PREFACE TO THE PSALMS. Martin Luther.
Many of the holy fathers have highly eulogised the Psalms, and preferred them to the other sacred books of Scripture. The Work, in fact, abundantly eulogises the Master. I will add now my own praise and my own gratitude.
So many legends of saints have been circulated in former days, and so many histories of sufferings and of works for our imitation written, that the Psalms at one time were quite neglected; they were involved in too much obscurity that scarcely one Psalm was properly understood, and yet they afforded such preeminent consolation as, even in their badly understood state, to influence and to strengthen the hearts of the pious and the devout. Their language was an object of veneration. But I maintain that no legend and no manual of devotion has ever yet appeared, or can, superior to the Book of Psalms; and if a man wished either to read or to select what is best, both in example, in legend, and in history, he could not do better than adopt the Book of Psalms. For we do not merely find here what one or two saints have done, but what the head of all saints has done, and what all saints still do.
We learn how we are to conduct ourselves with respect to God, to our friends, and to our foes, and how we are to act in all cases of danger and uncertainty. But the Psalms are especially dear and valuable from their detailing to us, so clearly and prophetically, the death and resurrection of Christ; and so declaring his kingdom, and the state and spirit of Christianity, that they may be fairly called a little Bible, in which everything that is in the whole Bible is contained in a beautiful and compendious manner; and they may be considered, therefore, a preparatory vade mecum or hand-book to it. It would seem to me as if the Holy Ghost had inspired the composer with the idea of a small Bible, or of an epitome of Christianity and godly men, so that those who have not the means of reading the whole Bible may find the summary and sense condensed in a small volume. But above all, there is a virtue and a soul which breathes throughout the Psalms, whilst in other religious books they are full, not of the words, but of the works of the saints. The Psalms are an ex ception. They breathe the very odour of sanctity : for they not only relate the works but the words of holy men, how they communed with and prayed to God, and how they still commune and pray to him. so that other legends and other examples, when placed in comparison with the Psalms, appear dumb, empty, and unprofitable. The Psalms repre sent to us the life and the image of sanctity. A dumb man, when placed in opposition to a man who can speak, may be considered as a man half
But above all, there is a virtue and a soul which breathes throughout the Psalms, whilst in other religious books they are full, not of the words, but of the works of the saints, the Psalms are an exception. They breathe the very odour of sanctity: for they not only relate the works but the words of holy men, how they communed with and prayed to God, and how they still commune and pray to him. so that other legends and other examples, when placed in comparison with the Psalms, appear dumb, empty, and unprofitable. The Psalms represent to us the life and the image of sanctity. A dumb man, when placed in opposition to a man who can speak, may be considered as a man half dead; for there is no more powerful or more noble distinction in man than that of speech, which elevates him above all other animals, more than form or any other action. Wood and stone may by the art of the engraver acquire a semblance of humanity; and an animal can hear, see, smell, sing, move, stand, eat, drink, fast, and suffer thirst, hunger, frost, and hard fare as well as a man. But the Psalms do more. They give us not only the daily but the best language of holy men, the language which they used in their applications to and intercourse with God, corresponding both with the gravity of the case and the seriousness of the subject. By these means, we have not only laid open to us their words and their works, but their very heart — the vital treasure of the soul, — so that we can look into the ground and foundation of their words and works, that is into their hearts. We know the thoughts they have entertained, the resolutions they have formed, and the conduct they have pursued in every state of doubt, danger, and difficulty. This, however, is not the case with the histories and the legends which describe the manners and the miracles of saints. It is impossible for me to dive into the heart of a man whose works I alone see, and of whose reputation I only hear. As I should much more prefer hearing the language of a saint to seeing his actions, so I would rather look into his heart and inspect his soul than hear his language. But the Psalms in this respect are copious, since they give us the certainty of knowing both how holy men thought and how they addressed their words towards God and towards man. For the heart of man is like a ship upon a troubled ocean, driven about by winds from every corner of the earth. Care and fear, under the apprehension of impending evils, impel it one
For the heart of man is like a ship upon a troubled ocean, driven about by winds from every corner of the earth. Care and fear, under the apprehension of impending evils, impel it one way; grief and fear, under the influence of present distress, impel it another; hope and presumption, and the prospect of future prosperity, another; the actual possession of prosperity and the breezes of security and of pleasure, another. But these tempests of the heart induce us to hold the language of earnestness, and to examine the bearings and the recesses of the soul. For he who is weighed down by fear and poverty speaks of misfortunes in a very different way from him who basks in the sunshine of prosperity; and he who is elated by prosperity speaks and sings of joys in a totally different strain from him who lives under the trammels of fear. It has been well said that it comes not from the heart when a wretched man is to laugh, and a happy man is to weep; the avenues to his heart are closed, and the whole effect is disappointment. But what is the chief subject of the Psalms, if it is not
But what is the chief subject of the Psalms, if it is not earnestness of language in all the storms and contradictions of life? Where shall we find words more adapted to express joy, than what are contained in the Psalms of thanksgiving and of praise? We see here the hearts of saints. Our thoughts are like the flowers of a beautiful and well-cultivated garden, and our gratification consists in a grateful adoration of divine goodness. Again, where do you find more profound expressions of melancholy and of sorrow than are contained in the Psalms of affliction and of mourning? You look, I say, into the very hearts of holy men; you become familiar with death, and the interior of the tomb is opened to you. We see it dead and dark, under a consciousness of the just wrath of God, and we perceive that His countenance is, as it were, turned away from us. In the two great passions of fear and hope, we find them depicted in language which no painter can embody, and which the greatest human actor would in effectually attempt to transcend.
But what is the most glorious of all is, that when they speak of the Deity they use language which is instinctive with a superfluity of life, and which gives an importance to words beyond the conception of man. In speaking with human beings upon these subjects we rarely succeed in reaching the heart. We feel a deficiency of fervour, and we acknowledge that there is not in ourselves an adequacy of devotion. The impression is different. Hence it arises that the Psalms are a book for all religious men, and that every reader, under every circumstance of life, meets with words which apply to his own situation, and which seem so adapted to his case that he could neither compose, discover, or desire anything which so little required alteration or improvement. And there is also this advantage, that when we are gratified by the
And there is also this advantage, that when we are gratified by the language, and sympathise with it, we are certain of being in the communion of saints; and that all saints must have felt as we feel, because we unite with them in uttering the same song of adoration. Singular ! that the Psalmist should have been able to make them speak in this manner to God, and which must have been the effect of their speaking in faith, because to a person without faith the Psalms are not a source of gratification.
Finally, an assurance is given to us, upon which we may confidently rely, that we may without fear and hesitation follow in the footsteps of the good men who have preceded us. Examples drawn from other books, and from the legends which are contained in them, describe the works of saints as far beyond our imitation; or else they relate to facts which it would be hazardous to apply to our own situation, because they frequently give rise to sects and to opinions which only end in contradicting or depreciating the greater part of those good men whom we have been instructed to revere. But the Psalms inculcate no such feeling of dissent or schism. They lead us to fear, to rejoice, and to hope, and to a serious coincidence of thought and of language with the good and with the wise. In short, if you wish to see the Christian church painted in the true colours of life and beauty, if you wish to possess it in miniature, take the Psalms, and you will find in them a faithful mirror reflecting with perfect purity the image of Christianity. You will find yourself in them, and also that great principle “Know thyself ” engraved in them, as well as God himself and the creatures whom He has made.
Let us, in consequence, be grateful to our Maker for this his unspeakable goodness, and let us accept and enjoy it with equal devotion and diligence, and so honour and praise him that we may avoid, by not being unthankful, the effects of his just punishment.
In former times, what a, treasure it would have been to have well understood the Psalms, and to have been able to have heard and read them in the common language of our own country. But this was a comfort which we did not experience. Blessed are the eyes which see what we see, and the ears which hear what we hear. But we are like the Israelites in the wilderness, blindly exclaiming, whilst the manna continued to nourish them, ” Our souls are disgusted with this insipid food.” But we should recollect how they were plagued and punished, in order that we ourselves may escape a similar punishment.
May the Father of all grace and mercy preserve us in this, through Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be praise and honour, thanksgiving and glory, both for this Book of Psalms and for his unspeakable, innumerable, eternal blessings. Amen! Amen!
Excerpted from The prefaces to the early editions of Martin Luther’s Bible (tr. by sir G. Duckett) ed. by T.A. Readwin (1863). Find the book on Google Books here.