Martin Luther as Interpreter of the Psalms

Martin Luther as Interpreter of
the Psalms
In his First and Second Lectures
on Psalms (1513-15 and 151921)
© Ilmari Karimies
Young Luther and the Psalms
Dictata super Psalterium (1513-15) WA 3
and 4
 The Seven Penitential Psalms in German,
 Operationes in Psalmos (1519-21) WA 5
Dictata super Psalterium
A selection of psalms
 Glossae, defining words grammatically
 Scholia, interpretation of the meaning of
the verse
 Quadriga: sensus litteralis vs. spiritualis
 Three spiritual senses: allegorical,
tropological, anagogical
The spiritual senses of the text
Allegory: Old testament pointing to Christ
 Tropology or moral sense: How to act,
examples of conduct
 Anagogy: Eternal significance
 ” The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to
faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our
destiny ”
The significance of Dictata
In Dictata Luther often follows the medieval
Luther: ”Litteral sense is primary”. However, the
litteral sense is the christological sense
Psalms are a labyrinth, where Christ is to be
Cannot be used as a source for genuinely
’Lutheran’ theological thought
However, the lectures are an important source on
the developement of Luther’s earliest thinking
Operationes in Psalmos
Exposition of psalms 1 to 22
 The other major lectures on Psalms
 Written and held during the heated early
phases of reformation (1519-21), along the
three major reforming treatises
 Important source on the Theology of the
 Commentary of Ps. 22 finished in
Luther’s exegetical method in
The division to glossae and scholia is no
longer in use
 Often Luther first defines the meaning of
the words from Hebrew and Latin
 Single verses are understood in the light of
the overall meaning of the Psalm
 Spiritual and litteral sense are used, but the
threefold division of spiritual meaning
very rarely
Psalms as inspired scripture
”However it should be noted, that the words of
the psalm are words of faith, that they do not
speak of men according to what one sees on the
outside.” (WA 5, 30, 16-18)
”I say that the prophet speaks in spirit, so he
should be listened to in spirit” (WA 5, 44, 31)
”These words should be listened to in spirit and
in faith, as all words of God” (WA 5, 132, 27-28)
”That is why I have said: The eyes and ears of
faith are necessary, in order to hear these words
of spirit and see their content. Human being can
not understand them.” (WA 5, 31, 11-12)
Understanding the inspired
Luther often refers to the psalms as ”words of
spirit” or ”words of faith”, and to the psalmist as
According to Luther, there is a spiritual meaning
in the psalms, which is accessible only to faith
Luther speaks of ”eyes of faith” and ”ears of
faith”, which grasp the spiritual meaning
Luther thinks that experience is necessary to
understand this meaning
Example: Ps. 1:1 ”Blessed is the man who
walks not in the counsel of the ungodly”
Luther speaks about two kinds of
blessedness: external and internal. He
makes a division between ungodly, who
have and seek external blessedness, piety
and great pomp, and the godly,who suffer
outwardly, but stay steadfast in the law of
Ungodly take pride in their works and give
counsel to others, leading them to peril
”Nor stand in the way of sinners,
nor sit in the seat of the scornful”
Ungodly do good works without faith, and
make their ungodliness persistent by
relying on the works
Those sit on the seat of the scornful, who
fill the church with ideas of philosophers,
but neglect the word of God
”2. But his will is in the Law of the Lord, and on
His Law he meditates day and night.”
The Law of Lord is good, but people replace it
with their own traditions
The will of the person is the root of all his
actions. The right will, right love, is the gift of
the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ
Without this love, the law can only be filled in
outward ways, and it becomes a heavy burden.
This is the way the ungodly follow the law.
Contrary to them, those who have this love,
gladly hold the law of the Lord in their hearts
night and day
”3. He is like a tree planted by streams of
water, that yields its fruit in its season.”
The tree is probably a palm, living in the desert,
which signifies lack of wordly prosperity
The waters are the grace of God, which water the
The blessed man does not live for himself, but
serves his neighbours bringing fruit for others
”In its season” means at all opportunities and at
every situation. This is contrary to the ungodly,
who have fixed times for doing good
”And its leaf does not wither”
Leaves mean doctrine. The doctrine of the
ungodly withers.
Fruit was mentioned before leaf: the godly
bring forth good deeds before doctrine
The tree can be an image of an individual,
or also of the whole Church
”In all that he does, he prospers”
The palm tree grows upwards under the
weight of the fruits; likewise the Church
grows under the weight of oppression
The prosperity must therefore be
understood spiritually
The Church prospers, when it is poor and
persecuted, but weakens, if it is rich and
wordly prosperous
”4. Not so are the ungodly”
Always fear these words, so that also you
would not be found ungodly
The ungodly apply all pleasant words to
themselves, and unpleasant to others
Only by hoping to the mercy of God can
you attain the good
”But are like the dust which the wind
drives away from the face of the earth.”
The ungodly are driven around by many
kinds of whirlwinds, false doctrines which
give no rest for conscience
”5. Therefore the wicked will not stand in
the judgement, nor sinners in the
congregation of the righteous.”
 This does not mean resurrection, but that
the ungodly cannot stand before the face of
 The ungodly cannot have respected
authority in the Church, their authority can
only be formal
”6. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.”
The prosperity of the wicked has grown to such amounts,
that in the eyes of men it seems eternal. Nevertheless, it
will perish when they least expect
Instead of external prosperity, the pious must seek the
way of the cross, which is a way of faith, not seeing
In the best way the wickedness is driven away, when the
ungodly is made godly by love, prayer and teaching the
word of God
If somebody does not accept this interpretation of the
hidden prosperity, Luther says he can also apply the
psalm to heretics (and jews), who are excommunicated
Instructions to reading psalms
At the end of Ps. 1 Luther gives general
instruction to reading all psalms:
”…we should adapt and adjust our minds
and feelings, so that are in accord with the
sense of the psalms. For since the psalter is
only a kind of school and exercise for the
disposition of the heart, he sings in vain
who does not sing in the spirit.”
Instructions continued
”When you therefore read: ’Blessed is the
man, who does not walk in he counsel of
the ungodly,’ it should at the same time
move you to detest and despise the counsel
of the ungodly, not only for yourself, but in
general, for the whole church.”
Instructions continued
”So when you say: ’But their will is in the Law of
the Lord’, you should not rest assured and pat
yourself on the back, as if you were one who
loves the Law of God. Rather you should sigh
with the greatest possible ardor to Him alone
who has come to send fire upon the earth (Luke
12:49). As long as you live, think of yourself in
no other way than as one who does not yet love
God’s Law and who desperately needs this desire
for the Law.”
Instructions continued
”First practise on one psalm, even one little verse of
the psalm. You will progress enough if you learn
to make only one verse a day, or even one in a
week, live and breathe in your heart. After this
beginning is made, everything else will follow,
and you will have a rich treasury of
understanding and affection. Only see that you
do not let weariness and discouragement scare
you out of beginning it.”
Instructions continued
” For this is truly to sing the psalms, or as the
Scriptures say of David, to strike the harp with
the hand. For the fingers of the harpist are the
emotions of the heart moving about in words of
the psalms. Without this the strings do not sound,
and the psalm is not sung, because it is not
…I know whoever becomes practised in this will
find more by himself in the Psalter than all the
interpretations of other men can give him.” (WA
5, 46, 15 – 47, 13)
Luther interpretes the psalms quite freely to
apply them to his own historical situation
According to him, such concepts as godliness
and ungodliness remain in their essence the same
throughout the times, and therefore the psalms
can allways be applied in this way
However, Luther thinks it is very important to
apply the psalms first and foremost to one’s own
life, and only second to others
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