Full Title: The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship
Author: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is known as the father of English hymnody. He is the author of an remarkable quantity of Christian hymns, probably only surpassed by the Wesley brothers and Fanny Crosby. His most famous hymns are “Joy to the world” (found here in his Psalms of David) and “When I survey the wondrous cross” (found in his Horæ Lyricæ). He was also renowned as a logician and coined the “straw man” fallacy.
Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated (1719) was a watershed book in English Protestantism. Psalms of David Imitated were part of a long tradition of singing paraphrased psalms, which began in the Protestant era with the Genevan Psalter (1539) and the Scottish Psalter (1564); but Watts also wrote and encouraged the use of (non-Scripture-based hymns in his other works, namely Horæ Lyricæ. Thus, Watts, in a sense, bridges the divide between two traditions of Protestant worship: exclusive psalmody and hymns. This will require some background.
Historically, hymns have been used in Christian worship since its earliest era. But the Protestant Reformation led to a split in practice between certain churches (German; English), which sang hymns, and other churches (Geneva; Scotland), which practiced exclusive psalmody and believed that practices not expressly authorized in the Bible were forbidden (i.e., as vestiges of Catholicism). Martin Luther, of course, did not follow this latter principle and wrote many hymns himself. Because of his work, a revolution in German church music happened in the early 16th century; the accompanying revolution in English church did not happen for 200 years. Writers such as Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795) promoted the principles of freedom in worship in Protestant churches; but Watts’ prolific verse in particular became known as a mark of this transition.
I have not read straight through other psalters, but, as far as I can tell, Watts does not follow the psalms as strictly as other paraphrased psalters. As suggested in the subtitle, he brings in as much as he can of New Testament theology, mentioning in turn the birth of Christ, his work of atonement, and his second advent.
I was very excited that I managed to dig up an early edition of this book in a digital format, which included such classics as “Joy to the World” as they were printed by the author himself. I can say, though, that “Joy to the world” is easily the best the volume had to offer. The name of the game here is quantity, not quality.
Everything glorious about this book is epitomized in its most famous paraphrase, given in the book as “Psalm 98, Second Part” and subtitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom,” but known today by its first line:
Joy to the World; the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
If we can get past the commonality of these words, we will realize Watts’ vision of the overawing supremacy of God our Creator, and the power of his atonement. Here The Psalms of David Imitated is at its strongest.
People often praise the depth of Watts’ theology, but in this work I primarily sense the sternly judicial aspects of God’s love and care. Watts ties everything to God’s majesty and sovereignty, if anything, much more so than the psalms themselves. The tone is strictly Calvinist. For a more relational theology that draws deeply from the cross, I would highly recommend his other works. But if you want to a vision of God’s glorious sovereignty, The Psalms of David Imitated is well nigh unbeatable.
There are two other related hymnbooks that are too long to receive their own reviews, but which I recommend here as alternatives:
Watts’ Horæ Lyricæ, is less cramped in its form and content by the constraints that the psalms put on Watts. In his Psalms of David, Watts also constrains himself in terms of meter, to make these verses better for congregational singing.
Samuel Worcester has a well-done edited compilation (1859) that draws from all of Watts’ works, and I believe that it gives the best sampling. Watts is very prolific and reading these in the original was much less inspiring than Cowper’s Olney Hymns, for example, because of its length and lack of variety.