Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 120) transports me to late 17th century England, where a young boy who irritates his parents to no end by speaking almost exclusively in rhyme is in trouble once again, this time for opening his eyes during prayers. This young antecedent to modern day rappers responded to his parents’ scolding by lyrically explaining what distracted him: A little mouse for want of stairs ran up a rope to say its prayers. This earned him a quick spanking from his father, to which he responded: O father, father, pity take and I will no more verses make. The father must not have taken pity, for young Isaac Watts grew to make many more verses, among those some of our most beloved hymns: Joy to the World, O God Our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. While many church-goers are quite familiar with Dr. Watts’ hymnody, few know of his personal life. He was the son of a committed Noncomformist, aka Dissenter, one of those radicals of the English Reformation who refused to abide by the Uniformity laws of the official Church of England. This was a fascinating period of church history, with dissension coming in every stripe – you had the Anabaptists who didn’t believe in war, the Diggers who didn’t believe in private property, Adamites and Ranters who didn’t believe in wearing clothes, the Family of Love who believed everyone outside their sect should die a quick death, the Muggletonians who believed they were the last prophets from Revelation, and on and on, with the common denominator their refusal to abide by the law and order of established religion. And in the midst of this Isaac Watts was born and reared, rhyming his way through adolescence and attendance at the Dissenting Academy (an actual college, formed because the Noncomformists were refused admission into Oxford or Cambridge). One distinctive of Watts’ dissent was his ecumenical disposition, which kept him from finding a home in any of the sectarian movements alive at the time. He sought to rise above the quarreling and raise his neighbors to a higher level of relationship and discourse through a reasonable and logical approach to faith. Given the heated state of affairs in this civil war period of English history, we can assume this was a frustrating project.
I thought of Watts when reading the final verses of today’s Psalm. Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war. The poet was no doubt speaking of his particular time and place in the history of Israel, but when you think about it, he could have been speaking of every time and place in the history of the covenant community. The perspective of peacemaking was always the dissenting opinion of a noncomformist minority who lived among the masses who advocated a warrior mentality in dealing with rival neighbors. The Psaltry is Exhibit A of this mentality, filled as it is with calls to holy war against neighboring rivals. So many of the Psalms sound like Battle Hymns, glorifying violence and following God as the Great Five Star General. Which makes Psalms like this one so exceptional, as it gives voice to the frustration of peacemakers who are doing their best to shift the conversation and bring a more hopeful strategy to the warmongers. Jesus must have thought of poems like this when warning the peacemakers and other blessed folks in his Sermon that they would no doubt experience persecution and ridicule.
Isaac Watts was certainly well acquainted with this Psalm. He penned a hymn of his own based on the text, in a meter that allows us to sing it to a number of hymn tunes, including St. Agnes (Jesus the Very Thought of Thee) and New Britain (Amazing Grace). Here’s how Dr. Watts identified with the dissenting psalmist, in his hymn titled Complaint of Quarrelsome Neighbors; or, A Devout Wish For Peace:
Thou God of love, thou ever-blest,
Pity my suff’ring state;
When wilt thou set my soul at rest
From lips that love deceit?
Hard lot of mine! my days are cast
Among the sons of strife,
Whose never-ceasing brawling waste
My golden hours of life.
O might I fly to change my place,
How would I choose to dwell
In some wide lonesome wilderness,
And leave these gates of hell!
Peace is the blessing that I seek,
How lovely are its charms!
I am for peace; but when I speak,
They all declare for arms.
New passions still their souls engage,
And keep their malice strong:
What shall be done to curb thy rage,
O thou devouring tongue!
Should burning arrows smite thee through
Strict justice would approve;
But I had rather spare my foe,
And melt his heart with love.
Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.