There is, strange to say, no record of the Song's employment in this way amongst the Jews. Statements sometimes made to the contrary in works on the P.B., e.g. by W. G. Humphry, F. Procter, E. Daniel, and J. M. Fuller (S.P.C.K. Comm. |Introd. to the Song|), |in the later Jewish Church,| all appear to have originated in a misunderstanding of an ambiguous sentence in Wheatley's Rational Illustration (1875, p.143). He says that it |was an ancient hymn in the Jewish Church.| But this does not necessarily imply that it formed any part of Jewish services. Nor did Wheatley probably intend to assert that it did. In point of fact no evidence of such use is forthcoming, though it certainly would not have been surprising if the Song had been so used, at least among the Hellenistic Jews. For as Rothstein says in Kautzsch's Apocrypha, like Ps. cxxxvi. it is |offenbar antiphonisch aufzufassen| and |litaneiartig.|
Notwithstanding the previous neglect, as it would seem, of this Song in Jewish worship, its use by Christians dates from an early period. So Bp. Gray (O.T., p.611) says, |It was sung in the service of the primitive Church;| and Ball, |the instinct of the Church, which early adopted the Benedicite for liturgical use, was right| (p.307). Yet after it had come into high esteem with Christians its chances of Jewish acceptance would of course be largely diminished.
The liturgical use however was generally confined to the Song proper, commencing with v.29, and not always extending to the whole even of that. In the Greek Church it is divided into two odes, said at Lauds on two different days, vv.3-34 (A.V. verses) forming one, and the remainder of the Song the other (art. Canticle D.C.A.). In the Ambrosian rite the first part only of the Song is used as an invitatory before the Matin Psalms, under the title, somewhat confusing to us, of |Benedictus| (D.C.A. art. Benedictus).
For some reason not easy to assign, the Song, whether divided or entire, has always been treated as a morning canticle, although there is nothing in its words to suggest any time of day as specially appropriate.
Rufinus, according to Dr. Salmon (Speaker's Comm. Introduction to Apocr. XXVII b), speaks of the Song as |sung on Festivals in the Church of God.| No reference is given to the passage quoted. But in Rufinus' Apol. in Hieron. II.35 we find the words, |Omnis Ecclesia per orbem terrarum . . . . quicunque Hymnum trium puerorum in Ecclesia Domini cecinerunt,| etc. Whether this be the passage Dr. Salmon intends or not, it is at any rate sufficient to prove that the canticle was in use in and before Rufinus' time, who is believed to have died in the year 410.
Bishop Barry (Teacher's P.B.) notes that it yeas used at Lauds (to orthron) in the East as well as in the West: and so Mr. Hotham in his art. Canticle in D.C.A. In his art. Psalmody, however, no mention is made of its Eastern use; but in the Western Church in the Gregorian and its derived rites, including the Roman and cognate Breviaries, he says, |Benedictiones sive canticum trium puerorum| comes in Sunday Lauds, and likewise in the Benedictine Psalter.
In the Ambrosian Psalter, while the first part |Benedictus es| is said daily at Matins as stated above, the usual Benedicite is said at Lauds on Sundays. In the Mozarabic Psalter an abridgment of both parts is said at Lauds, but not |in feriis.| |Benedictus es| also comes on weekdays at Prime. In the Mozarabic Missal Benedicite occurs in the service for the first Sunday, in Lent. In the use arranged by Cæsarius of Arles (542) for the Gallican Church Benedicite was sung at Sunday Lauds.
Duchesne says (Christian Worship, Eng. tr. S.P.C.K.1903, p.195), |In the Gallican Mass between the Apostolic and the Evangelic lections the Hymn of the Three Children was sung. It was known also by the name of the Benediction (Benedicite) because in it the word Benedicite' is continually repeated.| In a note he adds, |The Luxeuil Lectionary, however, prescribes for the Nativity, Daniel cum Benedictione, i.e., the Hymn of the Three Children before the Apostolic Lection. It is true that in the Mass of Clausum Paschale it places it after this lection.|
The fourth council of Toledo in 633, condemns the omission of the Song at Mass, threatens with excommunication those who in Spain or Gaul (or Gallicia, margin) persist in leaving it out, and styles it |Hymnum quoque trium puerorum in quo universa coeli terræque creatura dominum collaudat et quem ecclesia catholica per totum orbem diffusa celebrat| (Mansi, Concil., Florence, 1764, X.623).
In the Roman Missal at the end of the Canon, the last Rubric is |Discedens ab Altari, pro gratiarum actione dicit Antiphonam Trium Puerorum cum reliquis, ut habetur in principio Missalis;| where is given as an antiphon before it these words, |Trium puerorum cantemus hymnum quem cantabant sancti in camino ignis, benedicentes Dominum.|
Possibly there is a reference to this Eucharistic use in Bishop Wordsworth's Michaelmas Hymn, No. CII. in his Holy Year, 1864.
Angelic voices we shall hear
Joined in our jubilee,
In this thy Church and echoing
Angelic faces we shall see
Angelic songs o'erspread
Above thy holy Altar, Lord,
And Thou, the Living Bread.
In the Sarum Breviary (and in Cardinal Quignon's) Benedicite is a canticle at Lauds on Sundays only. It is to be said without |Glory|; |dicatur sine Gloria Patri per totum annum quandocunque dicitur| (Procter, p.188); but a doxology is provided in the Roman Breviary, |Benedicamus Patrem et Filium cum Sancto Spiritu,| etc., and Amen' is directed not to be said at the end. This doxology is said to have been added by Pope Damasus I., who also transposed v.56 to stand as the finale of the Song (see James M'Swiney, Psalms and Canticles, Lond.1901, p.643). This R.C. writer calls the use of the canticle on Sundays |a thanksgiving for the resurrection of the Crucified, the earnest of the glories wherewith nature is to be invested at His second coming.| But this sounds like an ex post facto reason for its appropriateness.
Benedicite appears, at any rate sometimes, to have been said subsequently to Te Deum after the election of an Abbot (see Jocelin of Brakelond's Chronicle, Sir E. Clarke's ed., 1903, p.38). It also appears in the Cantica after the Psalter, between Te Deum and Benedictus, in the Scottish Breviarium Bothanum, which is thought to be of about 15th century (Lond.1900).
Thus it is evident that the use of this hymn became general at an early period, and so continued, having never receded in Christian esteem as a valued factor in public worship.
Besides the use of the Song, or part of it, as a canticle, verses or small portions often occur in liturgies; e.g., vv.28-30 are borrowed in an Ekphonesis before the offertory prayers in the Liturgy of St. James; at the censing of the Gospel in that of St. Mark; in a Byzantine Liturgy of the ninth century in the second prayer of the faithful; in that of St. Chrysostom immediately before the lections in the Mass of the Catechumens; and v.19 in the Epiklesis in that of the Coptic Jacobites (Brightman's Liturgies, I. Oxf.1896). In the Leonine Sacramentary, in a Preface, Mense Junio, IIII. l.13, ad Fontem, the last words of the Song appear to be cited |plena sunt omnia sæcula misericordia tua| (Dr. Feltoe's ed., Camb.1896, p.31). The verse |Benedicite omnes angeli| occurs in a |Communio| for Michaelmas in the Rosslyn Missal; |Benedictus es Domine patrum nostrorum| occurs in the Mass of the Holy Trinity in the Westminster Missal as a |gradale,| also in a Mass |pro sponsis|, and other places (Hen. Bradshaw Soc., Lond.1899, p.70, 1897, p.1239). v.34 (56) occurs in the Sarum Compline after the Creed, as also in the Roman.
In the Greek Euchologion a great part of the Song is embodied, with other Scripture odes, in what is styled |the Canon at Great Matins in the All Night Vigil| (Euchology, translated by G. V. Shann, Kidderminster, 1891, p.34).
LATER ENGLISH USE.
Burbidge (Liturgies and Offices of the Church, 1885, p.268), gives a number of instances of the use of Benedicite in foreign service books, and says, |In other churches Benedicite has been held in higher esteem than amongst ourselves.| Esteem for it has never been entirely lacking, however, as its prominence in the P. B. shews.
In a Prymer of circ.1400, as given by Maskell (Mon. rit.1882, Vol. III. p.21), Benedicite occurs in Matins, beginning |Alle werkis of the Lord, bless ye to the Lord: herie ye and overhize ye him in all time.| On the same page, note 49, he gives a quotation from Gemma animae, II.53, |canticum trium puerorum est festivius et ideo in omnibus festis dicitur.| Also in his Append. to Prymer, p.243, another version is given, from Bodl. Douce MS.275, fol.9b: |Alle werkes of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise and overheie ye him in to the worldes.| There was an authorized translation into Welsh early in the 14th century, according to H. Zimmer (Urtext und Uebersetz, Leipzig, 1897, p.172), together with Magnificat, Benedictus, and several Psalms, evidently for liturgical purposes.
In the P. B. of 1549 the use of the Benedicite as a substitute for the Te Deum was confined to Lent |all the which time| its recital was obligatory. It has been suggested by W. G. Wyon (Letter to |Guardian,| May 14, 1902) that mediæval devotion read into it an allegoric meaning of deliverance from temptations and dangers of this naughty world, and this made the Song suitable for Lent. He also suggests that the Oratio' of the Roman Missal in the Gratiarum actio' after Mass, which contains it, shews us its suitability for penitential seasons indirectly, |Deus qui tribus,| etc. No doubt hope of deliverance from fierce spiritual perils may be in Lent a proper frame of mind; but this attempt to prove the Benedicite's special appropriateness to that season is more ingenious than satisfying. It is strained and far-fetched. Compare what is said above (p.88), where M'Swiney is cited as shewing in similar style its special appropriateness to Sunday. The tone of the canticle is unmistakeably joyful, and the 1549 rubric disappeared in 1552, leaving Benedicite as a simple alternative to the Te Deum at any time according to the taste of the officiant. And so it still remains, though often preferred to the Te Deum during Lent. Septuagesima and Trinity XXI. are, on account of their first lessons, fitting Sundays for its use; nor is it by any means unsuitable for a harvest festival. An entirely different kind of reason for its Lenten suitability is provided by H. P. Cornish (Notes on P. B., Evans, Redditch, n. d., p.17). Lent, he says, is the time |when all nature begins to wake from its Lenten sleep|: hence its appropriateness in spring. It is questionable, however, whether mediæval liturgical authorities paid much attention to the natural seasons of the year; and the variety of reasons' proves the difficulty of discovering a really conclusive one. The idea that the Benedicite is consonant with Lenten feelings is singularly out of accord with the opinion expressed as to its character as being 'festivius' in the Gemma animae, given above, p.90. Indeed it can hardly be disputed that its tone is joyful. But though its special aptness for a fasting-time is not easy to make out clearly, few unprejudiced people will dissent from the opinion of Freeman as to its scope when he writes, that |though wanting in the grand structure of the Te Deum, in point of range it is in no way inferior| (Divine Service, Lond.1855, I.356).
In the scheme for the revision of the Prayer-Book in William III.s reign it was actually arranged to expunge Benedicite, and to substitute Ps. cxlviii. It would have been extruded in good company however, as Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were to be replaced by psalms in a similar way. Happily the deplorable proposals of 1689 came to nothing. But strange to say, previously to this, in the Laudian Scottish Prayer-Book, Psalm xxiii. had been substituted for Benedicite. In England, however, in 1662, the Church, taught by the persecution of the Commonwealth, declined |to appoint some psalm or scripture hymn, instead of the apocryphal Benedicite,| as demanded by the Puritans at the Savoy Conference (Procter, P. B., 1872, p.119).
At a rather earlier period, Dean Boys of Canterbury, in his quaint Prayer-Book Notes (1615 ?) says: |I finde this hymne less martyred than the rest, and therefore dismisse it, as Christ did the woman (John viii.), Where be thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? No more doe I; goe thy way.'|
At least three English metrical renderings of Benedicite exist, one of the 18th and two of the 19th century, by J. Merrick, J. S. Blackie, and Richard Wilton respectively. The first of these writers, who expands freely, concludes with a stanza designed to put the Song unmistakeably into the mouths of the Three:
Let us, who now impassive stand,
Plac'd by the Tyrant's stern Command
Amid the fiery Blaze,
(While thus we triumph in the Flame)
Rise, and our Maker's Love proclaim
In hymns of endless praise.
The objection that in using this hymn we pray to angels and heavens, to ice and snow, etc., shews how hard it is to find reasonable cause of complaint against its use. (See p.62).
The whole canticle was however actually omitted in the P. B. printed at Oxford in 1796, an edition notorious for the liberties taken with the book in many ways (A. J. Stephens' P.B., Lond.1849). The last verse, |O Ananias,| etc., which was omitted in the United States' P.B. is, as well as the above, dealt with under 'Theology,' p.64.
In an Altar Service Manual, ed.1837, which was very popular in the middle of the 19th century, by S. Isaacson, certain extracts from the Benedicite, with presumably original additions, are formed into what is called |the canticle| in an |Evening Liturgy for use after Holy Communion.| The five added verses, in rather unrhythmical English, are modelled in imitation of the Song, e.g. |O ye who have partaken of the Holy Communion, bless ye the Lord: praise Him and magnify Him for ever.|
The Song of the Three Children is, with other canticles, frequently found in appendices to both Greek and Latin Psalters. And on this account it is included sometimes in commentaries on the Psalter, as in that of de Muis (1644), Louvain, 1770, beginning with v.51, |tunc hi tres quasi ex uno ore laudabant,| etc. It stands in this book between Hezekiah's and Jonah's prayers. In the mediæval Psalters, Benedicite may constantly be found, though its place in the series of canticles varies considerably.
Many of the LXX MSS. too contain these canticles, or some of them, repeated from their regular places in the text, such as Alexandrinus and the Veronese and Turin Psalters; of these the first has vv.26 to 45 and 52 to 58, as two separate canticles between the Prayer of Manasses and Magnificat; the second, vv.52 to 90 after Magnificat as its last canticle; and the third has vv.26 to 45, 52 to 56, and 57 to 90 as three separate canticles between the P. of M. and Benedictus. In each case, it will be observed, the narrative portion is naturally excluded.
In the first and third of these MSS., A. and T., it may here be noted that there is a non-biblical Morning Hymn, Humnos heothinos, a kind of Eastern |Gloria in excelsis,| which contains an apparent extract from vv.29, 30 (52), or v.3 (26) of our Apocryphon, in line 34 of the hymn. Very nearly the same words occur in Tobias' song (Tob. viii.5), which curiously enough (in common with the song of Deborah), is not included in these canticles. Doubtless it was not in ecclesiastical use; but the reason why the Christian Church abstained from availing herself of it for choral purposes is not evident; any more than why the Jewish Church abstained from the use of Benedicite.
Although the employment of Benedicite in the services of the Church is interesting, as shewing the value set upon, and the use made of, this canticle, it reflects little or no light on its origin, or indeed on any of the heads under which it has been previously discussed.