Students of Scripture who neglect the writings of the early church theologians (the patristics) miss out on some incredibly helpful, profound, and edifying biblical insights. I do think one weakness of some modern commentaries, Bible studies, and Christian books is the failure to engage with the theologians of the early church. Speaking of theologians of the early church, Athanasius’ “Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms” is a gold mine for studying the Psalms. Hopefully the following summary is enough to make you want to read Athanasius’ letter for some great insights into the Psalter. It’s not too long and it is well worth the time. Anyway, here’s a summary of Athanasius’ insights.
Athanasias of course saw Christ in the Psalms. For Athanasius, the Psalms were deeply messianic. He wrote that the Psalter teaches the various aspects and doctrines of Christ’s person and work. For example, “It [the Psalter] foretells his bodily ascension into heaven, and says in Psalm 24, Lift up your gates, you princes….” Furthermore, Athanasius noted that Christ’s perfect righteousness and obedience to God is recorded in the Psalms. In fact, “the Lord, being true Lord of all and one concerned for all, performed righteous acts, and not only made laws but offered himself as a model for those who wish to know the power of acting. It was indeed for this reason that he made this resound in the Psalms before his sojourn in our midst….” In other words, Athanasius also found Christ’s life and deeds in the Psalter.
Athanasius also understood the Psalms as being something like a summary of the whole OT story line. After mentioning some of the main themes of the OT, Athanasius wrote that “the Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds, and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.” For example, “the pronouncements of the Prophets are declared in nearly every psalm.”
From another angle, Athanasius understood the Psalms as being descriptive of whole range of human emotions: “It contains even the emotions of each soul.” (Note: Calvin wasn’t the first to note this fact!) Athanasius wrote, “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.” Therefore, when the Christian reads the Psalms, Athanasius said, he or she “is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs.” “…He [the Christian] handles them as if he is speaking about himself. And the things spoken are such that he lifts them up too God as himself acting and speaking them from himself.” In other words, in many instances the words of the Psalms are the words of the Christian in prayer, lament, praise, and thanksgiving.
Finally, Athanasius taught that the Psalms are a sort of commentary on other Scriptures. For example, he wrote “there is a command [in the NT] to give thanks in all circumstances, but the Psalms also teach what one must say when giving thanks.” “…We are asked to bless the Lord, and to acknowledge him. But in the Psalms we are instructed how one must praise the Lord and by speaking what words we properly confess our faith in him.” In other words, for Athanasius, the Psalter gives us concrete ways how to follow many of the commands in the NT. (This is an example of Scripture interpreting Scripture.)
My summary here is really just scratching the surface of a very important and insightful reflection on the Psalter. Again, I strongly recommend finding this letter from Athanasius to Marcellinus on the interpretation of the Psalms and taking time to read it. It’ll help you read the Psalms better!
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), 111.
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