Chrysostom Comments on the Psalms

ChrysostomI have been reading Volume 2 of  ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM’S COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS translated by Robert Charles Hill who also provides extensive comments in his footnotes to the translation. 

One thing I was curious about is whether the way in which the Psalms are used and interpreted today in Orthodox can be found in Chrysostom’s own commentary.   The answer is a mixed bag.  He refers to some Psalms in ways that we Orthodox certainly would recognize today, but others which we commonly use he does not connect to the way we do use them today and even rejects some interpretations which seem obvious to us.

An example of a Psalm whose use in Orthodoxy is quite ancient is Psalm 141 which we use at every Vespers, “Lord I call upon You, hear me…”  Chrysostom indicates that every Christian is familiar with this Psalm because the Psalm is recited by Christians every evening.   He says that “the fathers” prescribed it to be recited each evening to ask forgiveness of any sins one may have committed during that day.  That would imply to me that he considered it already to be an ancient custom in his day.

“…the fathers singled out this psalm… they prescribed its recital as a kind of saving medicine and cleansing of sins so that whatever we incur throughout the course of the day – abroad, at home, wherever we pass the time – we might on coming to the evening expunge through this spiritual air.  It is, you see, a medicine that removes all these stains.” 

Chrysostom comments extensively on Psalm 141 presumably because he thought of it as a daily Psalm of Christians.  He also indicates that Psalm 63 is said by the Christians of his time as part of their daily morning prayer and it can be found in the Orthodox Matins service.

An example of a Psalm whose current use in Orthodoxy was apparently not known to Chrysostom is Psalm 114 which today is used in Orthodoxy in connection with the baptism of Christ – Theophany“The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back…  What ails you, O sea, that you flee?”  Currently Orthodoxy connects this Psalm describing the entrance of the Jews into the Holy Land at the end of their Exodus sojourn with the Feast of St. John the Forerunner baptizing Jesus.  Of the verses mentioned Chrysostom notes they are not speaking literally but are a hyperbolic and exaggerated expression.   He does not however read them in any spiritual way as referring to Christ, thus staying faithful to his Antiochian tradition of interpreting Scripture rather than the Alexandrian tradition which tended more toward allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  He does not make Psalm 114 a prophetic Psalm about Theophany.  From reading Chrysostom’s comments on Psalm 114 there are no ideas, not even the most seminal, connecting this Psalm to the baptism of Christ.  Such ideas must have occurred later in Christian history.

PaschaRegarding Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,”  Chrysostom does seem to connect this with God’s own triumphant act of salvation – the resurrection of Christ.

“What, ,then could match that day, on which reconciliation of God with human beings occurred, longlasting war was terminated, earth turned into heaven, those unworthy of earth shown to be worthy of the kingdom, the firstfruits of our nature raised above heavens, paradise opened, we take possession of our ancestral land, a curse lifted, sin wiped out, those punished by the Law attaining salvation apart from the Law, all the earth and sea acknowledging their God, and countless other things happening, which beggars description?”

Chrysostom sees in the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply a historical act, but a cosmic event whose effects ripple throughout humanity and human history bringing humanity into the heaven itself.  It is interesting to note as the translator Hill does that Chrysostom has a very muted view of original sin.  Commenting on Psalm 116, St. John says:

“I mean, even if death entered the scene as a result of sin, yet God made use of it for our benefit.”

He means by this that ultimately the fear of death or concerns about life after death often makes people behave better in this world.   Thus death is not so much a punishment leading to oblivion, but a threat that causes some to reform their lives.

chaliceMy final comment is on Psalm 116:13, “I shall take a cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.”    Here Chrysostom takes a very literalistic interpretation and acknowledges the fact:

“Those, then, who take the expression in a spiritual sense say it is the participation in the sacraments, whereas we for the moment keep to the literal sense and say he is referring here to libations, sacrifices and thanksgiving hymns.  In olden times, you see… there was a sacrifice of praise …   So what he means is this: While I have nothing worthy to pay, I make a payment of what I have: I shall offer to God a thanksgiving sacrifice, and make mention of him for the sake of my salvation.” 

A Psalm verse that we today assume is about Communion, and which we sing at Communion, Chrysostom deferred for the moment to keep the text purely Old Testamental.

Reading Scripture: Literally, the Meaning Might not be Obvious

Prophet Elijah
Prophet Elijah

The Gospel Lesson for today, Matthew 17:10-13  begins with the disciples asking Jesus:

“Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He replied, “Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

The answer which Christ gives is another example of the New Testament requiring a non-literal reading of the text.  The disciples are referring to the then apparently  common interpretation of Malachi 4:5-6 that God would send the Prophet Elijah (who had not died but was taken up into heaven) back to His people before the day of the Lord occurred.  The coming of Elijah would be the sign that the end of the world had come.

Disciples2Christ however takes the prophecy not in a literal way, rather He spiritualizes the text and identifies John the Baptist as Elijah.   Jesus is not thinking that the historical Elijah had returned but apparently one like Elijah or one who is the same as Elijah.  Jesus certainly did not teach re-incarnation.  He wasn’t saying that John is actually Elijah – after all the birth of John is recorded in the Scriptures as well, John hadn’t mysteriously appeared like Melchizedek of old.  John was Jesus’ cousin and 6 months older than he; they knew each other from their youth.   Jesus speaks of Elijah in a typological fashion, not a literal one.

His disciples understand this perfectly.   Had they only a wooden literalist understanding of the Scriptures, they would once again not have understood the Lord.  An important lesson for us as we peruse the Scriptures daily in our own effort to be Christ’s disciples.

One could always read the Scriptures literally, but one would not necessarily get the most important meaning from the text as can be seen from today’s Gospel Lesson.