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Hebrew Poetry

(Continued from p. 563.)


We may likewise assert as an undeniable fact, that the verses of the alphabetical Psalms are not so intimately connected with each other as are the others, the structure of which is of a less laboured kind. The same is the case with the two Psalms on which we have been commenting, and to a greater extent even, since each semiverse, or each part commencing with the proper alphabetic letter, is a sort of aphorism, nearly independent of its neighbour. Hence it matters little, as far as subdivision in the verses is concerned, whether they consist of two or three parts; and hence the varied combination discernible in these Psalms is no evidence of a metrical structure, or of the existence of the modern stanza in Hebrew poetry. To prove the epigrammatical nature of the cxi. Psalm, let us adduce a translation:

“Praise ye the Lord.

  1. I will thank the Lord with all my heart,
    In the midst of the righteous, and the assembly.
  2. Great are the deeds of the Lord,
    Understood by all who search therein.
  3. Glorious and beautiful is his work,
    And his righteousness endureth for ever.
  4. He causeth his wonders to be remembered,
    Gracious and merciful is the Lord.
  5. Food He gave to those who fear Him,
    He will ever remember his covenant.
  6. The power of his deeds He told his people,
    To give to them the heritage of the nations.
  7. The works of his hands are truth and justice,
    Steadfast are all his commands.
  8. They stand fast for ever, unto everlasting
    Are ordained in truth and uprightness.
  9. Redemption He sent unto his people,
    He established his covenant unto everlasting—
    Holy and fearful is his name.
  10. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord,
    It is good understanding to all who do accordingly,
    The praise thereof standeth for ever.

In thus rendering the Hebrew words as near as possible, we can readily see the independent structure of the Psalm, and we must be farther convinced that the poet himself did not mean to attach himself to the artificial form of the more modern writers. In what, then, is Hebrew poetry distinguished from prose? In this, that it consists in an elevated style of diction, in a rapid transition from point to point, till the image before the mind's eye of the poet is completed with all the individuality and character which is required of the poetic mode, whereas Hebrew prose is, like that of other languages, diffuse and circumstantial in its details. The manner of effecting this description is by dividing the idea as it appears generally in two parts, occasionally in three or four, and presenting it in contrast with the opposite idea, or varying it by describing it in other though synonymous words, so as to present it in a full and readily remembered light. As an illustration, let us take the commencement of the 30th Psalm:

“I will extol Thee, O Lord, because Thou hast lifted me up, And didst not suffer my foes to rejoice over me.”

David means to represent himself as thanking God for a signal deliverance, and this idea is complete in the first part of the verse; but to give it more intensity, he adds another feature, another motive of gratitude, that his enemies had not been gratified by his downfall. And after enlarging on this thought, and awakening himself and others to feelings of devotion, he says:

“For his anger is momentary,
In His favour is life,
In the evening cometh weeping,
But in the morning there is joy.”

To illustrate how all is depending on divine dispensation, he contrasts the effects of God’s anger and mercy, and says that evil and death are the effects of the anger of God, which lasts but a moment, for the Lord loves not to inflict sufferings on his creatures, whilst life is long enduring, being the effect of God’s favour; and if then we are threatened with evil, which, as it were, would seem to sojourn with us in the evening, we should not despair, as it will be chased away by the joy of deliverance, which is sure to come in the morning, if but the favour of the Most High is invoked by us. Is not this idea well managed and beautifully expressed? Is it not full of poetic fire, without the aid of rhyme or measure? It is true that a translation, ever so carefully made, cannot convey in full the whole force of the Hebrew, because we cannot find equivalent words in any modern language. We are therefore unable to give, as it ought to be done, the epigrammatic כי רגע באפו “For one moment he is wroth,” with its antithesis, חיים ברצונו “Life is in his favour,” in English, without losing the point therein conveyed. Our translation is a mere approach to the original, though far from reaching it.

In modern languages the poet is bound to preserve strictly the identity of persons and numbers with which he commences; or if he should deviate, he must use such means of indicating the change as are in use in the language in which he writes. At the time, however, of the early Hebrews, these aids were not known; and as the intention was to express thoughts, more than dwell long upon the arrangement, we discover sudden changes from person to person, and from the singular to the plural, which very often cause some trouble to the translator. Let us instance the second Psalm, one of those which have offered many difficulties, and which has been variously explained, to suit the particular views of certain sects.

“Why do the nations rage,
And people imagine vain things?
They stand up, the kings of the earth,
And rulers take counsel
Against the Lord and against his anointed.”

Here we find the poet speaking of the rage and the devices of the gentiles against the Lord, that is, against the peace and well-being of 
<<606>>his anointed king, probably David himself. He speaks of them in the third person, and then at once introduces them as speaking, without giving us any farther indication of the change of the speakers, than what the context affords. He makes them say:

“Let us tear asunder their bonds,
And let us throw from us their cords.”

He then introduces another actor, the Lord himself, as if looking on at these vain endeavours, in derision at their presuming to thwart his counsel.

“He that is enthroned in heaven laugheth,
The Lord holdeth them in derision.
Then He will speak to them in his anger,
And with his wrath he will terrify them.”

Again another speaker is brought forward, and the Lord, just introduced as acting, then speaks:

“And I have appointed my king—even I,
Upon Zion, the mountain of my holiness.”

This verse thus contains the rebuke of the Lord for the daring of the gentiles to disturb the prince whom He had chosen. Again David speaks:

“I will declare it as an ordinance,
The Lord said unto me, Thou art my son,
This day have I begotten thee.
Demand of me, and I will give nations for thy heritage,
And for thy possessions the ends of the earth.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
Like a potter’s vessel thou shalt dash them.”

Having thus announced what was the will of God, he turns round to the kings whom he at first spoke of, and addresses to them the following warning:

“And now, ye kings! reflect well,
Be instructed, ye judges of the earth!
Serve the Lord with reverence,
And rejoice with trembling.
Acknowledge the son’s rule,
Lest He be angry,
And ye perish on your way,
As soon as His wrath is kindled!
Happy are all who place their trust in Him.”

David by these words means to inform his opponents that he himself or whoever the person may be, whom God in this Psalm introduces as his son, is under the special protection of Providence, that any rebellion against him would be rebellion against divine Majesty, and that therefore evil would of necessity betide all those, who, in the presumption that they are on the right way in their striving against the Lord’s anointed, will not acknowledge the rule of this favourite of Heaven. And then having thus denounced the rebels against the Lord, who merit his wrath by opposing his will, he bursts forth in the concluding line: “Happy are all who place their trust in Him;” no evil will reach those who rely on God’s promises and obey his precepts; and having said this he at once ceases, filled with the contemplation of the beatitude of the men, who endeavour in all things to consult their Maker’s will as their rule of action.

It would be a pleasing task to go into a full examination of the Psalms, and exhibit their meaning in a clearer light than the ordinary translation affords; but the limits of one or two lectures are far from sufficient for such a purpose. Let us proceed, therefore, to the matter and subject of the poetic remains of the ancient Israelites. They consist, with few exceptions, of hymns, prayers, conversations, proverbs, descriptions, and narratives. Epics and dramas we have none, and what is more, it is very doubtful whether these difficult branches of poetry were invented contemporaneously with the Bible, or if they were, whether they are suited to the genius of the Hebrew seers and psalmists. It was not their province to glorify the deeds of men, nor to exhibit the vices of his nature and the various passions which agitate him for the amusement and instruction of the public; besides which, it was incompatible with their fiery nature to walk for a very long period in one continuous path, led along in measured and closely defined bounds, as is required in the epic and drama. And in truth it would seem that it is next to impossible to keep up the inspiration and ardour required for the composition of good verse for years and months, or even days, which men of more modern times have feigned to do, in giving to the world their highly artificial numbers, as the outpourings of a freely gushing effort of genius. Our poets did not alone seem to speak extemporaneously, but actually did so; their ardour was not feigned, but real; their imagery was not looked after to be imitated in the words of their verses, as several celebrated lines in profane writers prove to have been done by others, but was, so to say, snatched up from nature around and from the soul within as they felt themselves warmed by the contemplation of the subject which stood prominently <<608>>before their mind. It is owing to this, that nothing ever equalled the beauty of the diction of our hymns, and elegies, and moral lessons; they are true to nature, and find a response in every feeling breasts.

Let us take an example of the terrible exhibition of God’s power as instanced in his workings on earth by his messengers, the wind, the fire, the rain, and other aerial phenomena.

“And the earth shook and trembled,
And the foundations of the mountains were moved,
And they quaked, for He was angry.
Smoke rose up from his nostrils,
Fire blazed out of his mouth,
Burning flame issued forth from it.
And He bent the heavens and went down,
And a cloud of darkness was under his feet.”

How beautifully sublime! God is represented as hearing the prayer of the oppressed, as was the case when the Egyptians meant to drive the Israelites into the heaving floods of the Red Sea; and at once the anger meet for the sinners is wakened up in the all-just One, and ere its effects are yet seen, the earth shakes with dread at the coming wrath, and the mountains, piled up rock upon rock so as to endure for ages, feel themselves moved to their very centre, and are terrified at the impending storm. The Psalmist disdains to ascribe the clouds charged with thunder and destruction to exhalations from the earth, to a silent working of nature; no, he at once ascends to nature’s God, and he represents them as issuing forth fire and burning flames, which are soon to burst forth on their deadly mission. In describing the gathering of the storm, he does not say that the sky became overcast, but as though God were bending down the heaven above to make it approach nearer the earth, and He then descends with his feet enveloped with the thick clouds with which He means to execute his purpose. In this way is this subject sublime in itself, the execution of impartial justice, the highest attribute, mercy alone excepted, of the great Supreme, introduced in a manner every way fitting the sublimity of the thought; and though the Almighty, who is incorporeal, is invested here with the attributes of humanity, in order to personify to our sensual capacities the workings of the purest Spirit: it is done in such a manner, that nothing in the whole description militates in the least against the dignity and holiness of the Creator. Having prepared us for the terrible effects of the storm, David continues:

“And He rode upon a cherub and flew along,
And rushed by upon the wings of the wind.
And He shrouded himself in darkness, made it his pavilion around,
Dark waters, cloud on cloud.
From the brightness around him passed through his cloud
Hail and coals of fire.
And the Everlasting thundered in heaven,
And the Most High sent forth his voice
Hail and coals of fire.
And He cast down his arrows, and scattered them,
And mighty lightnings, and confounded them.
And the channels of the waters were seen,
And the foundations of the world laid bare,
From thy call, O Lord!
From the blast of the breath of thy wrath.”

The whole scene is fearfully grand; not a breeze flies athwart the sky but it is the breath of God; the thunder sounds—it is the voice of God; the lightnings flash—they are the arrows of God; and when all nature is convulsed, it is the direct effect of the Creator’s agency. So we have at once a picture of his goodness, of his justice, and of his power laid before us, and we rise from its perusal better men and humbler servants of the almighty Power by whose goodness we live, and whose mercy and justice we are compelled to crave.

When I first commenced this lecture, I fancied I could embody a great deal of information, and should be able to furnish translations of the writings of some of our later poets, together with some account of their lives. But I find that for the present, I have said so much already, on the composition of a few Psalms, and not a word more than I should have said, that I am compelled to defer nearly all I intended to say to another opportunity. Before we conclude for to-day, I will merely give you a descriptive piece from Job, and contrast it with an extract from one of the sweetest of England’s poets; or rather I will first recite to you an extract from Thomson’s Seasons, and follow it up with the sublime words of our own Scriptures. As far as I know there never was a profane author who better described nature, and who had more of the Spirit of the Bible than Mr. Thomson, and yet even he falls far short of the close elegance and rapidity of the sacred writers.

“Along these lonely regions, where retired
From little scenes of Art, great Nature dwells
In awful solitude, and nought is seen
But the wild herds that own no master’s stall
Prodigious rivers roll their fattening seas:
On whose luxuriant herbage half-concealed,
Like a fallen cedar, far diffused his train,
Cased in green scales, the crocodile extends.

The flood disparts: behold! in plaited mail,
Behemoth rears his head. Glanced from his side,
The darted steel in idle shivers flies
He fearless walks the plain or seeks the hills,
Where as he crops the varied fare, the herds,
In widening circles round, forget their food,
And at the harmless stranger wondering gaze.

Peaceful, beneath primeval trees, that cast
Their ample shade o’er Niger’s yellow stream,
And where the Ganges rolls his sacred wave;
Or mid the central depth of blackening woods,
High raised in solemn theatre around,
Leans the huge elephant: wisest of brutes!
O truly wise! with gentle might endowed;
Though powerful, not destructive! here he sees
Revolving ages sweep the changeful earth,
And empires rise and fall; regardless he
Of what the never-resting race of men
Project; thrice happy! could he ’scape their guile,
Who mine, from cruel avarice, his steps;
Or with his towery grandeur swell their state,
The pride of kings! or eke his strength pervert,
And bid him rage amid the mortal fray,
Astonished at the madness of mankind.”

These three sketches of the crocodile, hippopotamus, and elephant, are truly splendid, and every way fitted for the solemnity of a didactic poem; the poet describes them not minutely, but he places them before you in such a light that you must recognise the outlines as belonging to these animals, if you have had at any time the least knowledge of their habits and structure. Nevertheless, Mr. Thomson was indebted to the Bible for the ideas which he so handsomely elaborates, and but for the defectiveness which is so obstinately inherent in a translation, nay, even despite of this, you will acknowledge that Job is far more cogent and poetical.

“Behold! the elephant whom I made with thee,
He eateth grass as an ox.
Lo how great is the strength of his loins!
What force in the muscles of his belly
He swingeth his cedar-like trunk,
The nerves of his loins are closely wrapt together.

His bones are like strong pieces of brass,
His frame is like bars of iron.
He is the first of God’s works,
His Maker alone can bring the sword near him.
Truly the mountains bring forth his food,
There where all the beasts of the field play about.
He lieth under shady trees,
In the covert of reeds and swamps.
Shady trees cover him with their shade;
He is surrounded with the willows of the brook,
Behold! the river sweepeth along, but he hasteneth not away,
Without fear he draweth Jordan’s waters in his mouth.
With his eyes he scareth away him who would catch him in snares,
And bore a hole through his nose.”

The horse is described as follows:

“Dost thou give strength to the horse?
Clothest thou his neck with the mane?
Dost thou cause him to jump like the locust?
Givest thou him the terror of his majestic snort?
He paweth in the valley, and rejoicing in his strength,
He goeth forth to meet the armed array.
He laugheth at fear, knoweth no dread,
And turneth not back before the sword.
Over him rattle the quiver,
Bright spear and lance.
In fierceness and rage he holloweth with his hoof the ground,
And keepeth not quiet when the trumpets call to battle;
When loudly they sound he neigheth joyfully,
And from afar he perceiveth the fight,
The command of captains, and the battle-cry.”

It is needless to make farther extracts, and to dwell longer upon the beauty and excellence of our poets. The prayers which we have inherited from them, are priceless jewels, and in all ages to come, they will ever 'be resorted to to comfort the mourners and to stimulate the despairing to place their trust in God. You, my young friends, are the descendants of the people among whom these glorious men lived; and if no twofold portion of their spirit has fallen upon you: still you are the legitimate heirs of the wisdom which through them was bestowed by a beneficent Providence upon the children of his creation. What, then, is your duty as the heirs of so many blessings? Surely, to preserve the legacy inviolate and unchanged, and to transmit it to your descendants in the manner you received it from your predecessors.

Not in a translated form only, where the ignorance and presumption perhaps of a translator may induce him to palm off his own inventions as the truth which he is to deliver; but in the original language itself, which is in reality an heir-loom peculiar and proper to the house of Jacob. Our poets sang in that blessed tongue; rich and harmonious effusions were by them transmitted in the words of the sons of Heber; and in this tongue and in these words should you also try to hand down to your children. It is a language precious to the Israelite; in all his wanderings it went with him as the solace of his spirit which fainted under the iron sway of ruthless tyrants; in all his dispersions it enabled him successfully to combat the enemies of his faith, and to answer them in the words of the holy text, that his hopes were not vain, and that he professed indeed the truth, ay, the truth of the God of truth. And if you wish to preserve, therefore, the law, the prophets, and the prayers of Jacob in their purity: you must endeavour to preserve the language also in which they were originally conveyed. Let it, therefore, be your endeavour to leave no means untried to farther a proper acquisition of the Hebrew, and to encourage every undertaking which promises to aid in this desirable result, and to promote the undefiled Worship of the true God, in all its purity and holiness. And reflect that it was for such an end that the prophets were sent, and our seers were inspired; and that, in fact, the redemption from would not have taken place, were it not that God had thereby intended to establish his law to all eternity.

Show, then, in a manner not to be misunderstood, that you are Hebrews as well as Israelites, lovers of your language, and worthy descendants of a glorious race; and may the Lord thus prosper your undertaking and aid you in the acquisition of knowledge and true enlightenment, which are the basis of all heart-felt religion, that all the best desires of your hearts in this noble field may be amply realized, and lead to a consummation which all will acknowledge to be the result, and the reward at the same time, of a pious dependence on providential assistance united to a steady pursuit of what you were taught to regard as a God-pleasing course of life.