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Augustine on the Psalms (3)
August 23, 2010, 10:59 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

A sermon preached att All Saints, Clifton, 22nd August 2010

Continuing this series of sermons on the Psalms, we come to Psalm 119: well, not all of it, of course, all 176 verses. Probably not even all the verses we have sung this evening. Just a few thoughts.

When I looked up St Augustine’s commentary, I found that, having intended to write on all the Psalms, he had kept putting off writing about this one, “not so much,” he says, “because its formidable length as because of its profundity, which few can fathom.” However, he goes on, a lot of people took it badly that this was the only Psalm left without an explanation, and they pressed him hard to finish the job. He still put off writing, because, he says, “every time I tried to think about it, it always seemed far beyond the powers of my mind… Now at long last I approach the task of dealing with it, but I have absolutely no idea what I can manage.”

Well, that is encouraging! The great Augustine shirked the task, but, as they say, “fools rush in…” The first thing to remember about this Psalm is that it is concerned with the Torah, the beautiful Law of God which he revealed to his people through Moses. The Psalmist, whoever he was, delighted in the Word of God, and every single verse praises it as “word”, “law”, “judgements, “testimonies”, “statutes” and so on. The second thing to note (although this is hard to verify in a translation) is that each of the twenty-two sections of the Psalm, with eight verses in each section, corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Beth, Ghimel and so on. Ronald Knox, in his translation, executed a tour-de-force in reproducing this in English. I obviously won’t give you the whole thing, but here are some samples from tonight’s three sections (in English, G,H and I):

Go not back on the word thou hast pledged to thy servant; there lies all my hope.

Good news in my affliction, thy promises have brought me life.

Ground down by the scorn of my oppressors, never from thy law I swerve aside.

Heritage, Lord, I claim no other, but to obey thy word.

Heart-deep my supplication before thee for thy mercies thou hast promised.

Have I not planned out my path, turned aside to follow thy decrees?

In fulfilment of thy promise, Lord, what kindness thou hast shown thy servant!

It was in mercy thou didst chasten me, schooling me to thy obedience

Is not the law thou hast given dearer to me than rich store of gold and silver?

In section G, the Psalmist invokes the Law as his strength in time of trial. “The same is my comfort in my trouble.” “The proud have had me exceedingly in derision; yet have I not shrinkèd from thy law.”

Although, humanly speaking, he is afraid- horribly afraid- he has absolute trust in the promises of God to save him.

In the next section, H, he renews his commitment to the Covenant that God has made with his people. “Thou art my portion, O Lord: I have promised to keep thy law.” Even if he is surrounded by the ungodly, he has not forgotten what God has said. If the daytime is full of trouble, he will use the night to praise God: “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee.”

In our final section, the Psalmist simply praises and thanks God for his goodness. He cannot, even so, forget his adversaries, but he comes to realise that “It is good for me that I have been in trouble.” We only appreciate the greatness and goodness of the Lord, and of his teaching, when we are under attack for our faith.

For Christians, the Word of God is above all Jesus Christ. In his earthly life he demonstrated the utter faith in God that we must try to imitate. He is our Saviour, he is the treasure that should be dearer to us than thousands of gold and silver.

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