The Psalms, Tr. and Interpreted in the Light of Hebrew Life and Worship

By Elmer A. Leslie | Go to book overview

Chapter II
THE HYMN IN HEBREW WORSHIP

THE HYMN IS A SONG GLORIFYING GOD SUNG AT THE SANCTUARY ON A HOLY DAY before the assembled congregation. It was sung by the choir or by a gifted individual singer and occupied a place of prime importance in the public worship of Israel from the earliest historical era of Israelite religion to the late years of the Temple worship at Jerusalem.

One of the earliest of Israelite hymns is the Song of Miriam ( Exod. 15:21), and an early hymn sung by an individual singer is the Song of Deborah ( Judg. 5), both dating before 1000 B.C. The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (ca. 180 B.C.) presents us with a picture of the living worship of the latest Temple services of Judaism. There appear singers before the altar making sweet melody by their music, participating in the orderly worship of the Temple year, glorifying the name of the Lord, and making the sanctuary resound from early morning with His praise (Ecclus. 47:8-10).

The roots of the hymn are not national or political, but psychological and universal. The hymn gives utterance to the deepest and most instinctive spiritual need of man, "to kneel in the dust, and worship that which is higher than himself."1 Consequently the hymn is not unique to Israel but is the earliest discernible form of religious utterance in the whole cultural milieu of Egypt, Babylonia, and Canaan. It was in close relationship with this cultural area that Israel lived, moved, and had its being throughout the Old Testament period. Let us then note the cultural environment of the Hebrew hymn and, to some extent, of Hebrew psalmody as a whole.


1. THE CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT OF HEBREW HYMNODY

Egypt presents religious hymns from the age of the pyramids ( 2890-2470 B.C.). The literary feature of parallelism of lines is already present in these hymns, a feature which dates from the fourth millennium B.C.2 This same literary element is destined to become the most characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry, and there is no question that it played its part in the latter's development. In the New Kingdom of Egypt ( 1580-1150 B.C.) hymns were sung by women singers "before the beautiful countenance of the god, . . . to the accompaniment of the sistrum."3 Among the most beautiful examples of world poetry are the hymns to Aton, the sun god, which come from around 1400 B.C., the epoch of Amenhotep IV (Ikhnaton), and reveal a high standard of psalmody.

____________________
1
Gunkel, What Remains of the Old Testament, p. 74.
2
See Breasted, The Development at Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, p. 97.
3
Erman, Handbook of Egyptian Religion, p. 72.

-24-

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