The beautiful poems of God*

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

With my love for the Book of Psalm, I thought I’d carry along with me Terrien’s The Psalms, Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary wherever I go; I hope I can manage its weight, figuratively and literally.

I started reading its Preface and Introduction this morning, which I am sure will take me several more days if not weeks, with its Introduction taking almost 70 pages of the book. Here are some stuff that made an impression on me.

The other thing that is striking which I must mention is Terrien’s writing and language – it is such a joy to read him.

From the Preface,

    The Psalter was the main hymnal of the church. Whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, the early Christians recognized the accent of Jesus in some of its hymns, prayers, and meditation.

    The first task of the exegete of the Psalms is to clarify the obscurities and elucidate the theological significance of these poems. The second task is to analyze their strophic structure. The third, and perhaps most difficult, may be to discover a link between their archaic language and the intellectual demands of modern thinking and spirituality.
Terrien concludes his preface with a phrase both in Latin and French:

    Laurus honore caret, caruit si pugna peric’lo
    (À vaincre san peril, on triomphe sans gloire)
The Latin original is attributed to Lucian and French translation to Pierre Corneille. I googled for an English translation and was wowed by these words.

    Without danger one has to overcome triumphs without glory.
What I can say is this: one would certainly not appreciate what he has until he experienced what he has not.

From the Introduction, Longevity and Ecumenity of the Psalms (p.1-5),

    The Psalter is unique in the history of Jewish and Christian spirituality. For twenty-five centuries it has been sang, chanted, recited, read, translated, and annotated by adherents of Judaism, and for two millennia by the disciples of Jesus Christ, more often and with more alacrity than any other collection of sacred canticles.

    In spite of the archaism of their style and certain limitations in their ethical and theological horizon, they respond to the deepest need of the human spirit. They offer access, familiar, bold and almost arrogant, and nevertheless sober, to the presence of a God beyond popular godliness, when this presence eludes the most perverse forms of any mercantile religion.

    In order to penetrate, even a little, to the heart of the complex theology that emerges from the Psalter, it is necessary to consider its origin, its literary genres, its ancient functions within the frame of its historical development, which lasted a thousand years, the transmission of its text, and its ancient versions, as well as the fluctuations of its exegesis in modern and postmodern times.
Terrien gave a very remarkable list of the early Church Fathers whose “literature swarms with allusions to the Psalms,” not forgetting the masters of Christian catechesis of the early church who commented on the Psalms in learned ways resulting in their now famous homilies.

  • Clement of Rome (ca. 96) – cites it more than a hundred times, especially Psalms 2 and 110, in order to establish his messianic interpretation of the Old Testament
  • The Didache (ca. 117-50) and the writings of Justin Martyr – finds in the Psalms numerous predictions of Jesus the “Lord”
  • The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130) – discovers in Ps 1:1 a threefold sentence for the mention of three kinds of meat condemned by Moses
  • Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 160-90)– reads in Psalm 82 the announcement of the resurrection of Christ
  • Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254) – revealed himself as one of the first critics of the Hebrew text and the Greek version of the Septuagint; he wrote one of the earliest commentaries on the Psalm, influenced by Platonic philosphy
  • Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296-373) – finds in the praises and complaints of the Psalter a description of the calamities endured by the persecuted Christians as well as the foundation of the baptismal and Eucharistic sacraments
  • Ambrose of Milan (339-97) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) – say that the validity of the baptismal and Eucharistic rites is equality reinforced by the Psalms and used the Psalms to develop a theology of the liturgical calendar, from the Nativity to Whitsunday and the balance of the year
  • Jerome (ca. 342-420) – his work on the Psalms became the official text in the Roman Catholic Church even until the late years of the twentieth century
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350-428) – reacted against the subjectivism of allegorical interpretations; he gave special attention to philological and literary analysis
  • John Chrysostom (344-407) – explained with eloquence the power of the Psalter and the splendor of its style
  • Eucherius of Lyons (ca. 449) – formulated exegetical principles aiming at restricting the fantasies of allegorists, while maintaining that the typology could elucidate the secret meaning of the text
And here I can henceforth state with more conviction this, which Terrien attributes to Melancthon: “Scripture may not be comprehended theologically unless it is first understood grammatically.”

What a wonderful gift that God has given to us, His own breathed-out Word, which should accompany us, fill us and engulf us at all times, in all places and in all ways.

Glory to God in the highest!


* The title looks quite a misnomer since the Psalms are poems for God but yet they are the inspired Word of God. Such a marvel and yet a mystery, our God.

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2 comment(s)

  1. With my love for the Book of Psalm, I thought I’d carry along with me...

    You are awesome, Maeghan :)

    Without danger one has to overcome triumphs without glory.
    What I can say is this: one would certainly not appreciate what he has until he experienced what he has not.

    I love this quote & what you said about it. Sounds like an interesting book!

  2. Yes, it is a very good book :) worth every penny.