Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Augustine on the Psalms (1)
August 1, 2010, 8:19 pm
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Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 1st August 2010

One of the principal parts of Morning and Evening Prayer, but one which we often overlook, is the Psalter, the Book of Psalms. I’m sure we all know that this collection originated as the song-book of the Temple in Jerusalem, especially in the period after the Exile, when the Temple had been rebuilt. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians made this song-book their own, using it as a ready-made (and indeed Divinely inspired) resource to express their sentiments of praise and thanksgiving, of penitence and petition. The Fathers of the Church expounded them in their preaching and teaching, none more fully than Saint Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who lived from 354 to 430 AD. He is famous for writing his Confessions, the story of his life up to his conversion and baptism in 387, when he was thirty-three years old. Since he was seventy-six when he died, there is obviously a lot of his life that is not famous, but more important. He started commenting on the Psalms shortly after his priestly ordination, and continued to do so for thirty years or so, only completing and publishing the work a few years before he died. Some of the commentaries started out as sermons, others as personal notes.

I want to share with you this evening something of what Augustine has to say about the Psalm we sang earlier, Psalm 107. It may be helpful if you open your Prayer Books or Psalters to follow.

This is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving: O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever. Our motive for thanks is simply the graciousness of God, and his everlasting mercy towards us. We praise him by openly acknowledging that grace and mercy are his abiding nature.

Let them give thanks whom the Lord hath redeemed. Augustine points out that this cannot mean simply those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt. Rather they are those gathered out of the lands, from the east and from the west: from the north and from the south. The people of God, says Augustine, have been freed from a vast, widespread Egypt. The Easter liturgy of baptism is full of this Exodus imagery. “It is the baptized who are invited by the Psalm to speak.”

Augustine then jumps to verse 8, which is in fact repeated at verses 15, 21 and 31 as a kind of refrain: O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men! This refrain divides the Psalm into five sections, corresponding to various temptations that beset believers at different stages of their life.

The first temptation is covered in verses 4-7. Literally, these verses refer to the Israelites wandering and hungering in the desert. They went astray in the wilderness out of the way: and found no city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty: their soul fainted in them. So they cried to the Lord in their trouble: and he delivered them from their distress. More generally, they may be taken of so many in this world, who don’t know where they are or where they are going. They feel a desire for something better than they know, but have no idea how to find it. When someone recognises their spiritual need, they cry out for help- not knowing, perhaps, to whom they cry- and God who is always watching over his children hears them.

The second temptation is found in verses 9-14. The person who wants to live a better life, and sincerely sets out on the way, soon discovers that it is not easy. They are fast bound in misery and iron, their hearts are brought down through heaviness, so that they fall down with none to help them. Augustine (who had experienced this in his own life) says that we have to learn that we cannot save ourselves by our own strength. It is not a matter, as the Pelagians thought, of just pulling oneself together and trying harder. We only discover the power of our selfish impulses when we try to resist them. Once again, we must cry out to the Lord in our distress. He alone can free us and break the bonds that hold us back.

The third temptation is an interesting one. Their soul abhorred all manner of meat: and they were even at death’s door. Augustine says that very many people successfully pass through the first two. They seek God, they renounce sin: but after initial enthusiasm they find themselves suffering from boredom and disgust with the good. God sets all manner of good food before them, but they have no appetite for it. how many of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we always find joy and pleasure in our prayers, our spiritual reading, even in the sacraments? Once we hungered for the good, now it has little attraction. This, says Augustine, is no light temptation. If we recognise ourselves in this picture, again we must cry to the Lord in our distress.

The fourth section is concerned with those who go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters. If the earlier sections may originally have referred to the Exodus, this one certainly doesn’t. The ancient Israelites were no sailors, but in the time after the Exile the Mediterranean world was opening up to them. Travellers came back, like St Paul later, with tales of storms and shipwrecks. Augustine, looking for a further meaning, suggests that we may take it as a temptation of those who have achieved positions of leadership and success. Carried up to heaven in terms of position, they may be plunged into the deep by pride and arrogance. Christian leaders, he says, like himself, must beware of such sins. If they recognise them in themselves, let them cry out to the Lord!

In the final section, God blesses those who have persevered through all their trials, making the wilderness fruitful, establishing his people so that they may build a city: the City of God, the ideal society of men and women God has envisaged from the beginning. By interpreting the Psalm in this way, Augustine makes it stand for every Christian’s pilgrimage through this world to the next. Whoso is wise will ponder these things: and they shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord. I must come back to the Book of Psalms again. We sing and we take for granted: but there is so much wisdom in them.


2 Comments so far
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Thank you very much for your thoughts, Father. One of my very favourite Psalms.

Comment by Simon Cotton

Well, far more Augustine’s than mine, except insofar as I make them my own!

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

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