Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Seeing Christ in the Psalms 1: Athanasius

The Fathers take a range of views about the extent to which Christ can be seen in the psalms, ranging from seeing him prophesied in a few individual psalms, to him being the main subject of the entire psalter.  To illustrate this, I want to start with St Athanasius, again from his famous letter to Marcellinus:
And, so far from being ignorant of the coming of Messiah, he makes mention of it first and foremost in Psalm 44, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever, a scepter of justice is the sceptre of Thy kingdom. Thou has loved righteousness and hated lawlessness: wherefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows. 
Further, lest any one should think this coming was in appearance only, Psalm 86 shows that He Who was to come should both come as man and at the same time be He by Whom all things were made. Mother Sion shall say, A man, a man indeed is born in her: and He himself, the Most Highest, founded her, it says; and that is equivalent to saying The Word was God, all things were made by Him, and the Word became flesh. 
Neither is the Psalmist silent about the fact that He should be born of a virgin - no, he underlines it straight away in 44, which we were quoting, but a moment since. Harken, O daughter, he says, and see and incline thine ear, and forget thine own people and thy fathers's house. For the King has desired thy beauty, and He is thy Lord. Is not this like what Gabriel said, Hail, thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee?  For the Psalmist, having called Him the Anointed One, that is Messiah or Christ, forthwith declares His human birth by saying, Harken, O daughter, and see; the only difference being that Gabriel addresses Mary by an epithet, because he is of another race from her, while David fitly calls her his own daughter, because it was from him that she should spring.
Having thus shown that Christ should come in human form, the Psalter goes on to show that He can suffer in the flesh He has assumed. It is as foreseeing how the Jews would plot against Him that Psalm 2 sings, Why do the heathen rage and peoples meditate vain things? The kings of the earth stood up and their rulers took counsel together against the Lord and against His Christ. 
And Psalm 21, speaking in the Saviour's own person, describes the manner of His death. Thou has brought me into the dust of death, for many dogs have compassed me, the assembly of the wicked have laid siege to me. They peirced my hands and my feet, they numbered all my bones, they gazed and stared at me, they parted my garments among them and cast lots for my vesture. They pierced my hands and my feet- what else can that mean except the cross? and Psalms 87 and 68, again speaking in the Lord's own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. So in Psalm 137 we say, The Lord will make requital for me; and in the 71st the Spirit says, He shall save the children of the poor and bring the slanderer low, for from the hand of the mighty He has set the poor man free, the needy man whom there was none to help.
Nor is this all. The Psalter further indicates beforehand the bodily Ascension of the Saviour into heaven, saying in Psalm 23, Lift up your gates, ye princes, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the king of glory shall come in! And again in 46, God is gone up with a merry noise, the Lord with the voice of the trumpet. 
The Session also it proclaims, saying in Psalm 109, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on My right hand, until I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet.And Psalm 8 mentions also the coming destruction of the devil, crying, Thou satest on Thy throne, Thou that judgest righteousness, Thou hast rebuked the heathen and the wicked one is destroyed. And that He should receive all judgement from the Father, this also the Psalter does not hide from us, but foreshows Him as coming to be the judge of all in 71, Give the King Thy judgements, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the King's Son, that He may judge Thy people in righteousness and Thy poor with justice. In Psalm 49 too we read, He shall call the heaven from above, and the earth, that He may judge His people. And the heavens shall declare His righteousness, that God is judge indeed. The 81st like-wise says, God standeth in the assembly of gods, in the midst He judges gods. The calling of the Gentiles also is to be learnt from many passages in this same book, especially in these words of Psalm 46, O clap your hands together, all ye Gentiles, shout unto God with the voice of triumph; and again in the 71st, The Ethiopians shall fall down before Him, His enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarsis and of the islands shall bring presents, the kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer gifts. All these things are sung of in the Psalter; and they are shown forth separately in the other books as well.
My old friend made rather a point of this, that the things we find in the Psalms about the Saviour are stated in the other books of Scripture too; he stressed the fact that one interpretation is common to them all, and that they have but one voice in the Holy Spirit.


  1. GM Kate (I say good good morning because I am in Santiago, Chile on Wednesday, and you, in Canberra, Australia)and it's Thursday there!
    Thank you for Wednesdays post which I am now going to take to my morning prayer - St Athanasius is one of the saints I like to follow.
    A question for you: For some time I have been using the Christian Prayer single volume breviary, and the on line breviaries like Divine Office, Universalis, iBreviary etc. How much of a difference is there between these breviaries and your Benedictine breviaries?
    I would appreciate if you could give me some guide lines...
    My next question is, do you know the work " A school of prayer" by John Brook? I ask because personally I find his knowledge of the Psalms and OT outstanding, and I wondered if you had an opinion...
    Have a blessed day.

    1. The Benedictine Office is essentially the one set out in the sixth century rule of St Benedict; all the others are much later versions (1911 for the Roman Office on Divinum Officium, 1970. I'm not familiar with the Christian Prayer volume I'm afraid.

      The Benedictine Office gets through all of the psalms in a week, and is arranged in eight separate hours.

      And yes the School of Prayer is definitely one of the best of the modern commentaries around. The other modern commentary I'd recommend is Patrick Reardon, Christ in the Psalms. Mind you, my own preference is the classic commentaries of the Fathers. St Augustine's is the most comprehensive but very long, Cassiodorus' is a useful summary of the patristic sources, and St Robert Bellarmine's psalm commentary is a classic.

  2. GM Kate, I am thinking of acquiring
    The Monastic Diurnal: The Day Hours of the Monastic Breviary in Latin and English - Do you know it, can you give me a recommendation?
    BW, Norman

  3. Absolutely recommend. The Office itself is a rich treasure, and while the Diurnal isn't a terribly user friendly book, if you have already been saying the Office in various forms, that will give you a big headstart. My Saints will arise blog is devoted to helping people say the Office according to it, and I'm about to run a little course on it - you mightn't be ready in time, but if it is successful I will probably run it again soonish.