THE LETTER OF ST. ATHANASIUS TO MARCELLINUS ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PSALMS (Part 4)
And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one's own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. To make this clear and, like Saint Paul not fearing somewhat to repeat ourselves, let us take some examples. The patriarchs spoke many things, all fitting to themselves; Moses also spoke, and God answered; Elijah and Elisha, seated on Mount Carmel, called upon the Lord and said, The Lord liveth, before Whom I stand. [ See for Elijah I Kings 18: 15, 19, and for Elisha II Kings 2: 25 and 3: 14.] And the other prophets, while speaking specially about the Saviour, addressed themselves also at times to Israel or to the heathen. Yet no one would ever speak the patriarchs' words as though they were his own, or dare to imitate the utterance of Moses or use the words of Abraham concerning the great Isaac, or about Ishmael and the home-born slave, as though they were his own, even though like necessity oppressed him. Neither, if any man suffer with those that suffer or be gripped with desire of some better thing, would he ever say as Moses said, Show me Thyself, [Ex 33:13] or If Thou remittest their sin; then remit it; but if not, then blot me out of Thy book that Thou hast written. [Ex 32:32]
THE LETTER OF ST. ATHANASIUS TO MARCELLINUS ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PSALMS (Part 3)
....Moreover, he went on, the opposite is true, to some extent; for, just as the Psalter includes the special subjects of all the other books, so also do they often contain something of the special feature of the Psalter. Moses, for example, writes a song; Isaiah does the same, and Habakkuk offers prayer in form of song. And in the same way in every book we see something alike of prophecy, of law-giving, and of history; for the same Spirit is in all and He, being by nature One and Indivisible, is given whole to each: yet is He diverse in His manifestations to mankind, and each one who is taught by and receives Him ministers the word according to the moment's need. Thus (as I said before) Moses is at times a prophet and a psalmist, and the Prophets on occasion both lay down laws (like Wash you, make you clean. Wash clean your heart from wickedness, Jerusalem [Is 1:16; Jer 4:14]), and also record history, as when Daniel relates the story of Susanna [Dan 12] or Isaiah tells us about the Rab-shakeh and Sennacherib [Is 36-37]. Similarly the Psalter, whose special function is to utter songs, generalizes in song matters that are treated in detail in the other books, as I have shown you. It also even lays down laws at times, such as Leave off from wrath and let go displeasure, incline thine heart from evil and do good. Seek peace and ensue it, as well as telling us the history of Israel's journey and prophesying the coming of the Saviour, as I said just now.
THE LETTER OF ST. ATHANASIUS TO MARCELLINUS ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PSALMS (Part 2)
You see, then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all. Of the coming of the Saviour and how, althought He is God, He yet should dwell among us, Psalm 50 says, God shall come openly, even our God, and He shall not keep silence; and in Psalm 118 we read, Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the House of the Lord. God is the Lord, and He has given us light. That He Who comes is Himself the Father's Word, Psalm 107 thus sings, He sent His Word and healed them, and rescued them out of all their distresses. For the God Who comes is this self-same Word Whom the Father sends, and of this Word Who is the Father's Voice, Whom well he knows to be the Son of God, the Psalmist sings again in 45, My heart is inditing of a good Word; and also in 110, Out of the womb, before the down, have I begotten Thee. Whom else, indeed, should any call God's very Offspring, save His own Word and Wisdom? And he, who knows full well that it was through the Word that God said, Let there be light, Let there be a firmament. Let there be all things, [Gen 1:3 ff] says again in Psalm 33, By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the Breath of His mouth.
THE LETTER OF ST. ATHANASIUS TO MARCELLINUS ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PSALMS (Part 1)
My dear Marcellinus, YOUR steadfastness in Christ fills me with admiration. Not only are you bearing well your present trial, with its attendant suffering; you are even living under rule and, so the bearer of your letter tells me, using the leisure necessitated by your recent illness to study the whole body of the Holy Scriptures and especially the Psalms. Of every one of those, he says, you are trying to grasp the inner force and sense. Splendid! I myself am devoted to the Psalms, as indeed to the whole Bible; and I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke. So I am going to write down for you the things he said.
SON, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction [2 Tim 3:16], as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressorts, and for the Gentiles also have a special word. Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of all the rest.