The Psalter Knows Christ (Athanasius)

Some of our readers may remember how Luther and Calvin loved the Psalms and spoke of them often.  Luther said that the Psalms were a mini Bible.  Calvin said that all the emotions of the soul are found in the Psalter.  In saying these things, neither Luther nor Calvin were being novel or cutting edge.  Others in Christian history said similar things before them.  Specifically, I’m thinking of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century.  In a letter to Marcellinus bishop Athanasius gave an excellent interpretive discourse on the Psalter.

One thing he wrote was that the Psalms contain truths about creation, the patriarchs, the wilderness years, the kingdom years, the exile, and so forth.  Athanasius also said that the Psalter “knew” Jesus as the Coming Savior and Lord.  Basically, long before Luther, Athanasius said that he loved the Psalter because it was a mini Bible – or garden rather:

“Yet the Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds [Bible stories and doctrines], and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.”

After taking some time pointing out how the Psalms teach the main stories and truths of Scripture – with Christ at the center – Athanasius even wrote how the Psalms contain “even the emotions of each soul.”  This means that the Christian can read the Psalms “as if he is speaking about himself.”  We can learn how to live and pray as we read the Psalter:

“And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them.”

There are many other excellent observations about the Psalms in Athanasius’ letter.  I don’t have time or space to note them all here and now.  But let me commend this letter to you.  Although I have it in e-book form (thanks, Logos!), you might be able to find it online or just get it from Amazon.  It’s not overly long but it is quite profound and edifying.  Find it, read it, then turn to the Psalms, where we find a treasure box containing Bible stories/truths, guidance for Christian living, and Jesus himself!

The above quotes are found in Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI