In the fourth century, St. Athanasius wrote a letter to a certain Marcellinus, who was likely a deacon in the church in Alexandria. During a long illness, Marcellinus had turned to the study of the Bible and was especially drawn to the Book of Psalms, striving “to comprehend the meaning contained in each psalm.” Athanasius commends this desire, claiming that the Psalms are an entire Bible in miniature — “the perfect image for the soul’s course of life.” The Psalms, he says, offer therapy and correction for every human emotion. St. Augustine was no less eloquent when he described the benefits he had received from the Psalms. “How my love for Thee, O God, was kindled by those psalms! How I burn to recite them, were it possible, throughout the world.” The nineteenth-century Anglican bishop, J. J. Stewart Perowne, who knew this tradition well, wrote about the importance of the Psalter in the life and liturgy of the church through the ages:
We cannot pray the psalms without realizing in a very special manner the communion of the saints, the oneness of the Church militant and the Church triumphant. We cannot pray the psalms without having our hearts opened, our affections enlarged, our thoughts drawn heavenward. He who can pray them best is nearest to God, knows most of the spirit of Christ, is ripest for heaven.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century can be understood in various ways, but it was in essence a biblical revolution, at the heart of which were the Psalms. After he received his doctorate in 1512, Luther’s first lectures on the Bible were on the Latin text of the Psalter. At the time, Luther did not know Hebrew but soon taught himself to read this biblical tongue with the help of Johannes Reuchlin’s On the Rudiments of Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible had found its way into print decades before Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in 1516. Luther’s translation of the Tanakh from Hebrew into High German would not be completed until 1534, but a decade earlier he had already brought out Der Psalter Deutsch, his first published edition of the complete psalter.
Luther once said that the Psalms “are not words to read, but to live.” Every Christian should take the Psalms to heart, memorize them and ponder their meaning. “In short, if you would see the holy Christian church pictured in living color and form, as in a small portrait, pick up the Psalter.”