The Psalter: II Understanding the Text

The Scriptures need to be read with care, intelligence and prayerful reflection. Particularly in the case of the Psalter, which is repeatedly read in the Hours and other services, when there is a real danger of mindless repetitive reading and “vain repetition”. Simply reciting Psalms over and over again cannot be said to be reading them in a meaningful way. Reciting twenty Psalms one after the other without any attempt at understanding and reflection reduces the text to some sort of quasi-magical formula.
The Fathers engaged in “Lectio Divina” (Latin for divine reading)(a term made popular by the Benedictines but based on ancient Christian principles). The roots of Scriptural reflection and interpretation go back to Origen in the 3rd century, after whom St. Ambrose taught them to St. Augustine. Traditionally the “Lectio Divina” has four separate steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate.

“In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk called Guigo, described the stages which he saw as essential to the practice of Lectio Divina. There are various ways of practicing Lectio Divina either individually or in groups but Guigo’s description remains fundamental.

He said that the first stage is “lectio” (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Any passage of Scripture can be used for this way of prayer but the passage should not be too long.
The second stage is “meditatio” (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.

The third stage is “oratio” (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.

The final stage of “Lectio Divina” is “contemplatio” (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within. Obviously this transformation will have a profound effect on the way we actually live and the way we live is the test of the authenticity of our prayer. We must take what we read in the Word of God into our daily lives.”

This presupposes careful and attentive reading. It also presupposes an attempt to understand the text, and that requires both time and effort, and some basic resources. For example:

1. A good translation: sometimes modern English translations blur the original meaning of the Hebrew. For example, we are accustomed to “The Lord is my Shepherd” but a more accurate translation is “The Lord shepherds me” or (from the Coptic) “The Lord is He Who shepherds me.” Are these differences significant?

2. A good Bible dictionary: the Psalms were written originally in Hebrew and translated into Greek and then (for most of us) into English. Sometimes we need to consider what the word originally meant in Hebrew since there may be no direct equivalent in English.

3. A good Bible encyclopaedia: this will help in understanding terms in their originally cultural and historical context.

4. A good Bible commentary: this will assist in understanding context and meaning.

Sometimes, a single verse may require our full attention for a considerable time as we seek to understand its meaning, and its application in our lives prayerfully and reflectively.
A good example of an Orthodox reading of a Psalm is found at
The following is an extract.
psalm 23
“Psalm 22/23 which begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is probably one of the best known, most often quoted and memorized of all David’s beautiful hymns. It has always occupied an important place in the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, and is one of the Psalms included in the order of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion.
In the early Church the catechumens, especially as the time for their baptism drew near, were made familiar with its contents and were even obliged to learn it by heart. It seems, however, that its meaning was not fully explained to them until after they had received the grace of the All-holy Spirit in the mysteries of baptism, chrismation and the eucharist.
“We gave you the Psalm, beloved children who hurriedly approach the baptism of Christ, so that you might learn it by heart. But, it is necessary, because of its mystical, hidden meaning, that we explain it to you, with the light of divine grace.” (From a sermon attributed to St. Augustine.)

The Fathers of the Church saw in Psalm 22 both a prophecy and a summary of the mysteries (sacraments) of Christian initiation: “By this Psalm, Christ teaches the Church that, first of all, you must become a sheep of the Good Shepherd: the catechetical instruction guides you to the pastures and fountains of doctrine. Then you must be buried with Him into death by baptism. But this is not death, but a shadow and image of death. Then He prepares the mystical table. Then He anoints you with the oil of the Spirit. And finally He presents the wine that gladdens the heart of man and produces that sober inebriation characteristic of the true Christian” (St. Gregory of Nyssa).

It is to be noted that then, as now, our Orthodox Church used the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint – it is Psalm 22 in the Greek), and the understanding of its mystical meaning was based on this version. The traditional meaning given the Psalm in our Church is obscured in a few phrases of the most widely known English translations, since they follow the Hebrew rather than the Greek. In the following selection of commentaries on the six verses, we give first the King James translation and in the parentheses a more or less literal translation of the Septuagint.

1. The Lord is my Shepherd (The Lord shepherds me); I shall not want (I shall lack nothing).
“David invites you to be one of the sheep whose Shepherd is Christ and who lack no good thing. The Good Shepherd makes Himself everything for you: pasture, water of rest, food, dwelling place, and the way of righteousness, and He gives you the Comforter, distributing His grace according to your needs” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). Those who belong to Christ “have as their guide not a simple holy man, as Israel had Moses, but the Prince of Shepherds and the Teacher of doctrine, in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are young…they shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them…(Isaiah 40:11; 49:10).

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures (He has made me to dwell in a place of verdure): He leadeth me beside the still waters (He has nourished me beside the waters of rest).
“The place of verdure (green pastures) means the ever-fresh words of Holy Scripture, which nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). “The waters of rest means, no doubt, holy baptism, by which the weight of sin is removed.” After having fed the person who comes to Him in faith with His word, the Lord leads him to the waters of baptism, making him a sheep of His holy flock, whose destiny is only to enter into God’s rest. “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God…Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest…” (Hebrews 4:9,11). (“Rest” in both Hebrews 4 and our Psalm is “anapausis” in Greek.)

3. He restoreth my soul (He has converted my soul): He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (He has led me…).
David speaks of his own experience: after having learned of God’s ways he strayed from the paths of righteousness and fell into deadly sin. His experience in this Psalm becomes a prophecy: anyone, no matter how far he may have strayed from God, in Christ may be converted and return to the way of righteousness and learn to do God’s will.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil (…though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death…): for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (…they have comforted me).
“It is necessary for you to be buried in death with Him by baptism. But it is not really death, but a shadow and image of death” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). “For we are baptized into the death of Christ, baptism is called the shadow and image of death, in face of which there is no longer anything to fear” (St. Cyril of Alexandria). The last part of this verse refers to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “He comforts the believer, or guides him, with the rod and staff (the Shepherd’s crook) of the Spirit, for the One who guides or comforts is the Spirit (the Paraclete – the Greek verb here is “parekalesan”) (St. Gregory of Nyssa). “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever…when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth…” (John 14:16; 16:13 – the verb translated “He has led…” in v. 3 of the Psalm, and “will guide” in John is “hodigise” and “hodigisei” in Greek).”

Christopher Hall “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” [IVP Academic, Downers Grove IL, 1998]
“Many Christians today long to become reacquainted with their ancient ancestors in the faith. They see a deeper worship and devotion in the prayers and hymns of the early church. And they believe that the writings of the early church can shed new light on their understanding of Scripture. But where and how do we begin? Our first encounter with the writings of the church fathers may seem like visiting a far country where the language, assumptions, concerns and conclusions are completely unfamiliar to us.
In “Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” Christopher Hall helps us through this cultural confusion, introducing us to the early church, its unique world, and the sights and sounds of Scripture that are highlighted for them. As Hall points out, the ancient fathers hear music in Scripture where we remain tone-deaf. Despite their occasional eccentricities, theirs is a hearing refined through long listening in song, worship, teaching, meditation and oral reading. And like true masters they challenge and correct our modern assumptions as they invite us to tune our ears to hear the divine melodies of the Bible.
“Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers” is an exceptional guide. Hall provides a warm, winsome, informative and indispensable introduction to who these leaders and scholars were, how they read and interpreted Scripture, and how we might read Scripture with them for all its worth.”

Psalms 1-50 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) IVP Academic (November 14, 2008)
by Craig A. Blaising (Editor) , Carmen S. Hardin (Editor)
Psalms 51-150 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) Hardcover
by Quentin F. Wesselschmidt (Editor) IVP Academic (November 26, 2007)
psalms ACCS
“The Psalms have long served a vital role in the individual and corporate lives of Christians, expressing the full range of human emotions, including some that we are ashamed to admit. The Psalms reverberate with joy, groan in pain, whimper with sadness, grumble in disappointment and rage with anger. The church fathers employed the Psalms widely. In liturgy they used them both as hymns and as Scripture readings. Within them they found pointers to Jesus both as Son of God and as Messiah. They also employed the Psalms widely as support for other New Testament teachings, as counsel on morals and as forms for prayer. But the church fathers found more than pastoral insight in the Psalms. They found apologetic and doctrinal insight as well, as is attested by the more than sixty-five authors and more than 160 works excerpted in this commentary. Especially noteworthy among the Greek-speaking authors cited are Hippolytus, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Evagrius of Pontus, Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Asterius the Homilist, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyr, Cyril of Alexandria and Hesychius of Jerusalem. Among noteworthy Latin authors we find Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine, Arnobius the Younger and Cassiodorus. Readers of these selections, some of which appear here for the first time in English, will glean from a rich treasury of deep devotion and profound theological reflection.”

For details of the series, see The series is also available on CD-ROM:

Bruce Waltke and James Houston “The Psalms as Christian Worship. A Historical Commentary” [William Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2010]
psalms as christian worship
“This collaboration by two esteemed evangelical scholars blends a verse-by-verse exposition of select psalms with a history of their interpretation in the church from the time of the apostles to the present.

Bruce Waltke, who has been teaching and preaching the book of Psalms for over fifty years, skilfully establishes the meaning of the Hebrew text through the careful exegesis for which he is well known. James Houston traces the church’s historical interpretation and use of these psalms, highlighting their deep spiritual significance to Christians through the ages.

Waltke and Houston focus their in-depth commentary on thirteen psalms that represent various genres and perspectives or hold special significance for Christian faith and the life of the church, including Psalm 1, Psalm 23, Psalm 51, and Psalm 139. While much modern scholarship has tended to “despiritualize” the Psalms, Waltke and Houston’s “sacred hermeneutic” listens closely to the two voices of the Holy Spirit — heard infallibly in Scripture and edifyingly in the church’s response. A masterly historical-devotional commentary, “The Psalms as Christian Worship” will deepen the church’s worship and enrich the faith and life of contemporary Christians.”

An introductory Orthodox guide to Biblical reference sources is found at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: