While we sing the Praises of our God in his Church, we are employed in that part of Worship which of all others is the nearest a-kin to Heaven: and ‘tis pity that this of all others should be performed the worst upon Earth. The Gospel brings us nearer to the heavenly State than all the former Dispensations of God amongst Men: And in these very last Days of the Gospel we are brought almost within sight of the Kingdom of our Lord; yet we are very much unacquainted with the Songs of the New Jerusalem, and unpracticed in the Work of Praise. To see the dull Indifference, the negligent and the thoughtless Air that sits upon the Faces of a whole Assembly, while the Psalm is on their Lips, might tempt even a charitable Observer to suspect the Fervency of inward Religion; and ‘tis much to be feared that the Minds of most of the Worshippers are absent or unconcerned. Perhaps the Modes of Preaching in the best Churches still want some Degrees of Reformation, nor are the Methods of Prayer so perfect as to stand in need of no Correction or Improvement: But of all our Religious Solemnities Psalmodie is the most unhappily managed. That very Action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine Sensations, does not only flat our Devotion, but too often awakens our Regret, and touches all the Springs of Uneasiness within us.
I have been long convinced, that one great Occasion of this Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine all our Songs. Some of them 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. Hence it comes to pass, than when spiritual Affections are excited within us, and our Souls are raised a little above this Earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are checked on a sudden in our Ascent toward Heaven by some Expressions that are more suited to the Days of Carnal Ordinances, and fit only to be sung in the Worldly Sanctuary. When we are just entering into an Evangelic Frame by some of the Glories of the Gospel presented in the brightest Figures of Judaism, yet the very next Line perhaps which the Clerk parcels out unto us, hath something in it so extremely Jewish and cloudy, that darkens our Sight of God the Saviour: Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the Vail of Moses is thrown over our Hearts. While we are kindling into Divine Love by the Meditations of the loving Kindness of God, and the Multitude of his tender Mercies, within a few Verses some dreadful Curse against Men is proposed to our Lips; That God would add Iniquity unto their Iniquity, not let them come into his Righteousness, but blot them out of the Book of the Living (Psalms 69, 16, 27, 28). which is so contrary to the New Commandment, of loving our Enemies. Some Sentences of the Psalmist that are expressive of the Temper of our own Hearts and the Circumstances of our Lives may compose our Spirits to Seriousness, and allure us to a sweet Retirement within ourselves; but we meet with a following Line which so peculiarly belongs but to one Action or Hour of the Life of David or Asaph, that breaks off our Song in the midst; our Consciences are affrighted lest we should speak a Falsehood unto God: Thus the Powers of our Souls are shocked on a sudden, and our Spirits ruffled before we have time to reflect that this may be sung only as a History of ancient Saints: And perhaps in some Instances that Salvo is hardly sufficient neither.
Many Ministers and many private Christians have long groaned under this Inconvenience, and have wished rather than attempted a Reformation: At their importunate and repeated Requests I have for some Years past devoted many Hours of leisure to this Service. Far be it from my Thoughts to lay aside the Psalms of David in public Worship; few can pretend so great a Value for them as my self: It is the most artful, most devotional and Divine Collection of Poesy; and nothing can be supposed more proper to raise a pious Soul to Heaven than some parts of that Book; never was a piece of Experimental Divinity so nobly written, and so justly reverenced and admired: But it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand Lines in it which were not made for a Saint in our Day, to assume as his own; There are also many deficiencies of Light and Glory which our Lord Jesus and his Apostles have supplied in the Writings of the New Testament; and with this Advantage I have composed these spiritual Songs which are now presented to the World. Nor is the Attempt vain-glorious or presuming; for in respect of clear Evangelic Knowledge, The least in the Kingdom of Heav’n is greater than all the Jewish Prophets (Matt. 11:11).
Now let me give a short Account of the following Composures.
The greatest Part of them are suited to the General State of the Gospel, and the most common Affairs of Christians: I hope there will be very few found but what may properly be used in a religious Assembly, and not one of them but may well be adapted to some Seasons, either of private or of public Worship. The most frequent Tempers and Changes of our Spirit, and Conditions of our Life are here copied, and the Breathings of our Piety expressed according to the variety of our Passions; our Love, our Fear, our Hope, our Desire, our Sorrow, our Wonder and our Joy, all refined into Devotion, and acting under the Influence and Conduct of the Blessed Spirit; all conversing with god the Father by the new and living Way of Access to the Throne, even the Person and the Mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ. To him also, even to the Lamb that was slain and now lives, I have addressed many a Song; for thus doth the Holy Scripture instruct and teach us to Worship in the various short Patterns of Christian Psalmodie described Points of Christianity, that we might all obey the Direction of the Word of God, and sing his Praises with Understanding (Psalm 47:7). The Contentions and distinguishing Words of Sects and Parties are secluded, that whole Assemblies might assist at the Harmony, and different Churches join in the same Worship without Offence.
The whole Book is confined to three Sorts of Metre, and fitted to the most common Tunes. I have seldom permitted a Stop in the middle of a Line, and seldom left the end of a Line without one, to comport a little with the unhappy Mixture of Reading and Singing, which cannot presently be reformed. The Metaphors are generally sunk to the Level of vulgar Capacities. I have aimed at ease of Numbers and Smoothness of Sound, and endeavoured to make the Sense plain and obvious; if the Verse appears so gentle and flowing as to incure the Censure of Feebleness, I may honestly affirm, that sometimes it cost me labour to make it so: Some of the Beauties of Poesy are neglected, and some willfully defaced: I have thrown out the Lines that were too sonorous, and given an Allay to the Verse, lest a more exalted Turn of Thought or Language should darken or disturb the Devotion of the plainest Souls. But hence it comes to pass, that I have been forced to lay aside many Hymns after they were finished, and utterly exclude them from this Volume, because of the Bolder Figures of Speech that crowded themselves into the Verse, and a more unconfined Variety of Number which I could not easily restrain. Perhaps these may ever long appear as an Additional Part to the Poems already Published under the Title of Horae Lyricae.
I have divided the whole into three Books.
In the first I have borrowed the Sense, and much of the Form of the Song from some particular Portions of Scripture, and have paraphrased most of the Doxologies in the New Testament that contain any thing in them peculiarly Evangelical, and many parts of the Old Testament also that have a reference to the Times of the Messiah. In these I expect to be often censured for a too religious Observance of the Words of Scripture, whereby the Verse is weakened and debased according to the Judgment of the Critics: But as my whole Design was to aid the Devotion of Christians, so more Especially this part was written for the meanest of them, and I am satisfied I shall hereby attain two Ends, (viz.) Assist the Worship of all serious Minds to whom the Expressions of Scripture are ever dear and delightful; and gratify the Taste and Inclination of those who think nothing must be sung unto God but the Translations of his own Word. Yet you will always find in this Paraphrase dark Expressions enlightened, and the Levitical Ceremonies, and Hebrew Forms of Speech changed into the Worship of the Gospel, and explained in the Language of our Time and Nation; and what would not bear such an Alteration is omitted and laid aside. 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. In the first, second and third Psalms especially, I have attempted a Specimen of what I desire and hope some more capable Genius will undertake.
The Second Part consists of Hymns whose Form is of mere humane Composure, but I hope the Sense and Materials will always appear Divine. I might have brought some Text or other, and applied it to the Margin of every Verse if this method had been as Useful as it was easy. If there be Poems in the Book that are capable of giving Delight to Persons of a more refined Taste and polite Education, they must be sought for only in this Part; but except they lay aside the humour of Criticism, and enter into a devout Frame, every Ode here already despairs of pleasing. I confess my self to have been too often tempted away from the more Spiritual Designs I proposed, by some gay and flowery Expressions that gratified the Fancy; the bright Images too often prevailed above the Fire of Divine Affection; and the Light exceeded the Heat: Yet I hope, in many of them the Reader will find that Devotion dictated the Song, and the Head and Hand were nothing but Interpreters and Secretaries to the Heart: Nor is the Magnificence or Boldness of the Figures comparable to that Divine License, which is found in the Eighteenth, and Sixty eighth Psalms, several Chapters of Job, and other Poetical Parts of Scripture: And in this respect, I may hope to escape the reproof of those who pay a Sacred Reverence to the Holy Bible.
I have prepared the Third Part only for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, that in imitation of our Blessed Saviour we might sing a Hymn after we have partaken of the Bread and Wine. Here you will find some Paraphrases of Scripture, and some other Compositions. There are almost an hundred Hymns in the two former Parts that may very properly be used in this Ordinance, and sometimes perhaps appear more suitable than any of these last: But there are Expressions used in all these, which confine them only to the Table of the Lord, and therefore I have distinguished and set them by themselves.
Since there are some Christians who are not yet persuaded that it is lawful to sing any thing in Divine Worship, but a mere Version of some part of the Word of God, I have subjoined a Discourse for the satisfaction of their Consciences; wherein I endeavour to prove, that the Duty of Singing under the Gospel is not confined to the Jewish Psalms, or any other Scriptural Songs; but that Hymns of human Composure suited to the clearer Revelations of the New Testament, are encouraged by the Word of God, and almost necessary for Christians Churches, that desire to worship Christ in the Beauty of Holiness, and praise him for the Wonders of redeeming Grace. I earnestly entreat such Persons to read this Discourse over without prejudice or prepossession, and seriously to inquire whether it be not possible for them to have tied themselves up too much to Legal Forms, and whether they find no ground to release their Consciences from those Bands, and worship their Redeemer according to the more glorious Liberty of the Gospel.
If the Lord who inhabits the Praises of Israel, shall refuse to smile upon this Attempt for the Reformation of Psalmodie amongst the Churches, yet I humbly hope that his Blessed Spirit will make these Composures useful to private Christians; and if they may but attain the honour of being esteemed pious Meditations to assist the devout and the retired Soul in the Exercises of Love, Faith and Joy, ‘twill be a valuable Compensation of my Labours; my heart shall rejoice at the Notice of it, and my God shall receive the Glory.
Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London: J. Humphreys, for John Lawrence, 1707), pp. iii-xiv. Electronic text adapted from igracemusic.com.
See also Works by Isaac Watts at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library