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Augustine on the Psalms (2)
August 8, 2010, 6:40 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 8th August 2010

Last week I talked about Psalm 107, and resolved to preach on the Psalms again. Little did I know that a second week running I would have to preach at Evensong! But here, in very abbreviated form, are St Augustine’s thoughts on Psalm 108.

Actually, his Commentary begins “I deemed it unnecessary to expound this Psalm.” Why? Because, he says, it consists simply of the later verses of Psalm 57 plus the later verses of Psalm 60. Look them up, and you will see that this is true. Verses 1-5 are almost the same as verses 8-12 of Psalm 57, and verses 6-13 are almost the same as verses 5-12 of Psalm 60. This fact alone reminds us that the whole book of Psalms is a compilation of several collections of Temple songs, which overlap to some extent. It is as if one bound up Hymns Ancient and Modern with the English Hymnal- there would be some items in both collections (actually, rather a lot in the case of the hymnbooks).

Supposedly, Psalm 57 reflects the time when the young David was fleeing from King Saul. It is at any rate a prayer for the Lord’s help in a time of trial, with the second half giving thanks for the Lord’s mercy. Psalm 60, on the other hand, is said to reflect the time of King David’s victories over the various enemies of his kingdom, who are named in the second half of the Psalm- Moab and Edom and Philistia. The Psalmist asserts that it is through the power of God that victory is gained. Coincidentally, these same nations are mentioned in this evening’s first Lesson, from Isaiah.

Put the two parts together, says Augustine, and you can apply the new, combined Psalm to Christ. Our Lord was first persecuted and humiliated, like the young David; but in his resurrection he showed himself a King victorious over his enemies in the power of God. In fact, by a happy chance, Mel Gibson in his powerful film “The Passion of the Christ” puts the opening words of the Psalm on the lips of Jesus as he prepares himself for the ordeal of the scourging before his crucifixion. “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.” In this context, the readiness is the willingness of Jesus to suffer for our sake: transformed from a statement of mere resignation by the following words, “I will sing and give praise.”

As we sing this Psalm, we should imagine Christ entering his Passion with a total commitment to his Father’s will for the salvation of mankind. If this is what it takes to rescue mankind from the clutches of the Evil One, so be it! “Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens: and thy glory above all the earth- that thy beloved may be delivered: let thy right hand save them.” It is at this very point that the two extracts from separate Psalms merge. The power of God is invoked precisely to save the beloved: which means both Christ as the Beloved Son of God (as we heard recently in the Gospel of the Transfiguration), and ourselves, the human race, beloved so much by God that he sends his Son into the world to redeem us.

God is sovereign. He is sovereign over the Promised Land- Sichem and Succoth and Gilead, Manasses, Ephraim and Judah are all places or regions in the Land that he apportions to Israel, with Judah as lawgiver, the Davidic Kingdom. But God is also sovereign over the surrounding nations hostile to his people, Moab and Edom on the east and south, the Philistines on the west. In the same way, Christ is King over the Church, the whole assembly of the redeemed; but he is no less sovereign over those who reject him.

Augustine, in his brief note explaining why he will not comment on this Psalm, concludes, “We could have no clearer indication that both the earlier psalms are oriented to a single end not in their superficial historical sense but in the depth of the prophecy they express. God spoke in many and various ways through the prophets, but the Word he spoke was the One he sent later to fulfil the prophecies. He quotes Paul (again, happily and coincidentally from this evening’s second Lesson): “However many were the promises of God, all find their ‘yes’ in him.”

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