Christ in the Psalms: A Consideration of Luther's "Preface of Jesus Christ"

by Daniel Metzger


The Prefaces to Luther's Dictata: Introduction and Background

It might seem odd at first that anyone should still show interest in Luther's Dictata,[1] his early lectures on the Psalms.  After all, these lectures of 1513-1514-sometimes referred to with perhaps a bit of condescension as Initium theologiae Lutheri (the beginning of Luther's theology) contain much that Luther would leave behind as his theology developed through study and controversy.  For example, he still shows a kind of "monastic orientation" to his thinking in his emphasis not so much on faith in Christ as on humility-admitting God is right in his verdict-as the prerequisite for any righteousness that can come by faith;[2] or there is the careful distinction he makes between peccatum malitiae and peccatum ignorantiae (malicious sins and sins done out of ignorance),[3] or again his accepting reference to the "spark" (syntaresis) of life that remains not only in the human intellect but also in the will[4]--all vestiges of a medieval theological apparatus which, eventually, Luther would for the most part discard. 

Among these remnants of a past Luther needed to leave behind, it has been assumed, is the exegetical approach to the Psalms which he presents in the "Prefaces" to those early lectures.  That way of reading the Psalms can best be summarized in Luther's own words from his Praefatio Iesu Christi-the Preface of Jesus Christ-which his students received with their copy of the psalm texts:  "Every prophecy and every prophet (Luther is applying this to the psalms and to David here) must be understood as referring to Christ the Lord, except where it is clear from plain words that someone else is spoken of."  Most recently, Luther scholars have recognized that he never abandoned this fundamental way of reading the Old Testament and, specifically for our discussion here today, of reading the Psalms.

In our brief time together, I would like to present for consideration a number of points pertaining to Luther's Christological reading of all the Psalms.  Luther means far more than that certain psalms can in some way or another be applied to Jesus and his life.  For Luther, the letter-the literal meaning of the text, the primary Spirit-intended meaning-refers directly to Christ.  In saying this, Luther is rooted solidly in the tradition and, I would assert, in the New Testament.  A few brief examples will demonstrate that Lutheran commentators of the Twentieth Century-even those with a high view of Scripture who stressed its "inerrancy"-have departed from Luther here.  Instead, they have opted-perhaps out of a caution arising from the very kinds of "enlightenment" attitudes against which they wished to defend the text-for a pale imitation of Luther's more robust claim that all the Psalms deal directly with Christ.  Those who have adopted a more critical approach to the text have gone further away from Luther and the tradition.

In addition to this (perhaps rather diffuse) discussion of how Luther compares to what came before and what has come after, I would like to present a couple of case studies-treatments of individual psalms-with Luther's help and/or following his pattern.  And finally, I would like to suggest for discussion that Luther's approach needs to be resurrected- consciously re-appropriated-and set to work again in the assembly of God's people, that without it something immensely precious to the church goes unused and is in danger of being lost, and that it is in the parish-in worship-that the riches of Luther's understanding of the Psalms can best and most meaningfully be recovered and appreciated.

Luther's Preparations for his Lectures on the Psalms

Luther began his lectures on the Psalms at Wittenberg in 1513, just over eight years after he had first sought entrance into the monastery of observant Augustinian monks in Erfurt.[5]  Within a year, the order's Vicar General-Johannes von Staupitz-had singled Luther out for biblical studies.  Luther's first assignment was to memorize the Scriptures (the Latin text, which remained Luther's primary text all his life) page by page.  In the coming years leading up to his transferal to the faculty at Wittenberg, Luther studied the theology of Augustine and Gabriel Biel, lectured on Theology at Erfurt and on Ethics at Wittenberg, made a trip to Rome as an Augustinian emissary to the pope, and, in 1512, was awarded the degree of doctor. Thus he was no mere beginner in theology when, in that same year he took up the chair at Wittenberg as Bible lecturer, the position which he retained until his death.

Assuming that Luther's teaching schedule was similar to that which he followed later in his career, he delivered his lectures on the Psalms from nine to ten o'clock a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.  In preparation for the lectures, he created a "handout" for the students.  He had printed for them the Latin text of the Psalms, with wide margins and interlinear spacing adequate for taking notes, as well as brief summaries of the contents of each psalm.  Luther took one of these handouts for himself, and on it inserted his own "glosses" on the text-grammatical and lexical notations, meaning of particular phrases, insights from his growing knowledge of Hebrew, etc.[6]  The students would be expected to copy into the text given to them whatever they could of these notes.  In addition, they would add their own summarizing notes of Luther's scholia-his more extensive commentary on the content of each psalm.  Luther wrote out these scholia in long-hand.  It is probable that, in the context of the classroom, he would expand on some sections and perhaps shorten others in response to questions from the students.

The Preface to the Glosses

Although it is not clear that Luther intended that the students should receive this preface,[7] it contains an important outline of the approach he takes to the text of the Psalms.  Here Luther connects himself to the tradition and the so-called quadriga or four-fold sense of the text. (The term refers to a chariot drawn by four horses.)  The tradition had divided the text according to St. Paul's dichotomy of the letter which kills and the spirit which gives life (2 Cor. 3: 4).   The figurative meaning-the spiritual meaning behind and above the literal-was three-fold: the "allegorical" meaning which spoke of Christ and the church, the "tropological" meaning which imparted moral instruction, and the "anagogical" meaning which spoke of our final destination-heaven or hell. This treatment of the text had been codified by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas defends this approach from the charge that it leads to confusion, and he also lends a kind of "scientific" basis for it.  The multiple meanings of the text do not make for confusion or equivocation, he asserts, because the various senses do not arise from multiple meanings in a given word or phrase.  It is the things which are signified in the literal text which can and do point to spiritual realities, and thus all the senses are founded on the solid basis of the literal meaning.[8] 

The finding of various combinations of multiple meanings in the text goes back to the New Testament itself, and it had been discussed and developed by the early fathers-especially Origen in the East and Jerome and Augustine in the West.  By the twelfth century, western (Latin) commentators had arrived at a general consensus in favor of a four-fold rather than a three-fold division of these meanings in the text.  As early as 1282, Augustine of Dacia had put this standardized approach into verse:      

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria.

Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.

(The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe,

The moral sense what you should do, anagogy where you are heading.)[9]

Thus Luther's appropriation of this four-fold approach to the text is rooted deeply in the tradition.  Even Luther's example of "Jerusalem" was entirely conventional:


allegorically: the good people


tropologically: virtues


anagogically: rewards


allegorically: the bad people


tropologically: vices


anagogically: punishments

These three figurative senses had been derived from the "spirit" in St. Paul's "letter and spirit" wording.  Now Luther goes on to double this division of the senses of Scripture according to a schema in which both the "killing letter" and the "life-giving spirit" have figurative significance.  In this new framework, he uses the term "Mt. Zion" as his example.


The killing letter

The life-giving spirit


-the land of Canaan

-the people of Zion


-the synagogue or a prominent person in it

-the church or any teacher, bishop, or prominent man  


-the righteousness of faith the Pharisees and of the Law

-the righteousness of or some other prominent matter


-the future glory after the flesh

-the eternal glory in the heavens

Even in this doubling of the senses, Luther really follows the tradition as Aquinas had outlined it.  There is nothing arbitrary in the applications he makes-"the things signified are themselves signs of other things."  The example might give the impression that the medievals, and Luther with them, expected to find all the figurative meanings in each and every passage in Scripture, but that was not the case.  

For our purposes today, this doubling of the meanings of Scripture is less important than the simple fact of Luther's acceptance of the multiple senses in the text.  Even more important is the point that Luther makes immediately after laying out his chart:

In the allegory, tropology, or anagogy is valid unless the same truth is expressly stated historically elsewhere.  Otherwise Scripture would become a mockery.  But one must indeed take in an allegorical sense what is elsewhere stated historically.[10]

This "control" over the use of figurative meanings was a commonplace for the Fathers and in medieval times.  The figurative senses were primarily for devotional use, never for establishing articles of faith or formulating binding statements of Christian doctrine.  The fact that Luther found it necessary to state it, however, probably points beyond the rule's general acceptance to its being a law honored "more in the breach than in the keeping"-too frequently ignored-and it sheds light on why Luther will at various times shake his fist against the use of the "four senses."

One can note also that there is a natural inclusion of "Law and Gospel" within the figurative senses.  The allegorical pointed to God's gifts-Christ and the church, while the tropological sense instructed the reader about God's will for our lives.

Two points need to be made about the quadriga.  First, truisms promoted by some (especially earlier Luther scholarship) notwithstanding, Luther did not "break away" from this form of interpretation.  Historian of exegesis Kenneth Hagen, for example, provides overwhelming evidence that Luther continued to find precisely these traditional multiple senses in the scriptural text throughout his career.[11]  He had no problem using the four- sense approach because it did not conflict with, and in fact supported, his other formulations about what the meaning of Scripture is-such as "the one simple sense which promotes Christ" (was Christum treibt), or that the "grammatical meaning of the text and theology are the same thing," or that "every prophecy and every prophet must be understood as referring to Christ," as he states in his "Preface of Jesus Christ," or one of the other ways that he will formulate it.[12]

A second point about the quadriga is that it had not become a standard for the Church Fathers and the medievals in some kind of arbitrary fashion.  Nor, as is sometimes alleged, was their philosophically "platonic" orientation the primary reason they read Scripture this way.[13]  Rather, they found allegorical or figurative treatments of Old Testament texts in the New Testament itself.  They were familiar with how, for St. Paul, the "Seed" of Abraham is first of all Christ himself and then also all believers (Gal. 4: 16, 29).  They saw St. Paul draw allegorical meaning-Christ and the church-from the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (Galatians 4).  They read how Paul ascribed figurative meaning-baptism-to the story of Israel crossing the sea and how he made a moral (tropological) application of God's punishment of the Israelites who died in the wilderness (I Cor. 10).  And they saw how Jerusalem could signify-anagogically-the heavenly city (Gal. 4, Rev. 21, etc.). Contrary to later Protestant polemic, the medievals thought of themselves as being thoroughly scriptural in finding the figurative senses.

Luther's oft-repeated warnings against and condemnations of allegorical interpretation are well-known enough.  Some six years later, for example, Luther refers to the little poem about the four senses as "impious verses." [14]  That harsh word of censure, however, needs to be understood both in its immediate setting and within the broader context of late medieval trends. 

Luther attacks the little poem about the four-senses while commenting on Psalm 22: 19-"They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots"-in his Operationes in Psalmos of 1519.  This particular verse provides the opportunity for a lengthy excursus on scriptural interpretations which wrongly "divide up" the Word of God.  In an extended polemic against various abuses which he has heard, Luther expresses his concern for how the simple history of the scriptural text has been clouded and covered up by misuses of the "spiritual senses"-what Luther calls "fables, farcical stories, and outright lies"-such as Lenten-season sermons in which preachers quickly depart from the history of Christ's passion in their eagerness to tell stories of the sufferings of Mary. While Luther further condemns the practice of inventing four "senses" which have no connection with each other except the imagination of the exegete, he specifically commends his own Christological approach in which what is true of Christ (the real kernel of the history) pertains also to his body the church (the real kernel of the allegorical) and therefore to the members of the body-the individual believers (Luther's tropological or moral sense).[15]  In this way he preserves the same applications of the text which he proposes in his Dictata.  Despite his protests here against Aquinas, he is not so very different from what is said in the Summa.     

Luther thus fits nicely into one of the trends of his day.  It was not at all unusual especially in the later Middle Ages for commentators to condemn the use of the figurative senses-especially how others did it-while going on in practice to find those meanings everywhere.  That is what one finds in Luther, who speaks approvingly of the four senses in his own commentary on Galatians as late as 1536.[16]  What Luther consistently attacks is what was rejected by responsible interpreters all through the Middle Ages-all frivolous and arbitrary applications,[17] any figurative interpretations which produce new and additional teachings or practices which are not warranted by the literal text elsewhere,[18] or what he considered to be overly speculative conclusions which-although not actually wrong and even possible, nevertheless went beyond what could be established by the letter of Scripture.[19]  Luther's primary concern is that the reader of Psalm 22 should find Christ there and "not doubt that (he) has suffered everything for you, and the punishment that he suffers comes from your sins which he has taken on himself."[20]

One way of understanding Luther's continued use of this "four-senses" approach to Scripture is to see it as part of the tradition of theology as the study of the  "Sacred Page"-Sacra Pagina-which obtained in the early Church and in the monasteries, and which was formative also for Luther.  One has to think of the monk-copying Scripture, singing it in the holy office, praying the Psalter both with others and privately in his cell.  The monk was immersed in the Latin text and carried it in his heart and mind the whole day.  And for the monk, there was no difference between the world of the sacred page and his own.[21]    

Doing theology as "sacred page" in this way is different from thinking of Scripture as a source of "doctrines" which can be drawn up in the form of thesis and antithesis.   Such a study of the sacred page entailed a direct immersion of the reader into the world of Scripture,[22] without the pressing consciousness of historical distance and difference which was to develop during the time of the Enlightenment.[23]  The monk was a "walking concordance" who naturally made linguistic connections from one book of Scripture to another, from one Testament to the other.  The one assumption necessary for seeing these spiritual senses in the text was the complete unity of Scripture with Christ as its center.  The Old and the New Testaments-and all of the books of which they were comprised-made up one unified revelation, and the subject matter of that revelation was Christ.[24]  In the preface which he handed out to his students, Luther makes explicit the way in which his adaptation of the quadriga fits a completely Christological interpretation of the Psalms.   

Praefatio Iesu Christi-the Preface of Jesus Christ

Printed and distributed to the students with the copies of the Psalm texts which Luther provided to them was his "Preface of Jesus Christ,"[25] about which it is safe to say that a.  it is surely one of the more remarkable assertions of interpretive principle which the Lutheran tradition has produced, and yet b.  it remains unknown to many Lutherans-both laity and clergy, and c.  (it is my contention) nothing could be more beneficial to the average reader of Scripture than to take to heart what Luther says here-every psalm should be read as spoken by and about Jesus Christ. 

Luther begins by laying a scriptural foundation for his interpretive principles with a series of Scripture quotations from the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation, Psalm 40, John's Gospel again, and Isaiah.  What becomes clear with just a bit of reflection is that not only the Johannine citations from the Gospel and Revelation but also the words from the Psalmist and from the prophet Isaiah are to be understood as direct quotations of Jesus himself.  And, together, the passages point to Jesus Christ as the center-point of and key to understanding revelation-Christ the door through whom we can go in and out and find pasture, Christ the true and holy One who has the key of David (which Luther takes to mean the "interpretive key to David the prophet"), Christ who points to the record of the scroll which speaks of him, etc.

Then Luther adduces four sources-Moses, the prophet Zechariah, St. Peter, and St. Paul-as witnesses that Christ is the Door, the Key, the Speaker of Scripture, and its Subject.  The four citations really comprise an interesting exercise in doing theology as "Sacred Page."  They might not provide proof to the Enlightenment-era skeptic who might accuse Luther of begging the question.  But they serve as "witnesses" for a monk and lecturer like Luther who is already convinced that Christ is the central point and for whom every passage resonates with Christological significance.  And the fourth witness-St. Paul writing to the Corinthians-says, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor. 2: 2), specifying further that it is the crucified Jesus Christ-Mary's Son who dies, condemned as a criminal, on the cross-of whom the prophet David speaks.  For Luther the verse also furnishes the true interpretation of the church, his body.  The only true church is the persecuted church which participates in the sufferings of Christ throughout its history.[26]  Luther then states the principle of interpretation which he draws from these passages and witnesses, and he gives further scriptural evidence for it:

Every prophecy and every prophet must be understood as referring to Christ the Lord, except where it is clear from plain words that someone else is spoken of.  For thus he himself says: "Search the Scriptures,...and it is they that bear witness of me." (John 5: 39).

For Luther, then, what is usually the first element in the quadriga-what we might think of as the literal or historical sense-has really been eliminated.  In its first, Spirit-intended sense, the text speaks directly of Christ. 

It's not that Luther would deny that there was an historical setting and circumstance to which David fittingly responded with a given psalm.  But that historical setting and circumstance is simply of no consequence.  One thinks here of Luther's interpretive gesture in dealing with the great Exodus event-the parting of the Red Sea waters.  For Luther, the event as pure history has little significance-"He didn't part the waters for me," he says in a brusque dismissal of that level of textual reference.  For Luther, living millennia after that event, the text still has importance, however-in how it points to baptism.  That is his view of the "historical" referent in the Psalms.

For Luther, this makes the appropriation of the Psalm for ourselves much more certain and direct.  You and I are not shepherds, or kings of Israel, or the leader of the temple choir.  If making the Psalms our own depends on our ability to identify with the experience and the "feelings" of the original writer, we are left with educated guesses and approximations. 

But Luther does not have to go through the mediation of the prophet David and his experience-first as shepherd and then as king-in order to derive an application to himself.  The text speaks directly of Christ, and nothing can be closer or more intimate than the relationship between Christ and his people. 

From the text's primary sense referring to Christ, figurative meanings can be derived which correspond to the categories of the tradition: 

Whatever is said literally concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as to his person must be understood allegorically of a help that is like him and of the church conformed to him in all things.  And at the same time this must be understood tropologically of any spiritual and inner man against his flesh and the outer man.

Luther goes on to illustrate these "spiritual" senses as he understands them.  The first example is taken from Psalm 1:1, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked...."  Luther says, "Literally this means that the Lord Jesus made no concessions to the designs of the Jews and of the evil and adulterous age that existed at his time."  (As an aside, it might as well be faced here that Luther's commentary is not politically correct by today's standards.  Wherever the text denotes conflict of any kind, Luther sees its primary, literal point of reference as the conflict between Jesus of Nazareth and the Jews who did not accept him.)  Note that Luther's direct Christological application does not result in vagaries.  The passage for him is specific and vivid, but in reference to Christ. 

Luther goes on to derive "spiritual" meanings from this literal, Christological sense.  "Allegorically it means that the holy Church did not agree to the evil designs of persecutors, heretics, and ungodly Christians."  These three-"persecutors, heretics, and ungodly Christians"-correspond to the three successive stages Luther recognizes in the demonic assault on the church-the age of persecution and martyrdom, the age of Trinitarian and Christological heresies, and the third and ongoing stage-lasting until Christ's return-in which the church is troubled by evil from within its own ranks.  This schema shows up in all three of the examples here in the preface and often in Luther's allegorical applications.

In the standard quadriga, the letter gives rise to the allegorical sense which deals with the faith and points either to Christ or to the church. Since Luther sees the Christological sense as primary and literal, it is natural that the allegorical sense for him must refer to the church.  What is true of the Head is true of his Body.  And the passage also has a moral or tropological sense-pointing to the inner struggle between the "new man" in the Christian and the "old adam."  What is true of the Body is true of its individual members.   

Luther carries this pattern of interpretation out through two more examples.  For Psalm 2:1-2, he gives the abbreviated citation, "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed...." He comments:

Literally this refers to the raging of the Jews and Gentiles against Christ during his suffering.  Allegorically it is directed against tyrants, heretics, and ungodly leaders of the church.  Tropologically, it has to do with the tyranny, temptation, and tempest of the carnal and outer man who provokes and torments the spirit as the dwelling place of Christ.

In connection with this passage from Psalm 2, it is worth noting that it was not a far-fetched idea for Luther to apply the "letter" to Christ.  That is the way it read in the Latin Bible which he had memorized, "...consurgent reges terrae et principes tractabunt pariter adversum Dominum et adversum christum eius."  Moderns tend to think of the medieval as practicing a naïve  form of eisegesis, fancifully "reading Christ into the text" when he isn't there.  For the medieval reader-for Luther-it wasn't a matter of "reading in" anyone into anything.  The same is true of ecclesial applications.  Where our English Bibles have "congregation" or "assembly," routinely the Latin word is ecclesia.  The medieval saw Christ and church everywhere in the Old Testament-not just the New-because they were right there in the text.

Finally, Luther's third example is Psalm 3:1, "O Lord, how many are my foes."  Luther again precisely follows his pattern:

"This is literally Christ's complaint concerning the Jews, his enemies.  Allegorically it is a complaint and accusation of the church regarding tyrants, heretics, etc.  But tropologically it is a complaint, or prayer, of the devout and afflicted spirit placed into trials. 

We can note here that Luther does not provide an "anagogical" application referring to the final reward of heaven (or hell)-the traditional fourth level of significance-for any of these examples.  He will occasionally include this level of interpretation during his lectures, so one might ask why he leaves it out here. It is not unlikely that Heiko Oberman is correct in suggesting that this omission is a conscious decision of Luther which is based on his conviction that the end times were at hand, making quite superfluous applications to a return of Christ in the far future.[27]  Just a few years earlier (1510-1511), Luther had travelled to Rome as emissary for the Augustinian Order.  It was a commonplace of the day that the church was in a bad way and needed a reforming Council.  For Luther, however, this general observation had become a deeply rooted conviction with eschatological implications; the scandalous conditions especially among the clergy which he had personally witnessed in the Holy City fit all-too-well into the scriptural accounts of the end-time darkness just before the dawn of Christ's return.

The last sentence of this "Preface of Jesus Christ" deserves some reflection.  Luther says, "In their own way we must also judge in other places, lest we become burdened with a closed book and receive no food."  The only alternative to reading the Psalms with Christ as their focus is to receive no benefit-no food-from them at all.  Benefit-sustenance for our faith-comes from reading them through Luther's lenses, or (since Luther always stressed the spoken/sung word over the silent letter) hearing them with Luther's ears, understanding them through the creedal and scriptural categories which Luther has sharpened for us: the unity of the two Testaments, the incarnation of the Son of God and his voluntary self-emptying on our behalf, the "great exchange" in which our sin is placed on him and his righteousness is given to us, the holiness of the church, the inner battle between the newly created believer in us and the "Old Adam," etc.  Without that Christ-centered focus, we face a "closed book."

The Preface to the Scholia

There is yet a third "preface" to Luther's early lectures on the Psalms, this one delivered probably after he had lectured on Psalm 1.[28]  Addressing his students with a courtier's polite formality, Luther humbly claims his inadequacy for the task.  Then he calls attention to what David says of himself in 2 Samuel 23: 1-4, "The man to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob, the excellent psalmist of Israel said: ‘The Spirit of the Lord has spoken by me, and his word by my tongue.

The God of Israel spoke to me, the Strong One of Israel spoke, the Ruler of men, the just Ruler in the fear of God....'"  The point that Luther emphasizes is that there is something unique here about David as prophet:

...I want to be brief.  However, I implore you by God, whence comes such great presumption and unique boasting beyond all prophets, and the same often repeated, that the Lord spoke by him, that by his tongue came the latter's speech, "to whom it was appointed concerning the Christ of the God of Jacob...Other prophets used the expression "The word of the Lord came to me."  This one, however, ...says, in a new manner of speaking, "His word was spoken by me."

Luther will, at a later date, carry out his stated plan of dealing with David's final words in more depth, and in that late and mature work his Christological/Trinitarian approach to the text is even more pronounced.[29]  But already in 1513, there could be no doubt for those who attended his lectures on the Psalms-both fellow monks and superiors in the order-that Luther understood the Psalms as speaking directly of Christ.                            

Gleanings from Luther's Treatment of Psalm 1

Reading Luther's Dictata can be challenging on a number of counts.  His thought seems to jump about oddly at times-even taking into account the relatively complex framework of application he has outlined in his prefaces-and in some places he seems to spend time making the very kinds of artificial distinctions against which he and every other medieval expositor would rail.  It helps, therefore, to focus on how he finds Christ in the text, with the allegorically derived applications to the church and to the Christian's psychomachia hovering in the background.  In briefly considering here his treatment of Psalm 1in the Dictata, I suggest that there is a sharp contrast between the sacramental, gospel benefit one obtains from reading the Psalm Luther's way on the one hand and on the other hand, what is left-namely law-if one does not. 

Luther begins by reasserting what he has already said in his "Preface of Jesus Christ"-"The first psalm speaks literally of Christ..."-and then goes on to deal with the first phrase of the psalm, "Blessed is the Man."  What deepens the gospel tone in this verse is the way Luther ties Christ the "Blessed Man" to the church-his people-and thus to every individual Christian, by stressing the unity of Christ the "Firstfruits" to those who spring from him:

He is the only blessed one and the only man from whose fullness they have all received (John 1: 16) that they might be blessed and men and everything that follows in this psalm.  He is the "Firstfruits" of those who have fallen asleep" (I Cor. 15:20), so that he might also be the Firstfruits of those who are awake....[30] 

Taking the term "firstfruits"-with its picture implying more fruit to come- to be synonymous with the picture of Christ and church as Head and body, Luther can make a sacramental application to every believer.  Everything the Psalm says of the blessedness of the "righteous" is true of the church, and thus of every Christian, because it applies directly and fully to Christ.  To hear that truth is to be offered his righteousness.  To believe it to be true of Christ is to receive it for oneself.

Again, in the second verse, Luther treats the phrase, "But his will is in the Law of the Lord."  Here his first application is tropological-to the "new person" in the believer, and he works back from there to Christ:  He says:

This does not apply to those who are under the law in a spirit of bondage in fear, but to those who are in grace and a spirit of freedom.  Thence Christians are called free...spontaneous and willing, because of their Christ, who is the First of their kind.

Cleansed by his forgiveness and wearing his righteousness as ours, the believer-as believer-is of the same kind as Christ the Firstfruit-renewed by the grace of baptism and paradoxically sustained in the freedom of spontaneous loving by being a "member of his Body."  Whatever one wants to say about the need for development and sharpening in the theology of the young Luther at this point, this way of reading the Psalms surely provided a firm basis for the vital reformation breakthroughs to follow.[31] And his insights should ring true for us today, since they reflect for us St. Paul's words in 2 Cor. 5: 21 "that we might become the righteousness of God in him."

In verse three, the Psalmist says of the righteous man, "His (Its) leaf will not fall off."  One might expect Luther to speak generally about Christ's eternity.  But he is much more specific than that.  The psalmist, he says, is speaking about the Word of Christ, and therefore Luther takes the opportunity to rhapsodize-through a series of scriptural picture-connections-on the productive power of the Gospel:

Leaves are words.  It is clear, however, in which way these words of Christ have not withered, since they are written splendidly in the Gospels and in the hearts of the faithful.  The words which he speaks are life and spirit (John 6: 63).  Therefore they are worthy to be written not in stones and in dead books but in living hearts.  Therefore (the phrase) "does not fall off" says less and means more: Heaven and earth will pass away," but his words will not pass away (Matt.24: 35) He is therefore the "tree of life" (Rev. 22: 2), firmly "planted in the house of the Lord" (cf. Ps. 92:13), producing his fruit in its season, the firstfruits of all the trees that imitate him in these.[32]

Finally, we look at Luther's comments on the brief phrase, "And all that he does will prosper."  Again, his application is concrete and specific-what is meant here is what Christ does through his ministry of word and sacrament, and the spread of the gospel through the earth:

"...all that he instituted to be done by the apostles and disciples, in sacraments and mysteries...What things?  New heavens, a new earth (Is. 66:22), yes, he who sits on the throne makes all things new (Rev. 21:5)....These (works of Christ) are the ones of which it is here stated that they will prosper.  And they were fulfilled, as we see, because the church, which is the work of his splendor, has filled up the whole world.[33]

I have been selective here, naturally, because Luther's comments on this psalm go on for twenty pages in the American Edition of his works.  Besides gems like this, Luther includes some scathing language against the Jews of Jesus' day who rejected him, and he takes the time, in connection with verse 2, to go off on a tangent and condemn lazy monks who are not obedient to their superior-who ask "why" instead of complying immediately with the orders they receive.  All of this, of course, is in good keeping with the monastic, sacra pagina tradition in which lecturer and hearer are immersed in the world of the sacred page. 

Nevertheless, these brief sections serve to illustrate Luther's Christological approach and what is lost if one reads the Psalms in a different way.  What is left to us if the first verse does not refer to Christ, but instead enunciates a general principle: all those-and only those-are blessed who avoid the wicked and their ways-walking, standing, or sitting-and who delight in and meditate every moment on the teaching of the Lord?  What is left is only what we are to do-an unattainable standard from which we always fall short-pure law in its rawest, most uncompromising form which condemns us and leaves us to perish as "the chaff which the wind drives away." 

Taking Luther's approach brings us that same law as the description of Christ's holiness, but now in repentant faith we claim his righteousness as our own.  And we can profit also from a tropological application in which the new creation in us rejoices in Christ's example and seeks to follow it in humble obedience, always enabled by the Spirit of him who is the firstfruits among his brethren and the Head of his church.

I include a quick note here on what I consider to be a most unfortunate consequence of a change in language adopted by the ELCA's new cranberry-colored hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship.  In their zeal to eliminate masculine pronouns wherever possible, the Worship Committee that assembled the hymnal has lost something.  Note ELW's rendition of this same Psalm:

1) Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked...

2) Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on God's teaching day and night.

3) They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

At very best, the typological/Christological reading has been obscured to the point that it can only be recovered with a great deal of explanation-and when will that take place in the worship service?  Even if a clear explanation is given, how well will it be understood and retained without the concrete reinforcement of the psalm's real language?  

I can understand the desire to avoid language which can be perceived as sexist and oppressive.  And frankly, if Luther's Christological understanding of the psalm is not offered and taught, then, in my opinion, the change is probably not a bad thing-perhaps the lesser of two evils as opposed to a Christ-less understanding of the text which can also be used to marginalize women.  However, if one is convinced not only of the correctness of Luther's approach but also of its necessity and great benefits, the change here from the masculine pronoun is a singularly ill-thought-out and most unfortunate concession to changing sensibilities about what is and is not offensive. 

At worst, where the reference to Christ is lost entirely and goes un-remarked, the congregation is left only with a proclamation of conditioned blessing which is really nothing but pure law-"This is the kind of person that you must be if you want God to bless you." 

Naturally, such a concern will ring rather hollow with those for whom Luther's Christological reading of the Psalms is only a quaint relic of a naïve and pre-critical age, but Lutherans should feel a loss here.  The glib and pharisaical smugness by which one easily includes oneself in such a "they" who are righteous and upright may be prevalent in the kind of pan-Protestant, produced-for-television "evangelicalism" to which God's people are exposed constantly here in America.  But it has little to do with the piety of the penitent tax-gatherer of whom Jesus says, "He went to his house justified,"-the piety witnessed to and promoted in the writings of Luther and in the Lutheran Confessions.


Gleanings from Psalm 22, with Luther's Help

So many details in the Gospel-and especially the passion histories-reference the Psalms that it has become a commonplace for modern, critical scholarship to posit a kind of "writer's creative license" on the part of the shapers of the Jesus-tradition and the Gospel writers.  The assumption is that the evangelists wrote their accounts with the Psalter and the prophetic books in hand, as it were.  Details and images from those were imaginatively inserted into the narrative about Jesus, not because eye-witnesses in fact actually saw things happen that way, but because the writer thought that something like that MUST have happened.  If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the promised One, then what was written by the prophets MUST apply to him, and so it was put into the text.[34]    One should at least appreciate the tacit acknowledgment which lies behind this skeptical assumption-the recognition not only of Messianic expectations in Jesus' day but also of a consistently Messianic interpretation of the Psalms and prophets.

In the Psalms, the details reflected in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion are indeed legion.  According to the evangelists, Jesus quotes the Psalms twice-the cry of dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1) and his dying prayer, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Psalm 31: 5).  Psalm 22 also records the marks of the crucifixion nails-"They pierce my hands and my feet" (v. 16) and the division of Jesus' clothing by the death-squad soldiers, "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots" (v. 18).  Several psalms speak of the special hurt caused to Jesus by the betrayal of Judas: Psalm 41:7-9, "All who hate me whisper together against me; Against me they devise my hurt...Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me," and 55:12-13, "For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it; nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me, then I could hide myself from him.  But it is you, a man my comrade, my companion and my familiar friend.  We ...had sweet fellowship together, walked in the house of God in the throng."  Because the soldiers did not break Jesus' legs to hasten his death, St. John cites Psalm 34:20, "He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken."  In Psalm 35, the speaker pleads with the Lord about the "malicious witnesses" who have risen against him, the "smiters" who "slander (him) unceasingly," and his enemies who hate him, plot against him, and rejoice over his fall.  In Psalm 69:19-21, the speaker complains of the scorn and shame poured on him by his enemies who give him gall and vinegar to drink.  Some of these are explicitly noted by the Gospel-writers as being fulfilled in the story of Jesus' sufferings; some are not.   

If one takes Luther's approach to reading the Psalms, the individual details cited in the New Testament become part of a great tapestry in which everything fits the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  Psalm 22-understood as the vivid record of his very thoughts while on the cross, becomes not the exception but the paradigm.

One of the occasionally frustrating features in the Luther's early lectures on the Psalms is that the manuscript left to us of the Scholia is incomplete, and a number of psalms are missing-among them Psalm 22.  However, one can find a lengthy treatment of this psalm from only a few years later in Luther's Operationes in Psalmos of 1519-1521, as well as a briefer, summarizing treatment from the year 1530-his Kurze Auslegung ueber die ersten 22 Psalmen. (In the following pages I make use of the text in the St. Louis edition.) 

According to the Gospel accounts of both Matthew (27: 45) and Mark (15: 34), Jesus prayed at least the first verse of Psalm 22 from the cross, and Matthew, Luke, and John all point to the actions of the soldiers as the fulfillments of verse 18.  Offering as it does a detailed picture of Jesus' sufferings, Psalm 22 was always considered by the church to be prophetic and directly Christological.  In fact, one (relatively obscure) controversy had to do not with whether the Psalm was prophetic and Christological or not, but whether it must be taken as referring to Christ and his sufferings ad litteram-according to its literal sense-and not according to a spiritual understanding derived from a literal reading which had instead some other historical referent-presumably in the life of the prophet David.[35]  The general verdict of the church-that the Psalm refers to Christ and his crucifixion sufferings-is still reflected in the practice of reading it during Lent and especially during Holy Week.  For Luther, there is no question that the literal sense of the Psalm is taught to us by the Gospels-the historical referent is Christ on the cross-his prayer in the very midst of his crucifixion sufferings.  In some important ways, Psalm 22 serves as a model for Luther's approach and for making use of that approach today, if one takes seriously the question, "How would Christ himself pray this psalm?" In what follows I have made use of the translation from the New American Standard Bible.

For the choir director upon "the hind of the morning"

Luther finds the content of the entire psalm summarized already in the picture presented in this title:

For he sings of the doe in the morning light-hunted by dogs.  He speaks of the doe and not the stag on account of its fecundity and its gentleness...For in this psalm he will describe the sufferings and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.[36]

Christ is the gentle and suffering doe who is hounded by human and demonic enemies-Luther connects the dogs (which he has inserted into the title-picture!) to the dogs of verse 17, "Many dogs have surrounded me."  He also comments on the phrase "of the morning"-it distinguishes this particular doe from the Israelite priesthood and the entire Israelite system of practice, because the "early morning" which is meant is the dawn ending the night of the law.[37]  In an instructive example of the monastic sacra pagina way of reading Scripture-the way of the "walking concordance"-Luther connects the title phrase "of the morning" to St. Paul's words in Romans 13:12, "The night is passed.  The day has arrived," and Galatians 4:4, "The time was fulfilled."  Christ, his sufferings for us, demonic enemies, the ending of the law-and Luther has not gotten past the title yet!

1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.

2) O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
And by night but I have no rest.

As one would expect, the "cry of dereliction" in verse one is treated at great length by Luther. These haunting words of the Son of God drive us into the heart of the Christian creed and the Trinitarian mystery of oneness and otherness which can only be grasped in faith, never parsed or mastered by the intellect.  Within that mystery, the Father turns his back on his beloved Son who is "of one being with him."  The incarnate One, the God/Man,   bears the wrath of God against our fallen lovelessness. He is left in the hands of the devil who tempts him to doubt the Father's word.[38] Luther draws a tropological application which is of help in our struggle for holiness.  What we learn from his questioning cry is that our great High Priest knows what it is to be tempted as we are (Hebrews 4: 15).

"...but you do not answer."  As he often does, Luther shows some insight gained by imaginatively identifying with the Speaker of the psalm.  For Christ on the cross, the suffering is intensified by God's silence-made unendurable by the delay in God's answer.  As Luther keenly notes, it is easier to suffer if one can see the end of it all, and what one might otherwise endure becomes simply unbearable if that end is not in sight.  And that perception-that one's suffering has no end-is intrinsic to the pain of hell itself.  In the same way, at the dark moment when he cried out, Jesus could see no end to his pain.[39]   And, writing in 1530, Luther makes the most practical kind of allegorical application to the church-the Body of Christ.  The brave souls who were even then gathered to give their confession before Emperor Charles V-"unsere Leute jetzt zu Augsburg"-they, too, could see no end of the matter.[40]  For Luther, to hear Christ in the Psalms is never a merely intellectual point to be debated, nor is it ever merely satisfying and rewarding on some aesthetic level.  It is important to faith, and it affords the viator the most practical help.  In dark times, the Christian can pray this psalm and receive direct comfort.  The first verse may express what we, too, must sometimes experience, but we know the outcome!

Luther stresses that what is expressed here is the deepest point in Christ's sufferings-it is the pain of the damned who are separated from God and conscious of their own sin.  Christ has taken on our sins "as if they were his own," and he feels the bite of his conscience in the sharpest way-sharper than you or I because of his own innocence; unstained by any misdoing of his own, his conscience must bear the reproach of our every foul, perverse, hateful thought, word, and deed.  His strength is drained from him just because the law is driven home by the Holy Spirit. [41]  Here Luther acknowledges that to meditate on such a mystery as this verse with the paradoxes that it presents is not for the weak. Yet nothing can be more beneficial for faith.  It is "solid food and wine" that provides the richest comfort-both to those who are strong enough not to be offended and to those who suffer greatly themselves.[42]   

This is Luther's scriptural understanding of the "great exchange" in which our sin is taken into the very conscience of Christ as his own.  One sees this illustrated, to cite another example, in Psalm 69.   At least in the minds of the disciples-and to St. John as evangelist-the psalm refers directly to Jesus, since they apply to him verse 9, "Zeal for your house has consumed me."  In this psalm is also recorded (verse 21) one of those startling details from the crucifixion scene of Good Friday, "They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" (to which all the evangelists refer). In verse 5 of this psalm which thus clearly refers to Christ, the psalmist prays, "O God, it is you who know my folly, and my wrongs are not hidden from you."  If we take the language here seriously, these words must mean that the incarnate Son of God feels the guilt of my sin as his own guilt.  That is how thoroughly St. Paul means it when he writes, "(God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5: 21). 

All of the penitential psalms lend themselves to this same understanding.  If one asks, "How would Jesus pray this confessional prayer?", the first and most important answer is that he prays concerning our sin. It is because Christ has prayed this way from the cross that our prayers of repentance are answered-because the Son of God and Mary's Son has made our sin so completely his own.   

3) Yet you are holy,
O you who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel,

4) In you our fathers trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.

5) To you they cried out and were delivered;
In you they trusted and were not disappointed.

Always conscious of the incarnate Christ in his role as obedient Servant under the law for us-the One, indeed, who "learned obedience from the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8), Luther finds in verse 3 that the crucified One must speak these words-they come right at the point where to go further in questioning would be to fall into blasphemy.  Instead, he practices the obedience which we owe and remains resolute and firm in his faith.   

On the one hand, this acknowledgment of the Lord's absolute faithfulness to Israel and to the fathers, Luther says, must sharpen the pains that Christ endures, as he is afflicted by the thought, "You helped them-yet I am abandoned."  On the other hand, the recollection of the Lord's trustworthiness in helping Israel is a comfort-for Christ himself is Israel par excellence.  In what is both a sacramental bestowal of what he has done for us and a "tropological" application of that gift for us in our battle for holiness, Luther calls attention to the "high art" practiced here by Christ in claiming comfort for himself by remembering the Lord's absolute faithfulness in doing what he has done for Israel.[43]  That is the same high art and Holy Spirit-given skill practiced by the Christian who prays this psalm and claims the comfort in the absolute faithfulness of the Lord who raised  Christ from the dead.

6) But I am a worm and not a man,
A reproach of men and despised by the people.

7)  All who see me sneer at me;
They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying,

8) Commit yourself to the Lord; let him deliver him;
Let him rescue him, because he delights in him.

The Gospels record the vivid fulfillment of the prophecy in verses 7-8: those gathered around the cross-including one of the thieves crucified with him-mocked the suffering Servant in precisely the terms described here.  Luther directs his attention much more to the phrase "but I am a worm and not a man."

He rejects, first of all, the one patristic interpretation (he does not identify the source) which understood these words as a reference to Christ's conception and birth from a virgin, so that the phrase "...and not a man" emphasizes his divinity, "I am God and not only human."  For Luther, this interpretation is odd and out of place here.  On the other hand, there is another strong patristic tradition which saw the "worm" as the humanity of Christ which is the bait which lures Satan to attempt to swallow it.  But the devil destroys himself on the "hook" of Christ's divinity.[44]  And that ancient interpretation seems to lurk not far beneath the surface of Luther's meditations.  For Luther the phrase "I am a worm" points purely to Christ's humanity-he is "ein lauterer Mensch."  But more, it points to his utter and complete "self-emptying," his humiliation (Phil. 2:5-8).  Here, Luther says, the psalmist must use "risky, strange words"-Christ the worm-and Luther draws out the connotations of that phrase-Christ has become abject-the lowest of the low, an object of contempt, "forsaken, nauseating, abominable, rotten, scandalous, stench, a rotting worm."[45]  Luther understands this language of total humiliation to be filled with the most profound soteriological significance-that is what he willingly made himself on our behalf. 

Luther immediately makes an allegorical application to include the church in his interpretation of the phrase.  Also the people of Christ will be considered less than human-to others they seem to be nothing but the shadows of real human beings, and one steps on them in utter contempt, "like a worm after it rains."   Again, Luther's comments here pertain to all the confessional psalms, but they also pertain to those in which the speaker bemoans the contempt which is unjustly put upon him. 

On the one hand, that means that the individual Christian joins Christ in these words in repentant confession.  "I am a worm" corresponds to our recognizing the sin and the "old Adam" which still inheres in us here.  "I am a worm" is the psalmist's way, and-via the "great exchange"-the way of Christ, of confessing, and thus it is also the individual Christian's act of  acknowledging, "I am by nature sinful and unclean-a rotten worm, and I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed."  It is the Christian's recognition-with St. Paul, of the truth of God's verdict, that "in me-that is, in my flesh-dwells no good thing." 

But the phrase "I am a worm" for Luther also applies to the church in the way that it must bear the contempt and scorn of the world unjustly, just as Christ did-and for his sake.  Because of the "great exchange," the church is dressed in his righteousness; yet she must bear the opprobrium, the scorn, and the hate-filled contempt which was poured on her Master.  Naturally, not everyone personally experiences that kind of oppression for Christ's sake to the same degree.  But the church is a unity, not just a collection of individuals.  A bit of "corporate" thinking reminds us that the Body of Christ does actually bear the hostility and contempt of the world, and that oppression is a reality also today.  Luther's emphasis on the unity between each member of the body of Christ and our complete solidarity with our Head, it seems to me, provides some needed counterbalance for us to the individualism so strongly present in the American ecclesial scene-with its emphases on my decision for Christ, liturgical forms cut back to fit my preferences, the church's musical tradition jettisoned to fit my taste in favor of song forms designed to manipulate my emotions in pleasant ways, etc.      

9) Yet you are he who brought me forth from the womb;
You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts.

10) Upon you I was cast from birth;
You have been my God from my mother's breasts.

11)  Be not far from me, for trouble is near;
For there is none to help

12) Many bulls have surrounded me,
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.

13) They open wide their mouth at me,
As a ravening and a roaring lion.

Throughout Christ's suffering, he remains firm in faith and continues to pray.  Verse 11 points to his utter loneliness.  So many had followed him before.  Now even his disciples had fled.  The Gospel accounts mention only a few brave women and John there at the cross.  There were none to help.  Instead, he is surrounded by enemies-and the animalistic imagery presents them as dangerous, enraged, frothing and "roaring." 

14) I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within me.

15) My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And you lay me in the dust of death.

16) For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evil-doers has encompassed me.
They pierced my hands and my feet.

17) I can count all my bones,
They look, they stare at me;

18) They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.

Luther recognizes a progression now to physical sufferings.   Crucifixion was never gentle, but it was made considerably worse than usual for Jesus of Nazareth because of what he had already endured: sleep deprivation, beatings, scourging with the attendant loss of blood which was exacerbated by the crown of thorns, etc.[46]  Without minimizing them, Luther is relatively cursory in speaking of those physical pains; he goes rather to the prophetic verse 18.  Why, he asks, does the evangelist John speak of this-the seemingly most minor of his pains-while not recording the cry of dereliction in verse 1?  That leads him rather to discuss the great shame and humiliation endured by Christ-the shame earned by our sin.  "Some of my sins I know," we confess, "the thoughts and words and deeds of which I am ashamed."  The shame of our sin was exposed to all in the crucified Christ, exposed and naked on the cross.

The church's devotions centered on these sufferings of Christ have been a rich source of the "benefit," the "food" for faith of which Luther speaks in his Praefatio Jesu Christi.  To meditate on what Christ endured on the cross is, in the most practical and most powerful way, to be confronted with the real nature of and the real cost of my sin.  At the same time it is to read, to hear, to grasp in faith how completely he has taken up what we owe and paid the last farthing.   

19) But you, O Lord, be not far off;
O you my Help, hasten to my assistance.

20) Deliver my soul from the sword,
Deliver my soul from the power of the dog.

21) Save me from the lion's mouth;
From the horns of the wild oxen, you answer me.

In faith Christ continues to pray for delivery from the enemies that surround him.  In discussing verse 21 with its reference to the threatening dog, lion, and wild oxen (Luther's translation here is "unicorn") Luther makes a seamless transition from the human enemies of Jesus and applies the text to the devil and his minions-the demonic foes lying behind the human faces surrounding the cross.  That naturally leads him to make an application to what the church faces in an ongoing way.  The bestial pictures hardly suffice to describe the horrors arrayed against Christ, "because there is no more horrible cruelty or envy than that with which Satan rages against salvation and against the doctrine and the teachers of salvation...because he knows his kingdom on earth is endangered by that alone."[47]

For Luther-the practitioner of "theology as the study of the sacred page"-the animalistic imagery connects to the serpent of Genesis 3 and the deadly, soul-devouring, "roaring lion" of St. Peter's first epistle (5:8).

Those images of lion and serpent show up a number of times in the Psalter as pictures of the speaker's enemies. What Luther says in connection with this verse is really his answer to all who find an insurmountable obstacle to praying the Psalms in the vexing problem of the "psalms of imprecation" or "cursing psalms."  It is ultimately Satan and his minions who are the objects of the curses which Christ speaks against those who unjustly torment him.  For Luther, the standard triad- tyrants who persecuted the early church, heretics who troubled the church of the following centuries, and corrupt prelates and hypocrites who trouble the church from within today-are only faces for the "old evil foe."  In the same way, a tropological extension of that allegorical interpretation would include our own sinful self-the unbeliever in us against whom we battle every day through repentance (Rom. 7)-thus completing the catechetical phrase, "the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh."

To imagine that this is an excessively pessimistic description of human fallenness and that it leads to some kind of morose and even macabre sin-consciousness as described, for example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil," is to mix the kingdoms of God's right hand and his left-to confuse observable psychology with matters of faith.  It is worth remembering in this connection that the "old Adam" in us goes beyond our understanding.  Some strands of Pietism have left us with the bad business of trying to "experience" or connect emotively with that evil within-to "feel" as fallen as God's verdict says we are.  Finally, however, what is needed is the sober analysis of Luther in the Smalcald Articles (III, 1, 3)-it "must be learned and believed from the revelation of Scriptures."  The extent of our fallenness has nothing to do with having some kind of "low self-esteem" in the psychological sense, and it must be accepted by faith-by that humility before God's verdict so characteristic of the monks. 

Luther does not treat in depth the phrase which is translated in the NASB, "You answer me," perhaps because it is rendered somewhat differently in the Latin.  But the NASB's reading is more accurate, in my opinion, and it is worth considering.  It is the turning point in the psalm-the moment at which the melody seems to change from a minor to a major key.  From this phrase to the end of the psalm, all is victory and triumph.  Now, if we imagine Christ on the cross praying this psalm, we have up to this point followed him through the deepest moments of the suffering he endures for us: abandoned by God, burdened with our sin, reproachfully sneered at by those who stand around the cross, forsaken by his friends and instead surrounded and raged at by the forces of hell, suffering enormous physical pain, shamed and humiliated-a worm and not a man.  Despite all the evidence which he sees, hears, and feels, he continues to trust and to pray in faith for deliverance, and it is the words of this very psalm which he is praying-words which Jesus, of course, knew by heart.  Thus, when he comes to this phrase, "You answer me," it is the point at which-through the very word of the psalm which he prays-he is assured that his prayer is answered, and he grasps in faith the promise that is expressed there as a faith-sustaining statement of fact in response to his entreaty.  From this point on, the Savior can draw together his strength to cry out, "It is finished!" and to pray, in the words of Psalm 31:5, "Into your hands I commit my spirit."

Luther's understanding of "Christ as worm" here in this psalm makes just this point so relevant for you and me.  Christ experiences this suffering as a human being-at the lowest point of his humiliation or self-emptying.  There is no little bit of divinity creeping into his human consciousness here to deaden the suffering or to tell him that it will all be over soon. That means that he must rely on the very same means on which you and I must rely, namely, the word of God.  In those darkest moments of pain or grief, the viator does not need to look for zen-like moments of enlightenment from within or for "writing on the wall" or for mystic insights into "God's plan" which will make everything seem okay, or for any of the various forms of pure Schwaermerei that are pedaled today on T.V. or in Christian bookstores.  The Holy Spirit works through the word, period.  Christ-who became a worm for us-depended on that word and found strength in it.  That is really what Luther has taught us to do when he directs us to say in our moments of anguish and doubt, "Nevertheless, I am baptized."

22) I will tell of your name to my brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise you.

23) You who fear the Lord, praise him;
All you descendants of Jacob, glorify him,
And stand in awe of him, all you descendants of Israel.

24) For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Neither has he hidden his face from him;
But when he cried to him for help, he heard.

25) From you comes my praise in the great assembly;
I shall pay my vows before those who fear him,

26) The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek him will praise the Lord.
Let your heart live forever!

27) All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before you.

28) For the kingdom is the Lord's,
And he rules the nations.

29) All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship,
All those who go down to the dust will bow before him,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.

30) Posterity will serve him;
It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation.

31) They will come and will declare his righteousness
To a people who will be born, that he has performed it.

For Luther, what begins with verse 22 is the victory-song of Christ, risen and triumphant, whose kingdom is established by his sufferings, death, and resurrection and who speaks through the ministry of the church to proclaim the glory of the One who has answered him.  He proclaims his resurrection here in advance, as well as its fruits and its effects, which is the praise and honor of God.[48]   The crucified One dies in triumph.  No one takes his life from him; he surrenders it willingly into the Father's care.

Luther calls attention to two concrete ways in which the action described in verse 22 is carried out.  Christ himself preached the name of God and his praise to his disciples in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension.  And he continues to fulfill the prophesied actions of this verse through the office of the ministry-through the preaching of law and gospel.[49]  

For Luther, the action of "praising and honoring God" thus has little to do with our telling God how wonderful he is; instead, it is intimately connected to the idea of Gottesdienst-God serving us.  God is honored and his name is praised when his ministers preach what he has done for sinners, and when his people believe that message.  In his name and in his praise is the heart of the gospel which is offered to and appropriated by the church and by her individual members as they pray this psalm in that solidarity with Christ which faith is.[50]  All of what St. Paul says in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans about the triumph of faith is taught-experienced-in these verses.  Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

It is worth noting, finally, that for Luther the text of verse 22 read, "Narrabo nomen tuum fratribus meis, in media ecclesia laudabo..."-I will tell of Your name to my brothers; I will praise You in the midst of the church."  (See also verse 25, "apud te laus mea in ecclesia..."-from you is my praise in the church.)

That Was Then; This Is Now

When Luther wrote his "Preface of Jesus Christ," he was giving a variation-an intensified Christological turn-to what was the common understanding of the Psalter, according to which the Psalms-all of them-speak directly of Christ.  The changes which came to scriptural studies during what came to be known as the period of the "Enlightenment" have left us with a different understanding today. 

The current state of affairs can be illustrated by two of the sources used extensively for this presentation-the magisterial work of Henri DeLubac on the four-fold "spiritual sense," and Beryl Smalley's History of Medieval Exegesis, which remains something of a classic in the field of the history of exegesis.  DeLubac and Smalley represent two sides of the issue as it was played out in ecclesial/academic circles during the second half of the Twentieth Century. 

Henri DeLubac was part of the "new theology" movement within the Roman Catholic Church, a group of theologians calling especially for a return to traditional sources (Scriptures, creeds, liturgies, etc.) and stressing the need for a retrieval of the theology of the patristic era.  Among his own contributions was his defense of-and assertion of the value of-the ancient, figurative interpretations of the Scriptures-the "four sense" approach. 

Smalley's work was something of a sustained polemic against the ideas promoted in DeLubac's book.  In a thinly veiled reference to theologians like DeLubac, she suggests (somewhat condescendingly) that some of the "new" trends in Scripture studies (she means the medieval, "four-sense" type of approach) can be explained by the rise of an anti-intellectual "mysticism" caused by the traumas of World War II, and that it is up to responsible academicians to help cleanse the church of such primitive influences:

What does concern (us) is the change which has taken place in the attitude of modern scholars to medieval exegesis within the last ten years.  The spiritual exposition, predominant in patristic and medieval commentators, had few defenders ten years ago.  There was a certain rather tepid admiration for St. Thomas for having defined its limits, but only blame for the extravagance and subjectivism of its exponents.  Now the revived interest in mysticism has led certain students to reverse their judgment...a fascinating and alarming example of the way in which the history of exegesis prolongs itself in that of its historians.[51]

Much of her book is an extended argument for how the church "progressed" toward emphasizing the literal and historical meaning, without other layers of significance.   

One enters a whole new realm of problematic definitions when one talks of "the view of the Enlightenment"-comprised of some rationalism as well as some dependence on empirical findings, a growing consciousness of historical distance from the world of Scripture, skepticism toward the miraculous, confidence in the ability of human reason and human morality.  Various "enlightenment" views came to have influence in more than just the halls of academia, sometimes in the reaction they provoked.  Some very "conservative" Lutheran commentators adopted an approach which, while a reaction to skeptical rationalism, may itself have had a "rationalist" component. 

The medievals and Luther had felt justified in following the example of the New Testament, continuing and extending the figurative interpretation they found practiced there.  For conservative commentators of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras, however, the neuralgic point tended to be the "inerrancy" of Scripture as the authoritative source for drawing up doctrinal statements.  The struggle for an errorless authority necessitated, it seems, more stress on preserving the text's factual accuracy in relation to its historical referent and a much more cautious approach than Luther's to the prophetic nature of the Psalms.  Typically, one would confidently call "prophetic" and "Christological" only those psalms which were referred to as such in the New Testament-and sometimes only the exact verses which were cited and not the whole psalm.  In the discussions about "typology" or "rectilinear" (direct) prophecy, Luther's Preface of Jesus Christ was virtually never mentioned.[52] 

Among those who have more fully invested in a "critical" approach to Scripture, the resonance of Christ is, of course, much fainter.  In one fairly recent "Lutheran" treatment of the Psalter, for example, the writer seems somewhat grudgingly to admit that some of the Psalms may seem to reflect a piety geared toward a "future king."  Nevertheless, these psalms are not to be understood as though the Gospel accounts were the story of their fulfillment.  What seem to be reflections of the life and experiences of Jesus of Nazareth are merely coincidental.  While paying careful attention to all the relevant matters of scholarship-text, lexical and grammatical questions, the surrounding history as we can know it-the writer establishes and maintains an historical distance to the content of the Psalms which, finally, leaves the reader with little but examples (law) and some vague promises which have no real Christological basis and therefore are little more than wishful thinking on the part of the psalmist.  Far from being Christologically focused-the thoughts and prayers of Christ himself-the Psalms, we should see, reflect a whole variety of "spiritualities" concerned with psychological and political issues such as "orientation" and "disorientation," "social justice," "creation," etc.[53]

Another recent "Lutheran" expositor of the Psalms explicitly takes up the question of whether or not any of them can be understood as referring to Christ.  He responds in the negative, and asserts that the case is rather that New Testament writers saw coincidental parallels between what the psalmist wrote and what they thought Jesus experienced-an example of that commonplace assumption of critical scholarship mentioned above.  In reality, we are told, the Psalms should be understood as expressions of various "Hebrew spiritualities" which, apparently, had no Messianic component at all.[54]  It is not surprising that, finally, he finds the imprecatory psalms not only problematic but simply indefensible.[55]

What is striking about all these approaches to the Psalms mentioned here-"conservative" and "not-so-conservative"-is that the net result in their interpretations is much the same.  A given psalm is drained of its Christ-for-me gospel content and it is made into law-a good example for us to follow, at best, and the promise of blessedness for the righteous (as in Psalm 1) is made contingent on my own goodness.

Naturally, the church has never completely lost the Christ-centered understanding of the Psalms.  After all, the New Testament is replete with references to those psalms as they point directly to Christ, and the reading and singing of the Psalms has continued to have its place in worship.  It is also true that the Body of Christ can worship "in spirit and in truth" without all its members necessarily being conscious of the correct "meta-narrative" concerning its songs and prayers (just as those members are justified by God's grace alone, through faith alone, even if they wouldn't know enough to word it that way). 

It is probably safe to say that most folks in the pews today do not think of the Psalms in terms of the interpretive principal which was held in patristic and medieval times and set forward as a hermeneutical program by Luther in the prefaces to his first lectures on the Psalter.  Nevertheless, here is a treasure from the tradition which can and should play a role in how the church feeds her children.  Understanding the Psalms with Christ as their primary speaker and their primary subject and focus can make them come alive as existential exercises-devotions-in the themes of Lutheran, i.e. scriptural/Christian theology-Trinity and Incarnation, repentance, the "great exchange" and atonement, battle against and final victory over Christ's enemies, supplication for help as we carry our cross, thanksgiving in the midst of suffering, etc.-for us who "have the mind of Christ," as the Apostle Paul says.

Some simple ways of teaching and re-enforcing Luther's insight might be effective: occasional Bible studies on the Psalms in which his Christological approach is discussed and the question is asked, "How would Jesus pray this psalm?"; a simple explanation of one or two lines regularly inserted into worship bulletins over psalms which are read or sung antiphonally; an occasional sermon-or perhaps a series of sermons, an article in the pastor's corner of the parish newsletter, etc.    

The Psalter can perform for Christ's people the same kind of formative and "faith-shaping" function as other liturgical acts which we are taught in Scripture.  Just as penitent faith in Christ is shaped by the institutions of Confession and Absolution and the Lord's Supper, and our prayers follow the pattern of the Lord's Prayer, so the Psalter-as the thoughts and prayers of Christ himself-help to put our thinking and our faith, our supplication and our praise into the above-mentioned creedal categories.  For Christ's people, who must walk through the valley of death's shadow by faith and not by sight as they await his return, nothing could be more practical or helpful.

[1]   Luther himself is responsible for the title Dictata, since he refers to his lectures in a letter to George Spalatin as mea dictata super Psalterium.

[2]   Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 161 ff.

[3]   LW 10, p. 11.

[4]   LW 10, p. 49.  Luther refers to synteres in the plural. 

[5]   See Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, 136 ff.  Minimally, Luther read Augutine's  On the Trinity and The City of God, and Biel's commentary on Lombard's Sentences, which would have made for a wide-ranging theological education indeed!

[6]   Brian Cummings, The Literary Culture of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 77. Cummings notes that Luther had purchased Reuchlin's Hebrew grammar already in 1508.

[7]   See LW 10, p. 3, note.

[8]   Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. 10. 

[9]   Henri De Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: Vol. 1, The Four Senses of  Scripture, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand

Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 1.

[10]   LW 10, p. 4.

[11]  Kenneth Hagen, The Bible in the Churches: How Different Christians Interpret the Scriptures, eds.

Kenneth Hagen, Daniel J. Harrington, S. J., Grant R. Osborne, Joseph A. Burgess (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), p. 22.

[12]   Ibid, p. 22 ff.

[13]   Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 15, 150. I cite this work merely as representative. When Latourette discusses the allegorical interpretive methods of Philo and Origen, it is in direct connection to their "Hellenic" and platonic orientation.   Naturally, my point here is not at odds with the rather obvious assertion that a "platonic" mindset was conducive to and lent support to allegorizing-albeit not with the historical grounding of Christ's Person as the solid and necessary unifying point of focus.

[14]   See De Lubac, p. 9.  "This approach of dividing up the text into four compartments strikes him as introducing otiose and questionable divisions, which serve neither faith nor morals."

[15]   Operationes in Psalmos, 1519-1521, St. Louis IV, 4, 1226-1355.

[16]   Kenneth Hagen, Luther's Approach to Scriptures as Seen in His Commentaries on Galatians, 1519-1538,  (Orlando: Mohr, 1993), p. 11.  Hagen points out that Luther speaks approvingly of the four senses in his later commentary on Galatians of 1538. 

[17]   Ibid, p. xiii, De Lubac mentions the many "artificial distinctions" he encountered in his studies of medieval exegetical practice. One can imagine the textual gamesmanship of monks bored with the routine of the cloister.

[18]   Hagen, The Bible in the Churches, p. 129, note. Luther, for example, rejected the allegorical application that equated Moses' brother Aaron with the papacy.

[19]   Ibid, p. 129.  Luther calls Augustine's discussion of the image of God "not unattractive," but it goes beyond what the letter can prove elsewhere.  For Luther, of course, the imago Dei consisted in the right relationship with God, which is included in Augustine's picture.

[20]   St. Louis, IV, 4, 1235.

[21]   Hagen, The Bible in the Churches, p. 3.

[22]   For example, in describing Luther's approach to the text in his lectures on Genesis, H. G. Haile speaks of Luther's "embarrassingly total identification" with Noah.  He notes that Luther was anything but naïve in speaking this way.  Instead, he was "quite self-aware, even programmatic."  He expected his students to follow his example.

[23]   Ibid, p. 3.

[24]   De Lubac waxes almost poetic in his lengthy chapter insisting on this very point.  See Medieval Exegesis, vol. 1, pp. 225 ff.

[25]   Here and following, see LW 10, pp. 6-7.

[26] Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, p. 252.

[27]   Oberman, p. 252.

[28]   Here and following, LW 10, pp. 8-10. 

[29]   See LW 15, pp. 265-352, "The Last Words of David."

[30]   LW 10, p 11.

[31]   In this regard, one thinks of Luther scholars such as Oberman or Steven Ozment who find in Luther's Dictata all the vital components of what was to follow. 

[32]   LW 10, p. 22.

[33]   LW 10, p. 22.

[34]   Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), pp. 106 ff.  Theissen/Merz summarize this assumption as follows: "The first Christians not only interpreted memories of Jesus in the light of the Old Testament but often produced them in the first place.  The body of scriptures of Israel were more reliable for them as God's testimony than the testimony of eye-witnesses" (my emphasis).  The "counter-arguments" of Theissen/Merz assume the basic correctness of this assumption.

[35]   See the unpublished paper by Kenneth Hagen who discovered references in commentaries of both Nicholas of Lyra and Aquinas to a "Synod of Toledo" which had condemned as heretical the assertion that the text could be understood ad litteram as having a different referent than Christ.  Hagen could find no decisions of any Synod of Toledo corresponding to Lyra's and Aquinas's comments.  However, he did note that the Council of Nicea had condemned that same kind of contention by Theodore of Mopsuestia (the central figure, of course, in the so-called "Antiochene School" of theology that stressed the literal/historical sense over spiritual senses during the late third and early fourth centuries).

[36]  Operationes in Psalmos, St. Louis IV, 4, 1226 ff.

[37]   Ibid., 1227 ff.

[38]   Ibid, 1231-32.

[39]   Kurze Auslegung, 1532.

[40]   Ibid., 1532.

[41]   Operationes in Psalmos, 1233.

[42]   Ibid., 1238.

[43]   Kurze Auslegung... St. Louis, IV, 4, 1534. 

[44]   Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003).  Aulen cites Origen.

[45]   Operationes in Psalmos, 1251.

[46]   One can find on the internet the medical description by a doctor of the excruciating pains endured by Christ-above and beyond the horrors of "normal" crucifixion.

[47]   Operationes in Psalmos, 1325.

[48]   St. Louis IV, 4, 1327, "Daher verkuendigt er hier seine Auferstehung vorher, ja, die Frucht und das Werk der Auferstehung..."

[49]   Ibid, 1328.

[50]   Ibid, 1328-1329.

[51]   Smalley, pp. 359-360.  DeLubac cites one of  Smalley's conference papers in which she dismissed any figurative understanding of Scripture as a primitive stage through which all religions go through in their understanding of their sacred texts (Medieval Exegesis, p. 229)

[52]   See, for example, Walter Roehrs, Concordia Self-Study Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), pp. 336 ff.  In the introduction to the Psalms in this excellent and useful commentary, Roehrs makes points of the continuity between the Testaments established by the Psalms, the fact that Jesus prayed the Psalms, and how the speakers in the Psalms "delight in the kingdom of heaven and its Messiah."  Nevertheless, Luther's Christological approach has been sharply mitigated, and it is with the "saints of the Old Testament" who prayed these prayers that the church joins, not Christ himself, and Roehrs makes no mention of Christ in his treatment of Psalm 1.  Another example of this type of "conservative" treatment is that of Darrel Kautz in The Contemporary Bible-Study Guides, vol. 9, Israel's Psalms (Kautz: Milwaukee, 1970) p. 16.  Kautz, too, makes no mention of Luther's "Preface of Jesus Christ" and takes a much more tepid approach to the extent of the Christological content of the book, "Certain of the psalms can be spoken of as ‘Messianic' since they bear some sort of relationship to the Messiah...It is necessary, however, to be cautious in determining which psalms have Messianic significance.  To force a psalm to speak of the Christ when it does not clearly do so is as incorrect as to blind oneself to the Messianic element when it is present." 

[53]   Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: a Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 123 ff.

[54]   Marshall Johnson, Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Every Day (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2007), pp. 379-380.

[55]   Ibid., 380-382.