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Christian Hymns Of The First Three Centuries by Ruth Ellis Messenger

II. Old Testament Hymns

At the threshold of Christianity the student crosses from the literary environment of the Old Testament into that of the New. But in actual practice the Hebrew psalms were never given up, and to this day are treasured in every branch of the faith. In the early centuries they formed the bulk of Christian hymnody. References to their use appear throughout the New Testament and are familiar to all. And, moreover, the influence of the Hebrew psalms upon the composition of new hymns is apparent even in the Gospels.

Keeping these important facts in mind regarding the psalms, the student may pass on to other hymnic sources in the Old Testament. Many striking lyrical passages in the Hebrew scriptures, uttered or perhaps repeated in moments of emotional fervor, were used by later worshippers to express a similar attitude toward the Divine. Among these may be cited the Songs of Moses,

I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously (Ex.15:1-19),

Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth (Deut.32:1-43);

Hannah's Song of Thanksgiving,

My heart rejoiceth in the Lord (I Sam.2:1-10);

the great hymns in the Book of Isaiah,

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts (Isa.6:3),

We have a strong city; salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks (Isa.26:1-21),

the second part of which begins,

With my soul have I desired thee in the night (Isa.26:9-21);

Jonah's Song,

I cried by reason of my affliction unto the Lord (Jonah 2:2-9);

the Song of Habbakuk,

O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid (Hab.3:2-19)

The apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, known as the Song of the Three Holy Children, may be considered with Old Testament lyrics. Comprising sixty-seven verses, it was added to Daniel 3:23, but, strictly speaking, its date, author and original language are unknown. It is probable that it is of Hebrew authorship and belongs to the first century, B. C. Its use, however, is unquestioned. The first part,

Blessed art Thou, O Lord of our fathers,

is the familiar Benedictus es, Domine; and the second part,

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord,

is the Benedicite, omnia opera.

The term canticle, mentioned above, has been applied in a general sense to such lyrics from the Old Testament and also from the New. |In practice,| says James Mearns, |it means those Songs of Holy Scripture which have been selected for ecclesiastical use and are appended to, or incorporated with, the Psalter or other parts of the Divine Office.| Both Eastern and Western Churches early made official use of the Old Testament canticles, while the Greek Church elaborated upon them in formal metrical compositions, called canons, or groups of odes based upon an acrostic structure, a distinctive feature of Greek hymnody from the seventh century.

It was only natural that the hymnody of the Old Testament should have exerted a marked influence upon Christian practice. The Old Testament tradition was very strong. Familiar phraseology was ready at hand for the composition of new canticles which were often mere centos from the Psalms or other portions of the Hebrew scriptures. It should be recalled that Christianity not only arose in the Semitic environment but also was for some years localized chiefly in the oriental sections of the Roman Empire, and that it was affected by oriental ideas and modes of expression. Even after Greek and Roman influences were strongly felt, hymnology retained this traditional Semitic character and pagan lyrics were held in suspicion.

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