The Psalter in the Early Church

The Psalms, in Orthodox thinking, are often represented as being “the mind of Christ.”

They are read from this perspective – as prophecies of Christ as well as helping us to see the world as Christ sees the world.   It is precisely because they can be read in this way that they became so popular in the worship of the early Church.  Jean Danielou notes that it is the messianic nature of the Psalms which made their appropriation by the early Church so complete.   They became the basis for early Christian worship because they were read as being primarily messianic.   Their historic value was not their main appeal to the early Christians.  It is not their Jewish nature which gave them their authority; rather it was their messianic nature.

Danielou writes:

“But the fact is this: the whole of ancient tradition concerning the liturgical use of the Psalms rests on their messianic significance.  For one thing, it is the significance which constituted all their value for the primitive Christian community.  It adopted the Psalms, not because of their religious value nor because of their inspired character, but only because it thought that they were concerned with Christ.  Their whole use in the Church rests, therefore, on a messianic meaning.  If this is no longer their real meaning, their liturgical use is based only on an accommodated symbolism and loses all dogmatic significance.  This use is of value only to the extent to which the christological interpretation  is not something added, but truly corresponds to their literal significance.”   (THE BIBLE AND THE LITURGY, p 315)

In other words, their use by the early Christians was not because David wrote them, nor was their meaning best discovered through researching their original historical context and purpose.  They were valuable because for the early Christians the Psalms literally were about Christ.   Whatever their original context was or their author’s intentions were, the early Christians understood them to be about Christ – they revealed Christ and were revealed by Christ.  They were chanted and sung by the early Christians because they brought the believer into a relationship with Christ.

Jesus said: “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in … the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:43)

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7 thoughts on “The Psalter in the Early Church

  1. You wrote ” they revealed Christ and were revealed by Christ” but they where revealed by God. the son showed them as well and showed he was the Way, but it was God Who prepared the Way and gave the signs so we could come to recognise the Messiah.

    1. Fr. Ted

      In the traditional Trinitarian Theology of ancient Christianity, Christ is God as He is one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. As such Christ was at work in creation and in history from the beginning, since He is eternal.

      1. Fr. Ted

        That is the very heart of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of God the Word. God becomes human in order to die. There is nothing on earth that God asks of us His human creatures that He Himself is not willing to undergo, including death. How can the eternal One be born? The Holy Trinity reveals that divinity is so very different than our rational theology can imagine.

  2. Pingback: Faith, hope and love abide | Free Christadelphians: Belgian Ecclesia Brussel - Leuven

    1. Fr. Ted

      Those are excellent questions that have troubled the hearts of sages, saints and poets since biblical times. The Psalms themselves are full of such questions and the book of Job explores that question. We would say God never wanted His creatures to undergo death. Death resulted because we his people have chosen to depart from God’s life-giving will. In Ezekiel God says He has no desire for the death even of the wicked but God allows us to make our choices. God allows us to love or not – God has given us such free will. God could have changed the world after the Fall, but only by eliminating human free will and the ability to love. He could have made us automatons – machines incapable of doing anything but His will, but then we would not have free will and would not be able to love and choose love. Apparently God values in us our ability to choose, to struggle, to love.

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