Tag Archives: St. Bede Psalmcast

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 5

Here is Episode 5 of the St. Bede Psalmcast. My reader this week is production assistant Greta, and the image comes from British Library, Harley 3244, f. 38r.

Included in the discussion is a reference to Rudolf Otto; I forgot to mention the book, but it’s this one: The Idea of the Holy


Psalmcast Episode 4 Transcript



Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to Episode 4 of the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Today we’ll be talking about Psalm 147:13-21, the psalm appointed for the First Sunday after Christmas which this year falls on December 27th, 2015.

Our reader today is Barbara who writes at chantblog and there’ll be a link there in the show notes.

13 Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
14 For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
15 He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.
16 He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.
17 He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
18 He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?
19 He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.
20 He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.
21 He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.


The Lectionary Context

So, why is this psalm appointed here for this day? When I first looked at this psalm, I wasn’t entirely sure why it had been appointed for this day. I thought maybe we had some kind of a seasonal reference because of the cold weather imagery, but that only works for those of us in the northern part of the northern hemisphere. Looking at the other readings, though, quickly clarified what we have going on. Isaiah 61:1-62:3 is a hymn of rejoicing around the vindication of Jerusalem. Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7 talks about the coming of Christ to free us from the Law, and makes explicit reference to the birth of Christ. These are good fairly general Christmas texts, but what really clinches it is our Gospel. The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is John 1:1-18. This is John’s great prologue which I’m sure you know and which was read as the Last Gospel at the ends of masses in the Western Church for centuries: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.” This reading gives us Jesus Christ, Son of God, as the Word of the Father, the Logos.

Suddenly, having that piece, the reason for having this psalm on this day makes a lot more sense. If you look at our psalm, you’ll see that the term “word” appears three times in this brief span of verses and that we have three other synonyms as well. Verse 16 in particular jumps out at us in this context: “He sends out his command to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” For an early Christian, in particular, reading this, it was an obvious no-brainer: In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was the Scriptures for the early church, the Greek word “logos” is repeated twice, and the word for “sent out” is apostoleí which is the same root from which we get the word “apostle” as one sent out by God. And, of course, in Gospels and Letters of John, this is the word used to describe how God sends out Jesus to humanity. So, an early Christian couldn’t read this psalm without seeing it use very heavily freighted language about God sending out his Word to the earth and the results of that Word. Not only that, verse 19 is almost unavoidably Trinitarian in the Greek: You have the Father who again, exact same words as verse 16, “aposteleī ton lógon aut­oū (he sends out his word)” but then also “pneúsei to pneūma autoū.” Do you hear the repetition there? The same root is being used as both the verb and the object, and the root is pneuma, which can mean wind, breath, or spirit but is the term used for the Holy Spirit in Greek when hagios is added to it. So, one way to render this as it would have been read is “He spirits his spirit.” Now “He breaths his breath” does the same thing with better English but loses the theological valence there.

So—there’s a very strong connection between the use of Word in the gospel and the reading and hearing of the term “word” in the psalm. It’s currently fashionable in some church circles to really emphasize the “lateness” of the Gospel of John and to suggest by means of this that the idea of Jesus as the Word is therefore a “late idea” and therefore one that we don’t have to put a lot of stock in and was a means by which the man Jesus was obscured by dogma and doctrine. I’d like to make a brief comment on that to give it some context. First, the idea of a “logos” as a philosophical thing, was already out there in Hellenistic thought in the first century, especially Stoic cosmology. So, Stoics used the word “Logos” to mean reason and spoke of it as a form or template or structure that underlaid all of Creation. Philo Judaeus, who was an important Jewish philosopher writing in Alexandria in the first century, born about 20 years before Jesus, in his vast commentaries on Scripture from a platonic philosophical perspective is all about the logos; he develops the notion of the logos being the image, the eikon, of God and an archetype of everything, and therefore as the instrument through which God creates all things. Third, this is exactly the same concept that Paul uses to talk about Christ in Colossians 1 when he says, “He is the image (eikon—same word Philo uses) of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” Doesn’t that sound like John’s Prologue? Yeah—not an accident… So—Paul, writing in the 60’s and giving us the first Christian writings that we have, is using the exact same concept that John will be using later. And, again, the payoff here is that Christians were saying Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who taught good things but got himself killed by the state; instead, Paul and John are saying, look at this guy and how he acts—by giving himself up to death on the cross he wasn’t just showing us a bad way to die, but he was living out principles of justice, mercy, and love that are hardwired into the universe on a subatomic level. He wasn’t just a good guy who got killed, rather he was disrupting things, annoying powerful religious people, and pissing rulers off with his acts of love and mercy because he was demonstrating the very fabric of reality.

Now—to get back on track and to talk about the psalms again—which is what we’re actually doing here—one the reasons why the first Christians had this notion in mind is precisely because of psalms like this one that use “logos” in this way and connect that term deeply into both the creative action of God and the redemptive action of God.  You can’t forget how important the psalms were to the early Christian concept of Jesus and how much the Gospels and Epistles draw on and from the psalms in reflecting on the story and meaning of Jesus.

So, to sum up, we get this psalm on Christmas, because it taps into our theology of the Incarnation, the Word sent from the Father to earth.

The Interpretive Context

Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on?

Psalm 147 sits within a distinct block of hymns at the very end of the psalter; Psalms 146-150 are a unit with a lot of common characteristics. One of which is that they don’t have any superscriptions in our Hebrew text, meaning there aren’t any context notes. However, the Septuagint does supply one which is very interesting: all the psalms from its 145 to Psalm 148 receive as a title “Alleluia, of Haggai and Zechariah.” Thus, it’s attributing this block to the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who were writing in the sixth century just after the Exile and in the time that the Temple was being rebuilt. And that makes a lot of sense. There is generally a post-exilic tone to these and there are a number of common themes between these psalms and what you find in the sections at the end of Isaiah that were also written at this time.

It’s worth noting too that the verses that we have for today, verses 13 through 21 in the numbering of the prayer book, were the full text of Psalm 147 in the Septuagint and then later in the Latin Vulgate as well. The first part was their psalm 146, this is how and why the numbering systems come back together at this point. So, they would have read this as the whole thing rather than being part of a whole.

Let’s talk for a moment about what I mean when I say that this psalm is a hymn and that it stands within a block with other hymns.

Remember, we have several different classifications that we use to categorize the psalms based usually on their content. So, we have laments, we have histories, we have a bunch of other types, and we have hymns.

Hymns are more common in the second half of the psalter and virtually all of the hymns in the last third of the psalter appear to be post-exilic in nature. So—that certainly fits for this one.   These psalms tend to have a common three-part structure. The psalm opens with a call to praise, then the main part describes the motivation for the praise (often starting with the Hebrew word ki (because) or, in the Septuagint, hoti, then the final part end with a repetition of the call to praise which can be very brief. Thus, looking at our psalm, Verse 13 is our initial call to praise—“Worship the Lord O Jerusalem; * praise your God, O Zion;” Then verse 14 introduces the main part, the motivation for the praise, with the word “For…” (And, sure enough in the Hebrew that’s a ki). And then we get that final repetition of the call to praise with the “Hallelujah” at the end of 21 remembering that the English loan-word “Hallelujah” can also be translated as a phrase “Let us praise the Lord”; the root halal meaning “to praise” and “Jah” being a commonly found short form of the personal name of God.

If this whole discussion of the parts of a hymn reminds you at all of the structure of a collect, that’s not really an accident, there’s some definite overlap there. In a collect we address God, we use a describing clause where we name God and the aspects of God that connect to our petition—and that section there is kind of what the psalms are doing with hymns. We’ll touch on this thought a little more later…

In content, hymns tend to focus on either on God as creator of the world, God as redeemer of Israel, or both. And again, the fusion of these, the Creator of the universe as the One who cares for and redeems Israel from captivity and the One who watches over the rebuilding of Jerusalem, is a major theme in post-exilic prophetic thought—notably in the later sections of Isaiah.

To recap, this is a hymn, likely from somewhere around the year 500 when the Exiles had come back and were rebuilding Jerusalem, and—like a lot of hymns, it combines images of God as the one in control of creation with God as the one who cares for Israel.


Historical Readings

Since we’re not the first Christians to read the Psalms, what insights have others found within this text before us? Cassiodorus breaks this psalm into two basic sections, the first one dealing with Jerusalem in 13-15, the second dealing with God’s gifts of grace in verses 16 to the end.

Jerusalem here is identified as the New Jerusalem, this is the end state, the consummation of the Christian hope. The best way to think of this is that Cassiodorus is reading this portion of the psalm through the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, when the Bridegroom comes, the bridesmaids enter, and the gates are shut and bolted. So the references to the bolts of the gates means that everyone is shut inside the city of God and that they have all they need in the vision of God and don’t need to go outside the city for anything. Then the reference to being satisfied with the finest wheat is a Eucharistic image. Just as the Eucharist feeds the Church now, the direct presence of God then will feed believers that much more. That’s the first section of the psalm.

The second section begins with the infamous verse 16 that we were talking about before; Clearly Cassiodorus sees this as a reference to the Incarnation. However, he also doesn’t stop there—he’s not satisfied with that being the end of the sending. The other verses that follow are also part of it. And now we’ve got a block of the cold weather imagery. Now—we have four lines that refer to snow, hoarfrost, and hailstones, then a general reference to coldness. He doesn’t have that. The Septuagint and the Romanum following that refers to snow, mist, and crystal. Jerome actually complains about this; he knows those are bad translations and so he clarifies what the Hebrew is referring to here but these word choices are also mitigated by the oddities of antique science—most interpreters mention that crystal is formed from ice that has hardened so hard over the course of many winters that it becomes permanently hard. Which—no, it doesn’t—but that’s ok, it means they’re reading the text with coldness in mind.

So, most of the Church Fathers go into spiritual interpretation mode here. In their view, since the word coming to earth is Jesus, then we can’t actually be talking about weather, we’ve gt to be referring to something else and how they decide to work this depends on how they deploy their readings. Throughout this psalm Cassiodorus tends to be working pretty closely off Augustine but, he doesn’t connect all of the dots that Augustine does. Because of that, I’m going to follow Augustine in particular because he makes a very interesting move.

The first thing I want to say is that Augustine and Cassiodorus are using a particular strategy of over-reading here. What do I mean by over-reading? Well, the three cold-weather images that we have here are straightforward similes, where you compare one thing with another thing by using the words “like” or “as”. Or the Latin word “sicut” which is equivalent. Here the similes all correspond to basic visual texture. Thus, the snow looks like how wool looks. Hoarfrost covers things like grey, burned out ashes. Hailstones drop down in little pieces the same size as little morsels of bread. So—these similes look to be based on simple visual comparisons. But that’s not how the fathers treat them! Instead, they bypass what you and I would see as the obvious interpretation. Why do they do this? First, they’ve already established in their own minds that the text has already pointed beyond itself to a different referent. Because Jesus is in the picture, the literal meaning of the rhetorical devices can’t be all there is here. But second, this is a form of intellectual play. And that’s a really important point that I don’t think modern readers and theologians appreciate sufficiently when we read the Church Fathers. This is a complex intellectual game. You don’t win by providing an easy answer, you win by constructing an elaborate rhetorical edifice that actually works. Augustine actually talks about this in his book On Christian Teaching. In Book 2, section 6, he says:

it is more pleasant in some cases to have knowledge communicated through figures, and that what is attended with difficulty in the seeking gives greater pleasure in the finding. . . . Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite.

So, if some of these readings and techniques seem far-fetched, you have to understand why: they are using them as a means for restating things found elsewhere in Scripture that provides a logical coherence to how they’re reading the rest of the passage.

That’s not to say that patristic and medieval readers couldn’t read the text literally: After all, that’s what the Utrecht Psalter’s image gives us. Christ is standing quite firmly in the heavens giving a blessing to Jerusalem while angels fly about scattering baskets of snow and hail about. (I think he had Psalm 104 in mind while he was sketching)

But, instead of reading these as a simple simile, in this case the Church Fathers are over-reading in a particular kind of way. There may be a technical term for the strategy they’re using but if there is, I haven’t found it mentioned by the main classical authorities yet. Essentially, they’re using the cold weather image as the starting point, then the thing it’s being compared too as the transformation caused by Christ and the Holy Spirit.  At the root of this, I think the interpretive key they’re working through is Ezekiel 36:26-27. That text is talking about God making a new covenant with Israel and part of that is this promise: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” So, the key image here is that the hard thing, the heart of stone, is being replaced by a soft thing, a heart of flesh, and with the removal of that hardness, the people—or person—will begin to pay heed to what the Lord says and wills. And this is where the Fathers go with it.

Snow refers to the hard and cold people who refuse to heed God’s ways. But transformation is coming. Wool is the material used to make garments, and this is the Church, Christ will clothe himself with the church and thus the hard, cold hearts will be transformed into the garment of Christ himself. In the same way the coldness represented by mist will turn to ashes which are a sign of penitence. So, by repenting God’s people will be transformed. Then, since crystal is this super-frozen hard substance, the love of Christ will not only melt and transform them, they will come to distribute morsels of bread and even the hardest of hearts can be transformed into those who spread the Gospel and, picking up that these are bread-crumbs, make another Eucharistic turn and suggest that not only can hard-hearted sinners be transformed into those who spread the message, but into priests and bishops as well. And Augustine connects these dots to make this into an image describing the Apostle Paul. He was the hardest-hearted of all. And (playing on that hardness language) was even there for the stoning of Stephen. But, through God’s transforming grace, even this hardest of hearts was melted by the blowing of the Spirit and became great among the apostles. Then Augustine runs with that to the final verse as well: truly God’s statues were given to Israel, and not the other nations, thus the Gentiles needed someone from Israel to take it to them and hence Paul, once the hard-hearted but now transformed becomes the apostle to the nations and takes the promises given to Israel and communicates them throughout the whole world, that all may learn of God’s favor and be saved.

So, moving from an image of the New Jerusalem to the moral transformation wrought by Christ, Cassiodorus and Augustine see this as a thoroughly Christocentric psalm.

Thematic Reading

In light of all of this, how do we read this psalm on this day?

Again, I prefer to read in accordance with a sensus plenior, meaning that we don’t have to pick one right reading. We can hold multiple meanings in our heads at the same time and be enriched by all of them. What I’m hearing right now out of these multiplicity of voices, is the fact that this is a hymn. It starts off with a classic example of that static synonymous parallelism—two lines that say the same thing in different ways: “Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.” This is the call unto us just as much as it was to its original audience twenty-five hundred years ago and through all the successive generations from then down to now.

The basis for the praise is who God is—the identity of God. I didn’t see this in English, but when I looked at this text in the Greek and in the Latin, I noticed that there was a particular figure at work. As you look down the left side in the prayer book you’ll see a row of “He”s, so many of the lines start with “he.” But that’s not what you find when you look down the left side of the Latin text: it’s not “he” but “qui”—“qui” in Latin is a relative pronoun which means you’d translate it as “the one who” whatever… For me, this gives the psalm a different spin. We’re saying “praise God” ok—well, who is this God? And the psalm answers, the one has strengthened, the one who has blessed, the one who satisfies (notice that the first few are past tense, things that God has done, while that one is continuous? The one who continues to satisfy with the finest wheat?) The one who sends his word, and so forth. Because we have this repetitive string (we’d call this figure of speech an anaphora, a repetition of lines all begin with the same word or set of words) these are all identifiers, these are all telling us who this God is whom we praise, and, reading alongside and through the Fathers, we see this God as not only the one who created, not only the one who acted decisively in history to rescue Israel, to restore fallen Jerusalem within history, but also as the one who sends forth the Son and the Spirit, who gathers the church out of all nations, and who feeds us with Eucharistic bread now and the promise of an even more direct experience of his presence once we reach that final consummation and stand rejoicing with the Bridegroom.

So, we are called to praise, but also to wonder at the vast scope of God. Especially in this day and at this season, we wrestle with the great paradox of Christmas: that the one who created the vast expanse of interstellar space, who controls the universe and its elements, would take on our flesh and our nature and know what it feels like to be human—from the inside. And thus, with the psalmist, we lift our voices to praise God; we rejoice in what he has done, we look forward to what he will do, we marvel at the elements, at the wonders of creation and—with the Fathers—we look for his transforming grace to turn our coldness and hardened resistance into obedience and sharing the Good News and good gifts that we have been given.


Well, that’s all for today. I’ll take the next week off as I celebrate Christmas with friends and family. I’ll be back in the New Year with Psalm 29 for the First Sunday after Epiphany.

If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes to help more people find it. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter. Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it.

Psalmcast Episode 3 Transcript

I will be back with more regular blog content as well, but things are particularly crazy with work, wrapping up some side-projects by the end of the year, and general holiday craziness with the family…


Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to Episode 3 of the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Usually, I am talking about the psalm appointed for the upcoming Sunday but since canticles are scheduled in the psalm slot both last Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, and this upcoming Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’m doing a general introduction to the Psalms as a way to introduce both this book of the Bible we’re studying and how I intend to approach it within this podcast.

Last time, I talked about two main topics, the lectionary context or why we read the psalms we do in the Sunday service, and the interpretive context or what we look for in them to help us interpret the psalms. This week, I’m going to talk about historical readings of the psalms and about a thematic interpretation of them.

Historical Readings

Since we’re not the first Christians to read the psalms, what insights have others found within this text before we came along?

In case you’re wondering, this is a huge question. And by “huge” I mean that entire bookcases can and have been written on the psalms and on how they have been read in the church throughout our twenty centuries. There’s no way we can or should try to talk about all of this material, and so I’m choosing to focus in on a particular small slice of the Church’s interpretation. I’m focusing on a guy named Cassiodorus who was a sixth century political figure who retired from public life in order to start his own monastery on his family land in southern Italy.

Cassiodorus was living and working in a very precarious time with a lot of very touchy political currents swirling around; he essentially served as prime minister to what was left of the Roman Empire in the West under the Visigothic kings just around the time that the emperor of the Roman Empire in the East, ruling from Constantinople decided that it was time to take the empire back. The Visigoths had some fairly strong negative feelings about this plan and took steps to protect what was theirs including killing Roman bureaucrats whom they suspected of helping out the Byzantine Emperor. In fact, this was the fate of Boethius, who held one of the high roles that Cassiodorus took right after him. Boethius, like Cassiodorus was a learned Roman, thoroughly educated in rhetoric and philosophy, who—in the time that he was imprisoned and awaiting execution for possibly conspiring with the Byzantines—wrote a book called the Consolation of Philosophy which was to become the most important work of philosophy to come out of this time and place and which was widely read and very influential throughout the Middle Ages. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t.

In any case, Cassiodorus got out before he lost his head and spent somewhere around a decade in Constantinople where he wrapped up his political affairs and started writing his big commentary on the Psalms. When he sat down to write, he had a whole host of books around him, though. Helpfully in one of his later works, he tells us exactly what he was reading while he was working: “Blessed Hillary, blessed Ambrose, and blessed Jerome have treated some of the psalms, but blessed Augustine in a scholarly manner more fully treated all. ” He also goes on to mention “the short book of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, that he sent to Marcellinus as a sweet refresher after his illness…In it [Athanasius] gives various kinds of advice and reveals the excellence of that work in an edifying discussion that comfortingly mentions the various misfortunes of mankind and their remedies. ” In a very real sense, then, Cassiodorus is collecting in one tidy package the main interpretive tradition of the West with a dash of the East, and—furthermore—brings a monastic perspective mixed into it as well. So while he name-checks these guys, he’s also reading John Cassian, the great writer of Christian spirituality from the fourth century, and the desert fathers partly through Athanasius and his writings and brings their sensibilities to the text as well.  As a result, this is the angle I’m going to be coming from—the early interpretive tradition of the West on the psalms with a particular focus on how the monastic tradition received and used them.

Drawing on this tradition, the Church Fathers saw three major things going on in the Psalms. First, they saw them as models of not just Christian prayer but Christian life as a whole, and believed that they had a special charism for healing and transforming the soul. This aspect is really brought out in the second half of Athanasius’s Letter to Marcellinus. Athanasius starts this section by insisting that the psalms are intended by God to teach us a particular pattern of life:

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life. And just as one who draws near an earthly king observes the formalities in regard to dress and bearing and the correct forms of words lest, transgressing in these matters, he be deemed a boor, so he who seeks to live the good life and learn about the Saviour’s conduct in the body is by the reading of this holy book first put in mind of his own soul’s condition and then supplied with fit words for a suppliant’s use.

So—he’s saying here that if you want to know how Jesus wants you to live, the psalms will teach you about your soul, then give you the words to pray and to conform your life most closely to God’s will. Then, he does a quick run through the psalms, hitting certain ones and talking about what kinds of words they give us and what spiritual and general life situations they are particularly good for.   He’s tapping into a thread here which goes deep into monastic practice. Evagrius Ponticus gives a long list of psalm verses to meditate upon in various circumstances; John Cassian sprinkles these liberally throughout his writings and this is the way Athanasius depicts Antony the Great, the father of monks, as he undergoes his trials in the desert—with a phrase or verse from the psalms on his lips at every turn. This was the path of life for the first desert monks; they would memorize the psalms and be constantly going over them as they went about their simple daily tasks. This is a thread through monastic tradition that reformers would continually go back to. Thus you get the very simple rule of Abbot Romauld for his Camaldolese order from the eleventh century which is very much a return to the desert practices; here’s the entire brief rule:

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.

And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

I don’t think there’s a whole lot to add there: the path you must follow is the Psalms—never leave it. This is the essence of St. Benedict’s Rule boiled down through the lens of the desert and put into bullet points. (Because the line there about “standing in the presence of God” is not only echoing what Athanasius just said, but is also riffing off chapters 19 and 20 of Benedict’s Rule on how you should pray the psalms in the Divine Office.)

Alright, so that’s the first major piece: the psalms as a source of deep wisdom on the pattern of the spiritual life.

A second major piece is that the psalms were understood as a microcosm of Holy Scripture. That is, if it shows up in the Bible, it shows up in the psalms. Athanasius likes to use the image of a garden here:

Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message—[and he goes on to list what some of those are]— Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one kind of special fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest. [And then he goes on to connect a wide variety of psalms to events in the historical books of the Old Testament.] You see then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.

Here, of course, Athanasius is talking about witnesses to Christ, and he offers another long section where he connects the psalms up to a long list of items from the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  We’ll come back to this in a moment. So the psalms really do act as a microcosm. They contain all of the major genres of Old Testament writing from histories, to wisdom sayings, to legal material, to prophetic curses and destruction oracles, as well as promises of hope and salvation, and also both represent and prefigure a host of New Testament themes—recalling that the New Testament quotes more from the Psalms than any other book of the Old Testament.

The notion of the psalms as a microcosm was critical. Remember how much of the world was illiterate up until the time of the printing press. Most of the first monks, the desert fathers, didn’t know how to read. It’s a paradox to say that they based their entire lives on and around Holy Scripture when they couldn’t read—but they could memorize, and they did memorize. By hearing it read aloud by the few who could read, the monks—and other Christians throughout the ages too—would memorize the psalms so that they could constantly rehearse them, going over them constantly in their minds. (And when monks started learning to read in the medieval West they started with the psalms. The word for being literate was psalteratus—knowing your psalms.) So, if the psalter was understood as a comprehensive selection, kind of a Cliff Notes/Reader’s Digest Condensed Edition of the whole Bible, then that whole collection was of the size that it could be memorized by anyone who really put their mind to it and they would know that they had the heart of Scripture in mind.

But it didn’t just go one direction either. As M. J. Toswell writes about St. Bede, no matter what biblical text he was interpreting, his first mental stop was always at the psalms. So not only were the genres and themes of the Bible contained in the psalms, but the memorized and interiorized psalms themselves became a lens through which to look at the rest of Scripture. So that’s the second major piece: the psalms as the distillation of Scripture.

Third, the Church Fathers saw the Psalms as the clearest possible expression of the thoughts and feelings of Christ himself. If the Gospels communicate the outward being of Jesus, then the psalms communicate the inner being of Jesus. One of the ways they got there was by focusing on the person of David, by tying the psalms directly and tightly to him as a person, and then as a prophetic type of Jesus. So David both foreshadowed Jesus as the messianic king, and was his direct ancestor since Jesus was literally from the line of David.  Because of this connection, because of the prevalence of the “I” language in the psalms, especially those psalms that contain things that connect to the text of the Gospels themselves, the psalms were understood as prophetic outpourings of Jesus own thoughts, prayers, and feelings.

By the time you get to Cassiodorus, you have a certain nuance on this because—let’s face it—we don’t want to connect everything that the psalms say directly to Jesus. There are some bits in there that ought to make us uncomfortable, and that we do want to distance some from the thoughts of Christ. So, one of the things that Cassiodorus focuses on in his thorough reading of the psalms is taking up whose voice is saying which lines. He’s actually borrowing some techniques from the interpretation of drama, here, almost envisioning the psalms as Classical plays and determining who has which speaking parts. Cassiodorus tends to split things up between a cast of three characters: David the prophet, Christ, and the Church. So, a lot of psalms are connected with just one of these. For instance, Psalm 25 which we covered in the first show, was entirely a psalm spoken by the church. Others, like Psalm 22, are put entirely in the mouth of Jesus. But then you’ve got something like Psalm 18 where he says this:

This psalm cannot be allotted to a single spokesman. In the first section, the prophet speaks, giving thanks because God’s devotion has deigned to free him from serious dangers. In the second, the Church speaks. Before the Lord’s coming she endured countless calamities, and subsequently He took pity on her. He granted her the healing of the holy incarnation, and by the gift of baptism He gathered the Christian people from the whole world. In the third part [of the psalm], the voice of the Saviour glides in like the dew of mercy. Here His strength and power are described with most beautiful allusions. In the fourth, the words of the Catholic Church again emerge, and the gifts of the Godhead are praised with great joy.

So he’s got this whole play thing going on where it’s passing back and forth between different speakers and such. And that’s one way he makes sense of the I/you/we language that we see so much in the psalms. That’s the third major approach to the psalms, then, that the Church Fathers took—that it reveals the thoughts and feelings of Jesus and opens up his heart and mind for our imitation and practice so that we too can acquire the mind of Christ by grounding ourselves in the psalms.

That having been said, I also need to take a moment and point out a problem here. A lot of psalms—especially individual laments—talk a lot about enemies, the wicked, the treacherous, and so on who are persecuting or trying to kill the psalmist. Now, if you make the speaker Jesus, then the natural and obvious identification of these enemies is “the Jews.” And, as a result, in Cassiodorus, in Athanasius, in Augustine, you see a lot of hate directed at “the Jews.” This is a direct result of the “us” and “them” language that occurs throughout the psalter. So—there’s a virulence encoded into the very basic heart of this fundamental pattern of Christian spirituality that we have to name, be aware of, and say “no” to. Can you keep that idea of Jesus as the one speaking and praying the psalms, and not make “the Jews” the bad guy and lapse into anti-Semitism? Absolutely. But we’ve got to be aware of the problem too. I’m sure will get deeper into this as we go along, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for.

The Thematic Reading

So, as we address each psalm I’m going to ask “How do we read this psalm on this day?” I’m going to be asking how the words on the page come to life and gain specific meaning in relation to what’s going on around them. When I do this, I’m tapping into both modern scholarly theories of reading and interpretation but also into the long practice of the Christian past.

Modern literary types—and my approach is more literary than anything else—tend to locate the home or key meaning of a given text not in the text itself, but in the reading of a text within a particular reading community. Now—let me just say—phrasing things this way can make some Christians start to get really nervous.

When I was raised, as a Lutheran, I was taught that a text of Scripture had one meaning and that the meaning of the text was stable so that we could get doctrines from it, and we could all know and agree on true doctrine because it was what the biblical text plainly said. Modern biblical scholarship, which also rose out of Protestant and especially Lutheran roots, for a long time also held to this notion: there was one correct meaning of the biblical text and that was the one thing that the human author intended when he wrote it down. Thus, to interpret the Bible correctly meant to uncover the historical circumstances in order to understand what that one author meant at that one point in time.

How, then, can we talk about finding a meaning within a community and still be able to hold that the Bible is the authoritative inspired Word of God? A passage from 2 Timothy often gets thrown around when we talk about interpretation and inspiration so let’s just glance at that for a moment: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NRSV). So—what’s the point? That we be built up so that we can do every good work. The purpose isn’t the text, it’s the people. The purpose is the community. We read the Old and New Testaments of the Bible within the Body of Christ in order that every single member of the Body of Christ can be led more deeply into the Mind of Christ, so that we can witness to a hurting world that God—and especially what he has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ—loves us (each one of us), loves the whole human family, loves the whole creation which he made, and is reconciling it all back to himself, and recalling us all to the principles of mercy, justice, and love in which, by which, and for which everything was created. That’s what we’re about. That’s why we read this book. So that as individuals and as communities we can reflect the truth of God’s love and the reconciliation brought through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in how we live, in how we work, in how we love, in how we speak. And if we’re not doing that; if that’s not what we’re focused on, then we need to give up on this book and go read Moby Dick or something…

So, we read the Bible together and it comes alive as we read it together in a community, a community bound together by the sacraments—in being baptized into Jesus, in the Eucharist as we take the Body and Blood of Christ into ourselves as physical and spiritual sustenance—and as we interpret it as we live it out in all the various places that we go.

If we want to get all technical again, the phrase I really like to hang on to is the idea of the sensus plenior. That’s the term that the French Roman Catholic scholar Henri de Lubac and his friends brought back in the mid-Twentieth century to talk about the fullness of meanings within the biblical text. There isn’t just one true meaning, there isn’t even just one way to read, but there are multiple readings of each passage and they mean and matter as they help us to live into being the loving people of God.

We’re out of time or else I’d talk you through how John Cassian lays this out for us in the Conference on Spiritual Knowledge from Abba Nesteros which is the fourteenth conference found in Book II of John Cassian’s Conferences. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes, and to some of the other things that we’ve been talking about so you can look at those if you’d like to.

So, to recap—as we engage each psalm, we will look at it in the context of everything that’s going on around it: that it’s being read or sung within a Eucharist, that it’s relating to the other texts and materials appointed for that particular day that occurs within a particular season of the church year and especially that this is all occurring in the middle of a community that has been drawn together by and for the love of God.


So, that was the conclusion to our quick two-part overview of the Book of Psalms. Hopefully that gave you a better sense of what we’re reading, how we’re reading it, some things to look for as you read, and a sense of the companions with whom we’re going to be reading it as we go along. Enough of the introduction stuff—for the next show we’re going back into the psalms, I believe, with Psalm 147.

If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes to help more people find it. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter. Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it.

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 3

This the second half of the Introduction to the Psalms that we started last week in Episode 2. In this episode we discuss reading the psalms alongside the Church Fathers, and how we go about reading the psalms within the context of the Church.


The image is from Michael Pacher’s Altarpiece of the Church Fathers completed in 1483, and depicts several of the commentators mentioned by Cassiodorus: St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and St. Ambrose. (St. Augustine and St. Gregory are shown here.)

Here is the text of the Letter of Athanasius to Marcellinus

Here is the Brief Rule of Abbot Romuald

And, as promised, a link to John Cassian’s, Conferences: Abbot Nesteros on Spiritual Knowledge

Recommended Books:

Athanasius : The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus

John Cassian: The Conferences (Ancient Christian Writers Series, No. 57)

Augustine’s psalm commentary is six volumes long in the latest modern edition! It can be found and read for free here at the New Advent website, though.

This is a good intro to how Augustine interpreted the psalms: Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Radical Traditions)

The commentaries by Cassiodorus are in three volumes and can be a hard slog at times. While I like him, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend getting them unless you really want to! I’m including them here for the sake of completeness, though.

  1. Cassiodorus, Vol. 1: Explanation of the Psalms (Ancient Christian Writers)
  2. Cassiodorus, Vol. 2: Explanation of the Psalms (Ancient Christian Writers)
  3. Cassiodorus, Vol. 3: Explanation of the Psalms (Ancient Christian Writers)

Psalmcast Episode 2 Transcript


Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Ordinarily, we’d be talking about the psalm appointed for The Third Sunday of Advent in Year C which this year falls on December 13th, 2015. However, according to the Episcopal edition of the Revised Common Lectionary, the psalm slot is occupied by a canticle from Isaiah, not a psalm! As much as I love the canticles, I’ll save them for later and keep my focus on the psalms for now.

Since this is a by-week for the psalms, I’d like to take this opportunity to do a general introduction to the psalms, a sort of whirlwind tour of this book of the Bible that we’re going to spend some time talking about. One last word of warning… I tried to keep my usual format here and talk about four major things: the liturgical context, the interpretive context, the historical readings, and a thematic reading, but I realized pretty quickly that there was just too much to say to do it all as one show. So, this is going to be a two-episode encounter. Today, I’m just going to cover the liturgical context and the interpretive context, then I’ll try to cover the historical readings and the thematic readings next week.

Liturgical Context

So, why are psalms appointed here, in the Sunday service, for particular days?

In order to answer this question properly, we need to talk about how readings were historically selected for worship services. By the time that things shook out into a fairly stable pattern across the Christian West—by about the sixth century or so—there were two major kinds of services. There were the prayer offices, then there were the Eucharists. At the heart of the prayer offices was the repetition of the psalms. Complicated schedules were laid out so that all 150 psalms were prayed through every week–and some psalms showed up a lot more than that. In the monasteries and cathedrals—the intentional liturgical communities of the West—the psalms were literally at the center of their experience of the worship of God and permeated their thinking.

It’s no surprise, then, that we find the psalms in the Eucharistic worship of the church as well. These days, we have a three year lectionary that appoints four different items for every Sunday: an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. Back in those days, they had a one-year cycle that only contained two readings. The first one was called the Epistle and usually was from one of the letters of the New Testament—but not always. On the fasts the church would take the reading from the Old Testament, usually one of the Prophets. The second reading was always from one of the four Gospels. So where were the psalms? The answer is that they were being sung! Not only were readings and prayers appointed for Eucharist, but there were also a series of chants that were fixed in a cycle according to the church year.

We’re familiar with singing hymns in our Sunday service; they weren’t. Hymns were sung at each hour of the Daily Office, not in the Eucharist. Instead, the main singing consisted of the chants.

The introit started the service; the gradual and the alleluia came between the Epistle and the Gospel (and in Lent and Advent were replaced by the tract); the offertory was sung before the Eucharist, and the communio was sung while the priest and anyone else were receiving the Eucharist. These chants were almost always direct citations from Scripture and were almost always taken from the psalms.

When the English Reformation came, most of these chants were swept away but the first Book of Common Prayer appointed an introit psalm alongside the Gospel and Epistle to start off the service. This was too much for some reformers, though, and in the second prayer book, published just three years later, the psalm was taken out. This doesn’t mean that psalms disappeared from the worship service, of course, the English church kept the singing of the psalms at Morning and Evening Prayer and we also have to remember that the hymnals used in Sunday services only contained metrical psalms for many generations.

So—what changed? How did we get to where we are now? In the mid-twentieth century, change was on the way. The Roman Catholic Church convened the second Vatican council between 1962 and 1965, and one of the key changes was a move away from the one-year cycle with its two readings to a greatly expanded three-year cycle with four appointed texts from Scripture—the scheme that we are used to now. The way the system works is that in the main seasons—Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter—the Gospel reading sets the tone and the Old Testament and the Psalm are selected deliberately in relation to themes in the Gospel. Now—exactly what those themes are is not always apparent! Indeed, some connections only work if you have some inside information, and that’s part of what I’m trying to do with this podcast: to give you the tools to see what those connections are and why and how they work. This whole connection business is important in the long green seasons too based on which track of the Revised Common Lectionary your church decides to use.

Again, in the main seasons, the first lesson and Psalm are keyed to the Gospel. One of the summer tracks maintains this approach. The other option disconnects them and reads through particular sections of the Old Testament that have some reference to the Gospel of the year. Thus, in Year C when we’re reading the Gospel of Luke, this track reads through the prophets as Luke and the prophets share a common concern for social justice. In Year A when Matthew is read, this track reads through the Law as Matthew is more hooked into the Jewish legal tradition than the other gospels. In Year B with Mark, it reads the histories to connect with Mark’s history. Now, this matters for us because when this track is chosen, the Psalm is selected to match themes in the Old Testament reading not the Gospel.

So, to recap, the Psalms have had a key role in Christian worship in the West ever since we’ve had records. Currently, the Psalms are chosen each Sunday to match the Gospel reading unless the continuous track is chosen in the summer in which case it matches with the Old Testament lesson.

Interpretive Context

Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on? 

The book of Psalms is unique within the Bible. It’s a collection of 150 poems—and, right there we have two things to talk about. The first is the numbering, the second is the word “poems”; I want to look at each of these in turn.

In most any Bible you’ll come across there are 150 psalms. However, there is disagreement on their exact breakdown. Clearly, the original language of the Psalms was Hebrew. However, that’s not how the Early Church encountered them. While the first followers of Jesus may have read Hebrew, many of the first Christians were Hellenized or Greek-speaking Jews (like the apostle Paul), and within the first few generations the church was almost entirely composed of non-Jewish Gentiles whose common language was Greek. As a result, when the Church read the Old Testament, they read it in Greek following a translation called the Septuagint that was done by members of the Jewish community in Alexandria in Egypt starting in the third century BC and which was fully finished by about the year 132 before Christ.

The translation in the Septuagint is different from the Hebrew text in two important ways. First, the Septuagint contains more superscriptions which are little context notes at the start of the psalms about who wrote them or what situations they refer do than the Hebrew text does. In particular, Psalms 145-149 appear to be attributed to Haggai and Zechariah. Second, the numbering between the Greek and the Hebrew versions is slightly different. This is really important because when the Latin versions appeared (and there are two main versions of the Latin—the Romanum and the Gallicanum) they were based on the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew and they followed the numbering found in the Septuagint, and not the Hebrew. While St. Jerome did do a translation of the Hebrew text of the psalms, it didn’t really catch on—the Gallicanum became the standard and that’s what showed up in the Latin Vulgate Bible used through the Middle Ages. When the Reformers like Martin Luther started translating the Bible into their own tongue, they used the Hebrew numbers so the numbers you see in most Bibles and in today’s Book of Common Prayer follow the Hebrew scheme, but old historical and Roman Catholic sources us the numbering scheme of the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate instead. Here’s the basic rule: the numbers are the same until you get to 9, then the Latin sources are behind the Hebrew by one. So, Psalm 22 gets mentioned in Latin and old Roman Catholic sources as Psalm 21, Psalm 23 becomes Psalm 22 and so on. There’s a little bit of weirdness in the low one-hundreds but generally that rule works—subtract one from the Hebrew to get the Septuagint and Latin number—up until Psalm 147 when everything comes back together just in time for everybody to agree at 150. And then there’s an extra Psalm 151 that a few Greek and Latin texts tack on, but we’re going to totally skip that for now. So—if you remember, last time we talked about Psalm 25 and yet the Vespasian Psalter labeled that as Psalm 24—this is why, the numbering difference between modern English based off of Hebrew and medieval Latin based off the Greek Septuagint.

I also mentioned that the Psalms are poems, and I should say a little bit about that. Poems, generally, tend to have a set of common characteristics. First, they tend to not run on and on and on and on like regular writing or prose does, instead, they tend to be shaped into a set of more or less balanced lines. Second, they tend to use elevated diction, which is the English majors’ way of saying “fancy words.” Third, they tend to have an unusually high frequency of rhetorical devices or figures of speech. Fourth, they may make a particular appeal to feelings either directly or through the images and figures of speech that they choose to use. Fifth, there may be particular kinds of internal structures involving repetition of ideas or words. Sixth, they often use patterns of sounds as a structuring device. Common examples of this are alliteration—where words will begin with the same sound, assonance—where the middle parts of words sound alike, or rhyme where the ends of words sound alike. As you’ve probably realized by now, a lot of English poetry in the last several hundred years uses rhyme, preferring to end lines that way—but not every language or type of poetry does that. Even Old English poetry, for example, never used end-rhymes as a major feature and instead used alliteration all the time. Seventh, they frequently use rhythm within the line to give it a particular kind of cadence or beat when it’s read aloud or sung. Last and definitely not least, poetry invites its listeners to see the world a little bit differently; all of those previous factors come together to move us into a different head-space and invite us to experience things in a new way that we haven’t really seen before. It takes something ordinary like a vase or a flower or mouse or a crack in the wall and uses that ordinary thing to reveal some deep truth about life, the universe, God, and everything.

So—the psalms have these characteristics. They’re definitely poems. Some of them (if not most) were definitely used as songs as well. But here’s the thing: we have no idea what the tunes were. We have no idea what they sounded like. We’re not even entirely sure how Ancient Hebrew was pronounced. Furthermore, Christians have been reading, hearing, and praying the psalms in translation for the past almost two thousand years. That means that some of the cool poetic features that were written into the psalms are lost to us. “Patterns of sounds as a structuring device”, “rhythm within the line”, even “elevated diction—fancy language” doesn’t always survive across languages. However, that having been said, most of the translators knew that they were working poetry and even if the Hebrew sound, rhythm, and verbal texture got lost, many translators tried to incorporate some of these aspects from their own tongue, whatever that may be. As one of my friends likes to remind me, translation is an artform of its own and a translated object—especially a translated poem—is a new work of art in its new language. We certainly see that with the psalms and its why certain translations have gotten so much love over the years. The King James Version is obvious example here. Ask someone to say Psalm 23 and chances are, it’ll be the King James. Certainly in my Anglican tradition the Coverdale translation also has a special place because of the beauty and rhythm and poetical goodness that Coverdale stuffed in there. This is the version you find in the English and American Books of Common Prayer up until the latest American edition.

Now—one of these aspects of poetry is really important for understanding and appreciating the psalms, and that’s the one about internal structures that have repetition. In fact, some scholars would argue—and I think they’re right—that this is the foundational aspect of Hebrew poetry especially for Christians who are consistently encountering the text in translation. This is parallelism. This is where two or more lines are deliberately set in relationship with one another to make one complete thought. One is antithetical parallelism. This is where the psalmist will come at a thought from two different directions, one positive and one negative. So—we had a couple of these in Psalm 25:

“Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.”

Both of these are coming at how the psalmist wants God to remember him; don’t remember me that way, remember me this way. Sometimes it looks like the first line states something, then the second says the opposite, and sometimes that actually is the case, but often it’s a little more nuanced than that.

Here’s another:

“Let none who look to you (God) be put to shame; *

Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.”

So in this one, the psalmist is drawing a contrast between those who trust in God and the treacherous. These two kinds of people are clearly set up as being different kinds of folks, but you can’t just say that the two lines are opposites either. Well—we’ll see more of this and play with it more later throughout the psalms.

If antithetical is one kind, another major kind of parallelism is synonymous parallelism. So synonyms are two words that more or less mean the same thing, and that’s what this is to: when you have two lines that more or less mean the same thing. And we can even get more particular here. These are some synonymous parallels that really do try to mean exactly the same thing just with different words. Then, there are some that do something different to make it more pointed and to focus the meaning. Again, if we look back at Psalm 25, the first verse has both of these kinds of synonymous parallelism!


“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;

My God, I put my trust in you;”

This is saying the same thing two different ways so this is static because the meaning stays the same.

Now—watch this carefully—here’s the next part of the verse:

“Let me not be humiliated,

Nor let my enemies triumph over me.”

So, the first line is just talking about humiliation which is kind of a broad term. There are lots of ways to be humiliated. Like—being out in public and suddenly realizing you forgot to put pants on. Or slipping on a banana peel in front of everybody. Those fall under “humiliating”, right?

But the second line takes that idea and focuses it: “Nor let my enemies triumph over me.” So, we’re moving from a general idea of humiliation to focus on one particular kind of humiliation, being beaten by enemies. And that could still take quite a lot of forms too, but it takes the general idea and narrows it down. This is dynamic because we’re moving somewhere, we’re going from the general to the specific. There are other ways this can happen too, but this is a very common one.

Ok—that’s all I want to say about parallelism for now. Let’s not get too deep in the weeds here. But, I want you to know it’s there, I want you to start looking for it and noticing it. I may not bring it up all the time, but it’s one of these key features this is always lurking there when we read, sing, and pray the psalms. And for me, one of the places where I find the deepest insights is asking some of the parallel questions. What is the thing that these two verses are really trying to get me to wrestle with? If they’re coming from two different directions, what’s that thing in the middle that the psalmist wants me to focus on? Or, are these two lines actually saying the same thing, or is there motion here that is moving me in a particular direction or way of thinking?

Alright, so—one hundred-fifty poems. There are lots of different ways to break them down or to split them into chunks. The editors—whoever put them all together (and we don’t know when that happened although evidence suggests that it was probably after the Exile, maybe in the fourth or third century Before Christ—deliberately put them into five books probably to suggest a parallel with the five books of the Law. Another way to break them up is that there are some clear collections based on the titles. (We don’t have the titles in the Book of Common Prayer’s psalter; that’s the one thing I don’t like about this edition…) Some are connected with David, a bunch are connected with a Levite named Asaph and another with a Levitical group called the sons of Korah, then there are a number called songs of ascent.

The last way I’m going to mention (because there are more yet) is one that we’re going to talk about a fair amount and that’s by genre or literary type. While these are all poems, we have some groups of different kinds of poems. One list from a scholar named Lawrence Toombs is a good one: Laments, Hymns, Thanksgivings, Songs of Confidence, Hymns of Zion, Enthronement Psalms, Royal Psalms, Pilgrim Psalms, Wisdom Psalms, and Liturgies. And all of these different types have characteristics that define them and shape them. Of course there are some psalms that you can put into more than one category, but generally these are a good set of categories to have. We’ll explore these more thoroughly in the future as we get to them.

Look—there’s a lot more stuff I could say, but I’ll leave it at this point for now. To recap, the psalms are 150 poems. As poems, there are a variety of stylistic devices that include balanced lines, lots of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, and internal structures. Parallelism is a very important concept for Hebrew poetry and for the psalms in particular and there are a couple of major forms, antithetical parallelism where we’re at an idea from two different directions, static synonymous parallelism where we’re saying the same thing two different ways, and dynamic synonymous parallelism where we’re taking a thing and moving with it, either going deeper into it or moving it in a particular direction.


Please, don’t let some of the technical sounding stuff scare you off. These are just some of the basics that we’ve got to get through so that you can get the most you can out of the psalms. This was part one of a general introduction to the psalms; I’ll be back next week with part 2 and then we’ll get back to the psalms themselves after that.

If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter (and there’s a link you can follow on my blog and in the show notes.) Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions.

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 2

It’s Episode 2 of the St. Bede Psalmcast!

Audio production is getting a little better; my production assistant donated a pair of her old ballet tights to the show and we rigged a pop filter. I’m learning my way around the editing software too, but I imagine it’ll be a few more episodes before things really shake out.

Instead of dealing with one particular psalm, this time we’re doing a quick introduction to the Psalms as a whole. That having been said, I wasn’t able to get through what I wanted to get through in one episode, so this is Introduction to the Psalms, Part 1; part 2 will come out next week.


The image for this episode is folio 105a from the Parma Psalter illustrating Psalm 76. This is an important (and beautiful!) Hebrew psalter with marginal commentary produced in Northern Italy sometime around 1280.

Psalmcast Ep 001 Transcript

The social media gurus I’ve been looking to for assistance say that posting transcripts of the show is a Good Thing because it helps bring in the search engine traffic that a sound file alone won’t do. So here is a transcription of the first show. As you’ll see, the sentences in bold (the parts that were echoey in the podcast) are transitions and introductions to particular sections that I’ll use each show.

And, those of you who care about audio quality will be pleased to know that my production assistant has donated an old pair of ballet tights to the show, and subsequently helped me make a pop filter.  That should improve things a bit for the next show which ought to be posted up in the next few days…

Again, the original audio version can be found here.



Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Today, we’ll be talking about Psalm 25, verses 1 through 9, the psalm appointed for The First Sunday of Advent in Year C which this year falls on November 29th, 2015. The psalm will be read from the translation found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, but feel free to read along in whatever translation you prefer.

Hi, this is Greta; I’m a layperson at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Ten Hills—and I’m also the production assistant at the St. Bede Psalmcast. Here is Psalm 25:1-9 from the Book of Common Prayer:

1   To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; *

let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

2   Let none who look to you be put to shame; *

let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

3   Show me your ways, O LORD, *

and teach me your paths.

4   Lead me in your truth and teach me, *

for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

5   Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *

for they are from everlasting.

6   Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *

remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

7   Gracious and upright is the LORD; *

therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

8   He guides the humble in doing right *

and teaches his way to the lowly.

9   All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *

to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Liturgical Context

So, why is this psalm appointed here for this day?

The First Sunday of Advent is a big day liturgically. Advent is a four-week season that helps distract us from the Christmas shopping season. Actually, it gets us ready for Christmas the Church’s way rather than the culture’s way. Not only that, it also serves as the beginning of the church year. So—in a very real sense, we’re celebrating New Year’s Day for the church today. The word Advent literally means “the coming towards” or “the approach” and it refers to the coming of Christ. In a very obvious and basic sense, we are getting ready for Christmas, but there is actually a lot more to it than that.

Bernard of Clairvaux—he was a monastic reformer in the 12th century—he liked to talk about three different Advents of Christ that are all bound up together within our season of Advent: First, there is the coming of Jesus as the babe in the manager at Christmas. This is all about humility and simplicity and the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Second, there’s the coming of Jesus as Judge on the last day. This is all about glory and majesty and power. But then, between those two, is the hidden coming. Alright—this is the one when Christ is born within our own hearts. And that’s what Advent is, it’s a season of preparation, of careful watching, this is when we’re getting ourselves ready for these multiple comings of Christ into our life and into our world.

So—our psalm is one of the readings that is going to set the scene for this whole season.

This psalm appears in the context of three other readings: The Old Testament lesson is from Jeremiah 33:14-16 which is a prophecy that God is going to fulfill the promise that he made long ago to raise up a “righteous branch” for David. The New Testament Epistle is 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 which asks to strengthen the hearts of the church in holiness so that they will be blameless before God at the coming of Jesus Christ and his saints. The Gospel reading is Luke 21:25-36 which talks about the return of the Son of Man on the clouds with great glory to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls on his listeners to “be on guard” and “be alert at all times” in order that they may live faithfully and not be caught with their guard down when this great and terrible day dawns. As you can see, these readings are focusing around the final coming of Christ, so the point they keep hammering on is for us to wait for the promise, to keep awake, and to keep our eyes out because Christ is coming into our lives—we may not know how or when, but he’s coming!

Alright—but why this psalm? Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. One of them is that the lectionary is doing a bit of a throw-back. For some thirteen hundred years, the Western church has been singing this psalm on this day. We’ll come back to this a little later, but there were three different chants all taken from this psalm that basically kicked off the church year. This was kind of the theme song for the start of the church year. The opening lines of this psalm were the first song of the first Eucharist of each new church year and as a result, a lot of missals and chant books have the opening words of this psalm on beautifully decorated pages. There’s a link in the show notes to one from a 10th century chant book from Aquitaine in France—make sure you take a look at that.    So, by appointing Psalm 25 here, the lectionary is giving a nod to that longstanding tradition.

Another reason—and likely one of the reasons that it was put here in the first place—is that St. Augustine in his reading of the psalm picked out one verse and applied it to the two different public advents of Christ. In the version Augustine was using the last verse that Greta read, verse 9, says, “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.”(Ours says “love and faithfulness, his said “mercy and truth”—not too different.) So, he took this and said, “For they understand the Lord as merciful at His first advent, and as the Judge at His second, who in meekness and gentleness seek His testament, when with His Own Blood He redeemed us to a new life; and in the Prophets and Evangelists, His testimonies. “ So—he’s connecting mercy with Jesus’s coming in flesh at Bethlehem and Christmas and then connecting truth with the coming of Christ as judge at the end of history. Thus, since St. Augustine made this advent connection with this psalm, it was a natural choice when the church was making programming decisions and thinking about what texts to use to kick off the season.

Thus, to sum up, this psalm is here because it’s got some serious Advent connections. It’s got a history of use in Advent, Augustine connects it with both the first and last comings of Christ, and it fits in with readings about waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled and keeping to the path while we await the day of Christ’s coming.

Interpretive Context

Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on?  

I do want to touch on one thing briefly. Cassiodorus reminds us (and we’ll talk more about him and his interpretation in just a second, I promise) he reminds us that this psalm is “mostly” an acrostic. Specifically this is an alphabetical acrostic. And what that means is that if you are looking at the psalm in Hebrew, you’ll see that the first letter of each line follows the sequence of the alphabet. So—the first line of the psalm starts with aleph, the second line with beth, then the third line with gimel, then the fourth line with daleth and so on through the rest of the alphabet. The only things is that we’re missing qoph which is the Hebrew letter for Q and that the author cheats a little bit with vav because there’s an aleph is in front of the vav but aleph is kind of “vowelish” so, I think we can let it slide.

So, this is a technique that we see in other places in the Hebrew Bible is well. It’s a particular form of poetry that often has a connection with wisdom literature and the scribal class. Partly that’s because it’s a visual game—this is something that you’d see as you’re reading—which means, you have to be able to read in order to get the joke. This is isn’t the kind of thing you can hear so it relies on the ability to read Hebrew in order to even recognize that this happening. We see this acrostic style in some other places. The poem in praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31 does this. Psalm 111 does this as does 112 and some others. The book of Lamentations is actually composed of four of these put together, and then the great granddaddy of them all is psalm 119 which takes this idea and just goes crazy with it. I’m sure will get to that on a later show. So—this psalm has got an acrostic structure which implies some wisdom connections and therefore the idea of reading and study and meditation.

Historical Readings

Since we’re not the first Christians to read the psalms, what insights have others found within this text before we came along?

We’ve already talked a little bit about St. Augustine already so we’re going to go ahead and skip him for now. Let’s talk about this other guy I keep mentioning for a moment. So—Cassiodorus was a student of Augustine’s writings and after a big political career where he was basically prime minister for what was left of the Roman Empire in the west he retired and started up his own monastery and wrote a massive commentary on the psalms. This was in the sixth century. I’m sure I’ll do a show specifically on him in the not-to-distant future but that’s what you need to know about him for now. Right—so—Cassiodorus does an overview and breaks this psalm into three parts. For him, this whole psalm is spoken to God by the church. So—the speaker here is the church. In the first four verses, the church wants to know God’s intentions and ways. Then, in the second section, verses 5 through 10, the church asks for God’s kindness and mercy. Then, the third section—verse 11 to the end—expands on the idea that those who keep God’s commandments both deserve and will receive eternal rewards. So—that’s the big picture for Cassiodorus: there are three sections but the part that the lectionary gives us is only those first two sections where the Church is learning God’s ways and asking for God’s mercy.

A few points to note as we go along… First off, in several places the psalm talks about paths and ways; we see that twice in verse 3 and then again in verses 7 and 8 and 9 and 11. So this is a persistent image here in this psalm, that there is a way or path, and Cassiodorus connects this with the Law of God. And—it’s really interesting—there’s a great picture of this. The Utrecht Psalter is a really special manuscript from the 9th century. It was probably made in France near Rheims, and what makes it so special is that it has these line drawings in it that illustrate all of the psalms and the canticles that are in it, and these pictures are often drawing on the interpretations of Cassiodorus and Augustine. The image for Psalm 25 (and I have a link to that in the show notes as well) is terrific because front and center is an image of the advent of Christ, it’s Christ standing on the clouds of glory, but he’s handing a scroll of his ways to a guy who is clearly travelling on the way. So, you get this great Advent—and also teaching—image right up there front and center.

A few other things from Cassiodorus. He can’t resist taking a shot at heretics every once in a while. So, in verse 5 where it says that the compassion and love of God “are from everlasting,” he uses this to get a dig in at the Pelagians.  When we say they are “from everlasting” we mean from the very beginning and Cassiodorus takes this to remind us that God’s grace was always around from the beginning and that even before we begin to intend something, God’s grace is at work in it, aiding us and give us strength. It’s funny—Augustine doesn’t actually go anywhere near there on this verse so Cassiodorus ends up sounding more Augustinian than Augustine does.

Two more quick things before we move on… Cassiodorus picks up both verse six which is in our section and verse 10 which isn’t and does something interesting. If the speaker is the church—and that’s how he’s reading it—then the Church is reminding God and us that it contains sinners in its midst. It’s not pure, it’s not only full of perfect people. And here he was arguing against certain groups who did have that perspective. He says, no, any church group who says that they have to be totally pure isn’t listening here to the voice of the church itself who is confessing that it is a whole mix of folks of all sorts and conditions. We’re in no way just a club for the pure and the holy.

The other point is that riffing off of verse 4, he says, “There are two factors that make good Christians: the first that we believe that God is our Savior, the second that we must await his recompense with patience all our lives.” So—these are key things that make us who we are. First, we gotta have faith (Hey, that could be a song…oh…anyway). Second—waiting, patience, that’s an element here that this psalm brings up.

So—now that we’ve looked at the lectionary, we’ve looked at the whole acrostic thing, we’ve talked a bit about Cassiodorus, it’s time to get down to the psalm itself.

Thematic Reading

How do we read this psalm on this day?

I think the best approach is to take the hint from Cassiodorus but also the Latin Mass Propers. As I said before, the western church has historically featured this psalm in the chants for mass for this day. And what they focus on is the first four verses. It’s about trust and truth. The end of the psalm actually goes in some different directions. I’d read it differently if we were reading whole thing—but we’re not. And since we’re not, then trust and truth are really at the heart of what we’ve got here.

Trust is about promises. God has made promises. Specifically—God made promises to Israel. That’s the whole “righteous branch” thing that we’ve got going on in the first lesson. But, there’s also an implicit promise that’s near and dear to the heart of the psalmist: “let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me…Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes” There’s an implicit promise here that God is going to make sure that we come out on top. Well—on top of what, though? What enemies are we talking about, exactly? I think the psalmist would say literally enemies, like bad guys with swords or sneaky people with messed-up contracts. Readers invested in classical Christian Spirituality like John Cassian are going to say, no, he means the vices, those bad behaviors that we get tempted to do seemingly out of nowhere. Me, I’d rather go with Cassian on this one and I think that’s where the whole “truth” thing comes in. “Lead me in your truth and teach me.” Unless God has started handing out tactical advice, this sounds more like moral instruction to me rather than something that’s going to help us in an actual fight against real bad guys. “Lead me in your truth and teach me…He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.” That doesn’t sound physical at all to me, and knowing that this psalm is an acrostic and therefore has some connections to the literate, philosophical, scribal culture, I think a moral reading makes a lot of sense. So—we’re probably not actually talking about physical enemies here even though the psalm starts off sounding a lot like it.

So, we trust in the help of God and we trust in his teaching—and, really, that’s where the help comes from. That’s the content of the help in a really important way. Verse 9 nails it. That’s the last one we get and we stop once we get it: “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness.” Right? That’s our plumb line. That’s our measure. That’s how we can tell when we’re in the groove with God’s will: if love and faithfulness are the means, the method, and the fruit, then it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re going the right direction. If what we’re up to compromises either of these—love or faithfulness, then, we should probably give it a long hard look.

This all relates to Advent because we are moving into a season of preparation as we do so, we are thinking about the promises that God has made. We trust in those promises even while we wait in order to see them fully realized in our life and in our reality. At the same time, as we recall what things Gd has done for us, we have some work we need to do as well.  Advent calls us to prepare by making ready for the coming of Christ both as the merciful incarnate Son of God and as the Judge who will judge us against his truth. As a result, this season calls us to pay special attention to the ways in which we walk, to inquire within ourselves if they are the paths we have been taught by God and to measure them against the definitive plumb lines of love and faithfulness.

So, to wrap it up: Psalm 25 is here to kick off Advent for us, just like it’s been doing for at least the last 1300 years in the Western liturgy. It’s about trusting in the promises of God, and it’s about learning the truth and carrying it out and the ultimate test of truth is rooted in the twin virtues of love and faithfulness.


So—that’s what we have to say today about Psalm 25, verses 1-9 as the psalm appointed for the First Sunday of Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. Again, I’d like to give a big thank you to Greta for reading the psalm for us.  If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes. You can find more of my thoughts at www.StBedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter (and there’s a link you can follow on my blog and in the show notes.) Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions.

The St. Bede Psalmcast: Episode 1

I’m working on a book project right now. It’s two-volume set for Liturgical Press. The first volume is a straight-forward historical work on the interpretation of the Psalms in the early Medival West with a particular emphasis on Cassiodorus. His three volume commentary was the central path through which monks of the first millennium learned the Psalms, learned how to read Scripture, and gained a basic understanding of the liberal arts. The working title is The Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West.

The second volume is an explicitly confessional work that will engage how Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers interpreted the Psalms and what the modern Church can learn from them. How can a contemporary Christian read alongside the Fathers and still take into account the riches provided by the scientific study of the Scriptures and modern approaches to biblical interpretation? The working title for this volume is Psalming Christ: Learning to Pray the Psalms with Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers.

Now—while I was working on my dissertation and the work on prayer book spirituality (coming out early 2016; Scott Gunn swears to it!) I found sharing what I was writing on the blog to be a great help. I’m not at the writing stage yet, though–I’m still doing preliminary research, and it’s easy to let that stuff slip to the side ahead of more imminent therefore urgent deadlines. So, I’ve decided to go the public accountable route again with my reasearch by means of a podcast. I don’t know if this will work; I don’t know if it will last. But it’s a start!

I’ll be looking at the psalms as scheduled by the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m hoping to put out an episode every two weeks, posting on Tuesday before the upcoming Sunday. The format is pretty simple: I’ll look at the lectionary context, the general interpretive context, and historical readings (with a focus on Cassiodorus for obvious reasons), then provide a thematic reading that tries to pull it all together.

Of course, I owe a big thank you to Kyle Oliver, Holli Powell, and Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale for their advice on putting even a basic podcast like this one together.

So—without further ado: the St. Bede Psalmcast


Thanks again to my crack Production Assistant Greta for reading the psalm! I’ll be looking for other readers for other psalms as things develop…

Here is the link to the Gradual Albiense, the French chant book I mentioned with the decorated page (which is also the feature illustration of the track).

Here is a link to the psalm in the Utrecht Psalter with its illustration. (Yes, the umbering is different. We’ll talk about that next time…)

I mention iTunes—it’s not on iTunes yet. Hopefully that’ll occur at some point in the near future!