Essay / Theology

The Unique Inwardness of the Psalms

Here is the best section of William Gladstone’s chapter on the Psalms, from pp. 184ff of The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture. No comment, except to point out that Gladstone’s reading of the Psalms is from the perspective of a person with deep immersion in the Greek classics since childhood.

It is, I submit, the general strain of the Psalms to which we should look And who will deny that they habitually abound in humility, in penitential abasement, in the strong faith which is the evidence of things not seen, in fervor, self-mistrust, filial confidence towards God? These and all kindred qualities they develop in what, for want of a better word, I will term their innerness. Their tones come from the inmost heart, and, not with a rude familiarity, yet with a wonderful nearness, they seem to seek the response, if the phrase may be used without irreverence, from the inner heart of God himself.

All this is severed, as a whole, by an immeasurable distance, from the language, ideas, and mental habits of pagan antiquity. What we find there of religion associated with intellectual culture turns upon the external relations between God and man, as between sovereign and subject, or master and dependant. The prehistoric verse of Homer abounds in prayers. They are not such, commonly, as we should use, yet they indicate fully these external relations. But in the life of later, of classical, Greece, prayer seems wholly to have lost its force and place as a factor in human life.

Again, in the “Odyssey” of Homer we have remaining traces of the personal relation between man and God. In the intercourse of Athene with Odysseus, and reversely in her action on the minds of the guilty suitors, there are distinct traces of the working of a Divine force within the soul of man. I do not remember to have found anything like this in the later classical literature.

But the development of the principle and idea of a communion with God, operative on human feeling, thought, and action, is the standing and central thought of the Psalms. And it is probable that, the more fixedly we regard them, the more of their distinctive marks we shall perceive, even as the stars in heaven multiply to the gazing eye.

The pervading idea of a living communion with the Most High, the communion which both gives and takes, exhibits and fulfils itself in many ways. One of them is the use of intercessory prayer; a trait conspicuously absent from the numerous and interesting prayers of Homer.

Another is that, while full of warm personal interests they persistently hold up the banner of a righteousness apart from and above all personal interests whatever.

Another is that the affections alienated by sin have returned to their allegiance, and are arrayed on the side of the Most High. The testimonies of God are the “very joy” of the Psalmist’s heart. It is all his desire that the Divine will should have free course and be glorified upon earth. The glory of God has become to him a profound personal interest. “Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens; and thy glory above all the earth.” Sentiments of this type are, I apprehend, hardly to be found outside the precinct of the Hebrew race. I will only note in passing, before quitting this subject, two remaining characteristics; the height of that sacredness which the Psalms attach to the claims of the poor; and their sense of the utter worthlessness of all ceremonial observances, though commanded, except in connection with the service of the will, and purification of the heart

(The particular volume scanned at Google Books, by the way, is very interesting: Its opening flyleaf pages have a handwritten inscription by Gladstone himself, complete with his signature and the return address of Hawarden Castle. The volume seems to have been given by Gladstone to H.C. Trumbull, editor of the Sunday School Times.)

Share this essay [social_share/]