Was not our heart burning within us, whilst he spoke in the way, and opened to us the scriptures? (Luke 24:22.)
This is what the two disciples on the way to Emmaus were saying to each other, after hearing the Risen Lord explain to them what is in the Psalms and in all the Scriptures concerning Him. The spontaneous exclamation of the pious disciples itself echoed a prayer they knew by heart and often meditated upon: “My heart grew hot within me; and in my meditation a fire shall flame out.” The prayer, of course, is from the Book of Psalms (Ps.38:4), a book that for all religious persons at the time of Our Lord, and for a thousand years before that, was the main book of prayer and the main source for their spiritual life. It remained to be so for the spiritual people in all the centuries of the Church. It is the only book among the seventy-two inspired books of Holy Scripture that is meant to teach us how to pray. And considering the accepted theological principle, that the law of praying is the law of believing — Lex orandi est lex credendi — the Psalms must be meant to be a guide for what we must believe.
It could be said, without danger of exaggeration, that the entire book of Psalms is about salvation. In Psalm fifty, the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms, the sinner cries to God: “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Ps. 50:14). This could be taken as the theme of all 150 Psalms.
A friend and one-time contributor to this magazine, Mr. Charlie Rich, a very spiritual convert from Orthodox Judaism, told me that one thing the Psalms lose in translation is the prevalence of the Holy Name of Jesus, so evident in the Hebrew version. For the Hebrew root word meaning “salvation” is to be found, in one derivation or another, in almost every Psalm. Of course, the Hebrew meaning of the name Yeshua — “Jesus” — is Savior: “And thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Like every other book in the Bible, the Psalms can only be understood when seen in the perspective of tradition. A human author never knows who is to be reading what he writes, or how it is going to be taken. But God the Holy Ghost who is the principal author of Scripture, speaks to those who desire to become holy and sincerely seek salvation, and the meaning of the inspired word is to be discovered in the lives and thoughts of the saints. Now in the atmosphere of holiness and of wisdom inspired by the Psalms (and the Book of Psalms is one of the seven books of wisdom in Holy Scripture), all religious people expected the Messias, the Savior, a person who would live forever, who would establish an everlasting kingdom, who would teach all Truth and would establish all the means of salvation, for all men. We catch glimpses of this living tradition of Faith in the casual conversation of ordinary people.
“Art thou he who is to come . . .” (Matt. 11:3)?
“We have found the Messias” (John 1:41).
“[H]e inquired of them where Christ should be born” (Matt. 2:4).
“I am not the Christ” (John 1:20).
“Doth the Christ come out of Galilee” (John 7:41)?
“We have heard out of the law, that Christ abideth forever . . .” (John 12:34).
And even in the conversation of a Samaritan woman: “I know that the Messias cometh (who is called Christ): therefore when he is come, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25).
Our Lord Quotes the Psalms
Knowing how well the people knew the Psalms, and that His adversaries admitted the traditional understanding of their references to the person of the expected Messias, Our Lord frequently referred to the Psalms in His teaching. When the scribes and Pharisees, who were the scholars and theologians of His time, were denying the divinity of the prophesied Savior, Jesus appealed to Psalm 109 in order to confute them. Let us take one instance, told by three of the Evangelists: “And Jesus answering, said, teaching in the temple: How do the scribes say, that Christ is the son of David? For David himself saith by the Holy Ghost: The Lord said to my Lord: sit on my right hand, until I make thy enemies thy footstool (Ps. 109:1). David therefore himself calleth him Lord, and whence is he then his son? And a great multitude heard him gladly” (Mark 12:35).
The heresy of the scribes and Pharisees here refuted, like most heresies, is a half-truth. For that Christ as man is the son of David — indeed the Son promised to David as to Abraham — is a truth proclaimed in the first verse of the New Testament. But the scribes were teaching it, as would the Arians later, to deny that He is also God. Notice that as Our Lord is teaching the Divinity of the Messias, He is also affirming the divine authority of Scripture, for He says, not just “as David saith” but “as David saith by the Holy Ghost.”
The Holy Ghost is, therefore, He who teaches us through the Psalms the supreme truths involving our salvation. To know these truths and to heed them is wisdom. To give anything else a higher priority is tantamount to idolatry. To ignore these truths is practical atheism, which, to give it in one word, is to be a fool. This is putting it bluntly as the Palmist puts it: Dixit insipiens in corde suo: Non est Deus (Ps. 13:1). Which in plain English means: “The fool hath said in his heart: there is no God.”
We can put under four heads the truths God teaches insistently through the Psalms from beginning to end:
I. That salvation is from God.
II. That God will come in person to redeem us.
III. That God will establish an everlasting kingdom of justice and holiness.
IV. That God will call all men to His Kingdom.
“Salvation is of the Lord” (Ps. 3:9); “vain is the salvation of man” (Ps. 59:13). The truth expressed in these two short phrases dominates the 150 Psalms from the first to the last. The ignorance of, or at least the ignoring of, those truths is the greatest obstacle to the extending of God’s kingdom on earth, which is the second petition in the “Our Father”: “Thy Kingdom come.” The realization of this grace, which the whole Church prays for, and which only zealous apostles seek to accomplish, is the meaning of true ecumenism. It is this sovereign truth, that salvation is God’s, that gives substance to the hope and trust in God — the spirit of all true prayer. It is also the foundation of the fear of God, so conspicuously missing in the world today. The Holy Ghost speaks to us through the Psalmist: “I will hear what the Lord God will speak in me; for he will speak peace unto his people; and unto his saints; and unto them who are converted to the heart. Surely his salvation is near to them that fear him” (Ps. 84:9,10).
A prayer for the redemption and salvation of men is another theme that runs through all the Psalms. That a divine person was destined to come and redeem us, and to give meaning and value to all the sacrifices of the old law — which apart from this prophetic signification had no value in themselves — is the prophetic message of the Book of Psalms. We are privileged to overhear an eternal conversation between Persons of the Holy Trinity: “Burnt offering and sin offering thou didst not require: then said I: Behold I come. In the head of the book it is written of me that I should do thy will: O my God” (Ps. 39: 7-9). The price of this Redemption was revealed to the prophet so vividly that one of the psalms, Psalm twenty-one, could have been another gospel account of the sacrifice of the Cross.
“O God, my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with the lip and wagged the head. He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him” (Ps. 21:1, 8, 9).
Commenting on this Psalm, St. Leo the Great said: “This cry is doctrine, not complaint. (Vox ista doctrina est, non querela.)” St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori said: “This Psalm is to be understood of Jesus Christ in the literal sense.” And St. Robert Bellarmine: “It would be an act of temerity to turn it to any other sense.”
Returning to St. Alphonsus: “Jesus Christ did not thus speak to the eternal Father to be delivered from death, nor was He speaking of His own abandonment, but of the abandonment of Grace, of which all men would have remained deprived if He had not died for our salvation. He was praying then in our name.”
The Church of God is prophesied in the Book of Psalms, in many ways and under different prophetic figures. But above all, it is a kingdom of justice and holiness: “I have declared thy justice in a great church” (Ps. 39:10). “Sing to the Lord a new canticle: let his praise be in the church of the saints” (Ps.149:1). The Church of God is a kingdom, not just in time, but for eternity: “Thy throne, O God is forever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness” (Ps. 44:7). And not only the king is prophesied but also the Queen: The queen stood on thy right hand in gilded clothing; surrounded with variety. “Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear; and forget thy people and thy father’s house; and the king shall greatly desire thy beauty, for he is the Lord thy God, and Him they shall adore” (Ps. 44:9-12). The apostles also are foreseen: “Instead of thy fathers, sons are born to thee: thou shalt make them princes over all the earth” (Ps. 44:17). We can even boldly affirm that all the mysteries, which belong to the faith of the Church and are celebrated throughout the liturgical year, are sung in anticipation in the sacred canticles of the Book of Psalms.
One other theme dominating the Book of Psalms has sometimes been referred to as the Omnes gentes, which means “all nations.” The phrase comes from the shortest and perhaps one of the best known Psalms, Psalm 116: Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, laudate eum omnes populi; quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas Domini manet in aeternum. In English: “O praise the Lord all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his mercy is confirmed upon us; and the truth of the Lord remaineth forever.”
It could be said that the most difficult lesson Our Lord needed to teach his disciples in order to make them apostles was the catholicity of the Church. The true religion that was centered in the temple of the Jews, was not catholic in the sense that the Church is catholic. The Gentiles had to believe in the true God — and in the Savior who was to come from the Jews — in order to be saved, but the Gentiles did not have to become Jews. And the Jewish religion, in which all the Apostles were brought up, was meant to keep the Jews fastidiously away from the Gentiles, so as not to be contaminated by their idolatry and their pagan ethics. This fastidiousness, which was exaggerated and distorted by the Pharisees, was originally willed by God, and its purpose was to keep them a pure and holy people: the people of the Messias.
But the catholicity — the universality — of the Church was abundantly foretold by the prophets, and over-abundantly in the Psalms. “Let his name be blessed for evermore: his name continueth before the sun. And in him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed: all nations shall magnify him” (Ps. 71:17). The Apostles finally learn the lessons of catholicity and are thereby prepared to receive the last instructions from their Master: “Going therefore teach all nations” (Matth. 28:19). The Psalmist foresees how the Apostles would fulfill this command: “There are no speeches nor languages, where their voices are not heard. Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth and their words unto the ends of the world” (Ps 18:4,5).
In the Old Testament, God thus ordered the High Priest Aaron to bless the people of Israel: “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: Say to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel, and you shall say to them: The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord show his face to thee, and have mercy on thee. The Lord turn his countenance to thee, and give thee peace. And they shall invoke my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them” (Num. 6:22-27). A most dramatic contrast is Psalm 66, prophesying the catholicity of the Church: “May God have mercy on us and bless us: May he cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us, and may he have mercy on us. That we may know thy way upon earth: thy salvation in all nations” (Ps. 66).