Monday, August 12, 2013

Introduction to Psalms, Luther

C.S. Lewis has done me a lot of good this summer with his Surprised by Joy.  His school and life experiences will stay with me.  What colorful people and descriptions!  What circuitous thinking!  It must take a philosophical mind to make things so complicated and so simple and finally so uniquely Lewis, and still appealing to us all.

I've been thinking about the Psalms, the last couple of days, because I quoted one on this thread on Naked Pastor.   It was Psalm 2.  I had it handy because I just started reading Psalms from the beginning and it was number two!  Well, in the Lutheran Study Bible, I also found a very wonderful introduction to Psalms by Martin Luther, which I will put here. It amazes me how he so often has the right words.

     Many of the holy fathers prized and praised the Psalter above all the other books of Scripture.  To be sure, the work itself gives praise enough to its author;  nevertheless we must give evidence of our own praise and thanks.
     Over the years a great many legends of the saints,...books of examples, and histories have been circulated...and the Psalter has been neglected.  It has lain in such obscurity that not one Psalm was rightly understood.  Still it gave off such a fine and precious fragrance that all pious hearts felt the devotion and power in the unknown words and for this reason loved the book.
I hold, however, that no finer book of examples or of the legends of the saints has ever come, or can come, to earth than the Psalter.  If one were to wish that from all the examples, legends, and histories, the best should be collected and brought together and put in the best form, the result would have to be the present Psalter.  For here we find not only what one or two saints have done, but what he has done who is the very had of all saints.  We also find what all the saints still do, such as the attitude they take toward God, toward friends and enemies, and the way they conduct themselves amid all dangers and sufferings.  Beyond that there are contained here all sorts of divine and wholesome teachings and commandments.
     The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this:  it promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly--and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom--that it might well be called a little Bible.  In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.  It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook.  In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.
     [The Words of the Saints.]  Beyond all that, the Psalter has this noble virtue and quality.  Other books make much ado about the works of the saints, but say very little about their words.  The Psalter is a gem in this respect.  It gives forth so sweet a fragrance when one reads it because it relates not only the works of the saints, but also their words, how they spoke with God and prayed, and still speak and pray.  Compared to the Psalter, the other legends and examples present to us nothing but mere silent saints;  the Psalter, however, pictures for us real, living, active saints.
     Compared to a speaking man, a silent one is simply to be regarded as a half-dead man;  and there is no mightier or nobler work of man than speech.  For it is by speech, more than by his shape or by any other work, that man is most distinguished from other animals.  By the carver's art even a block of wood can have the shape of a man;  and an animal can see, hear, smell, sing, walk, stand, eat, drink, fast, thirst--and suffer from hunger, frost, and a hard bed--as well as a man.
     [The Hearts of the Saints.]  Moreover the Psalter does more than this.  It presents to us not the simple, ordinary speech of the saints, but the best of their language, that which they used when they talked with God himself in great earnestness and on the most important matters.  Thus the Psalter lays before us not only their words instead of their deeds, but their very hearts and the inmost treasure of their souls, so we can look down to the foundation and source of their words and deeds.  We can look into their hearts and see what kind of thoughts they had, how their hearts were disposed, and how they acted in all kinds of situations, in danger and in need.  The legends and examples, which speak only of the deeds and miracles of the saints, do not and cannot do this, for I cannot know how a man's heart is, even though I see or hear of many great deeds that he does.  And just as I would rather hear what a saint says than see the deeds he does, so I would far rather see his heart, and the treasure in his soul, than hear his words.  And this the Psalter gives us most abundantly concerning the saints, so that we can be certain of how their hearts were toward God and of the words they spoke to God and every man...
     What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind?  Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving?  There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself.  There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of his blessings.  On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation?  There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself.  How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God!  So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them.
And that they speak these words to God and with God, this, I repeat, is the best thing of all.          This gives the words double earnestness and life.  For when men speak with men about these matters, what they say does not come so powerfully from the heart;  it does not burn and live, is not so urgent.  Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints;  and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.
     [The Communion of Saints.]  This also serves well another purpose.  When these words please a man and fit his case, he becomes sure that he is in the communion of saints, and that it has gone with all the saints as it goes with him, since they all sing with him one little song.  It is especially so if he can speak these words to God, as they have done;  this can only be done in faith, for the words [of the saints] have no flavor to a godless man.
     Finally there is in the Psalter security and a well-tried guide, so that in it one can follow all the saints without peril.  The other examples and legends of the silent saints present works that one is unable to imitate;  they present even more works which it is dangerous to imitate, works which usually start sects and divisions, and lead and tear men away from the communion of saints.  But the Psalter holds you to the communion of saints and away from the sects.  For it teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken.
     In a word, if you would see the holy christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter.  There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is.  Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true ["Know yourself"], as well as God himself and all creatures....
     To this may God the Father of all grace and mercy help us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be praise and thanks, honor and glory, for this German Psalter and for all his innumerable and unspeakable blessings to all eternity.  Amen, Amen. (AE 35:253-57)
     [Types of Psalms.]  The entire Psalter may be treated in a five-fold fashion, that is, we may divide it into five groups. First, some psalms prophesy.  They speak, for example, of Christ and the church or what will happen to the saints.  This class includes all the psalms that contain promises and warning--promises for the godly and warnings for the ungodly.  Second, there are psalms of instruction, which teach us what we should do and what we should avoid, in accordance with the law of God.  This class includes all the psalms that condemn human doctrines and praise the Word of God.  Third, there are psalms of comfort, which strengthen and comfort the saints in their troubles and sorrows but rebuke and terrify the tyrants.  This class includes all the psalms that comfort, exhort, stimulate endurance, or rebuke the tyrants.  Fourth are the psalms of prayer, in which we call on God, praying in all kinds of distress.  To this class belong all the psalms that lament or mourn or cry out against our foes.  Fifth, are the psalms of thanks, in which God is praised and glorified for all his blessings and help.  This class includes all the psalms that praise God for his works.  These are the psalms of the first rank, and for their sake the Psalter was created;  therefore it is called in Hebrew Sefer Tehillim, that is, a praise book or book of thanksgiving.

     Now, we should understand that the Psalms, with all their verses, cannot always be classified so precisely and exactly into these groups.  At times one psalm might contain two, three, or even all five classifications, so that one psalm may belong in all five divisions, with prophecy, instruction, comfort, prayer, and thanksgiving lying next to one another.  However, this is the intention, that the reader may understand that the Psalter deals with these five topics.  The classifications are a help, so that we might more easily understand the Psalter, become adapted to it, and also be able to learn and keep it. (PIML, pp 6-7)

I have not always appreciated all of the psalms thoroughly.  Certainly, most of us have favorites.  We Germans have such a phenomenal hymn book, that we might with clutching hands not want to trade a Paul Gerhardt song for a psalm by David, if we had to.  (I am talking foolishness.)  But Luther because of his schooling read the entire Psalter every so many days.  I think six or ten psalms were read per day. Can one imagine getting through the Psalter this often and so many times?  It would ring in ones ears.  What a treasure that would be. We have so many scripture verses in the liturgy and they ring in my ears.  It is a wonderful thing, indeed.  I am wondering if I can get my husband to read and discuss the Psalter with me next.  We finished everything by Solomon;  so maybe we'll back up and read what David had to say.

Luther wrote some commentaries on the Psalms  and I find them highly telling about himself and his life experiences.  In a way was another David, in that he had so many enemies to fight, was a thorough man of prayer, coaching and enticing everyone else to apply themselves to prayer. Their God and their trust in God saw them through historically important events in which they found themselves in leadership positions with many situations to manage in a God-fearing way.



Myrtle said...

A, see, Gitte, you warmed the cockles of my heart with this post! I don't have to imagine the ringing Psalter because I read them this way. I actually missed typing up psalms one I finished my repository of them on the blog I created for praying the Psalter. You know I am Psalter nuts. But for those just *thinking* about spending time praying them, I will say I started out knowing nothing about psalms even being prayers just a few years ago. I read that Luther prayed them and wondered how that could be. Now, I cannot get enough of them, savor when others pray them for me, and LOVE praying them with others. But, I know you know this Gitte. I just wanted folk here to know that the chief thing I learned about the Psalter is two-fold: 1) They reveal how well we are known by our creator and 2) One doesn't have to know anything about them to star praying them and to learn from them because the Holy Spirit is a very, very, very effective teacher. The more you read, the more you will learn. Guaranteed!

Brigitte said...

Yes, I want to read through them carefully this round. Yes, and pray them. Thanks for the encouragement, Myrtle and for the times you have prayed them with me and read them to me with my name in them. XO

kenosi molato said...

Thanks Mate for the post. i have been preaching through psalm in our church in Gaborone, Botswana Africa!!!