Athanasius on the Psalms

The Church Father Athanasius (c.293-373) wrote a spectacular letter to a friend, Marcellinus, who was using the “leisure” of his prolonged sickness to study the Psalms. In giving advice on how to read and interpret the Psalms, Athanasius says four things of key importance: (1) all the Psalms speak of the themes treated in all the other books of Scripture; (2) the Psalms speak of Christ, his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension; (3) the Psalms “have but one voice in the Holy Spirit”; and (4) the Psalms speak to every part of your own life, for “besides all these things, you learn about yourself.” Here’s a taste:

You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills. Obviously, therefore, the only thing that matters is for each writer to hold fast unyieldingly the grace he personally has received and so fulfil perfectly his individual mission. And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill… In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

The whole letter is well worth a read: find it here.

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