Augustine on the Psalms
Sunday 23 April 2023, The Third Sunday of Easter
Evensong Prayer 16.30pm, The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Haggai 1: 13-2:9
1 Corinthians 3: 10-17
Augustine on the Psalms
We say them every morning; we hear them sung every evening. The Psalms. The songbook of the Bible. Their verses known to Jesus. The kernel of our rhythm of prayer. There is value in their steady repetition day after day. They grow in familiarity; their use becomes as natural to us as breathing.
Their language, their imagery, and their sense are sometimes remote. Yet we do not often allow ourselves time to dwell on them as our worship moves on to the next canticle or the next Bible reading, as it has tonight. So for a few moments we are going to reverse the trend and linger on three verses of Psalm 48. We are going to do so in the company of one of the greatest thinkers of the Western Christian tradition, Saint Augustine. Among his many works is a full and detailed commentary on the Psalms, and although many centuries separate us from his world, he remains a source of profound insight and an inspiration to ponder afresh.
In the first two verses the psalmist sings of God’s holy hill. It is a fair place; it is the joy of the whole earth; and on its north side lies the city of God. So Augustine’s first question is: where is this hill? If it is as the psalmist says it is, then ‘We ought to seek it with the utmost zeal, explore it very diligently indeed, and spare no effort to move in and climb it’. But Augustine concludes that there is no need to travel abroad or to seek the hill in far-off places. For if Christ is the cornerstone, the rock over which many of his early hearers stumbled, then Christ is also the rock which has grown into a great hill, great enough to fill the whole earth. ‘Why should we go looking for the mountain, as though it were far away?’ he writes. ‘It is here with us’.
Then verse six spells disaster for the ships of the sea through the east wind. In the translation used by Augustine the ships are the ships of Tarshish: our Prayer Books renders this differently. So having pondered the location of the hill, Augustine turns his attention to Tarshish and to its ships. Where are they and what do they signify? The scholars on whom Augustine relies (what a relief it is to know that someone of Augustine’s stature relied on the wisdom of others) inform him that Tarshish is Carthage, a city founded by Dido when she fled Phoenicia and therefore well supplied with ships. ‘So proud did that city become of its reputation’ writes Augustine ‘that its ships can well stand for Gentile pride, which relies on things as uncertain as the wind’. It is earthly pride, blown hither and yon by every passing breeze, that is broken: our foundation and secure anchorage is in the hill that is Christ.
And in verse ten the daughters of Judah are urged to be glad. Who are the daughters of Judah? The natural meaning is that they are the people of the southern kingdom, the last redoubt of faithful Israel in the Promised Land. But Augustine reassures us that many more are daughters of Judah. For Judah means ‘confession’: therefore all who confess Christ are daughters and sons of Judah, and all are urged to be glad on account of God’s judgements.
The hill; the ships; the daughters of Judah. As I said when I began, many centuries separate us from Augustine’s world. He sees allegorical significance in everything he reads and understands every part of the Bible as interpreting every other part. We may be less inclined to allegory; we may be more inclined to a critical reading of Scripture, and in particular to acknowledging the integrity of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet Augustine’s conviction that Christ is the one whose presence fills the earth, his conviction that it is upon encountering Christ that our foolish pride is wrecked, and his conviction that all who confess Christ’s name will rejoice everlastingly: these we can share, and perhaps we can tune our ears afresh to what God may be saying to us through the saying or the singing of the psalms.