Reflections on St. Athanasius’s Letter on Interpreting the Psalms

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The following was a college essay written by Joseph Tuttle. It has been edited and approved by Rachel Hamilton. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College

The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms is extremely useful for understanding the Psalms. We sometimes think of the Psalms as random prose prayers all thrown together, or simply as the writings of David. However, as Saint Athanasius points out, there are many hidden “fruits” within the Psalms. Athanasius says that the book of Psalms contains not only its unique fruit, but also the fruit of other books of Sacred Scripture.

St. Athanasius begins by showing how the psalms mention “all the subjects mentioned in the historical books” (Athanasius 2), such as Creation, the Exodus from Egypt, Moses, Aaron, the doings of Joshua the son of Nun, the Judges, the tabernacle, and even the Levitical priesthood.  In fact, the Old Testament King David authored approximately half of the Psalms. Therefore, one of the major aspects of the Psalms is their historical context. They are like an abridged version of the Pentateuch.

Athanasius goes through many of the psalms and interprets them for us, thus showing other qualities or “fruits” of the psalms. One is the prophetic foretelling of the savior: “Psalm 49 says, For God shall come openly, even our God, and He shall not keep silence” (Athanasius 2). In fact, Psalm 87 speaks of God coming as man, thus foreshadowing Jesus’ Hypostatic union. Psalm 45 expresses that the Savior would be born of a virgin. Psalm 22 is clearly a prefigurement of the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus: They pierced my hands and my feet, they have numbered all my bones, they gazed and stared at me, they parted my garments among them and cast lots for my vesture. Jesus actually quotes psalm 22:1 while hanging upon the Cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Athanasius also points out that Psalm 24 speaks of Christ’s bodily Ascension. 

Jesus actually quotes the Psalms to his adversaries. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms, “In a certain sense Our Lord’s interpretation of the Psalms was common ground between himself and His opponents” (Lewis 120). Jesus quoted the Psalms knowing that his Jewish audience would understand them. Understanding the Psalms in this context helps us to show unbelievers that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. 

Another facet of the Psalms is their spirituality. St. Athanasius writes that the psalms depict the movements of the soul and can be spiritually beneficial: “You find depicted in it (the book of Psalms) all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it so that you do not merely hear then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill” (Athanasius 4). Therefore, the Psalms are a guide for us, providing us instances of sorrow, joy, praise, lamentation, supplication, and thanksgiving, while at the same time giving us the words to respond to such spiritual states. These words of response are a gift from God, who inspired all the books of Scripture. In short, “The Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life” (Athanasius 6).

Athanasius says that the Lord will defend those who recite the Psalms. He even goes so far as to say that the Psalms act like exorcisms. According to St. Athanasius, the Psalms were used in the old days of Israel to put demons to flight, merely by being recited. “By them (the Psalms), a man will overthrow the devil and put the fiends to flight” (Athanasius 12). 

Another extremely important aspect of Athanasius’ letter is his emphasis on the musical quality of the Psalms. The Psalms were meant as songs of praise, often as an expression of worship for the Jewish people. Athanasius says, “it is rather for the soul’s own profit that the Psalms are sung” (Athanasius 10). There are two reasons for this. First, the Psalms should be sung so that “men should express their love to God with all the strength and power they possess.” (Athanasius 10) The second reason is that singing the Psalms has a unifying effect. “For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved” (Athanasius 10). Therefore, when the psalms are chanted or sung, “they are an outward expression of the inward harmony obtained in the soul” (Athanasius 11). Ultimately, the Psalms are about expressing praise to God, and there’s no better way to do that than by singing. As St. Augustine of Hippo said: “He who sings, prays twice!”

Nearing the end of his letter, St. Athanasius states: “Let each one, therefore, who recites the Psalms have a sure hope that through them God will speedily give ear to those who are in need” (Athanasius 12). This is why the Church has her clergy and religious pray the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours; they are first, the official prayer of the Church, and second, they are mainly composed of the Psalms.

The Letter of Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms can help us understand the Psalms in many ways. The first is their historical context, by which they recall the events that took place in Israel’s past. The second is by their prophetic context, by seeing the foretelling of the coming of the Savior. The third is by their musical context, by singing the Psalms with all our strength, we resolve our confusion and disharmony within our souls. But I believe the greatest character of the Psalms is their spiritual context. I agree with the words of St. Athanasius: “For I think that in the words of this book (the Psalms), all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man” (Athanasius 11).

Bibliography

Athanasius, The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. https://www.athanasius.com/psalms/aletterm.htm 

Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. HarperCollins, 2017. 

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