Augustine on the Psalms

Augustine’s Explanations of the Psalms has been called “Augustine’s longest and at the same time the least read of Augustine’s works.” It is a long book—more than twice as long as The City of God, and recently published as a five-volume set—and it was also a long time in writing. Augustine first worked on it in 392 and he did not finish it until 418. He preached and taught and dictated his way all through the Psalms through those decades. Throughout his interpretations of the Psalms, Augustine’s focus is on Christ. In fact, at one point he says, “Christ is the comprehensive mystery underlying all of Scripture.”

He started his Psalms in 392. That is an important date. He was born in 354, he was converted in 386, and he was ordained as a priest in 391. In fact, it was right after he was ordained as a priest that he requested a leave of absence so that he could pull away from his work and immerse himself in Scripture. Of course, Augustine was quite the scholar. Before he was a Christian, he was a teacher and an academic. He had read all the works of Plato and the works of Aristotle and the works of the great Greek and Roman thinkers. He had written many of his own books. But it was time for him as a priest to immerse himself in Scripture.

This is almost the opposite of how we do it now. Now, if someone wants to be a pastor, they’ll go to college, then go to seminary, then they’ll get ordained. Augustine did it in reverse; he was ordained first and then he put himself through this intense study in Scripture. One of the books that was his focus was the book of Psalms.

And so, in 392, as a newly ordained priest, preaching what would be his first sermon series, he struck out on a series of the Psalms and wrote what amounted to thirty-two lectures on the Psalms. It was just the beginning of his work, and as I said, he continued to work on this through his life and did not finish until 418.

At one point, Augustine calls Scripture the unus sermo Dei—that Scripture is the one sermon of God. What he was stressing in that is that there is an absolute unity, not only of the divine authorship of Scripture, but a unity of the message. And again, that message centered on the Psalms. At one point, Augustine said that the only thing he wanted to know in life was the knowledge of God and the knowledge of his own soul. And in many ways, Christ brings those two together. Christ the God-man—He who is truly God and truly man—gives us the clearest possible answers to the questions “Who is God?” and “Who am I?” In the end, that is the singular message of Scripture, and Christ is the One who holds it together.

Augustine believed that we should be very active readers of Scripture. At one point, he says this about the Psalms: “If the psalm prays, you pray. If the psalm laments, you lament. If the psalm exalts, you rejoice. If it hopes, you hope. If it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” That’s Augustine on the Psalms.

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