"I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. My meditation of Him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord."
You have done well to arrange your Choral Festival for the twentieth day of the month; for you have thus included in your service one of the grandest compositions in the whole compass of the Psalter, the like to which, or any approach to which, elsewhere, you would search for in vain. Within the limits of thirty-two verses we are astonished to see spread before our eyes, by a few master touches, the sketch of the whole universe. All is made, sublimely and solemnly, to pass before us. The story of the six days of creation--the heavens and the earth--is sung in its successive glories. The light--the curtain of the firmament--the waters above and beneath it--the clouds--the wind--the ministering angels--the chaos settling down into dry land and seas and rivers--the grass--the plants--the corn, for refreshing food--the vines, for refreshing drink--the forest trees--the glorious cedars--the birds--the affectionate storks--the wild asses--the wild goats--the jerboas--the lions--the sun--the moon--the man, for whom all these things were made, and who was made the last of all; and lest any portion of creation should be omitted, the sea, with its wondrous manifold productions, from the small reptile to the great whale, and the busy human life embarked upon its vast surface. All these things are not told over after the manner of a dry [3/4] catalogue, but each is touched up, as a vivid image, with some brief description, animated, tender, beautiful, instructive.
All these images and descriptions, moreover, are linked together by one grand pervading truth--the absolute and continuous dependence of the whole universe upon the Great Creator and Preserver of all. Once, with sublime effect, the Psalmist took breath in the midst of this hymn of creation, to address a few words of humble adoration direct to the Primal Cause--"O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches." At once he is carried on again into instances of it, till--full of his exhaustless theme, with bounding heart and fixed purpose--he declares, "I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise unto my God while I have my being. My meditation of Him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the Lord."
It is on these words, my brethren, that I would ask you to fix your attention with me for a brief time, for they breathe, we may be sure, the very spirit of praise which is most acceptable to God and, therefore, it is the spirit which we must endeavour to catch for ourselves. The text contains, you observe, four clauses or sentences, which, at first sight, might seem to express pretty nearly the same thing; but, in point of fact, while it is one resolution that is expressed four times, there is a most beautiful gradation and rise from the first to the last. And this I would now point out to you, for your instruction and admiration, and for your practical adoption.
It is a very common thing in the poetry of the Psalms (for they are poetry, although there is no rhyme or equal measurement of syllables) to find the same strain of thought repeated once, or still [4/5] more frequently, with some variety or amplification--like an air prolonged into variations, in each of which you discern the original melody, and yet gain new beauties and fresh gratification. So it is in the passage we have now before us. Carried away with enthusiasm for his subject, the Psalmist says, "I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live." He says more--I will not only sing, with my human God-given voice, but I will combine with my voice the accompaniment of the harp and of other instruments of music. I will give praise by the help of instrumental music as long as there is any capacity in me for performing. Nay, these being but outward things in themselves, gratifying to the ear, and needing, to make them acceptable and perfect, the exercise of the inner faculties--the heart and the reason; I will join to my voice and instrumental performances the meditation of my heart and reason upon the subjects of my song and praise, and upon the Supreme object of my adoration. My soul shall then be engaged in its own proper exercise, an exercise sweet and acceptable to the invisible God I worship, of pious meditation. Can I resolve anything more? Yes, lest any faculty, outward or inward, should be unemployed in this grand festive service to which I am bound, I will rise to the highest offer of self-dedication. I myself--for this is an emphatic word in the last avowal of the Psalmist--I myself will rejoice in the Lord; whatever I am, whatever constitutes my personality, which I have received from the Author of my being, every power shall be put into active and joyful exercise. "Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me praise His holy Name." Indeed, the true sense of the text would be expressed by considering it not as a declaration, but as an exhortation, delivered aloud to himself. "Let me sing to the Lord, as long as I [5/6] live: let me play unto my God, while I have my being. May my meditation please Him; I myself will rejoice in the Lord."
And thus, on either of these suppositions, we are getting more out of the text than might have at first seemed likely. It is fourfold, with continued expansion and comprehensiveness of thought. As to the writer, we cannot say that it was David himself, but it was certainly one who belonged to David's school of psalmody. And, therefore, we may refer for parallels to David's own life, as we have it sketched out in the historical books, or in his writings. There is a Psalm with the remarkable title, "David's Psalm of Praise;" and these are some of the words of his song--"I will extol Thee, my God and King: and I will bless Thy Name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless Thee: and I will praise Thy Name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised: one generation shall praise Thy works to another, and shall declare Thy mighty acts. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh bless His holy Name for ever and ever." Another song of David's was that sung by him before all the congregation when large sums of money had been offered by a willing people for the new temple. "Blessed be Thou, Lord God of Israel our father, for ever and ever. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as Head above all. Now, therefore, our God, we thank Thee, and praise Thy glorious Name."
On other occasions we find David combining vocal with instrumental music, to make greater festivity. So it was on his bringing up the ark to Zion. He and all the house of Israel "played [6/7] before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of firwood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals, bringing up the ark with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." In one of his psalms he makes the twofold resolution, "I will sing a new song unto Thee, O God: upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto Thee." So again, when he was making his glorious arrangements for the future temple service, he constituted a vast choir, or assembly of choirs, of Levites, to the number of four thousand; and "they were, said David, to praise the Lord with the instruments which I made to praise therewith." It is in allusion to this remarkable knowledge of instrumental music, and this skill in the requisite mechanical construction, that one of the prophets (Amos vi., 3) speaks of people "inventing instruments of music like David;" but not like him in devoting their skill to the honour and glory of God.
The third and more certain criterion of such praise as God will accept was found in David to a remarkable degree. I mean the singing, and praise of the soul. He did indeed "make melody in his heart to the Lord." His voice, his dancing, his music, his self-chosen office of director even of the preceptors themselves, were all prompted by the hearty affections which were within him. But he never failed to make a distinct call upon his soul to take its proper share in praising the Father and God of the spirits of all flesh. "I will bless the Lord at all times: His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make her boast in the Lord." The Psalm of today begins and ends with the stirring appeal, "Bless the Lord, O my soul;" and so Psalm ciii., "All that is within me bless His holy Name." Sometimes this mental or spiritual praise takes the form of meditation--talking to [7/8] himself, as it were, of the greatness and goodness of God. Such is that sweetest of all Psalms, the twenty-third. Sometimes it takes the form of a brief address to such as can understand him. So in Psalm lxvi. "Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul. I cried unto Him with my mouth, and He was extolled with my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. But verily God hath heard me."--And then, fourthly, in Psalm cviii., there is a union of everything, of every attribute and power which constitutes the man himself. "O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise, even with my glory"--the noblest singing and the noblest music I can command. "Awake, psaltery and harp; I myself will awake right early."
We have thus been hitherto making the Psalmist explain his words by the known writings of David, and by the actions of his life; and we find him a very model of the offering up of praise to God. If this is so, I cannot do better in what I would say further upon this occasion, than take David as the pattern to set before you for imitation. And it will probably be the most effectual way of proceeding, to use words of direct exhortation, if I may, to you who constitute the choirs assembled here to-day.
Well then, my brethren, as the example of David, such as we have given in the text and elsewhere, is four-fold, so must the application to you be four-fold, each making in its turn an advanced demand upon you. And thus, first, your vocal powers are called for in sacred service. You must sing unto the Lord as long as you live. And there are many things to attend to herein--small, perhaps, in themselves--which will require much care and practice. Some persons seem to think that it is a hurt to bestow much thought upon the outward [8/9] way of performing a religious act, imagining that it loses its religious character by it, and becomes formal, and leads to formality. This is a mistake, and would always be a mistake if men considered the real reasons of taking all this pains. Whatever is worth doing, is worth doing well; and the doing it well depends on care given to every part of the whole action. How particularly true then is this of that which is most worth doing, as being your highest duty, and your noblest employment, the singing praises to God. Let me advise you to be careful, then, at every practice, and in every service, of the posture of your body, that it be erect--of your vocal organs, that they may give forth their sounds clearly and well--of your notes, that you neither rise too high nor sink too low--of your musical time, that you be not too fast, nor too slow--of your utterance of the words, that it be distinct--of your pronunciation of the words, that it be correct--of your voice, that it be not strong when it should be soft,--or feeble when it should be full--of your musical expression, that it agree with the subject matter of what you sing. Sing, moreover, with your eyes--not upon the congregation, or upon others--but upon your notes and words; or, if you will, with an occasional upturning of the eye to God, in whose honour you sing. Sing, equally from the beginning to the end, from the first to the last, note. And learn and practise all these several points so constantly and repeatedly, that at the last you will come not really to think of them at all at the time; that they may come, as you would say, natural to you--for this is the perfection of good singing in the service when all is done in the very best manner, without the manner being thought of at all. For the mind, you see, is then left free for thinking of the words that are sung, and of their meaning.
 And sing unto the Lord as long as you live. Many persons belong to a choir for a time, and take more or less pains during that time, who, when any cause (e. g., removal from the parish) has brought their connexion with the choir to an end, cease to exercise their skill in singing in church at all. But remember, brethren, choir singing is not congregational singing. It is congregational singing that we must aim at; and one of your duties and efforts, as members of choirs, must be to spread the knowledge and extend the practice of singing as far as possible, till every voice shall yield its share to the general harmony.
The second branch of my exhortation, to give praise to God by means of musical instruments, is necessarily more limited in its primary application. The construction of our churches and the nature of our services are not well adapted for the collection and use of a body of instrumental performers; and the perfection at which the skill of makers of instruments has arrived, has caused a general abandonment of those that were formerly in use, in favour of the organ, which, by its various stops and other appliances, combines them all. What, then, is to be said here in application of David's resolution, "I will play to God while I have my being?" Surely the, first, which is general, that all in your several parishes shall join to secure a good organ, or at least a good harmonium, in your several churches, worthy of the object; that you keep it in good condition; that you maintain, or have among you, a skilled organist, who shall understand, and always be ready to perform, his duty. And then, secondly, to you who are the performers, if there be any here present, it is in place to remind you that your special duty is to assist and accompany the singing voices of choir and congregation, not to drown them by noise, or distract them by florid [10/11] execution, or (still less) to make a display of your own talent. Nothing is more displeasing to God than an irreligious performance of a religious duty.
This remark brings me to the third head of application, to which it properly belongs. The Psalmist's third resolution was this--"My meditation of Him shall be sweet;" or, Let my meditation be pleasing to Him. St. Paul said, "I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also." You may have the best music, vocal and instrumental, but if you have not melody in your heart to the Lord, it will not be acceptable worship to Him. As I said just now, "Nothing is more displeasing to God than an irreligious performance of a religious duty." I would exhort you then, first, as an exercise of the mind, endeavour to understand the meaning of all you sing, whether psalms or hymns; read them over at home or with one another for this purpose, and fix your attention on the thoughts and sense of them as you sing; that the powers of your mind may be exercised for the purpose for which God gave you them, and you may offer unto Him a reasonable service. And then, secondly, for the exercise of your spirit, take into your meditation, with warm and grateful affections, all the causes which call for your thanksgiving and praise--your creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; all the wondrous works of God in heaven and in earth, in sky and air and sea, all the goodness, the love, the patience that waits upon you, and watches over you, and provides for you; and then go on to the still greater goodness, compassion, and mercy of redemption, the love of Him who lived, who died, who rose again for you; yes, who now lives in heaven to do you good, and who wills, if you also will it, your eternal joy. This, indeed, is sweet meditation. Then you will put heart into your words. What is true praise to [11/12] God, but telling yourselves and telling every one that God is great and glorious? What is thanksgiving, but telling yourselves and telling every one that God is good and gracious? And the reason why we sing this praise and thanks giving, and do not merely speak them is, that music sung is capable of greater compass and expression of feeling than words uttered without music.
In music your whole being seems to be carried away, and to rise to God. This is why we stand to sing, to shew by this sign that we would fain, in the whole of our compound nature, soar up to heaven. "I--myself--will be glad in the Lord." It is the heart's response to the Most High. "Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy works: and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operations of Thy hands."
You must make it your ambition, my brethren, to attain to this spirit. Strive after it continually, and you will grow in it. It is in every respect a good thing; good for your bodies, and your souls: for yourselves it is good, for your neighbours, and for your parishes. Good above all will it be for you and for them, if you "shew forth the praise of God not only with your lips, but in your lives, by giving up yourselves to His service, and by walking before Him in holiness and righteousness all your days." "Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God."
J. Gibbs, Printer, Palace Street, Canterbury.