arms, —As soon as they hear of me they shall obey me, Psalm xviii.34,44. Would I encourage a Parish Clerk to stand up in the middle of a Country Church, and bid all the People joyn with his Words and say, I will praise thee upon a Psaltery; or, I will open up my dark Sayings upon the Harp; when even our Cathedrals sing only to the Sound of an Organ, most of the meaner Churches can have no Music but the Voice, and others will have none besides? Why must all that would sing a Psalm at Church use such Words as if they were to play upon Harp and Psaltery, when Thousands never saw such an Instrument, and know nothing of the Art? You will tell me, perhaps, that when you take these Expressions upon your Lips, you mean only, That you will worship God according to his Appointment now, even as David worshipped him in his Day according to God's Appointment then. But why will ye confine yourselves to speak one thing and mean another? Why Must we be bound up to such Words as can never be addressed to God in their own Sense? And since the Heart of a Christian cannot joyn herein with his Lips, Why may not his Lips be led to speak his Heart? Experience itself has often shewn that it interrupts the holy Melody and spoils the Devotion of many a sincere good Man or Woman, when in the midst of the Song some Speeches of David have been imposed upon their Tongues, where he relates his own Troubles, his Banishment, or peculiar Deliverances; when he speaks like a Prince, a Musician, or a Prophet; or where the sense is so obscure that it cannot be understood without a learned Commentator.

HERE I may with Courage address myself to the Heart and Conscience of many pious and observing Christians, and ask them, Whether they have not found a most divine Pleasure in Singing, when the Words of the Psalm have happily expressed their Frame of Soul? Have you not felt a new Joy spring within you when you could speak your own Desires and Hopes, your own Faith, Love and Zeal in the Language of the holy Psalmist? Have not your Spirits taken Wing, and mounted up near to God and Glory with the Song of David on your Tongue? But on a sudden the Clerk has proposed the next Line to your Lips with dark Sayings and Prophecies, with Burnt-Offerings or Hyssop, with New-Moons, and Trumpets and Timbrels in it, with Confession of Sins which you never committed, with Complaints of Sorrows such as you never felt, cursing such Enemies as you never had, giving Thanks for such Things, Places and Actions, that you never knew. And how have all your Souls been discomposed at once, and the Strings of Harmony all untuned! You could not proceed in the Song with your Hearts, and your Lips have sunk their Joy and faultered in the Tune; you have been baulked and ashamed, and knew not whether it were best to be silent or to follow on with the Clerk and the Multitude, and sing with cold Devotion, and perhaps in Darkness, too, without Thought or Meaning.

LET it be replied here, that to prevent this Inconvenience, such Psalms or Sentences may always be omitted by him that leads the Song, or may have a more usefull Turn given in the Mind of those that sing. But I answer, Since such Psalms or Sentences are not to be sung, they may be as well omitted by the Translator, or may have a more usefull Turn given in the Verse than it is possible for all the Singers to give on a sudden: And this is all that I contend for.

I come therefore to the third Thing I proposed, and that is to explain my own Design; which in short is this; (viz.) To accommodate the Book of Psalms to Christian Worship: And in order to this 'tis necessary to divest David and Asaph, &c. of every other Character but that of a Psalmist and a Saint, and to make them always speak the common Sense and Language of a Christian.

ATTEMPTING the Word with this View I have entirely omitted several whole Psalms, and large Pieces of many others, and have chosen out of all of them such Parts only as might easily and naturally be accommodated to the various Occasions of the Christian Life, or at least might afford us some beautiful Allusion to Christian Affairs: These I have copied and explained in the general Style of the Gospel; nor have I confined my Expressions to any particular Party or Opinion; that in Words prepared for publick Worship and for the Lips of Multitudes, there might not be a Syllable offensive to sincere Christians whose Judgments may differ in the lesser Matters of Religion.

WHERE the Psalmist uses sharp Invectives against his personal Enemies, I have endeavoured to turn the Edge of them against our spiritual Adversaries, Sin, Satan, and Temptation. Where the flights of his Faith and Love are sublime, I have often sunk the Expressions within the Reach of an ordinary Christian. Where the Words imply some peculiar Wants or Distresses, Joys or Blessings, I have used Words of greater Latitude and Comprehension suited to the general Circumstances of Men.

WHERE the Original runs in the Form of Prophecy concerning Christ and his Salvation, I have given an historical Turn to the Sense: There is no necessity that we should always sing in the obscure and doubtfull Style of Prediction, when the Things foretold are brought into open Light by a full Accomplishment. Where the Writers of the New Testament have cited or alluded to any part of the Psalms, I have often indulged the Liberty of Paraphrase according to the Words of Christ or his Apostles. And surely this may be esteemed the Word of God still, though borrowed from several Parts of the Holy Scripture. Where the Psalmist describes Religion by the Fear of God, I have often joined Faith and Love to it. Where he speaks of the Pardon of Sin through the Mercies of God, I have added the Merits of a Saviour. Where he talks of sacrificing Goats or Bullocks, I rather chuse to mention the Sacrifice of Christ the Lamb of God. When he attends the Ark with Shouting into Zion, I sing the Ascension of my Saviour into Heaven, or his Presence in his Church on Earth. Where he promises abundance of Wealth, Honour and long Life, I have changed some of these typical Blessings for Grace, Glory and Life Eternal which are brought to Light by the Gospel, and promised in the New Testament: And I am fully satisfied that more Honour is done to our blessed Saviour by speaking his Name, his Graces and Actions in his own Language, according to the brighter Discoveries he hath now made, than by going back again to the Jewish Forms of Worship, and the Language of Types and Figures.

ALL Men will confess this is just and necessary in Preaching and Praying; and I cannot find a Reason why we should not sing Praises also in a manner agreeable to the present and more glorious Dispensation. No Man can be persuaded, that to read a Sermon of the Royal Preacher out of the Book of Ecclesiastes, or a Prayer out of Ezra or Daniel is so edifying to a Christian Church (though they were inspired) as a well composed Prayer or Sermon delivered in the usual Language of the Gospel of Christ. And why should the very Words of the Sweet Singer of Israel be esteemed so necessary to Christian Psalmody, and the Jewish Style so much preferable to the Evangelical in our religious Songs of Praise?

NOW since it appears so plain that the Hebrew Psalter is very improper to be the precise Matter and Style of our Songs in a Christian Church; and since there is very good Reason to believe that it is left to us not only as a most valuable Part of the Word of God for our Faith and Practice, but as an admirable and divine Pattern of spiritual Songs and Hymns under the Gospel, I have chosen rather to imitate than to translate; and thus to compose a Psalm-book for Christian after the Manner of the Jewish Psalter.

IF I could be persuaded that nothing ought to be such in worship but what was of immediate Inspiration from God, surely I would recommend Anthems only, (viz.) the Psalms themselves as we read them in the Bible, set to Musick as they are sung by Choristers in our Cathedral Churches: For these are nearest to the Words of Inspiration; and we must depart far from those Words if we turn them into Rhyme and Metre of any Sort. And upon the foot of this Argument even the Scotch Version, which has been so much commended for its Approach to the Original, would be unlawful as well as others.

BUT since I believe that any Divine Sentence or Christian Verse agreeable to Scripture may be sung, though it be composed by Men uninspired, I have not been so curious and exact in striving every where to express the antient Sense and Meaning of David, but have rather exprest myself as I may suppose David would have done, had he lived in the Days of Christianity. And by this means perhaps I have sometimes hit upon the true Intent of the Spirit of God in those Verses, farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover, as St. Peter encourages me to hope. I Pet.i.11,12. In several other Places I hope my Reader will find a natural Exposition of many a dark and doubtfull Text, and some new Beauties and Connexions of Thought discovered in the Jewish Poet, though not in the Language of a Jew. In all places I have kept my grand Design in View, and that is to teach my Author to speak like a Christian. For why should I now address God my Saviour in a Song with burnt sacrifices of Fatlings and with the Incense of Rams? Why should I pray to be sprinkled with Hyssop, or recur to the Blood of Bullocks and Goats? Why should I bind my Sacrifice with Cords to the Horns of an Altar, or sing the Praises of God to high sounding Cymbals, when the Gospel has shewn me a nobler Atonement for Sin, and appointed a purer and more spiritual Worship? Why must I joyn with David in his legal or Prophetic Language to curse my Enemies, when my Saviour in his Sermons has taught me to love and bless them? Why may not a Christian omit all those Passages of the Jewish Psalmist that tend to fill the Mind with overwhelming Sorrows, despairing Thoughts, or bitter personal Resentments, none of which are well suited to the Spirit of Christianity, which is a Dispensation of Hope and Joy and Love? What need is there that I should wrap up the shining Honours of my Redeemer in the dark and shadowy Language of a Religion that is now for ever abolished, especially when Christians are so vehemently warned in the Epistles of St. Paul against a Judaising Spirit in their Worship as well as Doctrine? And what Fault can there be in enlarging a little on the more usefull Subjects in the Style of the Gospel, where the Psalm gives any Occasion, since the Whole Religion of the Jews is censured often in the New Testament as a defective and imperfect Thing?

THOUGH I have aimed to provide for a Variety of Affairs in the Christian Life by the different Metres, Paraphrases, and Divisions of the Psalms, (of which I shall speak particularly) yet after all, there are a great many Circumstances that attend common Christians, which cannot be agreeably exprest by any Paraphrase of the Words of David: and for these I have endeavoured to provide in my Book of Hymns, that Christians might have something to sing in Divine Worship answerable to most or all their Occasions: In the Preface to that Book I have shewn the Insufficiency of the common Versions of the Psalms, and given further Reasons for my present Attempt.

I am not so vain as to expect that the few short Hints I have mentioned in that Preface or in this should be sufficient to justify my Performances in the Judgment of all Men, nor to convince and satisfy those who have long maintained different Sentiments. All the Favour therefore that I desire of my Readers is this, that they would not censure this Work till they have read my Discourse of Psalmody, which I hope will be shortly published, but let them read it with serious Attention, and bring with them a generous and sincere Soul, ready to be convinced and to receive Truth where soever it can be found. In that Treatise I have given a large and particular Account how the Psalms of Jewish Composure ought to be translated for Christian Worship, and justified the Rules I lay down by such Reasons as seem to carry in them most plentifull Evidence and a fair Conviction.

IF I might presume so much, I would entreat them also to forget their younger Prejudices for a Season so far as to make a few Experiments of these Songs; and try whether they are not suited through Divine Grace to kindle in them a Fire of Zeal and Love, and to exalt the willing Soul to an Evangelic Temper of Joy and Praise. And if they shall find by sweet Experience any devout Affections raised, and a holy Frame of Mind awakened within them by these Attempts of Christian Psalmistry, I persuade myself that I shall receive their Thanks, and be assisted by their Prayers towards the Recovery of my Health and my publick Labours in the Church of Christ. Whatsoever Sentiments they had formerly entertained, yet surely they will not suffer their old and doubtfull Opinions to prevail against their own inward Sensations of Piety and religious Joy.

Notes to the First Edition

Between the 27th and 29th Psalms: "The 28th Psalm has scarce anything new, but what is repeated in other Psalms."

After the 42nd Psalm: "The 43rd Psalm is so near akin to this that I have omitted it, only borrowing the 3d and 4th verses to conclude this Hymn."

In the 55th Psalm: "I have left out some whole Psalms, and several parts of others that tend to fill the Mind with overwhelming Sorrow, or sharp Resentment. neither of which are so well suited to the Spirit of the Gospel, and therefore the particular Complaints of David against Achitophel here are entirely omitted."

After the 107th Psalm: "The 108th Psalm is formed out of the 57th and 60th, and therefore I have omitted it."

Psalm 52, 54, 59, 64, 70, 79, 88, 137, and 140 are omitted without comment.


This Preface to the first edition of Watts's Psalms of David Imitated was copied, as carefully as I could manage, from the example in the Wrenn Library of The University of Texas at Austin.

/signed/ Robert MacColl Adams

This preface never appeared, so far as I can tell, in any subsequent edition. The above signed was my late father, who made the copy by hand about 1960.

Robert M. Adams
curator at gospelcom dot net
[The previous line can be converted in the obvious way into an e-mail address]

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