Luther on the Gift of the Psalms

Martin Luther loved the book of Psalms. His thinking and theology were greatly influenced by his meditation on this book. When he became a professor, the Psalms were his first topic for lecture. From 1513-1515, Luther lectured on the Psalms. Below is his introduction to his lectures. It is evident that he was tremendously grateful for this book and that he viewed at as a gift of God to his people.

The Psalms


The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this:  it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly–and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom–that it might well be called a little Bible.  In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.  It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook.  In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble himself to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book.
The Words of the Saints


Beyond all that, the Psalter has this noble virtue and quality.  Other books make much ado about the works of the saints, but say very little about their words.  The Psalter is a gem in this respect.  It gives forth so sweet a fragrance when one reads it because it relates not only the works of the saints, but also their words, how they spoke with God and prayed, and still speak and pray.  Compared to the Psalter, the other legends and examples present to us nothing but mere silent saints;  the Psalter, however, pictures for us real, living, active saints.
Compared to a speaking man, a silent one is simply to be regarded as a half-dead man;  and there is no mightier or nobler work of man than speech.  For it is by speech, more than by his shape or by any other work, that man is most distinguished from other animals.  By the carver’s art even a block of wood can have the shape of a man;  and an animal can see, hear, smell, sing, walk, stand, eat, drink, fast, thirst–and suffer from hunger, frost, and a hard bed–as well as a man.
The Heart of the Saints


Moreover the Psalter does more than this.  It presents to us not the simple, ordinary speech of the saints, but the best of their language, that which they used when they talked with God himself in great earnestness and on the most important matters.  Thus the Psalter lays before us not only their words instead of their deeds, but their very hearts and the inmost treasure of their souls, so we can look down to the foundation and source of their words and deeds.  
 We can look into their hearts and see what kind of thoughts they had, how their hearts were disposed, and how they acted in all kinds of situations, in danger and in need.  The legends and examples, which speak only of the deeds and miracles of the saints, do not and cannot do this, for I cannot know how a man’s heart is, even though I see or hear of many great deeds that he does.  And just as I would rather hear what a saint says than see the deeds he does, so I would far rather see his heart, and the treasure in his soul, than hear his words.  And this the Psalter gives us most abundantly concerning the saints, so that we can be certain of how their hearts were toward God and of the words they spoke to God and every man…
 What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind?  Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving?  There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens, yes, as into heaven itself.  There you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of his blessings.   
On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation?  There again you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into death, yes, as into hades itself.  How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God!  So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator so portray them. 
And that they speak these words to God and with God, this, I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life.  For when men speak with men about these matters, what they say does not come so powerfully from the heart;  it does not burn and live, is not so urgent.  Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints;  and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.
The Communion of the Saints


This also serves well another purpose.  When these words please a man and fit his case, he becomes sure that he is in the communion of saints, and that it has gone with all the saints as it goes with him, since they all sing with him one little song.  It is especially so if he can speak these words to God, as they have done;  this can only be done in faith, for the words of the saints have no flavor to a godless man. 
Finally there is in the Psalter security and a well-tried guide, so that in it one can follow all the saints without peril.  The other examples and legends of the silent saints present works that one is unable to imitate;  they present even more works which it is dangerous to imitate, works which usually start sects and divisions, and lead and tear men away from the communion of saints.  But the Psalter holds you to the communion of saints and away from the sects.  For it teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken. 
In a word, if you would see the holy christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter.  There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is.  Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true [“Know yourself”], as well as God himself and all creatures….
To this may God the Father of all grace and mercy help us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be praise and thanks, honor and glory, for this German Psalter and for all his innumerable and unspeakable blessings to all eternity.  Amen, Amen (AE 35:253-57).
 
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